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THE HOMEWARD VOYAGE Continued
SAN FRANCISCO TO SOUTHAMPTON
By S. R.
SAN FRANCISCO TO PANAMA
Catching Turtle The Island of Socorro and what we found there The tale of a Russian Finn Quibo Island Suffering of the Natives from Elephantiasis A Haul with the Seine.
On the 20th of January, 1916, we left the harbour of San Francisco, and proceeded to get well clear of the land, as the glass told us to expect a blow: and in due course it came and plenty of it. We hove-to for twenty-four hours, with oil bags to wind'ard, for the seas were high and untrue. The weather then moderated, so we let draw, and put her on her course, and were soon in a more pleasant climate.
The Panama Canal had been closed to all traffic for many months past, in consequence of land-slides. Of course Mana, drawing but 11 feet, and only 72 feet on the waterline, would experience no difficulty in passing, if the Administration would permit her to do so. But would it? We had been unable to discover, through any source in San Francisco, whether we should, or should not, be allowed to traverse the Canal. The only course left open to us was to go to the Isthmus and see what could be done on the spot: if we could not get through we must continue onwards to the S'uth'ard, and go round the Horn. Mr. Gillam and the Owner were quite keen on doing so. Mr. Gilliam thought it was only fair to the vessel "to give her a chance of showing what a good little ship she was." The crew, however, said they were quite satisfied on that point, and after three years of it, sighed only for Britain, Beer, and Beauty. So firmly were they convinced that our plucky Sailing-master would take her round the Horn, just for the sake of doing so, should he chance to come back alone without the Owner, that, when they signed on again at Tahiti for the voyage home, it was subject to the proviso that the outside passage round Cape Horn should not be taken without their consent.
So, from the so-called Golden Gate of San Francisco town, to the real Balboa gate of the Panama Canal, sailed we in the pious hope that something would turn up in our favour, and believing that it would do so, for Mana is a "lucky ship." And of course that "something" did: but other events, not devoid of interest, intervene and demand recital.
At this point political conditions must be referred to for the due understanding of our story. Absurd though it be, the fact remains that, just as England meekly allows herself to be bamboozled, robbed, insulted, and defied by one petty san-culotte province, so do the United States submit to like treatment from Mexico: the same small 8 that represents mathematically the consideration in which an Irishman holds the British Government, may be said equally to symbolise the degree of respect in which the American Eagle is held by the patriots of Mexico. Therefore, argued we, as the noble Mexican does not hesitate to pluck the Eagle, whenever that fowl comes hopping on his ground, still less will he refrain from depilating the Lion, should he want some fur for fly-tying. No, we will give the coast of Mexico a good berth. A vessel like the Mana would, at the moment, have been an invaluable capture for the "patriots," whose acquaintance we had no wish to cultivate. We thought of the many-oared row-boats of the Riff coast, and how they could come at speed over the smooth windless sea and board us on either quarter. Of course our motor would have been in our favour, but, all the same, discretion was perhaps better than valour, as we were unarmed. So we decided to keep 200 miles off the land in working down the coast of Lower California and Mexico, though it would have been better navigation, and more interesting, to have come close in.
The climate was now delightful: smooth water: gentle fair breezes. These conditions enabled us to capture all the turtle, and more than all, we wanted. They were asleep at the surface: the sea like glass, and heaving rhythmically. The undulations of a sea like this are so long, and wide, and gentle, that one somehow ceases to regard them as waves, and thinks of the movement of the water immediately around the craft as being only a local pulsation.
We had noticed, from time to time, isolated seagulls heaving into sight on the top of the swell. Sometimes there would be as many as three or four within calling distance from one another. Each seemed to stand on a separate piece of drift-wood, never two on the same piece. Some seemed occupied with affairs, swearing all the time, as seagulls always do; some stood silently on one leg, a-staring into vacancy" and thinking on their past. Some preened and oiled their feathers. We could not understand why there should be drift-wood, all small, and all over the place like this, so bore down on a sleeping bird, when, to our great surprise, we found that his resting-place was the back of one of Nature's U-boats a turtle. Some may think then that all we had to do, if we wanted a turtle, was to approach a resting bird, but not a bit of it. If the bird, for reasons of his own, flew away from the back of the turtle, the turtle remained as before, nor did he ever seem to draw the line at the profanity with which his visitor argued some point with the nearest neighbours, but let a boat approach, however gently and innocently, and the gull decide to clear, because he did not like the look of it even as the bird did so, did Master Turtle down with his head and up with his heels, and where he had been, he was not; without a splash, or a swirl, or a bubble. If any fail to understand this description, he should betake himself to Africa and stalk rhino in high grass whilst they have their red-billed birds in attendance scrambling all over the huge bodies hunting for ticks. Let but one bird spring up suddenly in alarm from a rhino's back, forthwith will occur proceedings that shall not fail to leave a lasting impression on the observer.
When we wanted a turtle, however, we went to work in this way. The little 12 ft. dinghy, having two thwarts and a stern-seat, was lowered from the starboard quarter and towed astern. A sharp look-out was kept ahead, and to leu'ard, for a turtle asleep on the surface. On one being sighted, the vessel was run off towards it. Simultaneously the dinghy was hauled up alongside, and two of us, barefooted, dropped into her: she was then passed astern again and towed. One man sat in the stern sheets and steered with a paddle, having handy a strong gaff hook lashed on the end of the staff of a six-foot boat-hook: the oarsman occupied the for'ard thwart with his paddles shipped in the rowlocks. The leather of the oars had been well greased previously, so as to make no sound. The dinghy silently sped after the ship. On the vessel arriving within some 50 yards of 22 the turtle, an arm on the quarter deck was waved: the dinghy slipped her tow line, the ship's helm was put up, and she edged-off to leu'ard away from the fish, whilst the dinghy continued, under the way she carried, on the line of the vessel's former course, and therefore straight towards the turtle. On the sitter catching sight of the fish, if the boat was carrying sufficient way to bring him up to it, he laid aside the steering oar, and at the right moment made a sign to his mate, who then gently dipped one of his paddles in the water. The boat in consequence made half a rotation, coming stern-on to the turtle, instead of bows-on as previously. The oarsman then saw the fish for the first time and commenced to back her down with gentle touches of his two paddles right on to the top of the fish. Meanwhile the sitter slid off the after seat, turned himself round so as to face the stern and knelt on the bottom of the boat with his knees placed well under the after seat, his chest resting on the transom, his arm outstretched over the water, rigidly holding the gaff extended like a bumpkin, with the point of the hook directed downwards towards the water, and about two inches above its surface.
