THE REAL SEA WOLF

NOEL ROBINSO January 1 1922

THE REAL SEA WOLF

NOEL ROBINSO January 1 1922

THE REAL SEA WOLF

NOEL ROBINSO

ONE morning about fourteen years ago a well-set-up, rough-and-tumble type of man—open-faced and clear-eyed— wended his way down to one of the marine stores on the San Francisco waterfront. It was a junk store of a type familiar to most seaports—full of romance for those who have eyes and ears for the romantic in life.

A certain skipper was standing in the store, a spare, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed man with tremendous brown mustachios, the ends of which almost reached the lapels of his coat and seemed quite in keeping with his exceptionally shaggy brown eyebrows. The store, full of a hotch potch of seafaring flotsam and jetsam, constituted just the right setting for these two men.

“Here, Alec, take these smokes with you; they’ll help some up North. Good luck and a good catch. Can’t wait; got to hustle this morning,” breezed the visitor as they gripped hands. Then he vanished from the store— only to return a moment later with: “By the way, there’s a book in with the cigars. Don’t open the box till you’re way up on the sealing grounds—I’ve got a reason."

“Right y’are, Jack.” And Jack London—for the visitor was the famous novelist—disappeared.

Not many weeks later the skipper with the heavy mustachios foregathered in the Behring Seas with the master of another sealing schooner and invited him aboard. Thinking of London’s cigars, he hospitably opened the box and found therein, comfortably ensconced amongst the Havanas, a volume entitled “The Sea Wolf.” The title conveyed nothing to him at the rime and he put the book aside for future perusal.

A week later he picked it up and, as it was a novel about sealing, he read it through at one sitting.

I have related this incident of the novel manner in which Jack London broke to Captain Alexander McLean the delicate information that he had taken the liberty of introducing him to fame—on the Pacific coast at any rate—as the original of the principal character in his sealing story, exactly as Captain McLean told it to me seven or eight years ago.

“I read the book with such mixed feelings that perhaps it was as well, Jack wasn’t there when I finished it,” McLean commented. Those of you who have read “The Sea Wolf” and recall the character of the hard-shell devil of a sealing skipper, Wolf Larsen, will be surprised at the moderation of Alec McLean’s language. From the publication of the novel until the day when he met his death by falling from his tug and being drowned in False Creek, Vancouver, a few years ago, Alexander McLean was known from San Francisco to Alaska as “The Sea Wolf.”

I have it on the good authority of his personal friends who esteemed him highly, that, from the year when the book was published until the day of his death, he suffered severely financially from having his name linked with that of Wolf Larsen—for obvious reasons. There was hesitation in employing a man whose reputation for deviltry and sealing piracy, after the publication of the book became a by-word on this Pacific coast.

McLean Quite Unlike Larsen

THE strange feature about the whole thing is this: McLean, although admittedly a remarkable man and often a veritable dare-devil—as the reader will realise later on in this story—was quite unlike Wolf Larsen in type and was certainly never responsible for such villainies as he is made to commit in “The Sea Wolf.” Yet there must have been certain resemblances or the sobriquet would never have clung to McLean as it did. The explanation would appear to be found in the fact that McLean, by general consent, appears to have been the most daredevil sealing skipper who ever poached seal in the Behring Seas. There are more stories told of his utter fearlessness and recklessness, his positive enjoyment of danger, his delight in finding himself in an emergency and then making a dramatic way out, than there are told about any other half dozen adventurous skippers on this coast.

Only the other day one of his former shipmates, John McConville, said to me: “I never knew the beat of Alec for fearlessness.” And McConville who is now mining for gold on Texada Island sailed with McLean, boy and man, for many years, out of San Francisco, Vancouver, Victoria and other ports into the northern sealing grounds, and into the South Seas, too, where they fell in with Robert Louis Stevenson aboard his yacht the Casco. So he ought to

McConville and an ex-sealing skipper who is now head of a well known marine salvaging company in Vancouver, but who does not wish his name mentioned, were both shipmates of “The Sea Wolf,” and they are anxious that their former skipper’s name should be cleared of a certain opprobrium which hangs about it because of its asso-

dation in the public mind with the character of Wolf Larsen. I am indebted to them and several others for a true estimate of his character and for the relation of some vivid incidents—several of which received wide publicity at the time of their happening—in his remarkable career. One or two would not be out of place in the pages of “Treasure Island.” I will only recall one shore incident.

