C H A P T E R X V
At Barbadoes – Mayaguez – Crossing the Bahama Banks – The Gulf Stream – Arrival on the coast of South Carolina
MANY old friends and acquaintances came down to see us upon our arrival at Barbadoes, all curious to inspect the strange craft. While there our old friend, the Palmer, that we left at Bahia, came in to refit, having broken a mast "trying to beat us," so Garfield would have it. For all that we had beaten her by four days. Who then shall say that we anchored nights or spent much time hugging the shore? The Condor was also at Barbadoes in charge of an old friend, accompanied by a pleasant helpmeet and companion who had shared the perils of shipwreck with her husband the year before in a hurricane among the islands.
Meeting so many of this class of old friends of vast and varied experiences gave contentment to our visit, and we concluded to remain over at this port till the hurricane season should pass. Our old friend, the Finance, too, came in, remaining but a few hours. However, she hurried away with her mails, homeward bound.
The pleasant days at Barbadoes with its enchantment flew lightly by; and on the 7th of October we sailed, giving the hurricane season the benefit of eight days. The season is considered over on the 15th of that month.
Passing thence through the Antilles into the Caribbean Sea, a new period of our voyage was begun. Fair breezes filled the sails of the Liberdade as we glided along over tranquil seas, scanning eagerly the islands as they came into view, dwelling on each, in our thoughts, as hallowed ground of the illustrious discoverers – the same now as seen by them! The birds, too, of "rare plumage," were there, flying from island to island, the same as seen by the discoverers; and the sea with fishes teemed, of every gorgeous hue, lending enchantment to the picture, not less beautiful than the splendour on the land and in the air to thrill the voyager now, the same as then; we ourselves had only to look to see them.
Whether it was birds with fins, or fishes with wings, or neither of these that the old voyagers saw, they discovered yet enough to make them wonder and rejoice.
"Mountains of sugar, and rivers of rum and flying-fish, was what I saw, mother," said the son on his return from a voyage to these lands. "John," said the enraptured mother, "you must be mistaken about the fish; now don't lie to me, John. Mountains of sugar, no doubt you saw, and even rivers of rum, my boy, but flying-fish could never be."
And yet the fish were there.
Among the islands of great interest which came in view, stretching along the Caribbean Sea, was that of Santa Cruz, the island famous for its brave, resolute women of days gone by, who, while their husbands were away, successfully defended home and happiness against Christian invaders, and for that reason were called fierce savages. I would fain have brought away some of the earth of the island in memory of those brave women. Small as our ship was, we could have afforded room in it for a memento thus consecrated; but the trades hauling somewhat to the northward so headed us off that we had to forgo the pleasure of landing on its shores.
Pushing forward thence, we reached Porto Rico, the nearest land in our course from the Island of Brave Women, standing well in with the southeast capes. Sailing thence along the whole extent of the south coast, in waters as smooth as any mill pond, and past island scenery worth the perils of ten voyages to see, we landed, on the 12th of October, at Mayaguez in the west of the island, and there shook the kinks out of our bones by pleasant walks in tropic shades
Time, five days from Barbadoes; distance 570 miles.
This was to be our last run among the trees in the West Indies, and we made the most of it. "Such a port for mariners I'll never see again !" The port officials, kind and polite, extended all becoming courtesies to the quaint "barco piquina."
The American consul, Mr. Christie, Danish consul, Mr. Falby, and the good French consul, vied in making our visit a pleasant one.
Photographers at Mayaguez desiring a picture of the canoe with the crew on deck at a time when we felt inclined to rest in the shade on shore, put a negro on board to take the place of captain. The photographs taken then found their way to Paris and Madrid journals where, along with some flattering accounts, they were published, upon which it was remarked that the captain was a fine-looking fellow, but "awfully tanned!" The moke was rigged all ataunto for the occasion, and made a picture indicative of great physical strength, one not to be ashamed of, but he would have looked more like me, I must say, if they had turned him back to.
We enjoyed long carriage drives over rich estates at Mayaguez. We saw with pain, however, that the atmosphere of the soldier hung over all, pervading the whole air like a pestilence.
Musketed and sabred and uniformed in their bed-ticking suits; hated by the residents and despised by themselves, they doggedly marched, counter-marched and wheeled, knowing that they are loathsome in the island, and that their days in the New World are numbered. The sons of the colonies are too civil and Christianlike to be ruled always by sword and gun.
On the 15th of October, after three days' rest, we took in, as usual before sailing from ports, sufficient fresh supplies to carry us to the port steered for next, then set sail from pleasant Mayaguez, and bore away for the old Bahama Channel, passing east of Hayti, thence along the north coast to the west extremity of the island, from which we took departure for the headlands of Cuba, and followed that coast as far as Cardinas, where we took a final departure from the islands, regretting that we could not sail around them all.
The region on the north side of Cuba is often visited by gales of great violence, making this the lee shore; a weather eye was therefore kept lifting, especially in the direction of their source, which is from north to nor'west. However, storms prevailed from other quarters, mostly from the east, bringing heavy squalls of wind, rain and thunder every afternoon, such as once heard will never be forgotten. Peal on peal of nature's artillery for a few hours, accompanied by vivid lightning, was on the cards for each day, then all would be serene again.
