RUNNING DOWN THE TRADES
AT four in the afternoon we hoisted the sails and weighed the anchor. I was at the helm at the time and was very surprised at the extraordinary manner in which the vessel now behaved. She seemed bewitched; a nice breeze was blowing, her sails were full, and yet she gathered no way on her, forged not a foot ahead, but remained where she was, tumbling about uneasily on the long groundswell.
She was acting for all the world like an obstinate buck-jumping horse. Never before had the amiable old yawl evinced any signs of temper, and this display grieved me much, for I had thought better of her.
This strange behaviour went on for quite a minute, when suddenly she seemed to come to her senses, gave herself a shake, and with a quick leap darted ahead and was rushing through the water in her usual steady style.
One of the crew now happened to look over the side and called the attention of the others to something that he saw dangling there. There was a roar of laughter. The good old vessel had been cruelly wronged by our suspicions; she was entirely innocent of obstinacy or temper of any sort. Our purser alone was to blame for what had occurred. He was a most energetic but unsuccessful fisherman, and had come on board at Southampton well provided with fishing-tackle of all descriptions; he was prepared for every inhabitant of the deep, from the narwhal and the whale to whelks and whitebait. So on this afternoon while we were getting ready for sea, he had been vainly attempting to catch sharks with a bit of our condemned beef as bait, and had forgotten to take his line board when we got under way. The stout shark hook had got hold of the rocks at the bottom and had securely anchored us by the stern. The strong line held well, but something had to give way before the increasing straining of the vessel as the wind filled her sails; on hauling in the line we found that one arm of the hook had broken off and so released us.
At sunset the desert islets faded out of sight, and we sailed on through the night across a smooth sea with a light westerly breeze on our beam.
That we failed to discover the treasure on the Salvages did not dishearten my companions in the least. It is true that all had realized beforehand how remote were our chances of success; still, it was very encouraging to find that there was no grumbling or expression of disappointment after those four days of hard digging in vain under a hot sun: it argued well for the way in which these men would face the far greater difficulties of Trinidad.
On the following morning, September 18th, we caught sight of the Peak of Teneriffe, about twenty miles distant. We sailed past the north point of the island, coasted by the volcanic mountains that, with their barren inhospitable crags, give so little indication of the fertile vales within, and came to an anchor at 2 p.m. off Santa Cruz.
The port doctor immediately came off to us, and was quite satisfied with my bill of health for Sydney, and my explanation that we had called here for provisions and water; so he gave us pratique without demur.
Then land-clothes were donned, and some of my companions went on shore to enjoy the luxuries of civilisation once again.
Santa Cruz is a pleasant little place, and seemed to me to have improved a good deal since my last visit. The hotels at any rate are far better than they were; I remember that it was once impossible to get a decent meal in the town but we were now quite satisfied with the International Hotel in the Plaza. It was under English management, and several of our countrymen and countrywomen were passing the winter there. Some of my companions dined at this hotel on every night during our stay, and expressed themselves well contented with the table; like all pirates, they were, of course, great gourmets while on shore and knew the difference between good and bad.
We remained a week at Santa Cruz, being delayed by a variety of causes, so some of the party were enabled to travel over the island on donkeys and see its peculiar scenery.
A very sharp little ragged boy took a great fancy to the Alerte crew. He insisted on protecting the innocent foreigners and acting as their cicerone when they walked about the town. He drove all other beggars and loafers away from them, and even bullied the sentries when they raised objections to a couple of my men trespassing on the forbidden precincts of the citadel. This urchin was afraid of no one and was very intelligent; as few of us understood his Spanish, he communicated all that he had to say by means of a most expressive pantomime. It was grand to observe his apologetic manner when he took us into the cathedral and showed us the flags that had been captured from Nelson during his disastrous attack on Teneriffe in 1797. He looked up into our faces with a solemn and sympathetic look. He would not hurt our feelings for worlds.
The ragged urchins of Santa Cruz are as like each other as so many John Chinamen; so, when our own particular boy was not by, some other would come to us with a welcoming smile and attempt to impersonate him. Therefore, in order to distinguish our own from his pretenders, we decorated him with an old brass button, which he wore proudly on his breast.
