BY ROBERT DEAN FRISBIE
THIRTY years ago South Sea trading schooners were a common sight along the water front in San Francisco. When one tied up at a wharf, shipping men would nod their heads and remark that The Southern Cross, Papeete, or The Tropic Bird was up from the Islands again. There would be a slight bustle among wholesalers of calico prints and twist tobacco, and that is about all the stir these exotic old vessels created.
Nowadays the Pacific steamer lanes have practically done away with the winding trails of the northbound trading schooners. When a South Sea vessel does lumber into the Golden Gate there is quite a little excitement on the water front. Reporters with their staff photographers rush down for ‘human interest’ stories; lovers of the romantic stand on the wharf to gaze at the ship for hours, imagining all kinds of wonderful things which never happen; South Sea authors hurry down to gather material for their next book; the trading skipper stumps up Market Street with a smile and a nod, islandfashion, to every passer-by. In fact, half the town learns that an island vessel is in port; people come down by the score to look her over, and most of them wish they could climb aboard to sail to that enchanted land of dreams, the South Sea Islands.
The trading schooner Tagua, of Rarotonga, sailed north for San Francisco on December 20, 1928, arriving there on April 21 of the following year. She is probably one of the last of these romantic old traders that will ever make the long beat north to California.
December 21, 1928. — I have just been aboard the two-masted schooner Tagua, now lying in the little harbor of Avarua. Captain Andy Thomson was aboard. He told me that he has orders to sail to San Francisco to have new masts put in his ship. Having sailed in the Tagua on many trading ventures in the Cook and Line Islands, I know her masts are in such bad shape that Captain Thomson must humor them continually. The foremast is broken above the galley through which it is stepped, but it has been strengthened by a wire seizing. The mainmast is eaten with dry rot at the hounds, and only held together by a six-by-eight wooden brace that has been bolted to the after part of the mast.
I acted on the impulse of the moment. ‘Let me sail with you, Andy,’I said. ‘I will sign on as mate.’
Though I had spoken impulsively, there was a sound motive prompting me. I have been in the tropics nine years — trading on Puka-Puka, an atoll close to the equator, where the climate is enervating; sailing on island schooners; living an indolent life in Tahiti. My health is failing, and, what is worse, I find myself indifferent to it. Moreover, I am sated with island life, and believe that a few months of hard work at sea in the cold bracing climate of the North Pacific, with the education gained by a visit to California, will do me good. Also, I shall have to work to live.
Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
It was some time before the Captain replied: ‘No, Ropati, I’d rather not take you. The masts are pretty far gone, most of the gear is rotten, and we are sailing north during the worst time of the year. It will be the hurricane season in the tropics, and when we get north of the Hawaiian Islands, in February and March, we can look for some heavy weather in the North Pacific.’
Though this dampened my ardor somewhat, I repeated that I wished to sail with him. He told me he would think it over, and a few moments later I left when the pilot came aboard.
December 22. — Last night I sat with Captain Thomson at a friend’s house, discussing a few bottles of New Zealand ale. The conversation turning to the coming voyage, I argued my case so well that the Captain finally agreed to take me if the owner, McKegg of the Cook Islands Trading Company, was willing. I do not think the Captain had any serious scruples from the beginning; he only wanted an excuse for not substituting me for his native mate, who is a much better sailor. Now he is really in need of another man aboard, for his mate, his engineer, and two sailors have signed off, plainly giving their reason that the ship is not seaworthy. The engineer has agreed to go as far as Penrhyn Island, teaching me the mysteries of an eighty-horsepower gasoline engine on the way north.
This morning the Captain and I talked it over with McKegg, who readily agreed, and I signed on as mate, to receive ten pounds sterling a month. The matter is settled. We are posted to sail on December 26.
December 23. — There was a big party at my friend’s house last night. After dinner I slipped out and tried to sleep on the verandah, for I am ill and poor company for anyone. Presently I heard them calling for me.
‘Where’s that hard-boiled bully mate?’ someone cried.
I jumped from the verandah and crossed the yard to a hedge of false coffee. From there I made my way to the road and down to the ship, now tied up at the wharf.
