Chapter 11: Tragedy of the Magellan

PAT FARRELLEY and I arrived in Durban, Natal, with a crowd of casualties – the wounded, diseased, and insane. I was sick to the heart of bush-fighting, and determined to get out of Africa on the first ship that offered me a job. There was no use coaxing Farrelley to accompany me, of course. He was a soldier, I a sailor. Besides, the terrible ordeal of the voyage to the Pemba coast of Zanzibar was too recent in his memory.

We parted, and I have not seen him since. If he is still alive and able, I imagine him at a post along the Afghan border, or stationed at Simla or Hong Kong. Of one thing I am sure-the old warrior will pass out in his uniform, after a life of serving and cursing his country….

With eighteen months’ pay in my pocket I felt like Croesus. My first purchase was a civilian suit and a complete set of under-rigging. Then, after extensive entertainment in the bars of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, I accepted a job as mate on a tugboat, the Magellan. It was a Portuguese ship bound for Kilwa in German East, not far from my old comrades at Dar-es-Salaam. The vessel was scheduled for service as a tender to the British naval ships maintaining the blockade.

Early in November, 1917, we cleared Durban with a huge barge in tow, loaded with three, hundred tons of coal. Two thousand miles of strenuous pulling through the Mozambique Channel and the Indian Ocean was a tall order for such a small craft in the open sea, and we bobbed like a cork, rolling and pitching, until we reached Lourenço Marques in Delagoa Bay. Here we loaded provisions and fresh water. The few hundred miles north from Durban was an indication of the severity of the voyage to come. I was tempted to leave the ship at the Portuguese harbor, but lacked a coward’s courage to abandon a foolhardy venture.

The weather leaving Delagoa Bay was fine; but I had forebodings of disaster. The monsoon season was near at hand. Furious southeast gales ravage the coast of Africa with hurricane intensity, and there is little shelter along the eastern shore of the continent. The storms are usually accompanied by tidal waves, which raise havoc around the river mouths, and the wind offering a bulwark against the seaward flow of fresh water, results in great floods in harbors and tidal basins, with frequent loss of life.

At Delagoa Bay many tons of coal were stored in bags on the tug’s deck. I protested against this violation of maritime sense, as the added burden reduced our freeboard to a minimum. Moreover, before we cleared the bay the glass began to drop. But we were ordered to sea. It was a military command, and marine precaution counted as naught. With a pilot on board we cast off and began a journey which we knew to bristle with peril. Thin, wispy cirrus clouds raced overhead, and the surrounding waters boiled in a confusion to tide and wind. Beyond the bar we could hear the booming of the surf and see the furious water leap into a vaporous spray thirty to forty feet high.

We dropped the pilot at Inyacka Island, and headed into the rush of the sea. The tug was making bad weather of it: decks were awash and the coal-bags sponged up tons and tons of water. Little freeboard was left, and the yanking of the towline from the barge had the drag of a tremendous anchor.

The skipper and I held consultation, though any decision we made could not alter facts. The tug was at the storm’s mercy, and the engine-room and stokehold already stood in two feet of water. The roar of the wind snatched the words from our lips and hurled them away. Conversation fell to the desperate symbolism of sign and gesture. I indicated the coal-bags, then struggled aft and began to heave them overboard. The rest of the crew followed the example, but the effort was of no avail, for the gale increased in violence.

To head into the wind would bring us in the wrong direction; to follow our course would make us the prey of a beam sea; to heel round would expose us to the same danger in turning. It was a fine dilemma. And there was the added peril of a coal-barge dragging on our stem, and threatening to pull us under the trough of gargantuan waves with every jerk. Nor dare we cast the barge adrift. That would be tantamount to a death sentence for the poor devils aboard.

The stern settled deeper in the water, and all hands were summoned on deck, except the chief engineer and one fireman. The remainder of us donned life-belts, while I put the helm ” hard a starboard ” and fastened it in a becket, used for such a purpose to prevent the rudder kicking.

The useless crew hung on to the weather-rail of the bridge and the stanchions. With the aid of another seaman I cut the boat tackles releasing the blocks from our one and only lifeboat – there was no hope for a fair launching from the weather side. The sinking tug swung round in the trough of the sea, the huge towline acting as a check. The barge was lost to sight in the intervening mountainous water.

