Part 6 – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

… continued from part 5

on firm ice. Then the whale dove and came up to windward of the pack, and spouted thick blood. Then I knew that the whale would be dead in a short time: and I went back to the boat, told the mate, William G. Folger, to cut his line: and with the second mate Mr. Holmes, to work round the pack, secure the whale, while I would go to the ship, work her up through the ice and pick them up. It was thickening fast, and spitting snow when I reached the ship, and the boats were more than a mile away: and what with the tacking to windward, and the running off to avoid the floes more than three miles. I got all sail on, went to the masthead with my glasses, and managed to avoid getting the ship jammed in the ice, and also to keep run of the boats. But it was not easy. The snow was increasing all the time, and the wind was increasing too. But I reached them just before dark, and by that time the snow storm was so thick one couldn’t see a thousand yards: and so we were glad enough when the whale was fast alongside and the boats on the cranes, for by that time it was blowing half a gale. It was a blinding snow storm, and had I been fifteen minutes later I should not have found the boats at all: and they would surely have perished if I hadn’t, for the storm continued most of the next day, and it was freezing. It was a close shave for those twelve men: but that is one of the risks of Artic whaling. The ice fields were closing up fast and the ship entirely safe for the ice field was so large, and would soon be so compact that no swell could rise, and the ship could not move. So I set a quarter watch after furling all sail, and securing the helm. The rest went below, got supper, then turned in for the night, tired, but well satisfied with our day’s work.

The ice field being unusually heavy and much more extensive, continued to hamper us much longer than usual: but as it continued to work to the southward we found some clear water on the north shore: but the havoc which the large fleets had made in the last five years had reduced the number of whales to such an extent that few were to be found, where in former years we had found them in plenty, and they had become very shy and hard to approach. However, I got one more, making three, by sometime in June; and nothing of note occurred during the remainder of the season: and by the middle of September I had taken nine hundred barrels of oil, and fifteen thousand, five hundred pounds of excellent bone, the bone alone which I shipped home that fall bringing nearly sixteen thousand dollars. As it was then time to leave the sea I filled water, got a stock of wood, and sailed for the Sandwich Islands, making port at Hilo once more. Here I discharged the third mate, Donely. Both he and Scanlan – the two we had trouble with at Manga Nui the voyage before were with me again. They were good men when out of the reach of liquor, but troublesome when they could get it. Both had been drunk and troublesome when we were at Manga Nui in the spring. Donely being an officer, and consequently having more opportunity, was drunk all the time we were in port: so crazy drunk a part of the time that I was obliged to confine him, and he had so disgusted the officers, and got the illwill of the crew that it was best to get rid of him. I shipped a Mr John Wells in his place, who was with me the rest of the voyage. I gave the men their three days’ liberty, got a six months’ stock of water, then went to Lahaina, where I found the ship Abraham H. Howland bound home, and shipped the bone by her. I should have gone on my cruise from Lahaina, but I had broken the main curting of my windlass gear while in the Ochotsk, and while I had it fixed temporarily it would have been giving out continually, and I really needed a new curting to replace it, for a good windlass is a prime necessity in cutting whales. So I went to Honolulu, left the ship in the offing and went ashore to see what I could get, but could not find what I wanted: so I couldn’t see any other way but to go to San Francisco, leave the ship off the port in charge of a pilot, go ashore, get myself a new curting made, then return to the ship and put it in place myself, which I did. While I was ashore Captain Frank Folger, formerly of Nantucket, but then a member of a firm of ship merchants, tried to persuade me to bring the ship in and market the cargo at that place. As it turned out, it would have been to the advantage of the voyage to have done so, but the financial depression of 1857 had so reduced prices that it looked otherwise to me, and then I should have utterly demoralized my ship’s company. Every ship (whale ship) that had made port at San Francisco up to that time had ruined the voyage. So I declined, got my curtings, went back to the ship, then cruised down the coast and off Cape San Lucas until it was time to make our spring port, which I did again at Hilo.

We remained at Hilo some three weeks, gave the men their three days’ liberty, filled water, and then proceeded to Taai for the usual stock of potatoes. Old Mauna Loa was in action again, but this time the lava flowed from a seam on the opposite side of the mountain, and the lava reached the ocean some ten miles south of Taai, and about half way between that place and the harbor of Karakakoa, famous as the place where Captain Cook, the explorer, lost his life. The histories of that voyage say that he (Capt. Cook) was murdered: but a grizzled old native, still intelligent, and a man of consequence among his own people, told me a different story. From his point of view it was an execution for cause, which I can well believe. I will give his story as I understood it, and I feel that I understood it correctly.

