The Cruise Of The Coracle



It was broad day when I awoke, and found myself tossing at the

southwest end of Treasure Island. The sun was up, but was still hid

from me behind the great bulk of the Spy-glass, which on this side

descended almost to the sea in formidable cliffs.

Haulbowline Head and Mizzenmast Hill were at my elbow; the hill bare

and dark, the head bound with cliffs forty or fifty feet high, and

fringed with great masses of fallen rock. I was scarce a quarter of a

mile to seaward, and it was my first thought to paddle in and land.



That notion was soon given over. Among the fallen rocks the breakers

spouted and bellowed; loud reverberations, heavy sprays flying and

falling, succeeded one another from second to second; and I saw

myself, if I ventured nearer, dashed to death upon the rough shore, or

spending my strength in vain to scale the beetling crags.



Nor was that all; for crawling together on flat tables of rock, or

letting themselves drop into the sea with loud reports, I beheld huge

slimy monsters--soft snails, as it were, of incredible bigness--two or

three score of them together, making the rocks to echo with their

barkings.



I have understood since that they were sea-lions, and entirely

harmless. But the look of them, added to the difficulty of the shore

and the high running of the surf, was more than enough to disgust me

of that landing-place. I felt willing rather to starve at sea than to

confront such perils.



In the meantime I had a better chance, as I supposed, before me. North

of Haulbowline Head, the land runs in a long way, leaving, at low

tide, a long stretch of yellow sand. To the north of that, again,

there comes another cape--Cape of the Woods, as it was marked upon the

chart--buried in tall green pines, which descended to the margin of the

sea.



I remembered what Silver had said about the current that sets

northward along the whole west coast of Treasure Island; and seeing

from my position that I was already under its influence, I preferred

to leave Haulbowline Head behind me, and reserve my strength for an

attempt to land upon the kindlier-looking Cape of the Woods.



There was a great, smooth swell upon the sea. The wind blowing steady

and gentle from the south, there was no contrariety between that and

the current, and the billows rose and fell unbroken.



Had it been otherwise, I must long ago have perished; but as it was,

it is surprising how easily and securely my little and light boat

could ride. Often, as I still lay at the bottom, and kept no more than

an eye above the gunwale, I would see a big blue summit heaving close

above me; yet the coracle would but bounce a little, dance as if on

springs, and subside on the other side into the trough as lightly as a

bird.



I began after a little to grow very bold, and sat up to try my skill

at paddling. But even a small change in the disposition of the weight

will produce violent changes in the behavior of a coracle. And I had

hardly moved before the boat, giving up at once her gentle dancing

movement, ran straight down a slope of water so steep that it made me

giddy, and struck her nose, with a spout of spray, deep into the side

of the next wave.



I was drenched and terrified, and fell instantly back into my old

position, whereupon the coracle seemed to find her head again, and led

me as softly as before among the billows. It was plain she was not to

be interfered with, and at that rate, since I could in no way

influence her course, what hope had I left of reaching land?



I began to be horribly frightened, but I kept my head, for all that.

First, moving with all care, I gradually baled out the coracle with my

sea-cap; then getting my eye once more above the gunwale, I set myself

to study how it was she managed to slip so quietly through the

rollers.



I found each wave, instead of the big, smooth, glossy mountain it

looks from shore, or from a vessel's deck, was for all the world like

any range of hills on the dry land, full of peaks and smooth places

and valleys. The coracle, left to herself, turning from side to side,

threaded, so to speak, her way through these lower parts, and avoided

the steep slopes and higher, toppling summits of the waves.



"Well, now," thought I to myself, "it is plain I must lie where I am,

and not disturb the balance; but it is plain, also, that I can put the

paddle over the side, and from time to time, in smooth places, give

her a shove or two towards land." No sooner thought upon than done.

There I lay on my elbows, in the most trying attitude, and every now

and again gave a weak stroke or two to turn her head to shore.



It was very tiring, and slow to work, yet I did visibly gain ground;

and, as we drew near the Cape of the Woods, though I saw I must

infallibly miss that point, I had still made some hundred yards of

easting. I was, indeed, close in. I could see the cool, green

tree-tops swaying together in the breeze, and I felt sure I should

make the next promontory without fail.



It was high time, for I now began to be tortured with thirst. The glow

of the sun from above, its thousand-fold reflection from the waves,

the sea-water that fell and dried upon me, caking my very lips with

salt, combined to make my throat burn and my brain ache. The sight of

the trees so near at hand had almost made me sick with longing; but

the current had soon carried me past the point; and, as the next reach

of sea opened out, I beheld a sight that changed the nature of my

thoughts.



