IT HAPPENED about a year before I finally "swallowed the anchor.” I was still quite a youngster, only a few months out of sail, and was fourth officer of a large “bull-boat” which belonged to a Scottish firm, and ran between various ports in Eastern Canada and the east coast of Scotland. I remember that it was our last voyage from Montreal for the season, for the ice would have closed the St. Lawrence before we got back. For some reason we had no cattle on board that trip, with the effect that, with all the weight of her cargo below, she was pretty stiff and inclined to roll heavily. We had experienced a southwest gale and thick weather all the way from Cape Race, with the result that we had had few opportunities to get decent observation. The wind had, however, gone round to the northwest during the night, and it was clearing up, but there was a heavy sea rolling upon the port quarter which caused the old boat to lurch about a good deal. We had still another day to put in on the open ocean, but expected to sight the group-flashing light on Flannan Island, or the Butt of Lewis, early the next morning prior to proceeding through the Pentland Firth.
I was on watch with the chief officer from four a.m. until eight, and about half-past five daylight came in and revealed a most uninteresting sight. From the high bridge to the horizon on all sides there was nothing to be seen but a grey waste of white-capped ridges. It was bitterly cold too. Presently the officers' steward, a hospitable lad and a very welcome visitor at that moment, came up the bridge ladder on the starboard side and made his way across to the weather side, where, under the lee of the dodger, he let down a temporary table which had been stopped up to the rails. He then left the bridge, but a few minutes later reappeared, this time carrying a tray, on which there was a large pile of hot buttered toast, a big jug of coffee, and two mugs. We got grand coffee on that ship. I was standing beside the binnacle when the steward passed me on his way to windward and got a whiff of it. By Jove! the smell was fragrant. The chief officer was already sheltering behind the dodger, and after a good look round I joined him, smacking my lips in anticipation. The steward paused for a moment, gazing forward over the top of tile dodger before going below again. Suddenly he pointed over the bow and ejaculated :
“Good heavens, sir! What’s that?”
Considerably startled, the chief and I left our coffee and gazed toward where he was pointing, but for a moment we could see nothing. Then just as a shout of “Broken water right ahead” came from the lookout man up in the crow’s-nest, we picked up something. It was a black irregular-shaped object less than half a mile ahead. The same idea struck the chief officer that struck me, for we exclaimed simultaneously:
That rock which rears its head seventy feet out of the Atlantic lies about 260 miles to the westward of the Outer Hebrides. It stands almost in the centre of a large bank which runs roughly north and south, and is about sixty miles long by thirty-five miles wide. Close to the rock there is a depth of about forty-two fathoms, and the average depth over the whole of the bank would be about seventy-five. All round it is much deeper water, averaging hundreds of fathoms. The great circle track which we were following runs from a position due east of Cap Race to the Butt of Lewis, and passes thirty miles north of the rock itself, so apparently we had got well off our course. The chief officer ordered the quartermaster at the wheel to port a couple of points, then he addressed me.
"By heavens!” he said, “it’s a blessing that it’s daylight. How could we have got so far to the south’ard? Call the old man and tell him that we sighted Rockall dead ahead, and that I am passing to the south of it.”
As I went off the bridge to go to the captain’s cabin, which lay beneath it, I also was wondering how we could have got so far off our course. I remembered reading on the chart the evening before that “an area of magnetic disturbance is reported to exist two to three miles to the N. and N.E. of Rockall,” but I could not imagine that our compasses could have been affected to the extent of taking us thirty miles off our course. The captain’s cabin was dark, the door was shut, and the curtains of every port draw n. He was a man who loved his bunk. When we were in open water, clear of the land, he would go to it about nine p.m., and it would take something decidedly serious to get him out of it before eight o’clock the next morning. I switched on one of the electric lights in his cabin, woke him up. and gave him the chief officer’s message. He yawned and stretched himself, then answered me.
