C H A P T E R I
TO get underweigh. It was on the 28th of February, 1886, that the bark Aquidneck, laden with case-oil, sailed from New York for Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, the strip of land bounding the river Plate on the east, and called by the natives "Banda Oriental." The Aquidneck was a trim and tidy craft of 326 tons' register, hailing from Baltimore, the port noted for clippers, and being herself high famed above them all for swift sailing, she had won admiration on many seas.
Her crew mustered ten, all told; twelve had been the complement, when freights were good. There were, beside the crew with regular stations, a little lad, aged about six years, and his mamma (age immaterial), privileged above the rest, having "all nights in" – that is, not having to stand watch. The mate, Victor, who is to see many adventures before reaching New York again, was born and bred on shipboard. He was in perfect health, and as strong as a windlass. When he first saw the light and began to give orders, he was at San Francisco on the packet Constitution, the vessel lost in the tempest at Samoa, just before the great naval disaster at the same place in the year of 1889. Garfield, the little lad above mentioned, Victor's brother, in this family ship, was born in Hong Kong harbour, in the old bark Amethyst, a bona-fide American citizen, though first seeing the light in a foreign port, the Stars and Stripes standing sponsors for his nationality. This bark had braved the wind and waves for fifty-eight years, but had not, up to that date, so far as I know, experienced so lively a breeze as the one which sprung up about her old timbers on that eventful 3rd of March, 1880.
Our foremast hands on the Aquidneck, six in number, were from as many nations, strangers to me and strangers to each other; but the cook, a negro, was a native American – to the manner born. To have even so many Americans in one ship was considered exceptional.
Much or little as matters this family history and description of the crew: the day of our sailing was bitter-cold and stormy, boding no good for the coming voyage, which was to be, indeed, the most eventful of my life of more than five-and-thirty years at sea. Studying the morning weather report, before sailing, we saw predicted a gale from the nor'west, and one also approaching from the sou'west at the same time. "The prospect," said the New York papers, "is not encouraging." We were anxious, however, to commence the voyage, having a crew on board, and, being all ready, we boldly sailed, somewhat against our better judgment. The nor'wester blowing, at the time, at the rate of forty miles an hour, increased to eighty or ninety miles by March 2nd. This hurricane continued through March 3rd, and gave us serious concern for the ship and all on board.
At New York, on those days, the wind howled from the north, with the "storm centre somewhere on the Atlantic," so said the wise seamen of the weather bureau, to whom, by the way, the real old salt is indebted, at the present day, for information of approaching storms, sometimes days ahead. The prognostication was correct, as we can testify, for out on the Atlantic our bark could carry only a mere rag of a foresail, somewhat larger than a table-cloth, and with this storm-sail she went flying before the tempest, all those dark days, with a large "bone in her mouth,"1 making great headway, even under the small sail. Mountains of seas swept clean over the bark in their mad race, filling her decks full to the top of the bulwarks, and shaking things generally.
1The white foam at the bows produced by fast sailing is, by sailors, called "a bone in her mouth."
Our men were lashed, each one to his station; and all spare spars not doubly lashed were washed away, along with other movables that were broken and torn from their fastenings by the wild storm.
The cook's galley came in for its share of the damage, the cook himself barely escaping serious injury from a sea that went thundering across the decks, taking with it doors, windows, galley stove, pots, kettles and all, together with the culinary artist; landing the whole wreck in the lee scuppers, but, most fortunately, with the professor on top. A misfortune like this is always – felt. It dampens one's feelings, so to speak. It means cold food for a time to come, if not even worse fare.
The day following our misfortune, however, was not so bad. In fact, the tremendous seas boarding the bark latterly were indications of the good change coming, for it meant that her speed had slackened through a lull of the gale, allowing the seas to reach her too full and heavy.
More sail was at once crowded on, and still more was set at every stage of the abatement of the gale, for the craft should not be lazy when big seas race after her. And so on we flew like a scud, sheeting home sail after sail as required, till the 5th of March, when all of her white wings were spread, and she fairly "walked the waters like a thing of life." There was now wind enough for several days, but not too much, and our swift-sailing craft laughed at the seas trying to catch her.
Cheerily on we sailed for days and days, pressed by the favouring gale, meeting the sun each day a long span earlier, making daily four degrees of longitude. It was the time, on these bright days, to forearm with dry clothing against future stormy weather. Boxes and bags were brought on deck, and drying and patching went on by wholesale in the watch below, while the watch on deck bestirred themselves putting the ship in order.