Right in front of me, not half a mile away, I beheld the Hispaniola

under sail. I made sure, of course, that I should be taken; but I was

so distressed for want of water, that I scarce knew whether to be glad

or sorry at the thought; and, long before I had come to a conclusion,

surprise had taken entire possession of my mind, and I could do

nothing but stare and wonder.



The Hispaniola was under her mainsail and two jibs, and the beautiful

white canvas shone in the sun like snow or silver. When I first

sighted her, all her sails were drawing; she was lying a course about

north-west; and I presumed the men on board were going round the

island on their way back to the anchorage. Presently she began to

fetch more and more to the westward, so that I thought they had

sighted me and were going about in chase. At last, however, she fell

right into the wind's eye, was taken dead aback, and stood there a

while helpless, with her sails shivering.



"Clumsy fellows," said I; "they must still be drunk as owls." And I

thought how Captain Smollett would have set them skipping.



Meanwhile, the schooner gradually fell off, and filled again upon

another tack, sailed swiftly for a minute or so, and brought up once

more dead in the wind's eye. Again and again was this repeated. To and

fro, up and down, north, south, east, and west, the Hispaniola sailed

by swoops and dashes, and at each repetition ended as she had begun,

with idly-flapping canvas. It became plain to me that nobody was

steering. And, if so, where were the men? Either they were dead drunk,

or had deserted her, I thought, and perhaps if I could get on board, I

might return the vessel to her captain.



The current was bearing coracle and schooner southward at an equal

rate. As for the latter's sailing, it was so wild and intermittent,

and she hung each time so long in stays, that she certainly gained

nothing, if she did not even lose. If only I dared to sit up and

paddle, I made sure that I could overhaul her. The scheme had an air

of adventure that inspired me, and the thought of the water beaker

beside the fore companion doubled my growing courage.



Up I got, was welcomed almost instantly by another cloud of spray, but

this time stuck to my purpose; and set myself, with all my strength

and caution, to paddle after the unsteered Hispaniola. Once I shipped

a sea so heavy that I had to stop and bale, with my heart fluttering

like a bird; but gradually I got into the way of the thing, and guided

my coracle among the waves, with only now and then a blow upon her

bows and a dash of foam in my face.



I was now gaining rapidly on the schooner; I could see the brass

glisten on the tiller as it banged about; and still no soul appeared

upon her decks. I could not choose but suppose she was deserted. If

not, the men were lying drunk below, where I might batten them down,

perhaps, and do what I chose with the ship.



For some time she had been doing the worst thing possible for

me--standing still. She headed nearly due south, yawing, of course, all

the time. Each time she fell off her sails partly filled, and these

brought her, in a moment, right to the wind again. I have said this

was the worst thing possible for me; for helpless as she looked in

this situation, with the canvas cracking like cannon, and the blocks

trundling and banging on the deck, she still continued to run away

from me, not only with the speed of the current, but by the whole

amount of her leeway, which was naturally great.



But now, at last, I had my chance. The breeze fell, for some seconds,

very low, and the current gradually turning her, the Hispaniola

revolved slowly round her centre, and at last presented me her stern,

with the cabin window still gaping open, and the lamp over the table

still burning on into the day. The mainsail hung drooped like a

banner. She was stock-still, but for the current.



For the last little while I had even lost; but now redoubling my

efforts, I began once more to overhaul the chase.



I was not a hundred yards from her when the wind came again in a clap;

she filled on the port tack, and was off again, stooping and skimming

like a swallow.



My first impulse was one of despair, but my second was towards joy.

Round she came, till she was broadside on to me--round still till she

had covered a half, and then two-thirds, and then three-quarters of

the distance that separated us. I could see the waves boiling white

under her forefoot. Immensely tall she looked to me from my low

station in the coracle.



And then, of a sudden, I began to comprehend. I had scarce time to

think--scarce time to act and save myself. I was on the summit of one

swell when the schooner came stooping over the next. The bowsprit was

over my head. I sprang to my feet, and leaped, stamping the coracle

under water. With one hand I caught the jib-boom, while my foot was

lodged between the stay and the brace; and as I still clung there

panting, a dull blow told me that the schooner had charged down upon

and struck the coracle, and that I was left without retreat on the

Hispaniola.





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