ALONE IN THE CARIBBEAN
by Frederic Fenger
Item -- I order that my executors purchase a
large stone, the best that they can find, and place it upon my grave,
and that they write round the edge of it these words : -- "Here
lies the honorable Chevalier Diego Mendez, who rendered great services
to the royal crown of Spain, in the discovery and conquest of the
Indies, in company with the discoverer of them, the Admiral Don
Christopher Columbus, of glorious memory, and afterwards rendered other
great services by himself, with his own ships, and at his own cost. He
died. . . . He asks of your charity a Paternoster and an Ave Maria."
Item -- In the middle of the said stone let there
be the representation of a canoe, which is a hollowed tree, such as the
Indians use for navigation ; for in such a vessel did I cross
three hundred leagues of sea ; and let them engrave above it this
word : "CANOA."
From the will of Diego Mendez,
drawn up June 19th, 1536.
THE "YAKABOO" IS BORN AND THE CRUISE BEGINS
"Crab pas mache, il pas gras ; il mache trop,
et il tombe dans chodier."
"If a crab don't walk, he don't get fat ;
If he walk too much, he gets in a pot."
-- From the Creole.
IS IT in the nature of all of us, or is it just my own
peculiar make-up which brings, when the wind blows, that queer feeling,
mingled longing and dread? A thousand invisible fingers seem to be
pulling me, trying to draw me away from the four walls where I have
every comfort, into the open where I shall have to use my wits and my
strength to fool the sea in its treacherous moods, to take advantage of
fair winds and to fight when I am fairly caught -- for a man is a fool
to think he can conquer nature. It had been a long time since I had
felt the weatherglow on my face, a feeling akin to the numb forehead in
the first touch of inebriety. The lure was coming back to me. It was
the lure of islands and my thoughts had gone back to a certain room in
school where as a boy I used to muse over a huge relief map of the
bottom of the North Atlantic. No doubt my time had been better spent on
the recitation that was going on.
One learns little of the geography of the earth from a
school book. I found no mention of the vast Atlantic shelf, that
extended for hundreds of miles to seaward of Hatteras, where the sperm
whale comes to feed in the spring and summer and where, even while I
was sitting there looking at that plaster cast, terrific gales might be
screaming through the rigging of New Bedford whalers, hove-to and
wallowing -- laden with fresh water or grease according to the luck or
the skill of the skipper. Nor was there scarcely any mention of the
Lesser Antilles, a chain of volcanic peaks strung out like the notched
back of a dinosaur, from the corner of South America to the greater
islands that were still Spanish. Yet it was on these peaks that my
thoughts clung like dead grass on the teeth of a rake and would not
Now, instead of looking at the relief map, I was poring over
a chart of those same islands and reading off their names from Grenada
to tiny Saba. At my elbow was a New Bedford whaler who had cruised over
that Atlantic shelf at the very time I was contemplating it as a boy.
And many years before that he had been shipwrecked far below, on the
coast of Brazil. The crew had shipped home from the nearest port, but
the love of adventure was strong upon the captain, his father,* who
decided to build a boat from the wreckage of his vessel and sail in it
with his wife and two sons to New York. With mahogany planks sawed by
the natives they constructed a large sea canoe. For fastenings they
used copper nails drawn from the wreck of their ship's yawl, headed
over burrs made from the copper pennies of Brazil. Canvas, gear,
clothes, and food they had in plenty and on the thirteenth of May in
1888, it being a fine day, they put to sea. The son traced their course
with his finger as they had sailed northward in the strong trade winds
and passed under the lee of the Lesser Antilles. Later as a whaler, he
had come to know the islands more intimately. "Here !" said he,
pointing to the Grenadines, "you will find the niggers chasing humpback
whales." On Saint Vincent I should find the Carib living in his own way
at Sandy Bay. Another island had known Josephine, the wife of Napoleon,
and another had given us our own Alexander Hamilton. And there were
many more things which I should come to know when I my self should
cruise along the Lesser Antilles. We talked it over. After the manner
of the Carib, I would sail from island to island alone in a canoe. Next
to the joy of making a cruise is that of the planning and still greater
to me was the joy of creating the Yakaboo which should carry me. I
should explain that this is an expression use by Ellice Islanders**
when they throw something overboard and it means "Good-bye."
"Good-bye to civilization for a while," I thought, but later
there were times when I feared the name might have a more sinister
* Captain Joshua Slocum, who
the world alone in the sloop Spray.
** In the Pacific Ocean just north of the Fiji group.
So my craft was named before I put her down on paper. She
must be large enough to hold me and my outfit and yet light enough so
that alone I could drag her up any uninhabited beach where I might
land. Most important of all, she must be seaworthy in the real sense of
the word, for between the islands I should be at sea with no lee for
fifteen hundred miles. I got all this in a length of seventeen feet and
a width of thirty-nine inches. From a plan of two dimensions on paper
she grew to a form of three dimensions in a little shop in Boothbay and
later, as you shall hear, exhibited a fourth dimension as she gyrated
in the seas off Kick 'em Jinny. The finished hull weighed less than her
skipper -- one hundred and forty-seven pounds.
From a study of the pilot chart, I found that a prevailing
northeast trade wind blows for nine months in the year throughout the
Lesser Antilles. According to the "square rigger," this trade blows
"fresh," which means half a gale to the harbor-hunting yachtsman.
Instead of sailing down the wind from the north, I decided to avoid the
anxiety of following seas and to beat into the wind from the lowest
island which is Grenada, just north of Trinidad.
My first plan was to ship on a whaler bound on a long
voyage. From Barbados, where she would touch to pick up crew, I would
sail the ninety miles to leeward to Grenada. A wise Providence saw to
it that there was no whaler bound on a long voyage for months. I did
find a British trading steamer bound out of New York for Grenada. She
had no passenger license, but it was my only chance, and I signed on as
We left New York on one of those brilliant days of January
when the keen northwest wind has swept the haze from the atmosphere
leaving the air clear as crystal. It was cold but I stood with a
bravado air on the grating over the engine room hatch from which the
warm air from the boilers rose through my clothes. Below me on the dock
and fast receding beyond yelling distance stood a friend who had come
to bid me goodbye. By his side was a large leather bag containing the
heavy winter clothing I had sloughed only a few minutes before. The
warmth of my body would still be in them, I thought, as the warmth
clings to a hearth of a winter's evening for a time after the fire has
gone out. In a day we should be in the Gulf Stream and then for half a
year I should wear just enough to protect me from the sun. Suddenly the
tremble of the steamer told me of an engine turning up more revolutions
and of a churning propeller. The dock was no longer receding, we were
leaving it behind. The mad scramble of the last days in New York ;
the hasty breakfast of that morning ; the antique musty-smelling
cab with its pitifully ambling horse, uncurried and furry in the frosty
air, driven by a whisky-smelling jehu ; the catching of the ferry
by a narrow margin, were of a past left far behind. Far out in the
channel, that last tentacle of civilization, the pilot, bade us "good
luck" and then he also became of the Past. The Present was the
vibrating tramp beneath my feet and the Future lay on our course to the
On the top of the cargo in the forehold was the crated hull
of the Yakaboo, the pretty little "mahogany coffin," as they named her,
that was going to carry me through five hundred miles of the most
delightful deep sea sailing one can imagine. I did not know that the
Pilot Book makes little mention of the "tricks of the trades" as they
strike the Caribbean, and that instead of climbing up and sliding down
the backs of Atlantic rollers with an occasional smother of foam on top
to match the fleecy summer clouds, I would be pounded and battered in
short channel seas and that for only thirty of the five hundred miles
would my decks be clear of water. It is the bliss of ignorance that
tempts the fool, but it is he who sees the wonders of the earth.
