Part 3 – The Reminscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield

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We spent a month in the Japan Sea: and then passed out by the strait of Matsumae on our way to the Bering Sea and the Artic Ocean. Our course lay off the coast of Kamchatka, west of the Aleutian Islands, past Copper and Bering Islands: and not far from the first of June reached Cape Thadeus on the west of the entrance to Bering Strait, or rather that part of the strait which from its width is called the Sea of Anidir. Here we met the ice pack and found the whales in plenty: also some six or eight ships that had arrived before us. Each had taken one or more whales, and all were whaling. We took two whales the next day and within a couple days two more, the four making over four hundred barrels of oil. This was about all we could handle at one time. Every spare spot was filled with blubber, and we were fourteen hours cutting the last one – a job which with a clear ship could easily be done in six hours: and then a laughable thing happened. At that time of the year it is daylight the whole twenty-four hours in that latitude, the sun just reaching the horizon at midnight. So there being no night, as we understand it, Uncle Seth couldn’t see how he could give the men a rest with all the work to do. “Hang it,” he said, “There is no night, and we must keep at work and take care of this blubber.” But the men were worn out. Several of them were flat on the deck and fast asleep when we finished cutting the last whale. So after fretting a while he ordered all hands below, saying that he and the cooper would stay up and get some casks ready for hailing. So he sent the cooper into the forehold to get out the staves, while he sat on the end of the windlass ready to receive them. Then both fell fast asleep, and after a little while Aunt Rose woke Uncle Seth up and coaxed him below, and then kept the deck for six hours, everyone else being fast asleep. The ship was safe enough. She was lying the ice pack, sails were clewed up, the sea was smooth, and but little wind. Aunt Rose let us sleep six hours. Then she woke Uncle Seth and it was all hands again.

Now, one whaling voyage is much the same as another, with only occasionally an incident worth recording. We continued to work north following the whales. The ice as it broke from the pack drifting out of the straits, the fleet worked through it taking whales about as fast as we could take care of them, getting a short respite occasionally when none were in sight – as the weather was too stormy to allow the boats to leave the ship. We finally reached the latitude fo 70 degrees. There the ice pack was solid, and remained so the entire summer.

