Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Wreck of the HMS Phoenix

Lately I have been exploring old texts written by sailors of the past.  It is quite fascinating.  While many aspects of the technology of going to sea in ships has changed, the dangers and challenges faced by sailors of the past and of the present have not.  The sea remains an awesome force both beautiful and terrible.

"The spiritual beauty of the sea, absorbing man's soul, permits of no infidels on its boundless expanse." - Capt. Joshua Slocum 1894

The following is a very personal account of survival of the shipwreck of a British ship of war in a hurricane in the Caribbean in 1780.  The account is made all the more personal as the writer, Lieutenant Archer,  is writing of it in a letter to his mother.  The language is a little archaic, but it captures both the flavor of the era and the emotion of Archer.  At the time England was at war with both the United States and Spain.  Archer's ship, the HMS Phoenix was on patrol in the Caribbean searching for Spanish merchantman.  The Letter comes from an out of copyright book published in 1889:


Tales of Shipwreck and Disaster,
Providential Escapes
HURST & CO., Publishers,

The Phœnix of 44 guns, Capt. Sir Hyde Parker was lost in a hurricane, off Cuba, in the West Indies, in the year 1780. The same hurricane destroyed the Thunderer, 74; Stirling Castle, 64; La Blanche, 42; Laurel, 28; Andromeda, 28; Deas Castle, 24; Scarborough, 20; Beaver’s Prize, 16; Barbadoes, 14; Cameleon, 14; Endeavour, 14; and Victor, 10 guns. Lieut. Archer was first-lieutenant of the Phœnix at the time she was lost. His narrative in a letter to his mother, contains a most correct and animated account of one of the most awful events in the service. It is so simple and natural as to make the reader feel himself as on board the Phœnix. Every circumstance is detailed with feeling, and powerful appeals are continually made to the heart. It must likewise afford considerable pleasure to observe the devout spirit of a seaman frequently bursting forth, and imparting sublimity to the relation.
At Sea, June 30, 1781.
My dear Mother,
I am now going to give you an account of our last cruise in the Phœnix; and must premise, that should any one see it besides yourself, they must put this construction on it—that it was originally intended for the eyes of a mother, and a mother only—as, upon that supposition, my feelings may be tolerated. You will also meet with a number of sea-terms, which, if you don’t understand, why, I cannot help you, as I am unable to give a sea description in any other words.
To begin then:—On the 2d of August, 1780, we weighed and sailed for Port Royal, bound for Pensacola, having two store-ships under convoy, and to see safe in; then cruise off the Havana, and in the gulf of Mexico, for six weeks. In a few days we made the two sandy islands, that look as if they had just risen out of the sea, or fallen from the sky; inhabited, nevertheless, by upwards of three hundred English, who get their bread by catching turtle and parrots, and raising vegetables, which they exchange with ships that pass, for clothing and a few of the luxuries of life, as rum, &c.
About the 12th we arrived at Pensacola, without any thing remarkable happening except our catching a vast quantity of fish, sharks, dolphins, and bonettos. On the 13th sailed singly, and on the 14th had a very heavy gale of wind at north, right off the land, so that we soon left the sweet place, Pensacola, at a distance astern. We then looked into the Havana, saw a number of ships there, and knowing that some of them were bound round the bay, we cruised in the track: a fortnight, however, passed, and not a single ship hove in sight to cheer our spirits. We then took a turn or two round the gulf, but not near enough to be seen from the shore. Vera Cruz we expected would have made us happy, but the same luck still continued; day followed day, and no sail. The dollar bag began to grow a little bulky, for every one had lost two or three times, and no one had won: this was a small gambling party entered into by Sir Hyde and ourselves; every one put a dollar into a bag, and fixed on a day when we should see a sail, but no two persons were to name the same day, and whoever guessed right first was to have the bag.
Being now tired of our situation, and glad the cruise was almost out, for we found the navigation very dangerous, owing to unaccountable currents; we shaped our course for Cape Antonio. The next day the man at the mast head, at about one o’clock in the afternoon, called out: “A sail upon the weather bow! Ha! Ha! Mr. Spaniard, I think we have you at last. Turn out all hands! make sail! All hands give chase!” There was scarcely any occasion for this order, for the sound of a sail being in sight flew like wild fire through the ship and every sail was set in an instant almost before the orders were given. A lieutenant at the mast head, with a spy glass, “What is she?” “A large ship studding athwart right before the wind. P-o-r-t! Keep her away! set the studding sails ready!” Up comes the little doctor, rubbing his hands; “Ha! ha! I have won the bag.” “The devil take you and the bag; look, what ’s ahead will fill all our bags.” Mast head again: “Two more sail on the larboard beam!” “Archer, go up, and see what you can make of them.” “Upon deck there; I see a whole fleet of twenty sail coming right before the wind.” “Confound the luck of it, this is some convoy or other, but we must try if we can pick some of them out.” “Haul down the studding-sails! Luff! bring her to the wind! Let us see what we can make of them.”
About five we got pretty near them, and found them to be twenty-six sail of Spanish merchantmen, under convoy of three line of battle ships, one of which chased us; but when she found we were playing with her (for the old Phœnix had heels) she left chase, and joined the convoy; which they drew up into a lump, and placed themselves at the outside; but we still kept smelling about till after dark. O, for the Hector, the Albion, and a frigate, and we should take the whole fleet and convoy, worth some millions! About eight o’clock perceived three sail at some distance from the fleet; dashed in between them, and gave chase, and were happy to find they steered from the fleet. About twelve came up with a large ship of twenty-six guns. “Archer, every man to his quarters! run the lower deck guns out, and light the ship up; show this fellow our force; it may prevent his firing into us and killing a man or two.” No sooner said than done. “Hoa, the ship ahoy, lower all your sails down, and bring to instantly, or I’ll sink you.” Clatter, clatter, went the blocks, and away flew all their sails in proper confusion. “What ship is that?” “The Polly.” “Whence came you?” “From Jamaica.” “Where are you bound?” “To New York.” “What ship is that?” “The Phœnix.” Huzza, three times by the whole ship’s company. An old grum fellow of a sailor standing close by me: “O, d—m your three cheers, we took you to be something else.” Upon examination we found it to be as he reported, and that they had fallen in with the Spanish fleet that morning, and were chased the whole day, and that nothing saved them but our stepping in between; for the Spaniards took us for three consorts, and the Polly took the Phœnix for a Spanish frigate, till we hailed them. The other vessel in company was likewise bound to New York. Thus was I, from being worth thousands in idea, reduced to the old 4s. 6d. a day again: for the little doctor made the most prize money of us all that day, by winning the bag, which contained between thirty and forty dollars; but this is nothing to what we sailors sometimes undergo.
After parting company, we steered south-south-east, to go round Antonio, and so to Jamaica, (our cruise being out) with our fingers in our mouths, and all of us as green as you please. It happened to be my middle watch, and about three o’clock, when a man upon the forecastle bawls out: “Breakers ahead, and land upon the lee-bow;” I looked out, and it was so sure enough. “Ready about! put the helm down! Helm a lee!” Sir Hyde hearing me put the ship about, jumped upon deck. “Archer, what ’s the matter? you are putting the ship about without my orders!” “Sir, ’tis time to go about! the ship is almost ashore, there ’s the land.” “Good God so it is! Will the ship stay?” “Yes, Sir, I believe she will, if we don’t make any confusion; she’s all aback—forward now?”—“Well,” says he, “work the ship, I will not speak a single word.” The ship stayed very well. “Then, heave the lead! see what water we have!” “Three fathom.” “Keep the ship away, west-north-west.”—“By the mark three.” “This won’t do, Archer.” “No, Sir, we had better haul more to the northward; we came south-south-east, and had better steer north-north-west.” “Steady, and a quarter three.” “This may do, as we deepen a little.” “By the deep four.” “Very well, my lad, heave quick.” “Five Fathom.” “That ’s a fine fellow! another cast nimbly.” “Quarter less eight.” “That will do, come, we shall get clear by and by.”—“Mark under water five.” “What ’s that?” “Only five fathom, Sir.” “Turn all hands up, bring the ship to an anchor, boy!” “Are the anchors clear!” “In a moment, Sir.” “All clear!” “What water have you in the chains now!” “Eight, half nine.” “Keep fast the anchors till I call you.” “Ay, ay, Sir, all fast!” “I have no ground with this line.” “How many fathoms have you out? pass along the deep-sea line!” “Ay, ay, Sir.” “Come are you all ready?” “All ready, Sir.” “Heave away, watch! watch! bear away, veer away, no ground Sir, with a hundred fathom.” “That ’s clever, come, Madam Phœnix, there is another squeak in you yet—all down but the watch; secure the anchors again; heave the main-top-sail to the mast; luff, and bring her to the wind!”
I told you, Madam, you should have a little sea-jargon: if you can understand half of what is already said, I wonder at it, though it is nothing to what is to come yet, when the old hurricane begins. As soon as the ship was a little to rights, and all quiet again, Sir Hyde came to me in the most friendly manner, the tears almost starting from his eyes—“Archer, we ought all, to be much obliged to you for the safety of the ship, and perhaps of ourselves. I am particularly so; nothing but that instantaneous presence of mind and calmness saved her; another ship’s length and we should have been fast on shore; had you been the least diffident, or made the least confusion, so as to make the ship baulk in her stays, she must have been inevitably lost.” “Sir, you are very good, but I have done nothing that I suppose any body else would not have done, in the same situation. I did not turn all the hands up, knowing the watch able to work the ship; besides, had it spread immediately about the ship, that she was almost ashore, it might have created a confusion that was better avoided.” “Well,” says he, “’t is well indeed.”