The nights following these severe storms were always bright and pleasant, and the heavens would be studded with constellations of familiar, guiding stars.
My crew had now no wish to bear up for port short of one on our own coast, but, impatient to see the North Star appear higher in the heavens, strung every nerve and trimmed every sail to hasten on.
Nassau, the place to which letters had been directed to us, we forbore to visit. This departure from a programme which was made at the beginning was the only change that we made in the "charter party" throughout the voyage. There was no haphazard sailing on this voyage. Daily observations for determining latitude and longitude were invariably made unless the sun was obscured. The results of these astronomical observations were more reliable than one might suppose, from their being taken on a tittlish canoe. After a few days' practising, a very fair off-hand contact could be made, when the canoe rose on the crest of a wave, where manifestly would be found the best result. The observer's station was simply on the top of the cabin, where astride, like riding horseback, Victor and I took the "sights," and indeed became expert "snap observers" before the voyage ended.
One night in the Bahama Channel, while booming along toward the Banks to the nor'west of us before stiff trades, I was called in the first watch by Victor, to come up quickly, for signs of the dread "norther" were in the sky. Our trusty barometer had been low, but was now on the cheerful side of change. This phenomenon disturbed me somewhat, till the discovery was made, as we came nearer, that it was but the reflection of the white banks on the sky that we saw, and no cause at all for alarm.
Soon after this phenomenon the faint glimmer of Lobos Light was descried flickering on the horizon, two points on the weather bow. I changed the course three points to windward, having determined to touch at the small Cay where the lighthouse stands; one point being allowed for leeway, which I found was not too much.
Three hours later we fetched in under the lee of the reef, or Cay, as it is commonly called, and came to in one and a half fathoms of water in good shelter.
We beheld then overhead in wonderful beauty what had awed us from the distance in the early night – a chart of the illuminating banks marked visibly on the heavens.
We furled sails and, setting a light in the rigging, turned in; for it lacked three hours yet of daylight. And what an interesting experience ours had been in the one short night! By the break of day my crew were again astir, preparing to land and fill water at a good landing which we now perceived farther around the point to leeward, where the surf was moderate.
On the Cay is stored some hundred thousand gallons of rain water in cisterns at the base of the iron tower which carries the light; one that we saw from the canoe at a distance of fourteen miles.
The keeper of the light, a hardy native of Nassau, when he discovered the new arrival at his "island," hoisted the British Board of Trade flag on a pole in the centre of this, his little world, then he came forward to speak us, thinking at first, he said, that we were shipwrecked sailors, which indeed we were, but not in distress, as he had supposed when hoisting the flag, which signified assistance for distressed seamen. On learning our story, however, he regarded us with grave suspicions, and refused water to Victor, who had already landed with buckets, telling him that the captain would have to bring his papers ashore and report. The mate's report would not be taken. Thus in a moment was transformed the friend in need to governor of an island. This amused me greatly, and I sent back word to my veritable Sancho Panza that in my many voyages to islands my mate had attended to the customs reports; at which his Excellency chafed considerably, giving the gunners of his trousers a fitful tug up now and then as he paced the beach, waiting my compliance with the rules of the island. The governor, I perceived, was suspicious of smugglers and wreckers, apparently understanding their ways, if, indeed, even he were not a reformed pirate himself.
However, to humour the punctiliousness of his Excellency, now that he was governor of an island, I placed my papers in my hat, and, leaping into the surf, waded ashore, where I was received as by a monarch.
The document I presented was the original Passe Especial, the one with the big seal on it, written in Portuguese; had it been in Choctaw the governor would have read it with the same facility that he did this, which he stared at knowingly and said, "All right, take all the water you want; it is free."
I lodged a careful report of the voyage with the governor and explained to his Excellency the whereabouts of the "Island of Rio," as his grace persistently called Rio de Janeiro, whence dated my papers.
Conversing on the subject of islands, which was all the world to him, the governor viewed with suspicion the absence of a word in my documents, referring even to an islet; this, in his mind, was a reprehensible omission; for surely New York, to which the papers referred, was built on an island. Upon this I offered to swear to the truth of my clearance, "as far as known to me," after the manner of cheap custom-house swearing with which shipmasters, in some parts of the world, are made familiar. "Not on the island!" quickly exclaimed the governor, "'for thou shalt not disglorify God's name,' is written in the Bible."
I assured the governor of my appreciation of his pious sentiment of not over-swearing, – a laudable plan that even the Chinese adopt as a policy, and one that I would speak of on my return home, to the end that we all emulate the laws of the island; whereupon the governor, greatly pleased, urged me to take some more water, minding me again that it was free.
In a very few minutes I got all the water I wished for; also some aurora shells from the governor's lady, who had arisen with the sun to grace the day and of all things most appropriate held in her generous lap beautiful aurora shells for which – to spoil the poem – I bartered cocoa-nuts and rusty gnarly yams.
