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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Perils of the Sea
By Frederick Marryat (1792–1848)
 
From ‘Peter Simple’

WE continued our cruise along the coast until we had run down into the Bay of Arcason, where we captured two or three vessels and obliged many more to run on shore. And here we had an instance showing how very important it is that a captain of a man-of-war should be a good sailor, and have his ship in such discipline as to be strictly obeyed by his ship’s company. I heard the officers unanimously assert, after the danger was over, that nothing but the presence of mind which was shown by Captain Savage could have saved the ship and her crew. We had chased a convoy of vessels to the bottom of the bay: the wind was very fresh when we hauled off, after running them on shore; and the surf on the beach even at that time was so great, that they were certain to go to pieces before they could be got afloat again. We were obliged to double-reef the topsails as soon as we hauled to the wind, and the weather looked very threatening. In an hour afterwards the whole sky was covered with one black cloud, which sank so low as nearly to touch our mast-heads; and a tremendous sea, which appeared to have risen up almost by magic, rolled in upon us, setting the vessel on a dead lee shore. As the night closed in, it blew a dreadful gale, and the ship was nearly buried with the press of canvas which she was obliged to carry: for had we sea-room, we should have been lying-to under storm staysails; but we were forced to carry on at all risks, that we might claw off shore. The sea broke over us as we lay in the trough, deluging us with water from the forecastle aft to the binnacles; and very often, as the ship descended with a plunge, it was with such force that I really thought she would divide in half with the violence of the shock. Double breechings were rove on the guns, and they were further secured with tackles; and strong cleats nailed behind the trunnions; for we heeled over so much when we lurched, that the guns were wholly supported by the breechings and tackles, and had one of them broken loose it must have burst right through the lee side of the ship, and she must have foundered. The captain, first lieutenant, and most of the officers remained on deck during the whole of the night: and really, what with the howling of the wind, the violence of the rain, the washing of the water about the decks, the working of the chain pumps, and the creaking and groaning of the timbers, I thought that we must inevitably have been lost; and I said my prayers at least a dozen times during the night, for I felt it impossible to go to bed. I had often wished, out of curiosity, that I might be in a gale of wind; but I little thought it was to have been a scene of this description, or anything half so dreadful. What made it more appalling was, that we were on a lee shore; and the consultations of the captain and officers, and the eagerness with which they looked out for daylight, told us that we had other dangers to encounter besides the storm. At last the morning broke, and the lookout man upon the gangway called out, “Land on the lee beam!” I perceived the master dash his feet against the hammock rails as if with vexation, and walk away without saying a word, and looking very grave.  1
  “Up there, Mr. Wilson,” said the captain to the second lieutenant, “and see how far the land trends forward, and whether you can distinguish the point.” The second lieutenant went up the main rigging, and pointed with his hand to about two points before the beam.  2
  “Do you see two hillocks inland?”  3
  “Yes, sir,” replied the second lieutenant.  4
  “Then it is so,” observed the captain to the master; “and if we weather it we shall have more sea-room. Keep her full, and let her go through the water: do you hear, quartermaster?”  5
  “Ay, ay, sir.”  6
  “Thus, and no nearer, my man. Ease her with a spoke or two when she sends; but be careful, or she’ll take the wheel out of your hands.”  7
  It really was a very awful sight. When the ship was in the trough of the sea, you could distinguish nothing but a waste of tumultuous water; but when she was borne up on the summit of the enormous waves, you then looked down, as it were, upon a low, sandy coast, close to you, and covered with foam and breakers. “She behaves nobly,” observed the captain, stepping aft to the binnacle and looking at the compass: “if the wind does not baffle us, we shall weather.” The captain had scarcely time to make the observation when the sails shivered and flapped like thunder. “Up with the helm: what are you about, quartermaster?”  8
  “The wind has headed us, sir,” replied the quartermaster coolly.  9
  The captain and master remained at the binnacle watching the compass; and when the sails were again full, she had broken off two points, and the point of land was only a little on the lee bow.  10
  “We must wear her round, Mr. Falcon. Hands, wear ship—ready, oh, ready.”  11
  “She has come up again,” cried the master, who was at the binnacle.  12
  “Hold fast there a minute. How’s her head now?”  13
  “N. N. E., as she was before she broke off, sir.”  14
  “Pipe belay,” said the captain. “Falcon,” continued he, “if she breaks off again we may have no room to wear; indeed there is so little room now that I must run the risk. Which cable was ranged last night—the best bower?”  15
  “Yes, sir.”  16
  “Jump down, then, and see it double-bitted and stoppered at thirty fathoms. See it well done—our lives may depend upon it.”  17
