As far as eye can see there is nothing but a gray-green waste of turbulent waters, rising and falling with a mountainous sweep, surging and roaring, hissing and crashing, bearing the flaky foam-crests high in air and dipping them thousands of feet beneath the surface. There is nothing to stop that gigantic ocean roll. No resisting continents have erected a formidable bulwark to its advance; the sea goes on its way around the whole globe, for this is the mostdreaded stretch of ocean that the mind of mariner knows.
Over the northern horizon now out of sight, there lies a single hummock, cone-shaped, insignificant, not worthy a second glance. But this puny bit of land is Cape Horn, the last remnant of the mighty Andes, which, after rearing proud pinnacles to the tropic sky, sweep southward in an ever-diminishing chain until the last link dips under the sea. Still below the far horizon, but more to the west, a small clump of jagged rocks tear the turbulent swell to pieces; but the Diego Ramirez are not to be seen now — there is nothing save the gray-hard sky and the gray-hard sea. Nothing, that is, save a stately albatross, scornfully ploughing its way into the very teeth of the gale that is rolling over the world. It always blows a gale off Cape Horn; always is the sea torn into frothing anger; always, the storm-defying albatross soars betwixt sea and sky.
Far to the north, only a speck of silver suddenly shown up by a wan gleam of sun, which is so surprised at its existence that it instantly disappears, something shows — then vanishes into nothingness. The hours glide by; the speck becomes a blur, the blur becomes reality. Speeding out of the stormy north, bearing steadfastly on to the stormier south, there comes a ship. Her long gaunt masts are swinging in a reeling quadrant; her vibrating hull cleaves the foamy waste like a thing of magnificent life. She lifts her roaring forefoot from the water, higher and higher, still higher, until the red keel is exposed to the very foremast; and then, crashing downwards in momentary homage to her master, the sea, she buries her bows from sight in a flurry of far-flung foam.
Now she is here, here where the albatross soars on far-spread wing. But that bird of omen makes no sound; for the silence of a great solitude is upon him; he utters no welcome, makes no plaint.
The ship still reels on, plunging deeply into the mountains and valleys, swinging her ponderous bulk through and above all the waves that leap hungrily in her track, that rise in volume of might to drag her down, that retire beaten to rush on and on in a world-encompassing circle. Her spars are stripped almost bare; only two puny rags of straining canvas are flung to the gale, but the white cloud beneath her forefoot is as mighty as though she were clothed with glistening canvas from truck to scupper.
The gale is at her stern, it is carrying her on to her allotted goal; nothing is needed for the skillful shipmaster to do, save let her run and keep his eye on those two sheets of dull brown sail-cloth that are spread aloft. But he must keep both eyes on them now, for there is a flurry in the gale. It no longer booms in a gigantic diapason; it screams and snorts, rising in a violent crescendo, flitting to and fro, now backing, now filling; until the distracted ship is bewildered, and slews giddily round on her heel.
Even the very sea conspires with the gale to drive the ship up to where those cruel fangs are lurking, in readiness for their prey. The stealthy Pacific-Antarctic Drift — a baffling current — runs here, and woe betide the man who once lets his ship get into the grip of that whirling stream! It were better that he should throw her high on one of those pitiless icebergs that steal silently by in a ghostly procession to the south, for then a chance might remain for dear life; but no man strikes the Diego Ramirez and lives.
Close on three thousand tons, fourmasted, manned by Britons, the ship cleaves her way onwards and ever on. She has a precious freight beneath her closely-battened hatches; her skipper is one of the true-blue breed, a man who revels in storm, who flings his gauntlet in the very face of death, and laughs as the challenge goes forth. He is standing now on the spray-swept poop, a burly, white-bearded figure, swathed in oilskins to the eyes, his feet defying the cold and wet in their stout sea-boots. Standing by the binnacle, with one eye on the straining canvas, the other on the wavering compass-needle, he feels the change in the temper of the gale, and knows well that what has so far been his friend is developing into his hate-filled foe.
