A Boating Adventure in the Carolines
by Louis Becke
In the year 1874 we were cruising leisurely through the Western Carolines,
in the North Pacific, trading at such islands as we touched at, and making
for the Pelew Group, still farther to the westward. But at that season of
the year the winds were very light, a strong ocean current set
continuously to the eastward, and there was every indication of a solid
calm setting in, and lasting, as they do in these latitudes, for a week.
Now, part of our cargo consisted of dried sharks' fins, and the smell from
these was so strong that every one of the three white men on board was
suffering from severe headache. We had a number of native passengers, and,
as they lived in the hold, we could not close the hatches; they, however,
did not mind the nauseating odour in the least. So, for three or four
days, we crawled along, raising the wooded peaks of Ascension Island
(Ponapé) one afternoon, and drifting back to the east so much in the night
as to lose them at sunrise. Then followed another day of a sky of brass
above and a steaming wide expanse of oily sea below, and then, at
nightfall, a sweet, cooling breeze from the north-east, and general
happiness, accentuated by a native woman playing a dissolute-looking
accordion, and singing 'Voici le Sabre,' in Tahitian French. No one cared
to sleep that night. Dawn came almost ere we knew it, and again the blue
peaks of Ascension loomed up right ahead.
Just as we had finished coffee, and our attention was drawn to a number of
boobies and whale-birds resting upon some floating substance half a mile
distant, we discovered a couple of sail ahead, and then another, and
another, all whalers, and, as they were under easy-cruising canvas—being
on the sperm whaling ground—we soon began to overhaul them. One was
a small, full-rigged ship, the others were barques. As we slipped along
after them I ran our little vessel close to the floating object I have
before mentioned, and saw it was a ship's lower mast, which looked, from
the scarcity of marine growth upon it, to have been in the water but a
short time. Shortly after, we passed some more wreckage, all of which
evidently had belonged to a good lump of the vessel.
About eleven o'clock we were close to one of the barques—a four-boat
ship, and also carrying a nine-foot dinghy at her stern. She hoisted the
Hawaiian colours in response to ours, and, as the breeze was very light, I
hailed her skipper and we began to talk. Our skipper wanted some
pump-leather; he wanted some white sugar.
'Come aboard,' he said, 'and have dinner with me. I'll give you a barrel
of 'Frisco potatoes to take back.'
We lowered our whale-boat, and, taking two hands, I pulled alongside the
barque. Although under the Hawaiian flag, her officers were nearly all
Americans, and, as is always the case in the South Seas, we were soon on
friendly terms. The four ships were all making for Jakoits Harbour, in
Ponapé, to wood and water; and I said we would keep company with them. Our
own skipper, I must mention, was just recovering from wild, weird visions
of impossible, imaginary animals, superinduced by Hollands gin, and I
wanted to put him ashore at Ponapé for a week or so.
After dinner the American captain put a barrel of potatoes into our boat,
and I bade him good-bye for the time. The breeze was now freshening, and,
as he decided to get into Jakoits before dark, the barque made sail, and
was soon a good distance ahead of our vessel.
Between four and five o'clock we saw the foremost whaler—the ship—brace
up sharp, and almost immediately the other three followed suit. We soon
discovered the cause—whales had been sighted, coming down from
windward. The 'pod' or school was nearest to us, and we could see them
quite plainly from the deck. Every now and then one of them would 'breach'
and send up a white mass of foam, and by their course I saw that they
would pass between us and the barque—the ship nearest to us. In less
than five minutes there were more than a dozen boats lowered from the four
vessels, all pulling their hardest to reach the whales first. The
creatures came along very leisurely, then, when about a mile from the
schooner, hove-to for a short time; their keen hearing told them of danger
ahead, for three or four of them sounded, and then made off to windward.
These were followed by all the boats from the other three vessels, and two
from the barque, the remaining two belonging to the latter pulling across
our bows, close together and within a hundred yards of us.
