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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

by
Admiral
Hugh Rodman, USN


published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Indianapolis
1928

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p46  Chapter III
Some Rough Weather on the High Seas

My life in the navy, in general, has been one continuous round of joy, interest and pleasure, and after a life's experience in roaming around the world and acquiring a modest knowledge of it, or perhaps opinion would better express it, I would unhesitatingly choose the navy in preference to any other profession or occupation on earth.

Not that there have not been depressing incidents, hardships and occasions which, for the time being, were anything but pleasant. But, on the whole, it has been a never-ending source of interest, filled to the brim with numerous and varied experiences, in particular those which come with the gratification of the love of travel, especially off the beaten tracks; and professionally it has been absorbing. It is true that forty or fifty years ago, when we cruised in old wooden ships, generally under sail, making long passages at sea of from thirty to fifty days and often longer — weeks at a time out of sight of land — we had none of the luxuries of life, few of the comforts, and not infrequently few of the bare necessities in the shape of food and a scant allowance of water. One could scarcely boast of the pleasures of naval life under such circumstances. Yet even then there were always new incidents and experiences cropping up that made amends and were interesting and enjoyable.

For example, having always had an interest in  p47 natural history, I found wonderful opportunities to contrast that of the sea with that on land. This was hastened, on an early cruise, by having a shipmate who was engaged in making a collection of marine life, and who, by the use of nets dragged astern when we were leisurely proceeding under sail, would gather hundreds of specimens where the uninitiated might not suspect that there were any at all.

From the Bottom of the Pacific It might be added here that later it was my good fortune to make an extended cruise across the Pacific, including many of the South Sea Island groups, with Professor Alexander Agassiz, whose collections were made not only from on and near the surface, but from depths of three and four miles, and in one instance, nearly five.

It is true that such opportunities rarely come to naval officers; this is merely mentioned as one of the numerous kinds of service to which one might be assigned.

My duties on this cruise were principally navigational and I also helped in the operation of the nets and collecting appliances; and while scientifically I had but little knowledge of the classification of the multitudinous specimens, yet it afforded a never-ending source of interest. Surely no magician could have conceived and conjured up anything so strange and wonderful as some of the living things which we dredged from the bottom of the Pacific.

Nor were the specimens confined to living things alone. In one area of several thousand square miles, where the average depth was almost uniformly three miles, in dragging an eight‑foot net on the bottom, we would invariably find from ten to fifteen specimens of the bones from the interior of whales' ears and  p48 sharks' teeth. Both of these were covered with enamel, and hence had not disintegrated, as had the other and softer bones of these surface denizens of the sea.

The length of the haul on the bottom would rangefrom one to two miles, over an eight-foot width. Think how many thousands — millions perhaps — of these creatures must have died on the surface, and of the years that must have elapsed, to sprinkle the bottom so profusely with their bones!

It is strange that so few officers take an interest in the birds, fish and animals that are so frequently seen at sea, and know little or nothing of their natural history. Most of them know a gull when they see it, but are more than apt to class several other species under the same head. They recognize Mother Carey's chickens, but it is doubtful if they know they are petrels, and that there are many other varieties of this species. They may know an albatross from its size, and may be able to distinguish a boatswain-bird or a frigate-bird, but probably have doubts as to which is which. As to the hundreds of others, they know but few and dismiss them with an indifferent guess as to their classification or habits. I have whiled away many an hour at sea in observing the birds and marine life, and have found it as interesting as the life on shore.

We all contrast the old and the new navy; it is only natural that we should. My first cruise after leaving Annapolis was made in a small wooden ship, nine hundred tons displacement, speed nine knots, bark-rigged, old‑fashioned smooth-bore, muzzle-loading, cast-iron, eight‑inch guns, firing a spherical shell with a time fuse, with a maximum range of two miles.

 p49  Little or no thought was given to target practise; the guns were rarely fired, except when a ceremonial salute was necessary, but if by chance we engaged in a practise, it was a desultory one, without records or effort to promote speed or accuracy. It was more a matter of getting through with it and having it off our hands. To‑day this is revolutionized; the life of a ship pivots around the accuracy of gun‑fire.

The Junior Officers' Mess As to comforts for those of us who were in the steerage, or, as it came to be called in later days, the junior officers' mess, there were absolutely none.