“Alec was always ready to fight—especially when he had had liquor—at the drop of the hat,” recalled McConville as we chatted over our pipes in a certain marine rendezvous in Vancouver, “and on one occasion, many years ago, I was with him in a saloon at the back of Meiggs’ Wharf in ’Frisco—the old wharf is there yet—when an

argument arose as to the performance of certain horses. A rather blustering Yankee customs officer was there and he told Alec that he (Alec) knew more about driving men than about horses.

Bounced Dim Off the Ceiling

“ A LEC had had a drop and the discussion became warm, ■L*the customs officer pulled a gun and said he would ‘fix him.’ Alec was unarmed, but he was on the man like a flash, threw him into the air until his head hit the ceiling; he fell in a heap on the floor and we thought he was dead. His revolver went spinning into a corner. The saloon was full of ‘stiffs’ and hoboes, for it was a pretty low place. The customs officer recovered, jumped to his feet, and called upon the men to help him take Alec into custody and he would reward them. Alec just stood with his back against the counter, facing them, his elbows resting on the rail, perfectly calm, with that curious look in those keen blue eyes of his, and defied them to touch him. He was not too well liked there, but not a single man would lay a finger on him. He always had that curious power over other men,

“It was just the same on the sealing schooners of which he was skipper. I never knew a man keep such discipline. He never said much; he could keep discipline with a look. In my experience he was altogether different from other sealing skippers. He wasn’t standoffish, but he never mixed with his crews, never played cards with the men and, strange though it may seem, never swore. Another singular thing about him, which you scarcely ever find aboard a sealer, he always looked smart, even when we were up on the sealing grounds engaged in work of a dirty nature. And you remember how smart he looked when ashore?” In a way McLean was proud of that remarkable mous-

tache of his and I have known him, for fun. tie it at the back of his neck. Although not a big man, and spare, he was powerfully knit, and stories are told of his feats of strength. Wonderfully well preserved, when he died, though he was approaching the sixties, he did not look more than fortyfive. His singular pale blue eyes were as clear as a boy’s Here is a striking instance of his devil-may-care spirit. “Do you mind that wild night in March when we were about ninety miles off Flattery and he put off in a boat for Victoria?” It was an occasion when both shipmates to whom I have referred were with him. McConville nodded smiling at the recollection. I asked for particulars.

“Alec was full of the devil that night. We had two pipers aboard and they played him and Arthur Pennell—who was afterwards lost when he was one of the crew of the Casco while she was fishing off Flattery in ’94—right along the deck before they took to the little 18-foot boat and left the Mary Ellen for Victoria. It was a rough night and some of the schooners were hove-to. Alec and Pennell had only oars and a sail—and ninety miles to travel. But they would go because Alec, for certain reasons, did not want to put into Victoria with the Mary Ellen. We were very doubtful if we would see them alive again because of the sea that was running, but they made Victoria and rejoined us later. It was one of the foolhardiest things I ever remember, but it was just like Alec.”

Captured by the Russians

PERHAPS this will be an appropriate place to tell of McLean’s notorious and daring exploit in connection with a small Russian cruiser off the Copper Islands. It was first told to me by Captain Harvey Copp, though I have heard it in some detail from others Captain Copp, who is a member of one of several well-known families of that name from the shores of the Bay of Fundy, is an astonishing old man of 78. still hale and hearty after having been no less than thirty-one times round the world, in sailing vessels and steamships. He never skippered a vessel, in sail or steam, that he did not plan and superintend the building of her. I mentioned him because he. like “The Sea Wolf,” was captured by the Russians when sealing and taken a prisoner to Vladivostok. Though he was not poaching—his vessel, the Vancouver Belle, which he built himself in Vancouver, was confiscated. The matter was ultimately taken before the Hague Tribunal and sixteen years later he received substantial damages.

