Chapter 3: Shipwrecked in the Pacific

FOUR weeks of the rustic life had satiated me, much to my employer’s disgust; he had taken a fancy to me and wanted me to stay. But my head was full of masts and yards, the lure of other lands, and the peculiar longing for the sea a sailor has when cooped up inland. The peaceful humdrum of orange-groves wearied me; I yearned for loud-voiced mates or bos’ns bellowing their well-known orders.

Another peculiar factor that hastened my departure was a horse with strange bedroom manners. I slept in the hayloft over the stable, together with about a thousand rats. The nag had an awful habit of grinding his teeth both asleep and awake. Listening to the scurrying of rats and the rasping teeth of my other roommate, I would drop into a troubled sleep, dream of dangling aloft on the Pilgrim in some perilous position, or falling overboard off the royal yard of the Cedarbrook into a shark-infested sea. Then I would hear eight bells strike loudly, or rather eighty bells, for on gaining consciousness Dobbin was striking the bells with his horrible molars. Resignation was the only hope of preserving my sanity.

When I took the road back to Newcastle I had only a few pounds in my pocket to commence the search for a ship that would take me farther on my travels. Hanging around the water-front in Newcastle, I discovered there were plenty of jobs on tramp steamers, but I scorned all offers to sail in them, although their ports of destination were certainly alluring. I had resolutely resolved to stick to my first love-Sail!

One evening I dropped into the “Black Diamond,” a dingy little sailors’ pub owned by Mother Hall, a likable old Irishwoman with whom I was very friendly. She was a nautical encyclopedia, and a match for any bookish skipper who took issue with her. She showed maternal interest in me, warned me of the evils of liquor, fed me with the best in her larder, and chatted of Ireland with a nostalgic tear that was frequently wiped away with her apron.

Late that evening a boarding-house runner came in breathless and announced: ” Anyone want to sign on a Yank; sails at midnight, bound for ‘Frisco; six pounds a month and the best of grub.”

“Six pounds?” said I, doubting my ears.

“Six pounds is what I said; sign on aboard. You can get a month’s advance if you owe anything for board ashore.”

“I’ll take the job,” I said, ” and Mother Hall can square up my account in the Sailors’ Home.”

There was a look of grief in Mother Hall’s eyes, but she offered no protest. I was a sailor, and this was an opportunity too rich to overlook.” Have wan drink for luck, Paddy, before you go,” she said. ” Maybe it’ll be many’s the long day before we meet again.” By this time I had been initiated into the cult of beer-drinking, so I responded to the invitation and drank a pint of the best to celebrate the solemn occasion.

Go get your bag, and don’t keep me waiting.” The runner was getting impatient. “You’ve only got an hour to make the ship.”

I was ready for a swift evacuation, and I soon dumped my sea-bag on the runner’s handcart. The night was black and the rain fell in sheets, making a nasty journey down to the wharf. Altogether a gloomy night to go to sea! I pitched the bag into a rowboat and we made off for the ship. She was lying at the Farewell Buoys and I could make out her lights.

“What’s the name of the ship? ” I asked as we rowed out.

“Damned if I don’t forget, but she’s a Yank all right, bound for ‘Frisco with coal. Lucky it’s a rainy night or you mightn’t have got the job.”

“You’ve a funny idea of luck,” I thought, visualizing the dismal night’s work ahead, making sail and clearing up gear, soaking wet to the skin.

The misty outlines of the bark were soon discernible through the murk. I was rowing while the runner handled the tiller. Over my shoulder I could hear the grinding of the cable in the hawsepipe, the clanging of the windlass, rattle of the capstan pawls, and knew that the boarding-house runner was right in his surmise of an immediate sailing. ” Six pounds,” thought I, chuckling. My ship has come in.”

We made fast to the pilot ladder hanging over the side by the mizzen rigging. I clambered over the rail, dropped on deck, lowered the end of one of the main braces over the side, hauled my bag on board, then, drenched to the skin, went aft and knocked on the charthouse door.

I felt there was something decidedly familiar about the ship, although most four-masted barks look alike on cursory inspection-especially on a dark, rainy night such as this.

“Come in,” said a hard, nasal voice that sent a tingle down my spine. I pushed open the door and there sat Bully Newman, and his two aides-de-camp. . . .