Now the old turtle is roosting on the water with the edges of his shell just awash, his dome-shaped back rising just clear of it, and his head hanging downwards in order that he may keep his brains cool. At the opposite end to his head is his tail. This detail may seem unnecessary. But it is not so. It is an essential point. When a turtle is surprised he does not express it by throwing himself backward head uppermost on to his tail, and show his white waistcoat, and wave his arms in depreciation of the interview, but he downs with his head and ups with his heels and the tip of his tail, if you are able to recognise it, is the last you see of Master Turtle. And when he acts thus he shows much decision of character: there is no hesitation: in a moment of time he is absent. Hence, when you approach a turtle, you must first decide where away lies his tail, and so place your craft that her keel, and the turtle's spine, shall lie in the same straight line. Then, as she is backed stern foremost towards him, the staff of the gaff is brought, by the movement of the boat, immediately above the length of his back. Now for it! the fisherman suddenly thrusts the gaff from him till the point of the hook is beyond the rim of the shell: raises his hand the least trifle, so as to depress the hook slightly, then savagely snatches the gaff backward, at the same time shortening his grasp on the shaft. The turtle awakes from his dreams to find that he is in a position in which he is helpless standing on his tail, with his back against the boat's transome, and his fore flippers out of water. But he is not given time to think. As his back touches the flat end of the boat, the fisherman springs from his knees to his feet and, with one lusty heave, hoicks Uncle up on to the edge of the transome and balances him there for the moment. Down goes the stern of the little boat, well towards water level under the combined weight of man and fish. Then the slightest further pull, and into the bottom of the dinghy the turtle slides with a crash, whilst the fisherman, whose only thought now is for the safety of his toes, gracefully sinks down upon the middle thwart, takes hold of the gunnel with either hand, and hangs one bare leg overboard to starboard, and the other to port, until the turtle has decided in which part of the boat he proposes permanently to place his head. Slowly he opens and closes his bill, shaped like the forceps of a dentist, and slowly he blinks his eyne, as much as to say, "Just put a foot in my neighbourhood or even one big toe." Turtles have no charity.
The turtle and the fisherman have engrossed one another's attention so far, but there are three other elements in the equation; they are (a) the boat, (b) the boatman, and (c) the shark. Each of these requires a word in passing. Now a 12 ft. dinghy, like any other of God's creatures, has feelings: these it expresses amongst other ways, when treated unreasonably, by capsizing, and turtle catching it puts in the neighbourhood of the limit. Not infrequently it happens that the long black fin of a San Francisco pilot comes mouching around at a turtle hunt, as if to incite the long-suffering dinghy to show temper. Hence it is sometimes quite interesting to view, from the ship, the sympathetic way in which the oarsman exerts himself to humour every whim of the little boat, in order to induce it to maintain its centre of gravity during the scrimmage. He quite seems to have the idea in his head that, with the shark assisting at the ceremony, a capsize would be anything but a joke for him. Anyhow, it is all right this time, so we make for the vessel, now gently rising high on the top of the swell, anon slowly sinking until only her vane is visible.
"Lee-Oh! Round she comes. Let the staysail bide! As she loses her way the dinghy shoots up towards her, a line comes flying in straightening coils from the bows of the ship and falls, with a whack, across the dinghy's nose. The oarsman claps a turn with it around the for'ard thwart, and quickly gets his weight out of her bows, by shifting to the middle thwart, before the strain comes. At the same time the fisherman nips aft, whilst keeping an eye on Master Turtle's jaws, squats on the after seat, picks up an oar and sheers her in towards the ship. Then a strop falls into the stern-sheets: the oarsman slips it over a hind flipper, one of the dinghy's falls is swayed to him, he hooks it into the strop, and up runs Baba Turtle, to be swung inboard the next moment into the arms of the Japanese cook, who receives him with a Japanese smile as he bares his sniggery-snee. We had now been more than a fortnight at sea. After a run of this length we generally found it well to touch somewhere to refresh. The chart showed ahead of us the Island of Socorro which we could fetch by edging off a little. The Sailing Directions told us it was uninhabited, and rarely visited: that there was no fresh water on it, but nevertheless that sheep and goats were to be found, and that landing was possible. The early morning of February the 5th showed its single lofty peak standing out clearly above the lower mist, and in a line with our bowsprit, whilst a light breeze on our quarter made us raise it fairly fast. In the chart room we pored over the only chart we had, a small-scale one, using it for what it was worth to elucidate the Sailing Directions. These indicated an anchorage and landing-place on its south-western side: poor, but possible: and no outlying dangers. We therefore decided to examine that coast, and see what we could find in the way of anchorage and landing facilities. At the same time the conversation turned on the apparent excellence of the place as a gun-running depot for the Mexican Revolutionaries, and the exceeding awkwardness of our position if we suddenly shoved our nose into any such hornets' nest. The pow-wow finished, up the ladder we tumbled on to the quarter-deck, and turned to the island, and lo! round a point was emerging a something first appearing as a boat with bare masts then as a boat with sails she has presumably come out under oars and is now getting the canvas on her. She has seen us making for the island and is clearing out! They are at the game, then, after all! Now she grows into a vessel under canvas: now she fades away. No ship had we seen since getting well clear of San Francisco. We could make nothing of her in the haze and the mirage, for the air was all a-quiver with the heat. The general opinion seemed to be that she was a small schooner sailing with her arms akimbo, which, with the wind as we had it, was impossible. Anyhow she was approaching us rapidly in the teeth of the wind goose-winged; but anything seems to our mariners possible "in these 'ere fur'rin parts." But alas for Romance! Gradually she revealed herself through the haze as a tramp steamer with a high deck cargo. Her black hull and black-painted mast tops, as she opened the land and partly showed her length, had made her the small boat with bare pole masts: afterwards, when she shifted her helm and came towards us bows on, she became the small schooner running before a fair wind off the land her light-coloured deck cargo, high built up, and white-painted bridge formed the goose's wings extended on either side of the black masts, that rose above them, and stood out distinctly against the sky. We kept our course. She passed us close to starboard. We ran up our ensign and number and asked her to report us, but she took no notice. Only one man was seen aboard her. We thought at the time she was from the Canal, but afterwards learnt that nothing had come through it for some months, also that a somewhat similar vessel had, in May last, lain for a month off Socorro to .....admire the scenery.
