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LIFE AT SEA.
THE AMERICAN 'Orson,' WHO WROTE ABOUT THE SEMINOLES.
Reader, do you remember the great storm in the mid-winter of 1830–1? If not
, you were not in the same latitude with myself at that time, namely, in the Gulf-stream, between Cape Hatteras and the Bermudas. If you were, I 'll be bound you have not forgotten it. If any one ever saw old ocean in a frolic, I saw it then- and for the first
We left New-York in a schooner of not quite seventy tons, with a master, mate, two seamen, an apology for a cook, and twelve passengers, and one of them in a deep decline. Our cabin was not furnished with berths for more than six persons. The odd twelve were stowed in bulk,' as the sailors say, back of the ladder of the companion-way a sort of box which had no doors, but a slide over the top, that fenced out the water when it did not happen to roll over it
. The schooner had been a Cape Cod fisherman, but no safer one was to be found going our way, and so I took passage — stipulating, however, for an exclusive berth, as I love comfort. Howbeit, I adınitted a fine boy to a share. Well, out we started, with a fine fair wind from the North, and the captain, unwilling to lose so good a chance to gain time, when he knew he could not make an inch against the wind with his bagging old sails, crowded on all the canvass his truly frail bark could stagger under, so that she would hardly steer, but kept lurching,' first to the larboard and then the starboard tack, as if she did not wish to go outside ; but the captain said she would do better off soundings,' and so he did his best to get there. Thus we went reeling along past Fort William, and down through the Narrows, the mate, every now and then, asking our Herculean young captain 'what sort of a night he thought we should have ?' He did not know, and only' wished he was past Cape Hatteras.' For my own part, I only wished I had been
I seasoned to sea-sickness, for this was my first voyage, and when Neversink light began at last to deny its name, we just began to think what a wretched cook we had. I lose appetite to this day, at a turtle-club, at the bare thought of him. Our crackers were the remainder biscuit of the last voyage, all nibbled by mice and rats, and marked with the prints of their dirty feet; as for the meat, it was odoriferous codfish! I was ashamed of being more dainty than others; and as we were promised better fare next day, I scraped the crackers, and ate; but no inan ever cared less for his supper than I did that night.
We continued blundering forward all night, and next morning the sea, the sea, the open sea,' broke with its sublime expanse upon our happy sight. We were booming along at a rapid rate; and as the captain truly predicted, with a much straighter course than the serpentine one we had at first described; but every now and then a wave would swell up majestically behind, and threaten to fall upon us, but we would slip just from under it as it broke.
I could not help uttering an exclamation of admiration at these beautifully-crested billows, thus gracefully bowing us away from our homes, but the captain was uneasy and provoked. He had detected certain evil indications in the horizon, and he could only say he wished he
was past Cape Hatteras; he could not see what fancy any man could have in waves; as for his part, he had seen enough of them; and if any one else liked them, he would not care if one should fall on board.' He had hardly uttered this wicked wish, before down fell one upon Το pay
him as he deserved, he was drenched to the skin, while I escaped under an impenetrable Scotch cloak. It was providential, and we enjoyed it exceedingly. It just met his sins, and my superior goodness, and I told him so.
But that cape of storms, Hatteras, had not yet been passed. • Crowd all sail !' cried the stentorian captain. Hug the cape, and drop the sea astern. One such beautiful wave' is enough for one day. I have half a mind to take the inner passage.?
I should remark, that about two or three miles off of the shore, there are breakers, and sometimes, in going South, small vessels run inside, to avoid the Gulf-stream, which passes to the North-east, outside the reef.
Thus undetermined, we drove ahead, and by ten o'clock at might we reached a dead calm, off of the dreaded cape. The sails all hung in lank curtain-folds, and it seemed to be a strange sort of angry stillness, as if the next thing we should see would be • foaming fury. At length, the boom of the fore-sail gave a tremendous blow, as if it had been silently watching to knock out the brains of some luckless seaman; then it struck on the other side, most spitefully. These were only preludes: soon we heard a roaring, and thunder and lightning, and then the shrouds snapped, and the fore-sheets were torn from their fastenings, and the vessel was a prey to the elements, with breakers under our lee, and the Hatteras light, half-mast high, in the horizon. The captain showed himself a thorough seaman.