Suddenly a Himalayan peak of white-plumed water came racing along and, with a thunderous roar, folded over on us. The doomed boat heeled over on her beam ends until her mast and funnel were almost parallel with the sea. The huge wave engulfed the engine-room and, as the fires were swiftly extinguished, clouds of steam hissed up the grating. A few short moments and the tug would make a dive to Davy Jones’s bone yard.

Miraculously, however, the wounded vessel recovered a little, but still lay struggling for life on her side. The greater miracle was that we were not swept, straw-like, overboard when that mountain of water struck us – but at sea strange things continually happen.

“Jump for your lives!” I bellowed against the wind.

We had now struggled from the precarious shelter of the bridge, and were huddled on the side of the ship’s hull – a spot that augured certain death when the tug went under. I jumped, and without desire to carry on the tradition of the sea, the skipper followed. The rest of the crew did likewise, certain of buoyancy, at least, with their belts. Desperately we swam away from the hull in order to avoid the vortex when the tug should founder. Another mountainous wave, rushing at us, lifted the bow of the tug to its crest. When the sea rolled by the unfortunate vessel sank stern first, taking two engineers and the cook in the grip of the whirlpool. Or so I surmised, for we never saw them again.

The wallowing barge hove into view, and I could see the four men standing near the chock forward, through which led a short heavy coir rope spring attached to the steel cable of more than two hundred fathoms in length. Panic-stricken at the sight of the sinking tug, the men released the towline. It was the height of folly, for the tug resting on the bottom was a splendid anchor. The barge could have ridden out the storm, for she was a ponderous hulk, built of seasoned timber and extremely buoyant.

Accompanied by another sailor, I struck out for the barge; but her hull caught the full blast of the wind, and our chase was hopeless. An hour we spent in this futile and strenuous exercise, then the barge swept forever from our vision.

Swimming back, we espied some of the crew bobbing up and down near the spot where the tug had sunk. Afterwards they told me that the lifeboat had shot up from the depths of the sea like a projectile, her air-tanks adding velocity to the ascent. They were trying to right the boat, which was floating bottom up, and had succeeded by the time we reached them.

We swam in without difficulty, as the gunwales of the boat were under water. It was a feat to stay in the craft, however, for water washed us out incessantly. At last I caught hold of the boat-painter forward, and with the aid of another seaman unstranded it into three parts. With these bits of rope we lashed ourselves to the thwarts, and overcame the buoyancy which lifted our bodies in and out of the lifeboat.

The lashings at least enabled us to stand hip-deep in the water, or sit down with our heads just clear. Frequent combers washed over our heads, so I preferred to stand rather than chance suffocation in my fetters.

Gradually the sea moderated, and with the coming of night wind pressure eased. The tug had foundered at three o’clock: it was now past six. The water was warm enough, but the air chilled as the sun sank with tropic swiftness. Clad as we were only in light cotton singlets and dungarees, the cold pierced us. The surviving engineer and fireman were blue as indigo, teeth chattering like castanets. The “black gang ” of any ship usually work naked from the waist, and after the high temperature in the vicinity of the boilers the change proved drastic.

Out of the nine members of the tug’s crew six still survived, but after dark a South African Dutchman went “loco” and jumped overboard. Several times we pulled him back, but finally he outwitted us. The look in his eyes was terrifying; death indeed would be merciful, for he was stark raving mad.

Later in the evening a little Cockney lad, a likeable fellow without even a complaint of his lot, slid to the bottom of the boat and was drowned. With a premonition of the end he had unloosened his lashings….

Several times during the night the bodies of the Boer and the Cockney, supported by the life-belts they wore, floated within an arm’s reach. We had believed the Dutchman drowned hours ago-but we were wrong. Unconscious from exposure, he floated about in a jack- knife posture-his head and knees bobbing out of the water. Then, suddenly, out of the darkness beside our boat came a piercing scream. In the faint light of the tropic night we saw a white ghost flash by. Another flash, and we recognized a shark’s glistening belly. Our last shipmate disappeared from sight, but the dark film of his blood spread out around us. It was a ghastly feeling, when next my head sank beneath the level of the water, to sense the clammy fluid that had so recently pulsed through a living creature smear across my face.

