Bringing in a Derelict

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Bringing in a Derelict is an seafaring adventure story published in McRoberts' collection, Rounding Cape Horn and Other Sea Stories (1895).
An illustration for the story Bringing in a Derelict by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Bringing in a Derelict by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Bringing in a Derelict by the author Walter McRoberts

The West India hurricane of August, 1893, was one of unusual severity, and caused great havoc among shipping on the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Maine. Besides the large number of vessels lost by going ashore, many were abandoned by their crews at sea after having sprung a leak or become water-logged. A large part of these craft subsequently foundered, but a number of them were vessels bound from Georgia ports to Boston and New York with cargoes of hard pine lumber, and in these cases the vessels, after becoming full of water, “floated on their cargoes;” that is to say, the buoyancy imparted to the wrecks by the lumber in their holds kept them from sinking as they ordinarily would have done. Some of these derelicts have been known to float for a year or two, round and round in a beaten track, forming a source of great peril to navigation; until, the lumber becoming thoroughly saturated with water, the wreck finally sinks. In some instances the abandoned vessel is torn to pieces by the violence of successive storms before this stage has been reached.

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, Bringing in a Derelict, wreckThe most remarkable case of this character is that of the American schooner Fannie E. Wolston, which was abandoned at sea in October, 1891, and was still afloat three years afterward. She was sighted scores of times during this long interval, and was more than once set on fire by passing vessels. Her travels brought her from Cape Hatteras to mid-ocean; from the tropical Bahamas nearly to the shores of Europe; and in almost every part of the North Atlantic she was frequently seen. Covered with barnacles and sea-weed, reduced to a mere skeleton, and with one rusty anchor still hanging from her bow, this celebrated derelict continued for thirty-six months her long pilgrimage without captain or crew. The bitter gales of three Atlantic winters, that disposed of the ill-fated Naronic and a hundred other staunch vessels were unable to sink the Fannie E. Wolston. When last seen in September, 1894, she had nearly completed the third year of her phenomenal career as an abandoned wreck, during which long period it is computed that her drift was more than eight thousand miles. She was the record-breaker of derelicts.

A sailing ship arrived at Philadelphia early in September, having on board the captain and crew of the brig Neptune, which had been abandoned four days previously, two hundred miles east of Cape Hatteras, while on a voyage from Savannah to Boston with a cargo of Georgia pine. Within a month the brig was sighted no less than five times by steamers arriving at New York—the last time being in Lat. 42° N., Long. 65° W., a point several hundred miles directly east from Boston. Thus in four weeks this derelict had drifted nearly six hundred miles to the northeast of the spot where she was abandoned.

Nothing having been done towards recovering her, at the expiration of a month the owners of the powerful ocean tug Atlas, of Philadelphia, determined to despatch that vessel in search of the Neptune; for, could the latter be brought into port, the owners of the tug would reap a profitable harvest in the way of salvage.

Accordingly, one fine autumn morning, the Atlas steamed out from the Point Breeze Oil Wharves on the Schuylkill River, with a three weeks’ supply of coal and all the most efficient apparatus for wrecking and sea-towing. She was a staunch tug of 800 horse power, and was equipped with a powerful electric search light. There were on board Captain James and ten men, besides Albert Shaw, the captain’s cousin, who had no connection with the tug, but had obtained permission to make one of the party more through a love of adventure than anything else.

After rounding the Delaware Capes and entering the open ocean, the course was laid N.E. by N., and Captain James remarked to his cousin as he finished examining the chart, “Yes, Al, if all goes well we ought to overhaul that brig within five days, somewhere about 44 and 62.”

“You appear to regard falling in with her as a foregone conclusion,” replied Mr. Shaw, somewhat surprised. He was a pale, slender young fellow of twenty-two, and was much more expert at entering up cash and taking off trial balances than at figuring latitude and longitude.

“Why,” answered the captain, “I’ve marked on this chart the date and the place where she was abandoned; then I’ve put down a cross and the date at the exact spot she’s been sighted five different times since, and by connecting all my crosses with a pencil mark and figuring the distance between each one, I can tell about how much and in what direction that wreck is drifting each day. She’s in the Gulf Stream, which she won’t get out of till I tow her out. There’s the dinner bell.”

