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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

Hugh Rodman, USN

published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company

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 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p85  Chapter V
Strange Phenomena of the Sea

In former days, when ships made a three-year cruise on a foreign station, they would leave the home port with about three months' supplies of provisions, and since we had no supply ships, it was necessary to replenish our stock by open purchase in foreign markets, and it was sometimes believed that some of the purchasing officers received a commission from the dealers.

An Honest Paymaster In one case an officer was tried three times for irregularities, but was each time acquitted, whether from lack of evidence or other reasons the deponent sayeth not. Hence he would frequently boast, with a quizzical smile, that he was the most honest paymaster in the navy for it had been proved on three separate occasions.

Then this happened. While I was sitting in his office on shore, a lady's card was handed to him, with a request for a private interview. I at once started to retire, but he asked me very decidedly to remain and declined, through the messenger who brought the card, to grant a private interview, stating that she could see him then and there in his office.

On entering she went to the point at once and said very positively:

"Paymaster X, I advise you to grant me a private interview; I know all about your public life, your professional life and your private life."

 p86  Once more I signified my readiness to withdraw, but he requested me again most positively to remain, and replied to the lady:

"Madam, as far as my public life is concerned, any one who reads the press is as welcome to it as the flowers in May. As to my professional life, I am naturally very proud of it, having been officially pronounced honest on three separate occasions. But, Madam, if you know all about my private life, I regret to state that you know a d–––––d sight more than any woman ought to know, who calls herself a lady." Curtain.

In these days fleet itineraries are approved for a year or so in advance, so that unless there is a change in orders, officers and men will know approximately where they will be throughout the year. As a matter of fact, since ships have so much reserve power from port to port, they run on schedule time and arrive with the precision of express trains.

Mail, supplies, provisions, fuel and other necessities are delivered with like precision; even a hospital ship with every modern appliance accompanies the fleet, and patients with serious ailments are transferred to it, even at sea, unless it be unusually rough.

Months without Mail Formerly facilities for communication with the outside world were few and unsatisfactory. Mail was an uncertain quantity, and I have known of an instance where, because of a change in our proposed itinerary, lack of facilities, and possibly insufficient forethought, a period of five months elapsed between mails; and then it was received by a fluke. Contrast  p87 this with a modern battle-ship which has a regularly established United States post-office on board, that will take care of any postal service required.

Except in the Atlantic, there were few, if any, submarine cables, no radio, and often no regular steam-ship lines for mail in our cruising waters. To‑day, on our ships, no matter where they may be — at sea or in port — by means of radio and otherwise, we are in constant contact with the outside world and may reasonably expect a prompt reply to any communication requiring an answer.

Referring to the incident where we were so long without mail — we had sailed from San Francisco to Honolulu take part in the coronation of King Kalakaua, and remained there several months afterward. On leaving, we sailed for the South Sea Islands with the option and possibility of going to New Zealand and Australia, so had directed that our mail be sent to Sydney. Later it was decided not to visit these two countries, but having no cable communications, all correspondence in relation to the mail had to be entrusted to letters forwarded by any chance sailing ship that we might encounter. Finding such a ship bound for San Francisco, instructions were mailed to change our address from Sydney, Australia, to Papeete, Tahiti.

What may have been the wanderings of our mail bags is hard to say, but one afternoon just outside of Nukahiva, Marquesas Islands, we sighted a small brig, the Tropic Bird, flying the American flag. On communicating by signal, we learned that she had our mail on board, which, it is needless to state, filled our hearts with happy anticipations.

We ranged up alongside under steam to speak to her,  p88 when her skipper requested that we give him a lift and tow him into port, since the entrance was a narrow strait between high mountains, with baffling winds, which made it difficult for a sailing ship to negotiate it and reach the anchorage. We were surprised to hear our captain say in a very imperious way that a man-of‑war was not in the habit of towing merchant craft. To my mind both his manner and conclusion were unwarranted and offensive. So we steamed in, leaving the brig outside to make her way in as best she could, and it took her the better part of the night to do so.

At daylight next morning I was sent on board the brig to get the mail. When I stated my errand to the captain, he informed me in no uncertain terms that our mail had been consigned to Papeete, Tahiti; that he would sail for that port at his leisure, and if we wanted it we would have to go there to get it.

Both the Marquesas and Tahiti are French colonies; so I was then directed to go on shore, communicate with the governor, who, by the way, was a darky from Martinique, and get an order from him for our mail.

The order was freely given, but when I presented it to the skipper of the Tropic Bird, he further informed me that the governor had no jurisdiction over United States mail in transit on an American ship, and stated emphatically that the governor could go to hell, to which place he had already consigned our captain. He added that unless we used force, our mail was going to Tahiti. Owing to certain incidents which had happened there on a previous visit, our captain was none too anxious to return. But return he did, much to his chagrin and our delight.

At any rate, once the mail was received we had  p89 ample time to read it, for we were forty‑odd days under sail out of sight of land in making the ensuing passage across the South Pacific, until we reached Callao, Peru.

Prior to leaving Tahiti we had purchased a lot of salt pork in barrels for the crew, but, on opening it after departure, found nearly the whole of it spoiled; consequently we were a little short of this ration for part of the passage.

A Sheep's Sense of Smell The captain had, as usual, purchased some live fowls and a few sheep for his table, some of which mysteriously (?) disappeared, so that only one lone sheep remained as we approached the coast of South America. This is mentioned to show the wonderful sense of smell which this animal possessed, for while we were still out of sight of land, but with an offshore wind, the sheep evidently smelled the vegetation, began bleating piteously, became very animated and continued so until he was foully murdered on entering port. I say murdered advisedly, for he had become a ship's pet and, to my mind, was far too thin and emaciated from lack of proper care and food to be eaten by any one.