We closed with the land, at its western extremity, about 3 p.m., and then slowly ranged along the south-western shore, examining it carefully with the glasses for indications of a landing-place. The water was smooth and crystal-clear, and the sun behind us, so that, comfortably ensconced in the fore-top, we could see well ahead in the line of the ship's progress, and to a great depth. We were able therefore, without risk, to hug the shore, and to examine it with precision. Everywhere was the same low cliff: on its top, scrubby vegetation with a sheen like the foliage of the olive (sage bush). Immediately below this a broad scarlet band (disintegrated lava) then a greyish red, or black, cliff wall of igneous rock at its foot a snow white girdle of foam from the ocean swell dashing against it.
So we progressed, until we reached what we decided must be Braithwaite Bay, at the S.W. corner of the island. The Sailing Directions gave this as the only anchorage. Mr. Gillam jumped into the dinghy and pulled in to examine it, whilst we followed her in very slowly with the ship. A couple of whales seemed to find the floor of the bay quite to their taste as a dressing-room. The huge fellows quietly spouted and wallowed, a-cleaning of themselves," and took no notice of us. The dinghy did not like the look of things for either landing or anchorage, so held up an oar. Thereupon we put the ship round, and went out on the same track as that on which we had entered. Nightfall was now approaching. We picked up the dinghy and stood off a bit, and then hove-to.
Now, immediately before reaching Braithwaite Bay, we had noticed in the coast-line, from the mast-head, an indentation or small inlet, across which there was no line of breakers. Also we had observed a remarkable white patch set deeply into the land apparently at the head of this indentation. Of these points presently. During the night, whilst hove to some distance off, the watch picked up a beautifully modelled painted and weighted decoy duck, with the initials "H. T." cut into it. This wooden fowl, we concluded, had drifted down from San Francisco, for there they are largely used in duck shooting. It had broken its anchoring line, been swept through the Golden Gate, and then by the prevailing winds and currents carried to the point where we had picked it up. The find was interesting as showing that our navigation was correctly based for current.
With the daylight we again stood in, this time towards the inlet, and after an early breakfast, the cutter was swung out. A breaker of water, a cooking-pot or two, a watertight box of food, another containing ammunition, the photographic and botanical outfits, and a Mauser rifle in its water-tight bag, were put into her and, with five hands, we started off.
As we approached the break in the cliffs we again met our two friends of yesterday the whales. They had shifted their ground and were now right in the entrance to the cove, so we had to lay on our oars for quite a while, until they gradually moved away. It was most interesting to watch the great brutes comparatively close alongside, yet absolutely indifferent to, or unaware of, the boat's presence. Certainly we kept quiet, and did not allow objects in the boat to rattle or roll. Sound waves are transmitted through the water just as they are through the air. Each of these fish would have been worth £1,000 at least at pre-war prices. Life is full of vain regrets."
Our break in the cliff proved the entrance to a fissure in the land-mass comparatively far extending. On either hand it had nearly vertical cliff walls, and these again had steep ground above and behind them. It had a regular, gradually rising bottom, deep water at the entrance, and at the head a shelving beach of sand and small stones, yet steep-to enough to allow the cutter to float with only her nose aground. Not a trace of swell: an ideal boat harbour. As it had no name, and is to-day undefined in the Admiralty plan of Braithwaite Bay (cf. inset on Chart No. 1936), we christened it Cruising Club Cove dropping the Royal" for the gain of alliteration.
As we lay off the entrance, waiting for the whales to shift, many, and varied, were our speculations as to what the white object, previously referred to as situated at the head of the cove, could possibly be. Not till we were close up did we make it out. It then proved to be a red-painted boat, covered with a white sail. Now a dry torrent bed forms the head of our little fiord. The detritus brought down by the torrent is spread out as a small, flat, channel-cut plain, that meets the sea with a fan-shaped border. On to this flat the mystery boat was hauled up, but only to just above high-water mark. Close to her side was a grave with wooden cross. From her bows hung a bottle closed with a wooden plug and sealed with red paint. Keenly interested in it all we disturbed nothing, so that we might the better be able to piece together the evidence, after gathering all we could. She was evidently laid up: practically new: amateur built: her material new deal house-flooring boards: flat-bottomed: sharp at both ends (dory type). Left as she was, the surf of the first gale from the South would lift her. They must have been either weak handed to leave her close to the water's edge like that, or else they had been in a great hurry to get away. No painter and anchor was laid out to prevent her floating off: no seaman would leave a boat thus unsecured. (For there was cordage in her.) Her sail was cut out of an old sail of heavy canvas belonging to some big ship. They had ship's stores to draw upon.