There were nine of us quartered in an open space, about twenty-five by twenty feet, into which the engine-room opened forward; aft, a passageway led to various store-rooms. Under the deck was the main hold containing provisions and ship's stores. Working parties came in throughout the day and often at night, to break out food and supplies — so often in fact that our quarters seemed to be the focus of the ship's activities.

Access to our quarters was obtained by a wooden ladder leading through a hatch from the open deck overhead, which was sheltered by a brass canopy fitted with a canvas cover to which a flap was attached, similar to that in an ordinary tent. Owing to the inadequate height between the decks, in order to stand erect in our quarters, we had to choose the spaces between beams, and many a head was bumped severely in consequence of hurry, darkness, motion of the ship, thoughtlessness or some other inadvertence.

Our toilet facilities consisted of a solitary set — bowl, pitcher and slop‑jar, which we all used in common. There was not an accessible bathtub in the ship, and the other toilet accessories were forward under the forecastle. To these we were compelled to go  p50 through storm or rain, heat or cold, or stress of weather, across an open unsheltered deck, to the opposite end of the ship.

Some of us slept on transoms; that is, fore-and‑aft cushioned seats, some in hammocks, and some on the mess-tables, which latter occupied an appreciable part of our contracted living space.

Our illumination, if it could be called such, depended during the day upon the amount of light which could find its way through the solitary hatch and a few air-ports in the side of the ship — at night, on two smoky lard‑oil lamps and a few candles. At sea the air‑ports were always closed, and often in port, when in an open roadstead, owing to the fact that they were only a few feet above the water-line and the rolling of the ship would submerge them.

Many a time at sea, in rough or stormy weather, it was necessary to unship our canopy cover and batten down, that is, fit wooden planks, or battens, to fill the hatch completely, then cover the whole with heavy canvas or tarpaulins and secure it, so that as little water as possible could find its way below. At such times the air became foul and fetid; even those who were generally free from seasickness were apt to feel some of its qualms, or suffer from nausea and headache in such stifling and polluted air.

Many and many a time the heavy seas coming on board would wash solidly over the battened hatch, and some of the water find its way below to such an extent that our quarters would be awash and we would all lend a hand at bailing.

Under such conditions, to gain the upper deck it would be necessary to pass through the engine-room and use a vertical iron ladder on the lee side, watching  p51 one's chance between seas, in an attempt to escape with as little wetting as possible.

Almost Engulfed In this little ship we were caught in an exceptionally heavy northeast gale off Cape Hatteras, in midwinter, and to this day I can not understand how we survived it. As a matter of fact a number of vessels were lost and others suffered serious damage in our immediate vicinity. It is a well-known fact that the wind against a current kicks up a nasty sea, and the greater the strength of either or both, the heavier the sea.

Here we had the maximum effect of both, the Gulf Stream against the wind. As I stood erect in the maintop, fifty‑two feet above the water-line, the ship would toboggan from the crest of one sea to the deep intervening hollow, from which position I could not see over the crests of the waves when we were on an even keel. I am about six feet tall which would make the seas, from hollow to crest, fifty-eight feet.

Somewhere in print I have read what purported to be scientific reasons why seas may not exceed forty-seven feet in height in the open ocean. Mathematics is not my long suit, and the proof may have been satisfactory from a scientific standpoint; but the height of these waves was, nevertheless, as I have stated.

Our little ship rolled frightfully; the maximum roll was forty-seven degrees, that is, from the vertical to either side. Sea after sea broke over us, everything movable and some things that were supposed to be permanent, were smashed to smithereens and washed overboard. At times the little ship seemed to be completely engulfed, and it appeared impossible for her to free herself of the enormous burden of water on board.

Though we were under steam, effort was made to  p52 steady the ship by setting storm sails; but, owing to the heavy seas breaking over the ship, and the wind of all but hurricane force, we succeeded in setting only one small trysail. The forecastle, where we midshipmen were supposed to stand our watch, became untenable. Any one attempting to remain there would certainly have been washed overboard, so we stood our watch in the fore rigging, soaked through and through, stiff with cold, with about as much shelter as the tame Indian on the Capitol dome has in a raging blizzard.