All his crew two men, cook, and mate— were aghast, and only his athletic frame could be seen drawing the flying sheets like a young giant. The next instant, you might have beheld him flying up the shrouds that remained good, and looking out for the breakers, toward which we were irresistibly driving
For my own part, I began to think the sport was over, and that it was high time to look out for some means to reach shore, without depending on the crazy tackle which was flying about in all directions. So, down we went into the cabin, to hold a brief council with the other passengers. But all was dark and silent as the charnel-house; and when we began to tell them that there was no jest above board, and that we must begin to think of taking care of ourselves, not a word would a soul of them reply. They had been in the habit of ridiculing one of their number, who showed a more than ordinary disinclination to try any other world than this. I told them that, without a thought of a jest, the true state of the case was as I had stated; that the yawl-boat, with one half of our number, would swamp, inevitably; and that it was absolutely necessary to provide means in time. I therefore proposed to get out plank and boards to float upon, as there was a small door from the cabin to the hold, where there was lumber. But not a word could I elicit. It was of no use, they said afterward and perhaps it was not.
But such fortune did not continue long. We were rapidly nearing the breakers, when suddenly there was a calm; anon, and in the course
of five minutes, the wind blew a hurricane from every point of the compass; and, as if it had tried which was the hardest way it could blow, it commenced with the North-west, as surpassing all others in might, and threw up the very dregs of the ocean. In fact, the elements all seemed to be set to work to frighten us out of our senses. We had longed to see a storm at sea and we had it !
If there be any line marked in nature between North and South, it is off of this stormy cape. Here the thunder and lightning of the tropics meet the North-wester, and the battle is fought for the disputed territory. The glare of the lightning — the crashing peals of thunder
the roar of the North-west gale, which heaves up sharp billows from the battling Gulf-stream the flashing crests of foam — the mist, the hail, the rain — and the stupefying blows the enraged, cross, chopping waves can strike — these must render Scylla and Charybdis a race-way of a millpond in the comparison. I had no conception of the power of mere water before. It does not dash, it strikes a dead blow; and in a great storm, the vessel, as if it had been paralyzed, stops for a moment, and then slowly heaves and groans in every joint. It would not require any great stretch of the imagination to fancy her alive.
Thus we continued, drifting for nine days and nights, most of the time in the Gulf-stream ; seventeen souls of us, all in the space pig-stye, with a cook before our eyes who verified the sailor's maxim, that if God sends victuals, the Devil sends cooks.' But I did not complain. Poor fellow! what could be expected of him? The chickens became so poor, that the captain was obliged to kill them, to save their credit for the table. Table? - there was no table ! Its legs were all broken off
, although it was new when we started. Men, tables, trunks, provisions, and every thing else, had been so often thrown in a heap together, that the identity of any individual thing seemed to be a questionable matter. I have seen in another vessel a table thrown from its legs bottom upward, by one plunge, but I never saw any thing like the commotion in this craft. We were compelled to 'watch and catch, even in our sleep, to prevent being precipitated clear across upon
the opposite berth. The captain was frequently thrown out, and as he was going, he would catch like a cat.
But I was speaking of the fare. Those chickens I shall never forget! They were like anatomical preparations- poor as crows; but they were the
very best food we had on board, if we except a few unsubstantial private stores; and seventeen would eat of the soup from one chicken! Sometimes, through the small aperture of the companionway, down would come a flood of water, drenching the cheerful guests. We could have borne all this well enough, but for two things: the first was, that the cook would continue to manufacture and simmer a kind of oil out of scraps of pork, that he might have something to cook with in the place of butter; the smell of this constantly burning, was poison to me; but after much management and remonstrance, the evil was remedied. Then another thing arose.