The next day we entered the Gulf Stream where we were chased
by a Northeaster which lifted the short trader along with a wondrous
corkscrew motion that troubled no one but the real passengers -- a load
of Missouri mules doomed to end their lives hauling pitch in Trinidad.
On the eighth day, at noon, we spoke the lonely island of
Sombrero with its lighthouse and black keepers whose only company is
the passing steamer. The man at the wheel ported his helm a spoke and
we steamed between Saba and Statia to lose sight of land for another
day -- my first in the Caribbean. The warm trade wind, the skittering
of flying fish chased by tuna or the swift dorade, and the rigging of
awnings proclaimed that we were now well within the tropics. The next
morning I awoke with the uneasy feeling that all motion had ceased and
that we were now lying in smooth water. I stepped on deck in my pajamas
to feel for the first time the soft pressure of the tepid morning
breeze of the islands.
We lay under the lee of a high island whose green mass rose,
surf-fringed, from the deep blue of the Caribbean to the deep blue of
the morning sky with its white clouds forever coming up from behind the
mountains and sailing away to the westward. Off our port bow the grey
buildings of a coast town spread out along the shores and crept up the
sides of a hill like lichen on a rock. From the sonorous bell in a
church tower came seven deep notes which spread out over the waters
like a benediction. There was no sign of a jetty or landing place, not
even the usual small shipping or even a steamer buoy, and I was
wondering in a sleepy way where we should land when a polite English
voice broke in, "We are justly proud of the beautiful harbor which you
are to see for the first time I take it. "
I fetched up like a startled rabbit to behold a "West Indie"
gentleman standing behind me, "starched from clew to earing" as Captain
Slocum put it, and speaking a better English than you or I. It was the
harbormaster. I was now sufficiently awake to recall from my chart that
the harbor of St. George's is almost landlocked. As we stood and
talked, the clanking windlass lifted our stockless anchor with its load
of white coral sand and the steamer slowly headed for shore.
Carénage of St. George's Grenada
The land under a rusty old fort seemed to melt away before
our bows and we slipped through into the carénage of St.
George's. We crept in till we filled the basin like a toy ship in a
miniature harbor. From the bridge I was looking down upon a bit of the
old world in strange contrast, as my memory swung back across two
thousand miles of Atlantic, to the uncouth towns of our north. The
houses, with their jalousied windows, some of them white but more often
washed with a subdued orange or yellow, were of the French
régime, their weathered red tile roofs in pleasing contrast to
the strong green of the surrounding hills.
Here in the old days, ships came to be careened in order to
rid their bottoms of the dread teredo. Under our forefoot, in the
innermost corner of the harbor, pirate ships were wont to lie,
completely hidden from the view of the open sea. At one time this was a
hornets nest, unmolested by the bravest, for who would run into such a
cul-de-sac protected as it was by the forts and batteries on the hills
Moored stern-to along the quays, was a fleet of small
trading sloops, shabby in rig and crude of build, waiting for cargoes
from our hold. Crawling slowly across the harbor under the swinging
impulse of long sweeps, was a drogher piled high with bags of cocoa, a
huge-bodied bug with feeble legs.
Moored stern-to along the quays was a fleet of
small trading sloops, shabby in rig and crude of build.
Along the mole on the opposite side of the carénage
straggled an assortment of small wooden shacks, one and two-storied,
scarcely larger than play houses. Among these my eyes came to rest on
something which was at once familiar. There stood a small cotton
ginnery with shingled roof and open sides, an exact counterpart of a
corncrib. I did not then know that in this shed I should spend most of
my days while in St. George's.
The blast of our deep-throated whistle stirred the town into
activity as a careless kick swarms an anthill with life, and the busy
day of the quay began as we were slowly warped-in to our dock.
A last breakfast with the Captain and Mate and I was ashore
with my trunk and gear. The Yakaboo, a mere toy in the clutch of the
cargo boom, was yanked swiftly out of the hold and lightly placed on
the quay where she was picked up and carried into the customhouse by a
horde of yelling blacks. Knowing no man, I stood there for a moment
feeling that I had suddenly been dropped into a different world. But it
was only a different world because I did not know it and as for knowing
no man -- I soon found that I had become a member of a community of
colonial Englishmen who received me with open arms and put to shame any
hospitality I had hitherto experienced. As the nature of my visit
became known, I was given all possible aid in preparing for my voyage.
A place to tune up the Yakaboo? A young doctor who owned the little
ginnery on the far side of the carénage gave me the key and told
me to use it as long as I wished.
The market place of St. George's Grenada.
I now found that the cruise I had planned was not altogether
an easy one. According to the pilot chart for the North Atlantic, by
the little blue wind-rose in the region of the lower Antilles, or
Windward Islands as they are called, I should find the trade blowing
from east to northeast with a force of four, which according to
Beaufort's scale means a moderate breeze of twenty-three miles an hour.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found that the wind seldom blew
less than twenty miles an hour and very often blew a whole gale of
sixty-five miles an hour. Moreover, at this season of the year, I found
that the "trade" would be inclined to the northward and that my course
through the Grenadines -- the first seventy miles of my cruise -- would
be directly into the wind's eye.
I had been counting on that magical figure (30) in the
circle of the wind-rose, which means that for every thirty hours out of
a hundred one may here expect "calms, light airs, and variables." Not
only this, but, I was informed that I should encounter a westerly tide
current which at times ran as high as six knots an hour. To be sure,
this tide current would change every six hours to an easterly set
which, though it would be in my favor, would kick up a sea that would
shake the wind out of my sails and almost bring my canoe to a
Nor was this all. The sea was full of sharks and I was told
that if the seas did not get me the sharks would. Seven inches of
freeboard is a small obstacle to a fifteen-foot shark. Had the argument
stopped with these three I would at this point gladly have presented my
canoe to His Excellency the Governor, so that he might plant it on his
front lawn and grow geraniums in the cockpit. Three is an evil number
if it is against you but a fourth argument came along and the magic
triad was broken. If seas, currents, and sharks did not get me, I would
be overcome by the heat and be fever-stricken.
I slept but lightly that first night on shore. Instead of
being lulled to sleep by the squalls which blew down from the
mountains, I would find myself leaning far out over the edge of the bed
trying to keep from being capsized by an impending comber. Finally my
imagination having reached the climax of its fiendish trend, I reasoned
calmly to myself. If I would sail from island to island after the
manner of the Carib, why not seek out the native and learn the truth
from him ? The next morning I found my man, with the blood of the
Yaribai tribe of Africa in him, who knew the winds, currents, sharks,
the heat, and the fever. He brought to me the only Carib on the island,
a boy of sixteen who had fled to Grenada after the eruption in Saint
Vincent had destroyed his home and family.
From these two I learned the secret of the winds which
depend on the phases of the moon. They told me to set sail on the slack
of the lee tide and cover my distance before the next lee tide ran
strong. They pointed out the fever beaches I should avoid and told me
not to bathe during the day, nor to uncover my head -- even to wipe my
brow. I must never drink my water cold and always put a little rum in
it -- and a hundred other things which I did not forget. As for the
"shyark" -- "You no troble him, he no bodder you." "Troble" was used in
the sense of tempt and I should therefore never throw food scraps
overboard or troll a line astern. I also learned -- this from an
Englishman who had served in India -- that if I wore a red cloth, under
my shirt, covering my spine, the actinic rays of the sun would be
stopped and I should not be bothered by the heat.
