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  ― 164 ―

Too Far South.

THE captain of the Boadicea—regular London and Australian trader—had long been the owner of a crotchet, or perhaps it would be nearer the mark to call it a theory. He was a comparatively young man, and after a few trips of eighty-nine, ninety, and ninety-six days respectively, he grew impatient; and at last, seeing an opportunity of putting his idea to the test, he determined to make the attempt.

It was by no means a new theory; simply an expansion of an old one. Years ago the masters of the Lightning, Red Jacket, and other clipper ships of renown, had successfully demonstrated that, instead of turning round the Cape of Good Hope as if it were a corner, in the old style, vessels bound to the Australian colonies would, if they kept on southward, be very likely to pick up a current of strong westerly winds which, although twice the distance might have to be sailed over, yet would take them to their destination far more quickly than by the usual route.

But the master of the Boadicea contended that none of these early exponents of ‘Great Circular sailing’ had


  ― 165 ―
as yet gone far enough south, and that, at a still more distant point, a regular westerly wind-current, strong as a good-sized gale and as steady as a trade, without its fickleness, was to be met with which would shorten the average passage by at least ten days.

Older shipmasters laughed, and, saying that they found the Roaring Forties quite strong enough for them, stuck to the regular merchantman track, not so old yet, they thought, nor so worn by the marks of their keels, as to require a fresh one. However, Captain Stewart had, by dint of long persuasion and perseverance, obtained permission from his owners to test practically his pet idea; and this was the reason that, on the thirty-fifth day out, the Boadicea, in place of running her easting down amongst the Forties like a Christian ship, with half a gale singing in the bellies of her topsails, and mountains of dark-blue water roaring rhythmically astern, found herself poking about close hauled, with, on every hand as far as vision extended, icebergs, varying in size and shape, from a respectable many-peaked island to a spireless dissenting chapel.

We were very far indeed to the southward.

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold;
And ice, mast high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

Still our commander's faith in his strong wind-streak was unshaken; albeit, for a week or more, light baffling airs, scarce sufficing to fill the stiffened canvas, had been our portion. It was, too, indeed, ‘wondrous cold,’ and the


  ― 166 ―
necessity for keeping a close and unwearied look-out became every hour more apparent. Already we had had narrow escapes of coming into collision with bergs wandering aimlessly about, which, although wonderfully beautiful objects in the daytime, and at a distance, with the bright sunlight reflecting a thousand prismatic hues from their glistening surfaces, yet of a dark night were liable, with a touch almost, to send us in a twinkling to Davy Jones.

The crew growled and shivered, and shivered and growled, making the while sarcastic inquiries as to the near vicinity of the South Pole, wishing in undertones that their skipper had been perched on the top of it before leading them into such cold quarters. As for myself, although rated as third mate, I was little more than a lad at the time, and thought the whole thing simply magnificent, hoping that we might penetrate still further into the unknown ‘regions of thick-ribbed ice’ ahead of us, whilst visions of a Southern Continent, bears, seals and walruses, floated through my imagination. To be sure I was well clothed and comfortably housed, which, perhaps, made all the difference. We are very apt to look at things one-sidedly, and with regard only to the character of our own particular surroundings. Man born of a woman is a more or less selfish animal. Every day the ‘wandering pearls of the sea,’ as someone has called them, seemed to become more plentiful, whilst, to add to our dilemma, a thick Antarctic fog, through which the Boadicea, with look-outs alow and aloft, crept like some great blind monster feeling its


  ― 167 ―
way across the ocean, arose and hid everything from view.

The only one on board with any experience of such latitudes was our chief officer, a rough New Englander, who had taken a couple of voyages to the Northern fisheries in a Nantucket whaler. Far, however, from giving himself airs on that account, he was probably the most anxious man in the ship's company. He had not a particle of faith in the great theory; moreover, he had seen a vessel ‘ripped’ in Davis Sound, which none of his companions had.

One evening, as if drawn up by some mighty hand, the fog lifted, disclosing the sun, cold, red, and angry-looking, glaring at us out of a sombre sky, and flushing the water and the bergs round about with a flood of purple light, on which our masts and rigging cast tremulous, long, black shadows, crossing and recrossing in a quivering maze, with big, shapeless blotches here and there for the sails. Suddenly a deeper, darker shadow fell athwart us; and there, not two oars' lengths away, between ship and sun, rose an island.

Men rubbed their eyes, and rubbed and looked again, but there it was, every stern outline standing in bold relief, a rough, ragged mass of barren, desolate rock, its summit covered with snow—still, indisputably land. Even as we gazed eagerly, wonderingly, the mirage faded away in a moment, as it had appeared, and the mist descended like a grey, heavy curtain, enveloping all things in its damp folds.