The lady was on a visit only to her lord and master, the monarch of all he surveyed. Beside this was their three children also on a visit, from Nassau, and two assistant keepers of the light which made up the total of this little world in the ocean.
It was the smallest kingdom I had ever visited, peopled by happy human beings and the most isolated by far.
The few blades of grass which had struggled into existence, not enough to support a goat, was all there was to look at on the island except the lighthouse, and the sand and themselves.
Some small buildings and a flagstaff had once adorned the place, but together with a coop of chickens, the only stock of the islanders – except a dog – had been swept away by a hurricane which had passed over the island a short time before. The water for which we had called being now in the canoe, and my people on board waiting for me, I bade the worthy governor good-bye, and, saluting his charming island queen in a seamanlike manner, hastened back to my own little world; and bore away once more for the north. Sailing thence over the Great Bahama Banks, in a crystal sea, we observed on the white marl bottom many curious living things, among them the conch in its house of exquisite tints and polished surface, the star-fish with radiated dome of curious construction, and many more denizens of the place, the names of which I could not tell, resting on the soft white bed under the sea.
"They who go down to the sea in ships, they see the wonders of the Lord," I am reminded by a friend who writes me, on receipt of some of these curious things which I secured on the voyage, adding: "For all these curious and beautiful things are His handiwork. Who can look at such things without the heart being lifted up in adoration?"
For words like these what sailor is there who would not search the caves of the ocean? Words too, from a lady.
Two days of brisk sailing over the white Bahama Banks brought us to Bimini. Thence a mere push would send us to the coast of our own native America. The wind in the meantime hauling from regular nor'east trade to the sou'west, as we came up to Bimini, promising a smooth passage across, we launched out at once on the great Gulf Stream, and were swept along by its restless motion, making on the first day, before the wind and current, two hundred and twenty miles. This was great getting along for a small canoe. Going at the same high rate of speed on the second night in the stream, the canoe struck a spar and went over it with a bound. Her keel was shattered by the shock, but finally shaking the crippled timber clear of herself she came on quite well without it. No other damage was done to our craft, although at times her very ribs were threatened before clearing this lively ocean river. In the middle of the current, where the seas were yet mountainous but regular, we went along with a wide, swinging motion and fared well enough; but on nearing the edge of the stream a confused sea was met with, standing all on end, in every which way, beyond a sailor's comprehension. The motion of the Liberdade was then far from poetical or pleasant. The wind, in the meantime, had chopped round to the nor'east, dead ahead; being thus against the current, a higher and more confused sea than ever was heaped up, giving us some uneasiness. We had, indeed, several unwelcome visitors come tumbling aboard of our craft, one of which furiously crashing down on her made all of her timbers bend and creak. However, I could partially remedy this danger by changing the course.
"Seas like that can't break this boat," said our young boatswain; "she's built strong." It was well to find among the crew this feeling of assurance in the gallant little vessel. I, too, was confident in her seaworthiness. Nevertheless, I shortened sail and brought her to the wind, watching the lulls and easing her over the combers, as well as I could. But wrathful Neptune was not to let us so easily oaf, for the next moment a sea swept clean over the helmsman, wetting him through to the skin and, most unkind cut of all, it put out our fire, and capsized the hash and stove into the bottom of the canoe. This left us with but a damper for breakfast! Matters mended, however, as the day advanced, and for supper we had a grand and glorious feast. Early in the afternoon we made the land and got into smooth water. This of itself was a feast, to our minds.
The land we now saw lying before us was hills of America, which we had sailed many thousand of miles to see. Drawing in with the coast, we made out, first the broad, rich forests, then open fields and villages, with many signs of comfort on every hand. We found it was the land about Bull's Bay on the coast of South Carolina, and night coming on, we could plainly see Cape Roman light to the north of us. The wind falling light as we drew in with the coast, and finding a current against us, we anchored, about two miles from the shore, in four fathoms of water. It was now 8 p.m., October 28, 1888, thirteen days from Mayaguez, twenty-one days from Barbadoes, etc.
The following was the actual time at sea and distances in nautical miles from point to point on the courses steered, approximately:
Computing all the distances of the ins and outs that we made would considerably augment the sum. To say, therefore, that the Liberdade averaged a hundred and three miles a day for fifty-three days would be considerably inside the truth.
This was the voyage made in the boat which cost less than a hundred dollars outside of our own labour of building. Journals the world over have spoken not unkindly of the feat; encomiums in seven languages reached us through the newspapers while we lay moored in Washington. Should the same good fortune that followed the Liberdade attend this little literary craft, when finished, it would go safe into many lands. Without looking, however, to this mark of good fortune, the journal of the voyage has been as carefully constructed as was the Liberdade, and I trust, as conscientiously, by a hand, alas! that has grasped the sextant more often than the plane or pen, and for the love of doing. This apology might have been more appropriately made in the beginning of the journal, maybe, but it comes to me now, and like many other things done, right or wrong, but done on the impulse of the moment, I put it down.