Jim Hawkins, the boy hero of Stevenson’s tale, had sailed with a party
of adventuresome gentlemen on the ship Hispaniola, to find the pirate
gold which, as they had private proof, lay buried on Treasure Island.
Unfortunately, the crew was largely composed of ruffians, who had
themselves been pirates, and who also knew of the buried treasure. On
reaching the island, these fellows mutinied and tried to kill brave
Captain Smollett and the party of gold-seekers. As their only means of
safety the latter went ashore and entrenched themselves in a stockade
which former visitors had built there; while the Hispaniola, anchored
in the harbor, fell into the hands of the pirates, who promptly
hoisted the black flag. One foggy night Jim, who was an adventurous
and inquisitive lad, secretly stole out from the stockade and found
hidden in a cove a tiny home-made boat, clumsy and queer. This boat
was “buoyant and clever in a sea-way, but the most cross-grained,
lopsided craft to manage. Turning round and round was the manœuvre she
was best at.” However, he managed to paddle out to the Hispaniola,
intending to cut her moorings. With some difficulty he accomplished
this design, but immediately a change of wind and current seized both
ship and coracle, and sent them spinning out through the narrows
towards open sea. Expecting to be dashed in pieces on some bar or in
the raging breakers, Jim lay down helpless, and overcome by weariness
and anxiety fell asleep. “The Cruise of the Coracle” begins at this
Cyrus Townsend Brady
The Cruise of the Coracle by Robert Louis Stevenson
(From Treasure Island.)
By ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.
It was broad day when I awoke, and found myself tossing at the southwest end
of Treasure Island. The sun was up, but was still hid from me behind the great
bulk of the Spy-glass, which on this side descended almost to the sea in
formidable cliffs. Haulbowline Head and Mizzenmast Hill were at my elbow; the
hill bare and dark, the head bound with cliffs forty or fifty feet high, and
fringed with great masses of fallen rock. I was scarce a quarter of a mile to
seaward, and it was my first thought to paddle in and land.
That notion was soon given over. Among the fallen rocks the breakers spouted
and bellowed; loud reverberations, heavy sprays flying and falling, succeeded
one another from second to second; and I saw myself, if I ventured nearer,
dashed to death upon the rough shore, or spending my strength in vain to scale
the beetling crags.
Nor was that all; for crawling together on flat tables of rock, or letting
themselves drop into the sea with loud reports, I beheld huge slimy
monsters—soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness—two or three score of
them together, making the rocks to echo with their barkings.
I have understood since that they were sea-lions, and entirely harmless. But
the look of them, added to the difficulty of the shore and the high running of
the surf, was more than enough to disgust me of that landing-place. I felt
willing rather to starve at sea than to confront such perils.
In the meantime I had a better chance, as I supposed, before me. North of
Haulbowline Head, the land runs in a long way, leaving, at low tide, a long
stretch of yellow sand. To the north of that, again, there comes another
cape—Cape of the Woods, as it was marked upon the chart—buried in tall green
pines, which descended to the margin of the sea.
I remembered what Silver had said about the current that sets northward along
the whole west coast of Treasure Island; and seeing from my position that I was
already under its influence, I preferred to leave Haulbowline Head behind me,
and reserve my strength for an attempt to land upon the kindlier-looking Cape of
There was a great, smooth swell upon the sea. The wind blowing steady and
gentle from the south, there was no contrariety between that and the current,
and the billows rose and fell unbroken.
Had it been otherwise, I must long ago have perished; but as it was, it is
surprising how easily and securely my little and light boat could ride. Often,
as I still lay at the bottom, and kept no more than an eye above the gunwale, I
would see a big blue summit heaving close above me; yet the coracle would but
bounce a little, dance as if on springs, and subside on the other side into the
trough as lightly as a bird.
I began after a little to grow very bold, and sat up to try my skill at
paddling. But even a small change in the disposition of the weight will produce
violent changes in the behavior of a coracle. And I had hardly moved before the
boat, giving up at once her gentle dancing movement, ran straight down a slope
of water so steep that it made me giddy, and struck her nose, with a spout of
spray, deep into the side of the next wave.
I was drenched and terrified, and fell instantly back into my old position,
whereupon the coracle seemed to find her head again, and led me as softly as
before among the billows. It was plain she was not to be interfered with, and at
that rate, since I could in no way influence her course, what hope had I left of
I began to be horribly frightened, but I kept my head, for all that. First,
moving with all care, I gradually baled out the coracle with my sea-cap; then
getting my eye once more above the gunwale, I set myself to study how it was she
managed to slip so quietly through the rollers.
I found each wave, instead of the big, smooth, glossy mountain it looks from
shore, or from a vessel’s deck, was for all the world like any range of hills on
the dry land, full of peaks and smooth places and valleys. The coracle, left to
herself, turning from side to side, threaded, so to speak, her way through these
lower parts, and avoided the steep slopes and higher, toppling summits of the
“Well, now,” thought I to myself, “it is plain I must lie where I am, and not
disturb the balance; but it is plain, also, that I can put the paddle over the
side, and from time to time, in smooth places, give her a shove or two towards
land.” No sooner thought upon than done. There I lay on my elbows, in the most
trying attitude, and every now and again gave a weak stroke or two to turn her
head to shore.
