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Sea Tolls

BY ROBERT WELLES RITCHIE

IN ten days of a winter month not many years ago seven steamships that went out from Atlantic and Gulf ports onto the highways of the sea disappeared. Cargo-laden, manned and captained, seven ships, little integers in the great, ordered sum of the world's work, went on their courses of commerce, drew away from the last touch with the world—vanished.

Allegheny, Avon, Port Melbourne—names of dingy tramps, common laborers of the sea, out of memory ere this of everybody save the men who owned them and, perchance, some marine insurance-writer who recalls the risks he had to pay. Seven ships sail within ten days out upon the mapped highways of the sea; the sea opens under them and down they drop into the subcellars of ocean. Not a whisper of these little tragedies from the placid sea; not a word spelled in drifting wreckage or wallowing derelict comes back to the world behind shore lines to hint at the manner of the obliteration. It is as if seven ships had ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules of a flat world and had dropped off the edge in a plunge to the nether stars.

A bark scudding up through the trade tracks of the Pacific, away out in the water wilderness between Valparaiso and Honolulu, sighted hull down the masts of a steamer. The captain of the bark altered his course by a few points for the sole reason of the lonesomeness of the mid-Pacific that was on him; besides, the trade tracks are not a place for steamers, and he was curious. The bark drew nearer the steamer. As the latter lifted out of the horizon, the shape of mystery rode its smokeless funnel and the masts that yawed from side to side in the rocking of the sea's trough. At a half-mile's distance the bark lay to and a boat went out from her to the side of the steamer.

The men from the bark clambered up a sea ladder to a deck deserted. Not a living soul aboard. Scarcely human were the shapes of eleven dead men, Japanese, that were found huddled in bunks or sprawled where death took them. Two of the steamer's boats were gone; there were signs of desperate haste in departure where water-butts and tackle lay by the base of the outswung davits. The ship was sound, engines and hull. From the few papers written in English which were found scattered in the captain's cabin, the ship's name appeared to be the Yaye Maru, out of Hakodate, destination in undecipherable ideographs.

The captain of the bark had no mind to salve this ship of death. The eleven corpses he did not even attempt to bury, for there was the aspect of a plague about them. He took the reckonings of the derelict and pursued his voyage to Honolulu with not even so much as the identifying papers, plague-bearing perchance, in his possession. At Honolulu verification of the clearance of the Yaye Maru, out of Hakodate for Iquique, was had. A ship went out to salve her; other ships bound south and east kept sharp lookout for the ship of the dead men. Not from that time six years ago to the present has the Yaye Maru been sighted. The tides and the winds of ocean made sport of those of her pest-ridden crew that put off under the goad of terror in the two boats, as they made sport of the floating death - house boarded by men of the Honolulu-bound bark.

Again the careless sea, which the world's workers believe they have harnessed, bestirs itself to blot out a paltry ship and to seal with mystery the fate of the puny men who rode her.

When the "Prayer for Those at Sea" was written into the liturgy of the Church, people had more use for it than they have to-day. The devout who repeated that fresh prayer feared the sea and shrank before its mystery. They believed they rode the sea through sufferance, not as masters. Then no sure pathways plotted to the very mile spanned the oceans, prescribed and circumscribed by weekly bulletins of hydrographic offices, charts of iceberg limits, forecasts of fog areas. No tremendous ships, tuned to the veriest fraction of resistance to disaster, made thousand-mile jumps from channel to channel so surely that variations of minutes in their schedules were matters of comment. When workers went out on ships in those days Divine Providence was not a negligible factor. The "Prayer for Those at Sea" is still in our prayer-books, as is the prayer for deliverance from wars and pestilence. But it is not the prevailing custom of those who go down to wave farewells to friends waving in return from the deck of a "five-day boat," to retire instantly to their closets and read a prayer for those at sea. Is it that the infinite co-ordination of the electric nerves of sensing and steel sinews of resistance that operates aboard the giant passenger liners of to-day, minute by minute from dock to dock, has beguiled all sense of fear and laid the haunting mystery of the sea?

Careful French statisticians compile each year for the "Bureau Veritas" a record of the accidents and losses suffered for a twelvemonth by the merchant marine of all nations from which data are obtainable. The yearly summary put forth by the "Bureau Veritas" is counted authoritative by all maritime men—owners, agents, underwriters. Few who loll in the palm-gardens or loiter on the roadways of the swift cities of ease that cross the Atlantic know the "Bureau Veritas," its record of the tolls gathered by that complacent sea down—far down—below the rails.

