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Sea StoriesA Ship On Fire At Sea
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The Club-hauling Of The Diomede
We continued our cruise along the coast, until we had run down into the
Bay of Arcason, where we captured two or three vessels, and obliged
many more to run on shore. And here we had an instance showing how
very important it is that the captain of a man-of-war should be a good
sailor, and have his ship in such discipline as to be strictly obeyed
by his ship's company. I heard the officers unanimously assert, after
the danger was over, that nothing but the presence of mind which was
shown by Captain Savage could have saved the ship and her crew. We had
chased a convoy of vessels to the bottom of the bay: the wind was very
fresh when we hauled off, after running them on shore; and the surf on
the beach even at that time was so great, that they were certain to go
to pieces before they could be got afloat again. We were obliged to
double-reef the topsails as soon as we hauled to the wind, and the
weather looked very threatening. In an hour afterwards, the whole sky
was covered with one black cloud, which sank so low as nearly to touch
our mast-heads, and a tremendous sea, which appeared to have risen up
almost by magic, rolled in upon us, setting the vessel on a dead lee
shore. As the night closed in, it blew a dreadful gale, and the ship
was nearly buried with the press of canvas which she was obliged to
carry: for had we sea-room, we should have been lying-to under storm
staysails; but we were forced to carry on at all risks, that we might
claw off shore. The sea broke over us as we lay in the trough,
deluging us with water from the forecastle, aft, to the binnacles; and
very often as the ship descended with a plunge, it was with such force
that I really thought she would divide in half with the violence of the
shock. Double breechings were rove on the guns, and they were further
secured with tackles; and strong cleats nailed behind the trunnions;
for we heeled over so much when we lurched, that the guns were wholly
supported by the breechings and tackles, and had one of them broken
loose it must have burst right through the lee side of the ship, and
she must have foundered. The captain, first lieutenant, and most of
the officers, remained on deck during the whole of the night; and
really, what with the howling of the wind, the violence of the rain,
the washing of the water about the decks, the working of the
chain-pumps, and the creaking and groaning of the timbers, I thought
that we must inevitably have been lost; and I said my prayers at least
a dozen times during the night, for I felt it impossible to go to bed.
I had often wished, out of curiosity, that I might be in a gale of
wind; but I little thought it was to have been a scene of this
description, or anything half so dreadful. What made it more appalling
was, that we were on a lee shore, and the consultations of the captain
and officers, and the eagerness with which they looked out for
daylight, told us that we had other dangers to encounter besides the
storm. At last the morning broke, and the look-out man upon the
gangway called out, "Land on the lee beam!" I perceived the master
dash his feet against the hammock-rails, as if with vexation, and walk
away without saying a word, looking very grave.
"Up there, Mr. Wilson," said the captain to the second lieutenant, "and
see how far the land trends forward, and whether you can distinguish
the point." The second lieutenant went up the main-rigging, and
pointed with his hand to about two points before the beam.
"Do you see two hillocks, inland?"
"Yes, sir," replied the second lieutenant.
"Then it is so," observed the captain to the master, "and if we weather
it we shall have more sea-room. Keep her full, and let her go through
the water; do you hear, quartermaster?"
"Ay, ay, sir."
"Thus, and no nearer, my man. Ease her with a spoke or two when she
sends; but be careful, or she'll take the wheel out of your hands."
It really was a very awful sight. When the ship was in the trough of
the sea, you could distinguish nothing but a waste of tumultuous water;
but when she was borne up on the summit of the enormous waves, you then
looked down, as it were, upon a low, sandy coast, close to you, and
covered with foam and breakers. "She behaves nobly," observed the
captain, stepping aft to the binnacle, and looking at the compass; "if
the wind does not baffle us, we shall weather." The captain had
scarcely time to make the observation, when the sails shivered and
flapped like thunder. "Up with the helm; what are you about,
"The wind has headed us, sir," replied the quartermaster, coolly.
The captain and master remained at the binnacle watching the compass;
and when the sails were again full, she had broken off two points, and
the point of land was only a little on the lee-bow.
"We must wear her round, Mr. Falcon. Hands, wear ship--ready, oh,
"She has come up again," cried the master, who was at the binnacle.
"Hold fast there a minute. How's her head now?"
"N.N.E., as she was before she broke off, sir."
"Pipe belay," said the captain. "Falcon," continued he, "if she breaks
off again we may have no room to wear; indeed, there is so little room
now, that I must run the risk. Which cable was ranged last night--the
"Jump down, then, and see it double-bitted and stoppered at thirty
fathoms. See it well done--our lives may depend upon it."
The ship continued to hold her course good; and we were within half a
mile of the point, and fully expected to weather it, when again the wet
and heavy sails flapped in the wind, and the ship broke off two points
as before. The officers and seamen were aghast, for the ship's head
was right on to the breakers. "Luff now, all you can, quartermaster,"
cried the captain. "Send the men aft directly. My lads, there is no
time for words--I am going to _club-haul_ the ship, for there is no
room to wear. The only chance you have of safety is to be cool, watch
my eye, and execute my orders with precision. Away to your stations
for tacking ship. Hands by the best bower anchor. Mr. Wilson, attend
below with the carpenter and his mates, ready to cut away the cable at
the moment that I give the order. Silence there, fore and aft.
