Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 14

 

CHAPTER XIV

THE STORM-SWEPT FLEET OF ADMIRAL GRAVES

TO observe what might be called shipwreck on a grand scale, it is necessary to hark back to the days of fleets and convoys under sail, when a hundred or two hundred merchant vessels and men-of-war made a long voyage together. If such an argosy chanced to be caught in a hurricane, the tragedy was apt to be tremendous, surpassing anything of the kind in the hazards of modern seafaring. In April, 1782, Admiral George Rodney, in a great sea-battle whose issue was vital to the British Empire, whipped the French fleet of De Grasse off the island of Dominica, in the West Indies. It was a victory which enabled Rodney to write, "Within two little years, I have taken two Spanish, one French, and one Dutch admirals." The French ships which struck their flags to him included the huge Ville de Paris of 110 guns, which had flown De Grasse's pennant; the Glorieux and Hector of seventy-four guns each; the Ardent, Caton, and Jason of sixty-four guns each.

As soon as these prizes could be repaired, they were ordered to sail for England, with several of the British ships of the line as an escort, and with them went more than a hundred merchantmen from the West Indies. In command was Admiral Graves of Rodney's fleet, a sailor who was to prove himself as noble in misfortune as he had been illustrious in action. His ships were in no condition to encounter heavy weather, for the battle had pounded and shattered both antagonists, and refitting had to be done in makeshift fashion for lack of dock-yards and material. British bluejackets and French prisoners were blithely willing, however, to run the risk of keeping afloat so long as they were homeward bound. The Ardent and the Jason came so near to sinking, even in smooth seas, that they had to be ordered back to Jamaica, but the rest of the fleet moved on until a few of the merchant ships parted company to steer for New York, leaving ninety-three sail in all to cross the Atlantic.

The season was September, and strong gales blew from the eastward, which made it weary work thrashing into the head seas. Two more of the crippled French men-of-war signaled that they were in distress, and the admiral told them to bear away for Halifax. At length the wind shifted suddenly to the northward and increased to a roaring storm. Foul weather had been expected, and from his flagship, the Ramillies, Admiral Graves warned the scattered fleet to close in and snug down. They came straggling in from the cloudy horizon, upper sails furled, decks streaming, until at sunset the anxious flock was within sight of the shepherd, and the fluttering flags passed the word to make ready for the worst.

The Ramillies, a majestic seventy-four-gun ship, was almost overwhelmed before daylight, mainmast gone by the board, all her upper spars splintered, rudder torn away, and the seas washing clean over her. The admiral took it with unruffled courage, although he was flooded out of his cabin, and arrived on deck with one leg in his breeches and his boots in his hand. For all he knew, the ship was about to go to the bottom.

 

but he ordered two of the lieutenants to examine into the state of the affairs below, and to keep a sufficient number of people at the pumps, while he himself and the captain kept the deck to encourage the men to clear away the wreckage which, by beating against the sides of the ship, had stripped off the copper sheathing and exposed the seams so much to the sea that the decayed oakum washed out and the whole frame became at once exceedingly porous and leaky.

 

The situation of the Ramillies seemed bad enough, but dawn disclosed other ships which were much worse off. Close to leeward was a large vessel, the Dutton, which had been a famous East Indiaman. She was lying flat upon her side, while the crew struggled to cut away the masts. Presently the naval lieutenant in command was seen to jump into the sea, which instantly obliterated him. A few of the crew slid one of the boats off the deck, and were whirled away in the foam and spray which soon engulfed them. Presently the ship dived under and was seen no more, and the last glimpse, as she miserably foundered, was the ensign hoisted union down, which gleamed like a bit of flame. Of the ninety-odd ships which had been seen in the convoy only a dozen hours earlier, no more than twenty could be counted. Some had been whirled away like chips before the storm, while others had gone down during the night and left no trace.

Hull down was descried the Canada; the Centaur reeled far to windward; and the Glorieux was a distant hulk, all three of them dismasted and apparently sinking. Of these stout British men-of-war only the Canada survived, and brought her people safely through. The Ville de Paris was still afloat and loomed lofty and almost uninjured, but a few hours later she filled and sank, carrying eight hundred men to the bottom with her. Of the merchantmen, not one within sight of the Ramillies had all her masts standing. They were almost helpless survivors, still battling for very existence.