It was with a lighter heart, then, that I set about to rig
my canoe -- she was yet to be baptized -- and to lick my outfit into
shape for the long cruise to the northward. I could not have wished for
a better place than the cool ginnery which the doctor had put at my
disposal. Here with my Man Friday, I worked through the heat of the day
-- we might have been out of doors for the soft winds from the hills
filtered through the open sides, bringing with them the dank odor of
the moist earth under shaded cocoa groves. Crowded about the wide-open
doors like a flock of strange sea fowl, a group of black boatmen made
innumerable comments in their bubbling patois, while their eyes were on
my face in continual scrutiny.
And now, while I stop in the middle of the hot afternoon to
eat delicious sponge cakes and drink numerous glasses of sorrel that
have mysteriously found their way from a little hut near by, it might
not be amiss to contemplate the Yakaboo through the sketchy haze of a
pipeful of tobacco. She did not look her length of seventeen feet and
with her overhangs would scarcely be taken for a boat meant for serious
cruising. Upon close examination, however, she showed a powerful
midship section that was deceiving and when the natives lifted her off
the horses -- "O Lard! she light!" -- wherein lay the secret of her
ability. Her heaviest construction was in the middle third which
embodied fully half of her total weight. With her crew and the heavier
part of the outfit stowed in this middle third she was surprisingly
quick in a seaway. With a breaking sea coming head on, her bow would
ride the foamy crest while her stern would drop into the hollow behind,
offering little resistance to the rising bow.
She had no rudder, the steering being done entirely by the
handling of the main sheet. By a novel construction of the centerboard
and the well in which the board rolled forward and aft on sets of
sheaves, I could place the center of lateral resistance of the canoe's
underbody exactly below the center of effort of the sails with the
result that on a given course she would sail herself. Small deviations
such as those caused by waves throwing her bow to leeward or sudden
puffs that tended to make her luff were compensated for by easing off
or trimming in the mainsheet. In the absence of the rudder-plane aft,
which at times is a considerable drag to a swinging stern, this type of
canoe eats her way to windward in every squall, executing a "pilot's
luff" without loss of headway, and in puffy weather will actually fetch
slightly to windward of her course, having more than overcome her drift.
She was no new or untried freak for I had already cruised
more than a thousand miles in her predecessor, the only difference
being that the newer boat was nine inches greater in beam. On account
of the increased beam it was necessary to use oars instead of the
customary double paddle. I made her wider in order to have a stiffer
boat and thus lessen the bodily fatigue in sailing the long channel
She was divided into three compartments of nearly equal
length -- the forward hold, the cockpit, and the afterhold. The two end
compartments were accessible through watertight hatches within easy
reach of the cockpit. The volume of the cockpit was diminished by one
half by means of a watertight floor raised above the waterline -- like
the main deck of a ship. This floor was fitted with circular metal
hatches through which I could stow the heavier parts of my outfit in
the hold underneath. The cockpit proper extended for a length of a
little over six feet between bulkheads so that when occasion demanded I
could sleep in the canoe.
Her rig consisted of two fore and aft sails of the canoe
type and a small jib.
An increasing impatience to open the Pandora's Box which was
waiting for me, hurried the work of preparation and in two weeks I was
ready to start. The Colonial Treasurer gave me a Bill of Health for the
Yakaboo as for any ship and one night I laid out my sea clothes and
packed my trunk to follow me as best it could.
On the morning of February ninth I carried my outfit down to
the quay in a drizzle. An inauspicious day for starting on a cruise I
thought. My Man Friday, who had evidently read my thoughts, hastened to
tell me that this was only a little "cocoa shower." Even as I got the
canoe alongside the quay the sun broke through the cloud bank on the
hill tops and as the rain ceased the small crowd which had assembled to
see me off came out from the protection of doorways as I proceeded to
stow the various parts of my nomadic home. Into the forward compartment
went the tent like a reluctant green caterpillar, followed by the pegs,
sixteen pounds of tropical bacon, my cooking pails and the "butterfly,"
a powerful little gasoline stove. Into the after compartment
disappeared more food, clothes, two cans of fresh water, fuel for the
"butterfly," films in sealed tins, developing outfit and chemicals,
ammunition, and that most sacred of all things -- the ditty bag.
Under the cockpit floor I stowed paint, varnish, and a
limited supply of tinned food, all of it heavy and excellent ballast in
the right place. My blankets, in a double oiled bag, were used in the
cockpit as a seat when rowing. Here I also carried two compasses, an
axe, my camera, and a chart case with my portfolio and log. I had also
a high-powered rifle and a Colt's thirty-eight-forty.
With all her load, the Yakaboo sat on the water as jaunty as
ever. The golden brown of her varnished topsides and deck, her green
boot-top and white sails made her as inviting a craft as I had ever
I bade good-bye to the men I had come to know as friends and
with a shove the canoe and I were clear of the quay. The new clean
sails hung from their spars for a moment like the unprinted leaves of a
book and then a gentle puff came down from the hills, rippled the
glassy waters of the carénage and grew into a breeze which
caught the canoe and we were sailing northward on the weather tide. I
have come into the habit of saying "we," for next to a dog or a horse
there is no companionship like that of a small boat. The smaller a boat
the more animation she has and as for a canoe, she is not only a thing
of life but is a being of whims and has a sense of humor. Have you ever
seen a cranky canoe unburden itself of an awkward novice and then roll
from side to side in uncontrollable mirth, having shipped only a bare
teacupful of water? Even after one has become the master of his craft
there is no dogged servility and she will balk and kick up her heels
like a skittish colt. I have often "scended" on the face of a
mountainous following sea with an exhilaration that made me whoop for
joy, only to have the canoe whisk about in the trough and look me in
the face as if to say, "You fool, did you want me to go through the
next one ?" Let a canoe feel that you are afraid of her and she will
become your master with the same intuition that leads a thoroughbred to
take advantage of the tremor he feels through the reins. At every puff
she will forget to sail and will heel till her decks are under. Hold
her down firmly, speak encouragingly, stroke her smooth sides and she
will fly through a squall without giving an inch. We were already
acquainted for I had twice had her out on trial spins and we agreed
upon friendship as our future status.
It has always been my custom to go slow for the first few
days of a cruise, a policy especially advisable in the tropics. After a
morning of delightful coasting past the green hills of Grenada, touched
here and there with the crimson flamboyant like wanton splashes from
the brush of an impressionist, and occasional flights over shoals that
shone white, brown, yellow and copper through the clear bluish waters,
I hauled the Yakaboo up on the jetty of the picturesque little coast
town of Goyave and here I loafed through the heat of the day in the
cool barracks of the native constabulary. I spent the night on the hard
canvas cot in the Rest Room.
It was on the second day that the lid of Pandora's Box
sprang open and the imps came out. My log reads : "After beating
for two hours into a stiff wind that came directly down the shore, I
found that the canoe was sinking by the head and evidently leaking
badly in the forward compartment. Distance from shore one mile. The
water was pouring in through the centerboard well and I discovered that
the bailing plugs in the cockpit floor were useless so that she
retained every drop that she shipped. I decided not to attempt bailing
and made for shore with all speed. Made Duquesne Point at 11 A.M.,
where the canoe sank in the small surf."
She lay there wallowing like a contented pig while I stepped
out on the beach. "Well!" she seemed to say, "I brought you ashore --
do you want me to walk up the beach?" A loaded canoe, full of water and
with her decks awash, is as obstinate as a mother-in-law who has come
for the summer -- and I swore.
My outfit, for the most part, was well protected in the
oiled bags which I had made. It was not shaken down to a working basis,
however, and I found a quantity of dried cranberries in a cotton bag --
a sodden mass of red. With a yank of disgust, I heaved them over my
shoulder and they landed with a grunt. Turning around I saw a six-foot
black with a round red pattern on the bosom of his faded cotton shirt,
wondering what it was all about. I smiled and he laughed while the loud
guffaws of a crowd of natives broke the tension of their long silence.