The captain’s explanation had enlightened Albert as to the method to be pursued in locating the wreck; though, to tell the truth, he was a little skeptical in regard to the final outcome of the matter. There was a brisk sea running, and in spite of the table-rack, it required no little dexterity to prevent beef, vegetables and condensed milk from mingling in one confused jumble; but every one was in good humor, and the fresh, salt air had sharpened the appetites of those who gathered about the little table, and especially that of the captain’s cousin, who averred that he had not been so hungry in six months. Dinner over, Albert busied himself in exploring every part of the tug and investigating the night signals, when suddenly Captain James called to him from the upper deck. Upon ascending thither, he was informed that the Atlas was bearing down on a floating lumber yard. Looking ahead he saw, still some distance away, great quantities of planks floating about; in fact the ocean seemed literally covered with them, forming a curious sight.

The tug soon reached the outer edge of the moving mass, and Jim Speers, the mate, remarked as he surveyed the white clean planks with a critic’s eye, “Fine lumber, that. Some good-sized vessel’s lost her deck-load, I reckon.”

The planks rose and fell on the long regular swell, and as some of them were occasionally lifted partly out of water by a sea, their shining wet surfaces reflected the sun’s rays with dazzling brilliancy. In some places they were massed together so closely that it was difficult to find a passage through them, and though the greater portion of this valuable lot of timber was soon left behind, masses of planks were met continually for a distance of nearly twenty miles. Captain James took the bearings of the main body so as to report the matter upon reaching port.

A six-knot breeze was blowing next morning but the sun did not show himself, and noon having come with the sky still cloudy, the Captain was compelled to figure out his position by dead reckoning, which is not so accurate as a solar observation. He calculated that if everything went well, the tug should not be far from the Neptune at the end of twenty-four hours, providing his estimates of the brig’s drift were correct.

The afternoon wore on, and the skipper and his cousin had paced the narrow deck for some moments in silence, when the former remarked meditatively, “I had a queer experience with a derelict once,—just after I took this tug.”

“How was that?” asked Albert.

The captain finished filling his pipe with fragments of tobacco which he cut from a plug, and continued:

“It was about two years ago that I received orders to go after the derelict bark Pegasus. She had sailed from a Nova Scotia port for the West coast of Ireland with one million feet of deals aboard, and after being abandoned in a big blow was sighted several times. I’m a sinner if we didn’t cruise twenty-five hundred miles and use up half our coal when, on the twelfth day out as I came on deck, my mate said to me, “Captain, there’s a lame duck two points on the port bow.” (We seamen often speak of a crippled vessel as a lame duck.) Well, we’d run that bark down at last, and we lost no time in getting her in tow. After towing her two days, what do you think happened?”

“The hawser parted?”

“She sank—went right down—and I went back to port the most disgusted man in Philadelphia. We found, after we got in, that a steamer passing the wreck and considering her dangerous to navigation had set fire to her; but after burning the main deck nearly through, and a hole in the stern, the fire had been put out, probably by the seas which the bark shipped. This was only a couple of days before we sighted her. While we had her in tow I noticed that a good deal of lumber washed out every time a big sea struck her, and I didn’t like it much either, though I made no doubt she’d float till we reached port. But, as I said, she played me a mean trick and foundered about four hundred miles off the Delaware Capes.”

“That was tough luck,” commented Albert, as he glanced at the dial of the taffrail log which trailed astern—its brass rotator revolving rapidly just beneath the surface of the dark blue water.

Next day was bright and sunny, and an extra sharp lookout was kept, for it was hoped to sight the derelict within the next twelve hours. After ascertaining the tug’s position at noon, the course was changed to N.N.E., and things went on as before. Mr. Shaw pored over the chart of the North Atlantic, and was in a state of impatient expectancy all day, although the mate kindly informed him that they might not sight the brig for a week yet, if indeed they ever did.

It lacked but a few minutes of sunset, when the captain, who for some time had been standing near the pilot-house sweeping the horizon with his glass, cried sharply, “Starboard your helm, there!”

“What’s up now?” asked Albert, ascending the ladder to the upper deck.

“A wreck of some kind, dead ahead.”

Taking the glass, he saw nothing at first, but finally made out an object that looked like a pole sticking out of the water.

“That stick is the mast of a vessel,” replied the captain, in answer to Shaw’s inquiry, “and at least half of it is carried away. The hull must be awash too, or we could see it plainly now, for she can’t be over six miles off. If the craft was in her natural condition, I’d have sighted her long ago—at twelve miles certainly. A little more and we’d have run right away from her.”

