Part 7 – The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

continued from part 6

He also reported that the wind did shift to the northwest at midnight, bringing a blinding snowstorm, which lasted some four hours. The wind reached the dimension of a howling gale before daylight, and that he was sure that neither of these ships were able to get away or able to hold on where they were, and must both have been wrecked at Elbow Island, which proved to be the case. And this is the story of the wreck, as told to me by your Uncle Bethuel the following year, which he spent with me aboard the ship Massachusetts. He had lost one of his anchors during the summer, and so had only one to depend on: and in consequence went well into the harbor where the water was smooth. The Wave anchored farther out a half mile distant. When the wind shifted – which it did suddenly – the Wave got underway – at least he saw the gleam of her lights through the snowstorm, and knew by that time that they were heaving up the anchors: and after a seasonable time the lights disappeared, when he knew she had filled away, and that was the last he knew of her. (She was wrecked and all hands gone in less than an hour afterwards.) In the meantime, the Phenix, now stern to the island, commenced dragging the anchor, bumped over a sunken reef, which making off from a rocky point formed a small cone: but in doing so broke the rudder, both fastenings, and stuck; and so they lost it altogether: and that meant the loss of the ship, and the wintering of the crew on an uninhabited island during an Artic winter. The anchor caught onto the reef, so the ship lay very comfortably in the cone with plenty of water to float her through the next day and night. The day following they slipped the chain, let the ship go on the beach, made fast to the trees, and went to work getting out everything that would help them through the winter. Provisions, clothing, bedding, tools, sails and rope, everything that would be of use in their then situation. And it was no child’s play either. The beach was steep, the bluff from twelve to twenty feet high, the rise and fall of the tide twenty feet, and the snow not less than two feet deep: and there was no certainty of their being able to hold onto the ship for any length of time. (In fact she did get away from them the third night after they beached her.) The second night one of the trees to which the hawser was made fast tore out by the roots, the ship swing round, and as the tide fell, heeled off shore. That made it necessary to cut through the bilge, tumble out cargo, and so get at the stores: and they worked until they had got all that they could find, and about all there was in the ship. During that night it came on to blow, and before morning the ship was gone, and they never saw anything more of her. The next thing was to build their camp. By good fortune they were at a place where wood was plenty, fir trees ten meters in diameter and less, tall and straight and it burns freely when green. First they built a floor one foot high, sides six feet high, fourteen feet wide, twenty feet long. A rather high peeked roof, all of logs. Then they covered the whole roof and sides with the ships sails, double on the roof, with small logs on top to keep it from blowing away. In the center of the floor they build a crib two feet high which they filled with earth for a fire place. It was six by eight feet. The chimney was built of small trees going endways well up through the roof. The bottom of the chimney was shaped like a hopper, and was two feet above the fire, the whole resting on and supported by the corners of the fireplace. As the snow deepened, which it soon did, they banked it up to the eaves of the building, and so kept themselves as warm as we are able to do here at home. The also built a smaller building in which to store their provisions, which your Uncle kept locked. For it would never do to allow the crew (thirty-two all told) to have free access to the food. And this was the situation: They were on an uninhabited island, separated from the mainland by a strait seven miles wide: the nearest settlement (a fishing village) forty miles distant, abandoned during the winter months. It was the first of October, and no help would reach them, or anyone know anything about them before the following May, with food enough, with close economy, to last from three to four months and scurvy (that scourge of the High latitudes) sure to make its appearance in a short time: and to counteract it they dug from underneath the snow a wintergreen vine (Reindeer moss, it must have been) which they ate both raw and cooked: and an excellent remedy it proved: for they got through the winter with little or no trouble from scurvy.