As I have already said, our boat floated below the surface, and we were threatened with the same fate as had befallen the Boer if we lost our precious places. Submerged from chest down, we waited for the ghastly moment when a man-eater might snap us from the boat. We had no protection – no dirk or club – not even an oar.

The storm had driven us back towards the entrance of Delagoa Bay, where there is a whaling station. Tiger-sharks feeding on the offal of whales infest the area, and a taste of human flesh would be a delicious titbit compared with the oily mess devoured from the whale’s carcass.

Although gradually the wind was dying down, a high sea still persisted, combers breaking over our heads at annoying intervals. Eyes, nostrils, and mouth burned from the salt water, and the night dragged by with interminable slothfulness.

At 3 a.m., as I calculated by Formalhaut, the bright star of the southern skies, we saw the mastheads and sidelights of a large steamer bearing down upon us. For a ghastly moment it seemed she must cut us in two; she missed us, but her wash dashed over us.

Feverishly I watched the officer on the bridge, whom I could see quite plainly. He seemed to train his binoculars on us. If only he could pick out the outline of our boat he would take notice – the sight of our bobbing heads would suggest to him nothing more than driftwood or flotsam. Her name, the Vittonia, was discernible on her stern, and as she slipped by in the pale starlight we shouted hoarsely, frantically, but she was to windward, and with her passing went also our last vestige of hope.

In the cruel vigil to dawn we waited, numbed in heart and brain.

The first touch of light illumined our miserable plight. But we were heartened nevertheless. There were four of us left. Three had gone down with the ship, four were blown away on the barge, and two went during the night.

The rising sun warmed our spirits, but it soon took toll on our heads and faces. An overwhelming thirst burned our tongues and throats. The sea subsided, and we spent the day in a tropical Indian Ocean duck-pond, with scarcely a crack in its mirrored surface. Several times hope returned at the vision of a smoke smudge on the horizon. But by late afternoon we had learned to mistrust our eyes; fevered brains were creating ship mirages everywhere; the spectre of insanity was lifting in vague shapes.

Suddenly I was aware of a new danger. My shoulders were now under water. The old lifeboat, made of welded steel, was equipped with buoyancy tanks to aid flotation) and one of them leaked air. The ancient cork fender, lashed around the outside of the boat, was water-soaked. No bailing could have helped us – we hadn’t a spoon or a sponge, anyway. There was only one alternative. If we were not rescued by nightfall we must slip over-board. We could never survive another night in the sea.

About four in the afternoon we spotted yet another distant wisp of smoke. Not trusting my first vision, I waited until the unmistakable outline of smokestack and superstructure loomed into view. A hoarse squeal of hope came from my blistered throat, and was echoed from the others.

The vessel bore down upon us. We watched, almost mad with apprehension, as she passed us by about half a mile distant, totally ignorant of our proximity.

But salvation came at the eleventh hourl A lynx-eyed native seaman in the crow’s nest lookout spotted us and bellowed down to the bridge. The captain turned his glass upon us and the vessel altered her course. The ship was the Liberador, returning to Delagoa Bay after a fruitless search. She had been dispatched by the Portuguese authorities after the fury of the storm had abated.

The steamer, which had nearly run us down, reported seeing wreckage off Inyacka Island, but had claimed that the sea was too rough for investigation – a chivalrous statement for a huge steamer captain who had apparently turned his binoculars upon us that night. . . .

The Liberador came slowly alongside, and the crew dropped a pilot ladder and ropes over the side. Our skipper and second engineer were in a state of collapse, but Connelley, the other sailor, and myself, had sufficient strength to secure them, and the Liberador crew hauled them on board.

Freed of our weight, the old lifeboat appeared above the water’s surface for the first time. With much kindness the captain ordered bedding to be spread over the warm gratings of the engine-room, where we retired to strip off our sodden rags. The sailors lent us a change of underwear while the soaking garments dried on the steampipes.

“Water!” was the first cry, but for our own welfare it was offered sparingly. Delicious at first, the liquid burned like iodine as it scoured the inflamed membranes of the throat. Frenziedly, the half-crazed captain of the tug seized a jug and drained its contents. Then he collapsed on the mattress and expired with a terrifying suddenness!