The West Indian native has an uncomfortable habit of appearing suddenly
from nowhere and he is especially fond of following a few paces behind
one on a lonely road. As for being able to talk to these people, I
might as well have been wrecked on the coast of Africa and tried to
hold discourse with their ancestors. But the men understood my trouble
and carried my canoe ashore where I could rub beeswax into a seam which
had opened wickedly along her forefoot.
The tall native whom I hit in the chest with the
bag of cranberries. On the beach at Duquesne Point.
Picturing a speedy luncheon over the buzzing little
"butterfly" I lifted it off its cleats in the forward compartment, only
to find that its arms were broken. The shifting of the outfit in the
seaway off shore had put the stove out of commission. I was now in a
land where only woodworking tools were known so that any repairs were
out of the question. I was also in a land where the sale of gasoline
was prohibited.* My one gallon of gasoline would in time have been
exhausted, a philosophical thought which somewhat lessened the sense of
my disappointment. And let this be a lesson to all travelers in strange
countries -- follow the custom of the country in regard to fires and
* On account of the danger of
its use in the hands of careless natives.
The breaking of the "butterfly" only hastened
my acquaintance with the delightful mysteries of the "coal" pot. Wood
fires are but little used in these islands for driftwood is scarce and
the green wood is so full of moisture that it can with difficulty be
made to burn. Up in the hills the carbonari make an excellent charcoal
from the hard woods of the tropical forests and this is burned in an
iron or earthenware brazier known as the coalpot.
By means of the sign language, which consisted chiefly in
rubbing my stomach with one hand while with the other I put imaginary
food into my mouth, the natives understood my need and I soon had one
of my little pails bubbling over a glowing coalpot.
The promise of rain warned me to put up my tent although I
could have been no wetter than I was. Food, a change of dry clothes and
a pipe of tobacco will work wonders at a time like this and as I sat in
my tent watching the drizzle pockmark the sands outside, I began to
feel that things might not be so bad after all. This, however, was one
of those nasty fever beaches against which my Man Friday had warned me,
so that with the smiling of the sun at three o'clock, I was afloat
again. The Yakaboo had been bullied into some semblance of tightness.
By rowing close along shore we reached Tangalanga Point without taking
up much water.
I was now at the extreme northern end of Grenada and could
see the Grenadines that I should come to know so well stretching away
to windward.** They rose, mountain peaks out of the intense blue of the
sea, picturesque but not inviting. As I looked across the channel,
whitened by the trade wind which was blowing a gale, I wondered whether
after all I had underestimated the Caribbean. Sauteurs lay some two
miles around the point and I now set sail for the first time in the
**In these parts northeast and
synonymous, also southwest and leeward.
In my anxiety lest the canoe should fill again I ran too
close to the weather side of the point and was caught in a combing sea
which made the Yakaboo gasp for breath. She must have heard the roar of
the wicked surf under her lee for she shouldered the green seas from
her deck and staggered along with her cockpit full of water till we
were at last safe, bobbing up and down in the heavy swell behind the
reef off Sauteurs. The surf was breaking five feet high on the beach
and I dared not land even at the jetty for fear of smashing the canoe.
A figure on the jetty motioned to a sloop which I ran
alongside. The outfit was quickly transferred to the larger boat and
the canoe tailed off with a long scope of line. In the meantime a
whaleboat was bobbing alongside and I jumped aboard. As we rose close
to the jetty on a big sea, a dozen arms reached out like the tentacles
of an octopus and pulled me up into their mass while the whaleboat
dropped from under me into the hollow of the sea.
Whatever my misfortunes may be, there is always a law of
compensation which is as infallible as that of Gravity. One of those
arms which pulled me up belonged to Jack Wildman, a Scotch cocoa buyer
who owned a whaling station on Île-de-Caille, the first of the
Grenadines. By the time we reached the cocoa shop near the end of the
jetty the matter was already arranged. Jack would send for his whalers
to convoy me to his island and there I could stay as long as I wished.
The island, he told me, was healthy and I could live apart from the
whalers undisturbed in the second story of his little whaling shack.
Here I could overhaul my outfit when I did not care to go chasing
humpbacks, and under the thatched roof of the tryworks I could prepare
my canoe in dead earnest for the fight I should have through the rest
of the islands.
That night I slept on the stiff canvas cot in the Rest Room
of the police station -- a room which is reserved by the Government for
the use of traveling officials, for there are no hotels or lodging
houses in these parts. From where I lay, I could look out upon the
channel bathed in the strong tropical moonlight. The trade which is
supposed to drop at sunset blew fresh throughout the night and by
raising my head I could see the gleam of white caps. For the first time
I heard that peculiar swish of palm tops which sounds like the
pattering of rain. Palmer, a member of the revenue service, who had
come into my room in his pajamas, explained to me that the low driving
mist which I thought was fog was in reality spindrift carried into the
air from the tops of the seas. My thoughts went to the Yakaboo bobbing
easily at the end of her long line in the open roadstead. All the
philosophy of small boat sailing came back to me and I fell asleep with
the feeling that she would carry me safely through the boisterous seas
of the Grenadine channel.
WHALING AT ÎLE-DE-CAILLE
THERE were thirteen of them when I landed on
Île-de-Caille -- the twelve black whalemen who manned the boats
and the negress who did the cooking -- and they looked upon me with not
a little suspicion.
What manner of man was this who sailed alone in a canoe he
could almost carry on his back, fearing neither sea nor jumbie, the
hobgoblin of the native, and who now chose to live with them a while
just to chase "humpbacks"? Jack Wildman was talking to them in their
unintelligible patois, a hopeless stew of early French and English
mixed with Portuguese, when I turned to José Olivier and
explained that now with fourteen on the island the spell of bad luck
which had been with them from the beginning of the season would end.
The tone of my voice rather than what I said reassured him.
"Aal roit," he said, "you go stroke in de Aactive
Between Grenada and Saint Vincent, the next large island to
the north, lie the Grenadines in that seventy miles of channel where
"de lee an' wedder toid" alternately bucks and pulls the northeast
trades and the equatorial current, kicking up a sea that is known all
over the world for its deviltry. Île-de-Caille is the first of
In this channel from January to May, the humpback whale,
megaptera versabilis, as he is named from the contour of his back,
loafs on his way to the colder waters of the North Atlantic. For years
the New Bedford whaler has been lying in among these islands to pick up
crews, and it is from him that the negro has learned the art of
catching the humpback.
In This Channel From January to May, the
Humpback Loafs On His Way to the Colder Waters of the North Atlantic.
While the humpback is seldom known to attack a boat, shore
whaling from these islands under the ticklish conditions of wind and
current, with the crude ballasted boats that go down when they fill and
the yellow streak of the native which is likely to crop out at just the
wrong moment, is extremely dangerous and the thought of it brings the
perspiration to the ends of my fingers as I write this story. One often
sees a notice like this : "May 1st, 1909. -- A whaleboat with a
crew of five men left Sauteurs for Union Island ; not since heard
The men were not drunk, neither was the weather out of the
ordinary. During the short year since I was with them* four of the men
I whaled with have been lost at sea. With the negro carelessness is
always a great factor, but here the wind and current are a still
greater one. Here the trade always seems to blow strongly and at times
assumes gale force "w'en de moon chyange."
*This was written in 1912.
This wind, together with the equatorial current, augments
the tide which twice a day combs through the islands in some places as
fast as six knots an hour.
During the intervals of weather tide the current is stopped
somewhat, but a sea is piled up which shakes the boat as an angry
terrier does a rat. It is always a fight for every inch to windward,
and God help the unfortunate boat that is disabled and carried away
from the islands into the blazing calm fifteen hundred miles to
leeward. For this reason the Lesser Antilles from Trinidad to
Martinique are known as the Windward Islands.