At daylight we found that the current had set us between the Collarado rocks and Cape Antonio, and that we could not have got out any other way than we did; there was a chance, but Providence is the best pilot. We had sunset that day twenty leagues to the south-east of our reckoning by the current.
After getting clear of this scrape, we thought ourselves fortunate, and made sail for Jamaica, but misfortune seemed to follow misfortune. The next night, my watch upon deck too, we were overtaken by a squall, like a hurricane while it lasted; for though I saw it coming, and prepared for it, yet, when it took the ship, it roared, and laid her down so, that I thought she would never get up again. However, by keeping her away, and clewing up every thing, she righted. The remainder of the night we had very heavy squalls, and in the morning found the mainmast sprung half the way through: one hundred and twenty-three leagues to the leeward of Jamaica, the hurricane months coming on, the head of the mainmast almost off, and at short allowance; well, we must make the best of it. The mainmast was well fished, but we were obliged to be very tender of carrying sail.
Nothing remarkable happened for ten days afterwards, when we chased a Yankee man of war for six hours, but could not get near enough to her before it was dark, to keep sight of her; so that we lost her because unable to carry any sail on the mainmast. In about twelve days more made the island of Jamaica, having weathered all the squalls, and put into Montego Bay for water; so that we had a strong party for kicking up a dust on shore, having found three men of war lying there. Dancing, &c. &c. till two o’clock every morning; little thinking what was to happen in four days’ time: for out of the four men of war that were there, not one was in being at the end of that time, and not a soul alive but those left of our crew. Many of the houses, where we had been so merry, were so completely destroyed, that scarcely a vestige remained to mark where they stood. Thy works are wonderful, O God! praised be thy holy Name!
September the 30th weighed; bound for Port Royal, round the eastward of the island; the Bardadoes and Victor had sailed the day before, and the Scarborough was to sail the next. Moderate weather until October the 2d. Spoke to the Barbadoes off Port Antonio in the evening. At eleven at night it began to snuffle, with a monstrous heavy appearance from the eastward. Close reefed the top-sails. Sir Hyde sent for me: “What sort of weather have we, Archer!” “It blows a little, and has a very ugly look: if in any other quarter but this, I should say we were going to have a gale of wind.” “Ay, it looks so very often here when there is no wind at all; however, don’t hoist the top-sails till it clears a little, there is no trusting any country.” At twelve I was relieved; the weather had the same rough look: however, they made sail upon her, but had a very dirty night. At eight in the morning I came up again, found it blowing hard from the east-north-east, with close-reefed top-sails upon the ship, and heavy squalls at times. Sir Hyde came upon deck: “Well, Archer, what do you think of it?” “O, Sir, ’t is only a touch of the times, we shall have an observation at twelve o’clock; the clouds are beginning to break; it will clear up at noon, or else—blow very hard afterwards.” “I wish it would clear up, but I doubt it much. I was once in a hurricane in the East Indies, and the beginning of it had much the same appearance as this. So take in the top-sails, we have plenty of sea-room.”
At twelve, the gale still increasing, wore ship, to keep as near mid-channel between Jamaica and Cuba, as possible; at one the gale increasing still; at two, harder yet, it still blows harder! Reefed the courses, and furled them; brought to under a foul mizen stay-sail, head to the northward. In the evening no sign of the weather taking off, but every appearance of the storm increasing, prepared for a proper gale of wind; secured all the sails with spare gaskets; good rolling tackles upon the yards; squared the booms; saw the boats all made fast; new lashed the guns; double breeched the lower deckers; saw that the carpenters had the tarpawlings and battens all ready for hatchways; got the top-gallant-mast down upon the deck; jib-boom and sprit-sail-yard fore and aft; in fact every thing we could think of to make a snug ship.
The poor devils of birds now began to find the uproar in the elements, for numbers, both of sea and land kinds, came on board of us. I took notice of some, which happening to be to leeward, turned to windward, like a ship, tack and tack; for they could not fly against it. When they came over the ship they dashed themselves down upon the deck, without attempting to stir till picked up, and when let go again, they would not leave the ship, but endeavoured to hide themselves from the wind.
At eight o’clock a hurricane; the sea roaring, but the wind still steady to a point; did not ship a spoonful of water. However, got the hatchways all secured, expecting what would be the consequence, should the wind shift; placed the carpenters by the mainmast, with broad axes, knowing, from experience, that at the moment you may want to cut it away to save the ship, an axe may not be found. Went to supper: bread, cheese, and porter. The purser frightened out of his wits about his bread bags; the two marine officers as white as sheets, not understanding the ship’s working so much, and the noise of the lower deck guns; which, by this time, made a pretty screeching to people not used to it; it seemed as if the whole ship’s side was going at each roll. Wooden, our carpenter, was all this time smoking his pipe and laughing at the doctor; the second lieutenant upon deck, and the third in his hammock.
At ten o’clock I thought to get a little sleep; came to look into my cot; it was full of water; for every seam, by the straining of the ship, had began to leak. Stretched myself, therefore, upon deck between two chests, and left orders to be called, should the least thing happen. At twelve a midshipman came to me: “Mr. Archer, we are just going to wear ship, Sir!” “O, very well, I’ll be up directly, what sort of weather have you got?” “It blows a hurricane.” Went upon deck, found Sir Hyde there. “It blows damned hard Archer.” “It does indeed, Sir.” “I don’t know that I ever remember its blowing so hard before, but the ship makes a good weather of it upon this tack as she bows the sea; but we must wear her, as the wind has shifted to the south-east, and we were drawing right upon Cuba; so do you go forward, and have some hands stand by; loose the lee yard-arm of the fore-sail, and when she is right before the wind, whip the clue-garnet close up, and roll up the sail.” “Sir! there is no canvass can stand against this a moment; if we attempt to loose him he will fly into ribands in an instant, and we may lose three or four of our people; she’ll wear by manning the fore shrouds.” “No, I don’t think she will.” “I’ll answer for it, Sir; I have seen it tried several times on the coast of America with success.” “Well, try it; if she does not wear, we can only loose the fore-sail afterwards.” This was a great condescension from such a man as Sir Hyde. However, by sending about two hundred people into the fore-rigging, after a hard struggle, she wore; found she did not make so good weather on this tack as on the other; for as the sea began to run across, she had not time to rise from one sea before another lashed against her. Began to think we should lose our masts, as the ship lay very much along, by the pressure of the wind constantly upon the yards and masts alone: for the poor mizen-stay-sail had gone in shreds long before, and the sails began to fly from the yards through the gaskets into coach whips. My God! to think that the wind could have such force!
Sir Hyde now sent me to see what was the matter between decks, as there was a good deal of noise. As soon as I was below, one of the Marine officers calls out: “Good God Mr. Archer, we are sinking, the water is up to the bottom of my cot.” “Pooh, pooh! as long as it is not over your mouth, you are well off; what the devil do you make this noise for?” I found there was some water between decks, but nothing to be alarmed at; scuttled the deck, and let it run into the well—found she made a good deal of water through the sides and decks; turned the watch below to the pumps, though only two feet of water in the well; but expected to be kept constantly at work now, as the ship labored much, with scarcely a part of her above water but the quarter-deck, and that but seldom “Come, pump away, my boys. Carpenters, get the weather chain-pump rigged.” “All ready, Sir.” “Then man it and keep both pumps going.”
At two o’clock the chain-pump was choked; set the carpenters at work to clear it; the two head pumps at work upon deck; the ship gained on us while our chain-pumps were idle; in a quarter of an hour they were at work again, and we began to gain upon her. While I was standing at the pumps, cheering the people, the carpenter’s mate came running to me with a face as long as my arm: “O, Sir! the ship has sprang a leak in the gunner’s room.” “Go, then, and tell the carpenter to come to me, but don’t speak a word to any one else.” “Mr. Goodinoh, I am told there is a leak in the gunner’s room; go and see what is the matter, but don’t alarm any body, and come and make your report privately to me.” In a short time he returned: “Sir, there ’s nothing there, ’tis only the water washing up between the timbers that this booby has taken for a leak.” “O, very well; go upon deck and see if you can keep any of the water from washing down below.” “Sir, I have had four people constantly keeping the hatchways secure, but there is such a weight of water upon the deck that nobody can stand it when the ship rolls.” The gunner soon afterwards came to me: “Mr. Archer, I should be glad if you would step this way into the magazine for a moment:” I thought some damned thing was the matter, and ran directly: “Well, what is the matter here?” “The ground-tier of powder is spoiled, and I want to show you that it is not out of carelessness in stowing it, for no powder in the world could be better stowed. Now, Sir, what am I to do? if you don’t speak to Sir Hyde, he will be angry with me.” I could not forbear smiling to see how easy he took the danger of the ship, and said to him: “Let us shake off this gale of wind first, and talk of the damaged powder afterwards.”
