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"Pig-Headed" Sailor Men (1902)
From "The Strange Adventure Of James Shervinton and Other Stories"
by
Louis Becke



Crossing from Holyhead to Ireland one night the captain of the steamer
and myself, during an hour's talk on the bridge, found that we each had
sailed in a certain Australian coasting steamer more than twenty years
before--he as chief officer and I as passenger; and her shipwreck one
Christmas Eye (long after), which was attended by an appalling loss of
life, led us to talk of "pig-headed" skippers generally. His experiences
were large, and some of his stories were terrible even to hear, others
were grotesquely humorous, and the memory of that particularly pleasant
passage across a sea as smooth as a mill pond, has impelled me to
retell some of the incidents I related to him of my own adventures with
obstinate, self-willed, or incapable captains.

My first experience was with a gentleman of the "incapable" variety, and
befell me when I was quite a lad. I had taken my passage in a very
smart little Sydney (N.S.W.) barque bound for Samoa _via_ the Friendly
Islands. She was commanded by a Captain Rosser, who had sailed her for
nearly twenty years in the South Sea trade, and who was justly regarded
as the _doyen_ of island skippers. He was a "Bluenose," stood six
feet two in his stockinged feet, and was a man of the most determined
courage, unflinching resolution, and was widely known and respected by
the white traders and the natives all over the South Pacific.

In those days there was quite a fleet of vessels engaged in the South
Sea trade, and most of them were owned in, and sailed from Sydney, and
I could have secured a passage in any one of three other vessels, but
preferred the _Rimitara_ (so I will call her), merely because the agent
had told me that no other passengers were going by her. Captain Rosser
himself frankly told me that he did not like passengers, but when he
learned that I had been to sea before, and intended settling in Samoa
as a trader, his grim visage relaxed, and he growled something about
my finding the accommodation ample enough, as I was to be the only
passenger.

The _Rimitara_ was lying off Garden Island, and as she was to sail at
eleven in the morning I went on board at ten with the captain himself.
Just ahead of the barque was a very handsome brigantine, also bound for
the Friendly Islands. She had been launched only a few weeks previously,
and had been built for His Majesty King George of Tonga, at a cost of
4,000, as a combined cargo and despatch vessel. As Rosser and I stepped
on the barque's poop the captain of the brigantine--whose decks were
crowded with visitors--hailed the former and challenged him to a race.

"Oh, race with yourself, sir," was Rosser's abrupt reply, as he bade
his chief mate heave up, and then seeing that a number of ladies were
standing beside the captain of the brigantine, he raised his hat, and
added more good-humouredly that although the _Rimitara_ was not a yacht
like the _Tuitoga_, he would bet the captain of the latter ten pounds
that the barque would be at anchor in Nukualofa Harbour forty-eight
hours before him.

"Make it fifty," cried the master of the new ship, amid the cheers of
his guests.

Rosser shook his head, and replied with apparent unconcern (though he
was really angry) that ten pounds was enough for any one to lose. "But,"
he added, "don't think I'm going to race you. I'm just going to dodder
along as usual." (He kept his word most thoroughly.)

We got underway first, and were just passing out between Sydney Heads
under easy sail, when the brigantine overtook us, and passed us like a
race-horse galloping past a trotting donkey. She presented a beautiful
sight as she swept by with yards braced up sharp to a good south-east
breeze, and every stitch of her brand-new canvas drawing. One of the
officers had the bad manners to take up a coil of small line, and make
a pretence of heaving it to us for a tow rope. Rosser looked on with an
unmoved face, though our own mate made some strong remarks.

"Guess it's that champagne he's drunk," was all that Rosser said as he
turned away, and I have no doubt he was right, for we afterwards learned
that nearly every one aft on board the brigantine was half-drunk when
she lifted anchor, the visitors having brought on board half a dozen
cases of champagne--as a matter of fact we had seen the steward opening
bottles on the poop. In an hour the _Tuitoga_ was a long way ahead.

Rosser said to us at dinner--

"That brigantine will come to grief. She's overmasted, and the fellow
who has her ought not to be trusted with her. He's going to make a mess
of things."

