Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The First Shall Be Last



The First Shall Be Last

By A. Hyatt Verrill

From Sea Stories magazine, March 1925. Digitized by Philip Bolton, Jr. and Doug Frizzle, March 2010.

Captain Dave Perrington was the saltiest, most reckless—yet the sanest— skipper that New Bedford had ever seen. But the parson told him he'd be taught a lesson in the end. He was, and the lesson was: The first shall be last.

AMONG those who knew him, opinions of Captain Dave Perrington differed widely. Jed Winthrop declared he was "pig-headed," Dan'l Finny pronounced him “stubborn as a mule,” “Fightin’ Bill" Haven referred to him as "that dumb, obstinate fool," and others considered him merely an "ornery cuss.”

As a matter of fact, not one of Dave's friends or acquaintances among the whaling skippers and shipowners really understood his character nor realized that what they considered as stubbornness, obstinacy in his nature, was in reality a dogged determination and an indomitable will.

In Cap’n Dave's vocabulary there was no such word as "can't." His belief that if a man made up his mind he could overcome anything was an obsession, almost a monomania.

He never knew when he was beaten and he didn't know the meaning of fear. As a result, he succeeded where others would have failed, and always emerged triumphant from seemingly impossible situations.

Strangely enough, too, there was nothing about his appearance to indicate either determination, will power or decisiveness. Every theory and rule of physiognomists failed when applied to him, for he was tall, stoop-shouldered, lean and gawky.

His lips were a bit too full and loose; his chin, or what there was of it, was decidedly receding; his eyes, of a pale, watery green, were bulging and held a rather vacant, expressionless or fishy stare. His thin, dank hair was an indefinite shade of grayish brown, and the fringe of moth-eaten whisker along his jowls gave him a bit the look of an itinerant country parson.

Wiseacres shook their heads and prophesied dire results for Cap’n Dave. The leather-faced whaler parson, who climbed the rope ladder to his quarterdeck pulpit in the seamen’s bethel and preached sermons savoring far more of the sea than the Bible, to his whaling congregation on Sundays, more than once warned Dave that if he did not cease flying in the face of Providence he would be cursed like the “Flying Dutchman,” or worse, before he died.

Dave, however, was just as perverse or stubborn or determined, whichever you prefer, in the face of the well meant words of the minister or the friendly warnings of his fellows as in everything else. He “allowed” that if the Flying Dutchman had been any kind of a seaman and had “made up his all-fired mind to have made port without for everlastin’ly backin' an' fillin’ like s fool girl with a couple o’ lads what she didn't know which to moor to,” he would have come out all right.

As if to give Dave every opportunity to make use of his determination or mulishness, fate was forever throwing apparently insurmountable obstacles in his path. Even as a boy, he had taken things as they came; had gone at them with the same fearless, indomitable determination to conquer, and had—up to now—succeeded.

When less than twelve years of age, and while sailing in a catboat on Buzzard's Bay, he had been overtaken by a sudden thunderstorm, his craft had been capsized and, clinging to the overturned boat, he had been driven before the gale halfway to Naushon Island.

The storm over, he had cut away the rigging, beached the craft at high water and waited patiently for the tide to fall. Then, emptying the water from the boat, he had pried and lifted her to an even keel and, when she again floated, had started to scull her back to New Bedford. Half a dozen craft had sighted him and had offered to give him a tow, but Dave had refused them one and all and had doggedly kept on his laborious and slow way. He had determined to make port himself and nothing could sway him.

Two days later, half starved, his throat parched and dry, his hands raw and utterly exhausted, the youngster had brought his boat to her moorings in triumph.

Later, when boat steerer on the bark Martha, he had found himself utterly unexpectedly in command of the vessel. The skipper and second mate had been killed by an infuriated sperm whale, the first mate had died of fever and the third mate had deserted. Dave knew nothing of navigation. He had never squinted through a sextant in his life, and the sum total of his nautical knowledge was his ability to steer a course and trim and handle sails. Many men, of far more years and experience than the young boat steerer, upon finding themselves in command of a bark in the middle of the ocean, and without the least idea of the ship’s position or where to sail or how, would have given up in despair or have set signals of distress and waited for help. But not Dave Perrington.

The Martha had gone out for a three year cruise for sperm. She had been away from port barely six months, and only five hundred-odd casks of oil were stowed in her hold. So Dave decided that it was up to him to finish the cruise and fill up, even if the unfortunate officers of the bark had, by accident and design, left the vessel to a mere boat steerer. Hence, the proximity or position of land did not interest him in the least.