So I was back again aboard the Pilgrim. The mates, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Fowler, scowled at me, and then laughed. Well, I suppose the joke was on me and they were entitled to a little hilarity.

“You’re not much good as a beachcomber, McGuinness,” grinned the skipper.” Guess thirty dollars a month looks like a whole lot of money. That why you want to sign on?”

“It is if I get it,” I murmured, and appended my signature to the ship’s articles. This done, I got an advance-note for three pounds, which I gave to the runner to give Mother Hall; then I groped my way back to the starboard fo’c’sle like a damned soul. I was surprised the skipper had not mentioned my desertion of the ship. Back in the fo’c’sle I dug out a suit of oilskins from my sea-bag and went to work as if nothing had occurred since we dropped anchor in Sydney Harbor.

Most of the crowd in the fo’c’sle, I found, were strangers; some had signed on in Sydney, but the majority had come on board in Newcastle. Of the crew that signed in New York there were only three of the old hands left -Johnson, the Swede; Veetsut, an Esthonian; and Karl Petersen, a Swedish Finn.

My dramatic reappearance caused a surprise and lots of amusement. Johnson and Veetsut never tired of my exaggerated tales of life on the orange-plantation, and for their delectation I wove a beautiful romance around the owner’s daughter. Tracy, of course, was a bachelor, and hated women like poison. On the dubious strength of getting them jobs on the plantation and introductions to the other two illusionary sisters, on our return to Australia, I got many little favors from them, including the use of Veetsut’s big, heavy, home-made oilskin coat for my trick at the wheel and lookout, and Johnson’s peasoup, which he never ate. Very valuable gifts at sea!

We laid a course up the Pacific, heading for Samoa, skirting Norfolk Island and Tonga. The weather was ideal most of the way until we crossed 10 degrees south latitude, when we ran into a succession of heavy seas.

The Pilgrim was loaded with coal, which is a fairly buoyant cargo; but she was a clumsy bark, and very wet; shipping seas with every roll. The visibility was poor; for days we seldom could see beyond the bowsprit. Our clothes and quarters were steaming with the accumulated damp of sea and rain. We grew sick and tired of such miserable weather.

One dirty, dark, brick-red morning the glass dropped suddenly-a sure sign of real trouble. We were close-hauled on the starboard tack, carrying three lower topgallant sails, upper and lower topsails, foresail and mainsail, inner jib, fore-topmast staysail, main and mizzen staysails, and spanker.

We wondered why the old man waited so long in face of the dropping barometer. He should have shortened sail long ago, but Newman always held on until the last moment. Then it would be “All hands on deck”-false economy of time when minutes mean all the difference between safety and losing a ship.

Suddenly the mate bawled out: “All hands on deck. Stand by the gallant clewlines and buntlines. Quick, for – sake!”

Looking to windward, we saw a long, white sea rolling towards us, and behind the racing water inky clouds fringed with orange and green. The wind dropped to a dead calm, and the sky, so long murky and dark, was lit up with a terrible and spectral brilliance. It was the most uncanny sight I had ever witnessed, and I felt sure that it would be the end of everything once the full force of the hurricane hit the unlucky Pilgrim.

Under the terrific pressure of the wind the Pilgrim heeled over on her beam ends, with the water running up to, and over, her lee rail. She was making about thirteen knots, scudding along at an angle of thirty degrees, threatening to go clean over at any moment. The mate was hanging on to the mizzen fiferail. He motioned to the halyards, and I guessed his meaning. Words were useless in the wind. I hauled out my sheathknife and slashed the rope; it parted with the crack of a pistol-shot. The same happened with the fore and mizzen. The combined efforts of the crew on the topsail downhauls were useless. The chain sheets were shackled to the lower tops’l yardarms, so there was nothing we could do to relieve the pressure. Letting go or hauling on braces in that force of wind was out of the question.

Meanwhile the mainsail split and carried away; the cloths and gear were flapping and wrapping round and round the stays and braces. The masts were garbed like mad ghosts that shrieked in the gale. The headsails, by this time, had blown clear out of their ropes, adding to the general disorder. The screaming of the wind and the slatting of sails and cordage made a deafening inferno of sound. Then the wind hauled like a flash and we were full aback. Down came the fore-t’gallant mast, a solid pitch-pine spar weighing a couple of tons, carrying the royal and upper t’gallant yards. The headstays had parted under the terrific strain.