Quartermaster, keep her full again for stays. Mind you ease the helm
down when I tell you." About a minute passed before the captain gave
any further orders. The ship had closed-to within a quarter-mile of
the beach, and the waves curled and topped around us, bearing us down
upon the shore, which presented one continued surface of foam,
extending to within half a cable's length of our position. The captain
waved his hand in silence to the quartermaster at the wheel, and the
helm was put down. The ship turned slowly to the wind, pitching and
chopping as the sails were spilling. When she had lost her way, the
captain gave the order, "Let go the anchor. We will haul all at once,
Mr. Falcon," said the captain. Not a word was spoken; the men went to
the fore brace, which had not been manned; most of them knew, although
I did not, that if the ship's head did not go round the other way, we
should be on shore, and among the breakers, in half a minute. I
thought at the time that the captain had said that he would haul all
the yards at once, there appeared to be doubt or dissent on the
countenance of Mr. Falcon; and I was afterwards told that he had not
agreed with the captain; but he was too good an officer, and knew that
there was no time for discussion, to make any remark: and the event
proved that the captain was right. At last the ship was head to wind,
and the captain gave the signal. The yards flew round with such a
creaking noise, that I thought the masts had gone over the side, and
the next moment the wind had caught the sails; and the ship, which for
a moment or two had been on an even keel, careened over to her gunwale
with its force. The captain, who stood upon the weather hammock-rails,
holding by the main-rigging, ordered the helm a-midships, looked full
at the sails, and then at the cable, which grew broad upon the
weather-bow, and held the ship from nearing the shore. At last he
cried, "Cut away the cable!" A few strokes of the axes were heard, and
then the cable flew out of the hawse-hole in a blaze of fire, from the
violence of the friction, and disappeared under a huge wave, which
struck us on the chesstree, and deluged us with water fore and aft.
But we were now on the other tack, and the ship regained her way, and
we had evidently increased our distance from the land.
"My lads," said the captain to the ship's company, "you have behaved
well, and I thank you; but I must tell you honestly that we have more
difficulties to get through. We have to weather a point of the bay on
this tack. Mr. Falcon, splice the main-brace, and call the watch.
How's her head, quartermaster?"
"S.W. by S. Southerly, sir."
"Very well; let her go through the water;" and the captain, beckoning
to the master to follow him, went down into the cabin. As our
immediate danger was over, I went down into the berth to see if I could
get anything for breakfast, where I found O'Brien and two or three more.
"By the powers, it was as nate a thing as ever I saw done," observed
O'Brien: "the slightest mistake as to time or management, and at this
moment the flatfish would have been dubbing at our ugly carcasses.
Peter, you're not fond of flatfish, are you, my boy? We may thank
Heaven and the captain, I can tell you that, my lads; but now, where's
the chart, Robinson? Hand me down the parallel rules and compasses,
Peter; they are in the corner of the shelf. Here we are now, a
devilish sight too near this infernal point. Who knows how her head
"I do, O'Brien: I heard the quartermaster tell the captain S.W. by S.
"Let me see," continued O'Brien, "variation 2 1/4--leeway--rather too
large an allowance of that, I'm afraid; but, however, we'll give her 2
1/2 points; the _Diomede_ would blush to make any more, under any
circumstances. Here--the compass--now, we'll see;" and O'Brien
advanced the parallel rule from the compass to the spot where the ship
was placed on the chart. "Bother! you see, it's as much as she'll do
to weather the other point now, on this tack, and that's what the
captain meant when he told us we had more difficulty. I could have
taken my Bible oath that we were clear of everything, if the wind held."
"See what the distance is, O'Brien," said Robinson. It was measured,
and proved to be thirteen miles. "Only thirteen miles; and if we do
weather, we shall do very well, for the bay is deep beyond. It's a
rocky point, you see, just by way of variety. Well, my lads, I've a
piece of comfort for you, anyhow. It's not long that you'll be kept in
suspense, for by one o'clock this day you'll either be congratulating
each other upon your good luck, or you'll be past praying for. Come,
put up the chart, for I hate to look at melancholy prospects; and,
steward, see what you can find in the way of comfort." Some bread and
cheese, with the remains of yesterday's boiled pork, were put on the
table, with a bottle of rum, procured at the time they "spliced the
main brace," but we were all too anxious to eat much, and one by one
returned on deck to see how the weather was, and if the wind at all
favored us. On deck the superior officers were in conversation with
the captain, who expressed the same fear that O'Brien had in our berth.
The men, who knew what they had to expect, were assembled in knots,
looking very grave, but at the same time not wanting in confidence.