“Does she look like a brig, sir?” asked Speers.

“Can’t make out her rig yet. The chap we’re after is hereabouts somewhere if I’ve calculated right,” said the captain, taking another survey of the object ahead.

The tug was rapidly closing up the gap between herself and the wreck, and the faces of those on board presented an interesting study. Captain James was anxious to know whether the wreck they were approaching was the brig he was in search of. The usual excitement caused by the sight of an abandoned vessel did not affect him; it was simply a matter of business. So also with Speers, though perhaps to a less extent. The majority of the crew contemplated the stranger with feelings akin to indifference. Many of them did not know the name of the vessel they were in search of,—neither did they care. But Albert was looking at a genuine wreck for the first time, and his heart beat faster as the ocean waif grew more and more distinct, with her shattered masts, disordered rigging and general appearance of desolation.

“Neptune!” cried Captain James, as he made out the gilded letters on the port bow. He had already formed the opinion that she was the craft of which he was in search, as enough of her spars were left to show that she had been square-rigged on her foremast, and brigs are now comparatively scarce.

When the tug was within a few rods of the Neptune, her boat was launched, and the mate, Albert, and two of the crew entered, when it was rowed around to the brig’s bows in search of a favorable place for boarding. A large rope, probably the starboard fore-brace, was entangled in the standing rigging in such a manner that fifteen or twenty feet of it trailed in the water alongside the wreck. The mate picked up the rope’s end, and drew the boat so close to the brig that, taking advantage of the next roll she gave towards him, he seized a lanyard and was soon on board. Albert and Joe Miller followed. The other man, known as “Sharkey,” remained in the boat to see that she did not get stove against the side of the wreck.

Speers took a cursory glance around, and then hailed the tug. “All ready, sir,” he cried. A rope had been fastened to one end of the tug’s big hawser, and the other end of this rope Captain James now hove, so that it landed on the brig’s forecastle deck. The mate and Joe Miller hauled it in, and secured the hawser to the brig’s bows. This important task having been accomplished, the boarding party proceeded to take a thorough survey of the wreck.

The foremast was gone at the lower mast-head, leaving the fore yard still in its place, upon which the tattered remnants of the foresail were still visible. It had apparently been clewed up without having been furled, and the winds of five weeks had whipped it into ribbons. The entire mainmast was gone about ten feet above the deck, and in falling had smashed the bulwarks on the port beam and quarter so that the water flowed all over the deck, where it was several inches deep. She was so low that her main deck was level with the ocean, and small seas were constantly toppling over her bows and low bulwarks, where they broke in showers of spray. The main boom was hanging over the side, while the bowsprit and all the jibs were entirely gone. The main hatch was battened down, but the fore was off, and upon looking below the cargo of lumber was seen pressed up close under the hatch, where it occasionally surged slowly from side to side in obedience to the sluggish motions of the brig. On top of the after house a small boat painted white was lashed, having in some way escaped the general destruction. The wheel and rudder appeared uninjured. There was a perfect litter of ropes, blocks, standing rigging, etc., floating about the deck, all tangled in a confused mass.

The party now entered the cabin. Everything here was drenched; the skylights were gone; fragments of glass encumbered all that portion of the floor not under water; and there was a damp, musty smell such as one encounters on entering a cellar not often opened. The captain’s compass was still in its place under the centre skylight, but its brass work was badly stained with salt water. The state rooms were in much the same condition as the cabin, and the whole port side of the after house seemed to be slightly stove. The companion-way door was ripped off, and nowhere to be seen.

On emerging from this dismal place the mate took a peep into the crew’s quarters. The rows of bunks in which the men had slept still contained a mouldy mattress or two, while a large cask that had doubtless been used as a table was rolling about the floor. A couple of rusty pannikins floated about in the shallow water. It was of course impossible to enter the lazarette or the fore peak, for they were submerged. All the provisions were ruined, but the scuttle butts contained plenty of fresh water.

Having finished his examination, Speers sent the boat back to the tug for a supply of provisions for Miller and Sharkey, who were to remain on the wreck to steer her. As soon as the stores were placed aboard, and a few directions given, Albert and the mate pulled away from the derelict, for a squall was making up in the north-west and it was high time to get under way. Mast-head lanterns were run up, and the two vessels started for Boston.