“There was an ancient tradition to the effect that in the distant past a venerated old chief had sailed from the harbor of Karakakoa, telling his people that he would return after many ages in a canoe so big that trees would grow out of it upon which he would spread his sails, and that he would come for their good.” So, when Capt. Cook anchored, the natives – sure that their traditional old chief had returned – were jubilant, and prepared to receive him with great joy. But Captain Cook made the usual mistake of men who hold themselves superior to their fellowmen of other races. He did not trust the men he was dealing with, but left orders with his lieutenant not to allow any natives to come alongside the ship while he was ashore. But the natives, knowing nothing of these orders did launch their canoes, and put off to the ship in considerable numbers: and not understanding the orders to keep at a distance from the ships, some of them pressed alongside. Then the ships fired upon them, sinking some of the canoes and killing a number of their occupants. This act changed conditions entirely. Joy and gladness were changed to hate and suspicion. The canoes retreated to the shore, and the natives that were ashore surrounded Captain Cook and his companions, and after two or three hous excited talk (I am sure it was in their eyes a trial) their chiefs ordered him to be executed: but they did not massacre his companions. On the contrary, both history and native tradition say they were allowed to return to the ships, which soon left the bay, and very much to the natives’ relief, I am sure.”

We got our stock of potatoes, then proceeded to Honolulu, where leaving the ship in the offing I went ashore, mailed letters home, communicated with the owners of the ship, and received a letter from them directing me to take the ship to San Francisco the following fall: and there, with the advice of the firm of Moore and Folger to market the cargo, refit the ship for another year’s cruise, which I did. We proceeded direct from Honolulu, entered the sea of Ochotsk at the usual time (April): found the ice fields wide in extent and very heavy, and whales very scare and shy. It was not until June that I took the first one. In the meantime we had worked round east of the larger packs to the north shore, and then westward into Tausk Bay: and here several incidents occurred which may interest you. Tausk Bay (if the name is spelled right) is formed by a bend in the main land some twenty miles or more long, and some ten miles deep, with several moderately large islands lying across the mouth, with a depth of water averaging fifteen fathoms, but with the exception of a few spots shoaling gradually to the beach. The largest island (called by the whalemen Bowhead Island) perhaps is two miles long. The inside shore consists of a smooth gravel beach in the form of a crescent, backed by a cliff some twenty feet high, and has deep water close to the shore. I describe this island particularly, because it was in connection with it I observed the tremendous power of floe ice when effected by the wind or current. We had ploughed our way through heavy packs some three to five miles, hoping to find the bay free of ice, and also to find whales. Instead we found much ice not packed but in floes ranging from single small cakes to small packs an acre or two in extent, with open water all through between them, and no whales. There were about a dozen ships in company, the ship Phenix, your Uncle Bethuel in command, one of them. The ice in the bay soon began packing, and in a day or two we were all immovably jammed. I was about one mile from the crescent-shaped beach of Bowhead Island, jammed so solid that cakes a foot thick would split and slide up on the larger and heavier ones, the pressure was in towards this crescent-shaped beach, and the ice slid up on the beach until the cliff stopped it, and formed an inclined plane on which more would continue to slide until it reached the top, then over into the woods, leveling the trees, some over a foot in diameter: and that continued for, perhaps, two days until the pressure ceased, and the crushing noise could be heard a long distance. Just what causes these ice rips I am not prepared to say. Wind, at a distance, may have something to do with it: but I think that undercurrents acting on the deeper drought floes is more likely. The pack slacked up within a week, and lanes of open water and open packs formed, but a fresh breeze set in directly towards the land. Then most of the ships anchored, and got a pummeling in consequence, lost their copper sheathing from the bows, and one – the Two Brothers of Mattapoisett – had a hole stove on the bluff of her bow. I had an experience of anchoring among drifting ice once and had no desire to have it again if I could avoid it. So I kept underway until I discovered a large cake, perhaps an acre in extent, and in parts six feet high, drifting into the light where I knew the water shoaled gradually to the beach. Then I dropped the ship up against it: not windward but quartering: and sent the men with the kedge anchor and hooks, and with hawsers secured the ship to this big cake. The with head sails taken in and after sails aback twisted the cake around and brought the ship directly under the lee in a perfectly safe position, the big cake preventing the smaller ones from reaching us. Mr Folger (mate) was frightened. He thought the ship would ground, and the ice would crush her. But I told him that ice five feet above water was thirty feet below the surface, and would ground before the ship would. In some conditions the ship “Two Brothers” would have been lost beyond question: but the captain was a resourceful fellow, and not easily scared – and the ship was what seamen called tender, easily heeled over – The first thing he did was to get a small sail over the hole, which checked the inflow, then hove up his anchor, and got the ship alongside a big cake of ice, punctured holes