At four we had gained upon the ship a little, and I went upon deck, it being my watch. The second lieutenant relieved me at the pumps. Who can attempt to describe the appearance of things upon deck? If I was to write for ever I could not give you an idea of it—a total darkness all above, the sea on fire, running as it were in Alps, or Peaks of Teneriffe; (mountains are too common an idea); the wind roaring louder than thunder, (absolutely no flight of imagination), the whole made more terrible, if possible, by a very uncommon kind of blue lightning; the poor ship very much pressed, yet doing what she could, shaking her sides, and groaning at every stroke. Sir Hyde upon deck lashed to windward! I soon lashed myself alongside of him, and told him the situation of things below, saying the ship did not make more water than might be expected in such weather, and that I was only afraid of a gun breaking loose. “I am not in the least afraid of that; I have commanded her six years, and have had many a gale of wind in her; so that her iron work, which always gives way first, is pretty well tried. Hold fast! that was an ugly sea; we must lower the yards, I believe, Archer; the ship is much pressed.” “If we attempt it, Sir, we shall lose them, for a man aloft can do nothing; besides their being down would ease the ship very little; the mainmast is a sprung mast; I wish it was overboard without carrying any thing else along with it; but that can soon be done, the gale cannot last for ever; ’twill soon be daylight now.” Found by the master’s watch that it was five o’clock, though but a little after four by ours; glad it was so near daylight, and looked for it with much anxiety. Cuba, thou art much in our way! Another ugly sea: sent a midshipman to bring news from the pumps: the ship was gaining on them very much, for they had broken one of their chains, but it was almost mended again. News from the pump again. “She still gains! a heavy lee!” Back-water from leeward, half-way up the quarter-deck; filled one of the cutters upon the booms, and tore her all to pieces; the ship lying almost on her beam ends, and not attempting to right again. Word from below that the ship still gained on them, as they could not stand to the pumps, she lay so much along. I said to Sir Hyde: “This is no time, Sir, to think of saving the masts, shall we cut the mainmast away?” “Ay! as fast as you can.” I accordingly went into the weather chains with a pole-axe, to cut away the lanyards; the boatswain went to leeward, and the carpenters stood by the mast. We were all ready, when a very violent sea broke right on board of us, carried every thing upon deck away, filled the ship with water, the main and mizen masts went, the ship righted, but was in the last struggle of sinking under us.
As soon as we could shake our heads above water, Sir Hyde exclaimed: “We are gone, at last, Archer! foundered at sea!” “Yes, Sir, farewell, and the Lord have mercy upon us!” I then turned about to look forward at the ship; and thought she was struggling to get rid of some of the water; but all in vain, she was almost full below “Almighty God! I thank thee, that now I am leaving this world, which I have always considered as only a passage to a better, I die with a full hope of the mercies, through the merits of Jesus Christ, thy son, our Saviour!”
I then felt sorry that I could swim, as by that means I might be a quarter of an hour longer dying than a man who could not, and it is impossible to divest ourselves of a wish to preserve life. At the end of these reflections I thought I heard the ship thump and grinding under our feet; it was so. “Sir, the ship is ashore!” “What do you say?” “The ship is ashore, and we may save ourselves yet!” By this time the quarter-deck was full of men who had come up from below; and ‘the Lord have mercy upon us,’ flying about from all quarters. The ship now made every body sensible that she was ashore, for every stroke threatened a total dissolution of her whole frame; found she was stern ashore, and the bow broke the sea a good deal, though it was washing clean over at every stroke. Sir Hyde cried out: “Keep to the quarter-deck, my lads, when she goes to pieces, ’t is your best chance!” Providentially got the foremast cut away, that she might not pay round broad-side. Lost five men cutting away the foremast, by the breaking of a sea on board just as the mast went. That was nothing; every one expected it would be his own fate next; looked for daybreak with the greatest impatience. At last it came; but what a scene did it show us! The ship upon a bed of rocks, mountains of them on one side, and Cordilleras of water on the other; our poor ship grinding and crying out at every stroke between them; going away by piecemeal. However, to show the unaccountable workings of Providence, that which often appears to be the greatest evil, proved to be the greatest good! That unmerciful sea lifted and beat us up so high among the rocks, that at last the ship scarcely moved. She was very strong, and did not go to pieces at the first thumping, though her decks tumbled in. We found afterwards that she had beat over a ledge of rocks, almost a quarter of a mile in extent beyond us, where, if she had struck, every soul of us must have perished.
I now began to think of getting on shore, so stripped off my coat and shoes for a swim, and looked for a line to carry the end with me. Luckily could not find one, which gave me time for recollection. “This won’t do for me, to be the first man out of the ship, and first lieutenant; we may get to England again, and people may think I paid a great deal of attention to myself and did not care for any body else. No, that won’t do; instead of being the first, I’ll see every man, sick and well, out of her before me.”
I now thought there was no probability of the ship’s soon going to pieces, therefore had not a thought of instant death: took a look round with a kind of philosophic eye, to see how the same situation affected my companions, and was surprised to find the most swaggering, swearing bullies in fine weather, now the most pitiful wretches on earth, when death appeared before them. However, two got safe; by which means, with a line, we got a hawser on shore, and made fast to the rocks, upon which many ventured and arrived safe. There were some sick and wounded on board, who could not avail themselves of this method; we, therefore, got a spare top-sail-yard from the chains and placed one end ashore and the other on the cabin-window, so that most of the sick got ashore this way.
As I had determined, so I was the last man out of the ship; this was about ten o’clock. The gale now began to break. Sir Hyde came to me, and taking me by the hand was so affected that he was scarcely able to speak “Archer, I am happy beyond expression, to see you on shore, but look at our poor Phœnix!” I turned about, but could not say a single word, being too full: my mind had been too intensely occupied before; but every thing now rushed upon me at once, so that I could not contain myself, and I indulged for a full quarter of an hour in tears.
By twelve it was pretty moderate; got some nails on shore and made tents; found great quantities of fish driven up by the sea into the holes of the rocks; knocked up a fire, and had a most comfortable dinner. In the afternoon made a stage from the cabin-windows to the rocks, and got out some provisions and water, lest the ship should go to pieces, in which case we must all have perished of hunger and thirst; for we were upon a desolate part of the coast, and under a rocky mountain, that could not supply us with a single drop of water.
Slept comfortably this night and the next day, the idea of death vanishing by degrees, the prospect of being prisoners, during the war, at the Havana, and walking three hundred miles to it through the woods, was rather unpleasant. However, to save life for the present, we employed this day in getting more provisions and water on shore, which was not an easy matter, on account of decks, guns and rubbish, and ten feet water that lay over them. In the evening I proposed to Sir Hyde to repair the remains of the only boat left, and to venture in her to Jamaica myself; and in case I arrived safe, to bring vessels to take them all off; a proposal worthy of consideration. It was, next day, agreed to; therefore got the cutter on shore, and set the carpenters to work on her; in two days she was ready, and at four o’clock in the afternoon I embarked with four volunteers and a fortnight’s provision, hoisted English colors as we put off from the shore, and received three cheers from the lads left behind, which we returned, and set sail with a light heart; having not the least doubt, that, with God’s assistance, we should come and bring them all off. Had a very squally night, and a very leaky boat, so as to keep two buckets constantly bailing. Steered her myself the whole night by the stars, and in the morning saw the coast of Jamaica distant twelve leagues. At eight in the evening arrived at Montego Bay.
I must now begin to leave off, particularly as I have but half an hour to conclude; else my pretty little short letter will lose its passage, which I should not like, after being ten days, at different times, writing it, beating up with the convoy to the northward, which is a reason that this epistle will never read well; as I never set down with a proper disposition to go on with it; but as I knew something of the kind would please you, I was resolved to finish it; yet it will not bear an overhaul; so don’t expose your son’s nonsense.
But to proceed—I instantly sent off an express to the admiral, another to the Porcupine man of war, and went myself to Martha Bray to get vessels; for all their vessels here, as well as many of their houses, were gone to Moco. Got three small vessels, and set out back again to Cuba, where I arrived the fourth day after leaving my companions. I thought the ship’s crew would have devoured me on my landing; they presently whisked me up on their shoulders and carried me to the tent where Sir Hyde was.
I must omit many little occurrences that happened on shore, for want of time; but I shall have a number of stories to tell when I get alongside of you; and the next time I visit you I shall not be in such a hurry to quit you as I was the last, for then I hoped my nest would have been pretty well feathered:—But my tale is forgotten.
I found the Porcupine had arrived that day, and the lads had built a boat almost ready for launching, that would hold fifty of them, which was intended for another trial, in case I had foundered. Next day embarked all our people that were left, amounting to two hundred and fifty; for some had died of their wounds they received in getting on shore; others of drinking rum, and others had straggled into the country.—All our vessels were so full of people, that we could not take away the few clothes that were saved from the wreck; but that was a trifle since we had preserved our lives and liberty. To make short of my story, we all arrived safe at Montego Bay, and shortly after at Port Royal, in the Janus, which was sent on purpose for us, and were all honorably acquitted for the loss of the ship. I was made admiral’s aid-de-camp, and a little time afterwards sent down to St. Juan’s as captain of the Resource, to bring what were left of the poor devils to Blue Fields, on the Musquito shore, and then to Jamaica, where they arrived after three month’s absence, and without a prize, though I looked out hard off Porto Bello and Carthagena. Found in my absence that I had been appointed captain of the Tobago, where I remain his majesty’s most true and faithful servant, and my dear mother’s most dutiful son,

