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Ships In Peril

( Originally Published 1905 )



IT is to be remarked that a wreck on the Labrador coast excites no wide surprise. Never a season passes but some craft are cast away. But that is merely the for-tune of sailing those waters—a fortune which the mission-doctor accepts with a glad heart: it provides him with an interesting succession of adventures ; life is not tame. Most men—I hesitate to say all—have been wrecked ; every man, woman, and child who has sailed the Labrador has narrowly escaped, at least. And the fashion of that escape is sometimes almost incredible.

The schooner All's Well (which is a fictitious name) was helpless in the wind and sea and whirling snow of a great blizzard. At dusk she was driven inshore—no man knew where. Strange cliffs loomed in the snow ahead ; breakers—they were within stone's throw—flashed and thundered to port and starboard ; the ship was driving swiftly into the surf. When she was fairly upon the rocks, Skipper John, then a hand aboard (it was he who told me the story), ran be-low and tumbled into his bunk, believing it to be the better place to drown in.

" Well, lads," said he to the men in the forecastle, " we got t' go this time. 'Tis no use goin' on deck."

But the ship drove through a tickle no wider than twice her beam and came suddenly into the quiet water of a harbour !

The sealing-schooner Right and Tight struck on the Fish Rocks off Cape Charles in the dusk of a northeast gale. It is a jagged, black reef, outlying and isolated ; the seas wash over it in heavy weather. It was a bitter gale; there was ice in the sea, and the wind was wild and thick with snow; she was driving before it—wrecked, blind, utterly lost. The breakers flung her on the reef, broke her back, crunched her, swept the splinters on. Forty-two men were of a sudden drowned in the sea beyond; but the skipper was left clinging to the rock in a swirl of receding water.

"Us seed un there in the marnin'," said the old man of Cape Charles who told me the story. "He were stickin' to it like a mussel, with the sea breakin' right over un ! 'Cod ! he were ! "

He laughed and shook his head ; that was a tribute to the strength and courage with which the man on the reef had withstood the icy breakers through the night.

" Look ! us couldn't get near un," he went on. "'Twas clear enough t' see, but the wind was blowin' wonderful, an' the seas was too big for the skiff. Sure, I knows that ; for us tried it.

"' Leave us build a fire !' says my woman. 'Leave us build a fire on the head!' says she. "Twill let un know they's folk lookin' on.'

"'Twas a wonderful big fire us set ; an' it kep' us warm, so us set there all day watchin' the skipper o' the Right an' Tight on Fish Rocks. The big seas jerked un loose an' flung un about, an' many a one washed right over un ; but nar a sea could carry un off. 'T was a wonderful sight t' see un knocked off his feet, an' scramble round an' cotch hold somewheres else. 'Cod ! it were—the way that man stuck t' them slippery rocks all day long ! "

He laughed again—not heartlessly ; it was the only way in which he could express his admiration.

" We tried the skiff again afore dark," he continued ; " but 'twasn't no use. The seas was too big. Sure, he knowed that so well as we. So us had t' leave un there all night.

" `He'll never be there in the marnin',' says my woman.

" `You wait,' says I, ` an' you'll see. I'm thinkin' he will.'

" An' he was, zur—right there on Fish Rocks, same as ever ; still stickin' on like the toughest of mussel ever you tasted. Sure, I had t' rub me eyes when I looked; but 'twas he, never fear--'twas he, stickin' there like a mussel. But there was no gettin' un then. Us watched un all that day. 'T was dark afore us got un ashore.

" 'You come nigh it that time,' says I.

" 'I'll have t' come a sight nigher,' says he, `afore I goes ! ' "

The man had been on the reef more than forty-eight hours !

The Army Lass, bound north, was lost in the fog. They hove her to. All hands knew that she lay somewhere near the coast. The skipper needed a sight of the rocks—just a glimpse of some headland or island—to pick the course. It was important that he should have it. There was an iceberg floating near ; it was massive; it appeared to be steady—and the sea was quiet. From the top of it, he thought (the fog was dense and seemed to be lying low), he might see far and near. His crew put him on the ice with the quarter-boat and then hung off a bit. He clambered up the side of the berg. Near the summit he had to out his foothold with an axe. This was unfortunate ; for he gave the great white mass one blow too many. It split under his feet. He fell headlong into the widening crevice. But he was apparently not a whit the worse for it when his boat's crew picked him up.