There was never any doubt that McLean was poaching within the sixty miles of restricted water off the Siberian coast. He was skipper, at the time, of a sealer named the James Hamilton Lewis. The Zabeika, as the small Russian cruiser was called, discovered the James Hamilton Lewis at her illegal work and promptly put a shot across her bows. McLean, instead of heaving to, attempted to make a getaway. He soon saw that he could not make it. The Zabeika was immediately under his lea at a distance of ninety or one hundred feet, McLean was standing aft by the wheel, perfectly calm, with determined face, and quite aware of the possible consequences of what he was about to do. Without warning he let go the schooner’s main sheet, letting it run out to the bitter end, put his helm hard up and in a few minutes changed his course ninety degree.-. The James Hamilton Lewis swung partly round and struck the Zabeika at the main rigging. Fortunately, for the Russian cruiser, the bow of the sealing schooner struck her a little diagonally on account of the speed at which she was travelling or there is little doubt that the Zabeika would have gone to the bottom. As it was the sealing schooner went right along the weather side of the Russian vessel, ripping off her hammock netting and rigging and boats, stripping her along the side. The James Hamilton Lewis lost her own headgear and was partially dismasted.

As the two boats crashed together it looked as if they might both sink, through the smashing of a fairly heavy sea. Then the James HamiltonLewis dropped astern, badly disabled, and the Russian commander came aboard and took possession of her. Her daring skipper and her crew were taken to Petropaulovski and, later, as in the case of Captain Copp, to Vladivostok. This was in 189], McLean, it is clear from all accounts of the affair, was absolutely reckless and fully determined to sink the Russian, regardless of consequences to himself and his crew.

In giving me his impression of his several months’ imprisonment among the Russians, he once said: “I had the finest time of all my life. We were not allowed out of the country and that is about all the imprisonment there was to it. I found the Russians very kindly and hospitable people. The naval officers were especially good to us. Almost every day I was aboard one or other of the men o’war having a pleasant time. For exercise there were al-

ways horses at my disposal. We had lots of target practice and, as I had among my crew several good shots, we generally came out on top in our matches with the Russians.”

Steamer Time in a Sailer

THE incident recorded just now when McLean and another man put off from the schooner Mary Ellen and made for Victoria ninety miles away in a small boat recalls another incident connected with the same schooner—a sailing feat which sailors on this coast regard as among the most remarkable accomplished on this side of the Pacific.

“We were running down from Cape Cook, Vancouver Island, to Drake’s Bay, thirty miles from San Francisco, in the old eighty-five foot Mary Ellen," one of Alec’s shipmates told me,—and he was corroborated by the salvage expert in Vancouver who was also on the trip.

“There was a gale of wind at the time. We were ‘winged-out.’ Alec would only trust one or two of us with the wheel. We made the run, 750 miles, in sixty hours, which is almost steamer time. Of course it was a great risk, as any seaman will understand, but Alec was determined to make a record. ‘Did you ever know Dan carry such sail as this?’ he would

say, turning to B-, and the latter would reply:

‘No, he wasn’t such a damned fool.’ But we were all proud of the performance. Dan, to whom this reference was made was Alec’s brother, a man strikingly similar in appearance, even down to the big mustachios, and a daring sailor, but quite a different type of man otherwise. He made a trip from Halifax to Victoria in 116 days—being twenty-two days off the Horn—which constituted a record.

