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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

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Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms

No. 5.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 5 (May 1886)
pp. 404-408.



No. 5.

We Kill a Humpback and "Stow Him Down." – Boats Beset in an Ice-drift. – A Siberian Bivouac.

      Light airs and calm ushered in the next morning, the ice-barrier to seaward presenting the same appearance as when we forced it, the barren bluffs of Karaghinsky Island still several miles from us, and the snow-topped mountains of the Kamtchatkan peninsula rising in the distance beyond it. The sea as smooth as a mirror, a light haze in the air, such as usually attends calm weather in a region of which humidity is the great characteristic, but no appearance of thick fog.

      "We shan't make much progress to-day •with the ship," said Captain Stetson, after a careful survey of everything round the horizon. "You may go in with two boats and see what discoveries ycu can make, you and Mr. Bishop. I must keep two on board, for I may see a whale here, before you do in shore. Pull into this bend ahead of us, but don't try to go too far, as it may shut down thick. If I get a breeze, I shall stand in for the sound behind the island, and then you •can govern yourselves accordingly."

      "I don't think we'll have any wind today," the mate replied. "If we should get a whale in shore, we'll have to tow him out."

      "Anchor him," said the old man; "if it's late in the day, anchor him and come off. Take your anchors in both boats; and, by the way, you'd better take a hand-lead, too, you may want to sound a little."

      Sterile and cheerless as Karaghinsky appeared when seven or eight, miles distant, a nearer approach only brought out its utter 'barrenness in stronger relief. But this we •cared little about, provided the adjacent sea proved to be frequented by the immense polar whales of which we were in search. We had passed over about half the distance to the land when the mate began to raise spouts in shore. More and more appeared in sight as we advanced, till a thrill went through all our frames as we were satisfied that the bay was swarming with %vhalea.

      "If they are bowheads," said Mr. Pomroy, " here's a season's work in this bay, and we must make the most of our time before any other ships get in here. Ease pulling a bit, and let Mr. Bishop come up abreast of us. There's more whales in that little bight than will All the 'Gorgon' chock to her upper deck."

      "We've found 'em, Mr. Bishop," he roared as soon as the other boat came within hail. "There they are, up under the land, lying in windrowsl"

      "I see 'em," answered Mr. Bishop, dryly, "but I don't like the cut of their jibs. They may be very good fish of the kind, but I don't think much of the kind. However, let's jog ahead, and half a mile nearer will tell the story for certain."

      Jim Crow, who had been appointed boatsteerer to fill the vacancy occasioned by the death of the Indian, stood up while the boats stopped, and fixed his keen eye upon the distant white puffs for a moment, then pushed up his flat nose with an expression of the greatest contempt.

      "No good," said Crow,dogmatically, "no bowhoad."

      "What do you call them, then?" demanded the mate. "Are they right whales?"

      "No sir. No light whale," answered the Kanaka. "Humpback 1 No see? Here half-mile off!" he continued, pointing to one abeam of us, who had ventured out seaward as a ecout or skirmisher.

      Our sharp-eyed savage was correct; our inflated hopes collapsed at once, and down went our barometers below the scale. Beyond all doubt they were humpbacks, a species of whale very difficult to take, especially liable to sink when killed, and of so little value as to be unworthy game, unleea for small vessels on short cruises. We might chase one, if he came in our way, in


default of anything better, but humpbacking, as a business, would not pay.

      "Well," said Mr. Pomroy, " that cako is all dough, then. Pull ahead, boys, and let's see if we can raise any other kind If there are no other whales, Mr. Bishop, we'll let into one of these—that is, if we can get near enough to them."

      As wo drew in between the capes of the bay, the humpbacks were very numerous, cutting and sheering to all points of the compass. We gave chase to several, but they appeared very wild, and played dodge games upon us until the mate seemed inclined to give them up.

      "We can't put salt on these fellows' tails," he said; "I believe they arc all bul's by the looks and actions of them. But here's Mr. Bishop, drawing pretty close to that one—I believe he'll strike—stand up, Jim Crow—if he blows again—yes, there he darts—he's hooked him with one iron, anyhow. He's off 1 Mr. Bishop will have his hands full before he muckles that fellow, I know. He ought to have this gun in his boat, now."

