Blown North by James Runciman

Story type: Literature

The brig “Wansbeck” sailed on a February day at about four in the afternoon. She was a fine little vessel, but very badly found in sails and running-gear. The crew had signed for a voyage to Malmo; and the owner hurried the ship away because he feared she might be “neaped” in the little river, as the tides were taking off. The cargo was very badly stowed; and when the pilot came on board it was discovered that part of the pump-gear had not arrived. The captain told the owner of this; and that gentleman said the ship should go to sea without any pumps at all rather than he would see her lie on the mud. So the moorings were cast off, and the tug took the tow-rope on board. Luckily, just as the stern-rope was cast off, the missing pump-gear came to hand.

The sky was heavy and grey; a snoring breeze blew from the E.N.E., and the vessel went away on a south-east course under double-reefed topsails and foresail. Everything moveable about the decks was secured, and the pumps were set on; but after pumping for an hour, and not getting even a rolling suck, the mate gave orders to sound; when, to the dismay of the crew, it was found that nine inches of water still remained in the well. The men had been hard at work all day; there was every sign of a heavy easterly gale; yet the dismal work of pumping had to go steadily on. At midnight the gale increased, and the watch was called out to close-reef the topsails. The owner would not have been pleased had he heard the language that was used by the men on the yard-arms. One speaker went so far as to express a wish that his employer was lashed under the cathead; and, since the cathead was never above water, the suggestion was received with much applause. The “Wansbeck” had sailed on the 8th of the month, and until the 11th the pumps were kept constantly going. The morning of the 12th broke with a wan glare in the sky, and a tremendous sea came away. The captain was obliged to veer the ship with her head to the north, and she went away fast before the gale under two close-reefed topsails. The men’s hands were beginning to get badly damaged by the constant labour, but no rest was possible. On the 13th the wind rose to a hurricane; and masses of water were flung bodily down on the vessel, so that she was immersed most of the time and the sailors worked on up to their waists in pouring water. As one of the crew said, “things was no mistake dreadful.” At the end of every watch the men who should have gone below were forced to take a two hours’ spell at the pump; they then wrung their clothes, hung them up before the little fire in the forecastle, and turned in naked. Then, after a brief snatch of sleep, they jumped out, put on their steaming clothes, and went to the pumps once more. At 6 a.m. on the 14th the handspike was thumped on the deck, and a sailor said, “Turn out, boys; she’s going down!” Worn out with want of rest, their hands and feet half flayed, the men staggered out and went desperately to work again. The brakes of the pumps hung far above their heads, and after toiling for three hours one of the standards broke and things looked hopeless. By six o’clock next day there were four and a half feet of water in the hold, and still the struggle was kept up with dogged resolution. At ten o’clock the water had risen to six feet, and all the time the hurricane blew with unabated force. The ship was plunging away northward, and not a sail could be seen on all the grey waste of the sea.

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Now the crew went aft and told the captain that they could not keep the “Wansbeck” floating much longer; they thought the flag should be put in the main rigging, “union down.” The captain said, “All right, my lads. There’s but poor hopes for us, I know, whether we take to the boat or stick to the ship. Take your own way and do what you think is best. Our time will soon be over.” So the flag was hoisted, and the men prepared for the end–without fear, for sheer physical misery had made them dull and silently reckless. The captain told a young hand to go into the forepeak and see if the water had reached far up: the same hand was ordered to clear away the longboat. Now the fore-trysail bad come down on the boat; and when it was flung down the young seaman noticed that it seemed to be sucked down into a kind of eddy. There had been so many false alarms that the lad did not say anything until he had examined this new phenomenon carefully. Wading forward, he felt cautiously with his bare feet and found that his toes went into a large hole. He called out, “Here’s the big leak; our decks are stove in!” and indeed it was this hole, through which the constant burden of water on deck had poured, that had caused the pumps to be mastered.

After some very hard work the leak was stopped, and the men began to labour with new heart. The courage of the men had revived, and they cheered each other on. For four hours the whole crew went at it with a will; torn and bleeding hands were unheeded, and the thought of death was put away. All the same the boat was kept ready for leaving the ship; but just as the night came down and the white crests began to lighten on the following seas, the pump sucked slightly, and the crew knew that they might stand by the vessel. For six-and-twenty hours they had been on deck without a spell; they had been working in an incessant flood of water; their sleeves had been doubled up, and every man had ugly salt-water boils on his arms. The little cabin-boy had stuck gallantly to work with the rest, but both his feet were frost-bitten, and he could not stand alone. A more deplorable ordeal was never undergone by men, and nothing but indomitable hardihood could have kept them up. On the 17th of the month they had got so far north that there was scarcely any daylight in each twenty-four hours. At noon on that day the poor fellows saw a thing which was not calculated to cheer them. They were looking gloomily out, when a little brig like their own seemed to start up amid the driving haze. She laboured past them; and then they watched her stagger, stop, and founder. Next day they ran into a comparative calm; and when the “Wansbeck” reached latitude 65 degrees north, the sea fell away, and the brig was safe. Then the men felt the misery of their sores; for after they slept for a while the act of unclosing the hands was terribly painful. The poor boy was very resigned and brave. He could not be helped in any way, and both his feet had to be cut off when the vessel reached Malmo.

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A few days’ fine weather enabled the crew to repair sails and broken gear; then the “Wansbeck” clawed her way down the Norwegian coast and got into the “Sleeve.” What the men longed for most was tobacco; and when at the end of some days’ sailing they sighted a Dutch galliot they boarded her, and the poor English scarecrows were helped liberally. That night was passed in smoking and a blessed forgetfulness of pain. The “Wansbeck” was given up at home, and some women had put on mourning before she was heard of. Nothing could have saved her had not the young seaman seen that ugly dangerous place where the falling yard had smashed the dock in; and the owner had to thank the dogged hopeless bravery of his men for saving the brig even after the great leak was discovered. The “Wansbeck” is still running; but she has patent rigging and serviceable pumps, and probably her owner is not so much the object of unfriendly wishes.

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