Then in his slow, drawling manner, he told us that the command of
the _Tuitoga_ had been given to an ex-lieutenant of the navy, whose
knowledge of sailing vessels was confined to his youthful experiences on
one of the service training brigs; but King George of Tonga was anxious
to secure an English naval officer to command the new ship, and out of
some hundreds of eager applicants, Lieutenant Raye had been selected.

By sundown the brigantine was hull down ahead of us, though the barque
was a very smart vessel, and we were then making eleven knots. At
midnight, I heard the mate give orders to take in royals and topgallant
sails, and going on deck, found the wind had almost died away.

Rosser was on deck, and told me that we were "going to get it hot from
the N.E. before long;" and by four in the morning we were under topsails
and lower courses only, the ship flying before a most unpleasant sea. I
turned in again, and slept till daylight, when the second mate gave me a
call.

"Come on deck and see something pretty."

The "something pretty" was the brigantine, which was in sight about a
mile away on our lee bow. She was in a terrible mess. Her fore and main
royal masts and topgallant masts and jibboom had apparently all been
carried away together, and she was almost lying on her beam ends. We ran
down to her, and saw that her crew were busy in cutting away the spars
and sails alongside. All her boats were gone, and her for'ard deck house
had started, and was working to and fro with every sea.

In less than half an hour the mate and six hands from the barque were
on board, assisting the crew, cutting away the wire rigging and trimming
the cargo, the shifting of which had nearly sent her to the bottom. I
went with the boat to lend a hand, and the second mate of the brigantine
told me that the young captain had refused to listen to the mate's
suggestion to shorten sail, when the officer told him that the wind
would certainly come away suddenly from the N.E. The consequence was
that a furious squall took her aback, and had not the jibboom--and then
the upper spars--carried away under the terrific strain, she would have
gone to the bottom. The worst part of the business was that two poor
seamen had been lost overboard.

"He's a pretty kind of man for a skipper if you like," said the
second officer bitterly. "He ought to be hanged for pretending he's
a sailorman. It's sheer murder to put such a jackass in command of a
deep-water sailing ship."

After rendering all possible assistance to the brigantine, we left her
about mid-day; and had been lying at anchor for two weeks in Nukualofa
Harbour before she put in an appearance outside the reef. A native pilot
went out in a canoe, but the captain haughtily declined his services,
and would not even let him come on board--he wanted to show people that
although he had never seen Naknalofa Harbour before, he could bring
his ship in without a pilot. In less than half an hour, a swirling eddy
caught the vessel, and earned her broadside on to the reef, where she
would have been battered to pieces, had not our two boats gone to her
assistance, and with great difficulty got her off again. Captain Rosser
several times countermanded orders given by his chief officer--an
experienced seaman--and bullied and "jawed" his crew in the most pompous
and irritating manner, and finally when we succeeded in getting the
vessel off the reef with the loss of her false keel and rudder, and
were towing her into smooth water inside the reef, he came for'ard, and
abruptly desired our chief mate to cease towing, as he meant to anchor.

"Anchor, and be hanged to you," replied our officer with angry contempt;
"the kind of ship you ought to command is one that is towed by a horse
along a path in the old country."

We cast off and left him to his own conceit and devices. He let go in
less than five fathoms, paid out too much cable, and went stern first
on to a coral patch, where he stuck for a couple of days, much to our
delight.

Within six months this gentleman succeeded in getting the brigantine
ashore on four occasions, and she had to return to Sydney to be repaired
at a cost of 1,700.

*****

My next two experiences were with the pig-headed type. I had made an
agreement with the master of a Fiji-owned vessel--also a brigantine--to
convey myself and my stock of trade goods from an island in the Tokelau
or Union Group (South Pacific) to Yap, in the Caroline Islands in the
North-west, where I intended starting a trading business. This captain
was as good a seaman as ever trod a deck, and had had a rather long
experience of the island trade, but a mule could not surpass him in
obstinacy, as I was soon to learn, to my sorrow.

A week after leaving the Tokelaus, we dropped anchor on the edge of the
reef of one of the Gilbert Group, to land supplies for a trader living
there. The coast was very exposed to all but an easterly wind, and
neither the mate nor myself liked the idea of anchoring at all. The
skipper, however, brought his vessel close in to the roaring breakers
on the reef, let go his anchor in six fathoms, and then neatly backed
astern into blue water sixty fathoms deep. Here we lay apparently safe
enough, for the time, the wind being easterly and steady.