Sunday, February 7, 2010

First Command

My first command was in 1988.  A 257 foot two hatch refrigerated break bulk freighter with a yard and stay rig.  Her name was the M/V Sunmar Sky.  She was a single screw direct reversible, with a gill jet omni-directional thruster on the bow.

I had sailed on the Sky for several voyages as Chief Mate with Capt Bob Fay.  Bob moved up to port captain and recommended me for the job.

      M/V Sunmar Sky as she appears today as the Coastal Trader
The Sky was a coastal freighter in service between Seattle and Dutch Harbor, Alaska.  We loaded at a dock in Seattle, inside the Lake Washington Ship Canal, just east of the Ballard Bridge.  Loading took a couple days.  Northbound we took lots of general cargo.  Southbound we carried cold dead fish.  The crew spent long hours making sure the stevedores stowed and lashed everything properly.  We were headed into some of the worst sea conditions on the planet and the ship was going to move violently.  Everything had to be really well tied down.

I was very nervous as this was my first time sailing as master.  I spent a lot of long hours out on deck, checking the cargo stowage and lashing.  The last few hours before departure I lay down and tried to get some rest so I would be in good shape to take the first watch.  I tossed and turned listening to the cargo hydraulics and the shouts of the crew and stevedores.

 I pulled away from the dock at 0700 on a Saturday morning, the 18th of June of 1988.  We cleared the Ballard Bridge and idled down the Lake Washington Ship Canal and after we got the green light, we tied up in the locks, with Chief Mate Erik Pratt on the thruster controls and 2nd Mate Mike Taylor on the helm and engine throttle as a went from the port to the starboard bridge wings calling out orders and talking to the bow and stern on the hand-held VHF.  We tied up, the lock gates closed and we were lowered down to sea level.  The deckhands took in the lines and we eased out of the locks and through the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge and out the channel past Shilshole Bay Marina and out into Puget Sound.  I brought the ship up to sea speed, merging into the vessel traffic system lanes, headed north.

My Standing Orders for the M/V Sunmar Sky

I took the watch until 14:00 to give the other officers a chance to rest after having been up all night securing cargo lashings on deck.  We have a full northbound load.  Holds full of fiber boxes, packaging for the seafood plants and processors in Dutch Harbor, sorbitol for surimi production, groceries and toiletries for the general store, a drop box, crab pots, and several vehicles lashed on deck.

We had a nice smooth transit through Rosario Strait and up the Canadian waters of the Strait of Georgia.  We made the tide at Seymour Narrows without delay and made good time on a favorable tide up Discovery Passage and Johnstone Strait.  The ship rocketed through Blackney Pass at 13 kts.

I took Laredo Sound and Principe Channel up to Hecate Strait.  I then headed out Dixon Entrance on a course for the Shumigan Islands.

We skirted the north side of a 970 millibar low.  The strong SE winds gave us a push across the Gulf of Alaska.  We were making 9.5 knots, rolling in the large quartering seas.