As if this were not enough, to crown all, the ship began to fill and the pumps got clogged. Why such a thing could have been permitted I do not know, but actually, perforated plates had been installed in the outer planking, that is, on the outside of the ship, to admit air and thus ventilate the frames and inner planking and prevent dry rot. And it certainly came near doing so, as it looked for a while as though neither dry rot nor any other kind of rot would have much chance to get in its deadly work, for we had a very close call to keep from sinking. If anything had any chance at all, it must have been a saturated wet rot — and that at the bottom of the ocean.

As the ship rolled, water poured in through the so‑called ventilating plates, entered the bilges and, since the pumps failed to function, rose until it was a few inches over the floor-plates in the fire-room. The motion of the ship sent it splashing in the ash‑pits, thus quenching the fires under the boilers, and not only lowering the pressure but threatening our entire steam supply.

The failure of the pumps to function was due to two reasons: first, the debris in the bilges clogged the strainers; and, second, we were losing our steam.  p53 Fortunately one of these strainers was under the steerage, as were many other things previously mentioned, so that by using chain hooks and actually submerging one's self under the bilge water, using hands as well, the strainer was cleared and the pumps were barely enabled to take care of the incoming water.

This was the only ship in which I ever served that was shingled on the outside. After reaching port, the so‑called dry‑rot ventilators (damned rotten would be better) were covered with shingles which were nailed to the ship's side until she looked like a barn. But they kept the water out during a fair-weather run, to a navy yard, where the ventilators were removed.

A Cold Rough Passage Though it was still midwinter when this was completed, we were ordered to St. Johns, Newfoundland, to recover and carry back to the United States the body of an officer who had died there the previous July. This was a cold rough passage — gale after gale and most of it under sail, which meant unusual hardships in handling sail, especially for those who had to work aloft.

The ship presented a novel sight. Not only was the rigging festooned with ice in every shape and form, but the bows had accumulated such a load of ice that the ship was down by the head to a depth far below the normal, which so operated as to hoist the stern so high that part of the propeller was out of water, and the rudder, for the same reason, had but little directive effect.

We passed through numerous fields of drift ice, where, from their never-ceasing motion and constant friction, the edges of the ice had become rounded and a fringe of debris had been thrown up until the sea had the effect of being covered with immense white pond- p54 lilies. While still in the ice‑pack we were literally forced in between the high rocky heads that guard the entrance to St. Johns, for the wind was on shore. Shortly after anchoring we were jammed hard and fast and remained so until the harbor was cleared, on a change of wind and a rising temperature. Of course no boats could be used; communication ashore was over the ice. Horse-drawn sleighs were tethered at our lower booms, where ordinarily boats were secured. Since the captain had his own sleigh as did the wardroom, steerage and some others, and since the punctilio of man-of‑war routine still obtained, it was novel to hear the officer of the deck give the order:

"Boatswain's mate?"

"Yes, sir."

"Call away the ward-room sleigh."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Then he would blow his pipe (or call) to attract attention and in a long drawling voice repeat the order, "Awa‑a‑ay ward-room sleigh, a‑w‑a‑a‑y!" Whereupon the said sleigh would circle alongside the starboard gangway, receive its load, and the officer clothed in heavy furs would be piped over the side and the sleigh would make for the beach, the horse at a gallop, which was interpreted by the crew to be "under full sail."

As a matter of contrast, a few weeks before this, on Christmas Day, we were in the tropics crossing the Caribbean Sea, and noting from the chart that the water was three miles deep, as we lay nearly becalmed, several of us jumped overboard and swam round the ship. And here, just a few weeks later, we were jammed in an ice‑floe, with an all but zero temperature prevailing!

These incidents serve to illustrate how the regular  p55 change of seasons is put at variance in the lives of naval officers.

The Worst Storm Encountered "What was the worst storm that you ever encountered?" This is always a puzzler to me, and a difficult question to answer, for my thoughts at once revert to the most trying and dangerous conditions which obtained at any one time, due to the intensity of the gale, the size of the ship, her motive power, proximity to land, and the navigational knowledge of our position. All these have a most decided effect. If the question referred solely to the strongest wind ever encountered in the open sea, in a full-powered modern ship, I would cite the gale which overtook the division of battle-ships in November, 1917, off the Newfoundland Banks, when we were en route across the Atlantic to join the Grand Fleet.