And so these fellows have developed a wonderful ability to
eat their way to windward and gain the help of wind and tide in towing
their huge catches ashore. Even a small steamer could not tow a dead
cow against the current, as I found out afterward. While the humpback
is a "shore whale," the more valuable deep-water sperm whale is also
seen and occasionally caught. True to his deep-water instinct he
usually passes along the lee of the islands in the deeper waters
entirely out of reach of the shore whaler who may see his spout day
after day only a few tantalizing miles away. A sperm whale which by
chance got off the track was actually taken by the men at Bequia, who
in their ignorance threw away that diseased portion, the ambergris,
which might have brought them thousands of dollars and kept them in rum
till the crack of doom.
As we stood and talked with José, my eyes wandered
over the little whaling cove where we had landed, almost landlocked by
the walls of fudge-like lava that bowled up around it. The ruined walls
of the cabaret, where in the days of Napoleon rich stores of cotton and
sugar were kept as a foil for the far richer deposit of rum and tobacco
hidden in the cave on the windward side, had their story which might
come out later with the persuasion of a little tobacco.
The tryworks, like vaults above ground with the old iron
pots sunk into their tops, gave off the musty rancid smell of whale oil
that told of whales that had been caught, while a line drying on the
rocks, one end of it frayed out like the tail of a horse, told of a
wild ride that had come to a sudden stop. But most interesting of all
were the men -- African -- with here and there a shade of Portuguese
and Carib, or the pure Yaribai, superstitious in this lazy atmosphere
where the mind has much time to dwell on tales of jumbie and
lajoblesse,* moody and sullen from the effects of a disappointing
season. So far they had not killed a whale and it was now the twelfth
* The spirits of negro women
who have died in illegitimate childbirth.
But even the natives were becoming uneasy in the heat of the
noon and at a word from José two of them picked up the canoe and
laid her under the tryworks roof while the rest of us formed a caravan
with the outfit and picked our way up the sharp, rocky path to the
level above where the trade always blows cool.
Here Jack had built a little two-storied shack, the upper
floor of which he reserved for his own use when he visited the island.
This was to be my home. The lower part was divided into two rooms by a
curtain behind which José, as befitting the captain of the
station, slept in a high bed of the early French days. In the other
room was a rough table where I could eat and write my log after a day
in the whaleboats, with the wonderful sunset of the tropics before me
framed in the open doorway.
Jack's Shack on Ile-de-Caille Where I Made
I later discovered that the fractional member of the
station, a small male offshoot of the Olivier family, made his bed on a
pile of rags under the table. We were really fourteen and a half. In
another sense he reminded me of the fraction, for his little stomach
distended from much banana and plantain eating protruded like the half
of a calabash. A steep stair led through a trap door to my abode above.
This I turned into a veritable conjurer's shop. From the spare line
which I ran back and forth along the cross beams under the roof, I hung
clothes, bacon, food bags, camera, guns and pots, out of the reach of
the enormous rats which overrun the island. On each side, under the low
roof, were two small square windows through which, by stooping, I could
see the Caribbean. By one of these I shoved the canvas cot with its net
to keep out the mosquitoes and tarantulas. I scarcely know which I
dreaded most. Bars on the inside of the shutters and a lock on the trap
door served to keep out those Ethiopian eyes which feel and handle as
well as look.
Near the shack was a cabin with two rooms, one with a bunk
for the cook. The other room was utterly bare except for wide shelves
around the sides where the whalemen slept, their bed clothing
consisting for the most part of worn out cocoa bags.
Almost on a line between the cabin and the shack stood the
ajoupa, a small hut made of woven withes, only partially roofed over,
where the cook prepared the food over the native coalpots. As I looked
at it, I thought of the similar huts in which Columbus found the
gruesome cannibal cookery of the Caribs when he landed on Guadeloupe. A
strange place to be in, I thought, with only the Scotch face of Jack
and the familiar look of my own duffle to remind me of the civilization
whence I had come. And even stranger if I had known that later in one
of these very islands I should find a descendant of the famous
St.-Hilaire family still ruling under a feudal system the land where
her ancestors lived like princes in the days when one of them was a
companion of the Empress Josephine.
Ajoupa - A Reminder of Carib Days
Even our meal was strange as we sat by the open doorway and
watched the swift currents eddy around the island, cutting their way
past the smoother water under the rocks. The jack-fish, not unlike the
perch caught in colder waters, was garnished with the hot little "West
Indie" peppers that burn the tongue like live coals. Then there was the
fat little manicou or 'possum, which tasted like a sweet little
suckling pig. I wondered at the skill of the cook, whose magic was
performed over a handful of coals from the charred logwood, in an iron
kettle or two. Nearly everything is boiled or simmered ; there is
little frying and hardly any baking.
With the manicou we drank the coarse native chocolate
sweetened with the brown syrupy sugar* of the islands. I did not like
it at first, there was a by-taste that was new to me. But I soon grew
fond of it and found that it gave me a wonderful strength for rowing in
the heavy whaleboats, cutting blubber and the terrific sweating in the
As early as 1695 Père Labat in his enthusiasm truly
said, "As for me, I stand by the advice of the Spanish doctors who
agree that there is more nourishment in one ounce of chocolate than in
half a pound of beef."
At sunset Jack left for Grenada in one of the whale boats,
and I made myself snug in the upper floor of the shack. Late that night
I awoke and looking out over the Caribbean, blue in the strong clear
moonlight, I saw the white sail of the returning whaleboat glide into
the cove and was lulled to sleep again by the plaintive chantey of the
whalemen as they sang to dispel the imaginary terrors that lurk in the
shadows of the cove.
"Blo-o-ows!" came with the sun the next morning, followed by
a fierce pounding on the underside of the trap door. Bynoe, the
harpooner, had scarcely reached the lookout on the top of the hill when
he saw a spout only two miles to windward near Les Tantes. The men were
already by the boats as I ran half naked down the path and dumped my
camera in the stern of the Active by "de bum (bomb) box," as
José directed. With a string of grunts, curses and "oh-hee's" we
got the heavy boats into the water and I finished dressing while the
crews put in "de rock-stone" for ballast. As we left the cove we rowed
around the north end of the island, our oars almost touching the steep
rocky shore in order to avoid the strong current that swept between
Caille and Ronde.
When José said, "You go stroke in de Aactive," I
little knew what was in store for me. The twenty-foot oak oar, carried
high above the thwart and almost on a line with the hip, seemed the
very inbeing of unwieldiness. The blade was scarcely in the water
before the oar came well up to the chest and the best part of the
stroke was made with the body stretched out in a straight line -- we
nearly left our thwarts at every stroke -- the finish being made with
the hands close up under our chins. In the recovery we pulled our
bodies up against the weight of the oar, feathering at the same time --
a needless torture, for the long narrow blade was almost as thick as it
was wide. Why the rowlock should be placed so high and so near the
thwart I do not know ; the Yankee whaler places the rowlock about
a foot farther aft.
While the humpbacker has not departed widely from the ways
of his teacher a brief description of his outfit may not be amiss. His
boat is the same large double-ended sea-canoe of the Yankee but it has
lost the graceful ends and the easy lines of the New Bedford craft.
Almost uncouth in its roughness, the well painted topsides, usually a
light grey with the black of the tarred bottom and boot-top showing,
give it a shipshape appearance ; while the orderly confusion of
the worn gear and the tarry smell coming up from under the floors lend
an air of adventure in harmony with the men who make up its crew.
Grenadine whaleboat showing bow and false-chock.
The harpoon is poised in the left hand and heaved with the right arm.