About a day out of Dixon Entrance, our port generator failed due to the fuel control seizing up.  Then, later, as the ship rolled, the water-maker came loose (It hadn't been fastened down when it was installed!) and pulled the hose that supplies it with heated cooling water off of the starboard generator.  This resulted in the generator shutting down, the main engine shutting down, and the ship drifting blacked out in the trough of the seas for 10 or 15 minutes while the engineers scrambled to put things right.

When all systems were back on line, the gyro compass started hunting and took one and a half hours to settle down, and we discovered the magnetic autopilot was inoperative, so we hand steered by hand steering and magnetic compass.

It was decided we would stop in Kodiak to pickup a new fuel control for the port generator.  Late at night, about 2 days out of Kodiak the steering relays failed.  While the 2nd Mate steered using the hydraulic steering on the wheel, Jeff, the Chief Engineer replaced them, at some risk, due to the 300 Volts AC that was of unknown origin in the junction box.  But the replacements wouldn't function.  After much head scratching and probing and testing, the relays still wouldn't work.  Then I discovered that the office had mistakenly provided us with DC voltage relays instead of the AC relays the system required.  The engineers went back down below and after some digging found some AC relays among their supplies.  Once these were installed, we were back in business.

We stopped in Kodiak, got the fuel control for the generator and proceeded onwards towards the Shumigans.  We transited Iliasik Passage and steered a course for Unimak Pass and the Bering Sea.

We sailed into Captain's Bay in Dutch Harbor and moored to the OSI dock.  We spent the next day offloading cargo and ballasting down.  Then we set sail for Bristol Bay.

We were headed to Naknek River Anchorage to take frozen salmon from the big factory processing ship the Bering Trader.

We arrived there a few days later and after rigging our Yokohama fenders, we moored alongside the of the big blue and gold processor.  The Bering Trader went bankrupt the following year and was hired as a hotel ship during the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup effort.

We spent a day taking cold dead fish aboard and headed west en route to Akutan to load Opilio crab.

At Akutan we tied up to the dock at the bustling crab processing plant and swung the hatches open and with screaming hydraulic winches started loading pallet loads of cases of frozen crab.

After we took the load allotted to us we closed and secured the hatches and sailed eastward en route to Sand Point in the Shumigan Islands for a load of frozen headed and gutted cod and halibut.

After loading the ship with the last of her cargo in Sand Point, we sailed homeward on a great circle course for Cape Flattery and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The weather was fine and we had a smooth homeward voyage

We arrived back in Seattle on the 21st of July 1988.  The voyage had taken 34 days.  I had learned how to handle crisis and routine and the stress of flying solo.  I had come though it unscathed and more confident of my ability to handle command.  Over the years I sailed on the Sky, I found my tempo and style as a ship master and honed my skills as a mariner.  But the first voyage remains most vivid in my memory.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I needed a job after I returned to Seattle from 6 months in the Antarctic.  It was early 1978.  I was staying in the spare bedroom of a Coast Guard buddy and his family.  I bought a yellow VW beetle and started my job hunt.  I went for a number of interviews, but nothing was a match.  Then I spotted an ad for a marine electronics company that was looking for people who could speak Spanish.  That peaked my interest as I spoke decent Spanish and had a experience with electronics from the USCG and from when I made short wave radio kits as a kid.  So I applied and was hired.  I entered a training program to prepare me to be the factory rep for Latin America.  Their main product was a sonar for fishing vessels.  I spent time on the assembly line, in classes, and out in the field with the Washington State rep.  I helped install a sonar on trawler in Seattle and we made visits to fishing vessels in Ilwaco and South Bend.  After a couple months they gave me a couple company credit cards, a tool kit, and I packed my bags and flew to Panama.

I was to troubleshoot both a technical and a business problem.  A Chinese Panamanian fishing captain by the name of Camilo had one of our sonars on his boat.  It wasn't working and I was there to either fix it or get it back from him since he hadn't paid for it yet.  In my baggage I was carrying a spare sonar head.  I was nervous about passing through customs with such an expensive bit of hardware.  I need not have been.  I stepped off the plane into the steamy heat of  Panama.  As I approached the customs inspection station I was spotted by Edwardo, our local dealer.  He called me over and glad handed with the customs inspector who seemed to be an old friend.  Eddie grabbed my bag and whisked me past customs like I was traveling on a diplomatic passport.  The second thing that hit me after the heat was the almost constant cacophony of horns.  The traffic headed into the city was heavy and Panamanian drivers expressed themselves with their horns, blasting and beeping and honking.  Eddie was a very friendly guy, he spoke great English and we hit it off right away.

I had expected to be able to solve the problems and be in and out of the country and on my way to Ecuador in a few days....  Crazy optimistic Gringo.  It took two weeks.  Camilo and his boat were fishing to the north and Eddie and his brother were involved in installing the first CAT scan system in Panama at the main hospital.  I tagged along with them and watched as they tested the system on a pineapple.  It worked.  They they needed a human, so after some cajoling they got me to go in the machine and they scanned my skull.

Then Eddie had to run some errands.  He was nervous.  He had to go see the colonel.  The colonel was the number two guy in Panama, the right hand man of General Omar Torrijos.  And the Colonel was unhappy with some equipment that Eddie and his brother had provided him for his business.  It struck me odd that a colonel would also be a businessman, but this was Central America in the 70's ... Military rank was for power, not for service.  While I sat out in the lobby of the Colonel's office, Eddie got chewed out and finally emerged looking stressed.

The next day was the weekend so I was on my own so I rented a car at the hotel and headed out across the Bridge of the Americas spanning the Panama Canal and headed north up the Pacific Coast. The soil was red and the jungle was a deep green.  The road was a narrow two lane affair, crossing many ravines and winding along through rolling hills.  I passed little towns but saw little of the ocean as the road ran inland parallel to the coast.  The the skies opened up and it started to pour.  Sheets of rain.  The window of my little Datsun started to steam up.  I had to roll down the window a little to increase the ventilation so I could see.  I turned south and started heading back towards the city.  In front of me a Ford Torino hit a big puddle, hydroplaned and spun out of control.  I flew backwards down the highway toward a bridge.  The trunk of the car slammed into the concrete railing of the bridge and it stopped.  A few feet more and it would have gone down into the deep ravine below where the water was raging.  I pulled over and ran up to the car.  There was a hysterical large Panamanian woman in the front passenger seat, the dashboard had come off and was laying in her lap.  The five people in the car were scared but unhurt.  I squeezed them into my little damp car and gave them a ride to the police station in the next town where they got help.

Finally after the weekend Camilo was back at the dock.  He had a smelly old seine boat.  Eddie drove me down there and I went to work on the sonar.  After hours of tracing wires, changing circuit boards and fiddling, it seemed to be working, though without going out it was hard to tell.  So we agreed to head out the next day.  It ended up being a very frustrating business.  The sonar didn't work very well and Camilo didn't pay much attention to it anyway, instead setting his nets on where the Pelicans dove into the water. 

I finally left Panama, not having fixed the sonar and not having convinced Camilo to either return the sonar or pay for it.

My next destination was Guayaquil Ecuador.  Guayaquil was a large dangerous city on the banks of the Rio Guayas, a wide, muddy river filled with floating green water hyacinths. Our local dealer dropped me off on the fishing boat Maria Elena.  A large wooden hulled seiner with a big skiff perched on the stern.  The captain welcomed me aboard and we slipped our moorings and headed down the river.  As we we pulled away from the dock we passed a half naked old man and a small boy sitting astride a log in the river, paddling through the water hyacinths with broken pieces of boards.

The sonar seemed to be working.  As we motored down the river I scanned left and right and ahead and picked up the bottom and objects in the water.  At last this was more encouraging.  We passed a few buoys as we continued down the river.  The current seemed to be running strong.  We were surrounded by jungle.  Occasionally I would see a hut built on bamboo stilts near the edge of the river.  One of the crew told me it was to keep the floods and the snakes out of the houses.