“Rockall right ahead, did you say? How the devil did it manage to get there? Right, tell the chief officer to pass to the south of it. It's steep-to, but don’t run it too fine. He’ll want to lay off a new course for the Butt of Lewis too, and you had better get an azimuth as soon as you can and see what the error of the compass is.”
With that the old man turned over, and, feeling myself dismissed, I left his cabin and regained the bridge. The chief officer was gazing through his binoculars out on the port bow. I got hold of mine, after giving him the captain’s orders, and did the same.
“That’s not Rockall.” he exclaimed presently; “it’s a large piece of wreckage—quite big enough to damage a ship all the same. Better call the old man again, and tell him about it.”
I SOUGHT the captain’s cabin, and once more he yawned and stretched.
“All right,” he replied patiently in answer to my information. “Tell the chief officer to get a sight as soon as he can. We will have to report the position of the wreckage if it’s big enough to be a menace to navigation.”
Back on the bridge, I studied the wreckage through my glasses, the chief officer having hauled our vessel up so as to pass close to leeward of it. It looked like the whole of the after-end of a wooden vessel sticking above the surface of the water at an angle of about thirty degrees. Her wheel appeared above the level of the bulwark, otherwise her deck seemed to be bare. Her rudder was jolting to and fro, and as we got under her stem we read in white letters on her counter:
Marion of Belfast.
As the piece of wreckage drew abeam on the weather side we rather lost interest in it. We had got our steamer back on her proper course again, and were looking around to see if there were any other pieces of wreckage floating about, when suddenly a strange sound fell upon our ears. It had come along with the wind.
“What the devil’s that?" exclaimed the chief officer nervously.
“Sounded like a dog, sir,” I replied.
“I know darned well that it sounded like a dog,” he said irritably, “but there’s no dog on board the ship."
One of the deck hands came running up the bridge ladder.
“There’s someone on board o’ that there wreck, sir,” he cried. “I see him wavin’ somethin’ white."
I stepped clear of the dodger and got my glasses onto the wreckage the best way I could, for it was now right in the wind’s eye, and it was a bitterly cold wind to try and look into. Sure enough, I saw something white being feebly dangled, and presently made out a man lying alongside the port bulwark. We had been unable to see him before owing to the way that the stem of his vessel was sticking out of the water. Abaft the skylight, which we could now see. on the only part of the sloping deck to which it could possibly cling, was a large yellow dog.
“Call the captain again,” said the chief officer.
Once more I descended from the bridge and switched on the captain’s light. He was clearly annoyed, and little wonder; this was the third time that I had disturbed him in less than five minutes.
“You again !” he exclaimed sharply. “What the devil do you want now?”
"There’s someone alive on board that wreckage, sir,” I replied.
His demeanor changed instantly. “Eh? Somebody alive!” he said. “Right, I’ll be up in a moment.”
Before I left the cabin he was out of his bunk and pulling on his clothes. In an incredibly short time he was on the bridge fully clad and buttoning up his heavy bridge coat. His feet were encased in gum-boots. He seemed to take in the wreck, the weather, and the sea in one comprehensive glance.
“Hard-a-starboard, quartermaster,” he ordered.
Then he turned to the chief officer. “There’s a very heavy sea running, mister,” he pronounced gravely. "I don’t know if I can risk lowering a boat. Could we get volunteers, do you think?”
I stepped up to where he stood beside the wheel.
“I’ll go for one, sir,” I said eagerly.
“You would,” he replied. “You haven’t got the sense to know any better.”
I fell back rather abashed. The vessel was now beam on to the sea and rolling very heavily. The captain called me to him again.
“Look here, Norris,” he said kindly, “there’s a heavy sea running, isn’t there?”
"Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Yes, even from this high bridge it looks heavy, doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you that from a boat it will look twice as high—in fact it will look terrifying. Now do you still want to go?”
I realized that I had spoken out of my turn, but felt that I couldn’t draw back then - -not if the sea was as high as St. Paul’s.
“Yes, I’ll go, sir,” I said.
“Well,” he replied slowly, “if you can get two men to go with you—they must be volunteers, remember--you can go.”