I will not attempt here a description of this so often described island. In my opinion it must be a far pleasanter winter resort than that somewhat melancholy island Madeira, where there is a depressing sense of being imprisoned by the steep mountains. The mountains of Teneriffe are still higher, but there are broad and beautiful plains beneath them that give an idea of freedom and breathing room. There are excellent hotels in other portions of Teneriffe, and in the neighbourhood of Santa Cruz there are many beautifully situated villas and chateaux belonging to the native gentry that can be hired at very moderate rates indeed, while provisions are good and cheap.
The ship's complement was diminished by two at Santa Cruz, the boatswain and one of the volunteers leaving us.
Before sailing we took on board a large quantity of stores, including barrels of salt beef which proved to be of a very inferior quality to that we had brought from Southampton, but this was ancient, and, having arrived at a certain stage of nastiness, was not likely to get any worse. The paid hands quite approved of it, for it was at any rate better than that served out on the majority of merchant vessels. We also procured some very fair native wine, like a rough port, which, mixed with water, formed a wholesome drink for the tropics. The high temperature we experienced while crossing the equator nearly spoiled this, so that we had to fortify it further with rum in order to preserve it. On the last day of our stay we went to the excellent fruit-market, and laid in a good supply of grapes, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables. We also purchased a quantity of the cheap native cigars; so for a while we lived luxuriously on board ship.
I would have sailed from here direct for Bahia, at which port — as being the nearest to Trinidad — it was my intention to fill up with water and other necessaries before commencing our chief operations; but as letters were awaiting many of us at St. Vincent in the Cape Verdes I decided to call at that island on the way.
At 9 a.m., September 25th, we weighed anchor and sailed to St. Vincent. The distance is a little under 900 miles, which we accomplished in seven days.
For the first three days we encountered south to south-east winds, with fine weather. On September 28th the wind veered to the north-east, being thus right aft. As the boom of our racing spinnaker was a very heavy spar and formed a considerable top weight while standing along the main-mast in the usual way, we unshipped it from its gooseneck and laid it on deck.
We had now come into a region of strong trades. The wind was fresh and squally and we ran through the night with the tack of our mainsail triced well up and our mizzen stowed.
On the following day, September 29th, the glass was still falling, and the sea running up astern of us was occasionally high and steep. There were signs of worse weather coming, so we prepared for it by striking the topmast, lowering our mainsail and setting our trysail. The day's run was 174 miles.
The glass had given us a false alarm after all; for on the following day the wind moderated, and we were enabled to hoist our large balloon foresail; but a heavy sea was still rolling up from the north-east. It was evident that a gale had been recently blowing over the disturbed tract of ocean which we were now crossing.
The Cape Verde Islands are frequently enveloped in clouds, so that they cannot be distinguished until one is quite close to them. This had been my former experience and the same thing occurred now. In the night of October 1st we knew that we were in the vicinity of the island of St. Antonio, the northernmost of the archipelago, but right ahead of us there stretched a great bank of cloud, concealing everything behind. At last, however, a squall partly cleared the rolling vapour and we perceived, a few miles distant, the black, mountainous mass of the island, whose volcanic peaks rise to a height of upwards of 7,000 feet above the sea. Then the bright flash from the lighthouse on Bull Point became visible.
The islands of St. Vincent and St. Antonio are separated from each other by a channel two leagues broad, so I decided to heave to in sight of the St. Antonio light until daybreak.
We got under way again at dawn, October 2nd, and in a few hours were lying at anchor in Porto Grande Bay, St. Vincent. This desolate island, which is an important coaling station and nothing else, inhabited by a robust but ruffianly race of negroes, has been often described; a mere cinder-heap, arid, bare of verdure, almost destitute of water, it is the most dreary, inhospitable-looking place I know, and the volcanic soil seems to soak in the rays of the tropical sun and convert it into a veritable oven at times. But the dismalness of nature is atoned for by the cheeriness and hospitality of one section of the population. For the white community here is almost entirely composed of Englishmen, the staff of the Anglo-Brazilian Telegraph Company — of which this is a very important station — and the employees of the two British coal-kings of the island. Though there had sprung up a new generation of these young fellows since I had visited the island in the Falcon, yet I met several old friends whose acquaintance I had then made.
Porto Grande, miserable place as it still is, had improved a good deal since I had seen it last. There are hotels here now of a sort, and at one of these on the beach, kept by a pleasant Italian and his Provenšal wife, we found it possible to lunch and dine very decently. I notice that I have a tendency in this book to speak of little else save the gastronomic possibilities of the ports I called at in the course of the voyage. But I had visited and described all these places before, and that is some excuse, for the sights were not new to me, whereas a good dinner seems always to have the freshness of novelty. This may sound disgustingly greedy to a sedentary and dyspeptic person; but may I ask whether every sound Britisher does not look upon the quality of his food as one of his most important considerations during his travels abroad? How natural, then, was it that seafarers like ourselves, who were seldom in port and whose diet for months consisted chiefly of tough salt junk and weevily biscuit, should be more vividly impressed by a luxurious meal on shore than by all the lions of these foreign lands!