He was after whales, and whales were to be sought in the ocean and not ashore, and Dave at once commenced searching for them. Not only did he find the whales but, as he cruised, he sighted land, learned that it was the west coast of Africa, and thereafter, painstakingly and by dint of brain racking calculations and dead reckoning, managed to keep a more or less accurate course of the Martha’s wanderings.

For nearly two years the bark’s crew never sighted another whaler, but Dave managed, somehow or other, to make out-of-the-way ports from time to time, secured supplies and provisions and water, obtained new points of departure with which to supplement his involved and intricate calculations. Exactly three years to a day from the time she had sailed, the Martha passed Gay Head Light and came to anchor in New Bedford harbor with a full cargo.

Had Dave been able to navigate at all, this feat would have given him command of the bark on her next voyage. But Dave was now determined to learn navigation—he had discovered it was useful if not essential to a whaleman —and he went it as doggedly as he had sculled his catboat or had carried on with the officerless Martha.

The next cruise he was Cap'n Dave Perrington of the ship Moscow, but evidently fate had decided that it was time to again test the young skipper's mettle. Scarcely had the Moscow cleared Gay Head when a hurricane swept up the coast and, when it had passed, the Moscow was a dismasted, helpless hulk, reeling drunkenly on the heaving sea.

But Cap'n Dave was not in the least discouraged. By dint of herculean labor, jury masts were rigged and, a week later, the ship came limping back to port. Again she sailed, and for four years Dave battled and fought the worst weather and the toughest luck that ever beset a whaleship. He returned with a patched, battered, disreputable-looking wreck of a vessel kept afloat only by dint of ceaseless labor at the pumps, but with every inch of space below decks filled with reeking casks and with a couple of hundred more on deck, not to mention sixty pounds of ambergris.

Naturally, as voyage after voyage resulted in full cargoes, Cap'n Dave became a favorite with owners. And, just as naturally, as voyage after voyage was one never-ending series of disasters, narrow escapes and heartbreaking troubles, officers and men fought shy of signing on for even a short trip with Cap’n Dave.

Gradually, however, the superstitions or beliefs of men and officers underwent a change. Cap’n Dave might be unlucky in running into trouble, but he was just as lucky getting out of it—and he never failed to bring in full cargoes. Full ships meant good lays and, argued the superstitious, if there was a jinx in Cap'n Dave’s wake then most assuredly there was also a mascot on his decks. Moreover, with all his endless battling with storms, his losses of sails and rigging, his lists of stove boats and his countless narrow escapes, he had never lost a man. So, from being loath to sail on Cap'n Dave’s ship, men and officers became anxious to sail with him.

Captain Perrington was not, however, one to take anything and everything that offered in the form of either foremast, hands or officers. He had become quite convinced that even though a man could conquer anything, once he made up his mind to do so, still, in order to do so he must have men on whom he could depend and who were as fearless as himself. They must be ready and willing to carry out his orders and follow his lead no matter how ridiculous, impossible or suicidal such orders and lead appeared.

Consequently he picked and chose and, once finding a man to suit him, he used every means in his power to keep that man with him. Thus it came about that by the time Cap’n Dave was commander of the ship Walrus, his mates, his boat steerers, his cooper, blacksmith, steward, and even several of the crew, were men who had sailed with him on many a memorable and momentous voyage. Through long association with Captain Perrington, they had developed characters much like his own and had implicit and absolute faith in their skipper’s ability to accomplish anything he undertook.

And, as, through the thirty years that Cap’n Dave had been whaling, the minister’s prophecy as to his fate had not been borne out, not a member of the ship's company had the least fear of being doomed to tack endlessly back and forth in a ghostly ship.

As a rule, whale ships are most inappropriately named. Many a wall-sided, bluff-bowed, wallowing old spouter has flaunted such a name as Venus, Meteor. Gazelle, Comet or Fleetwing, but the Walrus might well have been planned and built to suit the name painted in canary-yellow letters on her unlovely square stern. She was built for comfort and carrying capacity and not for speed.

Constructed like frigates, with timbers and planking heavy enough for a battleship, in order to withstand raging seas, battering ice, and crushing floes for years at a time; heavily sparred and stoutly rigged to endure tropical hurricanes or arctic tempests with equal safety, the old-time whale ship was, at best, no fabric of beauty. Buoyant and stanch they were—enduring, almost, as the granite hills of New England, and amazingly steady in the heaviest weather. Before a gale that would cause merchant ships to strip to reefed top sails, the whale ships would carry full canvas and reel off nine or ten knots before the wind. But in light airs they crept along and they were little better to windward than an ancient galleon or the ships of Columbus. And yet, compared to the Walrus, the majority of whaleships were clippers.