"Chips," the carpenter, mended the galley; the cook's broken shins were plastered up; and in a few days all was well again. And the sailors, moving cheerfully about once more in their patched garments of varied hues, reminded me of the spotted cape pigeons pecking for a living, the pigeons, I imagined, having a better life of the two. A panican of hot coffee or tea by sailors called "water bewitched," a sea-biscuit, and "bit of salt-horse," had regaled the crew and restored their voices. Then "Reuben Ranzo" was heard on the breeze, and the main tack was boarded to the tune of "Johnny Boker." Other wondrous songs through the nightwatch could be heard in keeping with the happy time. Then what they would do and what they wouldn't do in the next port was talked of, when song and yarn ran out.
Hold fast, shipmate, hold fast and belay! or the crimps of Montevideo will wear the new jacket you promise yourself, while you will be off Cape Horn, singing "Haul out to leeward," with a wet stocking on your neck, and with the same old "lamby" on, that long since was "lamby" only in name, the woolly part having given way to a cloth worn much in "Far Cathay"; in short, you will dress in dungaree, the same as now, while the crimps and land-sharks divide your scanty earnings, unless you "take in the slack" of your feelings, and '`make all fast and steady all."
Ten days out, and we were in the northeast "trades" – porpoises were playing under the bows as only porpoises can play; dolphins were racing alongside, and flying-fish were all about. This was, indeed, a happy change, and like being transported to another world. Our hardships were now all forgotten, for "the sea washes off all the woes of men."
One week more of pleasant sailing, all going orderly on board, and Cape Verde Islands came in sight. A grand and glorious sight they were! All hail, terra firma! It is good to look at you once again! By noon the islands were abeam, and the fresh trade-wind in the evening bore us out of sight of them before dark.
Most delightful sailing is this large, swinging motion of our bark bounding over the waves, with the gale abaft the beam, driving her forward till she fairly leaps from billow to billow, as if trying to rival her companions, the very flying-fish. Thwarted now by a sea, she strikes it with her handsome bows, sending into the light countless thousand sprays, that shine like a nimbus of glory. The tread on her deck-plank is lighter now, and the little world afloat is gladsome fore and aft.
Cape Frio (cold cape) was the next landfall. Upon reaching that point we had crossed the Atlantic twice. The course toward Cape Verde Islands had been taken to avail ourselves of a leading wind through the southeast trades, the course from the islands to Frio being southwesterly. This latter stretch was spanned on an easy bow-line; with nothing eventful to record. Thence our course was through variable winds to the river Plate, where a pampeiro was experienced that blew "great guns," and whistled a hornpipe through the rigging.
These pampeiros (winds from the pampas) usually blow with great fury, but give ample warning of their approach: the first sign being a spell of unsurpassed fine weather, with small, fleecy clouds floating so gently in the sky that one scarcely perceives their movements, yet they do move, like an immense herd of sheep grazing undisturbed on the great azure field. All this we witnessed, and took into account. Then gradually, and without any apparent cause, the clouds began to huddle together in large groups; a sign had been given which the elements recognized. Next came a flash of fire from behind the accumulating masses, then a distant rumbling noise. It was a note of warning, and one that no vessel should let pass unheeded. "Clew up, and furl !" was the order. To hand all sail when these fierce visitors are out on a frolic over the seas, and entertain them under bare poles, is the safest plan, unless, indeed, the best storm sails are bent; even then it is safest to goosewing the tops'ls before the gale comes on. Not till the fury of the blast is spent does the ship require sail, for it is not till then that the sea begins to rise, necessitating sail to steady her.
The first onslaught of the storm, levelling all before it, and sending the would-be waves flying across in sheets – sailor sheets, so to speak – lends a wild and fearful aspect; but there is no dread of a lee-shore in the sailor's heart at these times, for the gale is from off the land, as indicated by the name it bears.
After the gale was a calm; following which came desirable winds, that carried us at last to the port we sought – Montevideo; where we cast anchor on the 5th of May, and made preparations, after the customs' visit, for discharging the cargo, which was finally taken into lighters from alongside to the piers, and thence to the warehouses, where ends the ship's responsibility to the owner of the goods. But not till then ceases the ship's liability, or the captain's care of the merchandise placed in his trust. Clearly the captain has cares on sea and on land.