“Two men, sir?” I said in surprise.
“Yes, two,” he replied sharply. “That will be quite enough the way that I’ll work it. You had better hurry up and try to get them while I manoeuvre to get to windward of the wreck.”
HE STAGGERED across to the port side of the bridge. The steamer, with her helm hard-a-starboard, was swinging up into the wind. I was making for the bridge ladder on the starboard side on my way down to the next deck in quest of volunteers, when the quartermaster at the wheel spoke to me.
“Sir,” he said. “I’ll be one o’ them.”
The quartermaster was a tall, dark, powerfully built man of a saturnine nature, named Malone. He hailed from County Cork, and I strongly suspected him of having Fenian tendencies. Apart from giving him helm orders, I had hardly spoken two words to him the whole voyage, but in some subtle way he had managed to convey to me the impression that there were two impediments in the way of my being a good officer—I was too young and I was an Englishman.
“An’ there’s another, sir,” he continued; “ask him.”
A young able-seaman named Driscoll had just come up on the bridge to do some job; he was carrying a bucket of water and a swab. He was. I imagine, a “townee” of Malone’s. He was a much smaller man than the quarter-master, and I looked at him searchingly and doubtfully.
“He’ll do, sir," urged Malone: “sure he has the guts.”
I approached Driscoll, told him what we proposed to do, and said that, of course, he was quite free to decline, as it was a volunteer that I wanted. He never even troubled to look at the sea or the wreck.
"If it’s good enough for you an’ Malone, sir,” he said indifferently, “well, it’s good enough for me.”
I sought the captain, who, having steadied the steamer head to wind and put the engines to slow, was now in the chart room, and told him that I had secured my two volunteers.
"You’ve been damned smart about it,” he said. “Who are they?”
"Malone and Driscoll, sir.”
"Splendid.” the captain replied cheerfully; "you couldn’t have done better. Malone is as strong as a dray horse, and Driscoll is as active as a kitten. Get another quartermaster to relieve the wheel, then bring the two of them in here.”
When we were gathered in the chart room the captain explained his plan, and we learned why only three of us were going in a lifeboat, which ordinarily would require at least double the number. He was going to place the steamer to windward of the wreck, and slack the boat down to it by means of a long line. When we had rescued whoever was on the wreckage, he would then heave the boat back to the steamer, drifting down toward it the while. We would thus not be required to use oars at all, with the exception of one, and in that one there lay a bit of a snag.
“Can you use a steering oar?” he asked me suddenly. “A rudder is useless for keeping a lifeboat head to sea when she has no headway on her.”
That would have stumped a good many deep-water seamen, but fortunately I had had a good deal of experience with a steering oar in Western Australia, where we had to bring off a lot of the cargo through the surf in our own boats —and I was able to assure him that I could use one.
“Good,” he said. “Now the whole thing depends on a small code of signals. Malone, who will be in the bow of the boat, will make them, but you have all got to know them in case of - well, you never know what may happen.”
The code was simple. If we wished the line slacked away on board, Malone would stretch out his right arm horizontally; if we wished the line hove in, he would stretch his left arm in the same way; when we wanted the line held on. he would raise one of his arms above his head. An officer would be stationed at the taffrail aft with his glasses glued on the boat. The captain made us repeat the axle until he was certain that we knew it; then we went out onto the bridge.
All hands had in the meantime been called. The third officer was on the bridge standing by the telegraph and watching the steering; the second, with one watch, was swinging out one of the lifeboats on the starboard side; while the chief had got up from the forepeak a coil of new 3 1/2-inch manila rope, and was stretching it along the deck. We put on lifebelts, then made our way along to the boat, which was now swung out, and got into her. The end of the manila had been rove through the ringbolt in the bow of the boat, a few fathoms of it had been hauled through, and the bight of it had been hitched round one of the forward thwarts. A new heaving line and a lifebuoy had been placed in the boat, and all the oars save two had been taken out. The steamer being now to windward of the wreckage, her head was canted to starboard so as to make a lee for the boat on that side, and the engines stopped. It was still blowing hard from the nor’west a keen, clear, cutting wind.