She was an ancient craft—nearly sixty years old when Cap’n Dave Perrington became her master—and was of the type which whalemen refer to as being “built by the mile and sawed off to suit.” She carried old-fashioned single topsails, was steered by a bucking, mankilling tiller with a small wooden wheel atop it and, when sailing before a fair wind, seemed to push an acre of water in front of her broad bows.

In a seaway every separate plank and timber creaked, groaned and worked and yet, so thoroughly grease-soaked was the old ship, that little water found entrance through her straining seams and the oil, oozing from her sides, formed a constant slick about her. But no one could have asked an easier sea boat.

Off the Bermudas on this memorable trip she ran into the fag end of a hurricane. Stripped to bare poles and a rag of trysail, she rode out the storm, soaring aloft on the mountainous waves, dropping into the hollows until the green combers shut her in like a wall, drifting faster to leeward than she could sail with a fair wind. Yet, for three days and nights, not shipping a bucketful of water, she rode the tempestuous Atlantic so easily that Jed Nathan, the second mate, swore later that he and Mr. Stanton, the first mate, had played a game of marbles on deck at the height of the storm.

Then, the blow over, the Walrus went wallowing on her way, stopping now and then to take a sperm whale and cut-in the blubber. She put into the Cape de Verdes for water and provisions, drifting under a brassy equatorial sky off the African coast and, under her patched and smoke-grimed sails, slanting across the South Atlantic to Tristan. For once it seemed as if Cap'n Dave's jinx had deserted him. No event of excitement or unusual character had occurred—not even a boat had been stove, a seam sprung, or a spar carried away.

Rigging had parted, of course. Sails had been split, torn and repaired again and again. Cracked and sprung topmasts and yards had been sent down and new ones sent up, but all this was the usual and expected, the result of wear and tear through months of cruising. The voyage was, in fact, getting a bit monotonous.

Cap’n Dave felt that that he was being treated unfairly, that the Walrus was not the ship for such a resourceful and determined captain as himself. The superstitious members of the company commenced to shake their heads and declare that something was amiss. They said that they wouldn't be in the least surprised if the Walrus would have an uneventful cruise and that, Cap’n Dave’s luck having thus turned, he would come back to port with less than half a catch.

"’Tain't nat'ral, it ain't," was the cooper's comment, as the men were arguing the matter the day after leaving Tristan. "Here we be blame near down to the Horn, an' nothin' worth loggin' yet. Not even a blow worth talkin' of since that there three days' cat's-paw off’n Bermuda. Here I been sailin' with Cap'n Perrington four voyages an' every dumb time a-runnin' foul o' troubles fit to turn a man's hair white, an' a-comin' in safe an' sound an' full up every time.''

“Mebbe it's a comin' to us a-roundin' the Cape," suggested a boat steerer.

The cooper snorted. "I'd like to see it," he declared. "But it'll have to be to keep the Old Man from a-makin' of it. I been round twice with him, an' both times it blowed fit to take the whiskers off’n a cat an' thicker’n pea soup with snow an' sleet an’ ice to wind'ard and le'ward an' ahead an’ astern. Yep, an’ once a-losin’ of the fore-to’gallant mast and mizzen topmast and jib boom at that. Yes, sir, Cap'n Dave can buck the ol’ Horn all right, though last cruise we was eighteen days a-makin’ of it.”

“We’ll be eighteen hundred in this ol’ hooker if we run afoul of bad weather," observed a fellow who stood near. “Here we be," he continued, "with a fair fifteen-knot breeze on our quarter an' all sail set an' drawin’, an’ creepin’ along like the ol’ Walrus was a towin’of a hundred-bar’l whale. Not makin’ five knot, I bet ye."

"If 'twa’n’t for the sails ye couldn't say which end was bow an' which starn,” declared another. "Mebbe they did make a mistake an' rigged her wrong end fo’most.”

Aft, Cap'n Dave and the mates were talking along much the same lines.

"She's the worst ship for sailin' ever I saw," declared Mr. Stanton.

"Sailin'!" ejaculated the second mate derisively. "She ain't sailin'. She's a-gettin' tired and is look-in' for a nice soft spot to go to sleep.”

Captain Dave stroked his fringe of whiskers meditatively, glanced at the perfectly trimmed and drawing sails, peered over the side and at the sluggish wake, and shook his head.

