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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms

No. 12.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIV, No. 6 (Dec 1886)
pp. 495-499.



No. 12.

Passage Through the Aleutian Chain. – Under a Volcano. – Honolulu in the Fall Season.

      We remained at our anchorage in the mouth of Kotzebue Sound till the last cask of oil was stowed under hatches, the tryworks broke n up and thrown overboard, the water and provisions above deck well secured, and everything made snug for the passage to the southward. Fogs delayed us after this for several days near the mouth of Behring's Straits, and it was not until the twentieth of August that, taking advantage of a temporary lighting up, we set the bearings of the land, shaped a course through, and packed all the kites upon her. But even at this date we were one of the early ships and left a large fleet behind, many of them intending to remain in the Basin until the last of September.

      How we checked off and counted down the degrees, day by day, from the sixties down into the fifties, the forties, and so on! How proud we felt that our voyage was made, that our stout old ship was full, that we had no more long and fatiguing pulls to make in chase, no more tricks at the mast-head to stand, no more heavy "breaking out" at the hatchways (for the New Bedford stevedores are welcome to the next job of that sort). How saucily and trinmphantly we held our course, with a liberal show of bunting, through a fleet of ships, plodding under easy cruising canvas, about St. Lawrence's and Gore's Island (for the whales had "struck on" there again). How we hugged ourselves at the thought that we were an object of admiration and of envy to them all, and how we even seemed to hear their remarks, though made at a telescopic distance from us: "That fellow is as deep as a sand-barge. Tryworks overboard, tool"

      We were not so early, however, but we had a glorious display of the Aurora Borealis before we got clear of the high latitudes. This phenomenon commonly makes its first appearance about the last of August or first of September. Its wonderful beauty, and the countless changes presented to the observer, have been often described, or rather descriptions have been often attempted, for language is tame and powerless in this instance. It may be seen at home on a small. scale, but to view it in its native splendor, one must make a voyage "up north."

      As we approached the Aleutian or Fox Islands, the weather became thick and threatening, and for three days we had no observation. By our dead reckoning we should have been forty miles from the nearest land at sundown, but, not daring to trust fully to it, we wore off to the northward. Holding this course till midnight, we went about again, supposing we had plenty of sea-room to stand on, certainly until daylight.

      But within an hour afterwards we were startled at the sight of a lofty mountain peak, towering as it were above our heads. The atmosphere seemed to have partially cleared overhead, while below all was still hidden in the dense mist. Thus, only the higher part of the mountain was visible, and so near did it appear in the darkness that it was difficult to divest one's self of the impression that it was actually overhanging our deck. It was directly abeam and to windward of us, but we knew not our position, nor what new dangers we might encounter by running to leeward. All hands were called to clear away the anchors and rouse up the chains, while we hove to at once, and, on heaving the lead, found thirty fathoms water. 'We were at this moment almost becalmed under the lee of the land, and all haste was made in preparations for anchoring.

      We were nearly ready with one anchor, and were in the act of overhauling a long range for dropping it in that depth of water, when a sudden gust or " woolly," as seamen call it, which seemed to blow right down from the mountain-top, careened us nearly plankshear to, making everything snap and crack. "Hard up!" was the word, and off


we bounded before the gust, no one knew where, but thinking, for the moment, only of saving our spars and canvas. We Spanish-reefed the topsails by clewing them down and hauling out the reef-tackles, but we must have run two miles to the eastward within fifteen minutes, when the "woolly" died away as suddenly as it began, leaving us almost becalmed again.

      Another cast showed that we had shoaled to eleven fathoms, rocky bottom, while everything was still hidden from view except the frightful peak towering above our mastheads. We no longer dared to grope about in darkness; down went the anchor, and her head swung to it, when sixty fathoms were veered away and the second anchor made ready for service at a moment's warning. But the wind suddenly left us entirely and we lay becalmed, the ship riding easily and safely. We lowered a boat and sounded in all directions around the ship as far from her as we dared venture into the fog, but found the depth nearly the same. We could do no better, therefore, than lie still until we could ascertain where we were, and the watch were sent below, with a caution to be all ready for a jump, if needed.

