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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter IV. — Appearance of the Seals - The Auckland Islands -a Night of Anguish - the Shipwreck

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Chapter IV.
Appearance of the Seals - The Auckland Islands -a Night of Anguish - the Shipwreck.

The wind still blows from the west; though light, it comes off the land, and issues from the bay in little gusts. The schooner, with every stitch of canvas set, skims the waters merrily. A few tacks bring us between the two headlands where the sea is comparatively calm. George is at the helm; Alick, leaning forward from the foreshrouds, to which he is fastened by a rope round the waist, from time to time flings out the lead; while Harry, in the kitchen, is getting dinner ready. Musgrave, through his telescope, carefully surveys the coast. Suddenly he comes to me with a radiant countenance.

"Good news!" he exclaims; "if I am not mistaken, shall find here what we sought for vainly at Campbell Island. I am not quite sure, on account of the distance, but I think I see a large number of seals on the rocks of the shore. Look for yourself;" and he handed me the telescope.

As, from the point where I was placed, I overlooked the ship's bulwarks, and as every moment brought us nearer and nearer to the coast, I soon made out with satisfactory distinctness numerous black bodies stretched upon the rocks.

"There is no longer any doubt," I said, "they are seals; one has just lifted up his head; they are very numerous;" and, fatigued, I returned to Musgrave his telescope.

As the day was exceptionally warm and beautiful for these parts, the amphibia, stretched in the sunshine, slept on the rocky escarpments; some at the very edge of the water, others raised considerably above it, at heights to which you would have thought it hardly possible that animals so unwieldy in appearance could attain. A few, swimming in the waters of the bay, were hunting for food.

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The movement we made in putting about, the noise of the sails shaken by the wind, and the grinding of the pulleys, aroused several of the sleepers, and they plunged into the sea. In a moment a crowd of them surrounded the schooner, which they regarded evidently with astonishment and terror, not venturing to approach too near: they formed around her a circle which not one of them was hardy enough to break, though they frequently uttered a peculiar noise, as if irritated at our invasion of their domain.

The second time we put about we discovered an equal number on the opposite coast. It was evident that they inhabited the island in scores. This fact inspired all of us with pleasure, and we resolved to stay for a few days only — just long enough to fill our casks with oil and salt some skins — then to return as quickly as possible to Sydney, without frightening the seals too greatly, and again to revisit the island, accompanied by twenty five or thirty men, to organise a settlement, and hunt these animals on an extended scale.

Each tack carried us further into the bay, which, from its mouth, broadened continually as it penetrated inland for some four to five miles. It was then contracted anew by a conspicuous peninsula-like promontory, which rose above the waters like a mountain, and whose summit was not less than 500 feet high: we afterwards christened it Musgrave Peninsula.

With a sounding-line of 130 feet, having six pounds of lead at its extremity, Alick continued to seek the bottom, without finding it anywhere, even within 200 feet of the shore. This gives us a little anxiety, for as the breeze continues to fall, and a dead calm seems likely to come on, we are desirous of dropping anchor before night.

The sun had just sunk behind the mountains, and I had returned into my cabin, where for two hours I enjoyed one of those sound sleeps which convalescence procures us, when I was aroused by Musgrave, who had come down to observe the barometer.

"I don't know," he said, "what is brewing, but the weather has suddenly changed, and the sky is black heavy clouds. As the barometer has not fallen, I hope it only portends rain. I confess, however, I would rather be out in the open than between these two headlands. If a little wind rises, we may manage to keep the middle of the bay and wait for daylight, since we cannot drop anchor; but in this calm we are completely at the mercy of the tide."

"In fact," I answered, "the ebb or flow may very well throw us on some rocky point, which the obscurity of the night will prevent us from discovering."

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"A single circumstance tranquillises me," replied Musgrave; "namely, that the noise of the swell on the shore is still distant. While it remains so I shall feel tolerably certain that we are keeping nearly in mid-channel."

He kindled his pipe, and again went upon deck, when I could hear him marching to and fro above my head for some time.

As I was once more falling asleep, notwithstanding my sense of our critical situation, I was again awakened by the noise of the rain, which fell in torrents. I could also hear the voice of Musgrave shouting out his orders, whence I conjectured that the wind had risen.

All night it rained incessantly. At daybreak we found ourselves off the peninsula, and could see a long sheet of water stretching away to the south and then bending eastward, while another arm of the bay was thrown off in a northerly direction. We chose the latter passage.

