OUR FIRST VOYAGE
OUR preparations were hurried on at Southampton, and I was never left in peace, but was in a condition of perpetual work and travel, my sole relaxation being the frequent farewell dinners given to myself and my companions by our friends and sympathisers; and very jolly as these dinners were they were relaxations in the other sense of the term rather than reposeful amusements for a weary man. Some of them were arduous undertakings.
Our expedition interested the Southampton people a good deal, and all wished us well; but I do not think many thought that we should be successful in realizing our fortunes on Trinidad.
At last all was ready for our departure, when to my considerable disgust, just as we were about to put to sea, two of the volunteers suddenly found themselves prevented from going with us.
I forthwith telegraphed to others on my list of applicants, and at the very last moment received telegrams from two gentlemen who were willing to join at this short notice. When their messages arrived all my crew and other companions were on board, comfortably settled down, having bidden their farewells and done with the shore; so I thought it prudent to send them away from Southampton, where the Alerte was perpetually surrounded bv boatfuls of visitors, to the seclusion of the little bay under Calshot Castle at the mouth of Southampton Water. Here they would he out of the way of temptation, as there are no buildings save the coastguard station.
Therefore, on the evening of August 28, 1889, the Alerte sailed slowly down to Calshot, and came to an anchor there, while I waited at Southampton until the following morning with the object of securing my new volunteers as soon as they should arrive and carrying them down to the yacht.
The said volunteers turned up early on August 29th. Then, with a party of some of my old Southampton friends, we steamed down the river on a launch which had been very kindly placed at our disposal for the purpose by the Isle of Wight Steamboat Company. Mr. Picket, of course, would have nothing to do with work in his yard on that day; he took a holiday and came down to see the last of us.
We were now all on board; but, finding that some of the fresh stores, such as vegetables and bread, had not yet arrived, we postponed our departure until the following day. In the meanwhile we were not idle, we sent a boat to the Hamble River to fill up those breakers that had been already emptied, we got our whale-boat on deck and secured it, and, in short, made all ready for sea.
On the following day the Isle of Wight boat, while passing, left the missing stores with us; then Mr. Picket's sloop sailed down with some friends who had determined to bid us even yet another last farewell; and, after dinner, we weighed anchor and were off, while the friends on the sloop and the crew of a yacht which was brought up near us gave us a hearty good-bye in British cheers.
But our anchor had not yet had its last hold of English mud, and we were not to lose sight of the Solent that day; for, in consequence of some clumsiness, or possibly too much zeal, on the part of those who were catting the anchor, the bowsprit whisker on the starboard side was doubled up; so we had to proceed to Cowes and bring up there while we sent the iron on shore to be put in the fire and straightened again. However, this did not delay us much, for it fell a flat calm, which lasted through the night; we were better off sleeping comfortably at anchor than we should have been drifting helplessly up and down with the tides.
At 11 a.m. the next morning, it being high water, we weighed anchor, and were really off at last, the weather glorious and hot, but the wind light and variable.
For weeks, while we had been lying off Southampton, the weather had been detestable — blusterous north-west winds, accompanied by heavy rains, prevailing. But now, very opportunely for us, a complete change set in just as we started, and it was evident that we were at the commencement of a long spell of settled fine weather. I had anticipated this luck, for I knew by experience that the last weeks of August and the first weeks in September are the most favourable for a voyage south across the Bay, for then there generally comes a period of moderate easterly winds and warm weather, which precedes the stormy season of the equinox. Thus, when I sailed in the Falcon at this very time of the year, I was fortunate enough to carry a north-east wind all the way from Southampton into the north-east trades, and I was confident that we were destined to do something of the sort now; nor was I disappointed.
We got outside the Needles, and, the wind being light from west to south-west, we tacked very slowly down Channel, always in sight of the English coast, until nightfall, when the wind dropped altogether, and we lay becalmed in sight of Portland lights. It was our first Saturday night at sea (August 31st), so we kept up the good old fashion of drinking to our wives and sweethearts at eight o'clock. We never neglected this sacred duty on any Saturday night during the whole cruise. A light air from the east sprang up at night, but, though we now had racing spinnaker and topsail on the vessel, we made little progress, and it seemed as if we could not lose sight of the lights of Portland.