Nine hundred and eighty-six vessels of the world's merchant marine—steam and sail—totally lost in the year 1908, say these careful French statisticians; and this tally recognizes only steam-vessels of over one hundred tons' burden. Such the record of complete destruction, and the following the count of damage not irreparable: 4,273 steamers injured by fire, collision, stranding, stress of weather, and other causes. The destruction varies from year to year; in 1907 there were 1,104 total losses among merchant ships; in 1905 1,038 steamships and sailing-vessels were gripped by the sea.

No count is kept of the men who go down in the ships that are lost. The statisticians deal only with commercial values. No bureau in the world finds profit or incentive in keeping count of the thousands of sea-workers who are claimed as toll by the sea we reckon tamed. Only this is taken in count: that every day in the year somewhere on the restless wastes of the seven seas two—in some years three—ships are snatched in greed by the power that tolerates the many. So the average has it.

The sea takes most of its tithe by stealth. A bandage of fog about the navigator's eyes, a racing current moving unseen beneath the masked innocence of flat water, a knife-edge reef, or sand that yields until a keel is fairly trapped—then destruction. Not quite four hundred of the 986 vessels lost in the year 1908 were wrecked through stranding; 158 of these were steamships, superior as they were over the barks and schooners subject to the whims of the wind. Collisions sent ninety craft to the bottom. Fire destroyed thirty-eight. Ninety-three filled and foundered. Under the head "missing," which means that not even careful French statisticians can divine the secrets of the deep, fifty ships were registered in the 1908 record of disaster.

Missing—the word in the maritime code that sums up the unknowable, admits the inscrutable genius of the careless ocean. Tragedy is inherent, mystery is embodied in the term. Swift disaster under remote stars, lingering suffering beneath a pitiless sun, heroic sacrifice, black cowardice, prayers unavailing, cursings in madness, hopes that dwindle to dumb despair, the hearts of men shriveled by terror unplumbed—tales all told in the sinister ear of ocean alone and unheard by the world.

Ships crash into ships; one of them at least usually survives the shock to bring to the nearest port tidings of the accident if not survivors from the craft that disappeared. Ships drive upon some savage coast; their wreckage tells the tale if every mouth is stilled. But what of craft that sail out on ocean tracks, out and out to the wide port of lost ships? They are reported, perchance, by this ship and that; then months pass; cables buzz in inquiry from port to port; ships' captains scan the waters where hope insists that they must be. Hope snaps finally.

Missing. Lost. No man will know where or how the sea snared these ships, nor what was the death that was visited upon their crews.

The big freighter Naronic was one of these boats whose fate the insolence of the Atlantic keeps secret. The Naronic on the day of her launching was the largest and strongest ship of her class in all the merchant navies. Twin screws, then an innovation in freighters, gave her tremendous power. Eight bulkheads were counted as perfect protection for her hull. The biggest, safest, swiftest sea-carrier was what shipping-men called her. The Naronic made six round trips from Liverpool to New York, justifying the boasts of her owners on each trip. Then one day in February she nosed out of her berth on the Mersey, full laden and fully manned, bound for New York. Captain William Roberts was her commanding officer; a crew of sixty worked her, and fourteen cattlemen were booked as passengers. The 5,780-ton ship was weeks overdue when the first whisper of disaster came sifting in from the Atlantic. The British steamer Coventry put into Bremen, out of Fernandina, with word that when about five hundred miles southeast of St. John's, Newfoundland, it had one morning passed a life-boat, riding bottom up on the long swell. The name on the stern of the capsized boat was hidden by the water. Later on the same day the Coventry passed a second life-boat, floating upright but almost awash. A sea anchor, made of oars and a spar, was dragging astern at the end of a painter. On the stem, just above the wash of the waves, were the black letters "Naronic." The water-logged life-boat was unoccupied. No other trace of the Naronic was found until five months later, when another of her life-boats was picked up off the Azores. This, too, was empty.

Steamship men tried to reconstruct the moment of disaster that had blotted from sight this biggest and safest boat of her class. The place where the Coventry had sighted the drifting lifeboats was approximately 1,200 miles northeast of New York and twenty-five miles south of the east-bound winter track across the Atlantic. There could not have been a collision, because no other boat plying in that vicinity had been missed, not even a Banks fisher. Icebergs had not been sighted on the winter track, consequently it was not probable that the ill-fated steamer had rammed one in a fog or snow-squall. The sea anchor on that second life-boat sighted by the Coventry gave the only faint support to speculation.