Admiral Graves had no intention of losing his flag-ship and his life without fighting in the last ditch. Long lines of sailors passed buckets to assist the laboring pumps, and storm-sails were rigged upon the jagged stumps of the masts. The sturdy old Ramillies, with six feet of water in the hold, was somehow brought around before the wind, and ran as fast as the merchant vessels that fled on each side of her. After spending all day in pumping and baling until they were ready to drop in their tracks, the officers, through the captain as spokesman, suggested to the admiral that some of the guns be thrown overboard in order to lighten the ship. To this he vigorously objected on the ground that a man-of-war was a sorry jest without her battery, but they argued that a man-of-war in Davy Jones' locker was of no use at all, wherefore the admiral consented to heaving over the lighter guns and some of the shot.

After another night of distress and increasing peril, the officers raised the question again, and

 
the admiral was prevailed upon, by the renewed and pressing remonstrances, to let six of the forward-most and four of the aftermost guns of the main deck be thrown overboard, together with the remainder of those on the quarterdeck; and the ship still continuing to open very much, he ordered tarred canvas and hides to be nailed fore and aft from under the sills of the ports on the main deck under the fifth plank above, or within the waterways, and the crew, without orders did the same on the lower deck.
 

The ship was sinking in spite of these endeavors, and the admiral now let them throw all the guns over, which grieved him very much, "and there being eight feet of water in the magazine, every gentleman was compelled to take his turn at the whips or in handling the buckets."

These six hundred British seamen and officers were making a very gallant effort of it, and infusing them with his ardent spirit was the cheery, resourceful Admiral Graves, whose chief virtue was never to know when he was whipped. Under his direction the ship was now frapped, and if you would know how ancient was this method of trying to save a ship in the last extremity, please turn to St. Paul's story of his own shipwreck and read as follows:

 

And when the ship was caught and could not bear up into the wind, we let her drive. And running under a certain island which is called Clauda, we had much work to come by the boat;

Which when they had taken up, they used helps, under-girdling the ship; and fearing lest they should fall into the quicksands, strake sail and so were driven.

The souls of the jolly, jolly mariners in Kipling's "Last Chantey," plucking at their harps and they plucked unhandily, listened with professional approval when the stout Apostle Paul lifted his voice in turn and sang to them:

 

Once we frapped a ship, and she labored woundily,
There were fourteen score of these.
And they blessed Thee on their knees,
When they learned Thy Grace and Glory under
Malta by the sea!

 

And so the Ramillies was frapped, or under-girdled by passing hempen hawsers under her keel and around the straining hull to hold her timbers together before she literally fell apart. It was a fine feat of seamanship, but unavailing. The admiral had nothing more to say about the crime of tossing overboard his Majesty's valuable guns, munitions, and stores, and the crew fairly gutted the ship of everything weighty, including both bower anchors. As the day wore on toward nightfall, about twenty other ships were still visible, and the officers urged the admiral to shift his pennant to one of them and so save himself; but

 
this he positively refused to do, deeming it, as he declared, unpardonable of a commander-in-chief to desert his garrison in distress; that his living a few years longer was of very little consequence, but that, by leaving his ship at such a time, he should discourage and slacken the exertions of the people by setting them a very bad example.

When evening came, the spirits of the people began to fail, and they openly expressed the utmost despair, together with the most earnest desire of quitting the ship lest they should founder in her. The admiral hereupon advanced and told them that he and their officers had an equal regard for their own lives, that the officers had no intention of deserting either them or the ship, that, for his part, he was determined to try one more night in her; he therefore hoped and intreated they would do so too, for there was still room to imagine that one fair day, with a moderate sea, might enable them by united exertion to clear and secure the well against the incroaching ballast which washed into it; that if this could be done they might be able to restore the chains to the pumps and use them; and that then hands enough might be spared to raise jury-masts with which they might carry the ship to Ireland; that her appearance alone, while she could swim, would be sufficient to protect the remaining part of her convoy; above all, that as everything that could be thought of had now been done for her relief, it would be but reasonable to wait the effect.

This temperate speech had the desired result. The firmness and confidence with which he spoke, and their reliance on his seamanship and judgment, as well as his constant presence and attention to every accident, had a wonderful effect upon them. Since the first disaster, the admiral had, in fact, scarcely ever quitted the deck. This they had all observed, together with his diligence in personally inspecting every circumstance of distress.
 