The two McLeans skippered some of the earliest sealing schooners with white hunters engaged in sealing in Alaska waters. Both were born at Sydney, Cape Breton. Dan being eight years the senior. They came out to the Pacific coast, within a few years of each other. It was largely as a result of Dan McLean’s observations when prospecting in his seven-ton sloop Flyaway in Alaskan waters that sealing in those waters became a recognised thing. Alec McLean took out the San Diego from San Francisco in 1883, his brother Dan being with him, with the first crew of white hunters. The following season Dan took out the schooner Mary Ellen securing 2,400 skins, 2,700 in 1885, and in 1886 broke the record with 4,268.

While Captain Alexander McLean never owned or sailed the Casco—a boat always associated with the name of Robert Louis Stevenson, as the novelist sailed in her and wrote at least one of his novels aboard her—he had a strong desire to possess her and at one time tried to buy her. He regarded her as a particularly fine sea-going boat—• as indeed she was. Built as a yacht by a San Francisco doctor, a present for R.L.S., the ' uthor sailed in her for sometime and took her to the South Seas. McConville remembers meeting Stevenson casually in San Francisco and again when he was aboard the Casco off the Marqúese Islands, near the Society group. In ’92 this 75-ton yacht was brought to Victoria and converted into a sealing schooner and she followed this calling for a long time, until she was tied up with the old sealing fleet at Victoria and left alone for years. She came into the hands of a Captain Buckholtz who almost worshipped her and he brought her to Vancouver in recent years and she was completely overhauled.

Then she passed into the hands of a firm which did its best to sell her to admirers of Robert Louis Stevenson. They communicated with many people, both out here and in Scotland, but they were unable to arouse any enthusiasm,

The final stage of the Casco’s career was quite in keeping with the spirit of romance which always enveloped her, even in her sealing days, for she was bought by a party of adventurers and prospectors from San Francisco who engined her for the first time and took her into the Far North.

There they left her bones. In a storm she went ashore upon a very

rugged part of the Alaskan coast where she was dashed to pieces, her crew being marooned for weeks.

Skippered the Historic “Beaver”

Tj'OR a short time in 1884 Alec McLean was master of ” the historic Beaver.... the first steamship to plough the Pacific. That was in the days before old Captain George Marchant, who is still, though far past the seventies, one of the most imposing and familiar figures on the Vancouver waterfront, skippered her for the last twenty years of her life. Captain George is a survivor of the old navy at Esquimalt having come out aboard a frigate more

than half a century ago. He was one of the skippers who acted as pallbearer when “The Sea Wolf” was carried to his last resting place.

There is not space here to more than refer in passing to that chequered, but very interesting, part of McLean’s career in the course of which he had many exciting poaching adventures in the northern sealing grounds, and parti-

nulurhr r»ff tLo ÍV-f-i T , j Pribllof Islands, at the expense of . . ^ American revenue cutters. In various official documents on the other side of the line he is referred to as “the British pirate McLean.” One such report was published in a Seattle newspaper about eight years ago. It records at three or four columns’ length the depredatiohs of this poacher.

One of the most exciting of his sealing adventures occurred as recently as 1905. He left San Francisco aboard the Carmencita, a three-masted sealing schooner, and proceeded into Mexican waters, intending to put his vessel under the Mexican flag. The Mexican authorities would not let him do this, so he sailed for Victoria. At Victoria the authorities wanted to seize his vessel because of a libel on her, or something of the sort. McLean made a “getaway” and sailed up the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and there ensued months of chasing by both American and Canadian revenue cutters. But “The Sea Wolf” was too alert for his pursuers and British Columbia marine men consider that he accomplished some astonishingly clever manoeuvres with the Carmencita. He knew every nook and cranny of that wild and rugged coast like a book.

He had many very close calls,but managed at the end of the sealing season to make Victoria, sell his catch, and clear off to the mainland, leaving the Carmencita as spoils to the victors.

For years before his death McLean could only set foot in the United States at the sacrifice of his liberty.

Born a Canadian

D EFORE recording the last-—as •D far as this article is concerned— and by far the most remarkable of this daring skipper’s varied experiences, it will be of interest to recall a fact or two about his early life. He was a Canadian, born in Sydney, Cape Breton, in 1859.