By sunset we had finished landing stores and shipping cargo, and when
the captain came off in the last boat, we naturally expected him to
heave up and get out of such a dangerous place, but to our surprise he
remarked carelessly that as the men were very tired, he would hold on
until daylight.

"I wouldn't risk it if I were you," said the trader, who had come aboard
in his own boat to "square up." "You can't depend on this easterly
breeze holding all night, and it may come on squally from the west or
south-west in a few hours, and take you unawares."

"Bosh!" was the reply. "Hoist the boats up, Mr. Laird, and tell the men
to get supper."

"Very well, sir," replied the mate, none too cheerfully.

Just as the trader was going ashore, he said to me aside, quietly, "This
little monkey-faced skipper is a blazing idiot" (our captain was a very,
very little man). "I told him again just now, that if the wind comes
away from west or south-west, or even if it falls calm, he'll find he's
caught, to a dead certainty. But he as good as told me to mind my own
business."

Naturally enough I was anxious. I had on board trade goods which had
cost 1,100, and of course had not one penny of insurance on them. The
brigantine, however, was well insured, though I do not impute this fact
as being the cause of the captain's neglect of a sensible warning.

After supper, the captain turned in, while the mate and I, both feeling
very uneasy, paced the deck till about nine o'clock, at which hour the
wind had become perceptibly lighter, and the captain was called. He came
on deck, trotted up and down in his pyjamas for a few minutes, sat on
the rail, like a monkey on a fence, and then asked the mate snappishly
what he was "scared about?"

The mate made no reply, and the captain was just going below again, when
two fishing canoes, with four natives in each, came quite near us, both
heading for the shore; and the skipper asked me to hail them and see if
they had any fish to sell. I did so.

"No," was the reply; "we are going back again, because much rain and
wind is coming from the westward, and we want to get over the reef
before the surf becomes too great." Then one of them stood up and
added--

"Why does not the ship go away quickly. This is a very bad place here
when the wind and the sea come from the west. Your ship will be broken
to pieces."

"What do they say?" inquired the little man.

I translated what they had said.

"Bosh, I say again," was the reply, "the glass has been as steady as a
rock for the past three days," and then, to my intense anger, he added
an insinuation that my fears had led me to deliberately misinterpret
what the natives had said. The retort I made was of so practical a
nature that the mate had to assist the skipper to his feet.

A quarter of an hour later, as the mate and I still walked the deck,
discussing the captain's shortcomings, the wind died away suddenly, and
then several of our native crew came aft, and said that a squall was
coming up from the westward, and the mate, though neither he nor myself
could then see any sign of it, went below and again called the captain.

He came on deck, with one hand covering his injured left optic, told
me he would settle with me in the morning, and then took a long look
astern, and there, certainly enough, was a long streak of black rising
over the horizon. The mate stood by waiting his orders.

"It's not coming near us," said the little man more snappishly than
ever, as he marched up and down the poop.

"I say it is," said Laird bluntly, "and I consider this ship will be
ashore, if we don't slip and tow out a bit before it is too late."

The mate's manner had some effect on the obstinate little animal--"Oh,
well, if there's such a lot of old women on board, I'll give in. Call
the hands, and we'll heave up."

"Heave up!" echoed the mate in angry astonishment, "what's the use of
trying to heave up now! That squall will be on us in ten minutes, and
if we had an hour to spare, it would be none too long. Why, man, it's
a dead calm, and the swell will send us into the surf on the reef quick
enough without our dragging the ship into it. Reckon the best and only
thing we can do, is down boats, and then slip cable right-away. We might
get a show then to lay along the reef, and get clear."

"I'm not going to lose a new cable and anchor to please any one," was
the stupid reply. (He could very easily have recovered both anchor and
cable with the assistance of the natives on the following day, or indeed
months after.)

Then he sang out to the men to man the windlass.

The hands, realising the danger, turned to with a will, but within five
minutes the first breath of the squall caught us, and sent us ahead,
as was evident by the way the slackened cable came in through the
hawsepipe.