The wind raises a mighty comber high on the beam, and licks off the top as if it were but a drop of water. A hundred tons of solid ocean come swooping over the vessel’s decks, sluicing along with the roar of mighty thunder, carrying a mass of shattered déebris to and fro, until the clanging wash-ports fling the unwelcome visitor back to the parent sea. Then the tautened canvas aloft quivers complainingly, the heavy chainsheets rattle in their sheaves; the massive topsail yards groan as the down-bearing tension is removed; but long before the sound has died away, the voice of the watchful captain is booming along the wave-washed decks, and one by one, figures clad in oilskin emerge from snug hiding-places, stagger perilously along the sloping planks, clutching at every chance rope and belaying-pin, until the entire crew is mustered at the break of the poop.
“ Hands wear ship! ” The breeze has flown to the northwest, dead in the teeth of the vessel, and she must either ratch off towards the ice-flecked seas of the Antarctic, or take her luck in her hands and endeavor to beat past the Diego Ramirez.
Each man has his place, and knows it. Without undue confusion, yet slowly, for the men must walk as fate allows them, —now staggering a few paces forward, now clutching frantically at a stanchion, while a stunning mass of living green pours pitilessly over the bulwarks, and descends on their shivering forms, insinuating itself between clothing and skin, and rendering the stoutest water-proofs of no avail, — somehow or other they get to their stations; numbed fingers cast loose the gaskets that hold the foretopmast staysail in safe bondage; a couple of agile figures dart aloft up the quivering shrouds, and lay out on the great foreyard, casting off the ropes that have lashed the sail to the spar.
The weather clew of the foresail drops down, and a hoarse-voiced chorus rings out as the sail is sheeted home. The chorus continues and the insignificant triangle of water-soaked canvas jumps up the foretopmast stay in a series of uneven jerks, sometimes stopping for whole minutes; again, as the waves wash clear, climbing high on the stay, frapping thunderously in the lashing breeze. All is now in readiness. There is enough canvas ahead of the ship to ensure her head paying off before the wind, once the helm is jammed up, and the captain’s voice rings along the deck: “ Helm a-weather! ”
The second mate leads his watch to the main-braces, and slowly, very slowly, for there is a great weight of wind in the sail, the main-yards swing round, until the shivering sail is flat aback. There is no resistance now to the swinging bow; the ship circles round gallantly on her heel; a broad patch of smooth water to windward shows where she has drifted down to leeward. Then, high to windward, looming black and awful like some frantic spirit of the unexplored ocean, a huge mountain of greenish-black sea, foamcrested and menacing, hangs poised in air. It rushes on with a lightning speed, growing in volume as it comes; until the very sky is shut out by that dense threatening mass.
“ Up aloft, all of you, for your lives! ”
There was no need for the order. The men at the braces look once at the coming avalanche, then, with a nimbleness that is surprising, considering their ungainly appearance, they dart like squirrels into the rigging, and gain safety. They hang aloft breathless for a while, and the sea crashes over the rails, deluging the decks to the height of the topgallant rails; and the sore-stricken ship surges soddenly to the weight of another thousand tons of water. For as long as a man may count a dozen, she staggers under the furious blow, every bolt and rivet groaning its complaint; while the life-boats, swung high on their davits, are whipped free from their guarding lashings, swing out at the ends of their tackles, then disappear to leeward in a whirl of foam. A clean sweep! Smoke and ashes come eddying from the galley, and the seamen realize regretfully that there will be no hot dinner for them that day. Some daring spirit runs down to the deck, and wades arm-deep in the water to where the cook is lying half-stunned under a spare spar, surrounded by the implements of his trade. Nothing movable has been left in the galley: food and pots, pans and tools, all are lying in a chaotic heap under three feet of sea-water.