It is far beyond my ability to write a popular description of a storm at sea, with all its attending conditions. Let it be sufficient to say that when the anemometer on this occasion registered a velocity of ninety‑six miles an hour, it gave up the ghost, was completely demolished and disappeared for good. But the wind continued to increase in force until it was estimated to be about one hundred twenty miles an hour.

The singular thing is that it varied so often and so irregularly in direction, from about northeast to northwest, much of the time against the current of the Gulf Stream, that it kicked up a ferocious sea. I say ferocious advisedly, for not only was everything washed away that the sea could reach, but heavy stanchions, boat davits and steel plates were twisted and broken as if they were broom-straws.

 p56  A solid steel hatch was wrenched from its fastenings on the forecastle and swept completely away, allowing one green sea after another to find its way below, where a number of compartments were filled and their contents ruined. Not the least damage was the wrecking of the paint locker, where the containers burst allowing the liquid paint to choke the pumps. It was necessary, under extremely dangerous conditions, to resort to a bucket-line and hand bailing to relieve the ship of the enormous load which was thus added to that of the two forward turrets and their ammunition. She was laboring under the strain and showed it in the workings of some of the water-tight bulkheads.

Ordinarily at sea, in a heavy gale, the wind shifts slowly in direction, as a result of which the seas run fairly uniformly from the same direction for an appreciable time, and a ship may be maneuvered to put her in the most advantageous position for riding it out. But because of the frequent shifts of wind and its terrific velocity, high lumpy seas were running from number of directions, with no continuity, so that, to exaggerate a bit for the sake of explanation, she would be pivoted on the crest of two waves at the same time, one forward, one aft, and almost immediately afterward on a single crest amidships.

Unusual Motions of Ship Ships are built with factors of safety based upon any condition that is likely to arise; but this was far beyond any known conditions — so far that the excessive strain started some of the structural units working. That looked ominous for a while. My flag-ship, the New York, was a vessel of twenty-eight thousand tons displacement; I knew her well, had formerly commanded her in person, and had tested her out in some  p57 extremely heavy weather and had every confidence in her. In addition to which, her commanding officer, Captain, now Admiral, C. F. Hughes, was as fine and efficient as any officer in the navy, bar none, and I had the utmost confidence in his ability and judgment, then as now. So, in consultation, we tried every possible means of maneuvering to relieve the ship, but without avail. We pulled through more because the ship was well built and the gale subsided than because of any particular efforts on our part.

The motion of the ship during the worst part of the storm was most unusual. We are all familiar with the roll that is common to all ships; those of exceptional length have very little pitch. But in this case it was the pitch far more than the roll that caused the greatest concern, for, owing to the abnormal seas, she seemed to take turns in trying to stand alternately upon her head and tail, or bow and stern, if you prefer, and succeeded admirably.

Herein lay the principal danger, for when down by the head, not only would the solid green seas sweep entirely over the tops of the two forward turrets and endanger the bridge, some forty feet above the water-line and a third of the way aft, but the propellers would be lifted clear of the water, requiring the utmost vigilance to avoid disaster.

It was appalling to see such an immense ship make a nose-dive, then to feel the shock, and see her struggle back from under the load of water, free herself and then seem to take breath like a living creature and square herself for the next blow. In a way it was not dissimilar to the blow of a mighty battering‑ram, and it took a colossus to stand it.

So exceptionally heavy was the pitch that the captain  p58 of one of the accompanying ships told me afterward that once or twice, when our stern was submerged and the bow high in the air, he could see daylight under our keel as far aft as the first turret! In discussing this with one of our senior naval-constructors, he stated that it was hard to believe, first, that any such condition could arise, and, second, that the ship could stand it; and I am thoroughly in accord with him. Nevertheless, it did not impair her strength in any material way.

It was the only occasion, in my lifttime experience at sea, when it was found necessary to make a general signal to all ships — big battle-ships at that — to disregard formation and the movements of the flag-ship; to maneuver the individual ships to their own best advantage as a matter of safety until the gale subsided.

Only one out of three other accompanying battle-ships succeeded in keeping in visual signal distance with us, and since radio was forbidden, neither of the other two rejoined us until we were almost across the Atlantic, and the last one, just as we made the land on the other side. Fortunately plans had been pre‑arranged for rejoining in case of separation, and they worked to a charm.