Being so short of food, it was evident from the first that a portion of them must start for the settlement as soon as possible: get there if they could, or perish by the way if they could not, or all starve together on the island, as an alternative. But they could not start until the strait was frozen over, and the rushing ice would keep the tides moving for some time yet. So they employed themselves making every preparation they could think of. Long canvas boats with wooden sides, with bear skin nailed on the bottom to grip the snow, and lined with several thicknesses of blanket, mittens of the same, hoods to their overcoats, and many other things, including two tents in the form of a spread umbrella that could be folded, and two moderately large sleds to pack their extras, shovels, axes, and spare clothing and food. All this kept them busy for three weeks, when the ice ceasing to run they made their start, Bethuel taking the third mate and half the crew with him. The days are short at that season of the year in high northern latitudes, but the moon gives good light, reflected as it is by the snow, which was then some seven feet deep: and they timed their start near the full. They got safely across the straits in one day, and were glad to camp as soon as they reached the main land, for the string tide had piled the ice up and the deep snow made hard traveling, for it was so mealy that they sank below the knee at every step. They made camp by digging two holes as deep as the mealy snow would let them, spreading a piece of canvas at the bottom: then getting into the hole, and spreading their umbrella-like tent, held up by a light center pole, and allowing the snow to sift in around them (top of the tent) which if there was any wind it quickly did. Fortunately they had no storm during the journey, and the fifth day, just as night was coming, they reached the fishing village at the head of south-west bay, forty miles from their starting point, having made an average of eight miles each twenty-four hours. Two or three of the men had to be helped along the last few miles. (They did not dare to haul them on the sleds. If they had gone to sleep it would have been the last sleep.) But they had made their forty miles through seven feet of snow, and in freezing weather without the loss of a man, or even a frost bite. So much for common sense, pluck and preparation. The only one they found at the fishing village was a native Tongase who had just loaded his dog team with cured fish, and was starting for the military station fifteen miles inland. He tried to escape, being frightened, but we all had a few native words, and Bethuel used his lungs for all they were worth, calling out, and repeating the one word “Dobra” (good) which halted the native, who soon caught on to what and who they were. Then he (the native) opened one of the buildings, built a roaring fire, gave them a lot of smoked salmon, and then started for the winter settlement. You may be sure they passed a good night, for they were all safe, their journey was practically at an end, and they would soon be able to send forth fresh food their mates on the island to protect them from scurvy.

The next day the officers commanding the military post fifteen miles inland sent dog teams and took them all up to the settlement. It was a Cossack command, and the soldiers had their families, and lived in separate houses, instead of barracks. In a few days Bethuel arranged matters, and sent dog teams loaded with fresh meat to the island, and did the same twice more during the winter. So from that time they fared as well as the inhabitants, and all came through all right. Only one (the old black cook) who remained on the island had one foot frozen, and as they thawed it by the fire it was in pretty bad shape in the spring. I have written this story because I feel sure it will interest you, and I am sure it is the only record of that wreck in existence.

After finishing our business at Hilo I went to Taai for a stock of potatoes, arriving with two other ships just before sundown, went ashore and engaged them, intending to get them on board the next day: but before morning the wind shifted to the southwest, as it occasionally does during the winter season in that latitude, and when that takes places it always attain the dimensions of a moderate gale.

As Taai is no harbor, ships must get to sea when the wind is on shore. So at daylight we were all underway and standing out to sea. It blew a moderate gale, and it was twenty-four hours before we were able to return. Then we got our potatoes and left for Honolulu, lay off there one day, and then left, touching at no other place: but being rather early, going under easy sail, looking for sperm whales: passed the Ladrones Islands (Guam is one of them) sighted the Bonin Islands on our way north: but seeing no whales on the route, entered the Okhotsh at the usual time (April). We found that the ice was not nearly so heavy or the floes so extensive as the previous two seasons, consequently we were able to work around first north and then west much sooner than usual: and as Bethuel and his fate were constantly in my mind, I lost no time in getting to the Shantar Bays where he was last seen. I reached the port of Ayan (The Russian-American Fur Company’s principal depot) and about one hundred miles from Elbow Island, and the same distance from the head of Southwest Bay, about the middle of May. There I interviewed the governor, only to learn that he had had no communication with the port where Bethuel left the Elbow Island (Obol Shantar).