It was very tiring, and slow to work, yet I did visibly gain ground; and, as
we drew near the Cape of the Woods, though I saw I must infallibly miss that
point, I had still made some hundred yards of easting. I was, indeed, close in.
I could see the cool, green tree-tops swaying together in the breeze, and I felt
sure I should make the next promontory without fail.
It was high time, for I now began to be tortured with thirst. The glow of the
sun from above, its thousand-fold reflection from the waves, the sea-water that
fell and dried upon me, caking my very lips with salt, combined to make my
throat burn and my brain ache. The sight of the trees so near at hand had almost
made me sick with longing; but the current had soon carried me past the point;
and, as the next reach of sea opened out, I beheld a sight that changed the
nature of my thoughts.
Right in front of me, not half a mile away, I beheld the Hispaniola under
sail. I made sure, of course, that I should be taken; but I was so distressed
for want of water, that I scarce knew whether to be glad or sorry at the
thought; and, long before I had come to a conclusion, surprise had taken entire
possession of my mind, and I could do nothing but stare and wonder.
The Hispaniola was under her mainsail and two jibs, and the beautiful white
canvas shone in the sun like snow or silver. When I first sighted her, all her
sails were drawing; she was lying a course about north-west; and I presumed the
men on board were going round the island on their way back to the anchorage.
Presently she began to fetch more and more to the westward, so that I thought
they had sighted me and were going about in chase. At last, however, she fell
right into the wind’s eye, was taken dead aback, and stood there a while
helpless, with her sails shivering.
“Clumsy fellows,” said I; “they must still be drunk as owls.” And I thought
how Captain Smollett would have set them skipping.
Meanwhile, the schooner gradually fell off, and filled again upon another
tack, sailed swiftly for a minute or so, and brought up once more dead in the
wind’s eye. Again and again was this repeated. To and fro, up and down, north,
south, east, and west, the Hispaniola sailed by swoops and dashes, and at each
repetition ended as she had begun, with idly-flapping canvas. It became plain to
me that nobody was steering. And, if so, where were the men? Either they were
dead drunk, or had deserted her, I thought, and perhaps if I could get on board,
I might return the vessel to her captain.
The current was bearing coracle and schooner southward at an equal rate. As
for the latter’s sailing, it was so wild and intermittent, and she hung each
time so long in stays, that she certainly gained nothing, if she did not even
lose. If only I dared to sit up and paddle, I made sure that I could overhaul
her. The scheme had an air of adventure that inspired me, and the thought of the
water beaker beside the fore companion doubled my growing courage.
Up I got, was welcomed almost instantly by another cloud of spray, but this
time stuck to my purpose; and set myself, with all my strength and caution, to
paddle after the unsteered Hispaniola. Once I shipped a sea so heavy that I had
to stop and bale, with my heart fluttering like a bird; but gradually I got into
the way of the thing, and guided my coracle among the waves, with only now and
then a blow upon her bows and a dash of foam in my face.
I was now gaining rapidly on the schooner; I could see the brass glisten on
the tiller as it banged about; and still no soul appeared upon her decks. I
could not choose but suppose she was deserted. If not, the men were lying drunk
below, where I might batten them down, perhaps, and do what I chose with the
For some time she had been doing the worst thing possible for me—standing
still. She headed nearly due south, yawing, of course, all the time. Each time
she fell off her sails partly filled, and these brought her, in a moment, right
to the wind again. I have said this was the worst thing possible for me; for
helpless as she looked in this situation, with the canvas cracking like cannon,
and the blocks trundling and banging on the deck, she still continued to run
away from me, not only with the speed of the current, but by the whole amount of
her leeway, which was naturally great.
But now, at last, I had my chance. The breeze fell, for some seconds, very
low, and the current gradually turning her, the Hispaniola revolved slowly round
her centre, and at last presented me her stern, with the cabin window still
gaping open, and the lamp over the table still burning on into the day. The
mainsail hung drooped like a banner. She was stock-still, but for the current.
For the last little while I had even lost; but now redoubling my efforts, I
began once more to overhaul the chase.
I was not a hundred yards from her when the wind came again in a clap; she
filled on the port tack, and was off again, stooping and skimming like a
My first impulse was one of despair, but my second was towards joy. Round she
came, till she was broadside on to me—round still till she had covered a half,
and then two-thirds, and then three-quarters of the distance that separated us.
I could see the waves boiling white under her forefoot. Immensely tall she
looked to me from my low station in the coracle.
And then, of a sudden, I began to comprehend. I had scarce time to
think—scarce time to act and save myself. I was on the summit of one swell when
the schooner came stooping over the next. The bowsprit was over my head. I
sprang to my feet, and leaped, stamping the coracle under water. With one hand I
caught the jib-boom, while my foot was lodged between the stay and the brace;
and as I still clung there panting, a dull blow told me that the schooner had
charged down upon and struck the coracle, and that I was left without retreat on