When we reached Lorenço Marques the engineer was wavering on the eternal brink. An ambulance was waiting, and the doctor rushed aboard. The poor fellow, however, passed out on the dock. Of the fatal thirteen who shipped out of Durban less than a week before only Connelley and myself remained. Under maritime law as it was then pay ceased immediately a vessel foundered. I received three pounds for my experience, and the loss of all personal property and papers. This loss, perhaps, was a blessing in disguise, for it gave me a plausible reason why I could not produce documents to support my statement of war service, which, in truth, would have proved embarrassing, despite the fact that I had joined up in August, 1914, and served in the Navy, Army, and Naval Auxiliaries.

The British Consul proved a decent fellow. He gave me clothes, and a railroad ticket by way of Pretoria and Johannesburg to Durban. Connelley, still suffering from exposure, remained in Johannesburg for treatment, so that I journeyed to Durban alone.

Later, in Tattersall’s Bar, a famous rendezvous for sailors, I was told that Connelley died in hospital shortly after I bade him adieu. I was the last of the thirteen who sailed out of Durban on the ill-fated Magellan.

I mooned around Durban for a bewildering week. What should I do now? The death of Connelley had distressed me greatly. It seemed so tragic that he should go under after having survived the ordeal so well.

Then, at the end of the week, I heard that a berth was open on the Medway, a British four-masted bark. She was a picturesque craft, loaded with coal for Iquique, Chile, and carried twenty cadets training for commissions in the British Navy. I applied for and secured the job of third mate.

Once the vessel was under way I quickly regained my usual buoyancy of spirit – though the memory of those ghastly hours spent in the lifeboat will never entirely be eradicated from my mind.

Captain Williams, skipper of the Medway, was a pleasant man, evidently selected for his paternal interest in the youths he carried aboard. It was a joy to be back on a decent square-rigger once again – trimming the yards, setting and furling sail, walking the poop in the eight to twelve watch, and entertaining the youthful Britishers with bush and shipwreck stories.

I spent a great deal of time with these boys. We caught dozens of albatross with a special snare. We hooked greedy sharks, too, just for the pleasure of dispatching the scavengers. Originally, I suppose, the ugly brutes were created for some definite purpose, but the squeal of that Boar sailor haunts me, and,whenever opportunity occurs I have no compunction whatever in hooking and chopping up one of them and casting him to those cannibaI brothers of his who dog the wake of a ship.

Like the previous cadet ship on which I served, the boys came from the ” blooded stock ” of England. Some of them, though they had to leave class distinction at home, were titled. They were good company in the lonely stretch of the Indian Ocean between Good Hope and the Snares Rocks, south of New Zealand.

The sport which fascinated them most was the trapping of the albatross – a bird found only twenty-five to forty degrees south of the Equator. They are magnificent creatures in flight, having a wing span of five to seven feet. Wheeling in the breeze above the ship, they ride the air currents like tiny gliders, scarcely moving a feather to gain impetus or altitude.

They are caught by means of a very simple trap. A piece of brass, triangular in shape and hollow in the center, is set in a cork float to which is fastened a long line. A chunk of pork, lashed to the triangle, hides the metal from view. Then, when the vessel is moving along at about three knots, the trap is floated astern.

Following the vessel, the albatross sights the pork bait and swoops down to seize it. Gripping the hollow tri-angle in his curved beak he ascends, pulling strongly on the line. So long as the albatross maintains the strain on the line, he cannot free himself. His curved beak proves his undoing, and it is a simple task to haul him to the deck.

Here the boys received their primary lesson in aviation. The albatross could not leave the ship, there being insufficient runway to provide the necessary momentum for the launch into the air. He would waddle around flapping his pinions; nothing short of a catapult could lift him back into his element.

The feathers and down of these creatures are exceedingly soft and beautiful. I have made coats from their pelts, and carved cigar- and cigarette-holders from the wing and leg bones. The feet, too, are made into tobacco-pouches by old shellbacks, and one can always distinguish a real Cape Horn sailor by his pouch and souvenirs.

Few of the birds were killed, however. After an hour of sport we tossed them over the side, and watched them lift happily into the high ramps of the air.