But to return to my first cruise after leaving Annapolis: in those days there was practically no ventilation, no cold storage, no electric lights. Fresh food, with the exception of potatoes and one or two other vegetables, could be kept but a few days, and then under favorable circumstances, for not infrequently, owing to the fact that they must be kept on deck, they would be washed away by the seas or spoiled for lack of adequate protection. Our food was poor. Most of it came from tins or other containers, was poorly  p59 cooked, and had to be carried in all sorts of weather from the galley forward, under the topgallant-forecastle in the bows of the ship, aft across the open deck, down the steerage hatch to the mess-table.

Rough-Weather Fare Not infrequently in rough weather, which sometimes lasted several days, owing to our small size and consequent excessive motion, we would have little else than an occasional pot of coffee or tea, made under difficulty, with tins of meat or vegetables heated in their cases, and ship's biscuit, or hardtack. And though it is not pleasant to relate, this same hardtack was often infested with weevils, making it necessary to split the biscuits, shake out the inhabitants and heat it in order to kill any that remained which might be invisible. Yet we thrived and prospered — and took all this as a matter of course.

As for the crew, they slept in hammocks equipped with mattress and blanket, but no pillow or linen of any kind, and invariably in their undergarments, night-clothes being unknown. Even if they had possessed them, they would have had no place to stow anything so luxurious, since everything they owned had to be kept in a solitary canvas bag and a small wooden ditty‑box, about fifteen inches square.

When hammocks were slung for the night, so inadequate was the allotted space that they were sandwiched like sardines in a tin, in close, ill‑smelling and poorly ventilated compartments between decks, which were not infrequently battened down on account of rough weather.

During the day hammocks were stowed in the hammock nettings, which were hollow troughs surmounting the upper outboard sides of the ship, in the most exposed position possible, and were covered by  p60 a canvas tarpaulin, or hammock cloth, which might shed rain, but was totally inadequate when seas were breaking over the side. Many and many a time they were soaked through and through, so that when first unslung and occupied water could be pressed out of them as though from a sponge.

Fresh water was always a scarce and precious commodity. It was kept under guard and an authorized allowance served out daily to those entitled to it. With the exception of a few bucketsful, which were parceled out in the early morning to the watch on deck, the crew received little or no fresh water for washing and had to depend upon salt water, with which they filled the deck buckets and made their ablutions in the open on deck.

I have never known drinking or cooking water to run out entirely, but have frequently known all other allowances to be cut to such an infinitesimal quantity that it was difficult to make one's usual morning toilet with reference to face, hands and shaving. A full bath was entirely out of the question. And even should enough be obtained for a bath, it would mean only a few inches in a tin foot‑tub since none of us had access to the one bathtub on board, in the captain's cabin. Consequently, in warm weather, when it rained, officers and men would take advantage of the opportunity to go on deck and have a field day, as a general cleaning day is called on board ship, standing out in the open or under the drainage of an awning, if one were spread, and thus obtain the only real bath possible.

The small supply of ship's fresh water was obtained at sea by distillation of salt water in our main boilers, and because of the crude and improvised  p61 methods in vogue, it was rarely palatable, often a bit salty and sometimes oily. In fact, no matter in what part of the world we might be, we sometimes obtained water, even for drinking, from shore, with all of its death-dealing microbes; for in those days water supplies were not purified, nor was the water always tested on board from a sanitary point of view.

The One-Bathtub Gunboat Speaking of bathtubs, or rather the absence of them, some years ago I was ordered to command one of the gunboats in the Philippines which had been acquired from the Spaniards. Among the alterations we made was the installation of a bulkhead of thin corrugated iron, separating the captain's cabin from the ward-room, the living quarters of the other officers, and a bathtub in a side compartment of the cabin — as usual, the only one on board.

In order that the other officers might have access to the tub, which was freely offered them at specified times, and to avoid their passing through my cabin, it was necessary to cut a door in the bathroom bulkhead, and this was done. I was well aware that the navy regulations strictly forbade the cutting of openings in bulkheads without previous authorized permission, but I interpreted it to apply only to bulkheads in regular ships built under departmental specifications, and not to a thin temporary one which had been erected more for privacy than anything else, as was the case in this instance. But as a matter of routine, the usual form of request was later submitted and forwarded to the department, giving reasons. After several months, what was my surprise to receive notice that my request had been disapproved.

