Sea Stories

The Wrecked Seamen

The annexed thrilling sketch is extracted from the "Life of a Sailor, by a Captain in the British Navy." It relates to the exposures of the crew of the Magpie, who had taken to the boat, after their shipwreck on the coast of

Cuba. The boat was upset,--the storm continues:-- Even in this moment of peril, the discipline of the navy assumed its command. At the order from the lieutenant for the men on the keel to relinquish their position they instantly obeyed, the boat was turned over and once more the expedient was tried--but quite in vain; for no sooner had the two men begun to bail with a couple of hats, and the safety of the crew to appear within the bounds of probability, than one man declared he saw the fin of a shark. No language can convey an idea of the panic which seized the struggling seamen; a shark is at all times an object of horror to a sailor; and those who have seen the destructive jaws of this voracious fish, and their immense and almost incredible power--their love of blood and their bold daring to obtain it, alone can form an idea of the sensations produced in a swimmer by the cry of "a shark! a shark!" Every man now struggled to obtain a moment's safety. Well they knew that one drop of blood would have been scented by the everlasting pilot-fish, the jackalls of the shark; and that their destruction was inevitable, if one only of these monsters should discover this rich repast, or be led to its food by the little rapid hunter of its prey.--All discipline was now unavailing, the boat again turned keel up; one man only gained his security to be pushed from it by others and thus their strength begun to fail from long continued exertion. However, as the enemy so much dreaded did not make its appearance, Smith once more urged them to endeavor to save themselves by the only means left, that of the boat; but as he knew that he would only increase their alarm by endeavoring to persuade them that sharks did not abound in these parts, he used the wisest plan of desiring those who held on by the gun-wale, to keep splashing in the water with their legs, in order to frighten the monsters at which they were so alarmed. Once more had hope began to dawn:--the boat was clear to her thwarts, and four men were in her hard at work; a little forbearance and a little obedience, and they were safe. At this moment, when those in the water urged their messmates in the boat to continue bailing with unremitted exertion, a noise was heard close to them, and about fifteen sharks came right in amongst them. The panic was ten times more dreadful than before; the boat was again upset by the simultaneous endeavor to escape the danger; and the twenty-two sailors were again devoted to destruction.--At first the sharks did not seem inclined to seize their prey, but swam in amongst the men, playing in the water, sometimes leaping about and rubbing against their victims. This was of short duration, a loud shriek from one of the men announced his sudden pain; a shark had seized him by the leg, and severed it entirely from the body. No sooner had the blood been tasted than the long dreaded attack took place; another and another shriek proclaimed a loss of limbs; some were torn from the boat to which they vainly endeavored to cling; some, it was supposed, sunk from fear alone; all were in dreadful peril. Mr. Smith, even now, when of all horrible deaths the most horrible seemed to await him, gave his orders with clearness and coolness; and to the everlasting honor of the poor departed crew be it known, they were obeyed; again the boat was righted, and again two men were in her. Incredible as it may appear, still, however, it is true, that the voice of the officer was heard amidst the danger; and the survivors, actually as before, clung to the gun-wale, and kept the boat upright. Mr. Smith himself held to the stern, and cheered and applauded his men. The sharks had tasted the blood, and were not to be driven from their feast; in one short moment, when Mr. Smith ceased splashing as he looked into the boat to watch the progress, a shark seized both legs, and bit them off just above the knees. Human nature was not strong enough to bear the immense pain without a groan; but Mr. Smith endeavored to conceal the misfortune, nature, true to herself, resisted the endeavor, and the groan was deep and audible. The crew had long respected their gallant commander; they knew his worth and his courage:--on hearing him express his pain, and seeing him relinquish his hold to sink, two of the men grasped their dying officer, and placed him in the stern sheets. Even now in almost insupportable agony, that gallant fellow forgot his own sufferings, and thought only on rescuing the remaining few from the untimely grave which awaited them; he told them again of their only hope, deplored their perilous state, and concluded with these words; "if any of you survive this fatal night, and return to Jamaica, tell the admiral (Sir Lawrence Halstead) that I was in search of the pirate when this lamentable occurrence took place, tell him I hope I have always done my duty, and that I--" Here the endeavor of some of the men to get into the boat gave her a heel on one side; the men who were supporting poor Smith relinquished him for a moment, and he rolled overboard and was drowned. His last bubbling cry was soon lost amidst the shrieks of his former companions, he sunk to rise no more. At eight o'clock in the evening the Magpie was upset; it was calculated by the two survivors, that their companions had all died by nine. The sharks seemed satisfied for the moment, and they, with gallant hearts, resolved to profit by the precious time in order to save themselves; they righted the boat, and one getting over the bows, and the other over the stern, they found themselves although nearly exhausted, yet alive, and in comparative security, they began the work of bailing, and soon lightened the boat sufficiently not to be easily upset, when both set down to rest. The return of the sharks was a signal for their return to labor. The voracious monsters endeavored to upset the boat; they swam by its side in seeming anxiety for their prey, but after waiting sometime, they separated; the two rescued seamen, found themselves free from their insatiable enemies, and, by the blessing of God, saved.