      I lay down in my clothes, or to speak professionally, " turned in all standing," and in a few minutes was oblivious of our situation, for as the soldier will sleep even when under Are, if not engaged, so will the seaman at any time or place, if he is no longer needed on deck, his motto being, " Let those look out who have the watch."

      I know not how long I had slumbered, but I had dreamed of my home far back in the country, of a happy stroll in rural shades with one who shall be nameless in this history, and of being overtaken by a thunderstorm increasing gradually in violence, till, startled by a peal nearer and louder than the rest, I made an involuntary spring, and awoke, standing on my feet, the stout ship quivering under me with a movement like that felt on board a small steamboat in a seaway, the rumbling of the same thunder-peal heard in the lustic grove still grating on my ears, and the light of broad day, as I thought, pouring down the scuttle. The watch were all awake and crowding up the ladder, for there was no need of mortal voice to summon us. The scene that awaited us as we reached the upper deck far transcended, in wild grandeur and sublimity, all that the imagination had ever conceived. It was one to be remembered through a long time, with a thrill at each recurrence of the memory to this night of strange experiences, and this spectacle of awful beauty.

      High over our heads the mountain was sending forth a jet of livid flame from its summit , which illuminated the surrounding heaven with a light glowing as that of noonday, without revealing anything at more than fifty yards distance round about us, for the fog was only rendered more palpable, while the barren steeps of the velcano frowned down upon us with frightful distinctness from the clear dome above. No envious smoke impeded the view, for while all was still calm below, there seemed to be, in the higher stratum of the atmosphere, a strong breeze or rush of air, which carried the heat and smoke away in an opposite direction. Huge flashing masses could be seen, from time to time, shooting heavenward with terrific force through the column of flame, now vertically toward the zenith, and again obliquely like a rocket's path, some of these last plunging into the sea but a short distance from the ship, as the splash could be heard even amid the incessant roaring of internal fires. The jar and trembling of the stout fabric beneath us had nearly ceased since the volcanic fires had found a clear vent, but every man stood spellbound, with upturned gaze and blanched cheeks, rooted to the spot in speechless awe. A sense of Omnipotent Power, and of our own unworthiness in its grasp, seemed to overwhelm us and strike us dumb.

      But soon the current of air aloft appeared to have changed; for the firmament was suddenly obscured by clouds of black smoke, through which the column of flame was more darkly seen, while choking, sulphurous vapor filled the air. To make an offing from the mountain became an absolute necessity, even at the risk of running upon new dangers elsewhere. Not daring even to heave ahead over our anchor, we were compelled to abandon it by slipping our cable, and in a few minutes we were moving slowly away from the spot, favored by a slight air which had sprung up. It was hardly sufficient to keep the sails asleep, though quite powerful enough in driving the smoke and gas upon us. Our progress was a very "Voyage of the Blind," as we felt our way with the hand-lead, fearful at every instant of bringing up, but knowing that our only chance of temporary safety lay in taking a course that


should carry us away from the raging volcano.

      A loud hail in an unknown tongue saluted our ears, coming up from the sea ahead of us, then another in had French, followed immediately by another in worse English, but all apparently in the same voice. The owner of it presently dropped alongside under the forechains, and, climbing on deck, disclosed to our view the face and figure of an elderly but apparently active and intelligent white man. We soon learned through the medinm of his Anglo-French jargon that he was a Russian naturalist who had come here from Oonalashka in a brig belonging to the fur company.

      She lay at anchor within two miles of us at the moment, and he had been making observations in a skin boat or baydar, such as is in common use here, and the management of which was well understood by the four Aleutians who composed his crew. He had been in quite near to the mountain while the viewwas clear, but was driven off when the change of the aerial currents brought down the gaseous vapors, and, indeed, had very nearly fallen a victim, like the celebrated Pliny of old, to his love of investigation into the mysteries of nature.