The crew of six take their positions beginning with the
harpooner in the bow in the following order : bow-oar, mid-oar,
tub-oar, stroke and boatsteerer. For the purpose of making fast to the
whale the harpooner uses two "irons" thrown by hand. The "iron" is a
sharp wrought iron barb, having a shank about two feet long to which
the shaft is fastened. The "first" iron is made fast to the end of the
whale line, the first few fathoms of which are coiled on the small
foredeck or "box." This is the heaving coil and is known as the "box
line." The line then passes aft through the bow chocks to the
loggerhead, a smooth round oak bitt stepped through the short deck in
the stern, around which a turn or two are thrown to give a braking
action as the whale takes the line in its first rush.
From the loggerhead, the line goes forward to the tub
amidships in which 150 fathoms are coiled down. The "second" iron is
fastened to a short warp, the end of which is passed around the main
line in a bowline so that it will run freely. In case of accident to
the first, the second iron may hold and the bowline will then toggle on
the first. Immediately after the whale is struck, the line is checked
in such a manner that the heavy boat can gather headway, usually
against the short, steep seas of the "trades," without producing too
great a strain on the gear. The humpbacker loses many whales through
the parting of his line, for his boat is not only heavily constructed
but carries a considerable weight of stone ballast "rock-stone" to
steady it when sailing. The Yankee, in a boat scarcely heavier than his
crew, holds the line immediately after the strike and makes a quick
killing. He only gives out line when a whale sounds or shows fight. He
makes his kill by cutting into the vitals of the whale with a long pole
lance, reserving the less sportsmanlike but more expeditious bomb gun
for a last resort, while the humpbacker invariably uses the latter.
The humpbacker under sail.
A jib and spritsail are carried, the latter having a gaff
and boom, becketed for quick hoisting and lowering. Instead of using
the convenient "tabernacle" by which the Yankee can drop his rig by the
loosening of a pin, the humpbacker awkwardly steps his mast through a
thwart into a block on the keel.
Unshipping the rig.
The strike may be made while rowing or under full sail,
according to the position of the boat when a whale is "raised." Because
of the position of its eyes, the whale cannot see directly fore and
aft, his range of vision being limited like that of a person standing
in the cabin of a steamer and looking out through the port. The whaler
takes advantage of this, making his approach along the path in which
the whale is traveling. The early whalemen called the bow of the boat
the "head," whence the expression, "taking them head-and-head," when
the boat is sailing down on a school of whales.
"Ease-de-oar!" yelled José, for we were now out of
the current, bobbing in the open sea to windward of Caille where the
"trade" was blowing half a gale. We shipped our oars, banking them over
the gunwale with the blades aft. The other boat had pulled up and it
was a scramble to see who would get the windward berth.
"You stan' af' an' clar de boom," he said to me, as the men
ran the heavy mast up with a rush while the harpooner aimed the foot as
it dropped through the hole in the thwart and into its step -- a shifty
trick with the dripping nose of the boat pointed skyward one instant
and the next buried deep in the blue of the Atlantic.
"Becket de gyaf -- run ou' de boom -- look shyarp!" With a
mighty sweep of his steering oar, José pried our stern around
and we got the windward berth on the starboard tack. One set of
commands had sufficed for both boats ; we were close together, and
they seemed to follow up the scent like a couple of joyous Orchas. Now
I began to understand the philosophy of "de rock-stone" for we slid
along over the steep breaking seas scarcely taking a drop of spray into
the boat. As I sat on the weather rail, I had an opportunity to study
the men in their element. The excitement of the start had been edged
off by the work at the oars. We might have been on a pleasure sail
instead of a whale hunt. In fact, there was no whale to be seen for "de
balen* soun'," as José said in explanation of the absence of the
little cloud of steam for which we were looking. Daniel-Joe, our
harpooner, had already bent on his "first" iron and was lazily throwing
the end of the short warp of his "second" to the main line while
keeping an indefinite lookout over the starboard bow. He might have
been coiling a clothesline in the back yard and thinking of the next
* From the French balein,
The bow-oar, swaying on the loose stay to weather, took up
the range of vision while we of the weather rail completed the
broadside. José, who had taken in his long steering oar and
dropped the rudder in its pintles, was "feeling" the boat through the
long tiller in that absent way of the man born to the sea. With a sort
of dual vision he watched the sails and the sea to windward at the same
time. "Wet de leach!" and "Cippie," the tub-oar, let himself down
carefully to the lee rail where he scooped up water in a large
calabash, swinging his arm aft in a quick motion, and then threw it up
into the leach to shrink the sail where it was flapping.
Time after time I was on the point of giving the yell only
to find that my eye had been fooled by a distant white cap. But finally
it did come, that little perpendicular jet dissipated into a cloud of
steam as the wind caught it, distinct from the white caps as the sound
of a rattlesnake from the rustle of dry leaves. It was a young bull,
loafing down the lee tide not far from where Bynoe had first sighted
Again he sounded but only for a short time and again we saw
his spout half a mile under our lee. We had oversailed him. As we swung
off the wind he sounded. In a time too short to have covered the
distance, I thought, José gave the word to the crew who
unshipped the rig, moving about soft-footed like a lot of big black
cats without making the slightest knock against the planking of the
We got our oars out and waited. Captain Caesar held the
other boat hove-to a little to windward of us. Then I remembered the
lee tide and knew that we must be somewhere over the bull. Suddenly
José whispered, "De wale sing!" I thought he was fooling at
first, the low humming coming perhaps from one of the men, but there
was no mistaking the sound. I placed my ear against the planking from
which it came in a distinct note like the low tone of a 'cello. While I
was on my hands and knees listening to him the sound suddenly ceased.
"Look!" yelled José, as the bull came up tail first, breaking
water less than a hundred yards from us, his immense flukes fully
twenty feet out of the water.
Time seemed to stop while my excited brain took in the
cupid's bow curve of the flukes dotted with large white barnacles like
snowballs plastered on a black wall, while in reality it was all over
in a flash -- a sight too unexpected for the camera. Righting himself,
he turned to windward, passing close to the other boat. It was a long
chance but Bynoe took it, sending his harpoon high into the air,
followed by the snaky line.
Once more we had the weather berth and bore down
on tem under full sail, Bynoe standing high up on the 'box', holding
A perfect eye was behind the strong arm that had thrown it
and the iron fell from its height to sink deep into the flesh aft of
the fin. As the line became taut, the boat with its rig still standing
gathered headway, following the whale in a smother of foam, the sails
cracking in the wind like revolver shots while a thin line of smoke
came from the loggerhead. Caesar must have been snubbing his line too
much, however, for in another moment it parted, leaving a boatload of
cursing, jabbering negroes a hundred yards or more from their starting
point. The bull left for more friendly waters. The tension of the
excitement having snapped with the line, a volley of excuses came down
the wind to us which finally subsided into a philosophical, "It wuz de
will ob de Lard."
Whaling was over for that day and we sailed back to the cove
to climb the rocks to the ajoupa where we filled our complaining
stomachs with manicou and chocolate. While we ate the sun dropped
behind the ragged fringe of clouds on the horizon and the day suddenly
ended changing into the brilliant starlit night of the tropics. Even if
we had lost our whale, the spell was at last broken for we had made a
strike. Bynoe' s pipe sizzled and bubbled with my good tobacco as he
told of the dangers of Kick 'em Jinny or Diamond Rock on the other side
The men drew close to the log where we were sitting as I
told of another Diamond Rock off Martinique of which you shall hear in
due time. Bynoe in turn told of how he had helped in the rescue of an
unfortunate from a third Diamond Rock off the coast of Cayan (French
Guiana) where the criminal punishment used to be that of putting a man
on the rock at low tide and leaving him a prey to the sharks when the
sea should rise. But there was something else on Bynoe's mind. The same
thing seemed to occur to Caesar, who addressed him in patois. Then the
harpooner asked me :
"An' you not in thees ilan' before?"