We had out fifty-five fathoms of chain, and before twenty-five were in,
the squall was upon us properly; the brigantine went gracefully ahead,
overran her anchor, plunged into the roaring breakers on the reef, and
struck bows on.

In another moment or two a heavy sea caught her on the starboard
quarter, canted her round, and dashed her broadside on to the reef with
terrific violence. Then, fortunately for our lives, two or three further
rollers sent her crashing along till she brought up against two or
three coral boulders, whose tops were revealed every now and then by the
backwash. In less than twenty minutes she was hopelessly bilged, and her
decks swept by every sea.

We carried three boats, and our native sailors showed their pluck and
skill by actually getting all three safely into the water, two on the
lee side, and one on the other.

The captain, now conscious of his folly, became very modest, and gave
his orders quietly. The crew, however, took no notice of him and looked
to the mate. He (the captain) ordered me into the first boat, in which
were the ship's papers, charts, chronometer, &c. I refused, and said I
preferred getting on shore in my own way.

I had seen that two native boys (passengers) had run out on to the
bowsprit, and, watching their chance, had dropped over into a curling
roller, and were carried safely ashore.

I had with me on board about nine hundred silver Mexican and Chili
dollars--some in a cash box, the rest in a bag. Calling my native
servant, Levi, I asked him if he thought all the boats would get ashore
safely. He shook his head, said that it was doubtful, and that it would
be better for me to throw the bag and the cash box over the lee side,
where they were pretty sure to be recovered in the morning at low tide.

"All the boats will capsize, or get stove in, going over the reef, or
else will be smashed to bits on the shore," he said, "and the natives
will steal everything they can lay their hands on, especially if the
white men are drowned. So it is better to throw the money overboard."

I took his advice, and going on deck, we dropped both box and bag
overboard, just where Levi pointed out a big boulder, against which the
brigantine was crushing and pounding her quarter.

Again refusing to enter any of the boats, I watched my chance, and ran
for'ard, followed by Levi, and as soon as a big roller came along, we
dropped, and were carried ashore beautifully. Some hundreds of natives
and the white trader were on the look out, and ran in and caught us
before the backwash carried us out again.

The mate's boat had already reached the shore without accident, owing to
the splendid manner in which he and his native crew had handled her; but
both the captain and second mate came to grief, their boats broaching to
and capsizing just as they were within a few fathoms of the shore.

However, no lives were lost, and although next morning the brigantine's
decks had worked out of her and came ashore, the hull held together for
some weeks, and we saved a lot of stores. My money I recovered two or
three days later, though it had been carried more than a hundred yards
away from the spot where it had been dropped overboard. The tin cashbox
(which I had tied up in an oilskin coat, parcelled round with spun yarn,
and weighted inside with several hundred Snider cartridges) was found
buried in sand and broken coral, in a small pool on the reef; it
presented a most curious appearance, being almost round in shape. The
canvas bag was found near by, under a ledge of the reef, together with
the binnacle bell--which was doubled flat--and a dinner plate! The
bag (of No 2 canvas) had been hastily rolled up by Levi in the cabin
table-cloth, weighted with all the loose Snider cartridges we could find
in the darkened trade room, and tied up at each end like a "roly-poly."
This proved its salvation, for when we dug it out (under three fathoms
of water) the outer covering came away in fine shreds, and some of the
big Mexican sun dollars had cut through the canvas.

So ended my second experience, and the only satisfactory thing about it
to me, after losing over a thousand pounds worth of goods through the
captain's obstinacy, was that when he was fussing about after the wreck
trying to get one of the anchors ashore, he managed to lose his right
forefinger. I regret to say that whilst I dressed the stump and bound up
his hand for him, I could not help telling him that I was sorry it was
not his head that had been knocked off--previous to our going ashore.
'Twas very unchristianlike, but I was very sore with the man for his
pig-headedness, and then he so bewailed the loss of his finger; never
thinking of the fact that the boatswain had all but lost an eye, but had
never even murmured at his hard luck.

*****

My third experience of a "pig-headed" master mariner, followed very
quickly--so quickly, that I began to think some evil star attended my
fortunes, or rather misfortunes.