Those oars and that bit of spar shipped over the stern, mute testimony to some despairing effort of men in peril, meant only one thing—a storm, or rather, the spending of a storm, for no life-boat could keep upright in a winter storm on the Atlantic. A storm, then, it had been, said the men who tried to read the rebus of the sea; such a storm as raises the waves of mid-Atlantic to a height of fifty, sixty, even seventy feet from crest to trough. The Naronic had been overwhelmed by one of these waves and, stanch as she was, had wallowed for a while, then dropped like a plummet.

Sometimes the sea has sardonic pleasure in revealing part of its secret even while withholding the knowledge that men most seek. A case in point is the wreck of the Rio Janeiro outside the Golden Gate on February 22, 1901. This old liner had weathered many a typhoon on the China Sea, had baffled the fury of mid-Pacific gales, when suddenly, almost within smelling distance of her own tarry berth in San Francisco, she was snatched under. It was during the last night out on the ship's homeward run from Yokohama that a heavy fog barred entrance to San Francisco harbor. The ship tarried outside, waiting for the fog to lift with the morning. Her crowded saloon was kept alight until after midnight, the songs, speeches, and jests of folk who found themselves happy in the acquaintance of eighteen long days serving to speed the hours. Near six o'clock in the morning Captain Ward, believing the fog would lift in season, put his ship cautiously through the smother. Nearer and nearer he drew to the black fists of the hills that hold back the land to make a waterway, but still the fog did not lift. He kept groping onward.

The life-savers of the station at Baker's Beach, by the gateway of the harbor and within the limits of the city of San Francisco itself, were shocked into action by the hoarse bellowing of a whistle that morning. Through the eerie spaces of the fog the roaring of the whistle came, and with it a confusion of cries, all unearthly in that white world of mist. The life-savers ran out their boat, but before it had jumped the surf-line the insistent call of terror stopped abruptly in a gurgle, and the fog pressed down upon the more dreadful weight of silence.

They pulled people out of the water, these life-savers and the fishermen who had put over to the sound of the whistle. A few here, a few there; but only a small remnant of those who had been on the sentient, living ship ten minutes before was rescued. Of the Rio there was not a trace except jumbled deck débris which cluttered the water. She had torn off her bottom plates on a reef and plunged into deep water. Nor did the sea ever reveal that ship whose wild cry for help sounded at the very elbows of the life-savers. Though divers surveyed the bottom of the Golden Gate until the pressure of deep water sent them bleeding to the surface, and salvage companies grappled for days and weeks, the tides that stream through the cleft at Tamalpais's foot hid the wreck of the Rio beyond man's finding. As a taunt they cast upon the beach, nearly a year after the disaster, a gold watch-case engraved with the name of Captain Ward.

A thoroughly modern liner forges across the ocean at express speed, carrying near a villageful of passengers, half of them coddled in luxury, all of them secure. The giant hull beneath their feet is honeycombed into water-tight compartments, operating automatically. The first spark of fire in the wrong place is the signal for the banging of steel doors against the flame and the almost instant smothering of it by steam. Should a propeller shaft break or a screw drop off, a reduction of speed—that's all. Off a fogbound coast two little sensitive receivers next the outer skin of the ship on port and starboard pick up through the water the throb-throb of a submerged lighthouse bell and carry to a dial in front of the captain's eyes indication of its position. The swift antennæ of the wireless are ever shooting ahead, behind, feeling other giants in the ocean path, touching the shore at all times. With such a ship safety from the ocean's wiles is brought to as high perfection as the experience and ingenuity of marine engineers can achieve. Though a Republic collides and sinks after all aboard her are saved, and a Dakota is hurled on the rocks by a treacherous Japanese current, of such aristocrats among ships the records of the statisticians of marine disasters are not often compiled.