The order came through a megaphone from the bridge. While one of the hands forward poured oil from a five-gallon drum into the sea, the boat slid slowly down the side into a comparative calm. A wave, its crest smoothed by the oil, rose up to meet her and, water-borne, she subsided with it. The davit-fall blocks were unhooked, and save for the manila rope we were free from the ship. I shipped the steering oar. The steamer’s engines were put ahead again, and rising and falling with the swell the boat slowly drifted astern.
STILL sheltered from the weather by the protecting wall of the steamer’s hull, we passed aft under her counter, and in another moment we were clear. Then we got it. A huge wave came surging past the steamer’s stem, caught hold of the boat, and seemed to throw her yards upward. As we perched dizzily on its crest, the flying spray lashed me across the face like a whip, and for the moment blinded me. then the boat seemed to fall like a stone, and I felt as if the pit of my stomach had dropped out. The manila rope tightened with a jerk, and the boat surged up as the crest of the next wave rushed at her. Almost stunned by the force of the wind, the driving spray, and the tremendous surge of the waves, I struggled with the steering oar to keep the boat head-on to the sea. As the captain had predicted, the sea looked terrifying, and for a moment I teas almost terrified ; certainly I was completely confused. I didn’t think just then that the boat could possibly live. I got my eyes clear of water, collected my thoughts, and took stock of my companions. Malone stood upright in the bows, a leg on each side of the forward thwart, which he was gripping with his knees. Occasionally he stretched out his right arm horizontally as if to show that we still required the line to be slacked away, the action, I expect, being subconscious, for the officer at the steamer’s taffrail could see that we were still some distance off the wreck. Driscoll, crouching in the bottom of the boat, was hitching the bight of the heaving line to the lifebuoy, and when he had completed that he made one end of the line fast round his waist and the other end fast to a thwart.
The most sickening feeling of all was when we dropped down into the trough between the waves, where we could see nothing but a wall of water ahead of us and another wall behind. I soon noticed, however, that when the boat was in that position I could recover my breath, and as I got more used to the thing I grasped the opportunity when up on the crest of a wave to mark the relative positions of the steamer and the wreckage. The former had been beautifully handled, and was now head to wind, with the boat rope with which we were being slacked down leading over her stern, and she was dead to windward of the wreck. All that I had to do was to keep the boat head-on to the sea. and give the order to hold on the line when she had been slacked down far enough. Someone had been pouring oil copiously over the steamer’s stern, and the crests of the waves were, in consequence, becoming rather smoother. Occasionally, in an endeavor to judge the distance we were still off the wreckage. I would glance over my shoulder. Not a word had been spoken in the boat since we had left the steamer until suddenly Driscoll, who was facing aft, shouted:
“Look out, sir. We’re on top o’ the wreck.”
Considerably startled, for I thought that we were still some distance off, I looked round, to see the ragged stump of a mast with the fife-rail attached and several belaying pins sticking out from it like teeth, almost level with the water, and only about ten feet off the boat’s port quarter. Somehow or other I had formed the opinion that the wreckage, about twenty feet long, which we had sighted from the steamer was only a part of a vessel, and I had imagined vaguely that she might have been cut in two by some fast liner, and the after part had been left floating. Now, however, I realized that the whole ship was here, and that her bow must be floating about thirty feet below the mean level of the waves. Her deck was like a sloping beach, up which the waves were rushing and frothing, highwater mark being represented by the small part of the vessel that was showing above the sea. Other things were now occasionally visible upon the deck—the stump of another mast and the iron wheels of the pumps. With a wrench of the steering oar I sheered the boat off to starboard just in time to avoid having her stove in on the deck of the derelict. We were soon close enough for our purpose.
“Hold on, Malone." I shouted.