But no sooner had we doubled the point of the promontory than we saw that the bay again bifurcated into a couple of branches. Continuing a northerly course, we soon entered a magnificent basin, girdled on all sides except the west by lofty mountains: on the west the range was broken by a deep depression, which a small eminence divided into two narrow valleys, each watered by a brooklet whose tribute was poured into the bay.

Everywhere the coast was lined with irregular cliffs, almost precipitous, but not above thirteen to thirty-five feet in height. Here and there a few spots of verdure attracted the eye: these were beds of marine plants, indicating the presence of reefs of rock level with the surface of the water. In the recesses of the little creeks we saw some patches of pebbly beach, but sands nowhere.

About 3 p.m. the rain ceased, the wind blew more strongly and the schooner continued to make way along the coast. We gained at length a little bay (which afterwards named Wreck Bay), where, having found the bottom and dropped anchor in seven fathoms of water, my weary companions prepared to take some rest. It was only a temporary anchorage; we intended, as soon as day broke, to seek another where we should be less exposed. Unfortunately, two hours later we were compelled to throw out a second anchor to steady us against a sudden gust of wind from the north-west.

We soon saw that we were in the worst situation possible; so long as the wind remained in the west the danger was imminent. In fact, we were anchored so close in-shore that we had scarcely space to veer upon our anchors without going upon the rocks. We at first thought of cutting our cables and beating out into the open channel until the gale was over; but page 46we were not long in recognising that we could not do so without exposing ourselves to a still greater danger, for a little lower down was a projecting point on which the schooner would infallibly drift before she obtained sufficient way to answer readily to her helm. We preferred, therefore, to remain where we were until day break, which might probably bring with it a change of weather, or at least enable us to realise our situation more plainly.

Every now and then it seemed as if the wind, which blew with great violence, would sink a little, but it never failed to spring up again with even more than its former fury.

At 10.30 p.m., after one of those intervals in which the genius of the storm seems to rest a moment only to take breath, a hurricane of excessive fury, bringing with it a tremendous rain, or rather a waterspout of salt water which it had gathered up in passing, struck the schooner heavily. At this moment I heard the voice of Alick in the forecastle, exclaiming that one of the chains had broken. This news plunged us into profound consternation. Thenceforth, a single anchor (we had no other to let go) being insufficient to hold us, we began to drift ashore.

It was at midnight that we felt the first shock; it was slight, but those which succeeded became stronger and stronger as we advanced towards the rocks. Each new collision struck home to our hearts; it was the more indubitable announcement of the melancholy fate reserved for us.

Yet there was still a gleam of hope. We had touched at low-water, and the flow, which now rose rapidly, every moment brought more water under our keel. The storm, too, somewhat subsided during the few hours that the tide lasted. Moreover, the Grafton was so well built, and her framework was so solid, that, in spite of blows it had already received, her hulk had not shown as yet the slightest sign of leaking.

Alas! This last hope was soon snatched from us; instead of diminishing, the storm increased; the wind blew a hurricane, which, as the tide rose, drove us nearer to the coast.

After a few seconds, a shock more terrible than any of its predecessors made the vessel shiver from stem to stern; a frightful crash fell upon our ears — the disaster so much dreaded had come about! The keel had struck a rock, which had carried away a portion of it; the next day we found its fragments on the beach. The sea pouring in through the gap, very quickly filled the interior of the vessel, which thenceforth remained fixed in its position. But, on the other hand, the waves, dashing furiously against her broadside, and, leaping upwards, swept clean her deck, or carried away some portion of her bulwarks. We had scarcely time to bring up from page 47
"Alick Reached a Rocky Point, to Which he Firmly Clung"

"Alick Reached a Rocky Point, to Which he Firmly Clung"

page 48below the small supply of provisions still remaining, our instruments of navigation, and private effects. These articles were fastened firmly against the hatchway of the poop-cabin, which was the least exposed part of the vessel. We covered them with a sheet of pitched canvas, under a fold of which we five, wet and benumbed, sat, huddled up together, waiting anxiously for daybreak.

As it was still the very heart of the southern summer, we had the satisfaction, at the end of an hour of seeing the first rays of morning.

An hour! It is but a trifle to him who spends it in the security of ordinary life; but in our horrible situation, exposed every moment to be torn from our refuge and hurled into the sea — in other words, infallibly drowned, or dashed against the rocks — with what hopeless slowness lingered away the minutes!

