The Story of an Island: The Hurricane
by ROBERT DEAN FRISBIE
LAST night we talked about the cutter we had seen, we dreamed about it, we worried about it. When we first sighted her we thought she might be Hurry Home returning from Nassau and Manihiki to take us away from lonely Suvorov Atoll. There was no telling whether or not she had a mizzenmast; but once we were home and had studied her through the binocular, there was no question that she belonged to a species of vessel much evolved above Captain Prospect’s “ship.” She had a long main gaff and a tall mast, she was painted white, and aft there was some kind of shelter for the man at the wheel.
I hoped she had an engine, and this was associated with my worry, for she was within the northeast bight, where so many ships have been wrecked. The wind was rising and squalls were darkening the northern sky. The last we saw of her she was beating up slowly on the port tack, four miles off the passage, presently to drive into a huge squall; and when it had passed, night had come down ominous, windy, and sudden.
This morning, on crossing to the outer beach, we saw her in about the same place. I had my binocular on her when she turned into Suvorov’s turbulent passage. I could see a man at the starboard shrouds and another at the wheel. Both, like good sailors, kept their eyes ahead; and this must have taken courage, for every moment or two a great sea would surge up behind the tiny boat, lift her stern until she was virtually standing on her bowsprit, fling her forward a few yards, then roll under her to set her on her stern with bowsprit pointing almost to the zenith; and then, as she tried to climb the wave, the current would drag her back so that at times she seemed to lose more than she gained. At last, when a sea broke a few feet aft of her transom and swept her deck from end to end, she was flung fully fifty yards ahead. Then she was safe, for she was out of ihe current and the tide rip and had entered the lagoon as soon as she had rounded the point.
The five of us hurried across the island to where we had left Panikiniki, and paddled out to meet the cutter. When wc were close, and had read the name J agus on her bow, we threw a line aboard, which one of the men made fast, and then climbed on deck.
A short red-faced man of about thirty, with a broken nose and the combined appearance of a pugilist and a dreamer, was at the wheel. He grinned rather alarmingly and stretched out his hand. I gave him my name.
“Frisbie!” he exclaimed, as if lost in astonishment. “ Not the Frisbie —the Frisbie of Pukapuka!”
“Yes, that’s me,” I replied, somewhat abashed.
“Shake hands again!” he cried. “I never expected to meet the Frisbie of Pukapuka at Suvorov! My name is Powell.”
Then came my turn. “Not the Powell!” I cried, trying to put the same warmth into my tone. “Not the Powell of Palmerston Island!”
“The same,” he replied, grinning, and we shook hands yet once again, which made us even, tho first one having been in mutual esteem, the second one in my honor, the third one in honor of Powell.
“We’ll have a glass of rum when we get anchored,” Powell added, which tied another knot in the bonds of friendship and made me aware that I had met a good man — according to the South Sea trader’s definition of the word “good.”
The cowboys — my four children — shook hands with Powell, and then the other member of the cutter’s company came aft and was introduced as John Pratt of London, the owner. He was about the same age as Powell. He had a droll expression; his eyeglasses added to the expression, and his long limbs completed it. His hair was thin and sandy, his nose long and pointed, his ears large and his hands could belong only to an artist.
“Oh, you’re E-f-frisbie,” Pratt said, stuttering slightly. “I know all about you.’ Then, a fleeting sparkle in his eyes, he repeated what Powell had said: “We’ll have a glass of rum when we’re anchored.”
With Panikiniki towing astern I piloted them to the anchorage; and when she was snugly berthed Powell and Pratt invited the five of us below. Cakes and lime juice were served to the cowboys, Barbados rum to the three hard-doers of the South Seas.
Vagus is the finest little vessel I have ever seen, heard of, or dreamed of. She was built on the lines of the Colrn Archer North Sea lifeboats, the same lines Ralph Stock used for his famous Dream Ship. She is a double-ender, forty feet long, beamy, with a low freeboard, about eight feet draft, and with planking of two-and-a-half-inch English oak. Forward is a small winch that actually works. Aft of the winch is stowed a seaworthy dinghy. The mast is tall and must be fully a foot in diameter at the deck; the boom is as heavy as Hurry Home’s mainmast. In the cockpit are the engine controls, the binnacle, and athirty-six-inch hardwood wheel. The decks are of teak, the deck fastenings bronze.