"If we don't get a gale we'll be forty years 'stead of four on this voyage,” he observed. "You could carry sail in a blow till it took the sticks out'n her before she'd log eight knots. And there ain't nothin' I can do to make her sail a damn mite faster. Reckon I must be a-gettin' old. First time I ever was stumped, yet. Wish to thunder we would get a blow off’n the Horn just so I can keep my hand in."

"Eight months out and only two hundred barrels of oil," said the first mate. "Looks like we’ll have to run into a shoal of whales and scoop 'em up like herrin's, if we're goin' to fill up."

The captain's pale eyes were turned on the mate with a deprecating stare. "Did you ever hear of Dave Perrington comin' in with less'n a full ship?" he demanded. "Well," he continued, "I ain't never goin' to. No, sir, by Judas, I'm a-goin' to fill this consarned old tub with ile if I have to swim 'round the Horn with her towline in my teeth an' cruise the Pacific till we all have white hair. Ain't no excuse for makin' port with a’ empty ship long as there's any whales in the sea an' a man makes up his mind to catch 'em."

“Like as not, like as not," agreed the mate "But just the same, I wish to blazes the dumb ol’ Horn was astern of us ‘stead of afore us. I got a hunch all the trouble what we ain’t had so far’s a-goin’ to pile into us all in a heap off’n the Horn."

"I ain't a-worryin’ over it,” declared the skipper. "May take a mite of a spell makin’ it, but I calc’late to keep the old hooker from a-goin’ ashore or a-gettin' the sticks taken out'n her an', barring that, there ain't a mite of sense worryin' none. Troubles was just made so folks as has any gumption can get the best of em.”

And, as if to test the determined captain's ability to "get the best of 'em,” troubles began to arrive "all in a heap,” as the mate had feared.

As the Walrus pushed her blunt nose into the Antarctic Ocean and headed westward, the sky became overcast and threatening. The gray-green rollers came piling toward her with an ominous power and weight that spoke plainly of a gale back of them, and the cold, chill wind whistled dolefully through the ship's frayed and much-patched rigging.

As far as could be judged, by looking at the water alongside or astern, the old ship might have been standing still. But her sails were drawing. Every brace, sheet, backstay and swifter was as taut as a bar of steel, and under her bows a frothing hill of water rose to her battered and cracked figurehead.

Mr. Stanton glanced apprehensively at the swaying, straining spars from time to time. The ship was under all three topsails, fore and main courses, spanker and fore-to’gallant staysail, and with the winds a bit abaft the beam, was, in his opinion, dragging canvas rather than using it. But he had sailed to long with Cap’n Dave to express an opinion and knew that the lanky skipper had his own and somewhat unusual ideas as to carry sail.

At the time, the skipper was trying his best to get an observation, and presently he ducked below, to return half an hour later and announce that the ship was actually making headway.

"Reckon she's got too much canvas alow an' not enough aloft," he observed, after an exhaustive study of the sails, and thoughtfully stroking his whiskers. "Take in the courses, Mr. Stanton, an' set to’gallant sails on all three sticks, an’ the flyin’ jib.”

Without voicing his opinion of such an order. Mr. Stanton obeyed and, to his surprise, the ship showed signs of making better time and rode far easier than before.

"Just the same.'' he confided to the second mate, "there's all-tired nasty weather a-comin’, and if it comes on to blow hard all of a sudden somethin’ll be carried away afore we can take in them to'gallants an' reef tops’ls. Wish t' blazes the old girl had double tops’ls onto her.”

"Guess the Old Man knows what he's about,” was Mr. Nathan's response, "but it's a-goin' for to blow all right. And I'm thinkin’ the Old Man may be called on for to do that swimmin’ stunt to get her round the Horn yet.”

By sundown, the wind had veered and was blowing from the southwest. An ugly cross sea had arisen, and the air had grown intensely cold. Not until the ship threatened to drift bodily to leeward, and had buried her lee rails under the icy green seas and the water was swashing along the hatch combings, did Cap’n Dave order the upper sails taken in and the topsails reefed.

Thus relieved, the Walrus rose to a comfortably even keel and rode easily enough, but so little progress did she make that, when the second mate hove the log over the rail, the line hung limp and the log drifted to starboard instead of astern.

But when this was reported to the captain he took it as a matter of course. “No use tryin’ to hurry her." he remarked. “Dunno what sort of weather may come along afore mornin’, an’ ‘tain’t no sort of weather to rout hands out to shorten sail. Long’s she ain’t a-movin’ backward she’s movin’ for’ard, an’ that’s the way we’re bound.”