As soon as day broke, my comrades crept from underneath the sail to cast a glance around. The wind was raging with undiminished fury; the rain continued to fall, or rather to smite, and lash, and strike, almost horizontally. At intervals a strong gust raised up enormous billows, and carried the foam in a dense cloud to the height of several feet. On either side of the schooner the wild sea leaped and tumbled, to dash its waves against the rocky shore, from which we were distant not more than sixty yards. In the narrow channel which separated us from the land it was less agitated; the Grafton, now reduced to a mere waif and stray, barred the passage of the waves, which she received upon herself and thus protected that part of the coast to some extent from their fury.

Our canoe, a frail shell, about thirteen feet long by four and a half broad, and some two feet in depth, built of planks of cedar less than an inch in thickness, was slung by stout ropes above the main scuttle of the schooner, its usual place. Though of light construction, being slung with its keel uppermost, it had formed a solid arch, and defied the assaults of the billows. We had now to unmoor it and get it afloat, that we might row ashore. This task was full of danger, but it offered us our only chance of safety; for we trembled every moment lest the Grafton should yield to the persistent efforts of the waves, which seemed bent on shattering her into atoms.

Without worse accidents than a few contusions, my companions succeeded in launching it overboard. A moment after, she was floating securely under the lee of the vessel.

Though I was of no more use than the shattered wreck they were on the point of quitting, my companions would not abandon me. As soon as they had put on board the skiff a portion of the articles saved from below, they page 49assisted me into it, and then took their own places.

Musgrave now selected one of the longest ropes he could find, and fastened it to an iron ring fixed in the Grafton's broadside; this he allowed to uncoil and slip between his hands until we had arrived sufficiently near the rocks; then he knotted it to the stern of the boat, in such a manner that the latter, in spite of the wind and sea which forced her towards the shore, could not go any further. This done, Alick took a second rope, one end of which he attached to the boat's bow, and having fastened the other end round his body, at the peril of his life he leaped into the waves.

This was a moment of terrible anxiety, for our safety wholly depended on Alick's strength and skill; but the latter, under his apparent inertness, concealed a valiant heart, and, like most of his countrymen, was a good swimmer. The sea tumbled and boiled around him, yet we could see that he never lost his presence of mind; he gave the wave time to expend itself, and then, with two vigorous strokes, he reached a rocky point, to which he firmly clung. As soon as the wave receded, and before another could overtake him, he climbed to a more elevated rock, above the reach of the waters. A moment afterwards, his rope was securely wound about the trunk of a tree standing near the shore.

From this tree to the boat, the cord, when fully stretched, was rather abruptly inclined. By means of a pulley, to which were fixed two ends of rope, one of which was thrown to Alick, and the other retained in our skiff, we first passed to our comrade the pitched canvas; this he arranged round the trunk of a tree, in the form of a tent, and under it he deposited the various articles which we kept sending up to him. At length my turn came: Musgrave took me on his back, where he bound me firmly, and seizing the pulley, he sprang over the gunwale.

Considerably heavier than any of the packages which had preceded us, we caused the rope to sink to a great extent, yet not so much but that it kept us above the breakers. The traject, or rather the ascent, was not accomplished without difficulty and danger; at one moment, Musgrave, exhausted with fatigue, was on the point of letting go his hold — and being tied together, both of us must have perished, had not Alick hastened to our assistance, and helped us to climb the rocks.

Finally, George and Harry joined us by the same troublesome route. As for the boat, we left it where it was, securely moored to the rope.

Inasmuch as it could hold only a small number of articles, we took with us simply the most indispensable; the others remained on the deck of the Grafton, fastened to the hatchway, and covered with a piece of tarred sailcloth. They consisted of several bags of salt; Musgrave's chest, page 50
"The Traject, or Rather the Ascent, was Not Accomplished Without Difficulty and Dancer."

"The Traject, or Rather the Ascent, was Not Accomplished Without Difficulty and Dancer."

page 51containing his charts, instruments of navigation, and the greater portion of his effects; mine, in which were my gun and sextant; a chest we had filled with useful domestic articles, such as plates, knives, and forks; and a large iron pot, originally intended to melt the fat of the seals we felt so sure of killing.

Naturally, we had carried with us, in preference to these what remained of our supply of provisions: a small cask, containing nearly one hundred pounds of biscuit, and another which still held about fifty pounds of flour; nearly two pounds of tea, and three of coffee, enclosed in a couple of tin boxes; a little sugar, say one dozen pounds; a small quantity of salt meat, half a dozen (at the most) pieces of beef and two of pork; half a bottle of mustard; nearly a pound of pepper; a little salt; six pounds of American tobacco, which belonged to Musgrave and myself, but which we shared impartially with our companions; and a small iron tea-kettle, which Harry, our cook, made use of for boiling fresh water.