The cabin was closed, but not locked. When I pushed back the scuttle hatch a sickening stench of bilge water, grease from the engine room, and rancid copra oozed out. ‘I can never sleep in there,’ I said to myself; then, aloud: ‘But I have to, and for a long time to come! ’
Going into the cabin, I opened all the ports and the after door; then I entered my own cabin and lit the gimbal lamp. Cockroaches scrambled up the bulkhead, and I could hear a rat squeal and scurry away in one of the berth lockers.
In the middle of the night I woke and went on deck. The air was clammy and cold; when I touched the taffrail it was wet with dew. ‘Lord!’ I muttered; ‘and I am going on a six months’ voyage in this filthy old wreck, to be turned out in the middle of the night in the fog and cold!'
I write this with a certain amount of shame. A man becomes disgustingly soft in the tropics; the least danger of mortifying his flesh dismays him.
December 26. — I am lying back in my berth writing my journal, which is propped against my legs. It is 11 P.M. on the first night out. Half a gale is howling over the schooner, the sails are reefed down, and we are close-hauled, laboring heavily into the seas. I am cold, damp, and miserable, but I am glad that I am aboard. Ashore I had felt a cowardly temptation to turn back, but that is over with now, and I mutter to myself: ‘Blow, you winds! Work, you fool! You’re at sea again, so make the best of it and harden yourself till you’re a man again!’
We warped out of the little harbor at 5 P.M., and, hoisting all our canvas, lay close into the wind on the starboard tack. When we were beyond the lee of the land the wind freshened, so during the second dogwatch we tied up the flying jib and reefed the fore and main sails. Then Captain Thomson divided the watches. I was given a fine Atiu boy named Taiono, and Taura, a fat Manihiki lad. A translation of these names might be Six-Seas and Ropes.
The second mate is an old Aitutaki man named Kitai (Seaside). He has grandchildren as old as myself, but still he goes to sea, believing he will die if he stops ashore. His face is as wrinkled as paper that has been crumpled into a tight ball and spread out. It is punctuated by two sharp and small eyes, and when he smiles one sees long yellow teeth like the fangs of a wolf. Seaside has a childish, whining voice, and he is in the last stages of senile decay; but he is a good sailor and the most trustworthy man on the ship. In his watch are Okirua (Second-Return) and Teinka, which in a vague way can be translated as Food, for when a native has breadfruit for dinner he calls the accompanying fish te inake, while if he has fish the breadfruit is te inake.
There are also the cook and the cabin boy. The former is a half-caste Portuguese-Mangaian named Noel, while the cabin boy, Koteka (Spear-Throwing), is a half-caste Chinese-Manihikian. Thus there are seven sailors, the engineer, the Captain, and myself.
Our engineer is Wallace Bredin, I find by inspecting the flyleaf of his French Bible. We know him by his native name of Pepe. Bredin hails from Tahiti and claims to be a scion of the aristocratic Wolseley family. He states that his grandfather was a younger brother or a cousin — he is not sure which — of Lord Wolseley. Pepe’s mind is far gone with debauchery, and when one asks him a question there is the inevitable reply: 4I dunno.’ Then he smiles sheepishly and relapses into his usual silence.
But at times he does talk, and it is always about the same subject — a voyage he made to California with Captain Cosantine, and the heavy weather they had when one side of the after house was bashed in. He tells how the captain and the crew gave up the ship and huddled in the storeroom for fortyeight hours waiting for her to sink. But the ship was braver than they and survived. After this story Pepe invariably speaks of the sordid adventures he had in San Francisco. At such times his pale eyes sparkle.
There is only Captain Andy Thomson left to introduce. He is a thorough seaman and a driving skipper — not a driver of his men, but of his ship. South Sea traders wag their heads when they speak of him and agree that sooner or later he will come to grief; one trader refuses to send his mail on the Tagua, believing that each trip will be her last. They tell more or less exaggerated stories about how Captain Thomson reluctantly took in the flying jib and put a single reef in his mainsail when in a hurricane off Suvarov; or how, when making a record run from Penrhyn to Tahiti in a howling northwester, he frightened the firm’s sales manager into a serious nervous condition by cracking on the fisherman’s staysail during the worst of the gale. When the sales manager remonstrated with him he cursed good-naturedly and said: ‘The Devil’s curse on me! Man, when you’ve got wind, that’s the time to make use of it. There’s no sense in carrying sail in a calm!’ On arriving in Tahiti the sales manager was in a state of collapse from which it took him months to recover.