But for the moment the danger is past. A second wave rushes on to complete its fellow’s work, but already the gallant ship has recovered from the blow. She dips her proud bow, and her stern climbs waveringly against the sky; then her prow heaves itself clear; the spidery bowsprit soars aloft like a rocket; tons upon tons of water sweep over-side, and with a gloriously free action, like a racer recovering from a momentary stumble, the vessel reels on and on.
The second wave expends its energy on her staunch steel side, and retires discomfited; but the blow on the quivering plates has been like the thrust of a battering ram.
The men slide down the backstays, or clamber down the ratlines, and stand once more on deck, the tangled braces in their hands. The two stalwart veterans at the wheel have been washed to the limits of their stout lashings, but they have regained their post; and the captain, drenched and breathless, is clinging like a limpet to the mizzen backstays.
“ Forrard, and get the foreyards round! ” his voice cleaves the momentary lull, and the men obey. The foreyards are swung and pointed to the wind, the foresail is clewed up to the sound of that deep-throated chorus, the foretopmast-staysail is lowered, and the ship, answering to the hastily-hoisted aftersail, which a couple of gasping apprentices have loosed and flung to the breeze, comes slowly up into the eye of the wind. She is heading due north now, her bow pointing straight to Cape Horn, but her speed is diminished, and she merely crawls along. Her creamy wake stretches away to windward as she sags off before the booming gale and the battering seas; she will lose many a one of those glorious knots that preceded the shift of wind, but for the moment the work is done, and nothing remains but to wait.
“Steward! Splice the main-brace!” The bare-armed servitor of the cabin emerges on deck with the grog-bottle clutched to his breast, in his hand a tin pannikin, and on his face a smile of greasy complacency. The men struggle to the poop, and take their tots with the appreciation of men who have well earned their reward, wiping their mouths on the sleeves of their oilskins, touching their shaggy forelocks to the old skipper whose kindliness had prompted this recognition of their arduous work. Then they disappear into their hiding-places, and the ship lays herself down to the gale and snorts along through the boisterous sea with many complainings.
Little is to be seen now, save that the serene albatross soars steadily around the mizzen truck, keeping its position without a single flutter of the mighty wings that can break a man’s legs with one blow. The gale is only just beginning, for the moment it shows sign of abating the pessimistic albatross will be skimming the wave-crests, on the lookout for chance greasy morsels thrown over from the galley. A mob of chattering Cape pigeons, birds that have all the beauty of our own domesticated carriers, with the beaks and heads of gulls, flutter over the creamy wake, while a couple of Molly hawks (those birds which are, by seamen, supposed to contain the souls of dead skippers) wing their flight in the vessel’s rear, croaking monotonously from time to time.
The dense cloud-masses ahead part for a second to give a glimpse of hard, steel-blue sky. Out of that momentary breach a fresh burst of wind comes roaring over the sea. It springs upon the staggering ship like a beast of prey, and every spar vibrates to the sudden blow. Clewlines, braces, downhauls, sheets, and spilling-lines, every one of the numberless ropes that clothe the gaunt masts, sings a song of defiance to the gale: the unsteady frap-frap of rope on wood has given place to a constant chatter — the true voice of the storm.
Wave follows wave in unbroken succession over the bulwarks now; there is no inch of safety on all the vessel’s decks. Clouds of biting spindrift whirl through the air, the ship heels over to the shock, over and over, until the heart rises into the throat, for fear that she will never right herself again. Still over she heels, and the men at the wheel are bracing themselves against the gratings, for the feet can find no hold on the sloping deck. The skipper is hanging by his arms from the weather rigging, trying to make his deep-sea voice carry to the mate’s ear, but though that officer is hanging to the next shroud, he can hear no word, and only shakes his head in dumb show. But his eyes never leave the weather-sheet of the foretopsail, for with that terrific weight pressing the ship down, something must carry away.