We had nearly filled up the ship by the first of September, and the fleet was leaving for warmer latitudes: and it was time, for the nights were lengthening. Small squalls were becoming frequent, and the temperature was often below the freezing point. Still, we had room for one whale, and Uncle Seth was loath to leave without it; and we got him too; got him while snow was falling and ice making, and we got the last of him onboard after dark. Then, as the men were all worn out, Uncle Seth passed the word “Drop everything, set quarter watch.” Just then Aunt Rose came up the gangway and called out “Seth the barometer has fallen three lengths during the last hour.” Uncle Seth looked at the weather. It had become beautifully clear, and there was but little wind. So instead of countermanding his order he said “I don’t believe there will be bad weather of the next six hours. Let the men get a nap.” I don’t know how long I slept. (It was light enough to see plainly but twilights were long at the time of year in that latitude) When somebody grabbed me by the shoulder, fairly pulled me out of the bunk, and yelled “Get on deck quick as God will let you!” I reeled clear across the steerage deck, and then I got on my feet I was immediately conscious that the ship was practically on her beam ends. And how the wind was roaring! I got on deck in the shortest space of time: and things didn’t look nice. The wind came from northwest, but end foremast, (in sailor’s language) and down went the ship starboard side to leeward. Now, it was reckless sending the men below with the ship in that condition; but Uncle Seth didn’t think we would have bad weather for the next six hours, notwithstanding that the barometer had fallen three-tenths in one hour. The shifting boards should have been put in their places, but they had not been. The sails, which were only clewed up, should have been furled, the gangway should have been put in place and secured; and all the sharp tools used in cutting, and the pipes and gaffs used in handling the blubber should have been put in their places, where they could not injure the men; but none of these things had been done. So the inevitable happened. When the ship heeled over with the first blow of the gale, the whole mass of blubber went over to the lee side and held the ship down. The starboard boat went with a crash, and the water poured in over the submerged rail, and a quantity went down the hatch, which had been left off, and the sails were clattering and thrashing with a force which seemed as though they would tear the yards from the masts. Most of the men were sent aloft to secure the sails, which they finally did after a hard tussle. The rest got the hatches on; but did not dare to try to put in the gangway; (the undertow would surely have taken both men and gangway overboard) but it was too dangerous as it was: so, with life ropes around two men, we managed to get a light spar lashed lengthways in line of the rail, having it open below to sluice the water off. But we could do nothing with the blubber between decksl and it would not do to wear ship and so bring that submerged rail to windward. Every sea would have come on deck, a hundred tons at a time. We got the loose things about deck secured after a time; and glad enough we were too, for the water was at the freezing point, and we were up to our necks most of the time, and the air was colder than the water. Fortunately the blow was a short one. By mid-day it had moderated to a stiff breeze; and the pack ice being only a short distance, the sea subsided with the wind. Then we wore ship, got the blubber evenly distributed between decks, put the shifting boards in place, and then squared away for the straits on our way to the Sandwich Islands and warm weather. We had intended stopping at St. Lawrence Bay for water. St. Lawrence Bay is midway of Bering Straits, and when off the mouth we were under reefed topsails, with a fair wind. The water was so thick with passage ice to perceptibly deaden the ship’s headway, and the shore looked as though it was covered with from two to three feet of snow. So Uncle Seth called the men aft and put it this way: “It’s risky stopping here for water; the chances are about equal that we may get froze up and not get away at all. I think we have water enough (allowing each man two quarts a day – for all purposes) to last forty days; and we ought to reach the islands by that time. In fact a fairly quick passage would be thirty-five days. I prefer keeping the ship going. What do you men say?” And the men all agreed to it. So we kept the ship going. This must have been about the tenth of September; and I believe we were the last ship out that season, for we never saw one from some two or three days before we got our last whale until we reached the islands, and we found the whole fleet at anchor when we arrived. We had a blowy passage to the low latitudes with considerable snow and freezing weather, running much of the time under reefed topsails, but most the time with a fair wind. Not far north of the Aleutian Islands we had a very heavy blow from the north. We sailed under storm sails as long as daylight lasted, and then hove to with the head to the westward. A very bad cross sea was running. We had been shipping water at the rate of a hundred tons an hour all day, and when hove to she plunged fearfully. We were standing quarter watches; that is, one boat’s crew with a boat steerer at the head would keep the deck for two hours, instead of two boat’s crews with an offer at the head four hours. I had the first watch, and about nine o’clock the ship met an unusually large lump of water, and her bows went clear out of sight beneath it; and when she shook herself clear the jibboom with all its gear was in a tangled mass under the bows. That meant an all hands job, and a tough one too. For we must save the gear in order to rig another boom. Of course the ship did not plunge so badly after her head gear was gone, but there was plenty of water coming aboard for all that, and it was freezing water too. How long we were in getting in the wreckage I do not know. Certainly from two to four hours. Then Uncle Seth said, “set quarter again and let the rest go below.” The Mate passed the word to the boat steerers, and then without waiting to see the watch set, went below. Then the question arose as to whose watch it was. I told the others that as I had the watch when the jibboom went it certainly was not mine, then I went below; and in a few minutes the other three, not being able to decide who ought to stay on deck, all came below and left the ship to look out for herself, which she did without further accident. It was some time after daylight when I heard Uncle Seth’s voice roaring down the steerage hatch to get on deck and damn quick too; and then heard him berating the mate for not seeing that a watch was set as he had ordered. However, there was no remedy. So, as the gale had decreased to a moderately strong breeze, the ship was put before the wind again, and all hands went to work getting out the spare jibboom; and before dark the head sails were set once more. In a day or two we passed through the Aleutian Islands, and soon after reached warmer latitudes. But the men had begun to come down with scurvy; and, as I remember, some ten were unfit for duty before made the port at Lahaina again. Two of the poor fellows were very badly off. Their knees were drawn up so they were compelled to lie flat on their backs; their teeth were loose, and their gums and every sore on their bodies was blue-black. We hardly expected them to live after being landed; for while a man with scurvy may live some time at sea, they sometimes die when first landed. We anchored at Lahiana the latter part of October. Uncle Seth, Aunt Rose and the children immediately went ashore to remain during our stay; and the following day every man jack of that crew had gone too, leaving the black cook Jordan and myself to take care of the ship, just as we did a year before when we arrived at the same port from San Francisco.