I believe that if the truth were known it would be found that Andy is not a reckless sailor. He knows his ship and sails her to the limit of her endurance; and the reason he frightens his passengers is because they, unlike him, have become soft and cowardly from too many years of easy living.
Andy has a philosophic mind and is a great reader. Though rough in appearance and affecting vulgar manners, I notice that he is never at a loss for a pertinent remark, and is quite able to hold up his share of the conversation in any company. He has a habit of using old saws, but he does not follow them. He decides his problem first, then finds the old saw to fit his solution. This evening I heard him mutter: ‘Well, well, she’s blowing all right; she’s blowing!’ He turned his eyes to the horizon before adding: ‘Haste makes waste — but a stitch in time saves nine, so I might as well take in that flying jib.’
December 27. — The weather has been milder to-day, and the wind has freed a trifle, so we can hold our course handsomely. I have been working with my watch all day clearing decks, for when an island schooner is sent to sea her decks are piled with eleventh-hour cargo, passengers’ dunnage, pigs and fowls, firewood, cases and bunches of fruit, and ship’s gear that has not been stowed.
December 28. — This morning at daylight we sighted the upheaved coral island of Atiu. I woke Pepe and told him to start the engine, as these were the Captain’s orders. With it helping us along we got into the lee of the land by the boat landing at seven.
Shortly after we had hove to in the offing, a boat came alongside bringing Mrs. Mami McLeod, two of her daughters, and her infant son. We were to take them to Manihiki, where Ben Ellis, Mami’s father, lives. While I was hoisting a small billiard table aboard and stowing it, I thought of the many games McLeod and I had played on it, and of his tragic death.
McLeod was an Australian of charming personality whose door was always open to his friends and to strangers stopping at Atiu. He had a rich sense of humor, was fond of practical jokes, and was the crack trader in this part of the Pacific. Years ago he married Ben Ellis’s oldest daughter, and they were a perfectly matched pair; we traders often pointed out McLeod as an example of a man happily married in the Islands.
Now the boat comes into the story. In August 1923, I was in Manihiki visiting Ben Ellis. When he spoke of McLeod his eyes would sparkle, and I could see that he was proud of the man who had married into his family.
‘McLeod is a funny feller,’ Ben said to me one day. ‘You know, when he ask me for my daughter I feel very happy, for I know he is a good man. But when I ask him when he want to marry her, he say, “Oh, to-morrow.” I say, “All right,” and as it is evening I get out one fine demijohn of raisin wine that I have been saving for three year, and McLeod and I have a fine time that night. Next morning he come to me in dungaree pants and a singlet with a hole in the left shoulder, and he say, “Come on, Ben, I’m going to marry your daughter to-day!”
‘I say, “All right. I wait for you while you get dressed.”
‘But McLeod laugh and say, “Oh, that’s all right. I get married like I am. Mami loves me, not my fine clothes.”
‘I think this is funny, you know; but then, McLeod is a funny feller, so I don’t say any more. We go up to the Father and he marry my daughter.’
A moment later Ben said: ‘Come with me and I show you the boat I build for my son-in-law.’
We walked through the clean little village of whitewashed coral houses, with their brown pandanus-leaf roofs and little gardens filled with frangipani and gardenias and hedged with false coffee. At the outskirts of the village Ben stopped before an open shed where he was building McLeod’s boat. It was a pretty craft about twenty feet long, beamy, with a narrow transom and a clipper bow. I could see that Ben was working on it with the love of a fine craftsman.
The next day I sailed from Manihiki to Samoa and Fiji; but a few months later, when I stopped off at Atiu on the way to my new trading station on Puka-Puka, McLeod showed me the boat, now completed and brought south aboard the Tagua. He told me how he had sailed it nineteen miles to the island of Takutea; how he had loaded it to the gunwales with coconuts and fish, and come back with the power of an outboard motor, because the boat was too deep in the water to sail. The trip had been extremely hazardous. That was McLeod’s fault: he was fearless to the point of foolhardiness.
I met him several times after that; once in Tahiti and twice at his trading station. The last meeting was three months ago, when on my way to Manuae. That day we discussed a few bottles of island-brewed ale, and we seemed to warm to one another as we had never done before. Later we played billiards on his little table; and toward dusk he came aboard the Tagua, where we yarned far into the night. At about twelve he rose to go. The night was dark and there were heavy seas on the reef, making the crossing dangerous even in the daytime, but this did not deter him. He disappeared over the side, and the shadowy outline of his boat merged into the darkness. For a moment I could hear the thole pins rattle; then he was gone.