Taking to the sea as a boy, he sailed the Atlantic for nine years. He knew Liverpool like a book and more than once told me that it was his favorite port. In 1879 he sailed from New York for the Pacific Coast as second mate of the Santa Clara and in 1880 came to Victoria and went into the steamboat business, running up the Fraser. Early in his career on this coast he accomplished some very useful work in a category very different from that which subsequently engaged his attention. He superintended in 1881 the laying of the first cable from Vancouver Island to Point Grey on the mainland, was chief officer aboard the government cut-

ter Sir James Douglas—named after the first governor of British Columbia. He had served a number of years assisting in cable laying on the Atlantic seaboard and was the only man on the job with practical experience of cable laying. At the time F. N. Gisborne was general superintendent of cables for the Dominion Government. Subsequently he helped to lay a cable from Victoria to the American side.

On the second day of the cable-laying McLean accomplished a feat for which he was afterwards complimented in writing by the authorities. The cable, being unwound from a drum placed in a large tank, kinked and began flying in all directions. In such circumstances the only

way to save the situation was for a man with sufficient nerve to run round inside the tank at the risk of his life, endeavouring to fix the cable in position hand over hand. The two men in the tank had jumped out, but McLean jumped in and accomplished this feat.

Needless to say, when the Klondyke gold rush arrived: in ’98 “The Sea Wolf” was into it. He was master of two*

steamers on the* Yukon River, one of them being called The Goid Run. But this part of his life, full as it was of unusual happenings, I must pass over, and come to that adventure which may sound to the reader to have too much of the “Treasure Island’ flavor, but which nevertheless, i s absolutely true in every detail. Confirmation may be found in the files of newspapers of that day, both in New York—where the case of a certain adventurer was tried, McLean being the principal witness—and in Canada.

Hunting for Bogus Treasure

MCLEAN was not a man to talk much, unless he had a little liquor. I had the story from him in detail as we sat in a room in his home on Burrard street, Vancouver some eight years ago. He was enjoying one of those brief periods of home life that he allowed himself now and again with his wife and daughter. But even in that quiet home he was surrounded by many a relic of his adventurous career. I remember that spears, criss-crossed, decorated the walls; a carefully finished wooden trough in which the cannibals of the South Sea Islands had been in the habit of placing portions of their unsavory human feasts reposed in one corner of the room; a huge club of hard wood, one edge as sharp as a razor and once the property of a South Sea Islander, stood in another. A paddle, beautifully inlaid with mother of pearl, also attracted my atten-

Twelve or fourteen years before the time of which I am speaking a rather unusual type of adventurer named Sorensen, desirous of promoting a treasure-seeking expedition to the South Seas, and learning that McLean was the sort of man who might ' ackle such a job, got in touch with him. Although McLean did not know it at the time it was afterwards proved that Sorensen had already served ten years for piracy off the coast of Australia. Sorensen promoted this expedition which, after much discussion and preparation, McLean led. McLean’s story to me was:

“After we reached the islands where Sorensen said the treasure was to be found, I found out—I need not tell you how—that Sorensen had deceived me and that he intended to do to me what he had previously done to another captain in Australian waters. He planned to dispose of me and get my crew to let him take command. But he did not realise the sort of man or the sort of crew he was dealing with—though I will say he was a daring fellow. He had entirely misrepresented the conditions.

“When I found out what he intended I marooned him on an uninhabited island, intending that should be the end of him and believing he should have no further chance of doing harm.”

The quiet, matter-of-fact way in which McLean confessed to this marooning was illuminative. He continued: “Then, on our return voyage, my crew developed yellow fever badly and we buried eighteen of them—all except one—at sea. This one survivor also had the fever so badly that he could be of no use to me and lay ill for the rest of the voyage. I contracted it, also, but fought very hard against it and it never got a real hold of me. It was terribly hot at the time and almost immediately a man died it was necessary to bury him. I never expected to reach port— 2,000 miles away—alive, but I determined to make a big effort.