Casting around, we soon found a track running through the sage-bush scrub. Following this trail for a few yards, we came to a large flat-topped rock beside which it ran. On this rock stood conspicuously another bottle sealed. The path now began to rise sharply, wending betwixt large rock masses: then it suddenly terminated in a rift in the cliff face, which formed a high, but shallow, cave or grotto. Rough plank seats and bunks were rigged up around, fitted under or betwixt the great rocks, some berths being made more snug by having screens of worn canvas. In the middle of the floor was a table, and in the middle of the table stood a sealed bottle and a box. The box was a small, square, round-cornered, highly ornamented biscuit-tin of American make: it was three parts full of loose salt, bone dry, and on the top of the salt was a wooden box of matches, bone dry and striking immediately. We emptied the salt on to the table nothing amidst it: we broke the bottle and we found in it a scrap of paper. On this was written in ink, a surname, the day of the month and year, the full initials of the writer and these words, Look at our Post Office here."1 We then returned to the flat rock and broke that bottle the message was the same; then to the boat, to find the message in its bottle was identical in terms, but written in pencil.
Look at our Post Office" But where was the Post Office? or what was the Post Office? The fragments of the broken bottle lay glittering on the grave at our feet. Was the grave the Post Office?
We had most carefully examined and sounded the cave, and, after our long experience of this class of work on Easter Island, felt fairly satisfied that the Post Office was not there. Every fire site we had suspected and inspected: every sinkage of the surface. Now we had to decide about the grave. The character of the vegetation showed that it was old, and had not been disturbed within the date stated on the letters. A Spanish inscription in customary form, cut very neatly into the arms of the wooden cross, gave simply the name of the dead man, and the date. At one time the cross had been painted black. The point however that determined us to accept the burial as bona fide, and not to exhume it as a possible cache, was the fact that the sharp edges of the carving of the inscription were smoothly rasped away by the driving sand of the shore, in the direction of the prevailing wind, and to a degree commensurate with the date incised. And we were right in our surmises. Sufficient now to say that he whom the writing told to go to the Post Office, was already lying in his own grave elsewhere, with his boots on, and no cross at his head. Life is held cheap in Mexico.
The island is said to possess no fresh water. We found no provision made in the cave for conserving a supply. Scrambling through the sage-bush we made for the dry torrent. Here we found one of the channels had been diverted, and in it sunk a well or shaft, some ten feet deep, with fine soil at its bottom. The end of a rope just showed for about one foot above the surface of the silt at the bottom of the shaft. Near by was a rough cradle and makeshift gear for gold washing. They had been here during the rains, and the torrent had supplied the washing water. Thinking of a possible sealed bottle placed in the shaft bucket at the end of the rope, we left two hands there with orders to follow the rope carefully down to its termination and see what was on the end of it. The cutter with two hands we sent back to the ship.
We and one hand a Russian Finn who had been for some years on the Alaska Coast then set off inland to see what the world was like, and to get a sheep if possible. By this time the heat had become very great. The soil yellow volcanic ash soaked up the sun's rays and then threw the heat back as would a hot brick. Everything was so dry that we marvelled that vegetation could hold its own. We saw no form of grass, but the surface was generally covered with sage-bush extending from the level of the knee in general to above one's head in the bottoms. We had scrambled up the ravine from our pirates cave and up the steep ground around it . We now found ourselves on a well-defined ridge that ran parallel to the sea, with a breeze, though a hot one, in our faces, and a glorious view of sea, coastline, and mountain. Our whales were clearly visible far away in the bight to the west'ard, whilst to the nor'ard lay the great mass of an unnamed volcano, with its top lost in mists, its sides sweeping downwards, with typical curvature, till they reach the sea. We gave the mountain the name of Mount Mana. It is 3,707 ft. high. Much information about it will appear some day.
Between the ridge on which we now stood, and the well-defined foot of Mount Mana opposite to us, was a valley some half a mile wide. We made our way across this valley as far as the mountain's foot, in order to cut across any tracks, human or ovine, that might pass down it, because they would tell us the news, like a file of newspapers for all movement on the island would pass along this bottom. Here the sage-bush was very strong and high, and we found it difficult to get through. It frequently was tunnelled where it was thick, reminding one of hippo paths leading to the water. In the present case, however, bits of the fleeces of the makers were clinging to the sides of the tunnel. The only signs of man were the brass shell of an exploded military cartridge, and a few heads and horns of sheep lying where the beasts had been shot. Here and there along the course of the valley, masses of black volcanic rock, bare of vegetation, rose above the bright yellow soil and its sage-bush covering. The surface of the plain and of the mountain's base were also punctuated by isolated specimens of a species of fig (ficus cotinifolia) having a dark green fleshy leaf somewhat like that of the magnolia, and a number of separate trunks or stems. These trees, like all else, were dwarf and stunted, and about 15 feet high. Every tree formed a flattish roof, as it were, supported on many pillars and impervious to the sun. It was delightful to rest for a short while under each as we came to it for a brief respite from the shimmering heat. Beneath them the ground was bare and smooth. The sheep tracks and tunnels led from tree to tree, and it was evident that the sheep made it their practice to rest on these shady spots, during the heat of the day. Whilst so resting ourselves, we were amused and interested by several little birds of different sorts. They chummed up en route, and kept close to us wherever we went, flitting from bush to bush, and when we sat down in the shade, sidled along the branches till they got as close to us as they could, short of absolutely alighting upon us. They acted just as native children do towards the white man when they have got over their first shyness. Working up wind, we soon found sheep; they were in small bunches varying from three to perhaps a dozen. We got a couple, though both getting up to the game and the shooting was difficult in such cover, and resolved itself into snap-shots as they followed their tracks across the occasional isolated masses of dark basalt that rose above the yellow soil and which supported no vegetation.