Catching a shark is, in reality, quite as simple as hooking a goldfish, except that the operation is on a slightly different scale. The shark will swallow anything, edible or otherwise, and, once hooked, a lasso or bowline is slipped down the rope and manceuvrcd around his body. He is lifted by a winch and drops on the deck with tail thrashing in futile anger. Standing by with a capstan bar, at the proper moment it is rammed down his gluttonous maw. This prevents him from buckling by making his thrashing efforts too painful. The contents of a shark’s belly are amazing. He swallows everything that glitters – from a piece of tin to a small anchor.

Personally, however, as a sporting venture, I prefer to harpoon the porpoise. One is rewarded, at least, with a tasty meal. The method of attack is simple. A heaving line is made fast on the harpoon, with the end of the line rove through a block lashed on the “forward swifter” of the fore rigging. The harpooner then takes his position on the bowsprit foot-ropes, steadying himself against the shrouds. The utmost agility is needed to maintain equilibrium, for there is nothing below but the water racing against the bow. The porpoise is an exhibitionist-a graceful one, too. She glories in racing the ship. I have watched them circle a vessel a dozen times before, as a grand finale, diving under the keel. It is a pity, perhaps, to harpoon these frolicking pigs of the sea; but ocean pork is such a delectable relief from the barrelled salted variety.

During our return voyage along the dismal wastes of the South Atlantic we sighted many whales – which recalls to my mind an amusing incident that happened in the South Atlantic, about thirty degrees south of the Equator, when I was aboard the little London bark, the Pharos, bound for home.

The sea was flat as a billiard-table. Our ship wallowed helplessly in the doldrums and I kept a drowsy morning watch. It was approaching dawn when, suddenly, there was a horrible grating sound, and the ship lurched over to the starboard with a twenty degree list. In various stages of undress, the whole crew rushed on deck. What had happened? Aground in eight hundred fathoms? Impossible? A submerged wreck? Well, hardly.

Then, with the same abruptness, the vessel fell back on an even keel. We waited, dumb-struck, for an explanation. Even as we waited the Pharos keeled over again with greater violence, the whole ship vibrating. Men ran up the rigging and peered over the side. But nothing could be seen.

The ship righted itself once more, and the hulk of a whale floated to the surface. He had chosen the Pharos for a currycomb on which to scratch his back, incidentally scrubbing a ton or more of barnacles from the crust bottom of our boat: a fair deal with mutual profit – except for the fright he gave us.

The whale stayed with us for several days as we lazied through the doldrums to the “Line,” repeating hisback- scratching manœuvre at fairly regular intervals. Finally he left us, to search for new adventures farther afield. . . .

The passage to Iquique was interspersed with many pleasant interludes. Whenever I could spare the time I taught some of the sturdy cadets the elements of boxing, and they quickly showed skill in jabbing and feinting.

Boxing recalls the only adventure of the voyage. It happened ashore at Iquique. We were loading saltpetre ready for a return trip to Capetown. The Medway was moored to buoys out in the harbor, and the small boats that plied back and forth were not permitted to leave the dock after nightfall. The Chile coast has peculiar tidal action, and huge swells make navigation of small craft hazardous after dusk, particularly in the harbor of Iquique.

I had been spending a few hours ashore with a seaman named Pat Burke, and, shopping at some of the beverage emporiums, we were on our way back to the Medway. We arrived at the pier just in time to see the last boat going out into the harbor, and in our annoyance we exchanged some rather spirited remarks anent the stupid regulation. Unfortunately they were overheard, and resented, by a local vigilante, who swaggered up to us and, making use of the few choice English words he knew, soundly abused us. That was too much for my temper. Before I realized what I was doing, I had laid him stiff. Another vigilante came rushing up, and Paddy Burke, not to be outdone, followed my example. After that we made a hurried exit, taking refuge in a Chinese beer gar-den. There the wrath of the police descended upon us, and after a prolonged scrimmage we were incarcerated in a “hoose-gow.” The night was spent in the Iquique jail, but the following morning Captain Williams came to our rescue, paid our fines, and bought new sets of uniforms for the desecrated guardians of the law.

The affair lacked any pretence at glamor, but the cadets considered it great fun, and went to boxing with an even added zest.

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