Throughout the following day — September 1st — the same far too fine weather continued, with light airs from various directions, alternating with calms. But we did at last contrive to get out of sight of land this day; Portland, to our delight, became invisible, and we saw no more of the English coast.
This calm weather was trying to the patience; but it was perhaps well for us to have this experience at the commencement of the voyage; for it enabled the raw hands to settle down to their work quickly, and there was but little sea-sickness on board.
At midday, September 2nd, we were off the chops of the Channel, a fresh easterly wind that lasted some hours having carried us so far. Then the wind fell again, and we sailed on in a very leisurely fashion until the morning of September 5th, when, being well in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, the wind, which was from the south-east, began gradually to freshen. First we were going five knots through the water, then seven, and by midday we were travelling between eight and nine. In the afternoon the wind increased to the force of a moderate gale and the sea began to rise. During the night some rather high seas rolled up after us occasionally, so that we had to bear away and run before them, and only the old hands could be entrusted with the tiller. We passed Finisterre on this night, but were too far off to see the lights: and now we had done with the Bay of Biscay, which had certainly treated the Alerte with great consideration, and not shown us any of its proverbial bad temper. The wind had gone down by midday on the 6th, and the run for the previous twenty-four hours was found to have been 158 miles.
From this date we kept up a fair average speed, though our voyage could not be termed a smart one, for there was scarcely a day on which we were not retarded by several hours of calm.
While going down Channel we had kept watch and watch in the usual sea fashion, the first mate taking one watch and myself the other. But now that we were out at sea, clear of all danger, it became unnecessary to continue this somewhat wearisome four hours up and four hours down system; so we divided ourselves into three watches, the second mate taking the third watch. This gave the men an eight hours' rest below at a stretch, instead of only four. As we had three paid hands in addition to the cook, one of these was allotted to each watch. But before reaching the South American coast the second mate resigned his post, and we reverted to the watch-and-watch system again, which was observed until the termination of the cruise.
A good deal of useless form was kept up at this early stage of the voyage. A log-slate was suspended in the saloon, and each officer as he came below would write up a full account of all that had occurred in his watch. The most uninteresting details were minutely chronicled only to be rubbed off the slate each midday — and I think there was a little disappointment expressed because I would not copy all these down in my log-book. Had I done so that log-book would have been a dreadful volume to peruse.
To us, however, the log-slate was a source of great amusement on account of its utter fallaciousness.The patent log was, of course, put overboard when we were making the land, but when we were out on the ocean and no land was near us we naturally did not take the trouble to do this, neither did we make use of the common log-ship or keep a strict dead reckoning. But, despite this, the officer of a watch would religiously jot down the exact number of knots and furlongs he professed to have sailed during each of his four hours on duty; he did not even try to guess the distance to the best of his ability; he was bred with an ambition to show the best record for his watch; so he would first scan the slate to see how many knots the officer just relieved boasted to have accomplished, and then he would unblushingly write down a slightly greater number of miles as the result of his own watch, quite regardless of any fall in the wind or other retarding cause.
Thus: if five knots an hour had been made in one watch, five and a quarter would probably be logged for the next, and five and a half for the next. Sometimes there was a flat calm throughout a watch, and then the ingenious officer, though he could not help himself and was compelled to write himself down a zero before three of the hours, would compensate for this by putting down a big number in front of that hour during which he imagined that all the individuals of his rival watches were fast asleep below, and would boldly assert in explanation that just then he had been favoured with a strong squall to help him along.
No one put any confidence in this mendacious slate, which soon became known on board as the "Competition Log," and inspired our wits with many merry quips. The distance made in each twenty-four hours as recorded by the Competition Log was about fifty per cent. greater than that calculated from observations of the sun.
At last, on the morning of September 13th, having been fourteen days at sea, and having accomplished a voyage of something under fifteen hundred miles, we knew that we were in the close vicinity of the Salvages, and a sharp look-out for land was accordingly kept. We had seen nothing but water round us since leaving Portland Bill, and all on board were excited at the prospect of so soon discovering what manner of place was this desert treasure-island of which we had been talking so much.