I stopped off at Manuae that trip. When the Tagua returned after three months, Captain Thomson met me with a long face. ‘McLeod is dead!’ he said.
On the twenty-first of October, McLeod took his boat over the reef for a sail. With him were John, his fiveyear-old son, and six natives. It was in the forenoon; the wind was fresh and the sea choppy, but it seemed safe enough. They sailed about eight miles from shore; a sharp puff of wind caught the sail when she was close-hauled, ready to come about, and the boat capsized.
No one thought of the bailing tin, and when the boat was righted they found that it was lost. At first they were not greatly concerned. It is true that the island was eight miles to windward and the wind freshening, but they believed that it would be no more than a half hour’s work to bail the boat and get under way. The mast was unstepped and thrown overboard with the spars and sails; then all but one clung to the sailing gear while Kamu, a Rarotongan, climbed into the boat to bail. Taking an oar he went to work in the native manner of paddling the water out. After an hour’s work he realized that this was useless, for the choppy seas broke over the gunwales as fast as he could splash them out.
By this time John’s teeth were chattering and he was numb with cold. McLeod decided that they should sit in the foundered boat and try rowing. This was done, two men pulling on the oars while the others rested. McLeod sat in the stern sheets holding his son as high out of the water as possible.
At about eight that night they lightened the boat. Two of the weakest natives were told to get out and swim behind, supported by the gaff and boom. This meant that they were to be sacrificed, but they submitted without a murmur.
The remaining four natives rowed on, turn and turn about, barely making headway against the wind; but by ten that night they believed they were a mile closer to the land. At about that time one of the men swimming behind cried feebly, let go the boom, and sank. At eleven the other man was left behind.
There were a few fires ashore to pilot them; that is as much interest as the Resident Agent at Atiu took in the matter.
Toward midnight the sky became overcast and sharp rain squalls swept over the boat, driving her backward. During the lulls they made a little headway.
At two in the morning a strong Atiu man volunteered to swim ashore. Without more ado he leaped overboard and struck out. He made the reef by daylight and told the Resident Agent of the plight of the boat. That official followed the precedent of most men of his calling by continuing to do nothing.
Three natives, McLeod, and his son were now in the boat. Two were rowing while a third crouched forward up to his shoulders in the chill water. When Kamu called him to take his turn at the oar no answer came. Kamu leaned over and shook him. He was dead.
Kamu told me about it later, in Rarotonga. ‘I tied the little boat’s anchor to his feet and laid him across the gunwale. Then I said, “Return to God; I am too weak to pray for you!” and dropped him over the side. I saw him sink with his arms raised stiffly above his head.’
A wild stare came into Kamu’s eyes as he continued: ‘Then, for the first time, I was afraid. I thought of how my friend was sinking into the blackness, and how he would be buoyed in the bottom of the sea, standing upright in the water, his head thrown back and his hands pointing toward the surface. It terrified me; but a few moments later a raging squall swept over us and I was able to forget my friend.’
Morning came. They were on the southwest side of the island now, having drifted with the current. The land was only three miles away. Though this was an uninhabited side of the island they felt cheered, for they believed that the Resident Agent would have lookouts stationed around the island, and that a boat would be sent out as soon as they were sighted. As the sun rose their hopes died. There was no sign of boat or canoe — only the heaving sea, the coral cliffs of Atiu, and the jungle beyond!
Still the two natives rowed on, and still McLeod massaged his son and whispered encouraging words to him. At two in the afternoon they were close to the reef. Certain death would have resulted in rowing the boat on to it, for big seas were pounding the coral.
McLeod studied his two men carefully. Kamu appeared the least exhausted. ‘Kamu,’ he said, ‘take the boy ashore. Don’t worry about me; I’ll make it some way or other.’ Then he nodded to the other native to save himself.
Kamu took the boy on his back, slipped into the water, and made for the reef, the other native following close behind. When close to the reef they turned and saw McLeod slip over the side of the boat and swim slowly toward them.
Both natives made the shore, waded through the shallows, and sank down on the beach. From there they saw McLeod swim directly into the first comber, too dazed and weak to think of waiting for a calm. The comber took him and hurled him on the coral; but he was not killed. Kamu saw him rise to his knees — then the backwash caught him and whirled him in a foaming eddy out to sea.