Below, elegance has been sacrificed for simplicity. Everything is strong and of the best quality: waferproof canvas pillows and mattresses on the bunks, a primus stove with a. five-gallon supply tank in the galley, instruments of navigation to delight the eye, an eighteen months’ supply of food — corned-beef hash and chile con carne. Hormel hams and chickens, gingersnaps and cheese biscuits, dill pickles and Roquefort cheese, American canned beer and French bottled wine. Oh Lord, why go on enumerating? John Pratt’s boat is the one I have dreamed of since I was old enough to know what a boat is. All my sins and all my failures, I verily believe, have been begotten by a feeling of intense frustration because I could never hope to own a boat like V agus.
While sipping the Barbados rum I learned that John Pratt was a commercial artist. A year before World War II he sailed out of England, with a partner, for the West Indies. Arrived at Cuba, he sent his partner home, then cruised in the Caribbean for three years. A few months ago, in Panama, he provisioned his boat for an eighteen-months cruise and set out alone for Rarotonga. He made the passage in eighty-odd days. “I just let her g-g-go,“ he told me, with a kind of childish simplicity that was altogether charming. “I never t.-t-took in sail but once, but I hardly left the deck cither. I always slept in the little h-h-half-shelter aft.”
After stretching his legs ashore at Avarua, on Rarotonga, Pratt sailed to Palmerston Island, where lived Ronald Powell, a friend of former days. ‘ ‘ Ron ” Powell is a master shipwright, saihnaker, carpenter, cooper, blacksmith, sailor; and a dilettante in the arts. He has written a good book, but, more to his credit, he has built, at Palmerston, boats as fine as any shipyard could put out. With these boats the people have established a successful fishery. Powell has made his own salt from sea water, salted and smoked his fish, made his own barrels from coconut wood, packed the fish in them, and shipped them to Rarotonga by the ton. He has raised Palmerston from poverty to moderate opulence.
When Pratt put into Palmerston, ten days ago, Powell joined him for a short cruise among the Northern Islands. And here they are now, at Suvorov. And there we were, — the cowboys and I. — drinking Barbados rum and lime juice, gorging on Huntley & Palmers cakes, raising our voices to see who could do the most talking in the shortest time.
Presently I told them about the warplanes, and how we had taken cover, and later had sailed in search of castaways on Tou Islet; and when they asked me I told them about the star insignia on the warplanes* wings.
They had a good laugh over that and explained that the insignia, a star, was one of the stars from my own star-spangled banner. Then Pratt asked me what kind of planes they were, land or sea; and when I replied that I hadn’t the foggiest idea he laughed again and told me I was a generation behind the times, for any child in England or America would instantly have catalogued them as sea, land, or amphibian; lighter, bomber, or observation.
IT IS half past four in the morning, I note by flashing my torch at the clock-barometer combination on the wall opposite my bunk. (Torch batteries from Vagus.) The glass reads something like 29.70. Very low! We’re in for a bad northwesterly, I fancy. The tree-house creaks and shakes with every blast of wind. Perhaps I made a mistake by straddling the house between twro trees. Now if the trees bend in opposite directions the house may fall.
The passage has become so rough that there is no hope of sailing out to sea. This is what Powell and Pratt want to do, but they are here now and they’ll have to stay until the weather moderates. Their boat seems safe enough, for there isn’t much danger of tlie weather’s getting worse. The barometer remains steady at 29.70.
The wind has been in the east-northeast today, and seems to have settled there. It is blowing at about a force 8 — which in other words is a full storm. This is the strongest wind I have experienced in the South Seas save only for the edge of a hurricane that I went through in Pukapuka. The passage is a nightmare of confused fighting seas. Vagus is weathering it handsomely. We went aboard her this morning, started the engine, and steamed close to where the anchor had been dropped, there to drop a second hook and then let the boat drift back until both chains got an equal strain.