      A downward spank of the flukes upon the water which filled the starboard boat half way up to the thwarts, was the first response of the lively humpback to the sting of the harpoon, and the next moment she passed us like an express train behind time, the smooth sea boiling up to her gunwales on each side, the half-drowned crew shivering from their involuntary cold bath, and the after oarsman bailing, with his big bucket, too.

      "Grood-by!" hailed the Bishop, with the chilly brine streaming from every thread. "I'll report you when I get up to the head of the harbor 1"

      "You won't he long getting there, with that two-forty nag ahead of you," the mate answered, though the other boat was by this time out of hearing. "Our stern chase will be a long one, boys, if he keeps up thai, head of steam. Lord Harry I see him go I and his swinging booms working like a pair of engine-brakes," alluding to the pectoral fins, which, in this species of whale, are long, formidable, and capable of the most imprestive gestures.

      Right up to the farthest angle of the haven flew the fiery steed, dragging the light boat so near the rocks, that we thought the Bishop must either cut or be landed high and dry; but, with a sudden whirl, out he came again, driving directly at us, head and head.

      "Come here, Frank," said Mr. Pomroy, "and let mo get the gun ready. If we can't get fast, I'll try whether a bomb will cool his courage."

      On he came, flashing by us at the same racing speed, tail and fins thrashing, and burying himself too soon ahead of us, to rise too late astern, but our warp, with a bowline in the end, was thrown at the right instant into the other boat, as cleverly caught by the quick-eyed Tahitian, and we fell into the rear, rejoicing at the respite from labor at our oars. Our steed seemed to feel no addition to his burden, but towed two boat* as easily as one. Out to the entrance of the bay at the same rate of speed, then suddenly to the right about and in shore again.

      "Take the gun into your boat, Mr. Bishop," said the mate. "Here, Crow, pass her along, she's all ready and capped."

      By great effort the boat was hauled up to a quartering position on the whale; a sharp report followed, and in a lew seconds a dull thud was perceptible as the charge exploded within his body. He spouted blood a few times, and went down before we could get the second boat fast, surging heavily on the line.

      "We may bid good-by to him," said the Bishop; "he'll never come up again till he'i blasted. My line is slacked up now—the whale is on bottom."

      We waited a sufficient time to satisfy us all that the whale was dead, and then tried to haul him up by the line, but might almost as well have attempted to weigh a stone of the same bulk. A drug was then attached to the line by which to find him again, and his position determined by a peculiar whitish streak on the face of the rocks and two irregular knolls on the shore. The handlean indicated fifteen fathoms, rocky bottom.

      "AVell the old man told us, if we got a whale, to anchor him," the mate said, with a laugh, "and we have done so, or rather our prize has seen fit to anchor himself, though I don't believe we shall ever weigh him again. But he is 'sour grapes,' to make the best of him; he wouldn't iurn up more than thirty barrels, and that would hardly pay for getting him up and towing him out. Come, let's go ashore," he continued, "and explore the country. Who knows but we may find a gold mine?"

      A favorable spot for landing and securing


the boats was soon found near the bottom of the bay, and we all landed on terra firma, invading the goodly realm of the Czar Nicholas unceremoniously, and dispersing on a sort of unorganized raid in search of anything that might be of interest or value. Our researches developed nothing to repay the outlay of time and trouble. The snow still lay on the ground in some places, and where it was thawed, the surface was merely a heavy, soggy kind of turf, from which the water forced up at every step we took, like so many saturated sponges.

      "This is rather fatiguing exercise, the way our boots suck down into these bogs," remarked Mr. Bishop, when we had all rallied near the boats again, disgusted with the result of our investigations.

      "I've met with nothing yet but these everlasting knolls of water-logged turf, except here and there a belated snow-drift or a bowlder of volcanic rock. There may be, as you suggested, a gold mine on Karaghinsky, or even a subterranean cavern of diamonds, but I should say the 'surface indications' were unfavorable for either. It's easy to see what there is on the high land—snow first, last, and always."