It was while at Lahaina that Uncle Seth sent an undertaker on board with a zinc lined casket; and between us we took Baby Ella out of the cask, cleared the little box which the little lady lay in, and put it into the casket. A pane of glass had been placed over the face, which had become loosened and slipped from its place, so that its features were exposed to view. The rum had all leaked out and been absorbed by the lime. Still, the features were perfect in form and only slightly discolored, a very light brown, probably caused by the rum. The man sealed it up very carefully, using solder, and then went ashore again, and I made a strong box of boards, put the casket into it, and then replaced it on the topsail, where it remained until we arrived home some months later. Neither Uncle Seth or Aunt Rose saw their baby’s body: and he never alluded to it in my presence: and she only once, when she asked me in what condition it was. I was glad to be able to tell her; and she seemed gratified to be told that it was in good condition. I have always thought that Aunt Rose had a sort of mother love for me, big, awkward boy as I was that time: and she certainly trusted me entirely. Uncle Seth sent me some native sailors, and with them I filled water, rebent sails, replaced chopping gear, all of which had become badly worn during the cruise and the rough and tumble passage from the north. So I was kept busy all the time we were there. By the time I had got the ship ready for the homeward voyage, Uncle Seth had shipped a first and third mate, I was rated as a second mate. Mr. Shepard, Mate, was a good seaman, but given to drink, and a poor disciplinarian. The third mate, named Pierce, was about the poorest stick I ever saw aboard ship, and twelve or fourteen sailors – not a whaling crew, but quite sufficient to handle the ship – good sailors, but a very tough lot for discipline. They were all of them either English or Irish, and all hailed from Sidney, New South Wales – not long before the penal settlement, where the English sent their tough characters. Insubordination – often approaching mutiny – was in the air the whole passage. Once they came aft in a body and said they had concluded not to go to the United States, would work the ship into one of the Chilean ports and that would do; but not one of them had the least idea in what direction the Chilean ports were, and so the ship was kept on her cruise, straight for Cape Horn, which we passed in due time, having heard nothing more about working the ship into one of the Chilean ports.

We had intended stopping at some one of the West Indian islands to refill our water casks, for the ship was so full of cargo that we could not stow enough to last the whole passage; but we fell in with the ship City of New Bedford, who was much shorter of water than we were. So it was agreed between the captains that we should give her three casks of water, and both ships would stop at the island of Fernado de Noronha lying off Cape St. Roque, and refill, which we did.

I have good reason to remember our visit to Fernando de Noronha. One of, what I consider, the critical incidents of my life occurred while I was there. There is no harbor, but good anchorage, on the northwest side of the island, forming shelter from the southeast trader, the prevailing winds. We anchored within a half mile of the general landing. This island was, and probably still is, owned by Brazil, and was a penal settlement, with a governor and a body of soldiers to guard the convicts. The barracks and guard were at the general landing, and a moderate surf broke on the whole length of the beach. There is no stream where vessels can fill their casks, and no wells, the inhabitants depending upon rain water, which is caught in large casks. These tanks were situated about a mile west of the anchorage, where the shore is rocky, and in consequence the landing difficult. So the only way to get water was to anchor the boat unreef the raft ropes, and let the casks drift ashore separately, where the other boat’s crew received and filled them. We were there three or four days, and had got what water we needed; but the other ship needed another small raft, and I went with one boat crew to assist in getting it. (All this time Uncle Seth and Aunt Rose stayed ashore with the governor.) We got that last raft alongside the ship City a short time before sundown, and then I came back to our own ship, only to find that both the other boats and every man was gone, leaving only black Jordan aboard; and by the noise on the beach the men and the soldiers were having a dispute. My men were determined to get ashore to help out their shipmates, and I was forced to use some solid argument to prevent them from doing so; but I got my boat on the cranes with some trouble. Then I learned from Jordan that Shepard had permitted Pierce, and a boat crew, to go ashore after a stock of liquor, and that they had evidently got into a row with the soldiers. Then Shepard had taken the remaining boat, and the rest of the men, and gone to bring them off, with the inevitable result that both he and his men had got full too, and had mingled in the row. Finally the officer of the guard got out of patience, called out the guard, and with fixed bayonets pressed our men into their boats and off the beach. Not without a tussle, however; for there was a soldier hurt, and a bayonet in one of the boats when came alongside. Well, some were maudlin, some jolly, and some ready to fight; but we got the boats on the cranes after a while. The men went forward, and we went down to supper. Pierce, too far gone to eat, rolled into his bunk, and that was the last of him until the next day. Shepard and myself had hardly finished our supper when the whole crew were aft calling for Mr. Shepard (The men I had with me during the afternoon were full by that time). They had got it into their heads that the proper thing to do was to go ashore in a body and clean out that guard. Shepard listened, or tried to listen, and blurted out – “I say – men – if there is any fighting – to do – I’m going – to have a hand in it.” Then he reeled to the booby hatch, sat down, and in a few minutes was stretched out fast asleep. That set the men laughing, and they forgot all about going ashore to clean out the guard, but instead went forward; and then there was high jinks on the forecastle for the next two hours. Now, I did not like the situation. I knew I was no favorite – and I knew I had angered my boat’s crew by not letting them go ashore to help out their shipmates in their controversy with the soldiers. In fact I had handled one pretty roughly in preventing them. I was all alone, with the exception of Jordan, and I had never seen any reason to suppose that he was over-stocked with courage. The crew were a rough lot capable of doing anything which might get into their drunken heads. What I did was first get a pumpbrake – a good solid club – and lay on a cask head; then kept in the shadow of the mainmast, so as not to make myself conspicuous, and await developments. I noticed that Jordan hung around – not mingling with the men, but apparently listening, and enjoying the fun, and I wondered why he did not go below. In the meantime the men were boasting of the part each had taken in the skirmish ashore and disputing about who was the hero of the occasion. Finally one of my boat’s crew was telling of how much they wanted to come to their shipmate’s assistance, but the d—d XXXXX of a second mate wouldn’t let them, and he had beaten one of them when he insisted, and proposed that they go aft and throw the damn cuss overboard. Then Jordan – loyal old black soul (No, white soul in a black body) opportunely came – he jumped in among the men, and commenced a most ridiculous song and dance; and how did the men cheer him; and his songs were not all nice, but they were suited to his audience. And he kept it up for a full hour at least. By that time the men had forgotten about throwing the d—-d cuss of a second mate overboard; and had dropped off – some below and other asleep on deck. Then Jordan went to his bunk; and I supposed I dozed, sitting on the skylight. But I must have been alert, for I heard Jordan’s step as he was coming aft for water for breakfast, and was on my feet when he reached me. As he passed he shook his old wooly head and said “Men hab high time lass night – sah – No telling what dey might hab done, sah.” And that is the only allusion the old fellow ever made concerning the affair; but I have often wondered what would have happened if it had not been for the Jim Crow performance. The men, in the state they were in, capable of anything, and they were a tough lot.