This simple picture of him portrays a fine figure of a man, of the sort who have created and fostered the spirit and traditions both of the British and the American naval services. In a sinking ship which had lost all her guns, he was still mindful of his duty of guarding the merchant convoy, or what was left of it, against any roving French or Spanish war vessels or privateers, and every fiber of him rebelled against deserting his ship as long as her flag flew above water. He was a brother of the sea to Admiral Duncan who, as Stevenson describes it,

 

lying off the Texel with his own flagship, the Venerable, heard that the whole Dutch fleet was putting to sea. He told Captain Hotham to anchor alongside of him in the narrowest part of the channel and fight his vessel until she sank. "I have taken the depth of the water," added he, "and when the Venerable goes down, my flag will still fly." And you observe this is no naked Viking in a prehistoric period; but a Scotch member of Parliament, with a smattering of the classics, a telescope, a cocked hat of great size, and flannel underclothing.

 

At three o'clock in the morning of the next night the pumps of the Ramillies were found to be hopelessly out of commission, the water was rushing into the gaping wounds made by the sea, and it seemed as though the timbers were pulling asunder from stern to bow. Sadly the admiral admitted that the| game was lost, and he told his captain to abandon ship at daybreak, but there was to be no wild scramble for the boats. The crew was to be informed that the sick and disabled were to be removed, and that all the merchant vessels would be ordered to send boats for this purpose. Confidentially, however, the officers were instructed to fetch ample stores of bread, beef, pork, and flour to the quarterdeck and to arrange for distributing the crew among the boats that were to be called away from the other ships. Such boats of the Ramillies as had not been smashed by the storm were to be ready to launch, and every officer would be held responsible for the men in his own division. As soon as the invalids were safely out of the ship, the whole crew would be embarked in an orderly and deliberate manner.

 
Accordingly at dawn, the signal was made for the boats of the merchantmen, but nobody suspected what was to follow until the bread was entirely removed and the sick gone. About six o'clock the rest of the crew were permitted to go off, and between nine and ten, there being nothing farther to direct or regulate, the admiral himself, after shaking hands with every officer, and leaving his barge for their better accommodation and transport, quitted forever the Ramillies which had then nine feet of water in her hold. He went into a small leaky boat, loaded with bread, out of which both himself and the surgeon who accompanied him had to bale the water all the way. He was in his boots, with his surtout over his uniform, and his countenance as calm and composed as ever. He had, at going off left behind all his stock, wines, furniture, books, charts, &c. which had cost him upwards of one thousand pounds, being unwilling to employ even a single servant in saving or packing up what belonged to himself alone, in a time of such general calamity, or to appear to fare better in that respect than any of the crew. The admiral rowed for the Belle, Captain Foster, being the first of the trading vessels that had borne up to the Ramillies the preceding night, and by his anxious humanity set such an example to his brother traders as had a powerful influence upon them, an influence which was generally followed by sixteen other ships.
 

Two hours after the six hundred men of the Ramillies had been taken off, the weather, which had moderated, became furious again, and during a whole week after that it would have been impossible to handle boats in the wicked seas. Admiral Graves had managed the weather as handsomely as he did his ship and her men, getting them away at precisely the right moment and making a record for efficiency and resolution which must commend itself to every mariner, whether or not he happens to be a Britisher. On October 10 the Belle safely carried the admiral into Cork Harbor, where he hoisted his pennant aboard the frigate Myrmidon. The crew reached port in various ships, excepting a few who were bagged by French privateers which swooped seaward at the news that the great West India convoy had been dispersed by a storm.

Of the other British men-of-war which went to the bottom, the story of the Centaur was reported by her commander. Captain Inglefield, who was one of the thirteen survivors of a crew of more than four hundred men. Whether or not he should have stayed with his hapless people and suffered the common fate is a difficult problem for a landsman to weigh, but the facts speak for themselves, and they afford opportunity to compare his behavior with that of Admiral Graves of the Ramillies. Tried by an Admiralty court martial. Captain Inglefield was honorably acquitted of all blame, and his official record is therefore without a stain.