Masts, yards, and gear were now thrashing overboard like demons that had descended from the skies; snapping and tearing the steel wire backstays out of the deck, besides breaking and slackening the topmast and lower rigging. It was death to approach this whirling, tangled confusion. Then, as suddenly as the fore, overboard went the main t’gallant mast, adding, if it were possible, to the scene of utter desolation and wreckage.

The crew had collected aft for safety, waiting momentarily for the mizzen t’gallant to go, but by some freak of luck, it weathered the hurricane, although it made little difference in face of what had already taken place. The captain now ordered his mates to dig up all the axes and cutting implements out of the lazarette. We were then armed with these and ordered to cut away and attempt to clear up the tangle of wreckage.

Heavy seas were coming on board continually, and a mass of ropes and lines was washing far out to leeward. The ship was full of seething water from rail to rail. To venture down on the main deck was suicide, so we stood grimly on the poop crouching under the lee of the charthouse, waiting for a lull. Nearly everyone had an injury of some sort, but luckily none was fatal. Joe Martini, a Genoese, had his arm broken when a sea hurled him into the lee scuppers. Paul Belinsky, a Russian from Odessa, was badly cut about the head and face, where a block, whizzing down from aloft, had grazed him. A close shave!

Then, gradually, the fury of the hurricane abated, though the sea was still running high. By eight bells (twelve o’clock noon) we were able to make sorties down on deck, and later, running terrible risks, were able to cut most of the gear adrift, so that after lots of hard work we hauled the yards round, and with the couple of sails that remained intact ran with the wind and sea on the port quarter.

The Pilgrim was a sad spectacle, with her tattered sails, stumps of mast, and decks covered with debris. We worked hard to clean up the wreckage, and for hours slaved and toiled, but we all knew the Pilgrim would never reach the Golden Gate of San Francisco. The poor bark wallowed low in the sea, and shipped water with every roll. By dead reckoning we were somewhere near Malden or Jarvis Island, about a thousand miles north of Tahiti.

While the captain was estimating the necessary repairs, the carpenter came aft with alarming news. There was three feet of water in the hold and rising rapidly. This time Bully Newman and his mates did not need the aid of the sea-cocks in sinking the ship. Anyway, it was far more fitting that the Pilgrim should go down in a duel with Neptune than be scuttled in a dead calm.
All hands manned the pumps, handles, and bell ropes, but after a few convulsive spurts they choked. No water came up. The bilges were blocked with coal. Dilemma! Should we shovel our way to the bottom to get access to the “rose box,” or must we desert the ship? The rising water gave no option. The skipper gave the order, the one most dreaded at sea: “Stand by to abandon ship.”

The boats, luckily intact, were provisioned with fresh water and food, put over the side, and towed astern. I belonged to the second mate’s watch and was assigned to his and the captain’s boat. By the time the order was given to take to the lifeboats the water was nearly flush with the scuppers. We salvaged the ship’s instruments and papers, took only the most necessary clothes and trinkets, got into the boats, unrove the painters, and cast adrift.

The Pilgrim kept rolling in the swell of the sea for many hours longer than we dreamed she could stay afloat. Then a big wave caressed her, and she fell over on her starboard side. Old Nep’s trident must have stung her keel, for the Pilgrim flipped her bowsprit into the air and gracefully disappeared.

It is hard to describe the feeling of loneliness evoked by the sudden departure of your home down into the depths of the sea. Even when the doomed ship was on the surface there was the link with the ports of the world, but crammed into a lifeboat eighteen feet long we felt very forlorn and small indeed. There were ten seamen in our boat, not counting the second mate and skipper. Bully Newman picked his watches in a crisp, stinging voice. One man was assigned to the tiller for steering and another was posted as lookout for sail, or smoke, or glimpse of land. The remainder to sail and bail as required. Needless to add, we all scanned the horizon’s thin line to be certain we did not miss anything.