Malone’s right hand shot straight up above his head; the boat rope tightened up, and we were, as I thought, in a good position just slightly to windward of the wreckage. The dog still lay across the after part of the skylight; the man—an old chap, bareheaded, with white whiskers, evidently very exhausted and thoroughly soaked—was lashed to a ringbolt alongside the bulwark on the port side, the yellow-white of the rope lashing round his waist showing vividly against his tattered black oilskin coat. Besides being down by the head the derelict was listed to starboard heavily which was the reason why I had chosen to go on that side, and in some mysterious way, although continually rising and falling, she was lying head-on to the wind and sea. To my horror the boat, instead of remaining in position, was drifting rapidly past the wreck -evidently I hadn’t been quick enough in ordering Malone to signal to hold on the line. I declare that I could feel myself blushing with shame. What an incompetent ass they must all be thinking me! the captain of our steamer, whose binoculars would be fixed on the boat, the boat’s crew, even the old chap whom we were trying to rescue. He, poor old fellow, was apparently trying to tell me something as we surged past, but, although his lips moved, no sound came from them; with his right hand, which still held the handkerchief with which he had been waving to us, he was pointing toward the position of the submerged bow. There was nothing for it but to get to windward again.
“Heave in. Malone.” I ordered.
MALONE’S left arm was extended horizontally, and the boat began to creep to windward over the crests and down into the hollows, until we were again a little bit ahead of where the old man was lying. I told Malone to signal to hold on and Driscoll to get ready, but again the boat began to surge to leeward past the wreck. The old man was now trying harder than ever to draw my attention to something forward. Suddenly, without any fresh orders from me, the boat rope tightened up again ; the boat got into position, and was held there, as I afterward learned, by the steamer’s engines being kept turning slowly ahead. The captain had divined our difficulty.
I was now to learn why it was well that Driscoll was as active as a kitten. I sheered the boat as near to the wreck as I could safely go, then, first balancing for an instant on the boat’s gunwale, the able seaman made a flying leap and landed on the sloping deck of the derelict. Desperately struggling to hold on, he was sliding back into the sea when a wave came along and washed him almost up to where the old man lay along the bulwark quite unable to help him. Driscoll grabbed the lashing which was round him, manoeuvred himself into a position with his feet between the bulwark and the old chap’s body, and then began by means of the heaving line to haul toward him the lifebuoy which Malone had just dropped overboard. He slipped the buoy round the old man’s feet, and gradually worked it up to his waist, then drew his sheath knife, severed the lashing, and worked the buoy up under the old man’s armpits.
“Haul away, Malone." he yelled.
While Driscoll was cutting the lashing I had ordered the boat to be slacked down a bit, so that she was now to leeward, and it was an easy matter for Malone to haul the old chap off the sloping deck of the derelict into the water and alongside the boat. Then it became evident to me why it was necessary that Malone should be as strong as a dray horse—he had to lift the rescued man into the boat. Leaning over the gunwale he got both hands under the lifebuoy, and with a tremendous heave he raised the old man right out of the water and deposited him, as tenderly as if he were a child, in the bottom of the boat. Again Malone leaned over the gunwale, and for the first time since we left the steamer he spoke:
“Come away thin, owld fella me lad.” he said.
I looked over the side. The dog, swimming strongly, was making for the boat, his handsome yellow head he was a golden retriever -steering straight for Malone. The quartermaster laid hold of him well up on the forelegs; there was another heave, and the heavy animal was deposited in the boat as tenderly as his master had been. The dog licked the old man’s face, and was rewarded by a feeble pat; then the two lay very still on the bottom boards between the thwarts. We had now to recover Driscoll, but that was easy. The end of the heaving line was still fast round his waist; he plunged into the sea. and Malone soon hauled him alongside and lifted him into the boat.
“Right,” I shouted to Malone as I sheered the boat away from the wreck; “heave in.”
From the crest of each successive wave which we climbed I watched the steamer.