During the first night of the storm the Centaur was thrown on her beam-ends, and was to all appearances a capsized ship. The masts were cut away, and she righted suddenly. Three guns broke adrift on the main-deck, and the heavy round shot spilled out of the smashed lockers. There was a devil's game of bowls below, with these ponderous objects madly charging to and fro to the violent motion of the ship, such a scene as Victor Hugo painted in a famous chapter of his "Ninety-Three." The bluejackets scrambled after these infernal guns, which could be subdued only by snaring them with ropes and tackles. They destroyed everything in their path, maiming or slaying the sailors who were not agile enough to dodge the onslaught, reducing bulkheads, stanchions, deck-beams to kindling wood; but they were captured after a long conflict and before they could batter the oaken sides out of the ship.

There was a glimpse of hope in the early morning when the Ville de Paris was sighted two miles to windward. The storm had subsided, a sort of breathing-spell between the outbreaks of terrific weather. The stately three-decker of a Frenchman lifted all her masts against the foaming sky-line and was even setting a topsail. Plunging her long rows of painted gun-ports under, she climbed buoyantly to meet the next gray-backed comber, while the copper glinted almost to her keel as she wildly rolled and staggered. This captured flag-ship in which De Grasse, fresh from the triumph of Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, had confidently expected to crush Rodney and so sweep the seas of the New World for France, seemed to have been vouchsafed some peculiar respite by the god of storms. To those who beheld her from the drowning Centaur the impression conveyed was the same as that reported by Admiral Graves, that she had miraculously come through unhurt, the only ship of this great fleet whose lofty spars still stood.

Captain Inglefield began firing guns in token of distress, and the Ville de Paris bore straight toward him, responding to her him and handling like a ship which was under complete control. Two merchant vessels passed close enough to hail the Centaur and offer help, but Captain Inglefield waved them on their courses, so confident was he that the Ville de Paris, now flying the ensign of the British navy, would stand by. Another merchantman passing close aboard, the Centaur asked her to take word to Captain Wilkinson of the Ville de Paris that he was urgently needed. A little while and, inexplicably, the captured flag-ship passed without making a signal and held on the same tack until she vanished in the mist, passed forever with her eight hundred men just as she had disappeared from the sight of those who gazed and wondered from the decks of the Ramillies. The sea holds many an unfinished story, and the tall Ville de Paris was one of them.

On board the Centaur they pumped and they baled and gulped down the stiff rations of grog and hoped to fetch her through, as is the way of simple sailormen. Captain Inglefield noted that "the people worked without a murmur and indeed with cheerfulness." In 1782 men-of-war's-men were singing Didbin's hearty sea-songs, which held sentiment enough to please a mariner's heart, and possibly the clattering beat of the chain pumps of the Centaur were timed to the chorus of "Blow High, Blow Low," and the gloomy, reeking main-deck echoed the verses:

 

"And on that night when all the crew.
The memory of their former lives
O'er flowing cans of flip renew.
And drink their sweethearts and their wives,
I 'll heave a sigh and think on thee:
And, as the ship rolls through the sea,
The burden of my song shall be
Blow high, blow low, let tempests tear
The mainmast by the board."

The Centaur was left on a lonely sea after the assistance of the crippled merchantmen had been courteously declined and the Ville de Paris had so unaccountably sailed past. At night the flashes of guns were seen, the farewell messages of foundering ships, but through the long day there was never a sight of a sail. The Centaur settled deeper and deeper until her lower decks were awash and it was foolish to pump and bale any longer. What was the use of trying to lift the Atlantic Ocean out of a ship that refused to stay afloat? It was not so much the fear of death as the realization of defeat that caused such a scene as this:

"The people who, till this period, had labored as determined to conquer their difficulties, without a murmur, or without a tear, seeing their efforts useless, many of them burst into tears and wept like children."

There were boats for only a few of the large company, and such rafts as could be hastily put together would not have survived an hour in the seas that still ran high and menacing. By way of doing something, however, the carpenter's gang swung out some spars and booms and began to lash them together. Captain Inglefield made mention of the behavior of the crew in this interesting reference.

 

Some appeared perfectly resigned, went to their hammocks and desired their messmates to lash them in; others were securing themselves to gratings and small rafts; but the most predominant idea was that of putting on their best and cleanest clothes.