Before dawn broke over the sullen waste of waters, the gale was upon them. The Walrus was pitching, yawing, wallowing in a welter of tremendous seas, and though the oil and grease from her straining timbers and planks formed a broad slick that prevented the waves from breaking over her decks, the hissing crests reared high on every side of the old ship, and rigging and sails were stiff with ice.

Muffled to his ears in an ancient buffalo-hide ulster, a plaid shawl wrapped about his head, and his long nose blue with cold, Cap’n Dave stood on the swaying deck and scanned the ship and sea.

“Kind of dirty weather,” he observed to Mr. Stanton. “But she’s a-holdin’ of her own— she’s a-holdin’ of her own.”

“An’ not doin’ nothin’ else,” retorted the mate. “If it comes on to a blow any harder we’ll be findin’ ourselves back to the Falklands.”

“Guess she might stand for a mite more canvas,” said Cap’n Dave, again glancing at the ice-sheathed sails. “Get the main-to’gallant sail into her an’ see if she’ll edge up a mite closer to the wind. We ain’t any too far from the coast, an she’s a-makin’ leeway somethin’ frightful.”

But scarcely had the topgallant sail been sheeted home than there was a screeching gust of icy wind, an ominous crack, and the main-topgallant mast snapped like a pipestem. Fortunately, the standing rigging was weaker than the spars, and the stays parted, leaving the other masts uninjured.

“Hang your everlasting hide!” exploded the Cap’n Dave, addressing the ship. “Can’t carry enough canvas for to claw to win’ard without carrin’ away something! Think you’re goin’ to get the best of me, do ye?” By Judas! I’ll show ye who’s master.” Then, to the mate. “Get out the spare to’gallant mast and send it up, an’ set to’gallants on fore, main an’ mizzen.”

It was no child’s play to send up the spar in such weather, but it was done at last and the sails set, and the Walrus, as if at last realizing that she had met her master, sullenly labored to windward by inches. But not for long. As she soared to the summit of a large roller the fore-topgallant sail ripped with a roar from the bolt-ropes and went sailing like a frightened bird to the leeward, and the ship plunged down the slope into a green abyss. The mizzen topgallant yard snapped at the slings, folding back like a jackknife on itself, with the sail bellying out like a balloon. Before a man could get aloft to secure or cut it free, the terrific strain had proved too much for the mast, and mizzen-topgallant mast, yard and sail went kiting astern.

A string of oaths, that seemed to take a bit of the biting, raw edge from the screeching gale, came from the skipper’s half-frozen lips. The remaining spare yards and sails were stowed below. To open the hatches, shift the casks and stores between decks and reach them was impossible in such weather, and the Walrus was again falling off, pitching and rolling and shaking herself, as if in pure glee at having beaten the stubborn man impotently raging on the after deck.

And the man at the helm was cursing as vehemently as the skipper. He had been performing feats that would have won him first prize in a broncho-riding contest and now, his muscles aching and unable to endure the strain longer or keep the wildly yawing ship on her course, he shouted for help.

Two men were sent aft to aid him, and the united efforts of the three proved almost unequal to the task of controlling the wildly bucking, kicking helm, as the Walrus, figuratively taking the bit in her teeth, seemed determined to broach to. Each moment sea and wind were increasing. A blinding snow-storm came sweeping across the mad ocean and then, to add to it all, the half-frozen lookout caught sight of a partly submerged, jagged, gray object borne high on a comber ahead. For an instant he stared.

“Wreckage ahead!" he roared at the top of his lungs. "Sta'bo’d! Hard asta'bo'd!"

Exerting all their strength, the three men at the helm bent their backs and strained their muscles to swing the tiller down. Sluggishly, sullenly, the ship's bow swung into the wind. Canvas rattled and thundered, masses of green water poured over the port bow, and captain and mates, peering anxiously into the murk, saw a tangled mass of rigging and sodden canvas from which the jagged butt ends of a splintered spar projected, slip slowly past the ship.

It was so close that the snakelike ropes touched the vessel's side. All recognized it as the mizzen-topgallant mast and yard that had been carried away an hour before and which, hurled by the power of the seas, would have battered in the planking had it struck the ship squarely. By the narrowest of margins it had been avoided, and expletives, eloquent of heartfelt relief at their escape, rose to the officers' lips.

But they congratulated themselves prematurely. The next moment, there was a muffled crash. The ship shook as if she had struck a submerged wreck. The three men at the wheel emitted terrified yells and were thrown headlong across the deck, and the huge tiller swung with terrific force to starboard, snapping the stout tiller lines and staving in the starboard deckhouse.