  The ship continued to hold her course good; and we were within half a mile of the point, and fully expected to weather it, when again the wet and heavy sails flapped in the wind, and the ship broke off two points as before. The officers and seamen were aghast, for the ship’s head was right on to the breakers. “Luff now, all you can, quartermaster,” cried the captain. “Send the men aft directly.—My lads, there is no room for words—I am going to club-haul the ship, for there is no time to wear. The only chance you have of safety is to be cool, watch my eye, and execute my orders with precision. Away to your stations for tacking ship. Hands by the best bower anchor. Mr. Wilson, attend below with the carpenter and his mates ready to cut away the cable at the moment that I give the order. Silence, there, fore and aft. Quartermaster, keep her full again for stays. Mind you, ease the helm down when I tell you.” About a minute passed before the captain gave any further orders. The ship had closed-to within a quarter of a mile of the beach, and the waves curled and topped around us, bearing us down upon the shore, which presented one continued surface of foam, extending to within half a cable’s length of our position, at which distance the enormous waves culminated and fell with the report of thunder. The captain waved his hand in silence to the quartermaster at the wheel, and the helm was put down. The ship turned slowly to the wind, pitching and chopping as the sails were spilling. When she had lost her way, the captain gave the order, “Let go the anchor. We will haul all at once, Mr. Falcon,” said the captain. Not a word was spoken; the men went to the fore-brace, which had not been manned; most of them knew, although I did not, that if the ship’s head did not go round the other way, we should be on shore and among the breakers in half a minute. I thought at the time that the captain had said that he would haul all the yards at once: there appeared to be doubt or dissent on the countenance of Mr. Falcon, and I was afterwards told that he had not agreed with the captain; but he was too good an officer (and knew that there was no time for discussion) to make any remark: and the event proved that the captain was right. At last the ship was head to wind, and the captain gave the signal. The yards flew round with such a creaking noise that I thought the masts had gone over the side; and the next moment the wind had caught the sails, and the ship, which for a moment or two had been on an even keel, careened over to her gunnel with its force. The captain, who stood upon the weather hammock-rails, holding by the main-rigging, ordered the helm amidships, looked full at the sails and then at the cable, which grew broad upon the weather bow and held the ship from nearing the shore. At last he cried, “Cut away the cable!” A few strokes of the axes were heard, and then the cable flew out of the hawse-hole in a blaze of fire, from the violence of the friction, and disappeared under a huge wave which struck us on the chest-tree and deluged us with water fore and aft. But we were now on the other tack, and the ship regained her way, and we had evidently increased our distance from the land.  18
  “My lads,” said the captain to the ship’s company, “you have behaved well, and I thank you; but I must tell you honestly that we have more difficulties to get through. We have to weather a point of the bay on this tack. Mr. Falcon, splice the mainbrace and call the watch. How’s her head, quartermaster?”  19
  “S. W. by S. Southerly, sir.”  20
  “Very well, let her go through the water;” and the captain, beckoning to the master to follow him, went down into the cabin. As our immediate danger was over, I went down into the berth to see if I could get anything for breakfast, where I found O’Brien and two or three more.  21
  “By the powers, it was as nate a thing as ever I saw done,” observed O’Brien: “the slightest mistake as to time or management, and at this moment the flatfish would have been dubbing at our ugly carcasses. Peter, you’re not fond of flatfish, are you, my boy? We may thank heaven and the captain, I can tell you that, my lads; but now where’s the chart, Robinson? Hand me down the parallel rules and compasses, Peter; they are in the corner of the shelf. Here we are now, a devilish sight too near this infernal point. Who knows how her head is?”  22
  “I do, O’Brien: I heard the quartermaster tell the captain S. W. by S. Southerly.”  23
  “Let me see,” continued O’Brien, “variation 2 1/4—leeway—rather too large an allowance of that, I’m afraid: but however, we’ll give her 2 1/2 points; the Diomede would blush to make any more, under any circumstances. Here—the compass—now we’ll see;” and O’Brien advanced the parallel rule from the compass to the spot where the ship was placed on the chart. “Bother! you see it’s as much as she’ll do to weather the other point now, on this tack, and that’s what the captain meant when he told us we had more difficulty. I could have taken my Bible oath that we were clear of everything, if the wind held.”  24
  “See what the distance is, O’Brien,” said Robinson. It was measured, and proved to be thirteen miles. “Only thirteen miles; and if we do weather, we shall do very well, for the bay is deep beyond. It’s a rocky point, you see, just by way of variety. Well, my lads, I’ve a piece of comfort for you, anyhow. It’s not long that you’ll be kept in suspense; for by one o’clock this day, you’ll either be congratulating each other upon your good luck or you’ll be past praying for. Come, put up the chart, for I hate to look at melancholy prospects; and steward, see what you can find in the way of comfort.” Some bread and cheese, with the remains of yesterday’s boiled pork, were put on the table, with a bottle of rum, procured at the time they “spliced the mainbrace”; but we were all too anxious to eat much, and one by one returned on deck, to see how the weather was, and if the wind at all favored us. On deck the superior officers were in conversation with the captain, who had expressed the same fear that O’Brien had in our berth. The men, who knew what they had to expect,—for this sort of intelligence is soon communicated through a ship,—were assembled in knots, looking very grave, but at the same time not wanting in confidence. They knew that they could trust to the captain, as far as skill or courage could avail them; and sailors are too sanguine to despair, even at the last moment. As for myself, I felt such admiration for the captain, after what I had witnessed that morning, that whenever the idea came over me that in all probability I should be lost in a few hours, I could not help acknowledging how much more serious it was that such a man should be lost to his country. I do not intend to say that it consoled me; but it certainly made me still more regret the chances with which we were threatened.  25