Her helm had evidently been put hard-a-port, for her head gradually fell off in our direction until she was lying beam on to the seas. The lead for the boat rope had also been shifted it was now rove through one of the mooring ports amidships. Very slowly they hove in on it ; indeed I fancy that they only took in the slack as the steamer drifted down toward us. The sea grew calmer as we drew under her lee. and before long we were rising and falling on the well-oiled waves against her rustyside. The blocks of the davit-tackle falls were hooked on. and the boat hoisted up level with her rail; the old man and the dog were lifted out, and I can assure you that I breathed a silent prayer of thankfulness as I stepped once more onto the steamer’s deck.
“Go below and get into dry clothes, you men,” the captain shouted from the bridge.
It was a very welcome order, for we were all soaked to the skin, and now that the excitement was over I was shivering in the cutting wind. I went to my cabin, smoked a cigarette while I changed, and returned to the bridge. Quick as I thought I had been, Malone was before me. When I reached the bridge his hands were gripping the spokes of the wheel, and his eyes were glued on the compass card.
TWO DAYS afterward in the late afternoon we arrived at our port, and when we were fast alongside the quay wall and the work was over, I sought my cabin. The chief officer’s wife, who had arrived from her home by train, had been waiting on the quay, and was now on board; that meant that he would keep ship that evening and that we juniors would be free. I was thinking of visiting the third officer, who lived in the next cabin, to propose an excursion uptown in search of a theatre with a decent show in it. when there was a on my door. I opened it, and found Malone standing in the alleyway.
“The owld fella from the wreck would like to see ye. sir,” he said.
It was the first chance that I had had to speak to Malone since the rescue, and I thought it a fitting time to thank him for having gone in the boat with me. I tried to improve the occasion by a modest reference to our comrades in distress and the brotherhood of the sea. and thought that I had made quite a nice little speech. Malone listened in silence until I had finished.
“Ah, not another word. Mr. Norris.” he said. “If I can say so without givin’ ye offense, sir, ye handled that boat well far better than ever I expected ye would do. But when it comes to the brotherhood of the sea, sir there’s no such thing ever existed betwixt me an’ annythin’ that ever sailed out o’ Belfast.”
“But,” I exclaimed in astonishment, “you knew that the wreck belonged to Belfast before you volunteered to go in the boat.”
“Tis true, sir, I did.” he replied with dignity, “but I wouldn’t have it on me conscience that I’d left a dog to dhrown.”
That finished me. I proceeded along to the saloon to visit the “owld fella from the wreck.” Incidentally I had discovered that she had been a timber-laden brig, and that the “owld fella” had been the master of her. I knocked at the door of the stateroom in which he had been put to bed, with hot bottles all round him and a stiff peg of brandy inside after a hot bath. He shouted to me to enter. I opened the door and found him sitting up on a settee fully clad in some clothes that our old man had given him. The dog was lying on the floor at his feet, its head resting on its paws; its tail flapped once or twice in welcome as I entered. Both of them were looking less the worse for wear than they did when I had seen them last. The dog had also had a hot bath, and he had been groomed—it didn't surprise me to hear that Malone had been looking after him —and the old man in his borrow'ed clothes looked quite smart, although still rather exhausted.
"Good evening, Mr. Norris. Please sit down,” he said.
I opened out a camp stool which was part of the furniture of the stateroom, and sat down beside him.
"I didn’t send for you to thank you for what you did for me, for I know that you don’t want thanks,” the old man said, “but I wished to explain something which I could see was worrying you at the time and probably still is, for I imagine that you are a keen young officer. It wasn’t your fault that you twice drifted past the brig with your boat, for both the boat and the steamer were drifting to leeward, whereas the brig was stationary. She was anchored, as I tried to tell you at the time.”
“Anchored !” I exclaimed. “How could she be anchored in the middle of the ocean?”
THE old man smiled. “She was in the middle of the ocean,’’ he replied, “but she was anchored all the same. She was on the northern edge of Rockall Bank. Your captain took a cast of the lead while you were away in the boat, so he told me, and he got bottom at sixty-four fathoms.”