John died shortly after Mami had tucked him in bed.
This is the story of McLeod. When we islanders think of it a shudder passes through us. We live such sensual lives in the South Seas, with Nature showering her felicities on us, that we forget the grim chances of life; we forget that there can be hunger, pain, death, until, all at once, it is brought home to us, appallingly, that these things exist.
Captain Thomson has given Mrs. McLeod his own cabin and put the children in the passenger cabin on the port side opposite his own. What a contrast they are to the other women passengers! We have three Penrhyn Island girls aboard, one traveling as cabin passenger. All day long they sit on the midshiphouse eating fruit and food prepared for them in Rarotonga. They throw the seeds and skins on deck, tie awnings of dirty quilts to the rigging, boom tackles, and halyards, and strew their belongings over the midshiphouse until the Captain and I froth at the mouth. Andy tells me that the greatest drawback in sailing an island schooner is in carrying Penrhyn women. When a squall comes, one has to untangle a confusion of lashings from the tackles and halyards before he can go to work; and if he treats the women with ordinary courtesy he is repaid by gaining the reputation for flirting outrageously.
We sailed from Atiu at 9 A.M. and sighted Manuae about dusk, lying dead ahead. The wind was over our starboard quarter, and to pass the island we had to lay off until it was nearly over our stern. It is difficult to steer with a following wind, and fat little Ropes, who was at the wheel, made a great job of it, letting the Tagua yaw back and forth, nearly backing the sails on many occasions.
Night came on quickly, with an overcast sky, and we lost sight of the island. At eight bells the Captain and I went on deck to watch for the land. The light from the hurricane lamp in the cabin blinded us, so we shut the porthole shutters, the shuttle hatch, and the doors. Immediately the Penrhyn cabin passenger started screaming complaints because it was close in the cabin, and asked if we had any intentions against her, and thus were closing the cabin in this outrageous manner. She threw open the doors and stood in the companionway with her arms akimbo.
I had the pleasure of giving her a piece of my mind as I slammed the doors shut; but this did not silence her. For half an hour we heard her coarse masculine voice cursing us.
The Captain sent Six-Seas up the rigging, but he could not make out the land, though we knew we must be very close in. Coral atolls are often invisible at night, their low fringe of trees seeming to merge with the sky and the sea, and a ship may easily run ashore before sighting the land. To-night we caught sight of white breakers on the reef dead ahead, not more than five hundred yards away. With a yell Andy leaped aft and jerked the wheel from Ropes, throwing it hard to port. I ran forward and let go the fore boom tackle, and then jumped aft, freeing the main purchase on the way, and helped the boys haul in on the mainsheet. We wore around, missing the reef by a matter of yards.
December 29. — We sighted Aitutaki at half-past four this morning, after three hours of careful watching, for the reef of Aitutaki, lying four miles from shore, is an ideal place to pile up a ship.
We were by the passage at noon, and I started sending cargo off, while the Captain went ashore to visit our trader, Drury Low. Boatloads of copra came from shore during the afternoon, and we had to work hard clearing space for it in the hold. This space was filled by evening; but at 6 P.M. two more boats came alongside, carrying about seven tons. We were all tired and irritable. I tried to send the copra back, but the boats would not leave. Finally I took it aboard, and as there was no room below I had to clear a space on deck, stack it, and cover it with tarpaulins. We were not through until after eight, when the Captain came back.
It was my watch on deck when the work was done, so I laid the schooner off from the land and paced the midshiphouse deck, rubbing my eyes and stamping my feet to keep awake. Just before midnight a tremendous black cloud rolled up from windward, with all the earmarks of a vicious squall. Eight bells rang. I chuckled as I had a last glance at the squall, now a mile or two away. Then I called Seaside and the Captain, and am now in my cabin writing my journal and ready to turn in for a well-earned four hours’ sleep.
Captain Thomson has wore the ship around so as to get the copra on the windward side. The wind is howling overhead and the rain roaring on the deck.
December 30. — This morning we went to work emptying the hatches and stowing the copra that came aboard last night. When we sailed up to the passage at eight, three more boatloads were waiting for us. Captain Thomson took it aboard and sent word ashore that he would take no more. It was at last stowed, our cargo got under hatches, and we set sail for the sevenhundred-mile run to Manihiki, the first of the Line Islands.