  Before twelve o’clock the rocky point which we so much dreaded was in sight, broad on the lee bow; and if the low sandy coast appeared terrible, how much more did this, even at a distance! the black masses of rock covered with foam, which each minute dashed up in the air higher than our lower mast-heads. The captain eyed it for some minutes in silence, as if in calculation.  26
  “Mr. Falcon,” said he at last, “we must put the mainsail on her.”  27
  “She never can bear it, sir.”  28
  “She must bear it,” was the reply. “Send the men aft to the mainsheet. See that careful men attend the buntlines.”  29
  The mainsail was set; and the effect of it upon the ship was tremendous. She careened over so that her lee channels were under the water; and when pressed by a sea, the lee side of the quarter-deck and gangway were afloat. She now reminded me of a goaded and fiery horse, mad with the stimulus applied; not rising as before, but forcing herself through whole seas, and dividing the waves, which poured in one continual torrent from the forecastle down upon the decks below. Four men were secured to the wheel; the sailors were obliged to cling, to prevent being washed away; the ropes were thrown in confusion to leeward; the shot rolled out of the lockers, and every eye was fixed aloft, watching the masts, which were expected every moment to go over the side. A heavy sea struck us on the broadside, and it was some moments before the ship appeared to recover herself; she reeled, trembled, and stopped her way, as if it had stupefied her. The first lieutenant looked at the captain, as if to say, “This will not do.” “It is our only chance,” answered the captain to the appeal. That the ship went faster through the water and held a better wind, was certain; but just before we arrived at the point, the gale increased in force. “If anything starts, we are lost, sir,” observed the first lieutenant again.  30
  “I am perfectly aware of it,” replied the captain in a calm tone; “but as I said before, and you must now be aware, it is our only chance. The consequence of any carelessness or neglect in the fitting and securing of the rigging will be felt now; and this danger, if we escape it, ought to remind us how much we have to answer for if we neglect our duty. The lives of a whole ship’s company may be sacrificed by the neglect or incompetence of an officer when in harbor. I will pay you the compliment, Falcon, to say that I feel convinced that the masts of the ship are as secure as knowledge and attention can make them.”  31
  The first lieutenant thanked the captain for his good opinion, and hoped it would not be the last compliment which he paid him.  32
  “I hope not too; but a few minutes will decide the point.”  33
  The ship was now within two cables’ lengths of the rocky point; some few of the men I observed to clasp their hands, but most of them were silently taking off their jackets and kicking off their shoes, that they might not lose a chance of escape provided the ship struck.  34
  “’Twill be touch and go indeed, Falcon,” observed the captain (for I had clung to the belaying pins, close to them, for the last half-hour that the mainsail had been set). “Come aft; you and I must take the helm. We shall want nerve there, and only there, now.”  35
  The captain and first lieutenant went aft and took the forespokes of the wheel; and O’Brien, at a sign made by the captain, laid hold of the spokes behind them. An old quartermaster kept his station at the fourth. The roaring of the seas on the rocks, with the howling of the winds, was dreadful; but the sight was more dreadful than the noise. For a few moments I shut my eyes, but anxiety forced me to open them again. As near as I could judge, we were not twenty yards from the rocks at the time that the ship passed abreast of them. We were in the midst of the foam, which boiled around us; and as the ship was driven nearer to them, and careened with the wave, I thought that our main yard-arm would have touched the rock; and at this moment a gust of wind came on which laid the ship on her beam-ends and checked her progress through the water, while the accumulated noise was deafening. A few moments more the ship dragged on; another wave dashed over her and spent itself upon the rocks, while the spray was dashed back from them and returned upon the decks. The main rock was within ten yards of her counter, when another gust of wind laid us on our beam-ends; the foresail and mainsail split and were blown clean out of the bolt-ropes—the ship righted, trembling fore and aft. I looked astern; the rocks were to windward on our quarter, and we were safe. I thought at the time that the ship, relieved of her courses, and again lifting over the waves, was not a bad similitude of the relief felt by us all at that moment; and like her we trembled as we panted with the sudden reaction, and felt the removal of the intense anxiety which oppressed our breasts.  36
  The captain resigned the helm, and walked aft to look at the point, which was now broad on the weather quarter. In a minute or two he desired Mr. Falcon to get new sails up and bend them, and then went below to his cabin. I am sure it was to thank God for our deliverance; I did most fervently, not only then, but when I went to my hammock at night. We were now comparatively safe—in a few hours completely so, for, strange to say, immediately after we had weathered the rocks the gale abated; and before morning we had a reef out of the topsails.  37
 
 
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