  ― 168 ―

Presently it came on to snow. The standing rigging and running gear alike were coated with ice, whilst the canvas took the consistency of sheet-iron, and rang like glass when touched.

Roaring fires were lit in oil drums, fore and aft, in forecastle and cuddy. Soon the smoke in both places was as thick as the fog on deck; a kind of damp, unwholesome warmth was engendered as the impromptu stoves grew red-hot; great half-frozen cockroaches, thinking that the tropics were at hand, crawled out of nooks and crannies; and it seemed at times a toss up whether our end should come by ice or fire.

Most of our crew were Danes or Swedes, hardy and obedient men. If they had been British they would probably have attempted to compel the captain to alter his course. As it was, they simply put on all their available clothing and growled quietly. No matter what then nationality, all seamen growl; only some growl and work also.

Now, all the watches and clocks on board stopped, and, refusing to start again, they were placed in the cook's oven with a view to warming the works. But, in the excitement consequent upon fending off a huge berg, which threatened to crush us, they were done brown, and completely ruined. About this time the captain, thinking, perhaps, that his experiment had gone far enough, gave the order to square the yards. On going to the braces we found that the sheaves of the blocks were frozen to their pins and would not travel. Taking them to the winch, with much heaving, the yards at last swung,


  ― 169 ―
creaking and groaning, round, whilst showers of icy fragments fell rattling on deck.

It was almost a calm, the ship having barely steerage way upon her; but the barometer was falling, and it was judged prudent to shorten sail by putting the Boadicea under a couple of lower top-sails and fore and mizzen stay-sails.

To stow each of the upper top-sails it took twenty-four men and two boys—nearly, in fact, the ship's company; and, if the courses had not already been furled, I do not think we could ever have managed them. The foot-ropes were like glass, the reef-points as rigid as bar iron, and one's hands, after a minute aloft, had no more feeling in them than the icy canvas they tried to grasp. Through the fog, as we slowly descended the slippery ratlines, we imagined we could see great bergs looming indistinctly; and in our strained ears echoed the ever-impending crash as the wind gradually freshened.

It was a trying experience, even for the best prepared amongst us, this comparatively sudden transit from the tropics to twenty degrees below freezing point; and I firmly believe that, but for the unlimited supply of hot cocoa available day and night, at all hours, some of us would have given in. Spirits could be had for the asking, but no one seemed to care about them, even those known to be inveterate topers declining rum with something akin to disgust; perhaps the reason was that it became quite thick, and, when taken into the mouth, burned and excoriated both tongue and palate.

The night of the day on which we had snugged the


  ― 170 ―
Boadicea down was dark as pitch, and you could feel the fog as it hung low and clingingly to everything. Some time in the middle watch the breeze died away, giving place to light, unsteady airs—catspaws almost—and occasional falls of snow.

Imagine, if you can, the big ship creeping timorously and uncertainly through the thick Polar darkness and mist, a shapeless mass of yet thicker darkness, emitting here and there ruddy flashes of light, reflected momentarily back from snow-covered deck or coil of frozen rope. No sound breaks the silence except a gentle lap-lapping of water under her fore-foot as the canvas just fills enough to draw. Now snow falls, not deliberately, but with a soft, fleecy, rushing motion, which speedily fills up any inequalities about the decks, and would fill them from rail to rail if it lasted long. Presently a dozen bulky spectres move noiselessly around the galley door, which, being withdrawn, a warm glow streams out upon the watch come for hot cocoa.

Imagine, too, just as the tired men are about to drag their half-frozen limbs below, a sudden deeper silence, and a strange feeling of warmth and calm pervading the ship; the sails giving one mighty creaking flap up there in the gloom; the crash and rattle of ice falling from their frozen folds, and a cluster of awe-struck, up-turned faces, shining pallidly in the glow of the galley fire, as the Boadicea, but for a slight roll, lies idle and at rest.

Everyone knows and feels that something unusual has taken place, but no man there can say what it is. A


  ― 171 ―
muttered order is heard, and in a minute a flood of vivid blue fire pours out into the darkness from the ship's quarter, and a great subdued ‘Ah!’ runs fore and aft her, as, by its glare, we see tall, jagged cliffs, weird and ghastly in the strange light, towering far on high above our mast-heads, which appear to touch them.

‘Get the deep-sea lead overboard!’ shouts the captain.