At the same instant the Walrus rose to the summit of a wave, pivoted for a brief moment, and with a deafening slatting and bellow of canvas, plunged into the succeeding hollow, swung into the wind, and the next minute was aback. Cap'n Dave bellowed an order. With his two mates and the three bruised helmsmen he leaped to the tiller and the six threw their united weight against it. The next moment they were all sprawling on the deck. The tiller had swung at a touch and, picking themselves up, they stared at one another in dismay.

All realized what had happened. The wreckage had been hurled by a sea under the ship's counter. It had struck and carried away the rudder, and the Walrus was helpless, unmanageable in the howling gale and tumbling, mountainous seas of the Antarctic.

If ship and lives were to be saved, there was no time to lose. The ship must be hove-to until the storm abated and it might be possible to rig a jury rudder. Orders flew thick and fast. But the Walrus was bent on proving to Cap'n Dave that a ship can be as stubborn and determined as any man, and despite, every effort, she refused absolutely to heave 'to.

Never had Cap'n Dave been in a more desperate situation. Not only was the ship rudderless, crippled aloft and unmanageable, but to leeward—and far too close for comfort were the deadly, rocky shores of the storm lashed cape. Drifting to leeward before the furious gale, the Walrus would be in the breakers before another day dawned.

If something were not done, and done soon, their only hope would be to take to the boats. Though the whaleboats are the best and most seaworthy of small craft in the world, Cap'n Dave and every man aboard the ship, nevertheless, knew that there was not one chance in a thousand of getting the boats clear or, if they did, of weathering the Horn in the little thirty-foot craft.

Meanwhile, with seas breaking constantly over her, the Walrus was having things entirely her own way. Swinging wildly, first to port and then to starboard, her canvas slatting, thundering and threatening each moment to carry away the spars or masts, she was being driven to leeward far more rapidly than she had been working to windward before the accident occurred.

Cap’n Dave had not, however, lost any of his determination. His entire vocabulary of oaths and expletives exhausted, he stood alternatively staring to leeward into the scud and snow and gazing at the swaying masts and thrashing sails. Suddenly he emitted a yell that caused the hopeless mates to jump.

“By the eternal Jehoshaphat, I’ve got it!” he shouted. “Get up them stuns’l booms an’ royal yards, an’ be damn lively!”

Wondering if he had taken leave of his senses, but not stopping to question, the mates roared orders and, by dint of almost superhuman efforts, the spars were broken out and got on deck. Then, clawing his way forward, the skipper ordered oil over the ship’s bows. As the slick spread and the waves ceased to break over the fo’c’s’le of the yawing ship, he took his stand by the try-works and directed operations.

The light spars were rigged out on either side of the bowsprit—two at the catheads and two at the heel of the jib boom. They were firmly stayed by lines housed tight by tackles, and, at the extremities of these improvised outriggers, fair-leader blocks were made fast. Then, this having been accomplished, the captain gave orders for the fore-staysail and jib sheets to be rove through the fair-leaders and led aft to the forward deck.

Wondering, utterly at a loss to understand the captain’s intentions, the men labored like demons, until all was accomplished, and Mr. Stanton, unable to control his curiosity any longer, voiced a question.

“What be I goin’ to do?” cried the skipper. “Why by Judas, I’m a-goin’ to sail this dumb-swizzled ol’ derelict of a gal into the Pacific, that’s what I’m a-goin’ to do.”

Mr. Stanton’s brow wrinkled in a puzzled frown, and he gazed speculatively at the excited captain as if in doubt as to the latter’s sanity.

“Think I am plumb crazy, do ye?” exploded Cap’n Dave. “Well, maybe I be. But this here cussed old hooker’s a dumb sight crazier than I be, and ye got to humor crazy folks. She’s been a-pinin’ for to sail starn first ever since we left port, an’ I’m a-goin’ for to give her all the chance she wants for to do it. Get in that there spanker, put two hands to each of these here sheets, an’ get the men onto the braces. When I give the word, swing the yards lively if ye don’t all of ye want to go to Davy Jones’ quicker’n hell.”

Still unable to grasp what the determined captain was about, but with implicit faith in him and willing to do anything if it held the remotest chance of saving their lives and the ship, the men rushed to obey the mates’ orders. Then, the spanker being furled and the men stationed at the staysail and the jib sheets, the captain, standing in the bows facing aft, scanned the sails, glanced at the oncoming seas and waited. Presently the opportunity he had been waiting for came.