It was snug and comfortable in the cabin; the vessel pitched only slightly; somehow I felt securely isolated from the ominous weather outside. But when I went on deck a wet blast of wind slapped my face, the cutter seemed suddenly to pitch and roll, the face of the lagoon had a nasty look. Big seas, piling over the reef and shallows, had whitened the water with foam; long reaches of chopping waves curved away to the west as far as I could see. I not iced that the wharf, for the moment, was ent irely under water. Seas were washing up the beach and into the jungle. The sky was ghastly.
“There’s nothing more we can do,” said Powell. “I’ll break out some tinned pineapple and biscuits for Frisbie and his cowboys and we’ll go ashore.”
“Yes,” Pratt agreed, “and break out a dozen c-c-cans of beer. 1 don’t: mind losing my boat, b-b-but I’d hate to have all that b-b-beer go to the bottom.”
When we had paddled ashore we hauled Panilciniki well above the high-water mark; then, in as casual a way as possible, for my own peace of mind as well as for the cowboys’, Powell’s, and Pratt’s, I drove a few spikes into the beams of the tree-house and fixed four braces to the ground-house posts. Glancing at the barometer, I found it had dropped to 29.50.
We now know there is a hurricane brewing somewhere in this vicinity, but we do not speak of it. A hurricane on a tiny island of twenty-five acres, with the highest elevation thirteen feet, and nothing more substantial underfoot than sand and gravel, is a nasty thing to contemplate.
Wrhen I woke early this morning I saw Pratt standing at the west window, his head and shoulders thrust out.
“She s still there,”he said. “I can see her m-mmasls.”
We had a good breakfast; then we left the clearing to walk toward the lagoon beach. We found that, during the night, the seas had swept inland halfway to the clearing and had cleaned out every sign of jungle, leaving the coconut trees standing in pure white sand. It was a bewildering sight. Here, where a day or two ago Johnny and I had hunted coconut crabs in dark and all but impenetrable jungle, was smooth, clean, sloping sand staked off with the slim pole-like boles of coconut palms, here and there, with fallen trees tracing their length down the beach. But we were soon shocked out of our bewilderment, for a great comber, a deluge, swept over the north point, surged down the beach with the noise of a freight train, washed up to within a yard of where we stood, then rolled away to divide its volume between the new channel and the South Islet. For a few moments Anchorage Island had been reduced in size to about five acres!
All the trees on the lagoon side of the island, we noticed, were black with roosting birds. Many frigate birds were still in the air, blown this way and that in wild confusion. Now and again one would be caught by a down gust of wind and dashed into the water. We found plenty of them, maimed or exhausted, on the beach, and we brought a few back to the clearing to be cooked for our noon meal.
At dusk Vagus was still weathering the storm; but she was receiving terrible punishment, with the wind holding her bow to the land and the seas striking her beam. We watched her rolling jerkily, her masthead tracing an arc of fully ninety degrees. Sometimes a particularly heavy sea would swing her round until she had her beam to the land; and then the wind and the sea would contend, the one blowing her stern lagoonward, the other bashing it back.
We realized that, with all this swinging about, her anchor chains must be fouling in the coral bottom; and we knew that soon the chains must work under a coral lump close below her bows, when, a sea heaving her up, something must part. We watched her out there, as evening darkened into night, but we did not speak about her, nor did we when we had returned to the clearing.
Now, at 7.00 P.M. the barometer is at 29.42! The wind still blows from the northeast, which means that the hurricane — if there is one is headed straight for Suvorov. Its center will pass to the west-northwest; we shall be in the “ dangerous semicircle.”
We have strengthened the ground-house with new braces, lashings, and plenty of spikes; and we have taken refuge there tonight. Vagus’s sails are on the windward side of the roof; they hang over the eaves to the ground, where I have staked them down. My small chest and typewriter, the remaining rum, some tea and tobacco, and a few tools and pieces of rope are in the tree-house. The pearling cutter, near the water tank, has been secured to a tamanu stump with sixteen turns of rope.
The wind howls; the rain lashes across the island; the coconut trees bend far over, their fronds flung out and clustered together. Sometimes a tree breaks off, usually ten feet from the ground, and is carried fathoms away before it lands.