Here one of the volunteers, our poor old purser, generally known on board as the bellman, left us, and returned to England. The state of his health rendered it unwise for him to proceed further on a voyage of this description.
Suspecting that I might lose others of my crew, I looked round Porto Grande for two fresh paid hands. This is a very bad place to pick up sailors in, but I was lucky in my search. I shipped two young coloured men from the West Indies — one a native of St. Kitt's, and, therefore, an English subject, and the other a Dutchman, hailing from St. Eustatius. These two negroes, whose names were respectively John Joseph Marshall and George Theodosius Spanner, had been loafing about Porto Grande for some time in search of a vessel. The poor fellows had been jumped from a Yankee whaler that had called here.
"Jumping," I may explain, for the benefit of those who do not know the term, is the process by which an unprincipled skipper obtains a crew for nothing. It is done in this way. Hands are shipped, say, for a whaling voyage. In time, long arrears of pay are due to the men, as also are their shares in the results of the fishery. But the period for which they have signed articles has not yet been completed, and so they are at the captain's mercy for some time to come. This tyrant, therefore, proceeds to ill-treat them to such an extent that, as soon as a port is reached, they escape on shore and desert the vessel, thereby forfeiting all claim to the money due to them. Thereupon the skipper pockets the earnings of his men, and sails away with a fresh crew, with whom he repeats the process. Some whaling captains are great adepts at jumping, and will even sometimes bully the entire crew into desertion. But those who are not masters of the art dare not risk this, but content themselves with selecting a few hands only, generally those who are weak or unpopular in the forecastle, as victims for their brutality.
John Joseph and Theodosius, as being innocent West Indian blacks, had been the victims of this particular skipper, and nine months' pay was due to them when they deserted. John Joseph shipped with us as cook, Wright being now rated as A.B., while Theodosius served before the mast. They both proved to be excellent fellows.
We found fresh provisions very scarce and dear at Porto Grande. As a rule, tropical fruits and vegetables are plentiful and cheap here, for though St. Vincent is barren, the inner valleys of the neighbouring island of St. Antonio are extremely fertile, and provisions of all sorts, and even fresh water, are brought over from it in the native boats. But smallpox happened now to be very prevalent among the negro population of St. Antonio, so that the island was strictly quarantined, and St. Vincent was cut off from its usual source of supplies
Our racing spinnaker and its boom had proved to be rather large and unmanageable for the purposes of an ocean voyage, but our balloon foresail was of about the right size for a cruising spinnaker. I accordingly had a small boom made for it here, and it was invariably used for the future in place of the unwieldy racing sail.
From St. Vincent we sailed across the Atlantic to Bahia in Brazil. I had followed exactly the same route with the Falcon, and found the voyage a tedious one; for, on leaving the region of the northeast trades, a vessel encounters the squally and rainy south-west African monsoons, blowing right in her teeth, and, when these are passed, there lies before one the broad belt of the equatorial doldrums, a region of steaming, debilitating calms, that divides the north-east from the south-east trades.
Under the impression that the log of a small vessel that had made this uncomfortable passage might be of interest to yachting men, I described this portion of the Falcon's voyage in my book with more minuteness than usual, with the result that one reviewer characterized the perusal of that par ticular chapter as being "like eating sawdust." I will profit by this warning, and spare my readers too much log of calms and squalls, doldrums and monsoons, and treat them to as little sawdust as possible.
With the Falcon we accomplished the voyage from St. Vincent to Bahia in twenty-two days; but with the Alerte we were twenty-six days doing this, for we were not so lucky in our weather, and were delayed by a much longer spell of calms on the line than we had experienced in the Falcon.
We weighed anchor in the afternoon of October 9th and got out of the harbour under all plain sail. For the first four days we did very well, the wind was south-east and the sea moderate, so that at midday of October 13th we were well on our way, being in latitude 2░ 25' north and longitude 28░ 52' west.