January 4. — Last night we had our first long tropic squall. When I went on deck at midnight the wind was light, and the schooner barely had steerageway. I propped a pillow against the skylight and, lying on deck, watched ahead where a dense cloud mass blackened the sky. It merged with the sea, thickening and darkening until I could not tell where the cloud ended and the sea began.
Though it was still calm about the ship, shreds of mist raced past the moon; then it was lost behind the rising cloud, and darkness had smothered the sea. The cloud rose higher, and, as though giving us a moment’s rest before bursting upon us, the wind died, and the reef points pattered against the booming sails as we wallowed in the trough of the sea.
I rose and went aft to shout to the Captain that I was going to take in sail. Then I lashed the wheel and took my watch forward to drop the fisherman’s staysail and roll it up on deck. By this time the rain had started to fall and a light wind from the southwest was backing our sails. There was no time to lose. I ran forward to the jib topsail halyard, letting go the fore boom tackle on the way. Ropes and Six-Seas were at the topsail sheet and downhaul. ‘Ready!’ I sang out, letting go the halyard, and the sail ran down her stay. Ropes and Six-Seas sheeted the other head sails over, while I ran aft and swung the main boom over by easing off on her tackle. By now the wind was yelling in the rigging and the schooner shaking her kites up into the wind. I laid the wheel hard alee, the wind filled the sails, and the Tagua rolled on her beam end, raging through the water, pawing it and dashing it from her cutwater with a vengeance. Great stretches of foam surged out for fifty yards on either bow, the wind screamed, and the rain poured down. Still holding the wheel, I slipped off my singlet and pareu to let the rain pour in torrents down my skin.
Soon Six-Seas came to take the wheel. I ran into my cabin for a bar of soap, and returning on deck passed along the lee alleyway to the forward part of the house, where the water was pouring over the coaming in deluges. I soaped myself and washed off a dozen times. The whole crew was on deck by now, and the Captain was aft bellowing for the soap. Some of the boys sat in the weather alleyway where the water collected, washing their clothes, shouting and laughing like the seven naked savages they are.
It was a fine sight. The Tagua lay far over, plunging through the water as the rain poured over her decks. Soon the passengers were on deck, naked and yelling, grouped under the mainboom and the break of the house where the water poured down. But soon the squall had passed. Then the sails boomed, shaking spray across the deck until the faithful old trade blew again, filling the great sails and carrying us on toward lonely little Manihiki atoll.
After the squall I sat with Captain Thomson in his cabin, and though it was after 2 A.M. neither of us felt like sleeping, for the rain bath had thoroughly roused us.
Presently he said: ‘I’m glad you took in sail in time, for we can’t stand much of this kind of thing with our masts ready to fall overboard, and if we do get caught in a bad squall it may be the end of us.’
During a rain squall to-day a school of about a hundred small dolphins came alongside — I am referring to the Coryphœna, not the porpoises that landsmen call dolphins. We fished from aft, catching twenty in as many minutes. Food used a pearl-shell lure, while Andy fished with a piece of red bunting seized to a hook. Some of the fish were golden and some bluish-silver when taken out of the water. As soon as they flapped their slim bodies on deck a rapid transition of colors variegated their skins. From blotches of purple and gold they would change by perceptible degrees to other colors no less splendid — a prodigal gesture in death, beautiful and pathetic.
Some half-pound cock schnappers followed the school. They are the fish called tamure in the islands, and are distinctly a lagoon species, living in coral caverns and seldom seen over even sandy stretches of bottom where there is no shelter. But here they were, hundreds of miles from the nearest lagoon, the same little yellow fellows I have fished for with a waterglass and a hook baited with a bit of octopus tentacle. Why did they come to sea? Do they spawn here or do they follow the larger fish across the Pacific in search of new and better-provisioned lagoons? And does this explain why the same species of lagoon fish are found at islands with a thousand miles of open sea between them? Andy and I could hardly believe our eyes; we had to catch one to assure ourselves they were a reality.
To-night the wind is dead and the sky clear, except to windward, where a bank of clouds has been hanging the entire day. Seas are running from all directions; they meet in pyramids and razorback ridges, rolling the old Tagua heartlessly.
I worked four hours in the engine room, but could not get the confounded engine to go. I am afraid it will never go again. But perhaps it will, for at the end of four hours I found that the carburetors were full of water instead of gasoline. I left the thing in disgust.