A monstrous sea came thundering on. Smoothed by the slick of oil it swept sullenly but harmlessly by, and behind it was a comparative lull with the smaller seas. Swung partly off the wind by the big sea, the ship was making sternway rapidly, and the captain barked quick orders. Hauling on the sheets, the men drew the staysail and jib far to port, the bow fell off. At the same moment the yards were swung and, with a rattle like musketry—a thunder and a roar that shook the ship and threatened to carry away masts and rigging—the Walrus sluggishly, slowly turned. Her stern edged around into the wind. Her sails filled, and, with yards braced sharp up, she began actually to forge ahead, stern first.

The men stood speechless with amazement utterly unable to believe their eyes and momentarily at a loss to adjust themselves to this strange condition of things. The Walrus had been on the port tack before the accident, her blunt bow headed westward. Now she was on the starboard tack, her bow to the east, but to the utter wonderment of all but the captain, making far better weather of it than before, and undoubtedly sailing.

Of course the sails were badly trimmed, and the ship fell off until the wind was almost abeam, but the staysail and jib, hauled far to port—or under these new and novel conditions to starboard—acted like a lee helm and stoutly kept her from falling off completely.

Captain Dave, scanning the ship, grinned. "By Judas. I told ye I'd do it!" he exclaimed, with a triumphant note in his voice. "But I reckon she'd do a mite better if she had a rag of headsail over her starn. Clap some preventer stays onto that there spanker boom. Mr. Stanton, lash a stuns'l boom onto it, an' run up the mizzen staysail onto it for a jib."

This done, the Walrus behaved a little better. Naturally, there could be no accurate steering. To haul the canvas substitutes for a rudder to port or starboard and keep the ship head into the seas and on a steady course was impossible. Her wake was as crooked and erratic as a game trail. But the ship was slowly and surely working to the southwest, each moment widening the stretch of waters between her and the coast, and that was enough to bring hope and content to the men.

“Didn’t I tell ye ’twould take some rambunctions to keep the Old Man from a-buckin’ of the Horn?” demanded the cooper triumphantly, as the men gathered together. "He ain't never been so hard put he couldn't win out, Cap'n Dave ain't.”

A burly seaman stepped to the lee rail. "Sailin' a dern sight faster starn fust than she ever did before,” he commented.

"O' course she be,” retorted another. "Didn't I say if 'twasn't for the sails ye couldn't tell t'other end from which? And I bet, by glory, them as built her did make a mistake an' rigged her wrong end fo'most."

Steered by her former headsails, making fearful leeway, zigzagging like a crazy thing, the Walrus kept steadily on her way throughout the day. As if convinced that put itself against the determined skipper was hopeless, the gale, with a last vicious howl, blew it all out and a steady wind came in from the northeast.

By morning, the seas had fallen to reasonable size. The Walrus, with a fair though light breeze on her port bow—which was now her starboard quarter—rode easily. She was making excellent time, despite the fact that her sails were, of course, technically aback and flattened against masts and rigging, although, as soon as the wind had shifted, additional braces had been bent on and led forward, or rather aft under the new order of things.

"It's the all-firedest kettle of fish ever I seen," declared the second mate. "Every damn order I give I got to stop an' think which side's port an' which sta'board, an' I ain’t a-watchin' out I'm a-sendin’ the men forward when I want 'em aft. First thing we know we’ll be a-berthin’ in the fo’c’sle an' the crew a-bunkin' in the cabin. ‘Tain't right nor natural, it ain’t!”

"What the thunder difference does it make if 'tain't natural.” demanded Mr. Stanton, "long as we’re a sailin' to the west’ard and clawin’ offshore?”

"An' the ol’ gal’s loggin' it faster'n she ever done right end to,” announced the skipper. "By Judas, when we get a chance to rig a rudder onto her I’ll be danged if I ain’t half minded to hang it on the stem and shift the bowsprit to the starn. Only trouble is,” he added meditatively. "try-works would be aft and cuttin’-in gangway to port and anchor, where the wheel ought to be, and yards wrong side of the dumb masts. No, I reckon I got to hang the rudder to the starn post again, after all.”

By noon the sky had cleared and observations were taken. Throughout the rest of the day and that night the wind held steady and the seas went down, until steering the ship, even by means of staysail and jib, became fairly simple. By the following day it was smooth enough to lower a man over the stern to examine the injury to the rudder, but his report was discouraging. The rudder had been completely carried away. A section of the stern post had been splintered off and to rig a new rudder until the ship could be moored and careened or her stern lifted clear of the water, was hopeless.