‘Watch, there, watch!’ needlessly cry the men, as the line slips from their hands; and no bottom at one hundred fathoms.

‘ 'Taint land at all,’ says the mate quietly. ‘I kin smell ice; an' ef we don't mind we may calculate to winter 'mongst it 'stead o' makin' tracks for the Antipodes. Lower the quarter-boat,’ he goes on, ‘an' tie the ship up for the night, as, ef I ain't mistook, we're pooty nigh surrounded.’

More bluelights are burned, and by their help and those of lanterns, the Boadicea, in a somewhat unnatural plight, is warped alongside a kind of ice jetty which stretches out from the main mass, and which, as if to save us the trouble of carrying out anchors, also to complete the resemblance to a pier, is furnished here and there with great knobs, to which we make fast our lines.

If you will try and picture to yourself the scene I have described, you will, I think, be willing to admit that ship seldom entered stranger harbour in a stranger manner, or that the ‘sweet little cherub, sitting up aloft,’ who is supposed to keep a special look-out for


  ― 172 ―
poor Jack,' and who on the present occasion—all the more honour to him—must have felt colder even than the proverbial upper hank of a Greenlandman's gib, seldom performed his duty better.

Perhaps the all-pervading stillness was the thing that struck us most. The fenders, even, between the ship's side and her novel pier scarcely gave a creak. And yet we were conscious that, somewhere, not very far away, it was beginning to blow freshly, although the sound fell on our ears but as a subdued, faint murmur, serving only to intensify the surrounding silence and hush.

‘There's a fire up there!’ exclaimed one of the men, presently. And, sure enough, a tiny, sickly flame appeared far away above us. It grew gradually larger and larger, till at length a long, broad streak of silver shot down the ice-mountains and fell athwart our decks, as a three-quarters-full moon, pale, washed-out and sickly-looking, shone for a minute through the low, black clouds hurrying swiftly across her face.

A dull, grey dawn, at last, giving us just enough light to see what had happened. Ice everywhere!

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;

and on every side rose huge bergs from one hundred feet to two hundred feet in height, and enclosing a space of barely a mile in circumference; an ice-bound lake, in fact; and, what struck a chill of terror to our hearts as we gazed, a lake without any exit. Look as we might, there


  ― 173 ―
was not the least sign of an opening. Unwittingly we had sailed or drifted into a girdle of conjoined bergs. During the night the passage through which we entered had closed, and a cruel and stupendous barrier, hard as granite, slippery as glass, lay betwixt us and the outer ocean.

Within, the water was as smooth as a mill-pond, the air was quite warm, and after breakfast all hands went ‘ashore’ to stretch their legs, look wonderingly up at our prison walls, and speculate on the chances of getting out.

As I gazed around me at the strange scene—the snow-clad, towering peaks, glittering coldly in the yet feeble sun rays, the deep, shadow-laden valleys at their bases, and the perpendicular curtains of naked, steely-blue ice connecting one berg with the other—there came to my mind some long-forgotten lines of Montgomery's, in which he depicts the awful fate of an ice-bound vessel:—

There lies a vessel in that realm of frost,
Not wrecked, not stranded, but for ever lost;
Its keel embedded in the solid mass;
Its glistening sails appear expanded glass;
The transverse ropes with pearls enormous strung.

Morn shall return, and noon, and eve, and night
Meet here with interchanging shade and light;
But from that barque no timber shall decay;
Of these cold forms no feature pass away.

I had rather enjoyed the first days of our Antarctic experiences, but the pleasure began decidedly to pall with such a horrible contingency in view, and I was now


  ― 174 ―
fully as anxious as anyone for clear water and a straight course.

After a while, the gig was manned, and, with the captain and chief mate, we pulled round our harbour to a spot where, from the ship, a part of the ice-curtain seemed low and pretty accessible. So it had appeared; but when we reached it we found fifty feet of perpendicular slippery wall between our boat's gunwale and the summit of the ridge we had hoped to mount.

‘We're in a pooty nice kind o' a fix,’ said our mate, as we returned. ‘An',’ glancing at the lowering sky, ‘I reckon it's going to blow some, presently. Mebbe it'll blow us out o' these chunks of ice.’

The captain made no reply, but he was evidently not in a very cheerful state of mind.

That evening it did begin to blow very hard. Not that we felt it much, but we could hear the storm howling and roaring outside, and the thunderous breakers which dashed themselves against our sheltering bergs, causing them to tremble and pitch now and again as the mighty seas struck their bases. We had shifted the Boadicea out to the extreme end of the jetty, double-banked our fenders, and taken every other precaution we could think of, in addition to standing-by through the night to cast off and sheet home at a minute's notice.