There is one tense, heart-stopping minute, and then, with a report like a cannon-shot, the foretopsail splits down its whole length. The rent widens, rags of canvas detach themselves and whip about frantically, until they are torn away and flutter off to leeward like tiny birds. The jerking of the fore-yard, with the battering of the suddenly loosened canvas, is a serious menace to the safety of the ship. At any moment the spar may carry away and descend to the deck like a falling death; even if it fall overboard, the iron chains of the sheets will hold it alongside while the furious sea beats it resistlessly against the thin steel sides. And then — a great chasm in the ship’s skin, a sucking gurgle of escaping air, a downward plunge — and another vessel posted as “ missing ” at Lloyd’s.
But this is not to be. The mate has already left his post, and is scrambling forward on hands and knees. Once more the crew emerge, look doubtfully aloft at the jumping yards, and then, tightening their belts and cramming their sou’westers on their heads, commence to climb the shivering rigging. The wind pins them to the ratlines, the breath is driven from their bodies, they hang powerless, gripping with tenacious fingers, until their further progress is possible. After gigantic efforts they reach the yard, and scramble out on the footropes, while the giddy dance of the ship recommences. The men spring up and down like monkeys, now lying flat on the yard, now clutching wildly at a slippery jackstay, until all are there. There is not much left to save, but they grapple the flapping shreds of the sail, and hold to them while the blood starts from their bruised finger-tips. The bitter cold has frozen the sail to the hardness of steel, their fingers can catch no grip, and when they do secure a hold and drag the sail on to the yard, a sudden gust snatches their hard-won prize from their clutch, and once again the sail roars out triumphantly.
They do it again, and again, and again, gasping strange oaths into the storm, leaning recklessly over the turbulent sea, working with both hands and hanging on by their eyebrows, and gradually, an inch at a time, the rebellious sail is won into safety, and the stout gaskets are passed over the quietened cloths.
The ship feels the relief at once, and rises upright, only to plunge more deeply into the sea. There is little of her to be seen now save her denuded masts. Her decks are one mass of water, the ropes are lying in tangled masses in the scuppers, a fowl-pen has become dislodged from its lashings and is hurtling to and fro along the decks, battering dreadfully at the bulwarks. This standing menace to the safety of the crew must be reduced to order, and the mate leads a forlorn hope to the rescue. It is precarious work, this, for the thing has become ungovernable, and hurls back and forth like a Juggernaut, crushing fingers and toes remorselessly. After a wild, breathless struggle, the pen is secured in some mysterious sailorly fashion, one or two men run aft to the steward to have their hurts attended to, and the inaction begins anew.
Night creeps down on the tumultuous sea, and the horrors of the storm are increased tenfold. Before, men could see the danger that hung over their heads; now they can only imagine it, and the imagination increases the peril to an indescribable extent. They must lie in shivering groups on the poop, ready for an instant emergency, unable to secure sleep or food, drenched and salt-sore, now starting into instant activity as a loud thunder breaks out from the furled foretopsail, now sinking back into shivering lassitude as no order volleys to their ears from the wakeful man who clutches the binnacle, and gazes with unseeing eyes into the stormy night.
At intervals a couple of men detach themselves from the groups, and struggle aft to the wheel, relieving the nigh-frozen men there, while those who have stood for two hours win a hazardous way along the decks to their forecastle, there to snatch a smoke until some cry shall come to them, demanding their instant presence on the poop.
The angry dawn leaps up out of the sky, and men stare at men’s faces with dazed eyes. The white salt has caked on hair and beard, the young men of the past day have grown old and grizzled, their faces are deep-lined with anxiety; but there is no sign of drooping in that sturdy old figure by the wheel.
The sea, terrible before, is doubly terrible now. During the night it has increased alarmingly; wave follows mounttainous wave in unbroken rush, the ship throws herself about like a cork, now swooping into a watery cavern, now giddily topping a lofty wave, while men hold their breath in awe.