The Salvages lie between Madeira and the Canaries, being I60 miles from the former and about 85 from Teneriffe. Vessels avoid their vicinity, especially at night, on account of the dangerous shoals that surround them. The description of the group in the North Atlantic Memoir is as follows:
"The Salvages consist of an island named the Ilha Grande, or the Great Salvage, a larger island named Great Piton, and a smaller one called the Little Piton, together with several rocks. The Great Salvage lies in lat. 30º 8', long. 15º 55'. It is of very irregular shape, and has a number of rocks about it within the distance of a mile. It is much intersected, and has several deep inlets, the most accessible of which is on the east side. It is covered with bushes, amongst which the thousands of sea-fowl make their nests. It is surrounded on all sides with dangers, most of which show, but many require all caution in approaching.A light north-east trade-wind was blowing, and we were running before it at a fair rate through the smooth water, with topsail and racing spinnaker set. It was a glorious morning, with but few clouds in the sky, and those were of that fleecy, broken appearance that characterises the regions of the trade-winds.
At 8.30 a.m. the man on the look out at the crosstrees sang out: "Land right ahead, sir!" Yes — no doubt about it — there it was, still several leagues off, a faint blue hill of rugged form on the horizon: we had made an excellent land-fall. While we were straining our eyes to make out the features of our desert island our attention was attracted to a still nearer object which suddenly gleamed out snowy white as the sun's rays fell on it, triangular in form and appearing like a small chalk rock, but too far off to be clearly distinguished. Gradually we approached this, and, after a little doubt, it proved to be no rock, but a sailing-vessel of some kind. Then with the aid of the binoculars we made her out; she was a small schooner of foreign rig, evidently hailing from the Canaries or Madeira, and she was sailing as we were, shaping a course direct for the island.
We had seen no vessel for several days, and the appearance of this suspicious-looking craft caused some excitement on the Alerte. We called to mind the foreign fishermen who, according to rumour, occasionally visit this uninhabited archipelago. Was this one of their vessels? If so, there might be trouble ahead for us.
We rapidly gained on the enemy, though we were engaged in a stern chase. This adventure put my crew in lively spirits, and I think that some of them began half to imagine themselves to be bold privateers of the olden days, after a Spaniard or a Frenchman.
Gradually we approached the Great Salvage, which, lying between us and the Pitons, concealed the latter from our view. Its appearance was very different from what we had expected. We had come to the conclusion, I know not for what reason, that we should find an island consisting for the most part of great sand-hills, but there was not the smallest patch of sandy beach to be seen anywhere. Sheer from the sea rose great rocks of volcanic formation, dark and rugged: and, though we were still several miles off, we could perceive that the sea was breaking heavily on every part of the weather coast, for we could hear the booming of the rollers and see the frequent white flash of the foam against the black cliff-sides. But above these precipices towards the centre of the island there was a plateau, or rather an undulating green down, with one steep green dome dominating all, looking very fresh and pleasant to eyes that for two weeks had only gazed at the monotonous plains of the sea.
As I have already explained, my informant from Exeter was of opinion that the Prometheus people were wrong in digging on the shores of the Great Salvage, and that the treasure had been concealed on the Great Piton or middle island. We decided in the first place to come to an anchor off the Great Salvage, and after having explored that island, to sail for the Great Piton.
According to the Admiralty charts there are two anchorages off the Great Salvage, one in the East Bay, and one in the South Bay.We accordingly steered so as to coast down the east side of the island, and thus open out both of these inlets.
At midday we were not quite a league astern of the schooner. She was close under the north point of the island when suddenly she hauled her wind and steered in a westerly direction, seemingly for the open sea; so we came to the conclusion that our excitement had been groundless, and that in all probability we should not be troubled by inquisitive foreigners during our exploration of the Salvages.