      He at once set our fears at rest as regarded the safety of the ship. We had anchored, he said, on an extensive ledge, which nowhere carried less than six fathoms of water, and we were nearly at the southern opening of the strait with the clear ocean before us. We had blundered through without knowing it, and in fact, must have been well into the passage at sundown, before we tacked off shore. Incredible as it seemed to us, he estimated our distance from the mountain at fully six miles when he boarded us.

      We could not possibly have met with better pilots than our worthy polyglot friend and his native boatmen; no circumstance could have been more opportune for us at that moment than this strange and unlookedfor encounter. This chain of islands forms a dangerous barricade across the North Pacific, extending two-thirds of the distance between the two continents. The intersecting passages are numerous, and safe enough in clear weather, but, from the uncertainty and difficulty of obtaining good observations in this part of the world, ships are often compelled, as in our case, to run blind, uncertain what particular channel they may be navigating. They are little known, excepting to the Aleutians themselves, and to the few Russians who frequent them for purposes of hunting and trade.

      We might have groped about here a long time if the weather continued thick, but here we had stumbled upon a party of men who were perfectly at home in the locality, and who in five minutes made us so. A southerly course would carry us clear of all dangers into the open sea; and with thankful hearts we congratulated each other upon the singular good fortune that had brought us so far through, and then made known to us our position through the means of trustworthy pilots.

      Our naturalist was enthusiastic on the subject of the pyrotechnic display which had so interested him, and, in his numerous tongues, could hardly find words to express his gratification that the brig had chanced to be moored so near as to afford him an opportunity for close observation.

      Our signals made with gun and horn were shortly answered from his vessel, now evidently near at hand; and, dropping lightly into their baydar, our visitors dashed off, and we parted, highly pleased with each other. We had had an opportunity to view an exhibition of fireworks on a gigantic scale, such as might be seen, probably, but once in a lifetime. We had providentially been conducted unharmed, with our clumsy and deeply-laden ship, through a channel entirely unknown to us, and we considered our safety cheaply purchased with the loss of only one anchor and cable.

      The next day, with clear weather and a fresh breeze on our quarter, we are rapidly running down ourlatitude and our log shows astonishing results in the way of progress towards our last Pacific port. Joyfully we glide out of the region of tedious fogs and continual humidity into that of sunshine, and for the first time find suitable weather for the process of drying bone. Day after day the ship wears the aspect of a waving forest, as every available spot of deck, rails, overhead boats and lower rigging is piled and occupied by the long laminae or slabs of shining whalebone, the tapering elastic ends vibrating to and fro, and the hairy fringes fluttering in the breeze. When dried thoroughly, it is securely bound up into compact bundles and stowed below again. The ship is thoroughly scrubbed and washed inside and out with strong alkali, and when relieved of her coating of accumulated grease and


smoke, the transformation is really marvelous.

      And not less renovated in appearance are we ourselves, as we cast aside our burdensome Arctic clothing and boots, trim our hair and beards, and appear once more in light marching order. Jim Crow unwinds his red tippet, and setting at naught old Kendall's predictions, stretches up his tawny neck and comes forth as good as new; John Chinaman, from the wreck of the "Carnatic," clips the hair which he has hitherto worn like a human being, shaves his pate with a razor as bare as a plaster cast, and trinmphantly unfolds his tail which has been snugly coiled away under his hat. Every living thing on board rejoices at the change of temperature except an Arctic dog, purchased from the Esquimaux at St. Lawrence's Island, who languishes day by day through the temperate latitudes, and to whom the crossing of the tropic is an entrance into the valley of the shadow of death. He does not live to see the land, or to inhale the poisonous breath of tropical vegetation; but casts reproachful glances at us, as he draws his last sigh for the fine bracing air of his polar home, and the wholesome diet of seals' flesh and lichens, with his luxurious couch in a snow-drift, from which he has been so cruelly torn. So short has been the intervening space of time that the contrast is startling, from the snow-bound hills and cold, slimy bogs of the Arctic coast, and the sterile volcanic rocks of the Fox Islands, to the green waving verdure, the stately cocoanut palms and picturesque taro-flelds of Oahu. It is night when we bring up in the outer anchorage, and a native official in spotless white pants hails us from a small boat.