The next forenoon Uncle Seth, Aunt Rose and the children came aboard. Two officers and a squad of soldiers also came, to search for possible stow-aways. They were very good natured, joked with the crew about the skirmish the night before, got the hat and bayonet, searched as much as they chose and then went ashore again. Then we got underway, and by noon were off on the home stretch. We had a fair passage, and some time in March 1851 were well up to Block Island. There we ran into a very heavy northeast gale with a tremendous sea, but the sea ran smoothly; that is, it was no cross sea to throw the water up into lumps. So we rode it out without damage. Two days after, off Gay Head we took a pilot, and after stopping one night at Holmes’ Hole, reached Edgartown the following day. There a stevedore gang from Nantucket relieved us. Uncle Seth paid off the crew, then chartered a little vessel which brought us across the Sound, and into Cotuit Harbor. This was the end of my first voyage to the Pacific. It was crowded with incidents caused by our deviating from the original voyage as planned, and I have always through a large measure of responsibility was thrown on me, only a big boy, twenty years old in 1851 when the voyage ended.

It was the custom of whaling ship owners of that time to return such men as they had confidence in in their employ voyage after voyage in the same ship, or some ship under the same managers; and so I was engaged for another voyage in the Massachusetts, the ship to be ready to sail the following September, your Uncle Seth to go Master; and later your Uncle Horace shipped as mate, and Charles C. Holmes of Nantucket third mate. I was rated second mate. Being fixed for future employment I spent the interval here in Cotuit, which I had come to consider as my home, going two or three trips coasting more for recreation than for anything else. It was then that I became acquainted with your mother, and being much together during the summer we became interested in each other, and when I sailed again in September there was a tacit understanding between us that we would be married when I returned, which usually meant at the end of three years. But it turned out differently, for we were very successful in taking whales, and I was home again eighteen months after we sailed. That is, in March 1853. I think your mother was not at all ready to marry so soon. She had looked forward to three years more girlhood. But I was not to put off another voyage, which mean three years extra, so the day was set for April 19, 1853, when were were married in Centerville by Ferdinand G. Kelley, then Town Clerk, also Justice of the Peace. It was the usual way. Very few of our people were married by ministers in those days.  –> Next Part IV

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