      "But what do you think of the weather?" inquired Mr. Pomroy. "There's going to be a change, and the sooner we push out the better, if we want to sleep on board to-night. The ship has got a breeze, but she appears to be hove to under short sail. I can't think why she doesn't stand in, unless she has got a whale alongside."

      The ship was full six miles from us, or nearly as far off as when we left her in the morning, but a fresh breeze was blowing along shore from the north-east, and a cold, wet mist coming with it which threatened erelong to obscure the ship entirely from sight.

      "Shove off the boats, men," said the mate, impatiently. "I'm afraid we've delayed too long already. We must pull and make up for lost time. Our sails will draw as soon as we get out of the bight, though I am afraid we shall find the wind strong enough to oblige us to reef them."

      "The quicker time we can make, the better for us," replied the Bishop, now for the first time giving his opinion, with illconcealed anxiety in his tone.

      "Do you think we shall have a close {og?" asked the mate.

      "No sir," the other answered, "no more than nn open fog, or ordinary 'thick weather,' as we call it. That's not the danger I fear."

      "What then?" questioned Mr. Pomroy.

      "Why, this wind will be likely to bring down more drift ice from Cape Thaddeus, and if it sets in shore of the old barrier, we may be marooned, for we can't pass through it with the boats while it is in motion."

      "That's true," said the mate. "Pull hard, boys; let's get an offing where we can see along shore."

      We bent to our oars with a will, as even the least experienced of us understood thii new cause for anxiety, now that it was suggested. A stretch of a mile and a half brought us outside the headlands, where we peaked the oars and set reefed sails, steering for the ship, which was still dimly to be seen in the mist. A glance along the land to windward was sufficient to verify our fears. A fresh stream of ice was setting toward* us, threatening to cut us off from the ship: but we stood on, assisting the progress of the boats with the paddles.

      For some little time we had stroug hopes of fetching past it, as the stream appeared to be not more than a mile wide, but when too late we perceived it approaching quickly, seeming to have acquired a sudden increase of velocity from a current or some other unlooked-for cause. It would overtake us, beyond all doubt, and we must run the gauntlet of some portion of it, but a moment's hesitation followed, as to the safest course to take.

      "What do you think, Mr. Bishop? Ship or shore?"

      "Shore!" was the reply, after another hasty glance at the advancing peril; and round went the boats' heads towards the land, the sails were trimmed for the other tack, and the oars manned for a vigorous effort. It was a case of life and death with us, for we needed not to be told that if our boats were crushed between the moving fragments, our fate was inevitable. Nearer and nearer it swept steadily down upon us. We rolled up the sails and took them in, trusting to the oars for our salvation. We had nearly succeeded in clearing it, having only about three ships' lengths to go, when the first loose pieces of the drift ground against us, crowding us to leeward, broadside off, but we redoubled our efforts, winding our way among them wherever an opening was afforded, though still keeping a


general direction towards the in-shore limit, where the line of clear water disclosed a haven of temporary safety. We led the way in our boat, the other following close to our steering oar, so far as was possible, though sometimes the opening would close before they could enter it. Again, at a word from the officer, as we swung between two large pieces, we all jumped out upon them, lifting the boat by the gunwales, and stamping off the edges of the ice under our feet at the same time, and thus dragged her into a clear space, to jump in again and pull for the next most promising spot. For the distance of about a hundred yards we thus fought for our lives, and all our efforts did not save the boats from being badly nipped, though luckily we were still able to keep them afloat. Ten minutes of almost superhuman effort were sufficient to place us once more in clear water, heading leisurely back to our inhospitable landing-place.

      The danger of our position may be better understood when it is considered, that, although the stream of ice has, of course, one general set, or drift, yet its various parts and fragments, acting upon each other, give and receive deflective motions more or less eccentric and often rotatory. But a slight nip would be sufficient to stave and disable a light boat built of half-inch cedar boards. There were no pieces of ice in this case heavy enough to injure a ship, other than by superficial chafing. We felt, therefore, no immediate uneasiness about the "Gorgon," though the mist and the approach of night was now shutting her out from view. The old ice, through which she had forced her way the day before, would be swept away down the Kamtchatka shore, and this fresh installment, which was lighter, and less formidable, would occupy its place for the present. Indeed, drift-ice does not often coalesce with sufficient power to endanger a stout ship, which may chance to be merely beset in it. She may lie to and drift with it, without much danger, as her own rate of progress to leeward is faster than that of the ice itself. The most fearful display of its power is where its progress is opposed by a fixed obstruction, as the land, or another body of stationary ice, causing it to overlap and pile up.