A schooner let her be called the Good Fortune—running through dense fog, with a fair, high wind and all sail set, struck a "twin" iceberg bow on. She was wrecked in a flash : her jib-boom was rammed into her forecastle ; her bows were stove in ; her topmast snapped and came crashing to the deck. Then she fell away from the ice; whereupon the wind caught her, turned her about, and drove her, stern foremost, into a narrow passage which lay between the two towering sections of the " twin." She scraped along, striking the ice on either side ; and with every blow, down came fragments from above.

"It rained chunks," said the old skipper who told me the story. "You couldn't tell, look ! what minute you'd get knocked on the head."

The falling ice made great havoc with the deck-works ; the boats were crushed ; the "house" was stove in ; the deck was littered with ice. But the Good Fortune drove safely through, was rigged with makeshift sails, made harbour, was refitted by all hands—the Labradormen can build a ship with an axe—and continued her voyage.

I have said that the Newfoundlanders occasionally navigate by means of old rhymes ; and this brings me to the case of Zachariah, the skipper of the Heavenly Rest. He was a Newf'un'lander. Neither wind, fog nor a loppy sea could turn his blood to water. He was a Newf'un'lander of the hardshell breed. So he sailed the Heavenly Rest without a chart. To be sure, he favoured the day for getting along, but he ran through the night when he was crowding south, and blithely took his chance with islands of ice and rock alike. He had some faith in a "telltale," had Zachariah, but he scorned charts. It was his boast that if he could not carry the harbours and headlands and shallows of five hundred miles of hungry coast in his head he should give up the Heavenly Rest and sail a paddle-punt for a living. It was well that he could—well for the ship and the crew and the folk at home. For, at the time of which I write, the Rest, too light in ballast to withstand a gusty breeze, was groping through the fog for harbour from a gale which threatened a swift de-scent. It was " thick as bags," with a rising wind running in from the sea, and the surf breaking and hissing within hearing to leeward.

"We be handy t' Hollow Harbour," said Zachariah.

" Is you sure, skipper ? " asked the cook. " Sure," said Zachariah.

The Heavenly Rest was in desperate case. She was running in—pursuing an unfaltering course for an unfamiliar, rocky shore. The warning of the surf sounded in every man's ears. It was imperative that her true position should soon be determined. The skipper was perched far forward, peering through the fog for a sight of the coast.

" Sure, an' I hopes," said the man at the wheel, " that she woan't break her nose on a rock afore the of man sees un."

" Joe Bett's P'int I" exclaimed the skipper.

Dead ahead, and high in the air, a mass of rock loomed through the mist. The skipper had recognized it in a flash. He ran aft and took the wheel. The Heavenly Rest sheered off and ran to sea.

" We'll run in t' Hollow Harbour," said the skipper.

"Has you ever been there ? " said the man who had surrendered the wheel.

"Noa, b'y," the skipper answered, " but I'll get there, whatever."

The nose of the Heavenly Rest was turned shoreward. Sang the skipper, humming it to himself in a rasping sing-song :

" When Joe Bett's P'int you is abreast,
Dane's Rock bears due west.
West-nor'west you must steer,
'Til Brimstone Head do appear.

"The tickle's narrow, not very wide ;
The deepest water's on the starboard side
When in the harbour you is shot,
Four fathoms you has got."

The old song was chart enough for Skipper Zachariah. Three times the Heavenly Rest ran in and out. Then she sighted Dane's Rock, which bore due west, true enough. West-nor'west was the course she followed, running blindly through the fog and heeling to the wind. Brimstone Head appeared in due time; and in due time the rocks of the tickle—that narrow entrance to the harbour—appeared in vague, forbid-ding form to port and starboard. The schooner ran to the starboard for the deeper water. Into the harbour she shot; and there they dropped anchor, caring not at all whether the water was four or forty fathoms, for it was deep enough. Through the night the gale tickled the topmasts, but the ship rode smoothly at her anchors, and Skipper Zachariah's stentorian sleep was not disturbed by any sudden call to duty.

And the doctor of the Deep Sea Mission has had many a similar experience.



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