--Tired as they were, they continued their labor until the boat was nearly dry, when both lay down to rest, the one forward, and the other aft; so completely had fear operated on their minds, that they did not dare even to move, dreading that an incautious step might have capsized the boat. They soon, in spite of the horrors they had witnessed, fell into a sound sleep, and day had dawned before they awoke to horrible reflections, and apparently worse dangers. The sun rose clear and unclouded; the cool calm of the night was followed by the sultry calm of the morning, and heat, hunger, thirst and fatigue, seemed to settle on the unfortunate men, rescued by Providence and their own exertions from the jaws of a horrible death. They awoke and looked at each other, the very gaze of despair was appalling; far as the eye could reach, no object could be discerned; the bright haze of the morning added to the strong refraction of light; one smooth, interminable plain, one endless ocean, one cloudless sky and one burning sun, were all they had to gaze upon. The boat lay like the ark, in a world alone! They had no oar, no mast and no sail, nothing but the bare planks and themselves, without provisions or water, food or raiment. They lay upon the calm ocean, hopeless, friendless and miserable. It was a time of intense anxiety, their eyes rested upon each other in silent pity, not unmixed with fear. Each knew the dreadful alternative to which nature would urge them. The cannibal was already in their looks, and fearful would have been the first attack on either side, for they were both brave and stout men, and equals in strength and courage. It now being about half past six in the morning, the sun was beginning to prove its burning power, the sea was as smooth as a looking glass, and saving now and then, the slight cat's paw of air, which ruffled the face of the water for a few yards, all was calm and hushed. In vain they strained their eyes, in vain they turned from side to side to escape the burning rays of the sun; they could not sleep, for now anxiety and fear kept both vigilant and on their guard; they dared not to court sleep, for that might have been the last of mortal repose. Once they nearly quarrelled, but fortunately the better feelings of humanity overcame the bitterness of despair. The foremost man had long complained of thirst, and had frequently dipped his hand into the water, and sucked the fluid; this was hastily done, for all the horrors of the night were still before them, and not unfrequently the sharp fin of a shark was seen not very far from the boat. In the midst of the excruciating torments of thirst, heightened by the salt water, and the irritable temper of the bowman, as he stamped his impatient feet against the bottom boards, and tore his hair with unfeeling indifference, he suddenly stopped the expression of rage and called out--"a sail!" Whilst they stood watching in silence the approach of the brig, which slowly made her way through the water, and at the very instant that they were assuring each other that they were seen, and that the vessel was purposely steered on the course she was keeping, to reach them, the whole fabric of hope was destroyed in a second; the brig kept away about three points, and began to make more sail. Then was it an awful moment; their countenances saddened as they looked at each other; for in vain they hailed, in vain they threw their jackets in the air; it was evident they had never been seen, and that the brig was steering her proper course. The time was slipping away, and if once they got abaft the beam of the brig, every second would lessen the chance of being seen, besides, the sea breeze might come down, and then she would be far away, and beyond all hope in a quarter of an hour. Now was it, that the man who had been so loudly lamenting his fate, seemed suddenly inspired with fresh hope and courage, he looked attentively at the brig, then at his companion, and said "by heaven I'll do it, or we are lost!" "Do what?" said his shipmate. "Though," said the first man, "it is no trifle to do, after what we have seen and known; yet I will try, for if she passes us, what can we do? I tell you Jack, I'll swim to her, if I get safe to her, you are saved, if not, why I shall die without adding, perhaps, murder to my crimes." "What! jump overboard, and leave me all alone!" replied his companion, "look, look at that shark, which has followed us all night, why it is only waiting for you to get into the water to swallow you, as it did perhaps half of our messmates; no, no, wait, do wait, perhaps another vessel may come, besides, I cannot swim half the distance, and I should be afraid to remain behind, think, Tom, only think of the sharks and of last night." He jumped overboard with as much calmness as if he was bathing in security. No sooner had he began to strike out in the direction he intended, than his companion turned towards the sharks. The first had disappeared, and it was evident they had heard the splash, and would soon follow their prey. It is hard to say who suffered the most anxiety. The one left in the boat cheered his companion, looked at the brig, and kept waving his jacket, then turned to watch the sharks; his horror may be imagined when he saw three of these terrific monsters swim past the boat, exactly in the direction of his companion; he splashed his jacket in the water to scare them away, but they seemed quite aware of the impotency of the attack, and lazily pursued their course. The man swam well and strongly. There was no doubt he would pass within hail of the brig, provided the sharks did not interfere, and he, knowing that they would not be long in following him, kept kicking in the water and splashing as he swam. There is no fish more cowardly, and yet more desperately savage than a shark. I have seen one harpooned twice, with a hook in his jaws, and come again to a fresh bait, yet will they suffer themselves to be scared by the smallest noise, and hardly ever take their prey without it is quite still. Generally speaking, any place surrounded by rocks where the surf breaks, although there may be no passage for a ship, will be secure from sharks. It was not until a great distance had been accomplished, that the swimmer became apprized of his danger, and saw by his side one of the terrific creatures; still however, he bravely swam and kicked, his mind was made up for the worst, and he had little hope of success. In the meantime the breeze had gradually freshened, and the brig passed with greater velocity through the water; every stitch of canvas was spread. To the poor swimmer the sails seemed bursting with the breeze, and as he used his utmost endeavor to propel himself so as to cut off the vessel, the spray appeared to dash from the bow and the brig to fly through the sea. He was now close enough to hope his voice might be heard; but he hailed and hailed in vain, not a soul was to be seen on deck; the man who steered was too intent upon his avocation to listen to the call of mercy. The brig passed, and the swimmer was every second getting further in the distance, every hope was gone, not a ray of that bright divinity remained; the fatigue had nearly exhausted him, and the sharks only waited for the first quiet moment to swallow their victim. It was in vain he thought of returning towards the boat, for he never could have reached her, and his companion had no means of assisting him. In the act of offering up his last prayer ere he made up his mind to float and be eaten, he saw a man looking over the quarter of the brig; he raised both his hands, he jumped himself up in the water, and by the singularity of his motions, fortunately attracted notice. A telescope soon made clear the object; the brig was hove to, a boat sent, and the man saved. The attention of the crew was then awakened to the Magpie's boat; she was soon alongside, and thus through the bold exertions of as gallant a fellow as ever breathed, both were rescued from their perilous situation.

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