in it, secured his cutting tackles to it, hove them taut, broke out cargo from the injured side, and pressed it to the opposite quarter: and so with the help of the water (she was half full by this time) got the hole well above the surface, replaced the broken plank, caulked, sheathed and coppered it, and after pumping the ship out and restoring the cargo, she was as good as new. You must keep in mind that the sea is always smooth in these extensive ice fields, else such a thing as that could not be done). The big cake ice that I was fast to did not ground. The wind moderated: then I cast off and went into a small snug harbor near by, and lay there, in company ship for a week or more. By that time the ice had drifted out of the bay, and we were troubled with it no more that year. I got a whale from time to time, and at the end of the season had another nine hundred barrels, making eighteen hundred since leaving home, which was considerable above the average catch of the fleet, although some ships got much more. I think it will interest you to hear about the taking of the last whale that season. It was the middle of September, and time to be getting out of the sea. I had been into a good harbor known as Horse Shoe Bay, filled water, and got a good stock of wood, bent good sails and had new braces for the long, rough passage across the north Pacific. On leaving the harbor, and just outside, but not clear of the height in which the harbor lay, I fell in with a small number of large whales. The wind was moderate, but an easterly blow was coming. I lowered two boats for them. One of the boats struck in a short time. The whale ran inshore which at that place was a sandy beach, backed by an abrupt cliff against which the surf beat at high tide, or during a blow, with no possibility of a landing for some ten miles each way, and gthe wind was blowing on ashore and increasing all the time. There was nothing to do but to follow the boats, for I must pick them up or lose them altogether. They killed the whale when within a mile of the end. He sunk in twenty fathoms. I made signal to cut the whale and get aboard quick: but by that time it had become so rough that the boats could not pull to the ship, so I ran down to leeward of them, luffed to head of shore, dropped the topsails on the cap, and picked up the boats: then sent all hands aloft, double reefed the topsails, set the courses, and put the old ship to her mettle, getting an offing: and a hard time she had of it. We were heading about four points of the land, plunging to the knight head every sea, and probably making at least two points leeway and it dark as pitch and a blinding snow storm. Mr Folger had a streak of timidity in his composition, and was evidently frightened.He came to me and said “For God’s sake, Captain, do shorten that sail, you’ll tear the masts out.” I asked him how far off shore we were, and if he thought we were gaining. He said perhaps eight miles, and probably we were holding our own. I asked him how deep the snow was, and how far it was to the nearest settlement, and he said perhaps two feet, and the settlement forty miles. Then I asked him if he thought any one of us would like to reach the settlement if the ship went ashore, and he admitted that he did not believe any one of us would. Then I told him that the sails must stand until the masts went, as we should be no worse off no matter which way we went ashore, but that I had no intention of letting the ship go ashore if I could help it. About one or two o’clock it suddenly dropped to a dead calm. Then I took in the courses, knowing that in a short time it would come out of the northwest like a cannon shot, which it did within half an hour: and it blew the snow out to sea in a very few minutes, and the short, sharp seas went down with it, leaving the remainder of the night beautifully clear, and the tremendously high mountains seemed to be ready to fall bodily upon the ship. Now, as the ship was safe, the next thing was to try and save the whale. So I put the ship on the back track, told the mate to keep her on her course, while I would lie down a couple of hours when he would call me. He didn’t wait a couple hours. On the contrary, in less than a half hour he was at my cabin door, saying: “Captain, if you’re going to keep the ship on this course I want you to come on deck, for it looks as if the ship would list the beach every minute.” So I did go on deck, and I did keep on that until daylight, not much before eight o’clock. When we were within two miles of the place where the whale lay sunk on the bottom. Of course the ship was running nearly parallel with the land. The wind was off shore, moderating fast, and the sea had become perfectly smooth. The two boats which I sent soon found the buoy, and without much difficulty got the whale to the surface, and we got him alongside around noon. The wind had fallen to a light breeze. I squared the yards, set all sail, and got about three miles from land before it died out altogether. In the meantime we had commenced cutting, but the tackles were wet and stiff with the cold, so it was dark when we had got the head on deck, about half the job. The wind had blown on a fresh breeze from the northeasterly point, but so far to the north that we could head directly off shore, but with all sail on the mainmast furled necessary to enable us to work the tackles, the wind being on the port side, we made slow headway: and the snow was falling fast too, though it was not such a blinding storm as it was the night. Well, what with torches and guess work we got the blubber between the decks, and everything secure at twelve o’clock, had braced round the mainyard, set the topsail, and with double reefs all round were standing off shore, and I didn’t care how hard it might blow, or how thick it snowed, for I had a good ship under my feet, a good well-trained crew to take care of her, and plenty of sea room. I had made a fair season catch, and all was well.