I lighted my candle lamp and spread my charts out on the
ground before the whalers. As I showed them their own Grenadines their
wonder knew no bounds Charts were unknown to them. Now they understood
the magic by which I knew what land I might be approaching -- even if I
had never been there before.
Most of the names of the islands are French or Carib ;
even the few English names were unknown to the men, who used the names
given to the islands before they were finally taken over by the
British. One which interested me was Bird Island, which they called
Mouchicarri, a corruption of Mouchoir Carré or Square
Handkerchief. This must have been a favorite expression in the old days
for a whitened shoal or a low lying island where the surf beats high
and white, for there is a Mouchoir Carré off Guadeloupe, another
in the Bahamas and we have our own Handkerchief Shoals. From the lack
of English names it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that it was a
Frenchman who first explored the Grenadines. Columbus, on his hunt for
the gold of Veragua, saw the larger islands of Grenada and Saint
Vincent from a distance and named them without having set foot on them.
Martinique was the first well established colony in the Lesser Antilles
and from that island a boatload of adventurers may have sailed down the
islands, naming one of the Grenadines Petit Martinique, from their own
island, because of its striking similarity of contour, rising into a
small counterpart of Pelée. Also, it was more feasible to sail
down from Martinique than to buck the wind and current in the long
channel from Trinidad.
As the fire in the ajoupa died down, the men drew closer and
closer to the friendly light of my candle, away from the spooky
shadows, and when I bade them good night they were behind the tightly
closed door and shutters of their cabin by the time I had reached my
roost in the top of the shack.
For several days after our first strike the cry of "blows"
would bring us "all standing" and we would put to sea only to find that
the whale had made off to windward or had loafed into those tantalizing
currents to leeward where we could see it but dared not follow. Finally
our chance came again -- and almost slipped away under our very noses.
We had been following a bull and a cow and calf since
sunrise. At last they sounded an hour before sunset. We had eaten no
food since the night before and all day long the brown-black almost
hairless calves of the men had been reminding me in an agonizing way of
the breast of roasted duck. The constant tacking back and forth, the
work of stepping and unshipping the rig, the two or three rain squalls
which washed the salt spray out of our clothes and made us cold, had
tired us and dulled our senses. Suddenly the keen Bynoe, with the eyes
of a pelican, gave the yell. There they were, scarcely a hundred yards
from us. The bull had gone his way. I was in Caesar's boat this time
and as Bynoe was considered the better of the two harpooners we made
for the calf and were soon fast.
If ever a prayer were answered through fervency our line
would have parted and spared this baby -- although it seems a travesty
to call a creature twenty-eight feet long a baby. But it was a baby
compared to its mother, who was sixty-eight feet long. As the calf was
welling up its life blood, giving the sea a tinge that matched the
color of the dying sun, the devoted mother circled around us, so close
that we could have put our second iron into her.
It is always this way with a cow and her calf. The first or
more skillful boat's crew secures the calf while the mother's devotion
makes the rest easy for the other boat. There was no slip this time and
the program was carried out without a hitch. José bore down in
the Active and Daniel-Joe sent his iron home with a yell. We stopped
our work of killing for the moment to watch them as they melted away in
the fading light, a white speck that buried itself in the darkness of
the horizon. It was an all-night row for us, now in the lee tide, now
in the weather tide, towing this baby -- a task that seemed almost as
hopeless as towing a continent. But we made progress and by morning
were back in the cove.
Having eaten three times and cut up the calf, we sailed for
Sauteurs late in the afternoon for news of José and the cow.
José's flight from Mouchicarri, where we had struck the whales,
had been down the windward coast of Grenada. We were met on the jetty
by Jack, who told us that the cow had been killed at the other end of
Grenada and would not start till the next noon. He had made
arrangements for the little coasting steamer, Taw, to tow the carcass
up from St. George's.
And so the cow would make the circuit of the island, the
first part very much alive, towing a crew of negroes half dead from
fright and the last of the way being towed very much dead. While we had
been rowing our hearts out, José and his crew had been streaking
it behind the whale, not daring to pull up in the darkness for the
At dawn they dispatched the weakened animal more than thirty
miles from their starting point. We learned later that, although the
wind and tide had been in their favor and as they neared shore other
boats had put out to reach them, they did not reach St. George's till
eleven the following night. They had made half a mile an hour.
As we turned in on the floor of Jack's cocoa shop, I began
to have visions of something "high" in the line of whale on the morrow.
I knew the Taw. She could not possibly tow the whale any faster than
three miles an hour and would not leave St. George's till one o'clock
the next day. The distance was twenty-one miles, so that by the time
she could be cut -- in the whale would have been dead three nights and
two days. I no longer regretted the wild night ride I had missed.
The next afternoon we were again in the whaleboat, Jack with
us. Our plan was to wait near London Bridge, a natural arch of rocks
half way between Sauteurs and Caille and a little to windward. We did
this to entice the captain of the Taw as far to windward as possible
for we were not at all certain that he would tow the whale all the way
to Île-de-Caille. If he brought the whale as far as London
Bridge, the two boats might be able to tow the carcass during the night
through the remaining three miles to the island so that we could begin
to cut-in in the morning.
So we sailed back and forth till at last, as the sun was
sinking, we made out the tiny drift of steamer smoke eight miles away.
They were not even making the three miles an hour and Bynoe said that
the tongue must have swollen and burst the lines, allowing the mouth to
open. We began to wonder why they did not cut off the ventral flukes
and tow the whale tail first. But the reason came out later.
The moon would be late, and we continued sailing in the
darkness without a light, lest the captain should pick us up too soon
and cast off the whale in mid-channel where ten whaleboats could not
drag her against the current which was now lee. We lost sight of the
steamer for an hour or so but finally decided that what we had taken
for a low evening star was her masthead light. In another hour we could
make out the red and green of her running lights. She was in the
clutches of the tide directly to leeward. She was also two miles off
her course and we began to wonder why the captain did not give up in
disgust and cast the whale adrift. We sailed down to find out.
First the hull of the steamer began to take shape in the
velvety darkness ; then as we swung up into the wind we made out
the whaleboat some distance astern. As the bow of the steamer rose on a
long sea, her after deck lights threw their rays on a low black object
upon which the waves were shoaling as on a reef. At the same instant a
stray whiff from the trade wind brought us the message. We were doubly
informed of the presence of the cow.
But it was not the cow that drew our attention. On the aft
deck, leaning far out, stood the captain. His features were distinct in
the beams of the range light. Suddenly he started as though he had seen
something. Then he bellowed, "Where in hell did you come from?"
"We've been waiting to windward for you ;
what's the trouble?"
"Trouble?" he shrieked, "trouble? -- your damned old whale
is fast and I can't get her off."
We guessed the rest. As Bynoe had predicted, the tongue had
swollen and burst the lashing that had held the mouth closed. Next the
towline had parted. This had happened shortly after the steamer left
St. George's and the men who were towing behind in their boat had
begged the captain to pass out his steel cable. He didn't know it but
it was here that he erred. The whalemen ran the cable through the jaw,
bending the end into a couple of hitches. When they started up again,
the hitches slipped back and jammed, making it impossible to untie the
Progress had been slow enough under the lee of Grenada but
when the steamer got clear of the land she felt the clutches of the
current and progress to the northward was impossible. He announced to
the pleading whalemen that he was sick of the job and was going to cut
loose. But he couldn't. There was not a tool aboard except the engine
room wrenches. Not even a file or a cold-chisel.
Jack asked him, "What are you going to do?"
"Me? -- it's your whale."