"But even then,” I muttered in a bewildered sort of way.
“It seems strange,” he conceded, “but I'll explain it. When the brig was overwhelmed and the deck load was washed away, anchors, cables and windlass all went with it. As is the fashion in those little vessels, the cables were stowed in troughs on the deck, but the ends were shackled to the keelson below, and they held. So there was the brig with both anchors hanging plumb down, and a hundred and twenty fathoms of cable out on each. The brig was then in very deep water, of course, and it was the weight of the anchors and cables that took her head down so low in the water; also it was that that kept her head-on to wind and sea, otherwise what was left above the water would have fallen off into the trough and been swamped.”
It took some little time for this information to soak in; then I asked him how the accident had happened.
"I had overrun my little brig, I’ll not deny it,” he said. “I reckon that I know the Western Ocean as well as anyone; man and boy I've sailed it, winter and summer, for forty years. I've never been off it since I first went to sea, never served in a South Spainer, and never crossed the Line. Yet the Western Ocean plays curious pranks at times on those that know it best, and this was one of them. The brig was homeward bound from Quebec to the Clyde with a full cargo of timber below and a heavy deck load besides. We had had fair sou’westerly winds all the way and were making a good passage; and although it was blowing half a gale at eight o’clock on that awful night, the glass was steady, and there was no sign of a change. At that time she was running along at about nine knots, with both fore and main upper and lower topsails on her and a full foresail, and I thought that she would do nicely like that for the night. I was mistaken.
“By half-past eight the wind had freshened almost to a full gale, and the glass was dropping fast. I had to call all hands to get the canvas off her, and at midnight the wind was terrific and the seas were running like mountains. It was never properly dark that night. There was almost a full moon, although, of course, we never saw it. as it was obscured by clouds, but its light made the night seem more weird than ever. It helped the men with their work, but it also revealed to them the height of the tremendous waves and the inky-black scud racing at furious speed across the sky. By that time the brig had been shortened down, and was now under the main lower topsail and a reefed foresail, and I also had the fore-topmast staysail set with the weather sheet well fiat as well as the lee one, to pay her head off if she were caught by the lee, or commenced to broach-to. I still had all hands on deck, and as you may imagine they hadn't been idle, for sail after sail had been clewed up and furled since half-past eight, and the hands were pretty well played out. A gust of hurricane force exceeding anything that had preceded it showed me that I had run the brig too long, and that, if any of us were to see the dawn, she must at all costs be hove-to. The first job was to get the reefed foresail off her, and after a terrible struggle, during which I took the wheel myself and sent the helmsman to help the others, it was hauled up and furled. The brig was running with the wind on the starboard quarter, and I determined to try and heave her to on the starboard tack—which in any case was the right one--under a good-winged main topsail, for I did not believe she would stand up to a full one.
“I was relieved from the wheel, and while the mate was hauling up the weather clew of the topsail preparatory to goose-winging it, I went below into the little cabin. There was a locker off it in which we kept new coils of rope for the running rigging, and I wanted to cut a good length of inch-and-a half rope for a lashing for the topsail. The first thing that I noticed in the rays of the lamp, which was swinging crazily, was that the cabin floor was littered with ship’s biscuits. The man who was doing the combined job of cook and steward—he was now on deck in his oilskins, toiling alongside of his shipmates— had opened a large tin that evening, and had carelessly left it on the table, from which it had rolled off. I remember feeling irritated about it —I never dreamt that his carelessness would result in providing me with the necessary food to keep me alive. I had just cut off the length of rope which I required when I felt the shock of a tremendous wave striking the vessel, and heard a succession of crashes above the roar of the gale. At the same time the door of the companionwav was burst open, I became enveloped in water, and the light went out.