Scanning ahead I picked up a strong target.  I wondered aloud to the captain if it might be a school of fish?  He looked over with interest.  Just then the boat slammed hard aground on the river bottom, throwing all of us forward with a jolt.  The captain ran out the back door of the pilothouse screaming "Lanza la panga!  Lanza la Panga!" (Launch the skiff!).  The crew quickly launched the skiff, but the boat wasn't sinking.  I went below decks in the bow.  Water was seeping in through the hull caulking and the sonar looked like it had been sheared off in the grounding.  The captain backed the boat off the mud bank and we headed back up the river to the dock.

The next day I rented a Chevy Nova and headed out of Guayaquil for the Santa Elena Peninsula.  More houses on stilts.  Grubby, squalid little towns with naked butted children and hogs wandering in the road.  Narrow one lane bridges.  When meeting another car, whoever flashes their lights first has the right of way.  I came around the bend and there, hitchhiking, were two clean cut blond haired blue eyed young men dressed in long dark pants, short sleeved dress shirts and black ties, carrying book bags.  Mormon boys on their mission.  I pulled over picked them up and dropped them off a few miles later at a smelly oil production town.

I arrived at the port town of La Libertad and found the boat the other boat I was to service.  I worked on the sonar, but it was an older model and I didn't have all the parts I needed.  I made a note of all the parts required to be ordered and headed back to Guayaquil.  That evening as I was packing my bags to leave the following morning for Lima Peru, I tuned in the the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and discovered that there had been an attempted coup in Peru and battle tanks were rolling through the streets of Lima.  I quickly called the airline and changed my flight to fly directly to Santiago, Chile.

In Santiago I stayed at the Hotel Crillon.  It was an eerie place to be, overlooking the machine gun bullet scarred facade of the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace where President Salvador Allende died during the General Pinochet's coup d'etat of September 11th, 1973.  The Chilean air force had strafed the palace with aircraft and commandos then assaulted the building.

Now 5 years later, Pinochet still ruled with an iron fist and a nightly curfew remained in effect.  I felt the fear at night, hearing the shouts and gunshots echoing though the empty streets of Santiago, the racing military vehicles speeding off to do who knows what to whom.

Chilean society was very polarized.  The supporters of the Military had a swagger about them.  The opponents cowed in fear and sullen silence born of fear and repression.

It was sad for me to see the country like this.  As a child of 10 I had first come here with my parents.  Santiago had been my home for 3 years.  It was home to some of my happiest memories while growing up.  Now it was a dark and menacing place, where the walls had ears and people were afraid to speak their minds.

I fell into a routine.  In the mornings I would catch a cab to the offices of Don Claudio, our dealer for Chile and have coffee with him and his secretary Mirna.  Don Claudio ushered me around to meet potential clients and I would discuss the benefits of our equipment and give them brochures and we would return to the office and have lunch.

Finally I had an installation to supervise in Southern Chile.  I got a rental car, a little Honda Civic and headed south down the Panamericana.  I drove for hours through mountains and across arid rolling hilly country and through valleys with tall poplar wind breaks.  It got dark.  I continued southward.  I noticed my lights getting dim and then flickering and then the car died.  I coasted to the side of the road and got out.  I popped the hood and checked the battery as best I could without a flashlight.  Nearby I could hear a river and off in the distance the light of a dwelling.  Overhead the stars twinkled.  I had no idea where I was, nor how far the next town was.  I heard the crunch of footsteps approaching in the dark on the other side of the road.

Out of the gloom of the darkness I made out the form of a campesino carrying a shovel and a burlap sack.  I called out to him and asked him if he knew where the nearest filling station was.  He asked what was wrong.  I told him my battery had died.  He peered at the motor.  "There is a guy where I live who knows mechanics."  "Where do you live?"  "Just over there." He said, pointing at the light of the dwelling I had noticed.

I walked down the road with him and soon arrived at the workers barracks of a gravel pit.  The workers were very friendly.  They found the man who knew mechanics and fetched a spare battery and some cables and with a group of about six friendly Chilean workers we returned to the car.  Within short order they had helped me restart the car and discovered an electrical plug had come loose, which had caused the battery to discharge.  I thanked them profusely and we parted like old friends and I headed back down the dark road through the Chilean countryside, my faith in the goodness of strangers reinforced.

The next night I stayed in town of Concepcion and in the morning the fleet captain of the fishing company came and picked me up and drove me to Talcahuano where I worked on installing the new sonar on one of their boats.  On the drive back to Concepcion that evening he gave me some advice.  "If you ever hit a pedestrian, be sure to kill him."  I expressed surprise at such a statement.  He said that over the years he had hit 3 pedestrians.  Two had died and he had no trouble from them.  The one that lived, gave him all sorts of trouble with lawyers.  "So that's why I say, if you hit someone, make sure you kill them.  It will be a lot less trouble."  I concealed my shock at his attitude and just nodded silently.

After several months living in hotels in Chile and having little success in selling more sonars and having to deal with constant failures of the equipment that was already installed, I grew increasing dispirited and homesick.  The final blow came when I spoke to the guy who had trained me up in Washington State.  He said that all of the sales reps who started with me had already quit and that the equipment that the company was producing at the time was having a very high failure rate.  He said the problem was that they had not been using static free assembly stations in making the circuit boards and that the chips were very sensitive to static and were failing out in the field after a short period of service.  He was quitting and taking a job with a radar vendor.

That was it for me.  I quit and headed for home.  Within 3 weeks I was greatly relieved to be back aboard a ship, working for NOAA once again.  My adventure in working in electronics scuttled by wayward static electricity.

Monday, November 2, 2009


My first experience with sea ice came in 1973 in the Labrador Sea as a quartermaster aboard the USCG Wind Class Icebreaker Edisto.

The sentinels of the polar regions are solitary icebergs, drifting far out to sea.  We encountered these guardians of the Arctic long before encountering sea ice.

Arriving at the ice edge for the first time was exhilarating and breath taking.  It is a line in the sea where the nature of the sea, the air, and the entire environment changes.  It is a place teeming with life, where air is crisp and biting.  Steaming into the ice, the sea becomes an ever changing landscape, governed by the size and shape and types of the sea ice. Grease ice, pancake ice, first year floes, multi-year ice, pressure ridges, and many other ice formations that defy description.

The Edisto was built in 1946 and was in her last year of service when I sailed aboard her.  She was decommissioned in the fall of 1974.  She had cork insulation to keep the interior of the hull from sweating and though only 269 feet long, she carried a crew of almost 300.

We were berthed in triple level bunks in berthing areas of up to 70 men.  I was in the operations department and had the luxury of a 20 man berthing area.  I was in the top bunk next to the pipes and cables of the overhead.

The Wind Class were shaped like an American football and rolled continuously and vigorously in the seaway and pitched like a hobby-horse in a head sea.  In the ice she was in her element and handled well, turning responsively.  She was twin screw, single rudder, diesel electric, with six Fairbanks Morse main engines located in three separate engine rooms.

The crew were a bunch of pirates.  USCG Group Baltimore was using the Edisto as punishment duty.  Any screw-ups or sailors with attitude problems were transferred to the Eddie.  This being the Vietnam era, there was no shortage of young men with bad attitudes in the USCG.  It was a volunteer service, but many chose to volunteer for the USCG rather than be drafted, so they weren't there all that willingly.

The Eddie was so permeated with drugs (marijuana & hash) that one could get high just breathing the fumes rising out of the forward berthing area at night.  The Executive Officer, Commander Kothe, established a night patrol manned by CPOs & first class petty officers that was dubbed the "International Rat Patrol".  Every time we stopped at Craney Island, Virginia to fuel up before deploying, dope sniffing dogs were brought aboard to search for pot.  The poor dogs were disoriented and scared by the steep ladders descending into the bowels of the ship and the noise and smell and all the pepper the crew had sprinkled on the decks to confound the dogs.  It was a low grade war between the youth culture of the 70's and the establishment culture of the career coast guardsmen who comprised the senior personnel aboard.