That evening, after the vessel sank, the weather gradually cleared, the sea dropped, and everything pointed to a fine spell. On the first night a strong northeast breeze filled our sail, and we clipped along at a fine speed. We were confident of making Tahiti within a week. When dawn came we had lost sight of the first mate’s boat, and surmised he had gone more to leeward.

The food was rationed out carefully by the skipper. Circumstances seemed to have softened his crust of contempt, for at times he was very sociable. Even the second mate, lacking the support of his boisterous colleague, spoke with a degree of civility which I had never observed before. Our rations consisted of one sea-biscuit, three times a day, a nibble of corned beef, a pannikin of water, and a little tobacco for those who used it.

The morale of the men stayed high in the face of a long cruise in a cockleshell. “Pacific,” I remembered, “the peaceful ocean!” What a joke Balboa and his cartographers played on the poor mariners! The Pacific can be as flat as a billiard-table for weeks, but when a storm comes the wind has a velocity that makes the Atlantic northeasters seem like summer zephyrs.

Life in the boat was unreal; twelve men (with very little in common save their allegiance to the sea) from five nations do not make exactly “good companions.” We had no shelter from the sun, save in the shadow of the boat’s sail, and at midday this was of little avail when the sun was nearly overhead. At night we endeavored to sleep as best we could, taking turns to lie down on the bottom boards, where it was possible to stretch out in some degree of comfort. This was luxurious compared with lying on top of the string pieces covering the air tanks which run fore and aft on each side of a lifeboat. However, when you sleep you dream, and the awakening is terrible when you’ve been dreaming of home, or about your best girl, to feel the cramped sides of your floating coffin, and know that another scorching day is ahead with its vicious problems of hunger and thirst. As time went on we were practically all dreaming alike. The old and tough sailors spent the hours of sleep in bars and cantinas in every port of the globe, drinking beverages that only increased thirst. My flights were milder: ice-cream parlors, swimming-pools of lemonade, and the orange-groves of New South Wales. But from none of these sources had we relief. Our parched and hacked lips were impervious to the mock-relief of Morpheus.

We tried the old trick of saturating our clothes with sea-water to keep cool. This relieves for a while, but when the cloth dries out it is impregnated with brine and stiff as a board; the minute particles of salt are ubiquitous-in eyes, hair, nose, lips, and ears. Continual sitting on the hard wooden thwarts made us move around with bent knees, like apes, and after a while it was extremely painful to stand erect, if that were possible in a small boat rolling and pitching on the long Pacific swell. The steady routine of steering and keeping a lookout preserved our sanity.

By night we hung a lantern on the solitary mast of the boat, in the vain hope that some lynx-eyed native, somewhere, might see it. This, accidentally, became the means of providing us with extra rations. Flying-fish spotting the light flew at it, and we were often rudely awakened by receiving a slap in the face, as one of these fell into the boat, ricocheting off the sail. We discovered by lowering the light down the mast to about the middle of the sail that we could capture some. They proved a godsend. Over the stem we towed a line and hooks, with pieces of white rag for bait, but all we caught in seventeen days were four fish that looked like bonita, but were tough and scaly.

One fine morning, exactly two weeks later, Johnson, the Swede, standing up forward, legs braced against the gunwales, turned casually round.

“Say, boys, I think I see something.” We scrambled painfully to our feet. Sure! Away on the horizon was a dark-blue speck. We were sailors enough to know it was land. There were happy smiles showing on weather-beaten faces for the first time in many days. We were saved!

I take no pleasure in recalling those awful days, castaway in the lifeboat, scorched by a tropical sun, hungry and thirsty, continuously dogged by sharks and the dreaded thought of cannibalism.

We made steady progress, eventually sighting the high volcanic land that is Tahiti, with its sister island of Morea. Four days later we entered the lagoon and harbor of Papeete, eighteen days after the Pilgrim foundered. We were all suffering from exposure, thirst, and undernourishment. Our skins were covered with bolls and blisters, but the authorities at quarantine treated us humanely, and gave us medical attention until we recovered.

I never heard what happened to the first mate and his men; they have never been accounted for, and their passing is but one of the many mysteries of the sea and soon forgotten.

The captain and most of the others went on to ‘Frisco by a mail steamer, but I elected to stay behind to try my luck at pearl-fishing.

Leave a Reply