“I was alone aboard that large three-masted schooner for six weeks, the sick man being of no use at all, and I did my best to navigate her, and finally brought her safely into Apia, the port of one of the Samoan islands. I was far out of my course and when a squall struck her, as it did several times, I could not shorten sail and just had to run before it. I was right off the track of ships and never sighted a sail or a smoke stack. Later I got the schooner safely back to* ’Frisco.”

Thus simply did “The Sea Wolf” tell me the story of one of the most remarkable happenings in the annals of the sea. Picture to yourselves the marooning; then the schooner, a veritable death ship, sailing through those

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The Real Sea Wolf

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tropical southern seas, her crew sickening and dying one by one in that great heat, until only his skipper and one man were left. Then consider the iron will and powerful physique of the man at the helm who defied deatf by sickness or by the sea for six weeks and finally brought his vessel 2,000 miles into port. That was in ’98 the year of the great gold rush.

The Long Arm of Coincidence

DUT that is by no means the end of the story. It has a remarkable sequel. Sorensen was rescued by a passing vessel from the island upon which he had been marooned. Only a few years before I had the talk with McLean which I have just recorded he appeared in New York and formed a company there to go to Australia in order to discover traces of a treasure ship which he alleged had been sunk off that coast. He succeeded in getting a number of well-known New Yorkers interested in the scheme.

Now, by a remarkable coincidence, the editor of the New York Sun at the time a Mr. Churchill, happened to be the same man who had been American consul at Apia when Sorensen was brought there after his rescue and when McLean sailed into that port with his three-masted schooner after his remarkable voyage. Churchill had a suspicion, though it was many years since those happenings, that this man who was launching the treasure scheme in New York was acting under an assumed name and was in reality actually Sorensen himself.

He determined at once by attacking the scheme to try and save the investors. He made every effort to get into touch with McLean, but for sometime without successas Alec was away. Finally he located him in Vancouver, and, as a result, the skipper acted as principal witness against Sorensen by telling the story of the latter’s deception, and the adventurer was defeated and sentenced. Sorensen had sued the Sun for defamatory libel as a result of the statements the paper had made about him and had the editor of the paper not been able to get in touch with

McLean the proprietors probably would have had to pay heavily for their publicspirited action in exposing the fraud.

McLean gave his evidence by proxy at Montreal as, for reasons I have stated earlier, it would not have been wise for him to cross the border.

In this series of incidents I have little more than hinted at the remarkable career of the man who, perhaps without thinking, Jack London libelled in his graphic story “The Sea Wolf”. No effort has been made to put McLean on a pedestal, that—in addition to his tremendous daring and love of adventure for adventures’ sake— he was a most generous man, his shipmates all aver. Wolf Larsen in the story is made to appear a veritable human devil and, in real life, would in all probability have been disposed of by one or other of his crews and given his deserts.

McLean was always cheerful and, though not naturally humorous, enjoyed a joke and was a past master in dancing the Highland fling. Though he was, as one of his shipmates remarked, “full of hellery when drunk,” drink did not make him cruel or savage—it simply added to his desire for dare-deviltry.

He was a man who thought seriously upon many topics and could converse and argue clearly and interestingly. He was not the swashbuckling type. But, when all is said and done, he should have lived in the days of Drake, the spacious days of Good Queen Bess, for he was cut out for the half patriotic half piratical life led by those gallant “dogs of Devon” who went singeing the King of Spain’s beard and, at the same time, capturing much rich booty.

Had he been alive when the Great War came there is little doubt that Alexander McLean would have been in the thick of things on the sea, “doing his bit” despite his years. His picturesque figure, surmounted by the sort of Southern Colonel’s broad brimmed type of hat which he always wore, and the tremendous mustachios and heavy eyebrows, will long remain a memory of the Vancouver, Seattle, Victoria and San Francisco, waterfronts.