January 5. — Calms and variable winds. There are more fish than ever about the ship. To-day we caught some small spotted trigger fish (kokiri). I hesitate to mention them lest I be charged with spinning longish yarns. Nevertheless there are several hundred swimming under our counter now, in as close formation as a school of mullet. When the Captain called me and I glanced over the side it seemed incredible; I should have been no more surprised if rainbow trout had been swimming under our counter. One might imagine a full-grown schnapper, or countfish, spawning at sea, resulting in the cock schnappers out here; but a little trigger fish that feeds in the coral labyrinths, and flips into his hole at the first sight of a larger fish! The thing seemed impossible. Andy told me that during all his years at sea he had never seen a lagoon fish in the middle of the Pacific. Thereupon we began speculating on the possibility of our being over some great and uncharted shoal.
The sea is massed with living things. We run into schools of squid that literally whiten the water; porpoises leap about, us daily; there are hundreds of dolphins and thousands upon thousands of bonito. Yesterday we caught a five-hundred-pound shark, and every day several of the great brutes fin lazily past. It seems that we are sailing through a great convention of all the fishes in the seven seas; that the Tagua is a seamark they rally round.
At dusk an angel fish jumped out of the water a few yards over our stern — one of those monster rays with eyes on the tips of a crescent-shaped head. Andy and I were fishing for trigger fish with short hand lines when the great ray, with wings ten feet from tip to tip, soared fully six feet in the air, then, as though his momentum had been broken suddenly by some invisible obstacle, fell flat upon the water with a loud concussion.
January 6. — This morning it was glassy calm, but big rollers are coming up from the southeast, heralding the trade. I started the engine at eight and kept it running until three this afternoon. It was as hot as a Democratic convention in the engine room. At 3 P.M. wind came from the southwest in a grand squall. Stripping, I went on deck to wash the engine-room grease and the perspiration from me; then sat in the weather alleyway and washed a singlet and a pareu.
At eight this evening the trade touched us lightly, like a ghostly benediction, a faint breeze out of the southsoutheast. I sat on the after house, chortling as it fanned me, watching the old lady get under way for her last long wind to Manihiki. The Captain came on deck to prance back and forth, glowing with keen enjoyment and flashing his gold tooth as he passed numerous platitudes about how fine it is to get out of the doldrums, and to feel the wind of the South Sea Islands.
January 7. — Captain Thomson and I have each taken star sights this evening. They agreed very well, showing us to be ninety-six miles from Manihiki. It has been many years since I navigated, but the trick came back easily enough.
Later I lay down with a volume of William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and lost myself in his delicate and impossible Utopia. When I finally came to the end it was with a shock to find myself at sea, breathing air heavy with the rancid stench of copra, with two rotten masts hanging over me and ready to crash down at any moment. I wish I could forget those masts.
There is a superb transition toward the end of News from Nowhere in which the Utopian world fades and the story teller returns to the old cockneyfied civilization. I think Morris’s Utopia might be contrasted very well with Puka-Puka, for I know of no other place where a successful communistic civilization exists.
January 8. — ‘Curse of Satan on me! Come up here, Ropati!’ Captain Thomson shouted this morning from the main hounds. ‘I have never seen a sight like this!’
I jumped into the rigging and was soon beside him, high up on the mainmast where I could get an extensive view over the sea. It was alive with masses of fish that reminded one of regiments in close formation. They were mostly small bonito interspersed with schools of albacore; but breaking through the ranks, zigzagging among the silver and blue bonito and cleaving the companies of golden-striped dolphins, were a few two-hundred-pound yellow-fin tuna. The larger fish remained close to the surface; but schools of innumerable small bonito would sound suddenly, seeming to dissolve in the water until all at once there was an empty space in the sea. For a moment they would be gone, and we would turn our attention to some porpoises leaping along the horizon, or to the trigger fish still under our counter; and when our gaze returned to where the bonito had been, they were there again, swimming along blithely, their backs gleaming like polished steel.
There was something magical about it that fascinated us. Andy would yell with delight when they appeared from nowhere; and when a monster tuna swam across our bows he took an almost childish pleasure in crying, ’There he is! Look at the monster! Did you ever see such a lump of fishflesh? Hey, Food!’ to the sailor on the bowsprit, ‘land that big boy and I’ll give you a tot of rum to-night!’