Ten o’clock. The children are asleep, unconscious of danger. Pratt sits with his back to a house post and smokes cigarettes. We do not talk, for it would mean shouting in each other’s cars; but a fleeting glance, a ghost of a smile, speaks companionship. Powell is in the canoe. I shall sit under the caves, on the lee side of the house, and watch for the big seas that may come at any minute. When they start flooding the clearing I will tie the children to the tamanu trees.
Midnight. I have just been on a tour of inspection during a lull in the rain. First I climbed to the treehouse to find everything shipshape, but to read the barometer at 29.26! In a way, the reading was a relief, for it convinced me that we are in the worst of the hurricane now.
Then I went to the path that leads from the tank to the stone wharf, and there I found that the seas had swept up to the clearing or, in other words, to within thirty yards of our house. Practically all the undergrowth between the clearing and the lagoon had been washed away.
Keeping a sharp lookout, with my torch darting this way and that, I ran to within ten yards of the shore end of the wharf. Then the feeling of peril became overpowering. I turned the torch up the beach, and its beam met a towering comber, only thirty yards away and seemingly curled up fifty feet above me and about to crash down! It carried on its crest a great mass of brush and limbs and coconut fronds! I do not know whether I had time or coolness enough to realize the uncanny silence of the thing, — to realize that it seemed to be moving with lethal silence, — for the noise of the wind drowned the thunder of the sea.
Panic seized me. I leaped back, bumped against a coconut tree, and the next instant, by some newborn agility and strength, I managed to climb high up on its trunk. There I swung the ends of my liferope around the tree and held myself tightly against it. The comber swept beneath me. I could feel the tree shudder. A boulder bashed its trunk. The sea surged away. Weak, trembling, I loosened my liferope and slipped to the ground. Then I turned my torch to the lagoon, beyond the end of the wharf. Vagus was gone!
Returned to the clearing, I went to the canoe to get Powell out of it, for from what I had seen on the beach I knew that the first wave to flood the clearing would bring with it a great mass of debris, which would smash the canoe. Powell was glad enough to come to the ground-house. He said nothing; just rose like an obedient child and followed me.
I have not told Powell and Pratt that Vagus is gone, or of my own narrow escape. Ten yards from where I sit great hurricane seas arc eating away the land.
Two weeks after the hurricane. As the morning of February 22 advanced, the wind, still blowing from the northeast, became fiercer. More and more frequently the combers swept the island from end to end, from six to fifteen feet deep under the treehouse where we had taken refuge. For a time we could see the lagoon beach, now not half so faraway as formerly, for much of the land had been washed away. There was no sign of the wharf; the turmoil of water was indescribable.
By ten o’clock the last of the jungle was swept clean away, leaving only a desolate bank of sand with here and there a wind-ravaged coconut tree, a pile of debris, a great lump of coral wrenched from the barrier reef. And how insecure that bank of sand seemed to us, clinging to three of the trees still left standing, isolated in the midst of an ocean homicidal in its frenzy! At least nine out of every ten coconut trees had been uprooted or blown down. The tall coconut tree to windward leaned so far over that it sometimes touched the tree-house. We avoided looking at it or even thinking of it.
As the morning advanced, visibility lessened until at times we could see no more than twenty or thirty feet. We thought the air was thick with rain until we tasted it and found it salt; then we knew that the wind was scooping up great masses of the sea itself and flinging them in all but solid sheets across the land.
The little tree-house faced the wind bravely; and the roof stayed on, for I had lashed it down with sennit. Made of green, tough, and pliable nonu poles, the house leaned away from the wind: at times it folded down until its sides were at forty-five degrees from the vertical. I stood outside the doorway, braced between two limbs, within reach of the children should they need me. I watched the house bend and straighten in unison with the coconut trees.
There was an uncanny harmony about this concurring obedience to the wind that fascinated me horribly; it fascinated me, too, to watch the wind, like a gigantic hand, push the house over until Pratt and the children, crouching in the doorway, would suddenly be outside the house; then to watch the roof slowly move back until it was over their heads again.