The rest of the whales—some cows, with their calves, and a bull—after
lying quiet for a short time, also sounded, but soon rose again, quite
close to the two boats. That of the chief mate got 'fast' first to one of
the cows, and away they flew at twelve or thirteen knots. The second boat
was making for the bull, which seemed very uneasy, and was swimming at a
great speed round and round the remaining cows and calves, with his head
high out of the water as if to guard them from danger, when the monstrous
creature again sounded and the boat-header instantly turned his attention
to a cow, which lay perfectly motionless on the water, apparently too
terrified to move.
Half a dozen strokes sent the boat to within striking distance and the
boat-header called to his boat-steerer to 'Stand up.' The boat-steerer,
who pulls bow oar before a whale is struck, and goes aft after striking,
is also the harpooner, and at the order to stand up, takes in his oar and
seizes his harpoon. After he has darted the iron, and the boat is backed
astern, he comes aft to steer, and the officer takes his place for'ard,
ready to lance the whale at the fitting time. There is no reason or sense
in this procedure, it is merely whaling custom.
Just as the boat-steerer stood up, iron in hand, the bull rose right under
the boat's stern, lifted her clean out of the water with his head, and
then, as he swept onward, gave her an underclip with his mighty flukes,
smashing her in like an egg-shell and sending men, oars, tub and lines,
and broken timbers, broadcast into the air. Then, with the lady by his
side, he raced away.
Most fortunately, our own boat was still towing astern, for as we were so
near the land we had not bothered about hoisting her up again, knowing
that we should want her to tow us into Jakoits if the wind fell light when
going through the passage.
The mate, two Penrhyn Island natives and myself were but a few moments in
hauling her alongside, jumping in, and pulling to the assistance of the
whale-boat's crew, some of whom we could see clinging to the wreckage. The
officer in charge was a little wiry Western Island Portuguese, and as we
came up he called out to us that one of the men was killed and had sunk,
and another, whom he was supporting, had his leg broken and was
unconscious. We lifted them into the boat as quickly as possible, laid the
injured man on his back and started for the schooner. We had scarcely
pulled a dozen strokes when, to our profound astonishment, we saw her
suddenly keep away from us.
'The captain's come on deck again,' cried one or our native hands to me.
Sure enough, the skipper was on deck, and at the wheel, and took not the
slightest heed of our repeated hails, except that he merely turned his
head, gave us a brief glance, eased off the main-sheet a bit, and let the
schooner spin away towards the land. We learnt next evening that he had
suddenly emerged on deck from his bunk, given the helmsman a cuff on the
head, and driven him, the steward and the other remaining hand up for'ard.
They and the native passengers, who knew something of his performances
when in liquor, were too frightened to do anything, and let him have his
We pulled after the schooner as hard as we could for a quarter of an hour,
then gave it up and steered for the barque, which was now a couple of
miles away. She had been working to windward after the chief mate's and
fourth mate's boats—both of which had quickly killed their
respective whales—when the disaster to the second officer's boat was
seen, and she was now coming towards us. The fourth boat was miles
distant, chasing the main body of the 'pod,' in company with those of the
other barques and the ship.
By this time it was all but dark; a short, choppy sea had risen, the wind
came in sharp, angry puffs every now and then, and we made scarcely any
headway against it. The barque seemed to be almost standing still, though
she was really coming along at a ripping pace. Presently she showed a
light, and we felt relieved. Just then the man with the broken leg called
to his officer, and asked for a smoke, and I was filling my pipe for him
when the boat struck something hard with a crash, shipped a sea aft, and
at once capsized, several of us being taken underneath her.
The Portuguese, who was a gallant little fellow, had, with one of the
Penrhyn Islanders, got the wounded man clear, and presently we all found
ourselves clinging to the boat, which was floating bottom-up and badly
bilged. Fortunately, none of us were hurt, but our position was a
dangerous one, and we kept hailing repeatedly, fearing that the barque
would run by us in the darkness, and that the blue sharks would discover
us. Then, to our joy, we saw her close to, bearing right down upon us, and
now came the added terror that she would run us down, unless those on
board could be made to hear our cries and realise our situation.