After living on the island for three months, after the loss of the
brigantine, two vessels arrived on the same day--one, a schooner
belonging to San Francisco, and bound to that port; the other, the
_George Noble_, a fine handsome barquentine, bound to Sydney. Now, it
would have suited me very well to go to California in the schooner,
but finding that the skipper of the wrecked brigantine had arranged
for passages for himself, officers and crew in her, I decided to-go to
Sydney in the _George Noble_, purely because the little man with the
missing finger had become so objectionable to me--brooding over my
losses, and wondering how I could pay my debts--that I felt I could
not possibly remain at close quarters with the man in a small schooner
without taking a thousand pounds worth of damage out of him during the
voyage, which "taking out" process might land me in a gaol with two
years imprisonment to serve. So I bade goodbye to good mate Laird, and
the boatswain with the injured eye, and the native crew who had acted so
gallantly; and then with Levi standing by my side, holding my ponderous
bag of my beloved Mexican dollars in one hand, and a few articles of
clothing in the other, I told Captain ------ that I considered him to
be an anthropoid ape, an old washerwoman, and a person who should be
generally despised and rejected by all people, even those of the dullest
intellects, such as those of the members of the firm who employed him.
And then recalling to my memory the sarcastic remark of the mate of the
_Rimitara_, to the pompous captain of the _Tuitoga_ about the command
of a canal boat, I wound up by adding that he had missed his vocation
in life, and instead of being skipper of a smart brigantine, he
was intended by Providence to be captain of a mud-dredge, for which
position, however, he had probably barely sufficient intelligence.

Feeling very despondent--for I had but nine hundred Mexican and Chilian
dollars to meet a debt of eleven hundred pounds, and had out of this to
keep myself and servant for perhaps six months until I got another start
as a trader, I went on board the _George Noble_ and bargained with her
captain for a passage to Sydney, at which port I knew I could at once
meet with an engagement.

The captain of the _George Noble_ was a very decent and good-natured
German, named Evers. He agreed to take me and my henchman to Sydney for
125 dollars--I to live aft, the boy to go for'ard with the sailors, and
lend a hand in working the ship, if called upon in an emergency. The
vessel, I found, was owned by a firm of Chinese merchants in Sydney, and
carried a Chinese supercargo, but he was the only Celestial on board,
the firm only employing him on account of their having so many Chinese
traders throughout the equatorial islands of the Pacific.

I had not been long on board the _George Noble_ when I discovered that
Evers, who was a fine sailorman and a good navigator as well, was one
of the "pig-headed" kind. His mate, second mate, and carpenter, were
Britishers, as were nearly all the crew, but they and the skipper could
not agree. There was no open rupture--but Evers had the idea that both
his officers and men disliked him because he was a "Dutchman." Perhaps
this was so, but if it was, the officers and men never showed their
dislike at being commanded by a foreigner--they knew he was a good
seaman, and gave him unvarying respect and obedience. Nevertheless,
Captain Evers never spoke a friendly word to any one of his officers,
and when he had to speak to them, he did so in such a manner of strained
politeness and severity, that it was really unpleasant to hear him.

On our way to Sydney we called at various islands of the Gilbert Group,
and finally went into Apaian Lagoon, where the barquentine had to load
one hundred tons of copra (dried coco-nut). During the time I had been
on board, Evers and myself had become very intimate, and, I am glad to
say, through me, he and his officers became quite friendly with each
other. And we all spent many happy evenings together. But I could see
that Evers was extremely jealous of his second mate's reputation as a
South Sea pilot, and he would very often purposely question him as to
the entrance of such and such a passage of such and such an island,
and then deliberately contradict his officer's plain and truthful
statements, and tell him he was wrong. Foster, a good-humoured old
fellow, would merely laugh and change the subject, though he well knew
that Captain Evers had had very little experience of the navigation
of the South Seas, and relied upon his charts more than upon his local
knowledge--he would never take a suggestion from his officers, both of
whom were old "island" men--especially the second mate.