Bang! The lee clew of the maintopsail has carried away, and the sail is lashing about like a flail of death. But the canvas of this sail is strong and doubly strong; though it whips about with a noise of artillery, the sail does not split; only a length of chain is leaping in the air and threatening to brain any man who shall venture within its sweep.
The work must be done, no matter what happens. The mate looks a question at the captain, the latter thinks for a moment. He dare not strip his ship of her canvas entirely: under bare poles she could do nothing save run down to the south among the spectral icebergs. There is one of them now under her quarter, looming like some fairy palace on the horizon.
“ Goose-wing it! ”
They do it — somehow, though no man, on descending, can tell how the work was done. They have a vague memory of clambering up the ice-coated rigging, slipping down a foot and climbing up a yard, of dragging their toil-worn bodies out to the lee yard-arm, and there grappling blindly with the trapping sail, while that hurtling chain cracks and rattles above their heads. The loose corner of the sail is dragged on the yard, stout ropes are lugged from the forepeak and passed round and round sail and yard; men haul on ropes that seem to lead nowhere, and curse, with tears, the adamantine hardness of the frozen cloths. But they do it — for they are British seamen. Within an hour the sail is quietened, the lee clew fast on the yard, the weather clew still set. This is goosewinging — and is only resorted to in moments of extreme stress, when it is impossible to attach another lashing to the clew that has carried away.
But the wind is shifting to the south, and the ship drives soddenly due north. She cannot hold on long at this work, for the Diego Ramirez are there in her direct path. Something looms out of the stormhaze ahead, it takes shape, and resolves itself into a gallant clipper homeward bound. She is carrying a press of canvas that threatens to drive her under; she cuts through the waves like a thing of life; her stately bow puts aside the encroach ing waters as a parish beadle puts aside a crowd of inquisitive children. By her black low hull, built on the lines of a yacht, by her five masts and her yellow spars, her identity is disclosed at once. She is one of the German P. line of West Coast clippers, making a record run home. Men turn to one another and say that this ship has run from Valparaiso to the Lizard in fifty-seven days, beating the majority of steamers on the run. They say her skipper receives a bonus for every day he takes off the run; and would receive instant dismissal should he exceed seventy days on his passage. Other men tell how the commanders of those ships have driven their panicstricken crews to the braces at the muzzles of leveled revolvers, daring them to refuse their duty. But a flag is flung to the gale from the onrushing clipper, and the red, white, and black ensign dips gayly thrice. It is the salute of one brave ship to another.
Then the spindrift hides her, she blurs away into nothingness, and the struggling outward-bounder is alone. What is that sudden cry that comes from forward ? It blanches a dozen faces, and sends the suddenly-stilled heart into the throat. “ Land on the lee beam! ” There above the horizon, like a mouthful of venomous fangs waiting to crunch and grind their prey, the Diego Ramirez show momentarily, then disappear. The inaction of the ship gives place to sudden life. There is a ceaseless stream of hard-voiced orders; the programme of the day before is followed, and the ship wears round on her heel. It is terribly dangerous work now, for every rushing wave threatens to envelop the ship, and drive her to her doom; the captain begins to talk of rigging sea-anchors in order that the vessel’s head might be wrenched round off the shore, but by dint of skillful manœuvring the work is once more done, and the ship lurches drunkenly away to the south, leaving the rocks behind.
So it goes on, sometimes for days and weeks on end. Now an iceberg passes within a musket-shot, making men shiver at the thought of running headlong upon the ice-island in the dark of night; now a five-masted French clipper swings along, loaded to the scuppers, and keeping afloat by Heaven knows what means. But the gale dies away into fitful moanings, it veers to the south, one by one the ice-incrusted sails are loosed from their gaskets, and fall grotesquely down, while the toil-worn seamen drag the sheets out with hands that seem dead to pain. Tier on tier the canvas rises into glorious pyramids, every sail sings a booming triumphant song of dangers overcome, and with a fair wind and plenty of it, the good ship cleaves her way into the quieter waters of the Pacific Ocean.