"Yes, but you've got it. I don't want it, it's too old
And old it was. The smell even seemed to go to windward. But
there was only one course left and twelve o'clock found us at Sauteurs,
the whale still in possession of the Taw.
The scene of our midnight supper in the cocoa shop that
night will long remain in my memory as one of those pictures so strange
and far off that one often wonders whether it was a real experience or
a fantasy suggested by some illustration or story long since forgotten.
We cooked in Jack's little sanctum, railed off at one end of the shop,
where the negress brings his tea in the morning and afternoon. At the
other end was the small counter with the ledger and scales that brought
out the very idea of barter. On the floor space between were bags of
cocoa and the tubs in which the beans are "tramped" with red clay for
the market. Two coils of new whale line and a bundle
I am firmly convinced that the next morning the odor from
that carcass opened the door, walked in and shook me by the shoulders.
No one else had done it and I sat up with a start. Shortly after, a
courier from the district board brought the following message : (I
use the word "courier" for it is the only time I ever saw a native run.)
ST. PATRICK'S DISTRICT BOARD, SECRETARY'S OFFICE,
24th, February, 1911. John S. Wildman, Esq.,
SIR : -- In the interest of sanitation, I am
instructed to request that the whale's carcass be removed from the
harbor within three hours after the service of this notice.
I have the honor to be, sir,
Your obedient servant, R.L.B.A., Warden.
We were not unwilling and had what was left of the cow towed
out into the current which would carry it far into the Caribbean where
for days the gulls could gorge themselves and scream over it in a white
cloud. At least that was our intention, but by a pretty piece of
miscalculation on the part of Bynoe the carcass fetched up under Point
Tangalanga where the last pieces of flesh were removed on the eighth
day after the whale's death.
Our work done at Sauteurs, we sailed back to Caille, where
we scrubbed out the boats with white coral sand to remove the grease,
dried out the lines and coiled them down in the tubs for the next whale.
My real ride behind a humpback came at last in that
unexpected way that ushers in the unusual. We were loafing one day near
Mouchicarri, lying-to for the moment in a heavy rain squall, when it
suddenly cleared, disclosing three whales under our lee. They were a
bull, a cow and a yawlin (yearling), with José close on their
track. Bynoe hastily backed the jib so that we could "haal aft" and we
made a short tack.
Just as we were ready to come about again in order to get a
close weather berth of the bull, the upper rudder pintle broke and our
chance slipped by. Why Caesar did not keep on, using the steering oar,
I do not know. Perhaps it was that yellow streak that is so dangerous
when one is depending on the native in a tight place, for we should
have had that bull. He was immense.
The rudder was quickly tied up to the stern post, but it was
only after two hours of tedious sailing and rowing that we were again
upon them. Once more we had the weather berth and bore down on them
under full sail, Bynoe standing high up on the "box," holding to the
forestay. Except for the occasional hiss of a sea breaking under us,
there was not a sound and we swooped down on them with the soft flight
of an owl.
As I stood up close to Caesar, I could see the whole of the
action. The three whales were swimming abreast, blowing now and then as
they rose from a shallow dive. The tense crew, all looking forward like
ebony carvings covered with the nondescript rags of a warehouse, seemed
frozen to their thwarts. Only one of us moved and he was Caesar, and I
noticed that he swung the oar a little to port in order to avoid the
bull and take the yawlin. I had guessed right about the yellow streak.
But even the yawlin was no plaything and as he rose right
under the bow the sea slid off his mountainous back as from a ledge of
black rock, a light green in contrast to the deep blue into which it
poured. The cavernous rush of air and water from his snout sprayed
Bynoe in the face as he drove the iron down into him. He passed under
us, our bow dropping into the swirl left by his tail and I could feel
the bump of his back through Caesar's oar.
I wondered for the moment if the boat would trip. There
seemed to be no turning, for the next instant the flying spray drove
the lashes back into my eyes and I knew we were fast. Blinded for the
moment I could feel the boat going over and through the seas,
skittering after the whale like a spoon being reeled in from a cast.
When I finally succeeded in wiping the lashes out of my eyes there was
nothing to be seen ahead but two walls of spray which rose from the
very bows of the boat, with Bynoe still clinging to the stay with his
head and shoulders clear of the flying water. There was no need to wet
the line ; the tub oar was bailing instead.
How the rig came down I do not know and I marvel at the
skill or the luck of the men who unshipped the heavy mast in that
confusion of motions, for my whole attention was called by the yelling
Caesar to the loggerhead, which somehow had one too many turns around
it. Caesar was busy with the steering oar, and the men had settled down
a little forward of midships to keep the boat from yawing. So I
committed the foolhardy trick of jumping over the line as it whizzed
past me in a yellow streak and, bracing myself on the port side, I
passed my hand aft along the rope with a quick motion and threw off a
turn, also a considerable area of skin, of which the salt water gave
sharp notice later.
The line was eased and held through this first rush. As the
whale settled down to steady flight we threw back that turn and then
another, till the tub emptied slower and slower and the line finally
came to a stop. We were holding. But we were still going ; it only
meant that the yawlin, having gone through his first spurt, had struck
his gait ; it was like a continuous ride in the surf. By this time
the boat was well trimmed and bailed dry.
"Haal een, now," came from Caesar, and I was again reminded
of the missing skin. By the inch first, then by the foot it came, till
we had hauled back most of our thousand feet of line. The walls of
spray had dropped lower and lower, till we could see the whale ahead of
us, his dorsal fin cutting through the tops of the waves. We were now
close behind his propelling flukes that came out of the water at times
like the screw of a freighter in ballast. Caesar told me to load "de
bum lance," and I passed the gun forward to Bynoe. He held it for a
moment in pensive indecision -- and then placed it carefully under the
He now removed the small wooden pin that keeps the line from
bobbing out of the bow chocks, and with the blunt end of a paddle he
carefully pried the line out of the chock so that it slid back along
the rail, coming to rest against the false chock about three feet abaft
the stem. We now swerved off to one side and were racing parallel to
the whale opposite his flukes. The bow four surged on the line while I
took in the slack at the loggerhead, Caesar wrestling frantically with
his steering oar that was cutting through the maelstrom astern.
We were now fairly opposite the yawlin, which measured
nearly two of our boat's length. It was one of those ticklish moments
so dear to the Anglo-Saxon lust for adventure -- even the negroes were
excited beyond the feeling of fear. But at the sight of the bomb gun,
as Bynoe took it out from under the box, a feeling of revulsion swept
over me and if it were not for the fatal "rock-stone," or the sharks
that might get us, I would have wished the gun overboard and a fighting
sperm off Hatteras on our line.
The yawlin continued his flight in dumb fear. Fitting his
left leg into the half-round of the box, the harpooner raised his gun
and took aim. Following the report came the metallic explosion of the
bomb inside the whale. Our ride came to an end almost as suddenly as it
had begun ; the yawlin was rolling inert at our side, having
scarcely made a move after the shot. The bomb had pierced the arterial
reservoir, causing death so quickly that we missed the blood and gore
which usually come from the blow-hole in a crimson fountain with the
dying gasps of the whale. Bynoe explained that one could always tell if
the vital spot had been reached :
"If he go BAM! he no good. W'en he go CLING! de balen mus
stop." His way of expressing it was perfect, for the "cling" was not
unlike the ringing hammer of trapped air in a steam pipe, but fainter.
Luck was with us this time, for we were well to windward of
Caille, with a tide that was lee to help us home.
But it was my last whale at Île-de-Caille, and after
we had cut him in and set his oily entrails adrift I turned once more
to the Yakaboo. I had had enough of humpbacking and one night I packed
my outfit and smoked for the last time with the men.
The immense intestines and bladders that looked
like a fleet of balloons come to grief.