But now our troubles commenced. With a squall the wind shifted to the south-west and we knew that we had reached the dreaded monsoon region. The log was now a record for days of what sailors call dusty weather, and I fear that the reading of it would prove "sawdusty" in the extreme. The south-west monsoon is accompanied by violent thunderstorms, rain, and squalls, and the sea in this portion of the ocean is perpetually confused, so that a vessel turning to windward can make but little progress. Then we came into the abominable region of calms, where we rolled helplessly on the smooth, long swell, while our ropes and sails chafed themselves away with idleness suffering more wear and tear than they would in a week of gales. Ours was indeed a very unpleasant experience of the doldrums. For some days we made no progress whatever, not even an occasional squall coming down to help us along for a mile or so. In two weeks we only travelled 400 miles, and we did not cross the equator until October 27th.
We saw few vessels on this voyage. We spoke two: the French mail steamer Parana, homeward bound, and the British ship Merioneth, of Liverpool, bound south.
We were not only unlucky with our winds, but also with our fishing. While crossing this sea on the Falcon we had caught quantities of dolphins, thrashers, and kingfish; but on this voyage we caught nothing until we had sighted Fernando Noronha, when we did manage to secure a barracouta and a kingfish.
While rolling about helplessly in the dreary doldrums in the atmosphere of a Turkish bath, there was nothing to interest us save the sunrises and sunsets over the monotonous oily-looking sea. And these for several days in succession were more magnificent than I think I have ever seen before. Sometimes the whole heaven seemed ablaze with flames, and at other times sharply defined, black, opaque masses of cloud stood out in strange contrast to a background of brilliant and transparent colour, and behind the nearer atmosphere one caught glimpses of vast spreads of the most delicate and tender tints — pink, green, blue, and creamy white — looking like a glorious placid ocean of light infinitely far away, studded with ever-changing fairy islands. With the exercise of a very little imagination one could distinguish on that wonderful equatorial sky oceans and continents, mountains of snow and glowing volcanoes, and immense plains of indescribable beauty.
One of the characteristics of the atmosphere of the doldrums is the opaque appearance of the lower banks of clouds. At night they often look like solid black walls close to one; so much so that I was twice called up by our absurd second mate, who had been terrified by the sudden discovery that a large, hitherto unknown island was just under our lee.
We fell in with the south-east trades when we were but two degrees north of the equator; but it was not until we had crossed the line that we were able to record anything like a good run each midday. We were then sailing full and by, on the port tack, and the trades were so high that for three days we were under two-reefed mainsail and reefed foresail, the vessel occasionally plunging her bows into the short seas.
At dawn on October 29th we sighted the island of Fernando Noronha on the port bow, and at midday we were close under it. This island, which is about six miles long, presents a beautiful appearance from the sea, with its lofty pinnacles of bare rock towering above the dense green vegetation that covers the hill-sides. Fernando Noronha is used as a penal settlement by the Brazilians, and is commanded by a major who has a hundred black troops under him. There are about 1,500 convicts on the island, chiefly blacks and mulattoes; but there is, or recently was, one Englishman among them. It is almost impossible for a prisoner to escape, for there are no boats on the island, and the regulations about landing are very strict; indeed, I believe that no foreign vessel is allowed to hold any communication with the shore, unless in want of water or other urgent necessity.
On the morning of October 31st we sighted the Brazilian coast near Pernambuco — a long stretch of golden sands beaten by the surf, fringed with waving coconuts, behind which, far inland, were swelling ranges of forest-clad mountains.
It was a beautiful and very tropical-looking shore, familiar to me, for I had sailed by it on several previous occasions.
We now followed the coast for upwards of 400 miles, observing a distance of five miles off it, so as to be clear of the outlying coral reefs. We passed many of the native fishing catamarans manned by naked negroes, quaint rafts with triangular sails and decks that were under water with every wave.
For three days we coasted along this beautiful land with a favouring wind. On Saturday night November 2nd, we opened out the entrance of the Reconcavo or Gulf of Bahia, and, sailing up, we let go our anchor at midnight off the city of Bahia, close under Fort do Mar, where I had anchored in the Falcon.
All my companions were amazed at the beautiful appearance of the city as seen from the sea by night. The churches and houses of the upper town gleaming like white marble in the moonlight, with lofty cabbage palms and rank tropical vegetation growing between, the long lines of well-lit streets extending for miles round the bay, gave them an idea of the magnificence of Bahia that a walk through the dirty streets by daylight on the morrow did much to modify. The old Portuguese city is picturesque but scarcely magnificent.