There was no more silence now; for, although we were all drifting away together about E. half S. before the wind, the bergs forming our enclosure ground against each other with an incessant rending, tearing


  ― 175 ―
sound, which now, although seeming to foretell an early dissolution of partnership, filled us with terror lest some of them should topple over on the ship.

The ship herself, no longer steady, was hove violently up and down with every motion of the bergs; whilst the great wooden fenders, cut from spare spars, were torn to splinters, and the hawsers surged round their icy mooring posts with a curious, screaming, intermittent noise, making us think that every moment they were about to part.

Four bells in the morning watch had just struck when we heard a terrific crash rising high above the surrounding din, and the next instant a great wave came rushing over the Boadicea, filling her decks, nearly lifting her on to the ice, and then slamming her down with such force as to snap the hawsers like threads and smash the bulwarks to matchwood the whole length of the port side. Drifting away from our friendly jetty, we at once felt that our prison was broken up; for, now, the gale from which we had been so long sheltered howled and tore through the rigging, whilst cataracts of bitter cold water rushed in quick succession over the decks, and lumps of ice bumped up against the Boadicea's bows and sides.

‘Set the lower fore-top-sail and mizzen-stay-sail!’

And now the slatting and banging of canvas, the rattle of iron sheets and hanks, the hoarse cries of the men as they staggered about the wet, slippery planking, together with the rending and smashing of


  ― 176 ―
ice all around, made up a scene that defies description; whilst to lend it an additional weirdness, a ‘flare-up’ of oakum and tar, which had been run up to a lower-stuns'l boom-end, blazed wildly overhead like a great fierce eye looking down upon us out of the thick darkness. So closely were we beset, however, that, spite of the canvas, we soon found that we were simply drifting aimlessly about amidst immense fragments of capsized bergs, which threatened every moment to crush us. Indeed, we did get one squeeze that made the ship crack again, and whose after effect was seen by the fact that the cabin doors for the rest of the passage refused to close by a good six inches. Presently, grinding and scraping up alongside a small berg—or portion of a larger one, we cannot tell which—we make fast to it as well as we are able, and direct all our efforts to fending off its companions. As daylight approaches, we notice that the ice becomes rarer, and sails by at longer intervals; and as it breaks more fully out of a lowering yellowish sky a wild sight meets our eyes.

The sea is dotted with bergs—small ones nodding and bobbing along, big ones gliding majestically before the wind, till, a pair of these latter colliding, down crumble spires and minarets, towers and pinnacles, suddenly as a child's card-built house, sending up tall columns of water as they fall.

It is not this spectacle, however, that brings forth a simultaneous shout from everyone on board, but


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the appearance, as one berg gives a half-turn, of an object, hardly two hundred yards from our jibboom end, standing there, amidst all the wild commotion, stead-fast, rugged and grim, with tall breakers curling up against its ice-surrounded, dark red cliffs, and falling back in showers of foam, showing milky-white in the morning gloom.

It is land, surely! And, surely, we have seen those forbidding, snow-capped precipices before. It is the island of the mirage, substantial enough this time, and in another ten minutes we shall be dashed to atoms against its surf-encircled base.

The sight had a wondrous effect, and men who seemed incapable a minute before of stirring their stiffened limbs now hopped up the rigging like goats, and scampered along the deck with the top-sail halliards as if racing for a wager, in obedience to the order to cast off and make-sail.

‘Hard a port!’ and the Boadicea's poop is splashed with spray from rocks and ice as she turns slowly from a jagged, honeycombed promontory, whilst her late consort goes headlong to destruction on its iron teeth.

It is still blowing hard; but our captain is more than satisfied; and, under everything she can carry, the Boadicea rushes, like a frightened stag, fast away, northwards and eastwards, out of those dismal seas of ice and fog, snow, and unknown islands, a very nightmare of navigation, into which one merchant skipper, at least, will never willingly venture again.




  ― 178 ―

However, we, after all, perhaps, set our course on a higher parallel than anyone had done since Ross in '41, followed the outline of a southern continent, whose volcanoes flamed to heaven from a lifeless, desolate land of ice and snow. And, as some compensation for our trouble and dangers, till we sighted the south end of Tasmania, we never had occasion to touch a rope, so steadily and strongly blew the fair wind.

‘Seventy-five days—a rattlin' good passage!’ exclaimed our Port Jackson pilot; and when he asked what had become of our bulwarks, and why the cuddy doors wouldn't shut, we simply told him we had been ‘Too far south.’

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