      "What name khip?"

      "'Gorgon,' of New Bedford," is answered.

      "Arctic or Okot ?" he inquires again.


      "How many ile, you, cap'n?"

      "Full ship." Carelessly, as if it were the easiest matter in the world for the speaker to fill any number of ships, by contract.

      "Ah! too many ile. Nor'westI You all e' same Californy man. All well, cap'n?"

      "All well," and he passes on to hail another ship, which, having lost both bower anchors in the Okhotsk Sea, is obliged to keep under way and stand off and on till Morning.

      I am puzzled as to the character of our visitor; he may have been either a health officer, an "aid to the revenue," or perhaps, a reporter to the press, for there are no less than three newspapers published here, The Polynesian, Pacific News, and The Friend, which is edited by the seaman's chaplain, and particularly devoted to the wants and interests of mariners. As we hauled inside the reef the next morning-and moored close in to the town of Honolulu, we were particularly struck with the hybrid appearance which pervades everything in places like this, where races of the most opposite characteristics are jumbled together, and everything is in a transition ?tate. The trim clipper vessel, the pleasure yacht; nay, even the genuine Yankee steamer, plough the waters of this group side by side with the original rude canoe, nothing altered since the days of Cook; while on shore the hut of bamboo and thatch rises near the massive church built of huge bowlders collected from the reef, and both are contrasted by the new and gaudy stores and dwelling-houses of unmistakable down-east lumber.

      Eating-houses – I beg the proprietors' pardon, the word is obsolete – restaurants or "refreshment saloons" are to be met with, where money will procure nearly all the luxuries to be found in American cities, while the Kanaka, if he has abjured the religious faith,still clings to the diet of his forefathers, scoops bis inevitable poee into his mouth with his fingers, pulls fish from the sea, and disdaining all forms of cooking, literally eat* the quivering captive to death with t he same gusto as did his ancestor in the darkest days of paganism.

      The native women ape the fashions in dress as set by the merchant's or shipmaster's wife or daughter, sport bonnets and parasolettes; and, worst of all, encase their feet in shoes, in which the wahine of pure blood moves about as gracefully as a bullock on skates might be supposed to do. But some half-caste females are to be seen, who would be called beautiful anywhere, both in form and features. A circus company and dramatic corps have arrived, cia C'alifornia, and will do a thriving business, more particularly during the autumn months.

      The sailor on shore may study purely native customs and language in the "Black Sea" or at a Waititi village, may buy a ticket to a social assembly where the dancers are of all shades, or may spend his evenings and his money at the theatre or hippodrome, as may best suit his taste or habits. He may spend


an hour or two in reading at the chaplain's rooms, which are always open to him; he may "paddle the light canoe," if he has not had enough of that healthy muscular exercise in a whale-boat while "up north;" he may display his equestrian skill at breakneck «peed on a good road along the beach; he may sit in church and listen to the gospel in either Hawaiian or English, or both. Civilization and barbarism jostle each other at every corner.

      But few vessels were in port when we arrived, but during our stay of a month the additions were several in number each day. By the last of October, some hundred and fifty of us were closely packed in this small harbor, moored head and stern, with yards pointed fore-and-aft or cock-billed, and flying jib-booms rigged in to gain space, while during the same time, nearly as many more had visited the roadstead of Lahaina, in the island of Maui. The annual reunion at these ports is not as large now as at the time of which I write. But those who visited them in the palmy days of northern whaling will attest the general truthfulness of the sketch, and each will, doubtless, call up his own reminiscences of the lively and stirring scenes when liberty-men on shore might be counted by hundreds, or even, at times, by thousands; and money flowed like water— hard earned money, in pieces from the Spanish real upward to the fifty-dollar octagonal "slug" from California—as the miner vied in prodigality with the discharged whaleman whose cruise had been as lucky as was ours "Up North in the "Gorgon."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 12.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 64, No. 6 (Dec 1886)
Pages: 495-499