 

This desire of making a decent appearance when in the presence of death is curiously frequent in the annals of the sea and may be called a characteristic trait of the sailor. At random two instances recur to mind. One of them happened aboard the United States frigate Essex in the War of 1812, when Captain David Porter fought his great fight against the Phoebe and the Cherub and won glory in defeat. The decks of the Essex were covered with dead and wounded, and more than half her crew had fallen when the starry ensign was hauled down. Then, as one of them told it when he returned home:

"After the engagement, Benjamin Hazen, having dressed himself in a clean shirt and jerkin, told what messmates of his that were left that he could never submit to be taken as a prisoner by the English and leaped into the sea where he was drowned."

More than a hundred years later, in the Great War against Germany, an American yacht enrolled in the naval service was hunting submarines and convoying transports in the Bay of Biscay when a hurricane almost tore her to pieces. Deck-houses smashed) hold full of water, the yacht was not expected to survive the night. Then it was that a boatswain's mate related:

 

A guy of my division appeared on deck all dressed up in his liberty blues. The bos'n's-mate asked him what he meant by turning out all dolled up like that. "Why, Jack," answered this cheerful gob, "I have a date with a mermaid in Davy Jones' locker."

 

Captain Inglefield of the Centaur was about to make one of those momentous decisions which now and then confront a man as he stands at the crossroads of destiny. When he prepared his own case and submitted his defense, in the narrative written after his return to England, he stated it with a certain unconscious art which deserves to be quoted as follows:

 

As evening approached, the ship seemed little more than suspended in the water. There was no certainty that she would swim from one minute to another; and the love of life, now began to level all distinctions. It was impossible, indeed, for any man to deceive himself with the hopes of being saved on a raft on such a sea besides, it was probable that the ship in sinking would carry everything down with her in a vortex.

It was near five o'clock, when coming from my cabin, I observed a number of people gazing very anxiously over the side; and looking myself, I saw that several men had forced the pinnace and that more were attempting to get in. I had thoughts of securing this boat before she might be sunk by numbers; there appeared not a moment for consideration; to remain and perish with the ship's company to whom I could no longer be of any use, or seize the opportunity, which seemed the only one of escaping and leave the people with whom, on a variety of occasions I had been so well satisfied that I thought I could give my life to preserve them. This was, indeed, a painful conflict and of which, I believe, no man could form a just idea who had not been placed in a similar situation.

The love of life prevailed. I called to Mr. Rainey, the master, the only officer on deck, and desired him to follow me and we immediately descended into the boat by the after part of the chains. But it was not without great difficulty that we got her clear of the ship, twice the number that she could carry pushing in, and many leaping into the water. Mr. Baylis, a young gentleman of fifteen years of age, leaped from the chains after the boat had got off, and was taken in.

 

Yes, the love of life had prevailed with Captain Inglefield of the Centaur, and, no matter how painful his moral conflict, it is obvious that his departure was attended with a kind of skulking ignominy. He ran away from his comrades to save his own skin and left them in the lurch. This is quixotic, perhaps, but are not all questions of honor more or less irrational? The captain's narrative makes no farther mention of the sinking Centaur. At five o'clock of a September afternoon in the North Atlantic, two hours of daylight remained even in thick and cloudy weather. The four hundred men aboard the ship could watch the pinnace as she scudded before the wind with a blanket stretched for a sail and her course laid for the Azores. I imagine they damned the soul of their captain in curses that were wrenched from the bottom of their hearts instead of extenuating his conduct and wishing him luck. And presumably Captain Inglefield turned to gaze at the foundering man-of-war with her people clustered on deck or busied with the pitifully futile rafts. Nobody knows how much longer the Centaur floated. The time must have been mercifully brief. When she went under, every man on board was drowned.

The captain expected sympathy, and you may offer him as much as you like when he relates of his voyage in the small boat:

 

It was then that I became sensible how little, if anything, our condition was better than that of those who remained in the ship. At least, it seemed to be only the prolongation of a miserable existence. We were altogether twelve in number, in a leaky boat, with one of the gunwales stove, in nearly the middle of the Western Ocean, without compass, quadrant, or sail; wanting great coat or cloak, all very thinly clothed, in a gale of wind and with a great sea running. . . . On examining what means we had of subsistence, I found a bag of bread, a small ham, a single piece of pork, two quart bottles of water, and a few French cordials.

 

They were thirteen days adrift and suffered exceedingly, but only one man died of hunger and cold, and the others recovered their strength in the hospitable port of Fayal. These were the captain, the master, a young midshipman, a surgeon's mate, a coxswain, a quartermaster, and five seamen.