Even knowing that the Edisto had a reputation as a band of outlaws, I sought a transfer aboard her.  I was pulled by the call of the North.  All those Jack London books I read as a kid had given me a thirst for adventure and I wanted to see the Arctic.  I was bored out of my skull aboard the USCG tug Apalachee.  She hardly ever got underway, mostly sitting dockside in Baltimore.  So I got a mutual transfer with Charlie Riley, who despised the Edisto and had family in Baltimore.

Our first deployment was in the Labrador Sea conducting a study of Icebergs for the International Ice Patrol measuring the mass of icebergs with sonar and photography from our two helicopters.  This involved getting very close to scores of icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

I even earned the privilege to ride in the copilot's seat on one helicopter flight.  The view of the ice fields and bergs and enormity of the horizon and the insignificance of our little red ship below made it an unforgettable experience.

Our next deployment was to the Eastern Arctic on a mission for the Naval Research Lab, gathering acoustic data to assist in the location and tracking of Soviet submarines below the eastern Greenland ice pack.  We stopped in Reykjavík, Iceland where some of the crew got in a drunken brawl with the US Navy at the NATO base club in Keflavík.

From Iceland we headed north, closely followed by a soviet spy ship.  When we noticed they started picking up our garbage, we started being much more selective about what we threw over the side.  Once we entered the ice they could no longer follow us.  A few days later, deep in the ice we were buzzed at mast level by a Soviet Bison Bomber.  It came from dead astern in the blind spot of our air search radar.  After that, we were overflown almost every day by a high level Soviet Bear Bomber.  It was an eerie ever present reminder of the reality of the Cold War.

Deep in the ice, the storms of the seas beyond were only felt as a slow undulation of the ice field, causing the ship to roll gently in the ice.  In the darkness the ice sparkled and glistened below the light show of the aurora borealis.  The aurora was like a psychedelic lace curtain moving in the solar wind, rippling and undulating and changing colors.  I stood out on the bridge wing in the 50 below zero cold, looking up,  awestruck, while the moisture in my nose froze as I inhaled.

The aurora also produced heavy static discharges and while we were in the deep arctic we lost radio reception.  When we finally came out from under it's effects on August 7th, 1974, I headed out on deck and tuned in the BBC on my shortwave radio.  The top news was that President Nixon planned to address the nation the next evening and it was thought that he would announce his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal.  This was stunning news since we had heard nothing in the last month and a half.  The following evening a group of us bundled up in our parkas huddled around the radio on the starboard side of the ship and listened as Nixon resigned.

We sailed to Scotland and spent 5 days in Leith.  I took leave and stayed with my stepfather's family in Edinburgh and explored that wonderful city.  The ship returned to Baltimore and shortly afterward was decommissioned and I was transferred to the Northwind which was undergoing a refit.  While aboard the Northwind, I met Joe Gnagey who came to visit some of my shipmates.  He gave us a slide show of photographs that he had taken in the Antarctic while sailing as a QM on the Northwind.  His amazing photos showed a continent of white wilderness, the footprint of great explorers such as Shackleton and Scott, and the amazing creatures that made their home there.  It fascinated me and kindled a desire in me to some day see the Antarctic for myself.

I was discharged from the Coast Guard the following summer and moved to the Seattle and went to work for NOAA for about five months and then attended college at the University of Idaho.  After a year at the university I finally decided I really wanted to be back at sea and I re-joined NOAA, eventually finding myself as a quartermaster aboard the NOAA Ship Davidson doing a chart adequacy survey of Yakutat Bay, Alaska.  Every couple weeks we would sail to Juneau to replenish stores and have some R&R.  I went hiking up into the woods above the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was quiet and beautiful and wild.  I ate blueberries along the trail and spent the night in an open shelter listening to the wild night sounds around me.

The following day as I hiked out past a camp ground parking lot, I noticed a pickup truck camper with Idaho plates from the county the University of Idaho was located in.  I knocked on the window and struck up a conversation with the owner.  He was a geologist recently graduated from the university who was working for a minerals company prospecting in Alaska.  He invited me to have a beer with him and his friends at a saloon in town.  As we were shooting the breeze and sharing a pitcher of beer, one of the other geologists told me about a company that hired people to work in the Antarctic.  He said he thought they had a boat that went down there too.  So armed with only the name "Holmes & Narver" written on a bar napkin, I headed off with my head buzzing with excitement.

The following morning before the ship sailed back to Yakutat I was at the pay phone armed with my bar napkin and a pocket full of change.  I called dozens of people at the National Science Foundation, Holmes & Narver and finally they referred me to a small California company called Nekton, Inc.  They ran a small ship called the Hero that ran to the Antarctic under contract for the NSF.  As incredible luck would have it, they needed an AB Seaman for the Hero.  I had them mail me the application care of general delivery at the post office in the village of Yakutat.

Two weeks later I was on my way to Talcahuano, Chile to join the R/V Hero.

The Hero was a 125 foot wooden hulled motorsailor built in 1968 by the Harvey Gamage shipyard in Maine.  She was sheaved in tropical greenheart wood with steel plates along the waterline.  She was designed along the same sort of lines as Fridtjof Nansen's ship the Fram.  Very heavy oak frames, round hull, no keel.  She was equipped with sails primarily to help reduce the rolling caused by her round hull and to be used in case of loss of propulsion, for sailing.

When I arrived, she was in the drydock in the ASMAR shipyard in Talcahuano in southern Chile.  When I came aboard I was introduced to Captain Pieter Lenie.  Capt Lenie was already a legend and was a very colorful character.  Born in Belgium, he first went to sea at age 14, leaving Belgium when the Nazis overran his country.  Lenie survived WWII when the ship he was sailing on was torpedoed and blown up and he ended in the freezing water.  He had a very dry wit and at times it was hard to tell whether he was joking or serious.  He was once asked by a visitor: "Captain Lenie, who owns Antarctica?" Lenie hesitated only a moment before replying, "I own it. . . . It belongs to me."   That was typical of Lenie.

The ship was undergoing a refit and a large amount of dry rot had been found in her bow.  The shipyard workers were working timbers with adzes, chipping away at the timbers and shaping them to replace the rotted wood.  We noticed that sap was spraying from the timbers as they chipped away.  The wood was uncured and green.  This created problems as the wood never swelled like cured wood does when submerged in sea water and as soon as the ship was put back in the water a steady, permanent leak came in through the bow which Lenie named the "Rio Betzel" in honor of the NSF bureaucrat who had arranged the repairs.

We spent two months in the yard.  It was very hard on us in the crew.  We went girl crazy, chasing women and partying in town.  We had to be off the streets before the curfew each night or Pinochet's troops would arrest you.  So we shacked up for the night in cheap fleabag pensiones for the night with whichever girl we were with and come dragging back to the ship in the morning, much the worse for wear until it was quitting time and then we went back to the discoteca for another round.  Amazingly we all survived 2 months in Talcahuano.  Though not without our share of self inflicted wounds and minor social diseases.

Finally we set sail for Ushuaia, Argentina, our home port.  Rather than sail through the inside passage of Chile, we sailed straight down the coast and around Cape Horn.  North of Cape Horn, late at night, we hit a huge storm and the mizen parted.  The other two ABs, the 1st and 2nd Mates and I headed back to the stern to secure the shredded sail before it got wrapped up in the radar.  A big stainless steel D-ring was flogging back and forth in the howling wind threatening to smash our skulls.  As we were struggling to secure the sail, out of the corner of my eye I saw something white high above us.  I yelled, grabbed a stay and grabbed a hold of my nearest shipmate as a huge wave broke over us drenching us and nearly washing us away.  We managed to stow the sail and retreated back inside the vessel to dry off.

