A Gale of Wind by W. Clark Russell

(From John Holdsworth, Chief Mate.)

At midnight Holdsworth came on deck to relieve the second mate. A man out of the port watch came to the wheel, and stood yawning, scarcely awake. The night was dark—a hazy atmosphere, through which the stars gleamed sparely, and the sea like ebony. The rise and fall of the ship flapped the sails against the masts and drove eddies of air about the decks, but in reality there was not a breath of wind. There was something stupendous in the black, profound, and breathless placidity of the night. The compass swung round in the binnacle anywhere, but the swell made the rudder kick heavily now and again, and gave the wheel a twist that flung the spokes out of the man’s hand and woke him up.

This prolonged inactivity was galling. One longed to hear the rush of parting water and the singing of the wind in the shrouds.

The mainsail flapped so heavily that Holdsworth ordered it to be furled. The song of the men brought the captain on deck. He flitted, shadow-like, about the binnacle, sniffed at the night impatiently, and then went to Holdsworth.

“The glass has fallen half an inch since eight bells,” said he.

“Yes, sir; there’ll be a change before morning.”

“Better stow the royals and mizzentop-gall’ns’l.”

“Ay, ay, sir.”

.

These, the topmost sails of the ship, were just discernible from the deck. In a few moments their dim outlines melted, and some dark figures went up into the gloom and vanished.

The captain returned to his cabin, and Holdsworth strolled the deck. At two bells (one o’clock) the haze went out of the sky and the stars shone fiercely. Holdsworth, standing on the starboard side of the poop, felt a light air creeping about his face, and the sound of the flapping sails ceased.

“How’s her head?”

“North-a-quarter-west, sir.”

He sang out an order, and a crowd of figures came tumbling out of the forecastle and manned the port braces. The air died away, but presently came a quick puff which made the water bubble around the ship.

Holdsworth’s eyes were upon the weather horizon. The stars burned purely, but away upon the water-line was a thick shadow.

Again the wind died out, and there was a breathless stillness, amid which you might hear a sound—vague, murmurous, indescribable—a distant echo it might seem of something infinitely distant.

“Stand by the topgallant halyards!”

A sense of expectation seemed to pervade the very ship herself as she stood upright, with her dim canvas flapping in the darkness above.

The distant murmur grew more defined, and took such a tone as you may hear in small sharp rain falling at a distance upon leaves. Then out of the murky horizon some clouds came rolling—long, attenuated shadows, resembling visionary arms clutching at the stars. The murmur approached; the clouds, swinging along the sky, formed into compact groups. Hark to the quick hissing of the water lashed by the wind!

In a moment the sails were round and hard, the ship with her port-chains under water, and the wind screeching fiercely over the ebony surface of the sea and whitening it with foam.

The captain was on the poop, holding on to the main-topgallant backstay, and shrieking orders like one possessed. It was, indeed, briefly, a case of “Let go everything!” Under full topsail, foresail, staysail, and jibs, the ship was too heavily weighted for the surprising violence of the wind, and was powerless to right herself. But every order given was the right one. And now you heard the deep tones of Holdsworth’s powerful voice mingling with the agitated commands of the skipper, while yards came rushing down upon the caps, and sails banged and roared aloft, and men shouted lustily about the decks, and the sea fled in cataracts of foam under the vessel’s bows.

A time of deep excitement, but scarcely of suspense—there was too much hurrying for that.

There would have been something incredible to an inexperienced landsman in the sight of the dark figures swarming up the shrouds to give battle to the wild array of canvas which groaned and bellowed like a dozen thunder-storms in the sky—a spectacle of human pluck not to be realized, or in the faintest degree appreciated, by those who have not beheld it. The night black; the yards slanting so that the extremity of the mainyard touched the water; the footing upon those yards a thin line which must be felt for by the feet; the canvas, loosened by the lowering of the yard, bellied by the force of the wind many feet above the heads of the reefers, and presenting to their hands a surface of iron; and the three masts quivering under the shocks and convulsions of the sails!

All hands were at work now, and there were men enough to reef both big topsails at once, while others over their heads furled the topgallant-sails. Holdsworth had been one of the first to spring up the main-rigging; he knew the value of every pair of hands in that moment of danger; and away—active, daring, his hands and arms like steel—he clambered for the weather-earing. But the boatswain was before him, so he made for the lee yard-arm.

Figure a smooth spar, forty-five feet long, sloping at a height of as many feet to the water’s surface, the said surface not being a mill-pond, but a sheet of foam; figure a pitch-dark night, a line stretched along the yard down which you must slide to the extremity, a sail weighing half-a-dozen tons banging at your head and your feet, and doing its utmost to throw you; then, having reached the extremity of the yard, figure your legs thrown across it as you might bestride a horse, beneath you the foaming sea, almost at right angles the inclined deck of the ship, a long stone’s-throw distant—a deep darkness everywhere, save where a wave, breaking massively, flings out a phosphorescent light and deepens the blackness of its own chasm—while the gale yells about your ears, and blinds you with spray that stings like hail!

