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Authors: J. Clayton Rogers

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The strange ship captivated Oates.  Who would dare sail it blindly through the mightiest fleet in the Western Hemisphere, disregarding all the rules--the common courtesy of the sea--at their own peril?

"
Ahoy
! Captain of the schooner! Show yourself!"

Midshipman Davis heard the captain bellowing as he raced past his station.  He watched as Oates huffed down the deck in his thick wool socks, his long johns flapping out the back of his trousers like a pair of deflated water wings.

"What's up?" one of the gunners asked him.

"We're not shooting, that's all I know," Davis sighed.  He did not bother putting his hand back over the trigger, but leaned back and folded his arms in disgust.

By the time Oates had run the length of the ship, he was nearly faint.  For a few moments he stared incredulously at the schooner.  How had she pulled so far ahead?  Then he realized the illusion of what he was seeing.  She was not pulling ahead, but away.  It was a result of the course he himself had set.  The
Florida
had begun to go in a circle.

There was a loud snap overhead and he jumped back with a shout.

Damn. It was the flag!  He was standing under the large ensign at the bow.

He glanced around to see if anyone had observed his reaction and found his exec and the senior officer of the watch staring straight at him.

"Sir... your pants are down," said Grissom.

The composure Oates had lost while pursuing the schooner abruptly returned. 
Well... there.  My pants are down.  By Godfrey, I must be a hell of a sight. 
With the waist of the trousers halfway down his buttocks, the wonder of it was not that he'd not noticed, but that he had not fallen flat.

"Thank you," he said.  With great dignity, he drew his pants up, packing his long johns in with a couple of deep shoveling sweeps of his hands.

"Uh... where's Dr. Singleton?"

Grissom's response was cut off by a shout from the watch officer.

The world suddenly exploded with light.

"The
Minnesota
."

Deciding that he'd swung out far enough to avoid collision, Captain Hubbard of the
Minnesota
had begun easing back into formation... only to find the
Florida
running straight for him.

Captain Oates and the two officers raced for the bridge.

There was a great deal more clanging and frantic signaling that night before the divisions regained formation.  In Captain Oates' case, the situation was not improved by the fact that the
Minnesota
was the flagship of Rear Admiral Thomas, commander of the Third Division.  True, the
Minnesota
had nearly rammed the
Florida
first.  But in matters of rank, precedence had no standing.  Thomas took a thorough verbal thrashing from Admiral Evans.  As a consequence, Captain Oates received a crushing reprimand from Thomas.  Oates could not bring himself to reprove his exec, who was blameless, so he banned Dr. Singleton from the bridge.  None of which helped Oates, who the next day found his ship placed in the observation ward.

And none of which changed the fact that when the sun rose and the fog cleared and the ships of the Atlantic Fleet were sorted out, the mystery schooner was long gone.

And unexplained.

 

VI

 

1905 - 1907  California Current, West Wind Drift, Alaska Current

 

Only once did Tremblin' Chandry try to give up whaling.

When gold was discovered in Kotzebue, the passenger trade skyrocketed.  Pickings were fat on the gold run.  Having grown weary of whale blood and shiftless hands, Chandry hired himself out as skipper on a steamer of the Northern Lights Line.  Before shipping out with his first load of passengers, he spent a week tearing through the blind tigers and gambling dens of the Barbary Coast.  While absorbing alcohol in prodigious quantities,
he also gleaned information from captains who had already worked the route.  The technical details little concerned him.  Men who sailed passenger ships were no better than freshwater sailors, in his estimation.  Always hugging the coast, seeing no more ice then a berg or two, these lubbers didn't know that north was neither true nor relative--not in the nautical sense and certainly not in the gut sense.  It was blinding, endless night.  It was blowing ice with dynamite and praying it loosened enough that you could free your ship.  It was the very end and the very beginning, and if you couldn't actually see the planet cascading down from the soles of your feet, the compass told you it was so.  North! What did they know of it?  They probably drank piss and thought it first beer.

They did, however, offer useful tidbits.

He learned that Kotzebue Sound could not be entered by any deep draft vessels; they had to anchor outside the shoals and wait until lighters and other shallow-bottom boats came out to pick up the passengers and cargo.  Between poor communications and adverse tides, that could sometimes take more than a week.

The miners on board would be gamy with anticipation.  They'd heard that sailors up the sound found gold on their mudhooks when they hauled them in.  They went mad with the idea and more than one load of passengers had overwhelmed the crew and foundered on the shoals while trying to take a ship in.

This said everything skippers needed to know about prospectors.  Men maddened by gold lust were more dangerous than men plagued by thirst.  Hence, they took the illegal step of drilling holes in their water casks, creating artificial shortages.  The crews approved of this, so long as they could stash their own canteens out of sight during the parched interim.

"After a week offshore they're damn near comatose," one captain told Chandry.  "Quiet as lambs when the boats take 'em off."

That was all Chandry needed to hear.  He staggered to his ship that very night and hammered holes in the water casks.  Next morning, the first mate roused him.

"Captain, we got vandals been on board.  Put holes in our--"

Trembling as he sat up--his mornings, after all, had given him his name--he cut the First off.  "Passengers all aboard?"

"Yes."

"Then set sail, and don't forget to drop the pilot off."  Then he fell back on his cot, asleep before his head hit his greasy pillow.