It is the workers of the sea who pay. Lame tramps, rotten in hull and palsied in engine, hiccough their way from port to port, luck and death casting dice for the men in them at every turn of the screw. Ancient barks and schooners staggering under top-heavy deck-loads risk the Hatteras gale and the Formosa typhoon. The trawlers of the North Sea and the Banks fishers off Newfoundland snatch a precarious living when the sea is sleeping, then turn and attempt to run when the swift anger of the sea strikes at them. Little coastwise steamers, whose owners risk their all on one voyage, yet balk at a shoestring requisition from their captains, play with the inshore current set, not daring to nose out where the big winds blow. Whalers and sealers walk into ice traps, trusting in the fetish of the Great Longhaired Sulphurbottom to take them out.

 

"Just a pack o' rotten plates puttied up with tar,
In we came, an' time enough, 'cross Bilbao Bar.
Overloaded, undermanned, meant to founder, we
Euchred God Almighty's storm, bluffed the Eternal Sea!"

 

Brief are the obituaries of the common workers of the sea who have essayed too many times the sunny, smiling waterpaths, only to feel at last the sullen stroke of the element they have tempted. For these plebeians of the world's merchant marine there is little money and less ingenuity expended on a wide margin of safety. They are not expected to carry luxurious passengers five decks above a sea which they in their crass innocence call a pond; these plebeian workers are expected to carry only cargoes. Furthermore, ships and cargoes can be insured against loss; captains and crews have value only as they labor day by day, and they can always be replaced without loss.

Almost none of the freight steamers, big or little, that were built twenty years ago have the protection of bulkheads against collision or the sharp rasping of a reef. Most of these older boats have a single collision bulkhead in the bow, as if the theory of probabilities were that in any collision they would do the ramming. Gashed in any spot behind their collision bulkheads, these ships are as helpless as they would be with the hull construction of a ferry-boat. None but the most modern freighters have the "inside skin" or double hull that safeguards the giant steamships of the passenger service. A Mauretania might have a rent the length of the ship put in her lower hull plates and still make port; a tottering old vagabond out of Vladivostok would sink if it collided with a sampan off Shimonoseki. Captain Ebenezer Hogue, of the Castle Drummoch, who says he stuffed a hole in the side of his ship with beancake he was carrying from Dalny to Nagasaki, and who swears by the ten little Buddhas of Chinampho that when the bean-cakes swelled with the water they ripped the side of his ship "like rlppin' open an envelope, b'gad!" had only the rudiments of imagination, after all.

The fate of the Islander tells the story of how small a strain of circumstance suffices to give the sea its toll of unseaworthy ships. The Islander was a freight and passenger carrying nondescript which was pressed into service at the time the gold fever set a tide of adventurers streaming toward Alaska. She plied between Victoria, B. C., and Skagway, carrying on each up trip as many passengers as could be jammed into her ancient saloon. It was on the morning of August 15, 1901, before the sun was up, that the Islander, then off Douglas Island on a return trip from Skagway, struck what the Atlantic captains would call a "growler"—an iceberg almost awash. She met the ice directly bow on. The shock shook sleeping passengers out of their berths. A sailor who was stirring in the forecastle at the time of the collision heard a muffled cry of terror sound directly beneath his feet. He raced down into the hold and threw open the door of the vessel's collision bulkhead in the bow—the only bulkhead division in the whole hull. A wall of water, carrying on its crest the dead body of the stowaway who had screamed, toppled out of the bow compartment into the unprotected hold. As the sea swiftly gathered the rocking ship closer in its grip, madness ruled the decks. The 108 passengers had deposited $400,000 in dust and nuggets with the purser when the Islander left Skagway. Now, with the deck boards exploding under the pressure of the water-driven air below, the passengers, goaded by a gold lust even stronger than fear, fought the purser and one another for the canvas sacks in the purser's safe. The sea snatched the ship from under their trampling feet. Sixty-seven of the total number aboard perished.

They course the tracks of seven seas, these dingy, laboring tramps—these overladen, wallowing barks. In fair weather and in foul they go and come. The Aleutians plot to trap them with fog. Sable Island notes their approach and whispers to all its hurrying currents that they may throw out their tentacles to snare. The yellow waters of the China Sea feel their keels and league with the hot winds in racking typhoon. To the men who have carried shifty cargoes of California wheat past the williwaws of Magellan Strait, who have threaded the graveyard of ships at Belle Isle and fought the crooked tides of Hiogo, the sea is not a pond, nor running schedules things to be posted to decide smoke-room wagers. The sea is a crafty, moody Presence, capable of treacherous deceit and unrelenting cruelty. The sea is a blind, impenetrable mystery, whose shrouds of veiling mist never disclose the shape of something terrible beyond understanding.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.