Figure this, and then you will very faintly realize what “taking the lee-earing” in a gale at sea means.

The cries of the men aloft, and the beating of the canvas, sounded like an unearthly contest in mid-air; but they ceased presently, and then the hands came hurrying down the rigging and fell to the halyards. Holdsworth sprang on to the poop, his cap gone, his hair blown about his eyes, and roared out orders, while the captain, more easy in his mind about his spars, went aft and hung about the binnacle, watching the compass often.

The ship was now under double-reefed topsails, and reeling through the darkness almost bare of sail. The wind was increasing in violence every five minutes, and an ugly Atlantic sea was running right athwart the ship’s course, hurling great waves against her starboard beam, which ran in water-spouts of foam as high as the maintop, and was blown in big, hissing flakes through the rigging to leeward. It was soon deemed expedient to close reef the topsails; but even under these mere streaks of canvas the Meteor lay over to the gale down to her water-ways, with the water bubbling in her lee-scuppers. But luckily the gale was right abeam, and the vessel could hold her course; but her speed was comparatively small, and she labored heavily.

So passed the darkest hours of the night. At four o’clock the gale was at its worst. They had rigged up a hurricane-house in the mizzen-rigging—a square of tarpaulin, which the wind flattened hard against the shrouds—and under this shelter sat Holdsworth and the captain, scarce able to hear their own voices, pitched in the loudest key, amid the howling of the tempest. Once Holdsworth went below to look at the glass, and came back saying it was steady. The skipper roared that he never before remembered so sudden a gale, and Holdsworth owned that only once was he so caught—in the Pacific, when they lost their foretop-mast.

There was nothing more to be done, unless they hove the ship to; but this was not needful. The dawn broke at five, and the pale, cheerless light illuminated a wild and dreary scene of tumbling desolate waters billowing in mountains to the horizon. The Meteor, almost under bare poles, her yards pointed to the gale, her ropes and lines blown in semicircles to leeward, labored heavily, caught now by a sea that threw her on her beam-ends, and now swooping into a chasm walled with boiling green water, making the gale screech like a million steam-whistles through her rigging, as she drove up against it, while coiling tongues of water ran in cataracts up her glistening sides and fell in dead weights upon her deck. The sky, from horizon to horizon, was a dark lead color, along which under-clouds, in appearance resembling volumes of smoke, were swept along, torn and rent, and discharging at intervals quick, biting showers of rain.

Some of the passengers came on deck—the general, Mr. Holland, and Mr. St. Aubyn. The general turned about when he had advanced a few feet, and disappeared; Mr. Holland in a very short time followed his example; but the actor, with manifest looks of terror in his pallid face, pushed onward with outstretched hands for the hurricane-house. The captain advised him to go below; but at that moment the ship, rolling suddenly to windward, shipped a shower of spray, which soaked the poor actor through and through; a moment after, the vessel heeled heavily over to leeward; away rolled the actor, impelled both by the wind and the unerring law of gravitation, and was flung against the lee mizzen-rigging, to which he was pinned by the violence of the gale as effectually as if he had been lashed to the shrouds. He screamed for help, on which Holdsworth went over to him, took him by the arm, and dragged him against the wind to the companion-hatchway. As Mr. St. Aubyn staggered below, clinging like a kitten to whatever he could lay hands on, he was heard to implore Holdsworth to tell him if there was any danger; but, before the words were out of his mouth, Holdsworth was clinging to the weather-rigging and calling the captain’s attention to a brig, which had risen out of the sea like an apparition, and was tearing before the gale with full topsails and topgallant-sails set.

“A Yankee, by her build!” said the captain. “It’s only a Yankee who would carry that sail in such a wind.”

It was a sight to see her flying along, sinking her hull sometimes out of sight, then poised on the giddy summit of a huge wave, whose crest broke under her bows, her copper bottom glistening like red gold against the slate-colored water. She passed within a quarter of a mile of the Meteor’s weather-beam, and up flew the stars and stripes and stood like a painted board at her peak. The second mate answered the salutation by bending on the small ensign and running it up. Any further signalling was out of the question in that gale. The men on board the brig could just be made out. She was a smart vessel, black-hulled, with bows like a knife, and skysail poles, which gave her masts an aspect of perfect symmetry; and she was splendidly handled. She went like a swan over the seething billows, streaming a foaming wake, and in a very few moments was lost in the haze and gloom of the near horizon.