The next morning we started the tryworks, and in due time had the oil, something over one hundred barrels, safely stowed in the hold, the whole season’s catch amounting to nine hundred barrels with from fifteen to sixteen thousand pounds of first class bone. We passed between the Kurile Islands enclosing the Ochotsk Sea, and then straight away four thousand miles for our port of San Francisco, where we arrived about the middle of November.

It did not take long for the larger part of my crew to scatter. The mate, second mate and the cooper left and came home to Nantucket. Some went to the mines. I paid off a few. Others got into the clutches of the sharks, got in debt, and were finally shanghaied aboard some of the many clipper ships lying there bound to China and the Chincha Islands, the last (Guano ships). About half a dozen of the steady ones stood by the ship and continued the voyage. I docked the ship, and slowly took out the oil, marketing most of it, the firm of Moore & Folger conducting the sales. The bone and the small quantity of oil not sold I shipped to New York by the big clipper Golden Fleece, loading wheat at the same dock: after doing which I refitted for another year’s cruise. As the ship had only stores for two years when we left home, and something over eighteen hundred barrels of the casks had already been filled, we needed everything in that line, as well as clothing for a new crew. Most of the men would come aboard without sufficient clothes for the northern cruise, and many minor articles, all of which must be hunted up and got onboard. I needed, or thought I needed, a sufficient number of new heavy casks for ground tier, for it was not an unusual thing for a ground tier cask to be crushed by the weight of the two tiers above it. But I could not find any suitable: So as an alternative I put sixty tons of ballast in the bottom, leaving room for only two tiers: and an excellent plan it proved for a one year’s cruise, although it would not have done for a long voyage. Then I hunted up sound casks enough for twelve hundred barrels, lots of them were partially wrecked: but we would have plenty of time to put them in order before going north the following March: but it proved quite a job for me: for the cooper I shipped in place of the one who left the ship when we arrived, although a good workman, had never worked on anything but new work, whiskey and beer barrels and such like, and so knew nothing about repairs or how to make casks ready to receive hot oil. They shrink much when filled with hot oil. In consequence I was obliged to don frock and overalls and take the lead: but he, the cooper, was a good workman, and intelligent, and soon caught the idea. Then I was able to leave that part to him: and after getting the first whale, which we soon did, and he saw how the hot oil shrunk the casks, he was as good a ship’s cooper as I ever saw. I shipped as mate, in place of Mr Folger, Lorenzo B. Leeke, a resident of Narragansett, Long Island, whom I found stranded: and an excellent mate he proved to be. His being stranded came about in this way. He had left home as mate of the bark W.S. Perkins of Sag Harbor. They had made one unsuccessful season in the Artic. Then the captain made port at San Francisco, sold everything saleable, chartered the bark to a company engaged in the Oregon lumber trade, and came home, leaving the whole crew to shift for themselves. I rated Mr Wells second mate, and shipped a Mr Perry in his place, made my brother Norman a boat-steerer, easily obtained a crew – mostly men who had been whaling before – and sailed after being in port some six week: and I had this unique experience, of being the first whaling captain that ever made port in San Francisco since gold was first discovered without ruining the voyage in whole or in part by doing so. Several had tried it. Some had wound up the voyage the same as the N.S. Perkins did. Other had got away with only part of a crew, and were obliged to go elsewhere for men – a costly thing at best. All had met with disaster of some sort, and most of them had been hailed into court on charges of assault on the high seas, while I had got away without any trouble with my men, and well pointed for another cruise. I cruised down the coast looking for sperm whales, but saw none, and finally went into Margarita Bay, a considerable body of water in Lower California, a breeding place for a small whale of the Wright whale species: that is they had no teeth. They would try out about forty barrels of oil somewhat inferior to the oil of the Artic whale. They went under the name of mucle diggers – (an inappropriate name, for they certainly did not