Having gralloched our victims and slung the carcases well up on to our shoulders, with both breast strap and brow strap, Micmac fashion, we started back for Cruising Club Cove. It was now about noon, and as a direct line seemed feasible, we decided to take that line. The better road along the sheep tracks, and therefore through their tunnels, along the bottom of the valley, was impossible for a laden man. We did it! Across the valley, often brought to a standstill by scrub that would not yield when leant against. Up the hill side to its delusive gap, often on hands and knees. Down the steep pitch on the other side, with bump and crash, regardless of scratches, thinking only of how to avoid a broken leg or twisted ankle. Then a final wrestle with scrub in the ravine bottom and we were on the shore. What a relief to throw up that brow strap for the last time and to let the mutton fall, with a thump, on the stones! Then off with what remained of our clothes, with which we draped the bushes to dry, and into the tepid shallow water, shallow for fear of sharks. Orders were given that whilst bathing a good fire of scrub wood should be made on a spot sheltered from the sun by the side of a lofty rock. On that fire's glowing cinders when nearly burnt out we presently grilled kidneys of peculiar excellence, and boiled the billy, and thanked the Immortal Gods.
The examination of the dry shaft, which was the job of the two hands left behind, was never made. They reported that soon after beginning work the side of the shaft fell in. On looking at it, it was clear that we could not now do anything there. So we hunted around again, collecting seeds, and plants, and rock samples. Presently, amongst the drift material at storm high-water mark, we came across a cube of wood 12 or 15 inches square: (the end of a baulk of timber sawn off): through it was bored an auger hole, and a rope rove. The end of the rope passed through the block was finished with a "Stopper" knot, a knot known only to seamen. Its other end had one long single strand that had been broken: the other two strands were shorter than the first by some two feet. They had been cut through. The story was clear. We only wanted a name, and mirabile dictu we have it. Turning over the block, on one face is deeply cut in letters some three inches long the words ANNIE LARSEN. Pussy is out of the bag!
For the benefit of those who are not shippy yachty devils, we will now explain. When you drop your anchor at any spot where the nature of the bottom is such that you may, perhaps, not be able to lift it again by heaving on the chain in the ordinary way, because the anchor has fallen amongst rocks, or into some mermaid's coral cave, under such circumstances it is customary to fasten one end of a rope to the end of the anchor opposite to that to which the chain is attached (i.e. to the crown), and to the other end of the rope you make fast a buoy you buoy your anchor." Then, when the sour moment comes" to take a heave, and you have heaved in vain, you pick up your anchor buoy, and haul on its rope, and up comes your anchor without a struggle, like Cleopatra's red herring.
Our find told us that it belonged to a ship of moderate size, for her anchor was of moderate weight, because the anchor rope was of moderate strength; and that that ship was probably a sailing ship, because she had no steam winch: for steamers don't usually buoy, having immense steam heaving power. She had not intentionally left it; the rope had had two strands cut through by the sharp rocks of the bottom, then the third strand had torn apart from strain, and the buoy, with its short length of rope, drifted away, to be ultimately thrown up above ordinary high-water mark during a gale. Like the duck, it might have come down from San Francisco! Not so. The two cut strands had not been long in the water after they had been cut before they were thrown up high and dry.
It was very compromising for Annie. Of course we immediately asked, "Anyone know the Annie Larsen? The Russian Finn, naturally au courant with all the coast scandal after a month in San Francisco, was immediately able to inform us that the Annie Larsen was an American schooner of about 300 tons, and was in the Mexican gun-running line till captured so laden by a U.S.A. ship of war only a month ago whilst we were at San Francisco.
So we had got to the bottom of things after all, though we had failed to find the Post Office! Socorro Island was the depot for the late Yankee gun runner Annie Larsen: the special, little-used boat was for shipping, not for landing, the stuff: the Mexicans had come and fetched it away in their own craft as they got the chance. Some of the Annie Larsen crowd, being old Alaska hands, had prospected the ravine for gold, Alaska fashion. It was not a case of ship-wrecked men on a waterless island.
The afternoon was now getting late: Mana stood boldly in close to the entrance of the cove. She lowered her cutter, the shore party were soon on board again, and at 5.35 p.m. (6.2.16) we bore away for Hicaron Island at the entrance to the Gulf of Panama, S. 69° E., distant 1,834 miles. As we watched the island fade in the dusk, we thought we had done with Socorro for ever; but it was not thus written. Some six months after our visit a man was arrested at Singapore as a spy, and there detained in prison. That man was the writer of the message in the bottle. In prison he chanced to get hold of a piece of a local newspaper, and that particular number happened to have in it an account of the voyage of Mana taken from the London papers. It incidentally mentioned that she had touched at Socorro. A ship then had been to his island! What had we found? How much did we know? Had we found the Post Office? On release he made his way to England to find out. But now is not the time to tell the story: we are bound for Panama, or for Cape Horn for better or for worse for heat or for cold. Chance, however, at this time, all unknown to us, had decided our fate.
The rainy season was now approaching, and we even got an occasional warning shower, which made us all the more anxious to reach the Isthmus, and get clear of it, before its unhealthy season set in. But our progress was slow: we could not run the main engine continuously, as we only had a small supply of lubricating oil adapted to the great heat. That with which we had been supplied at San Francisco proved useless. Also we had long before unwisely sent back to England the light canvas and all its gear, in order to get more stowage room. In doing so we thought we would be able to run the ship under power in light airs, and therefore would not want it: 'twas an error. However, we always made something, for if she did not do her 50 miles in the 24 hours, we unmuzzled the motor.