As the morning advanced the gale decreased, but a terrible sea was up, which made the ship labor so furiously that to steady her in some degree they set the trysail and foresail. There was, however, the comfort of daylight abroad, and the men could see what they were about. Both Holdsworth and the captain went below to get a little sleep, and the vessel was left in command of the second mate, a young man named Thompson. There were two hands at the wheel and two on the lookout on the forecastle, glittering in oil-skins, and ducking now and again to the seas which swept over the ship’s bows.

The fore and main hatches were battened down, and the main-deck was a foot deep in water, which washed to and fro as the ship rolled, and which, as fast as it ran through the scupper-holes, was replaced by fresh and heavy inroads of the sea.

But all this was trifling; the vessel was snug, the gale was moderating, and the extra sail that had been made was driving the ship through the water in fine style.

Meanwhile, the passengers below, having been reassured by the captain, were making what breakfast they could off the rolls, tea, and rashers of ham which clattered about the table and tumbled into their laps. The trays swung wildly from the deck, and it demanded great vigilance and close attention to their convulsive movements to repossess one’s self of the cup or plate one placed upon them for safety. The negro steward shambled round the table, halting every moment to make a grasp at anything that came in his road to steady himself. Now and again you heard the smash of crockery. Some conversation was attempted, and the general invited Mr. Holland to go up on deck and witness a scene which would probably exceed in majesty Niagara Falls; but Mr. Holland said he would wait until the vessel was steadier. Mr. St. Aubyn had changed his clothes and sat holding on to the table, looking the part of fear infinitely better than he could hope to impersonate it before the footlights. The ladies remained in their cabins. Mrs. Ashton, overcome with sickness and the fear of drowning, was driving her maid distracted with orders which it was out of the poor wretch’s power to execute. In truth, the maid’s legs were perfectly useless to her, which Mrs. Ashton, lying on her back, refused to understand. Cries were repeatedly coming from the direction of her cabin for “Harry! Harry!” which received no attention, owing to Harry’s—in other words, to Mr. Ashton’s—utter incapacity to move a step without being flung upon the deck.

A somewhat different scene was presented by the interior of the forecastle, where both watches were having breakfast. Men holding tin pannikins stepped easily round to the galley, where the cook was dispensing a milkless, sugarless black fluid called tea, and retreated into the twilight of the forecastle, carrying the steaming beverage. There sat the sailors, some swinging in hammocks with their legs dangling down, some on sea-chests, some on canvas bags, drinking from pannikins, swallowing lumps of biscuit hard as iron, or hacking with the knives they wore in their belts at bits of cold pork or beef floating in vinegar in tin dishes held between their knees; some smoking, some making ready to “turn in,” and all jabbering away as gayly as if they were comfortably seated in a Liverpool or Poplar singing house—the mariner’s earthly paradise—and each with his Sue or his Betsey by his side. Here, more than in any other part of the ship, you felt her motion—the mighty lifting of her bows, and the long sweeping fall as she pitched nose under, while the heavy seas boomed against her outside as though at any moment the timbers must dispart and the green waves rush in.

At twelve o’clock the gale had decreased to such a degree that they were able to shake two reefs out of the main-topsail and set the topgallant-sail. The action of the sea, moreover, was much less violent. The weather had cleared, the pale blue sky could be seen shining through the white mist that fled along it, and the sun stood round and clean and coppery in the heavens, throwing a dark red lustre upon the quick, passionate play of the sea beneath.

Some of the passengers crawled upon deck and gazed with wonderment around them. Certainly the panorama was a somewhat different one from what had been unrolled to their eyes the day before. The ship had a fagged and jaded look with her drenched decks, her ropes blown slack with the violence of the wind, and the canvas made unequal to the eye by the reefs in the topsails. It was again Holdsworth’s watch on deck. The captain walked up and down, chuckling over the improved aspect of the weather and on the wind, which was drawing more easterly, and therefore more favorable.

“You can shake out the reefs, Mr. Holdsworth. She’ll bear it now,” he called out.

Out reefs it was: the ship felt the increased pressure, and rushed forward like a liberated race-horse.

“This is capital!” exclaimed the old general, tottering about with out-stretched hands, ever on the alert for a special roll. “A week of this, captain, will carry us a good way on our road.”

“Ay, sir, and we must make up for lost time.”

And then presently he gave orders to set the mainsail and the other two topgallant-sails.

“The glass still keeps low, sir,” said Holdsworth.

“But let’s take advantage of the daylight, Mr. Holdsworth. We mustn’t lose an opportunity.”

The sky had now cleared, the sun shone cheerily; the wind, having drawn aft, was now no more than what sailors would call a main-royal breeze.