Chandry felt he understood the prospectors better than most because he understood a breed of man more desperate than the miners of Kotzebue and the Klondike.  In their way, the whalers were little different from the gold miners at Kotzebue and the Klondike.  In the days of sail, ships were forever getting boxed in the upper reaches of the Bering Sea, between Wrangell Island and Point Barrow.  Countless men had perished in search of the final barrel of whale oil, the final strip of baleen, the final dollar.  One had only to see what Chandry had seen at Franklin Point and Icy Cape to understand whalers.  The shores there were littered with the corpses of whales cut lose at the last moment, when skippers discovered they'd ventured too far into the ice packs, that their kills were worthless because they themselves were about to die.  Most of the whale bodies were headless, the result of quick decapitations as the whalers took the most precious oil (stored in the whales' heads) as insurance against the possibility that they might, after all, survive.

With the coming of steam, trammeling the southern ice packs had become much simpler, almost child's play.  Yet again, greed reared up, and did not blink or flinch.  Once the whalers realized they were comparatively safe in their old hunting grounds, they started to go even further north, into Mackenzie Bay and the Beaufort Sea.  They went as far as Baring Land and Prince Albert Land--even Melville Sound. And of course, the old dangers returned.  Even steamships could not break the harsh grip of the northernmost reaches once they were caught.  Crew after crew became stranded on ice which could be either land or hidden ocean.  There were stations that far north.  The one at Point Barrow was responsible for saving hundreds of lives.  And eccentrics lived up there
-
-
"naturalists" they were called
-
-
who got a peculiar thrill out of studying the Eskimos.  They, too, had done their share in saving stranded whalers.  The Eskimos had rescued many an ice
-
bound sailor.  Yet there were hostile natives, also.  There was a long
-
standing feud between the mariners and some of the Eskimo tribes, who had been treated badly by early whalers.  A few crews had been slaughtered after their ships had become trapped in ice.

Come and go, here and there, life was precarious above the Circle.

Oh, the prospectors were a tough breed. But Chandry had seen tougher. On the rare occasions he bothered to look in the mirror, for one.  But Chandry made a crucial miscalculation.  He could not treat would-be prospectors like members of a whaling crew.  His passengers grew thirstier by the day, then by the hour.  It seemed his swinging arm had been a tad too heavy the night he knocked holes in the water butts.  They were still a hundred miles south of Juneau when a near-riot broke out and Chandry slapped a few faces.

The ordeal ended only after an agonizing three-day wait off Kotzebue.  But that was not the end of the journey.  Not legally, for Chandry was served with a Summons the instant he stepped back on shore in San Francisco.  It seemed one of the faces he had slapped had belonged to a lawyer, of all things, and that the lawyer had wired a friend about the incident. Naturally, the friend was also a lawyer.  Soon, Chandry sensed the vile stench of legality rising about him.  Nothing good could come of it, so he quit his job and took the next train east.

All he knew was whaling.  So he signed on with Fitch & Stern in New York and was soon to sea again.  Unfortunately, Chandry's brush with the legal system did not serve as a strong enough warning.

There was a provision in the captain's contract with the owners for 'bottomary bonding,' a clause common in the whaling industry.  If a ship was damaged in such a way as to threaten the completion of a cruise, the captain could make the nearest port for repairs.  Since no skipper wanted the money for the work to come out of pocket--and since there was rarely any money in that pocket in any event--he was allowed to sign on the owners' account.  If the owners' credit was good, the ship was allowed to leave before the fee was settled so that the season would not be lost.

That December, Chandry put into Victoria--to give his crew some time on shore after a difficult passage, he said.  They assumed he was lying and that he'd dropped anchor in the Canadian harbor in order to restock his rum.  They were stunned when the second mate told them he had gone straight to a loan office and taken out a bottomary loan, using the owners' names as surety.  The
Lydia
Bailey
?  In need of major repair?  This was news to the crewmen.  It was just like the second mate to sneak around behind the captain.  But his information was too stunning to ignore.  If the captain was caught stealing from the owners, where did that leave the crew?

Tremblin' Chandry was living in a haze.  But one day in a Victoria flop house, when the sun broke in and he awoke in a heap, he spent a near-sober hour contemplating what he'd done.  He might spend the rest of his life in jail.  There was only one solution: the rest of the cruise had to be a smashing success.

With that idea in mind, he got drunk again and set out to sea.

After entering the northern hunting grounds, the
Lydia
Bailey
came upon some humpbacks off Banks Island.  Chandry ordered full steam for the chase.

They were about fifty yards from the whales, bow guns primed and ready, when a loud screech rattled down the length of the ship.  There was no violent jarring, nor were men thrown off their feet--only a gentle "thunk" at the end.  An inspection belowdecks showed no sign of damage to the hull, yet the rudder behaved sluggishly and Chandry came to the sick realization that the pintles had been damaged.

One of the prerequisites of a successful cruise was a helm that answered handily.  After striking the hidden ice floe, it took the
Lydia
Bailey
half an hour just to turn.  Dreams of wealth and redemption descended into nightmares of prison poverty.  Chandry pulled his wool cap over his head, listened to the wind-chant of the funnel guys, and peered bleakly at the eternal day.

On a few occasions Chandry ventured to lower the boats.  Instead of firing a harpoon cannon from the high safety of the bow, the crew now had to chase their prey in whaleboats, rowing the boatsteerers close enough to heave their bomb-rigged harpoons.  But the results were meager.  This foray into their fathers' mode of whaling left the crewmen gasping and blistered.  They had not shipped on for this kind of work.  The articles they'd signed did not specify hour after hour of being hunched over oars and straining their guts out.

 

To this misery one far more personal had been added to the life of young William Pegg, deckhand.  The
Lydia
Bailey
had its full complement of disreputable characters.  No whaler shipped out without them.  But none on Chandry's ship was slimier in the deckhand's eyes than the purser.  When William signed on at New Bedford the purser's hand barely fluttered when he checked off the boy's name.

BOOK: At the Midway
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ads

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