Our engineer, Eduardo Silva of Talcahuano, a Chilean, was a most excellent young fellow: always keen and willing: always grooming his three charges, the engines of the yacht, the life boat, and the electric light, and ever ready to run them, despite the terrible heat in the engine-room. Sometimes when the big 38 h.p. motor had a fit of the tantrums, because it could not get cold water from the sea quickly enough to assuage its body's heat, and he durst not leave it, he would eventually appear on deck, as pale as a sheet, and completely done. On one such occasion he reflectively remarked, as the two of us looked down into the engine-room from the deck, "All same casa del diablo."2 He did not exaggerate.
Day followed day. We gradually gnawed into our 1,834 miles. The Russian Finn came to the fore as a keen sportsman: from tea-time to dusk he was generally to be found somewhere outside the vessel's bows: sometimes on the bowsprit end, sometimes standing on the bob-stay, regardless of the fact that a shark was very frequently in attendance on us in the eddy water under our counter. Looking over the taffrail you could see the brute weaving from side to side as does a plum-pudding carriage dog at his horses' heels. One experienced a sort of fascination in watching these great fish at night, their every movement displayed by the luminosity of the water, until they themselves, on occasion, seemed to glow with the phosphoric light. Mana in these waters generally had shoals or companies of small fish in attendance on her, amongst which were always a few larger ones. We got to know individuals by sight. We thought they kept to her for protection. It certainly was not for what they could get off her copper. With that we never had any trouble: it kept as bright as gold.
One night we were asleep on the locker in the deckhouse companion, and were awakened by an unholy struggle and crash. Nipping out, we found the Russian on lookout for'ard, regardless of the sleepers below him, had leant over her bows and had actually hoiked out with a gaff-hook a large porpoise. It seemed impossible to believe that a man could have had the physical strength to hoist such a mass bodily out of the water, up her high bow, and over the rail. He seems to have fairly lifted it out, by the scruff of its neck, as it rushed alongside after the fish.
He only fell overboard once: that was on the voyage from the Sandwich Islands, when we were not aboard. On reaching San Francisco he brought a note from Mr. Gillam to us at our hotel to report arrival. We of course inquired as to their voyage. The Russian said it had been quite the usual thing: nothing had happened out of the common. Long afterwards he casually informed us that on that run, when he went forward one night from the quarter deck to the galley to make the coffee for the change of watch at midnight, he went first to do some job on the top-gallant-fo'c's'le hedd, and got knocked overboard. En route to the land of never-never he found the weather jib-sheet in his hand, and by it was able to haul himself aboard again. As he was supposed to be in the galley, he would never have been expected to show for half an hour, and therefore would not have been missed until the watch mustered. It did not seem to occur to him that he had had a bit of a squeak. He did not get wet, so nobody knew, for he told no one. As an angel, perhaps there was a certain amount of black down underneath his white plumage, but as an A.B. one wished for no better. He was the second of Mana's company to be killed by the Huns after our return.
After heaving-to like this, to let the reader into some of the little humours of our domestic life, we must get under way again. Well, everybody seemed quite happy and contented "on this ere run": fish, birds, weird ocean currents and their slack water areas with accumulated drift, sail-mending, turning out and painting the fo'c's'le, with life on deck, instead of below, for a few days, a threatened blow that never reached us, but only sent along its swell to justify the actions of the glass, and the ever-varying incidents associated with life on a small craft in unfrequented tropical seas, for we never saw another sail, made us so forgetful of the flight of time, that it seemed that we had but left Socorro, before we found ourselves off Hicaron Island, our prearranged landfall. Thirty-one days had faded away like a dream (map, facing p. 359).
Now, close to the Island of Hicaron lies another one much larger. We had a plan of it, Coiba or Quibo Island. The Sailing Directions said "turtles abound, but they are hard to catch." (We didn't want any more turtle!) "Crabs, cockles, and oysters are plentiful. In the woods monkeys and parrots abound, and in Anson's time, 1741, there were deer, but the interior is nearly inaccessible, from the steepness of the cliffs and the tangled vegetation: explorers should beware of alligators and snakes." The chart showed an excellent anchorage and indicated fresh water. It seemed promising: we would see what it was like. We were particularly desirous of now making good our expenditure of water, as we did not know what were the conditions we might find prevailing at Panama both as regards its quality and the facilities for getting it.
We had sighted Hicaron Island at daylight on Monday, the 6th of March, 1916, but calms, baffling airs, and currents prevented our making our proposed anchorage by daylight. At dusk, therefore, we hove to for the night. Festina lentiter was ever our motto. We had the most recent chart certainly, but its last correction was in 1865 and coral patches grow quickly. Not until noon next day did we get abreast of Negada Point, the S.E. extremity of Ouibo Island. As the coast was charted free from dangers, we came fairly close in, and starting the motor about one o'clock, ran along the shore under power, with a lookout in the fore-top.
It was very interesting and pleasant, after a month at sea, thus to coast along the fringe of a tropical island: sweeping round rocky points of the land, and peeping into lovely little coves fringed with white coral sand that merged into a dense tropical vegetation, with hills in the background. It soon becomes instinctive to keep the sharpest of look-outs ahead, i.e. into the clear water, for a change of colour indicating danger, and yet to see everything around. The most memorable feature of this particular afternoon was the large number of devil-fish that were seen springing into the air: as many as three or four might be observed within as many minutes. Suddenly, near or far, a large object, like a white-painted notice-board, shot vertically into the air to considerable height, to fall back again on its fiat with resounding spank and high-flying spray, leaving a patch of milky foam on the smooth blue surface of the water. In British seas this family of fishes is represented by the skate. Here they attain the dimensions of a fair-sized room: a specimen in the British Museum from Jamaica measures 15 ft. by 15 ft. and is between three and four feet thick, hence the statement that "their capture is uncertain and sometimes attended with danger"3 is probably not far from correct. Perched aloft, and thus having a large and unobstructed horizon, we saw one jump probably every ten minutes throughout the afternoon. The motor brought us to our anchorage, and at 5 o'clock we let go in 9 fathoms, sand and mud, the shore distant about 1½ miles.