We loaded the hundred tons of copra, and were ready for sea by nine
o'clock one morning, when a number of large sailing canoes came off,
crowded with natives from a distant part of the island, all anxious to
buy firearms and ammunition in view of a great expedition against the
adjacent island of Tarawa. They all possessed either plenty of money
or copra, and Evers did a remarkably good, though illegal business, and
sold them over a hundred rifles. By the time they had finished, however,
it was past one o'clock, and I concluded that we could not leave the
lagoon till the following morning. To my surprise, and the second mate's
open-mouthed astonishment, the skipper, who was highly elated with his
morning's trading, told the mate to clear the decks, and get ready to
heave up.

"Why, he's mad!" said the second officer to me.

Now I must explain: Apaian Lagoon is a vast atoll completely enclosed on
the eastern and southern sides by a low, narrow strip of land, densely
covered with coco-palms, and on the northern and western by a continuous
chain of tiny islets connected by the reef. On the western side there
are two narrow ship passages, both exceedingly dangerous on account
of their being studded with numerous coral "mushrooms"--i.e., enormous
boulders of coral rock, which, resembling a mushroom in shape, come to
within a few feet of the surface of the water. Through these passages,
the tide, especially the ebb, rushes with great velocity--six or seven
knots at least--and vessels when leaving the lagoon, generally waited
till slack water, or the first of the flood, when with the usual strong
south-east trades, they could stem the current and avoid the dangerous
"mushrooms." But no shipmaster would ever attempt either of these
passages, except in the morning, when the sun was astern, and he could,
from aloft, con the ship. After two or three o'clock, the sun would be
directly in his face, and render it almost impossible for him to get
through without striking.

Here then was the position when Evers, cheerfully smoking a cigar, and
smiling all over his handsome face, gave the order to heave up. It was
blowing very strongly, the tide was on the ebb, the sun was directly
in our faces, and we were to tear through a narrow passage at racehorse
speed without being able to see anything.

I ventured to suggest to him that it was a bit late for us to get under
way.

"Not a bit of it. Come along with me up on the foreyard, and you'll see
how the _George Noble_ will skip through."

We certainly did skip, for before the anchor was secured, we were
dashing westwards for the passage at eight or nine knots, and Evers kept
calling out to the mate to make more sail. By the time we were abreast
of the passage, the _George Noble_ had every stitch of her canvas on
her, and was fairly "humming" along at nearly thirteen knots over the
smooth water, and then when she spun into the narrow passage through
which a seven-knot current was tearing, her speed became terrific, and I
held my breath. The second mate and boatswain were at the wheel, and
the crew were standing by the braces. The silence on board was almost
painful, for the terrible roar of the current as it tore along the coral
walls of the passage, deadened every sound.

"Starboard a little," shouted Evers to a sailor stationed in the fore
rigging below us, who repeated the order to a man on the rail, who in
turn passed the word aft.

"Steady, there, steady!"

I tried in vain to discern anything ahead of us--the blinding, blazing
sun prevented my seeing aught but a mad seething swirl of water just
beneath our bows, and on each side of us. Evers, however, seemed very
confident.

"We'll be through in another two minutes--" he began, and then came a
terrific shock, and both he and I were jerked off the footrope, and
toppled over the yard on to the bellying foresail!

We both rolled down on top of the windlass, and landed almost in each
others arms, half dazed. I sat down on deck to consider who I was, and
what was the matter, and Evers made a wobbly run aft, the ship still
ripping along, for we had been checked in our mad career for a second or
two only.

In two or three minutes we were outside, and clear of danger, and Evers,
now much subdued, brought to under the lee of the reef, and anchored.
Then we lowered a boat, and made an examination of the ship for'ard.
Nothing was wrong with her above her water-line, but three feet further
down her stem was smashed into a pulp, and bits of timber kept coming
to the surface every now and then. An hour later we had nine inches of
water in the hold, and the consequence of Evers's pig-headedness was
that we had to keep the pumps going day and night, every two hours, till
we rigged a windmill, which was kept going till we reached Sydney.

Six months later, the local trader of Apaian wrote to me, and told me
that Evers "has improved the passage into the lagoon very much. You ran
smack into a big mushroom, standing up right in the middle, and broke it
off short, about fifteen feet below the surface. Hope the _George Noble_
will do the same thing next time."



THE END



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