Shortly after ten o’clock T noticed the barometer. It read 28.32! I tapped it, but the needle did not move, so 1 concluded that it would register no lower. Lord knows what the true pressure was — or what it dropped to, later! Silly though it may seem, the barometer reading brought, home to me more than did the wind and sea that we were experiencing a cyclonic storm. Perhaps unconsciously I had been defending my sanity by refusing wholly to admit the truth.
I studied the effect of the seas on an enormous tamanu tree standing some fifty feet to windward. It would stand, I concluded, so long as there was any land left on Anchorage Island. Then I looked on the east side of the trees we were in, to see that the roots were exposed where the water, piling over the barricade, had washed away the sand! It seemod, then, that the live tamanus could not stand much longer!
Alarmed for my children, I had half a mind to take them to the big tree at once. Then, my eyes closed to slits, I peered into the driving rain to see that the tree had fallen! And to make matters more desperate still, it was at that moment that: the big limb, which I had my back to, broke off just above my head and crashed down on the tree-house!
Some god must have looked down on us and saved us, for the house did not collapse immediately. The broken end of the limb, fully fourteen inches in diameter, pushed the roof down slowly, giving Pratt time to climb out and me time to pull out the two children, who were still in it. Then I went to work lashing Elaine and Jakey to the limb I had been bracing my feet against. I tied the life-ropes loosely, in bowknots, so that I could free the children quickly if the tree fell. Pratt climbed over the wrecked house to the next tree and tied himself to it. I slipped my life-rope around the limb my buck was to but kept the ends, untied, in my hands.
During the morning the wind had shifted very slowly from northeast to north-northeast; but from eleven o’clock until two it swung round rapidly to the north. Those were throe hours of madness. We experienced something there is no name for in my vocabulary: a sort of insane exhilaration.
The air was now almost solid with salt water raging past us horizontally, seeming to drive its needles through us. The great combers hur-led ( hemselves beneath us almost continuously. There seemed to be no land. The tamanu trees were growing out of the sea itself—growing out of a sea in turmoil indescribable. The wind lashed us and clawed us and yelled in our ears; and we bowed our heads away from it, bereft of our senses.
I believed wc were about to die in a wild nightmare of churning seas and t umbling masses of trees. More than once my brain took crazy flights, made mo believe my tree was uprooted, was being rolled by the combers across the island and into the passage; and more than once I broke from my crazy hallucination to find myself holding my breath to keep from drowning.
About two o’clock the wind shifted suddenly from the north to the northwest; and it was then that the awful thing came down on us — but, alas, I have used my superlatives, I have no words left to describe it! When we saw the comber looming out of the rain we were struck dumb with awe. Distinctly I remember bracing myself for death. The comber could be heard above the shrieking of the wind. It raged toward us, engulfing everything in its path. It seized the fallen tamanu tree and flung it at us. The comber loomed above us, its crest thirty feet high; and I remember closing my eyes tightly, gritting my teeth, holding my breath, feeling every nerve come up taut.
There was a moment of crashing branches, rushing water. My life-rope bit into my flesh; then the ends were jerked from my hands. The comber gripped me and rolled me under. It pitched me this way and that. My head struck something and I nearly lost consciousness. I thought I could hear my children screaming for help I could not give. Then I was flung against a mass of branches. I clutched them blindly, held my breath, and felt the comber surge over my body. The water subsided; and then suddenly quietness! Even the wind seemed hushed! Was it death?
It was a moment before I dared open my eyes. When I did so I saw Johnny lying face downward directly below me, her arms and legs gripping the branches; I was wedged in among a great mass of branches high above her. Then I glanced this way and that, furtively, afraid of the havoc and death I felt certain the sea must have left in its wake. Jakey, his arm badly lacerated, was clinging to his limb, which now lay horizontal, three feet off the ground. Elaine hung limply by her life-rope, and I thought her dead until I climbed down to her and found her only stupefied by the shock. Pratt was hanging to his limb, one rib broken, limp and unconscious. Johnny and Nga wore unhurt, and Powell and I had escaped with scratches.
In this predicament we awaited the next sea.