In Callao we happily found another captain waiting to relieve our present one, who was returning to the States to marry the daughter of a patent-medicine man who made cherry pectoral, liver cure and hair restorer. When this was generally known, some wag in the ship procured a sample battle of each medicine and had them mailed to the captain as a wedding present "From the officers and crew of the U. S. S. ––––––––."

Still our cruise from San Francisco to Callao had been filled with many interesting and pleasurable events.

 p90  It was on this last leg of our run from Tahiti to Callao that I saw St. Elmo's fire for the first time, or the corpse-lights, as some of the old‑time sailors call it. We were well down in the return trades of the South Pacific, below latitude 40° S., in a fresh gale, an unusually high sea, making heavy weather of it under close-reefed topsails, with everything battened down tight.

There were almost continuous rain-squalls, and it was thick and dark as Egypt. A most unusual condition obtained, in that the sea looked like molten copper because of the extraordinary phosphorescence of the water, which made it appear as though the ship were afloat in liquid fire. The air was heavily charged with electricity, and flash after flash of lightning occurred with accompanying peals and crashes of thunder, which sounded like an engagement of heavy guns.

About ten P.M. one of the midshipmen on watch was sent below to notify the officers of conditions, in case they wished to come on deck and witness them.

On gaining the spar-deck, after my eyes had accustomed themselves to the new surroundings, I could see a faint glow at the yard-arms and mastheads, which had the same appearance as a lantern-light seen at a distance through a fog. While it seemed uncanny and sepulchral, no one had the slightest superstition in connection with it, something which is often attributed to seafaring men.

It was most unusual for the sea to be phosphorescent in rough weather. Generally it is so only in fairly calm starlit nights, for the endless variety of marine life which causes this condition is supposed to sink well below the surface in rough weather and approach it when the sea is comparatively calm. But it must be  p91 admitted that I have seen it in all kinds and conditions of sea and weather.

Into a Sea of Milk One of the most remarkable instances of the kind occurred one night when steaming through the Straits of Bab-el‑Mandeb, bound for the China Station.

I was on duty as the officer of the deck. The night was beautifully clear, no moon, but bright starlight. Our course was in deep water, no charted reefs, only the open sea and no land within many miles.

Presently, dead ahead, distant apparently about a mile, the sea appeared white and had every appearance of breakers. I immediately stopped, took soundings, got no bottom, steamed ahead slowly, sounding, still no bottom. I verified our reckoning thoroughly, examined the chart, and went ahead dead slow speed. As we approached the well-defined line of demarcation, the sea had the appearance of milk. We proceeded with caution and once well within the milky area, the horizon became clearly defined, enabling us to take star observations which confirmed our reckoning. It seemed exactly as if we were on top of the earth with the entire horizon clearly in view, but seemingly depressed, and as if we were literally sailing in a sea of milk. It should be explained that ordinarily the horizon is not clearly defined at night, and that, in consequence, star sights are generally taken near sundown and sunrise, when both the horizon and the stars are plainly visible.

Realizing that it must be some phosphorescent life that caused this unusual phenomenon, I dipped up a few buckets of water from over the side and found it full of small hairlike worms, transparent and about  p92 an inch in length. I preserved them and later forwarded them to a scientific friend, who informed me that the condition of the water above described only occurs for a few hours once a year, in the breeding season.

Collision with a Whale On my return voyage from China, while crossing the Indian Ocean, we met with another unusual expect — we rammed a whale.

I had had the midwatch, from midnight to four A.M., had gone below and was just turning in for a few hours' sleep, when I felt an appreciable jar as the result of the collision, heard the engine-room bells and realized that something had happened and that the ship was slowing down and stopping. Hurrying on deck, I learned that we had run into something as yet undetermined, but supposedly wreckage of some kind.

It was still dark, and as I was standing on the forecastle in the bows of the ship, peering into the water (the ship in the meantime had lost its headway), I was surprised to see what appeared to be the form of some mighty inhabitant of the deep rise from the water alongside, to a height of at least thirty feet and within a few feet of where I was standing, make a few deliberate movements as though uncertain of its final intent, then slowly subside into the sea.

It is all but needless to add that every one hustled away from the side, but almost at once we recognized it as the tail end of a whale, and on closer inspection found that the ship had struck it near the middle, probably when it was asleep, and had no doubt broken its back and bent it around our bows. We happened to have a ram‑bow, which had a tendency to raise the whale toward the surface after striking it, and what the pressure had been released, by reducing  p93 speed and finally backing, the body fell clear of the ship. This is what had so startled us.

This is not the only instance in my experience of a collision with a whale. During the midshipmen's cruise in the old sailing ship Constellation, in the summer of 1877, when off Cape Cod, we found ourselves in the midst of a large shoal of whales apparently feeding on mackerel, which in those days were very abundant.

We carried a nest of boats on skids on the spar — or upper deck, and at the time of the collision I happened to be in one of the upper ones and felt the impact of the whale very appreciably. Some of those who were near the side and witnessed the occurrence said that the whale struck us head on, on our starboard bow and then, for the moment, turned so that he showed the white of his belly and seemed to be stunned, as he made no immediate effort to get out of our way. The only way in which I can account for this collision is on the supposition that the whale was chasing mackerel and misjudged the distance or speed of the ship. I have never attributed it to viciousness.

As a matter of fact, of the thousands of whales seen at sea, few seem to pay any attention to a ship whatever. Once, however, in crossing the South Pacific under sail, one followed the ship for four or five days and remained in our immediate vicinity nearly the whole time, giving us endless opportunity to view him at close range. Inasmuch as whales often run in shoals, and, like other animals, are perhaps gregarious and fond of company, I thought he might have found some consolation in staying with the ship until he met some of his own kind with whom he made off.

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Page updated: 22 Dec 17