We soon found that it was necessary to exercise considerable caution while approaching this island. Nearly two miles away from it there was a shoal over which the sea was breaking heavily, we passed between this and the island as directed by the chart and kept close under the shore, where the dark violet of the deep sea was changed for the transparent green of comparatively shallow water. Here again we had to pick our way through outlying rocks and shoals. One of these shoals is particularly dangerous for, as there is some depth of water over it, the sea only occasionally breaks, and for a quarter of an hour at a time there is nothing to indicate the danger, so that a vessel might, through inadvertence, be taken right on to it.
When we were close to it the sea happened to break, and the sight was a lovely yet a terrible one. A huge green roller, very high and steep, suddenly rose as if by magic from the deep; then swept over the shoal, and, when it reached the shallowest part its crest hung over, forming a cavern underneath through whose transparent roof the sun shone with a beautiful green light, and lastly, the mass overtopping itself fell with a great hollow sound, and was dashed to pieces in a whirl of hissing foam. Had the old Alerte been there at that moment her end would have come swiftly, and perhaps ours too.
The chart seems to mark these rocks and breakers very correctly, and there is small danger of falling a victim to them if proper precautions are observed. Besides which, the water is so clear that one can see through it many fathoms down, and a man in the cross-trees with an eye experienced to the work could always detect a danger in good time.
We rounded the north-east point and opened East Bay. We did not like the look of the anchorage here, which is in ten fathoms, and could see no good landing nor any signs of a sandy beach; so we sailed on and doubled the south-east point and the shoals that extend some way from it, suddenly opening out South Bay, the one in which it seems that the Prometheus came to an anchor.
And then, to our astonishment, we beheld a very unexpected sight. Rolling easily on the green ocean swell, at some three cables' length from the shore, lay a small schooner at anchor; her crew — a half-naked, bronzed, and savage-looking lot — were engaged in stowing her mainsail. She was evidently the same schooner we had seen outside. While we had been coasting round the east side of the island she had followed the west side, and here we had met again. But she was not the only surprise in store for us. There were no sandy dunes in this bay; its shores were steep and rocky, and on either side reefs, on which the sea broke, protected the anchorage to some extent. At the head of one picturesque cove, wherein was evidently the best landing-place, were two small huts, put together of rough stones from the beach, and from these a footpath wound up the bare volcanic cliffs to the green plateau some four hundred feet above. A quantity of barrels were being quickly landed here from one of the schooner's boats, and several other wild-looking men were carrying these up to a cavern a little way up the rocks behind the huts. The whole formed a wild and fantastic picture. It was just such a scene as Salvator Rosa would have delighted to paint; it would have suited the savage austerity of his style. The rugged cove might well have been the haunt of smugglers or pirates. And who, we wondered, were these people, and what were they doing? These were mysterious proceedings for a desert island! The evident labour of the men while carrying the barrels proved to us that they were very heavy. "Perhaps," suggested one of us, "perhaps we have just arrived at the right moment to interrupt another band of pirates in the act of hiding another immense treasure."
This would have been almost too great a stroke of luck for my band of adventurers. It would have been very pleasant to have saved ourselves all the trouble of digging, and to have simply carried off the evilly earned hoard of these wicked men and divided it among our virtuous selves. We had sanguine men on board whom no failure disheartened, despite their invariable habit of counting their chickens before they were hatched; so I was not surprised to be now asked by the sportsman of our party how long I thought it would take us to get back to England. When I had replied, he evinced great satisfaction. "Oh, that is all right then!" he said. "We can get this stuff on board and be back home just in time for the pheasant-shooting; and, after that, we can fit out again and fetch our other treasures."
We came to an anchor in seven fathoms of water a short distance outside the schooner. It was not the sort of roadstead I should like to remain long in; for an iron-bound shore was before us, and around were numerous shoals on which the rollers kept up a perpetual hullaballoo — a nasty trap to be caught in should the wind suddenly veer to the southward.
It was after one o'clock when we brought up, so we decided to go below and dine before doing anything else, and the conversation at table became more piratical in its tone than ever. After the details of how we were to enrich ourselves despite all obstacles had been thoroughly discussed, each of the adventurers explained in what way he would spend his share of the booty: how it should be invested was, of course, far too prosaic a matter for his consideration.