Food needed no bribing; he would rather catch that fish — for culinary purposes — than drink all the rum in Tahiti.
Second-Return crawled out on the jib boom with a fishpole and joined Food, one fishing from each side. Then Ropes climbed on to the weather guy with a landing net, and waited for action. It was slow at first, only small bonito snapping half-heartedly at the lures. But when one was hooked, a savage yell would come up to Andy and me; Six-Seas at the wheel would repeat it; Jimmy, scrubbing the cabin floor, would voice a sympathetic pipe; even the cook in the galley sang out as he manipulated Manihiki pancakes.
Presently we ran into a great school of flying fish; then such a mad scene followed as few men have witnessed. The sea whitened with foam as tens of thousands of fish flew after their prey, often leaping in the air to catch the flying fish on the wing. The ranks were broken; schools of small bonito mixed with the larger albacore; dolphins rushed wildly in every direction with such speed that one’s eye could hardly follow them; the huge yellow-fin tuna churned the water with their powerful tails. On both beams, ahead and astern, was a confused, crisscrossing, leaping and plunging maelstrom of fish. Andy yelled as he watched them whirling, diving, rolling their sleek backs out of the water.
I wonder if a single one of that great school of flying fish escaped. Certainly few lived to feed the next army of bonito that should find them. We would watch one of the frightened flyers soaring a few feet above the water and almost imagine we could feel his body palpitating with panic fear. Beneath him a great albacore would whip the water, following every swerve of the flying fish. The flyer would hold out as long as he could, aware of the relentless enemy below; but finally he must return to his element, and then, often before he had touched the water, the albacore would leap in the air and catch the flyer in his hungry jaws. There would follow a milling of foam, a swish of a big tail above the sea, and the albacore would dart off after another of the little flyers.
Far out at sea, a mile from the ship, we could see foaming patches of ocean where the silver bellies of the bonito flashed in the sun. On the jib boom, Food and Second-Return were insane with bloodthirsty glee. In the excitement caused by the flying fish, the bigger fish jumped at the lures as soon as they touched the water; often when they were out of the water two or more fish would jump at the same time, fighting in the air for them. Then, for a moment or two there would be a turmoil in the water, a babble of yelling, struggling sailors, and a roar of curses from Andy on the crosstrees, until Ropes’s landing net had swooped down and brought the fish on deck.
Presently one tremendous yellow-fin tuna took Food’s lure. In an instant the pole was jerked downward so that it pointed directly into the water. Food held on for dear life, clutching the pole with both hands and winding his legs around the jib boom. With a tug the fish whirled him around so that he was hanging upside down under the spar. At the same instant Second-Return tossed a small bonito into the landing net; then, laying his pole along the jackstay, he jumped on to the stream chain and helped Food. Both held on with all their strength. Andy screamed from the hounds that if they lost the fish he would kill them; Jimmy left the cabin and ran forward; Six-Seas whooped from his place at the wheel; the cook dashed out of the galley, flour flying from his clothes, his hands daubed with dough. He climbed on to the bowsprit, but was too late. The Tagna rose on a sea, and at the same moment the tuna tugged downward. Both sailors were torn from the spar and fell into the sea.
‘Man overboard!’ Andy yelled, and threw himself on to the topmast stay to go down hand over hand almost as fast as though he were falling. I followed, climbing down the ratlins. Before we reached the deck Six-Seas had jumped from the wheel and thrown the free end of the mainsheet overboard. Then he laid the wheel two-blocks over, luffing the schooner into the wind. Both sailors caught hold of the mainsheet, and when the schooner had lost her headway they were hauled aboard. They were still holding on to the fishpole, but the tuna was gone.
Andy and I glanced over the sea before going below for our noon meal. The flying fish were gone, and the sea had resumed its tranquil face. Again the close ranks of bonito swam near the ship; the schools of albacore finned lazily a few yards away; the great yellow-fin tuna broke through the ranks like officers inspecting their marching troops. The sea was serene. One could not believe that it ever had been, or ever would be, otherwise.
‘There’s your Kanaka sailors!’ Andy growled as he climbed down the companionway ladder. ‘Now if a white man had been on the jib boom he would have landed that fish.... I guess Food was n’t hungry enough, considering all the fish he’s been eating these days.’
We should be in Manihiki early tomorrow morning.
(To be cantinued)