Again we raised our voices, and shouted till our lungs were exhausted, but
no answer came, the only sounds we heard being the thrapping and swash of
the waves against our boat. Five minutes—which seemed hours—passed,
and then we suddenly lost sight of the barque's headlight, and saw the
dull gleam of those aft shining through the cabin ports.
'Thank God!' said the whaler officer, 'he's bringing to.'
Scarcely had he spoken when we heard a hail distinctly.
'Boat ahoy, there, where are you?'
'In the water. We're capsized,' I answered.
No response came; then again they hailed, and again we shouted unitedly,
but no reply, and presently we saw a blue light was being burnt on the
starboard side—they were looking for us in the wrong quarter. For
some minutes our suspense was horrible, for, if the captain thought he had
overshot our boat (knowing nothing of the second disaster), he would, we
feared, go off on the other tack. Again they hailed, and again we
answered, though we were now feeling pretty well done up, and the
Portuguese was alternately praying to the saints and consigning his
captain to hell.
'Hurrah!' cried Tom, one of my Penrhyn Island boys, 'she's filling away
again, and coming down; they've heard us, safe enough.'
It so happened that they had not heard us at all; but the captain, at the
earnest request of the ship's cooper, who believed that we had been
swamped, and were to leeward, decided to keep away for a short time, and
then again bring-to. Not only was he anxious for us, but for the other
boats, and the dead whales as well; for he feared that, unless he could
get the latter alongside by daylight, and start to cut-in, the sharks
would devour the best part of them.
A few more minutes passed, and now we saw the barque looming through the
night, and apparently again coming right on top of us. We shouted and
screamed till our voices broke into hoarse groans; and then there happened
a strange thing. That which had caused our misfortune proved our
salvation. We heard a crashing sound, followed by loud cries of alarm, and
then saw the ship lying flat aback, canting heavily over to port.
Presently she righted, and then made a stern-board, and came so close to
us that one of the hands not only heard our cries but saw us in the water.
In an instant the captain called to us to cheer up, and said a boat was
coming. 'The ship struck some wreckage, and is making water,' he added.
We were taken aboard in two trips, the poor, broken-legged sailor
suffering terribly. He had been kept from drowning by one of the Penrhyn
men, who stuck to him like a brick through all the time we were in the
water. Neither of these brave islanders had lost heart for a moment,
though Harry, the elder of the two, was in consumption and not at all
As soon as we had sufficiently recovered to be able to talk and tell our
story, we were pleased to hear from the captain that the ship was not
badly injured, and that the pumps—short-handed as he then was—could
easily keep the water down; also that all the other boats were safe, and
had signalled that they had each 'killed,' and were lying by their whales.
Early in the morning the four ships were within a few miles of each other,
and each had one or more whales alongside, cutting-in. The schooner, too,
was in sight, lying becalmed under the lee of Ponapé. The captain of the
whaler lent me one of his boats, paid me a fair price for the loss of our
own, and otherwise treated us handsomely. He was highly pleased at having
such 'greasy luck,' i.e., getting three fish, and, besides presenting me
with another barrel of potatoes, gave me four bolts of canvas, and each of
our natives came away with a small case of tobacco, and five dollars in
We had a long pull to the schooner, and our arrival was hailed with cries
of delight. The skipper, we were pleased to learn, was nearly dead, having
been severely beaten by the women passengers on board, one of whom,
creeping up behind him as he was steering, threw a piece of tappa
cloth over his head, while the others bore him to the deck and tied him up
and hammered him. He told me a few days afterwards that he had not the
slightest recollection of leaving us in the boat.
The wreckage upon which the whale-ship struck was, so her captain
imagined, the same which had capsized our boat. As far as he could make
out in the darkness, it was a long and wide piece of decking, belonging to
a large ship. Our boat, very probably, had gone half her length on top of
the edge of it, and was then washed off again after she had bilged; and
the strong current had set us clear.