In the hold, there were hay, and spirits, and powder; and every day, and several times a day, the cook and one of the hands, who had been shipped by his landlord against his will, would crawl, with a candle, over these combustibles, and become intoxicated; and the captain would then beat the cook in the small cabin. These were annoyances; but we could not set up in the
cabin, without being sea-sick, so we lay down, out of the way; and to amuse the company, read the only books on board — namely, Tom Jones, The Life of Bolivar, and a nameless tragedy. The captain had begun his repentance, by throwing all the cards overboard, that none might play. The invalid, who was one of the finest young men I ever knew, officiated as chaplain — by reading the Bible; for it had ,
– been concluded between us — we two knowing how to read, without stopping to spell — to make every thing as pleasant and orderly as possible. This delighted the captain, who evinced his pleasure by discussing religious topics at one moment, and the next cursing the cook.
In this condition we continued nine days and nights, not expecting ever to see land again. Every stroke the vessel received, seemed so to strain her in every joint, that it appeared impossible for her to withstand another blow without going to pieces. One man prayed almost all the time, night and day; and he avowed if ever he should reach shore once more, he would crawl home on his hands and ees, rather than venture out of sight of land again. The boy I had taken into my berth awoke one morning, and with a very pitiful face showed me his arm, all black-and-blue, and very sore. I could only comfort him, by telling him that in the absence of any thing better, he might at least learn the derivation of the word hardship. His bruises all came from the hard ship. A wretched pun, but it served to amuse him.
I was waiting thus anxiously for better or worse fortune, and almost inclined to shed a tear to think how my friends would mourn that I should be obliged so young and unprepared to leave my bones, etc., in the Gulf-stream, with no coffin but my berth, when I saw the mate go up with trembling knees to the oldest seaman – who by the way was the most respectable man of the ship's company, not excluding its officers — and ask him if he had ever seen such a storm before, and if we could possibly live through it? His reply was, that we had a chance, if it should not come any harder. I took comfort at this, for I could not well imagine how it could come harder' — but it did ! At about midnight, after the fifth or sixth day, the strokes began to fall faster and more violently, and floods of water more frequently to deluge the cabin floor, when I arose, as I often did, to look out by the side of the old seaman. It was then that a sight met my eyes which I shall never forget. I had read of the sublime and beautiful, but never before had realized it. Although death seemed inevitable, yet so glorious was the scene, that an inexpressible fluttering sensation of delight was in my breast, and all thought of danger vanished. The stern of the vessel was lifted high on a short wave, while the bow was plunging into a dark chasm; thick, black, broken, fugitive clouds were rapidly chasing each other past the masts and rigging. A few rods astern, a wave had just broken into a mass of living fire; then all was dark again; and presently a glare of light shot from the midst of the cloud in which we. were, and revealed all the vast commotion of the elements. Hail and rain were in the clouds, and fell upon us; occasionally we were shrouded in such dense darkness that nothing was visible; and then suddenly the ragged clouds opened, and showed one very bright star, which I took to be Venus. This was like enchantment, and withal was so unexpected, that we could hardly believe it real. All these incidents, happening in quick succession, produced an effect which neither language nor the pencil can convey. Oh how I panted for some means to catch the flying scene, and transfer it to canvass ! But it passed. I had my wish, however. I had seen a storm at sea, and was quite satisfied, should I never live to see another.
We reached our place of destination of course, or I should not have been here to tell the story — but such a miserable looking set of objects my eyes never before beheld! With beards half an inch long, squalid and thin, we hardly seemed worth piloting into port. But we were strangers, and they took us in. Perhaps at another day I may tell
you how foolish it is to believe traveler's tales, by a faithful relation of matters of fact. Until then, gentle reader, if you do not believe my · Life at Sea,' go a voyage in winter in a Cape Cod fisherman yourself
, and be blown through the Gulf-stream by a nine days' gale. Then l'll talk with you.