We had seen hitherto no sign of the island being occupied, nor did we now. After dark, however, at two widely separated points, a fire blazed up and lights showed for a short while. Smoking on deck, when dinner was finished, we speculated as to the meaning of the different mysterious grunts and gurgles, sighs and plunges, that stole over the tepid oily water: the tropical sea after dark seemed to have voices as many and varied as the tropical forest has when the sun is gone. From 6 p.m. onward the thermometer read 87° F.: at 6 a.m. it had fallen to 83° the cool of the morning!
With the daylight a single pirogue, with two men in her, came alongside. She was a small and roughly made dug-out, very leaky. In the wet of her bottom lay a bunch of bananas, perched on which were a couple of large macaws. Each of these had a strip of bark some two feet long tied to its leg. The bunch of bananas lay like an island above the water in her: on to it as a refuge the parrots crawled. Their jesses entangled amongst the bananas the boat rolled so did the banana bunch each bird would climb upwards, but he could not, the accursed thong held him down: he was being crushed, he was being drowned he and his mate. And each said so. An American mining captain taking up his parable was not in it with those birds for language.
The two men were negroid in feature. One of them had only one leg, and seemed sad and ill. The other was more cheerful. We could get along together in Spanish. They invited us to come ashore. Hoisting out the cutter, we followed them in. Their lead was useful, as the water is so shoal. Though the rise and fall is but small feet, yet a large area of coral rock fiats is dry at low water on either side of a boat channel. At the entrance to this channel an open sailing boat, some 25 feet long, their property, lay at anchor. As the tide was falling, we thought it best to leave our cutter at anchor in sufficiently deep water for her not to take the ground, and got our friends to ferry us from her, one by one, into shoal water in their canoe. It was most comic to see some of our big chaps kneeling on the bottom of the crazy little craft with a hand on either gunnel, whilst they bent forward, like devout Mussulmans on their carpets, endeavouring to get their centre of gravity as low as possible. We were the last of the passengers. When the water got to be only knee deep the native anchored his canoe, and we stepped overboard. So did our one-legged ferryman. His right hand controlled a crutch, in his left he held various treasures obtained from Mana; he also desired to take his two big parrots ashore, so, as the last item of all, he hooked his finger under the cord that tied them together, thus carrying them swinging heads downwards. But apparently he had not taken the cord fairly in the middle. One parrot was suspended by a short length of line: the other by a long: he of the short cord was able to twist himself round and get a hold with his beak on some package in his owner's hand, and was thus reasonably happy. But parrots, like ourselves, can't have it all ways in this world of woe. If his head be up, his tail must be down: hence this tale. He of the long string found himself draggling in the water with every stride of his one-legged owner. In his struggles to avoid drowning by a succession of dips, he managed at last to grasp, with beak and claw, the long dependent tail of his fellow prisoner, and quickly hauling himself up it, heat once proceeded to consolidate his position, by seizing in his beak the softest part of his colleague's hinder anatomy with the vice-like grip of despair, and therefrom he continued to depend in placid comfort, regardless of the other's piercing shrieks and protestations.
It is not always those at the top of the ladder that have the best time of it.
A wide shore line of white sand met us. On it at high-water mark were large quantities of white bleached driftwood trees. On the flat ground behind, beneath a dense tree growth, were some small pools of stagnant rain water, a few coconut palms were dotted about all else was jungle. On a patch cleared of undergrowth stood a light frame structure open on all sides. The roof was high pitched and had wide eaves: there was no attempt at a floor. It might be 30 ft. by 20 ft. Smaller similar structures adjoined for cooking and stores. A box or two, baskets, hammocks, and a little boat-gear, were suspended from the beams above: a few wooden blocks for stools were on the earthen floor, which was neatly swept. On one such sat a terribly afflicted specimen of humanity the mother, yet nevertheless dignified and courteous. The father, a spare little man with an intelligent face, lay in his hammock and extended his hand feebly over the side simply saying that he was "infirma." He seemed to avoid making any movement. Four or five children of various ages moved listlessly about; only one of them, a girl of ten or twelve years of age, seemed quite healthy. Then there was the one sound man from the pirogue and the cripple. The whole family were being slowly destroyed by fever and elephantiasis, and apparently must, before long, perish from lack of ability to gather food. No resources were visible though no doubt they had a little cultivated ground somewhere handy^ and of course there was always fish. The whole story of gradually encroaching disease and suffering was so easy to read, and the patient and hopeless resignation with which the little group awaited its predestined extinction was very pathetic. They uttered no complaint nor asked for anything. We made the best of things, and got them quite cheerful and interested, producing from time to time various trifles from our pockets which we generally carried with us as presents when going ashore. Anxious to please, they gave us various quaint shells and a little fruit, and again pressed on our acceptance the hapless macaws, now secured to a handy branch, whose bedraggled plumage and sorry mien seemed quite in keeping with the surroundings. Altogether our visit seemed to give our hosts pleasure. The man appeared to have some Spanish blood in him and to have known better days. We then returned to the ship, and had breakfast, sending back by the pirogue, which had returned with us, a little present of ship's biscuit, tinned meat, cigarettes, and quinine. It was obvious that no watering was feasible at this landing-place. They told us we should be able to get water at the other spot where we had seen a light the evening before.