When we reached Cape Horn, Capt. Lenie shut down the engines and we sailed around Cape Horn.

We met the Chilean pilot at the entrance to the Beagle Channel and he took us as far as Puerto Williams where he disembarked and then the Argentine pilot boarded and took us into Ushuaia.

This was contested territory.  The Chileans and the Argentines were disputing three uninhabited islands at the entrance to the Beagle Channel, Picton, Lennox, and Nueva Islands. 

Due to their strategic location south of the Beagle Channel and facing the Atlantic Ocean, the islands were claimed by both Chile and Argentina, causing a serious border conflict. Picton, Lennox and Nueva granted Chile possible claims on part of the Atlantic Ocean, several other islands including the Falkland islands and of a larger part of Antarctica. Also, gold and oil had supposedly been found. The two countries agreed to submit to arbitration by the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II.  The Queen had ruled in favor of Chile a few months before we arrived and the Argentine government refused to accept the ruling and relations between the two countries was very tense.  Both countries had brutal military dictatorships and trouble was brewing.

When we moored to the stone quay in Ushuaia, we were met by Tommy Goodall who maintained the warehouse for the Hero.  Tommy and his wife Natalie own Estancia Harberton some 85 km east of Ushuaia.

Harberton is the oldest estancia (ranch) on Tierra del Fuego. It was founded by Tommy's great grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Bridges and his wife Mary Ann Varder in 1886. Bridges was the adopted child of an Anglican missionary, whose family left for the Falkland Islands when he was just 13 years old. He arrived in the Tierra del Fuego, age 21, where he worked also as a missionary before being granted land by President Roca in recognition for his work with the archipelago’s indigenous peoples. Haberton is so named after the village in Devonshire where his wife was born.

We loaded supplies, groceries, and a load of passengers, the relief crew for the Palmer Station.  The staff at Palmer had wintered over and were anxiously awaiting their reliefs.  We sailed down the Beagle en route to the Drake Passage, the wide open stormy body of water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Crossing the Drake in the Hero was thoroughly unpleasant.  The ship rolled and wallowed and pitched and corkscrewed, belched diesel fumes from the fuel vents, and in general made me sick as hell.

After two and a half days we made it across and approached the South Shetland Islands. We finally encountered the Antarctic ice edge, and after skirting it for a ways, Capt Lenie pushed in and we continued southward.  We worked our way past King George Island and headed through the Bransfield Strait.  In the distance across the ice pack we could see the rugged ridge of Smith Island.  Continuing southward we entered the narrower Gerlache Strait, surrounded by glacier capped mountain peaks scuplted by snow and violent winds.

The going became more difficult as we often had to back and ram to get through the dense icepack.  My bunk was in the bow and as I lay in my bunk I could listen to the ice sliding by and my bunk shifted and shook as the captain rammed the ship into the ice.

We finally got within three miles of Palmer Station and encountered fast ice.  We were forced to await the arrival of the RRS Bransfield, the ship of the British Antarctic Survey that was bringing supplies for Palmer.

While awaiting the Bransfield we amused ourselves playing soccer on the ice and at one point we cornered an Adelie Penguin between 3 of us.  I got too close and it growled and lunged at me, grabbing my pant leg in it's beak and beating me with it's flippers. The Bransfield finally arrived and started breaking up the ice in the bay, opening a channel to Palmer Station.

Once this was done we acted as a lighter, moving cargo from the Bransfield to the dock (which was too shallow for the bigger ship), pushing our way through the chunks of pack ice.  It was slow laborious work.  The Bransfield also dropped off British teams and their dog teams who were destined to a remote station further south.  They trekked up to the top of the glacier above the station where a ski equipped Twin Otter landed and loaded them up and flew them south.

The unofficial mascot of Palmer Station was Yaby.  He was a South Polar Skua (named YABY for his band colors Yellow, Aluminum, Blue, Yellow) known to Palmer Station residents since he was first banded in 1975.  He was a notorious scavenger.  On one occasion when the station crew was having a BBQ, Yaby swooped down and stole a steak right off of the grill.  While the crew were remarking about what balls that bird had to steal their steak, he swooped down and took another.

After replenishing Palmer, we headed north towards Ushuaia with the departing station crew aboard.  We beat our way across the Drake and into the Beagle and back to town.

While we were in Ushuaia, I was pressed into service taking the renowned ornithologist Dr. David Parmalee and one of his graduate students out in a Zodiak inflatable boat to go look at birds and gather samples out on the islands in the Beagle Channel.  We examined nesting areas for Skuas, Shags, Terns, and Patagonian Geese and encountered a rock covered with sea lions.  As we turned back towards Ushaia, a sudden chubasco swept down the channel.  I guided the zodiak steadily upwind as the waves built and the spray whipped our faces.  I kept my nervous passengers calm, telling stories and jokes.  I finally made it to the shelter of a small cove on Bridges Island where we spotted an empty shepherds shack.  We took shelter, started a fire in the little stove and heated up some Yerba Mate I found in the cabin.

After an hour the winds came down and I called the Hero on the radio to let them know we were finally on our way back.  They told me cryptically that we had better conceal the shotgun that Dr Parmalee had brought with us.  As we approached the dock I saw why....  A large Argentine military transport ship, the Bahía Buen Suceso had arrived and was unloading military trucks towing howitzers.  The tensions with Chile over the three Islands had gotten worse and now the two countries were on the brink of war.

The trucks headed down the road to Tommy Goodall's place and set up gun emplacements at Harberton, taking aim at the Chilean Navy town of Puerto Williams on the other side of the Beagle Channel.  Over the next day several flights of Argentine jet  fighters landed at the Ushuaia airport.

Things came very close to a shooting war, until the Pope sent an emissary to negotiate between the Gen. Videla and Gen. Pinochet, the respective dictators of Argentina and Chile.

However, the same bellicose militaristic attitude prevailed and eventually resulted in the Falkland Islands War with Britain five years later in 1982.  The Bahía Buen Suceso was strafed by British Harrier fighters in the Falklands and later captured and used for target practice by the Royal Navy and sunk.

I continued on the Hero for my 6 month contract.  We made many more voyages across the Drake and visited many research stations  throughout the South Shetlands and and the Antarctic Peninsula, including King George Island, Deception Island, and Gibbs Island.  On Gibbs Island, Capt Lenie dropped me and Dr. Parmalee off in our Zodiak in the fog and departed, leaving us alone on the remote rocky precipitous island with several million Chinstrap Penguins and hundreds of Southern Fulmars.

We spent New Years Day 1978 anchored on the south side of Elephant Island, near where Ernest Shackleton and his men took refuge after the wreck of the Endurance in 1916.  We were taking shelter from a storm, and there in the lee of the island we were buffeted by 85 knot winds.  Looking out at the inhospitable ice covered island it really gave me empathy for the incredible hardships those men endured before finally being rescued.

My contract complete in early 1978, I disembarked the Hero in Ushuaia and flew to Buenos Aires.  In 1978, Argentina was at the height of the "Dirty War", a period of state-sponsored violence against the Argentine people and left-wing guerrillas that lasted from 1976 to 1983 and was carried out primarily by Gen. Videla's military government.  Around 20,000 people disappeared or were killed and 60,000 were tortured during this dark time in Argentine history.  I felt the chill of the repression on the streets of Buenos Aires.  Troops and heavily armed police in blue battle helmets were everywhere, driving around in Argentine made Ford Falcons.  It was as I imagined 1930's Germany was under the Nazis.  I was relieved when I finally boarded a plane bound for Miami the next day.  After 6 months in South America and the Antarctic, returning to Seattle was quite a culture shock.  It made me appreciate so many things I had taken for granted.  It was good to be home.....