“I managed to find my way to the foot of the companion way, for there was a faint square of light showing in the inky darkness of the cabin, and fought my way up the stairs against the rushing water until I reached the deck. I looked forward. Mr. Norris, there was nothing to be seen but sea and sky; my brig seemed to have completely disappeared. Where the masts and yards and straining main topsail and fore-topmast staysail had been, there was nothing but black flying clouds. I looked aft—there was nothing there but the deserted wheel, from which the man must have been washed away. I soon found out that not a thing remained above the water but about twenty feet of the afterdeck, and that my men had all gone. I staggered to the wheel, not that I thought of steering, but I could see nothing else to hang onto, then something brushed against my legs; it was the dog. He must have been washed out of his kennel forward, and had probably been overboard too, but he is a powerful swimmer. All night I hung onto that wheel, which was jolting so much, in spite of the relieving tackles, that it nearly tore the arms out of me. I never, of course, expected to see daylight, but thought every moment that the brig would founder under my feet.
THE DAWN took a long, long time to break, but at last daylight came, and I saw the brig just as she was when you saw her. During part of the night masts and spars still secured to her by the rigging had been hanging alongside and bumping into her. but by this time they had all been swept away. I collected my thoughts and tried to puzzle out how the thing had happened. The fore-topmast staysail must have carried away, and the brig had broached-to with a terrific swerve; the deck load had gone overboard, carrying the lower masts and rigging with it. I couldn’t understand at first why she w’as keeping head to wind and floating so deep forward until I thought of the anchors and chains. Of course, with any other cargo but timber she would have sunk like a stone, but she had just sufficient reserve buoyancy left to keep the after part of her floating above the waves. I felt that I could hang onto the wheel no longer, and although I considered that my case was hopeless, I lashed myself to a ringbolt in the covering board alongside the port bulwark with the length of rope which I had cut. The dog took up his position abaft the cabin skylight, the after end of which was standing above the water.
“I began to feel hungry, and presently noticed a couple of biscuits floating up from the direction of the companionway. One floated close to me, and I grabbed it, the dog got the other. A few more floated up, which the dog at my bidding retrieved and brought to me. How many days I lived like that I cannot at present tell. When I feel stronger I’ll reckon them up, but we must have drifted to the eastward a long way, and it was only the evening before you took me off the brig that I felt that the anchors had brought her up somewhere. They dragged for some considerable time before they held, and I had, of course, no idea where we were. I hardly ever felt thirsty, for I was wet through the whole time, but when I did I soaked my handkerchief when it rained and sucked it. I suffered a lot from cramp, but, strangely enough, I slept a good deal; in fact, I was asleep when your steamer was passing, until the dog woke me up with its barking. It wasn’t until your boat was alongside that I found that—for the time being—I had lost my power of speech.”
Completely fascinated, I had listened to the old chap’s tale, and I marvelled how he had lived and preserved his reason through all his hardships. He did not look at all robust, even allowing for the fact that he had not yet recovered from his partial fasting and exhaustion, but he must have had the heart of a lion. I hardly knew what to say to him, but fell back on a question which between seamen is quite a common one, but which might have been considered impertinent as between landsmen.
“What will you do now?” I asked. “Get another ship?”
“Heaven knows, Mr. Norris,” he replied quietly. “I fully expect that my owners will offer me one, but after twenty years in command of the Marion . . . She was a fine vessel, Mr. Norris. You didn’t see her quite at her best.”
A faint smile flitted across the old chap’s face. I believe that under different circumstances I would have found that he possessed a keen sense of humor.
“But,” he continued, “you ought to have seen her with every stitch of canvas on her, belting through the Gut of Canso, outward bound for Miramichi. A lovely ship, Mr. Norris. She would go to windward like a yacht, and she was as strongly built as a whaler.”
I probably had seen her. If not, I had seen dozens of her sisters of all sizes, beating up the Gulf of St. Lawrence in ballast or rolling home across the Western Ocean with deck loads halfway up to their lower yards; and to be perfectly candid there wasn’t a fine ship among them. Most of them leaked like sieves, so that they wouldn’t have been trusted with any other cargo but timber, and all of them had their bows disfigured by having square ports cut in them for the loading and discharging of logs. And yet . . .