But there were no more combers! Perhaps the sudden shift in the wind had broken the offshore seas. By evening the wind had abated to (he force of a full storm. To us, huddled in the lee of the barricade of fallen trees, so soaking wet that we heeded not the rain, it seemed that there was no wind at all.
Sometime during the night, when the noise of the storm had lessened, we heard, at first indistinctly, then louder and louder, the thunder of great combers rolling over the barrier reef.
CAPTAIN PROSPECT returned on March 25. Hurry Home had been blown hither and thither and yon, escaping the hurricane but pitched, bashed, and battered by the nasty weather on t Fie edge of the storm, her chronometer run down, her radio battery exhausted, her almanac of a previous decade, her Epitome of a previous century, her captain half blind, her first officer an old woman. But there was plenty to eat, for schools of albacore followed the ship, and there were plenty of coconuts aboard for the first few weeks.
After the hurricane Captain Prospect started hunting for Manihiki in earnest, believing that if lie didn’t find it he ought at least to sight Nassau or some other island. He sailed on the port tack and lie sailed on the starboard tack: he sailed to the north, the south, the east, the west; he saw land birds and lie saw flotsam from the hurricane — but he saw no land.
Captain Prospect became worried; and when his coconuts gave out and his water ran low the worry waxed into something like a blue funk; and finally, when he decided to sail for Samoa, and a day or two later sighted an utterly unknown island, the blue funk assumed the symptoms of panic.
“Land ho!” Tangi sang out from the masthead.
“Where away?” cried the captain.
“What land is it?”
“ 1 don’t know!”
As they approached land their panic increased. Here and there were a few tiny islets, a few bedraggled coconut trees, not resembling any land in this part of the Pacific.
“Damn it!” the captain yelled. “There’s no land here! Haven’t I been dozens of times to every island in this part of the world? This island doesn’t belong here! It’s a mistake — no, it’s a mirage!”
“ Uriia—hurricane!” said Takataka; and then they began to understand that they were looking at all that remained of once luxuriant Suvorov. When thej’ had rounded the northeast point, where the Gull Group used to be, and had seen Anchorage Island reduced to three little cays, they concluded that we must have perished. It did not seem possible that anyone could have lived through a disaster that caused such wreckage. Captain Prospect wrote in his log: —
March 24, 13h: Observed Seven Islands, Suvorov, presenting a badly battered appearance, evidently having been visited by a violent gale, which same Hurry Home encountered and weathered handsomely on February 21 at a position 150 miles NNW or thereabouts.
18h: Light breeze, and still too far off to make the entrance before dark. Am standing off to the NF for the night.
March 25, 10h: Anchorage Island has the appearance of being badly swept by a hurricane, with no sign of life anywhere. It has been reduced to one-tenth its former area. There are now three small cays with a few coconut stumps where formerly there had been a rich little island of some 25 acres. On Hurry Home’s departure for Nassau and Manihiki on January 24 there were left on the island Air. R. Frisbie, a Yankee, together with his son and three daughters, who ranged in ages up to ten years. Hurry Home has now returned to Suvorov for water and repairs, has been two months at sea, having failed, due to the storm, to make Manihiki.
When the captain wrote this entry he did not know that we had miraculously survived, nor did he know of Powell and Pratt and the loss of Vagus. When we went aboard Hurry Home he told us he had expected to go ashore to hunt for and bury our bodies.
Hurry Home lias sailed, taking Powell and Pratt to Rarotonga — if Captain Prospect can find Rarotonga. We have been left behind again, at our own request, for there was less than a drum of water aboard and very little food. The captain would have taken us had we decided to go, but he seemed relieved when we told him we would wait for his return. As it is, he has left us a little tobacco, tea, and soap, so we feel ourselves well off indeed.
“When the next ship comes we must leave,” Johnny said as we sat by the campfire that night. “ Jakey’s pants — and yours too — are full of holes, and my sisters and I have only these ragged old dresses. We must buy plenty of pretty clothes.”
“That means money, Johnny.”
“Yes,” she replied thoughtfully, “we’ll all have to go to work for our uncle. What is his name?”