dig for mucles, and having no teeth were obliged to swallow their food whole). The bone had no value. It was short and of a dirty white color. I got three or four of the whales, and my mate got badly hurt by one of them: the only man I ever had badly hurt during the time I spent in the whale fishing. It happened this way: He struck the whale near the entrance of the bay, and he ran out to sea where the water was rough, somehow the whale in thrashing about brought his flukes down on one side of the boat’s bow, cutting it clear off from stem to keel, and at the same time striking Mr. Leeke a glancing blow from shoulder to foot, knocking the elbow partly out of joint, the knee entirely out of joint, cutting the flesh from the side of his foot, leaving the bone exposes, and bruising the whole length of his body. I saw the accident from the ship anchored a half mile away, and went to him as quickly as possible. Of course they had cut the line and let the whale go. I found him sitting in the stern, the water nearly up to his arm pits. He was perfectly cool, and under his direction the men had used their oars, and so kept the boat from turning over. I saw that his left knee was out of joint: the lower half of the leg was at an angle of forty-five degrees from the thigh. I took him under the arms, and told his after oarsman to lift that leg and pass it to my man: but both boats were rolling in the sea, and somehow between them they let it fall across the gunwhale of my boat: and it was a lucky fall too, for it put the knee joint in place as neatly as a surgeon could have done it: but it hurt him, for he groaned and fainted dead away. Being in the water so long the foot had become chilled and did not bleed at all. I got him onboard and into a hot bath as quickly as possible, and kept him there for, I should think, nearly an hour. Then with four men to help, and another with his elbow bare for a model, I got the elbow joint in place. It was immovable when I commenced, but a good joint when it got well. With much rubbing and keeping the bath as hot as he could bear it, I finally got the circulation up, and the wounded foot bleeding. Then after allowing time for the blood to get full possession of the hurt, I brought the flesh which was hanging by the skin of the sole, in place, and with sticking plaster and bandages held it in place. He was pretty badly used up, and did no duty for a couple of months, but came out all right in the end and did good service in the Ochotsk the following season. Knowing that a big joint when injured was worse to care for than a broken bone, I secured both knee and elbow with bandages, with a strip of stiff leather some eight inches long bound on the inside of each, and I kept them there for not less than six weeks, only readjusting them occasionally, with the result that neither gave any trouble afterwards so far as I heard. The shoulder was badly bruised, swollen and black, although the joint was not injured, but I reduced the swelling and scattered the crushed blood within a week with the help of poultices and cloths wrung out of hot water, and changed at short intervals. The hip had evidently got the hardest blow. The clothing was torn away, leaving it bare. Much of the scarf skin was gone, and in spots the hide was broken. Still it had swollen but little, and was scarcely discolored at all. Being immersed in cold water so long must have prevented the blood from settling at that point. I kept hot cloths on it two or three days, then dressed it with simple ointment, and it came out all right. So much for rough surgery.

It was time to make our spring port, preparatory to the season north; and I had had enough of the mucle diggers. So I left Margarita Bay, and started straight away for the Sandwich Islands, two thousand miles away, with another thirty-five hundred from there to the Ochotsk Sea. We reached Hilo in due time, filled water, and gave the men liberty. It was here that I learned that the ship Phenix (your Uncle Bethuel) and the Wave had neither of them reached port the previous fall: but another ship (I forget her name) had brought the report that all three of them were in company, inside the Shantar Islands, late in September, and that during a southeast storm both the Phenix and the Wave had anchored under Elbow Island (a good harbor in a southeasters, but exposed to a forty-mile rake in a north west gale – a thing almost certain to follow a southeaster at that season of the year) and that he had considered it safer to remain under sail in the open bay than to anchor under Elbow Island, which he did.

continued in part 7

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