They knew that they could trust to the captain, as far as skill or
courage could avail them; and sailors are too sanguine to despair, even
at the last moment. As for myself, I felt such admiration for the
captain, after what I had witnessed that morning, that, whenever the
idea came over me, that in all probability I should be lost in a few
hours, I could not help acknowledging how much more serious it was that
such a man should be lost to his country. I do not intend to say that
it consoled me, but it certainly made me still more regret the chances
with which we were threatened.
Before twelve o'clock the rocky point which we so much dreaded was in
sight, broad on the lee bow; and if the low sandy coast appeared
terrible, how much more did this, even at a distance. The captain eyed
it for some minutes in silence, as if in calculation.
"Mr. Falcon," said he, at last, "we must put the mainsail on her."
"She never can bear it, sir."
"She _must_ bear it," was the reply. "Send the men aft to the
mainsheet. See that careful men attend the bunt-lines."
The mainsail was set, and the effect of it upon the ship was
tremendous. She careened over so that her lee channels were under the
water; and when pressed by a sea, the lee side of the quarter-deck and
gangway were afloat. She now reminded me of a goaded and fiery horse,
mad with the stimulus applied; not rising as before, but forcing
herself through whole seas, and dividing the waves, which poured in one
continual torrent from the forecastle down upon the decks below. Four
men were secured to the wheel--the sailors were obliged to cling to
prevent being washed away--the ropes were thrown in confusion to
leeward--the shot rolled out of the lockers, and every eye was fixed
aloft, watching the masts, which were expected every moment to go over
the side. A heavy sea struck us on the broadside, and it was some
moments before the ship appeared to recover herself; she reeled,
trembled, and stopped her way, as if it had stupefied her. The first
lieutenant looked at the captain, as if to say, "This will not do."
"It is our only chance," answered the captain to the appeal. That the
ship went faster through the water, and held a better wind, was
certain; but just before we arrived at the point the gale increased in
force. "If anything starts we are lost, sir," observed the first
"I am perfectly well aware of it," replied the captain, in a calm tone;
"but, as I said before, and as you must now be aware, it is our only
chance. The consequence of any carelessness or neglect in the fitting
and securing of the rigging will be felt now; and this danger, if we
escape it, ought to remind us how much we have to answer for if we
neglect our duty. The lives of a whole ship's company may be
sacrificed by the neglect or incompetence of an officer when in harbor.
I will pay you the compliment, Falcon, to say, that I feel convinced
that the masts of the ship are as secure as knowledge and attention can
The first lieutenant thanked the captain for his good opinion, and
hoped that it would not be the last compliment which he paid him.
"I hope not, too; but a few minutes will decide the point."
The ship was now within two cables' lengths of the rocky point; some
few of the men I observed to clasp their hands, but most of them were
silently taking off their jackets, and kicking off their shoes, that
they might not lose a chance of escape provided the ship struck.
"'Twill be touch and go, indeed, Falcon," observed the captain (for I
had clung to the belaying pins, close to them for the last half-hour
that the mainsail had been set). "Come aft, you and I must take the
helm. We shall want _nerve_ there, and only there, now."
The captain and first lieutenant went aft, and took the fore-spokes of
the wheel, and O'Brien, at a sign made by the captain, laid hold of the
spokes behind him. An old quartermaster kept his station at the
fourth. The roaring of the seas on the rocks, with the howling of the
wind, were dreadful; but the sight was more dreadful than the noise.
For a few minutes I shut my eyes, but anxiety forced me to open them
again. As near as I could judge, we were not twenty yards from the
rocks, at the time that the ship passed abreast of them. We were in
the midst of the foam, which boiled around us; and as the ship was
driven nearer to them, and careened with the wave, I thought that our
main yard-arm would have touched the rock; and at this moment a gust of
wind came on, which laid the ship on her beam-ends, and checked her
progress through the water, while the accumulating noise was deafening.
A few moments more the ship dragged on, another wave dashed over her
and spent itself upon the rocks, while the spray was dashed back from
them, and returned upon the decks. The main rock was within ten yards
of the counter, when another gust of wind laid us on our beam-ends, the
foresail and mainsail split, and were blown clean out of the
bolt-ropes--the ship righted, trembling fore and aft. I looked
astern:--the rocks were to windward on our quarter, and we were safe.
I thought at the time that the ship, relieved of her courses, and again
lifting over the waves, was not a bad similitude of the relief felt by
us all at that moment; and, like her, we trembled as we panted with the
sudden reaction, and felt the removal of the intense anxiety which
oppressed our breasts.
The captain resigned the helm, and walked aft to look at the point,
which was now broad on the weather-quarter. In a minute or two, he
desired Mr. Falcon to get new sails up and bend them, and then went
below to his cabin. I am sure it was to thank God for our deliverance:
I did most fervently, not only then, but when I went to my hammock at
night. We were now comparatively safe--in a few hours completely so;
for, strange to say, immediately after we had weathered the rocks, the
gale abated, and before morning we had a reef out of the topsails.
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