Immediately I submitted another, asking reconsideration for the following reasons: First in the  p62 elapsed time the junior officers had already acquired the habit of bathing regularly every day and, since we were in the tropics, sometimes twice a day. Second, I was in the same frame of mind, and believed that bathing was not only necessary, but was both healthful and pleasurable, and felt gratified that I had been more or less instrumental in encouraging my juniors to profit by my experience. Third, no matter what others might think, I firmly believe in bathing and hoped that the department's cooperation might be enlisted in promoting such a worthy cause, even to the extent of installing another tub for the officers, if a suitable place could be found, and a shower bath for the crew. Fourth, I had never fully comprehended why the department continued to hold to the policy that the captain alone, of all others on board needed a bath and, as a constant reminder, installed the only tub on board in his cabin. Fifth, my policy in the short elapsed time had proved such a success that it was to be hoped that department might be induced to encourage bathing throughout the service. I concluded by saying that pending a reply, matters would be left in status quo. And to this day, so far as I am aware, no reply has been made.

As to the crew's food in the old days, their principal meats were tinned beef or mutton, (which they called Soup and Bully, and from which apparently much of the nourishment had been previously extracted by the packers) corned beef, called salt horse, salt pork, dry or in brine. Beans, rice, a few tinned vegetables, flour, coffee, tea, sugar, molasses, hardtack, pickles, tinned butter, (often in a semi-fluid state induced by lack of cooling facilities) with a few other staples, about completed the list.

 p63  There were no mess-tables for the men. Instead, a black tarpaulin was spread on deck, often in the open spaces between the guns, on an uncovered deck, with the tin mess-gear in the shape of plates, cups, bowls and spoons spread upon it.

The food was brought from the galley in the utensils in which it had been cooked and placed before the men, who helped themselves indiscriminately by using their own forks and spoons, resting their plates in their laps or on deck.

Meat with no "Chaw" An amusing incident occurred a few years later on the west coast of South America, when a fresh ration had been added to the crew's allowance of food.

It is customary for the ship's cook to bring to the officer of the deck a sample of the crew's dinner for his inspection and approval. A member of the crew, if he finds fault, is also privileged to communicate with the officer of the deck.

On this occasion an old‑time sailor, one Joshua Chance, part Gay Head Indian, from Martha's Vineyard, and who had been in whaling ships, brought to the mast in a tin plate a sample of his dinner, which consisted of an enticing-looking cut of beef, potatoes and rice.

He said, "Mr. Rodman, look at the stuff they call meat, that they are serving out to sailors."

"What is the matter with it? It looks nice and fresh." In fact, as I was a bit hungry, it looked very appetizing.

"Taste it," he said.

Since meat a little tainted had occasionally been served, as a matter of precaution I first smelled it; detecting no odor, I took a small piece, tasted it and found it tender and of excellent flavor, and so stated.

 p64  "Take a big bite," said Joshua, and on complying I found that it corroborated my first estimate.

"It seems all right to me — what is the matter with it?"

"Mr. Rodman, that ain't no kind of meat to serve to a sailor; it ain't got no chaw in it at all."

I have had many a yarn with Joshua in my night watches, when he told me about his life aboard whalers and in the merchant service, and explained his point of view about life at sea. He had been the harpooner in his whaling days, and generally had one or two irons handy to capture a porpoise when they might be playing around our bows. It required skill to throw them with accuracy, and, as a pupil standing on the bobstays under the bowsprit, I made many failures, while Joshua would rarely miss.

We were once lying in the harbor of Payta, on the coast of Peru, where there were a great many devil-fish. I was telling him of an experience in the Gulf of Mexico, off Mobile, Alabama, when one of these fish apparently chased the whale-boat in which I was at work taking soundings. It certainly followed the boat for an appreciable distance, keeping on the surface and in plain sight. At any rate we headed for a small sand‑bar, as a matter of precaution and safety, and as the devil-fish came within twenty yards of us I put a rifle-ball into his head and settled the matter.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Capturing Devil-Fish Parenthetically, there seems to be some difference of opinion as to whether the devil-fish is a ray or an octopus. As a matter of fact the name is applied to both, but I refer to the ray which is called by the darkies along the Gulf Coast a stingaree (a corruption of stinging ray), because of the poisonous spines on its whip-like tail with which it can produce ugly wounds.

 p65  Old Joshua suggested that if we could borrow our whale-boat he would rig her up with the necessary gear and it would be great fun to capture some of the devil-fish. And he was right.