      A gun, fired at this moment from the ship, conveyed to our ears but a faint, rumbling report, the sound being borne off to leeward on the fresh breeze. We had no means of answering the signal at so great a distance.

      "Set the sail again, now, Frank," said the mate, and keep the oars jogging, too. We must land, and get the materials for a fire before dark. If the ship stands in during the night, they can see the light of it, but I don't think she will. I am almost sure she has got a whale alongside, or she wouldn't be lying to out there."

      We sheered in near the shore, and followed it up till we came to a place that looked more favorable for a camping-ground than that where we had before landed. Here we hauled our battered and leaky boats ashore, carried them up high and dry, taking out all the loose articles, and turned them keel up about twenty feet apart so as to form breastworks outside of our encampment. The ground here was not so wet as at the other spot, and we soon had a snug space corduroyed with drift-wood, of which we found enough within a quarter of a mile to keep up a bonfire through the night. In collecting it, another important discovery had been made. The rocky shore at low water revealed a bed of muscles, and our buckets were soon filled. With the hardtack we had brought with us, we should not suffer for something to eat for one day at least.

      Planting the boats' masts firmly in the turf at the weather side of our camp, we stretched up our sails, forming a " lee," or partial shelter from the cold wind. The two guns were looked after, and put in order for instant use, while the whaling-craft lay ready to be seized, for fresh traces of some large animal had been met with, and we judged them to be those of the redoubtable polar bear. There was little fear that he would attack a party of twelve men at a bonfire, but our preparations were for offensive measures. We meant to make the attack ourselves, if the beast came prowling near us.

      Seated round our blazing fire of driftwood, we roasted our shellfish, dried our clothes, and enjoyed supper with appetites sharpened by the fatigues and excitements of our day's adventures. With the usual light-hearted jollity of seamen, our recent peril in the ice-drift was made light of, and our present situation on this desolate island, with the very uncertainty how long we might be imprisoned here, afforded food for jokes and laughter.


      "Old Nebuchadnezzar lived forty days on grass," said one.

      "Grass! where would he have found his grass if he had been turned out in this pasture?" asked another.

      "Well, seriously," queried a third, "what can we live on, if we are icebound here for a week?"

      "When we've stripped this muscle-bed, we must hunt up another."

      "Not a very muscular diet," said Mr. Bishop, " if we are confined to that alone."

      "But if we go down to the high bluffs at the mouth of the bay and climb the rocks, we shall find birds' eggs enough."

      "Not an egg," answered the next speaker. "Too early in the season."

      "Yes, that's true—if it was two months later we might get eggs and birds, too."

      "I think if we explore about here, we shall find seals, and we can live on them, I suppose, as well as the Esquimaux."

      "What'c matter? Got grub enough," queried Jim Crow, with his peculiar comical wink of the nostrils.

      "Where is it?" asked two or three at once.

      "Humpback—anchor," answered Crow. "Day after to-morrow he come up—eat him."

      A general roar of laughter greeted this happy thought. Here, indeed, was a magazine of provisions salted down in the bay, and forgotten. The inevitable operation of Nature's laws would bring it to the surface after two or three days.

      But tired Nature asserted her rights after our present hunger was appeased, a watch was set, the mate taking the first part of the night himself, and the rest lay down round the bonfire. We buttoned our jackets round us, and slept as well as the cold, raw wind would permit. Now and then some one would wake shivering, replenish the fire from the heap of drift-wood close at hand, stir about a few minutes for warmth, exchange a word or two with the lookout mounted on the boat's bottom, and stretch out by the blazing fire again.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 5.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 5 (May 1886)
Pages: 404-408