“Don’t make a mite of difference, anyhow.” declared Cap'n Dave. "She's doin’ so blame well I ain't minded to shift about. Wish to blazes there’d be a bit more wind, though.”

Indeed, the lack of wind was now the main worry of the officers and crew. Though the ship steadily forged ahead, still she was moving at a snail's pace, and there were hundreds of miles of treachous seas between them and Punta Arenas, where there would be a chance make repairs.

Cape Horn weather, however, seldom remains settled for long, and, presently, a blustering gale sprang up from the south, driving the ship to the northwest at a speed she had seldom before reached. Then a flat calm fell and lasted thirty-six hours, to be followed by light and variable head winds, after which came a stiff blow from the north.

But, handled with infinite skill by the resourceful skipper, steered after fashion by his unique aĆ«rial rudder, with braces led both fore and aft, and groaning and protesting at the slap of every wave against her square stern the Walrus kept steadily on. Seven days after she had lost her rudder, Cap’n Dave announced that they had rounded the Cape, and set a course for Punta Arenas.

A strong wind was blowing from the southeast, a lump of a sea was running, and the Walrus was snorting through it in the midst of an acre or two of foam, leaving a serpentine trail of suds astern. Through their seven days of sternfirst sailing, officers and crew had become accustomed to the topsy-turvy state of affairs, and quite proficient in handling their ship in this new and unique fashion. They were, in fact, taking it as a matter of course and had no fears of making the Chilean port in safety.

Then, just as the sun was sinking to the rim of the Pacific, a sail rose above the horizon—the first sighted by those upon the Walrus for nearly two months. Rapidly the stranger's upper sails rose above the sea. Presently, her hull became visible against the lurid western sky, and it was evident she was bearing down towards the Walrus.

"Reckon she wants for to speak us.” announced the captain as, standing on the bowsprit heel, he studied the oncoming vessel through his glass. “She’s a bark and a whale ship, but I can’t just make her out.”

"Don’t wonder she's a-headin’ for us.” commented the second mate, “seein’ a ship a-sailin' back end fo’most like we be.”

"Well, I ain’t a-goin’ to try to heave this here ship to for no one.” declared the skipper. "I reckon she can overhaul us easy enough. But we can't stop to do no gammin’. Once we stop this crazy, contrary old tub, the Lord only knows if we'd get her a-goin’ again, bow, starn or sidefirst.”

"That bark's the old Hester of Fairhaven," announced Mr. Stanton, who had been studying her intently. "I'd know that there long cocked-up bowsprit an' jib boom anywhere. She'll be alongside in a minute."

Ten minutes later, the Hester was within hail, and a stout, red-faced man, whom Cap'n Dave and the mates recognized as Cap'n Joe Parker, clambered into the mizzen rigging and placed a speaking trumpet to his lips.

"Ship ahoy!" he bellowed across the short space of heaving sea. "What ship's that and what in the name of glory are you doin'?"

Cap'n Dave, grinning from ear to ear, mounted the rail and cupped hands to his mouth. "Howdy, Joe!" he roared back in a voice that would carry half a mile. "This here's the Walrus of New Bedford, Dave Perrington, and we're a-sailin' for Punta Arenas. Don't wonder you be a mite flabbergasted, seein' a whale ship sailin' to beat hell starnfirst. We lost the rudder roundin' the Horn, an' there wasn't nothin' else to do. Where ye bound?"

Something that sounded very like a most profane and blasphemous oath came faintly from the Hester's skipper.

"You crazy-headed ol' son of a herrin'!" roared Cap'n Joe. "You mean to say you rounded the Horn backward?"

"Yep, done it in seven days,” declared Cap'n Dave. "Be you bound out or home?"

"Home," shouted the other. "Full up. I'll report you. Anything you want me to tell 'em? How much ile you got?"

"Yep, ye might tell the folks to home that we ain't got much ile but we had a damn fine sail,” bellowed Cap'n Dave. Then, a broad grin spread across his lean and weather-beaten face and the lid of one watery eye dropped in ludicrous wink in the direction of Mr. Stanton and the second mate.

"And by the way, Joe," he shouted, as the two ships drew apart. "If ye see the parson, just tell him there's a dumb sight more truth than I used to think in what he said 'bout the first bein' last an' the last bein' first. 'Specially when it comes to handlin' the ol' Walrus.”

1 comment:

Lee Shin said...

spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

Lee Shin
www.trendone.net

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.