Pulling in the heat and sun any considerable distance was out of the question, so we hoisted out the motor lifeboat launch, taking the cutter in tow for landing. We found another wide sandy beach, but with fairly deep water right up to it. There was sufficient breaking swell on it to require the cutter to be hauled up smartly, directly her nose touched, or the next sea would have knocked her broadside on and filled her. The shore was bordered by what appeared to us, from its state of neglect, to be a deserted coconut plantation. We however told the men not to swarm up for nuts for the present there are generally some low easily climbed trees until we found out how the land lay. The white man never seems to be able to understand that petty plundering of native plantations is a bad introduction. Needless to say that it was not many minutes before the irrepressible Finn had "found on the ground" a bunch of green nuts and was devouring them with the avidity of a land crab. Foot-prints on the shore, and trails through the scrub, soon brought us to a group of shanties under the palm trees, and therefore close to the shore line. The coconut palm seems to thrive best just beyond high-water mark, and on any flat at about that level behind the furthest point reached by the water. Trees are often to be seen with the soil round their roots partially washed away on one side of the trunk.
A white man came walking along the shore to meet us. Of course the first thing we did was to apologise for the unseemly sight of the men all feeding on his nuts. He was fairly cordial, but evidently greatly perplexed as to who, and what, we were. We told him as well as we could about the ship and the reason of our visit, but it was obvious he thought we lied. All the same he gave us the information we wanted as to supplies and water. Practically nothing was to be had. As it would be shortly our men's dinner hour, we persuaded him to come with us aboard, and he thawed considerably under the influence of luncheon. He told us the coco palms had been planted by his father, and that his name was Guadia. The Sailing Directions, as to this place, are quite wrong. Moreover, they seldom quote their authority, or the date of the information they give, which renders them very untrustworthy.
About twenty fever-stricken natives, many of them cripples from elephantiasis, live here permanently on the plantation under the flimsy shelters. Sr. Guadia said he lived usually in the city of Panama, but came over for some months during the healthy season, occupying a somewhat superior hut in the midst of the native shacks. There are comparatively high hills close to hand, that would be infinitely more healthy as a residential site. He will probably get infected from the natives. The mosquitoes pass the disease along.
As the watering scheme had broken down, we thought we would devote the afternoon to fishing. Sr. Guadia said that, if we really wanted fish, we ought to go to the mouth of a river some distance away, but that the bottom was all clean opposite his camp, so we thought we would take a few drags of the seine along his front. We faked it down into the cutter and the launch towed her in. All along the beach the water was almost soup-like from the mud in suspension, also in it floated, in immense quantity, tiny fragments of fine marine grasses, the whole being kept constantly churned by the swell. In this opaque water fish could not see the net. Casting off from the launch the cutter backed into the beach: one hand jumped ashore with the head and foot ropes. She then described a semicircle as she shot her net: our seine was 50 fathoms long and 2 fathoms deep: as she completed the semicircle by touching the beach the spare hands jumped ashore with the other head and foot ropes and the boat pulled away to the launch to land that party, for without them it was impossible to haul the net: the resistance was far too great. The natives the whole population of the huts grouped themselves together at a little distance, but never offered to lend a hand. At last we got a move on the net, but the resistance was excessive, and we were afraid that she had picked up something. Gradually however the line of buoying corks rose to the surface as the leaded foot rope took the ground, defining the semicircle with a row of dots, whilst over them jumped, at various points of the most distant part of the curve, a multitude of small fry, like a stream of silver darts, and with rain-like patter as they struck the water. Gradually the escaping captives became larger and larger, springing high into the air, and we thought that we should find but little left when we got the net ashore, for the weight in it was such that we could move it but slowly. Keep her up! Keep her up!" was now the cry, to counteract the tendency to haul on either head rope or foot rope unduly in the excitement of the finish for a seine is simply a moving vertical wall of net, and must be maintained as such in use. At last the contained area began to simmer: then to boil: and then, still hauling evenly, we brought the mass more or less upon and against the sandy beach. Practically it was solid fish: fish of every size, shape and colour. There was comparatively little weed. By their very number they had been rendered helpless. This was great good luck, for amongst them was a large shark some ten or perhaps twelve feet long, and another brute of about the same size and weight, but he chiefly consisted of head, and his head chiefly consisted of mouth. When this mouth, with two little eyes at the sides, looked at you, the shark seemed of benevolent appearance.
Of course our first thought was for the safety of the net; that it was not burst or torn already seemed a miracle. The struggles of the two great brutes would tear it to pieces if we tried to haul them right ashore, so we just held them jammed against the sloping beach. The natives then cautiously ventured to attack them with their machettes a powerful slashing knife, like a small sabre, used for clearing the forest growth. They directed all their efforts to slashing them along the spine: gingerly approaching the fish by the head, they inflicted the wounds nearer and nearer towards the tail. Having paralysed that, they then blinded them. They did not desire to kill: they wanted the fish to have enough life left in it to be able to struggle away.
Having thus paralysed our two largest captures, we slipped a bowline round their tails, and dragged them clear of the net, and started them off, when they were at once torn to pieces by their fellows. We then proceeded to collect the useful part of the catch. We took what we wanted: the natives appropriated the rest. These natives were not an attractive lot neither the men, the women, nor the children they would not lend a hand to haul, got three quarters of the catch for picking it up, and then tried to steal the balance that we had reserved. Sr. Guadia gave us some coconuts, and the antlers of a deer that he had shot: according to him they are plentiful on the island.
As we didn't want anybody to get bitten by mosquitoes, and sunset was approaching, the order was now All aboard the lugger! and we reached the ship as her riding-light ran up.
1 We had intended to reproduce this note in facsimile, but subsequent events have led us to think that to do so might cause danger to its writer.
2 Casa = Sp. house.
3 Cf. Ency. Brit. Edn. 1911, Vol. xxiii., p. 930, Article Ray.