In the bows we put a tub in which our line lay greased and coiled, with a small bitts for taking a turn, either to increase the friction when the line was running out, or for belaying, as might be desired.

We had six men at the oars, Joshua in the bows with his iron, and I at the steering oar. When we sighted a big fellow on the surface, we would pull quietly up alongside and Joshua would throw his iron so as to pierce one of the immense side wings or flaps, without mortally wounding it.

Several of these fish, as I recall them, were twelve to fifteen feet long, eight or ten wide, and weighed several hundred pounds. At any rate, after being struck, the fish would go at top speed, while Joshua paid out line until we had sufficient scope. Then he would catch a turn around the bitts and the boat would be towed at terrific speed. As the fish became exhausted and slowed down, the line would be shortened in until the fish was fairly close alongside and could be dispatched with a lance in a vital part.

But the end to our fun came very unexpectedly. There were a number of coal hulks anchored in the bay, together with other vessels, and naturally we had to keep clear. Having struck a fish, we were in tow when the ray unfortunately made a sharp turn under water, and dived under one of the coal hulks. Before we could steer the boat clear she struck the side of the hulk, split wide open, broke the arm of one of our men and spilled the whole of us in the water. And there was no more devil-fishing in the harbor of Payta.

 p66  One hears a great many yarns about the octopus, especially with reference to its propensity to attack divers. They are not infrequently met with in stories of the South Seas and elsewhere. I must admit that I know very little about them from personal experience, and have never seen a large one alive. But I have seen some enormous tentacles, whole or in pieces, which lead me to believe that the fish attain to the great size attributed to them, and that they would be an exceptionally dangerous adversary for anything unless it were a whale. And I am also under the impression that certain kinds of whales feed on octopi.a

I was many times warned by the fishermen in the Hawaiian Islands that the vulnerable part of the octopus was immediately between its eyes, and was told that if while diving or fishing I had occasion to kill one, to do so quickly by biting it there before it discolored the water by ejecting the inky fluid which it uses on occasion, or before it could envelop me with its tentacles. While I have seen many small ones caught, for they are marketable in Hawaii, as in many other parts of the world, I have known of only one case where a large one was taken single-handed by an unarmed man.

On the south coast of Hawaii, one of the native sailors of an inter-island steamer, without weapons of any kind, seeing a fourteen-foot octopus in about eighteen feet of water, dived directly on top of it, bit it between the eyes, fought it under water, captured it and brought it to the surface. To any one familiar with the ability of the little octopi, only a couple of feet in size, to hang on to the bottom or insert some of their tentacles into the interstices of rocks and make it impossible to pull them loose by ordinary means, it  p67 was a most strange, daring and dangerous feat to tackle such a large one unarmed. It would have been dangerous enough had a knife been used.

Whales and a Cable Speaking of whales feeding on octopi, if my memory serves me correctly, some years ago our Alaskan cable service was interrupted, and when the cable was hauled to the surface, it brought with it a whale around whose jaw the cable had taken a turn. This had doubtless held the whale under water until it drowned, for they must come to the surface to breathe. Lately I read an account of a second similar occurrence with regard to the same cable near the locality where the first one took place.

There is no question in my mind but that the whale seeing the cable, mistook it for an octopus tentacle and went after it from that point of view.


Thayer's Note:

a In the millions of words on my site, after just short of twenty years transcribing things on it, I've finally found this weird and erroneous, if common plural. No, gentle reader, the plural of octopus is not what you've just read. Let me put it in verse, to help fix it in your mind once and for all:

Octopus is Greek and not Latinate,

Where octo of course stands for eight

And ‑pus is not ‑us but a foot:

Octopuses is thus what is goot.

Yet if learning is fine, I'd rather be supple:

So if I should meet a pair or a couple,

I would say, to put them at ease,

"How do you do, hexadecapodes?"


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Page updated: 21 Jul 17