We had reached the point at which the strong tides commenced, and the farther we went the stronger the tides would be, and the ice still extensive in the Shantar Bays, would be moving with the tide, rendering navigation difficult: and the ice being confined between the islands and the main lands there would be some danger of the ship being crowded ashore. Still, as we had seen no whales so far, and hoped to find them in the bays we (there being three or four other ships with me at the time, and more were arriving) all worked through the floes farther into Southwest Bay, and finally reached a small harbor, a rather deep gut in the main land, which whalemen call Striped Bluff Harbor, and where the water being slack the ice did not accumulate: and which was about twenty-five miles below the head of the bay. Here we anchored, about six or seven ships, to lay until the ice should finally run out. Here I provisioned two boats, put them in charge of the second mate, and instructed him to creep along shore, haul the boats on the beach when threatened by the ice, but not to return to the ship until he had reached the settlement and found out what had become of Bethuel: for I was sure that if all had not perished that was the place to look for them. They found Bethuel and his men all right: but not at the settlement. The ship Florida being unable to get to the little harbor where we were lying, drifted up the bay fast in the big floe, and then when the ebb made dropped his anchor and let the floe go out past him, in two tides, he was inside the ice altogether, with his copper and sheathing badly torn, and in sight of the settlement. It was a dangerous thing to do. For the floe in the bay was thin, not more than eight or ten feet thick, and if a northeast gale had arisen, the pressure of the big floe would have forced the ship aground, and then run all over her, wrecking all above the planksheer. Bethuel, glad to get on a ship’s deck once more, went onboard the Florida: and it was there my boats found him two days after leaving the ship. It turned out that the ice had left the south shore of the bay sooner than we had been able to get to the Striped Bluff. Then Bethuel’s mate had taken a shore boat in tow, and gone to the head of the bay. Consequently Bethuel and six of his men came on board in his own boat. They remained the rest of the season, and I brought them to San Francisco in the fall. Up to this time, not far from the first of June, we had seen no whales, or so few as to be called none, and it was about the middle of the month that I took the first one, some twenty miles south of Ayan. He was entirely alone, not another in sight, and he acted strangely. It was dead calm, the water as smooth as glass. Under these conditions I hadn’t the least idea of getting him when I lowered two boats. In fact I had gone below, expecting to hear the boats come alongside in a short time. Instead, the boat went straight to the whale and struck him, and in half an hour he was alongside the ship dead. This was a short time before sundown. Then we noticed the water had suddenly become alive with a marine insect about the size of a small bumble bee, but looking more like a black short-legged spider. Evidently the whale had been so intent on gorging himself that he took not notice of the boat that struck him. Before morning the ship was surrounded by whales spouting in every direction. I cut the one I had alongside that evening. The next day I got two, one of which I cut. The other lay alongside. The following day I got one more, and at the end of the week I had taken what finally stowed down eight hundred barrels. Then the weather grew thick, stormy, and blew up a moderate northeast gale, and the sea got up s that we could not run the trywork. This made it necessary to seek a harbor, which I did by picking my way between the unnamed island and Felixtuf and anchoring under the lee at the place marked by an anchor. In the course of another week I had the oil safely in the ship’s hold, eight hundred barrels of good oil, and some thirteen thousand pounds of first class bone. The best fortnight’s work I ever did during my career as a whaleman. By the time I had finished storing the oil both the marine insects and the whales had disappeared, and we saw no more during our month’s stay in that vicinity. But these conditions were a wonder. No one, so far as I knew, ever saw anything like it. There must have been seventy-five, possibly a hundred ship in the Shanter Bays at that time, and all of them were capturing whales as fast as they could take care of them: and I should say that a fair estimate of the number taken would not be far from five hundred. And yet the whales would not leave as long as the food remained: and it was as plentiful at the last as when it first made its appearance. It simply disappeared as suddenly as it came.

Finding no more whales at the Shanter Bays we cruised in the open, and up the coast: took one more large whale, which made the season’s catch nine hundred barrels, twenty-seven hundred barrels since leaving home. I had intended going into Horse Shoe Bay to obtain a stock of water, and make my final preparations for the long voyage across the Pacific, starting about the middle of September, the usual time: but not far from the first of September a very disagreeable incident occurred, and which might have been a very serious one, and also one that I have always felt shame that my thoughtlessness caused. Some fifty miles southwest of the Horse Shoe Bay, at the mouth of a fine salmon stream, is – or was – a permanent Russian settlement. (Europeans, not native). Some, evidently, men of note, with a small church and a priest attached. He (the priest) spoke fairly good English. I had landed there several times, and having found that salt was a luxury with them had always saved it and given it to them whenever I conveniently could. We were off this settlement at noon, and Bethuel, myself and the second mate, went ashore simply to give them what salt I had, and to say goodby. Inside the mouth of the river is a small bay with deep water, where we had always left the boats, walking the mile or so up to the village: and the second mate landed there this time, which Bethuel and I pulled a half mile up one of the two branches of the stream. After spending the afternoon with our Russian friends we came down to the boats intending to get onboard before night. Then we found that the tide had ebbed, that there was no water nearer than the small bay where the second mate’s boat lay, and we must either carry the two boats a half mile – a thing we certainly could not do before dark – or wait for the flood tide to float them. I sent the second mate aboard with directions to Mr Leeke to lay off till morning when I would come aboard: but before morning it was blowing a stiff northeast gale and no ship in sight. I don’t remember how long we were there – certainly a week – probably more than a week, anxiously watching for the ship, for the season was already late, winter would be on us soon: and although I knew Mr Leeke would not abandon us, still the possibility existed that she might have been crippled, and so he would not be able to get back: and all the while the wind was fresh from the northeast. Finally, in the early forenoon we sighted a ship coming down the coast before the wind, three miles off shore, and we sculled off to her. I forget the ship’s name, but I knew the captain (Stranbourgh) very well, and he hoisted our boats up under his own, and some twenty miles farther to leeward we met the Massachusetts beating up, and carrying all the sail she could trying o get back. Didn’t she look good! And weren’t we glad to get onboard her once more! And weren’t our shipmates glad to see us onboard, especially old Leeke, good old fellow that he was.

continued in part 8 

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