There was plenty to talk about that night, and Albert staid up long past the usual time conversing with the master of the tug, who was in a jubilant mood, and who more than once invited his cousin to “splice the main brace.” [101]

“The owners will have to give me credit for quick work this time,” the captain said. “Monday we left Philadelphia; Wednesday we picked up the derelict; and on Friday—or Saturday at furthest—we ought to steam up Boston Harbor. Speers says the brig’s cargo seems in good shape, and if so it should easily bring $7,000 at auction. The hull may fetch a thousand more. Not a bad haul, Mr. Shaw for five days’ work.”

“This derelict business seems profitable.”

“It is—if you can find the derelict. For instance, the schooner Sargent has been floating about the North Atlantic ever since last spring, with twenty thousand dollars’ worth of mahogany in her hold. There is a prize worth trying for, but although a score of vessels have sighted her, several of which attempted to tow her in, she is still drifting about with a small fortune on board. Last month some Baltimore parties organized an expedition and chartered a steamer to find the Sargent and bring her in. They searched for several weeks, and then returned to port considerably out of pocket, to find that a Cunarder had just seen the schooner not forty miles off the course they had taken.

“But I must go on deck; the night looks squally.”

Albert turned in, and dreamed of drifting about the ocean for many weeks on a water-logged wreck, which foundered the instant assistance was at hand and he escaped only by leaping out of his berth against the wall.

The heavily laden brig, submerged to her decks, offered a great resistence to the water, and when a brisk head wind sprang up, the powerful tug was scarcely able to make headway. Several rain-squalls were encountered during the night, and by sunrise there was every indication of a gale.

A heavy swell was running, the wind increased, and Captain James felt some concern for the safety of his tow. By noon a hard northwester had set in, accompanied by an ugly head sea. Both vessels were under water most of the time, nothing of the derelict being visible but her masts and deck-houses, while the tug struggled through the heavy rollers and blinding spray with only her smoke-stack and pilot house above water.

It was a day of anxiety. The wreck was simply a sodden mass of timber, without buoyancy, and dragged and pulled on the huge hawser in a manner that caused continual apprehension. Instead of rising to meet the big rollers, she went lurching and floundering through them; burying herself in the brine, and then coming up with a backward jerk that made the captain catch his breath. Even a steel hawser has its limits of endurance.

Night closed in chill and comfortless, with no sign of immediate improvement. Albert put on a life-preserver, braced himself in his bunk without undressing, and wondered if he should ever see terra firma again, while the cook shook his head and confided to a deck-hand that “this was what come of having landsmen aboard.”

The wind blew harder, and even a full steam pressure hardly sufficed to drive the Atlas along. The middle watch was half over when the straining tug plunged suddenly forward, rolling and pitching violently, as though freed from a cumbersome weight. At the same instant a muffled cry was heard by those on the upper deck. All knew its meaning—the derelict was adrift!

The night was black as pitch; mist and spray obscured everything; and almost before the order to reverse the engines could be given, the wreck was vanishing in the gloom. The tug’s head swung round and she started in pursuit.

Fifteen minutes sufficed to show Captain James the utter futility and peril of attempting to recover the brig until the gale moderated. The Atlas was being literally overwhelmed and forced under water by the furious seas which overtook her. She could not steam fast enough to escape them. One great comber bent the smoke-stack, smashed the pilot-house windows, tore away the life-boat, and bore the tug down until it seemed as though she would never come to the surface. It was madness to continue, and the Atlas was put about and hove to.

Never in his life had her captain suffered such keen exasperation as now. With water streaming from his oilers, he stood grasping the pilot-house rail, and watched the derelict’s mast head light glimmering astern like a will-o’-the-wisp; now hidden by a great wave,—now reappearing fitfully,—now swallowed up in the black night. He strained his eyes through the salt mist till they ached, but the dismantled wreck and her imperilled crew were seen no more.

The captain went below, and calculated as accurately as possible the tug’s position when the derelict broke adrift, the direction and velocity of the wind, and force of the current. Nothing could be done until the gale moderated. There was ample time for everyone to discuss the misfortune, and speculation was rife as to the fate of Joe Miller and Sharkey, who had last been seen at dusk, lashing themselves to the shrouds. This would save them from going overboard while the rigging held, but their slender stock of provisions must have been swept away or ruined by water, which would render their position desperate unless quickly rescued.

The gray dawn came, by which time the worst was over, and eager eyes scanned the sea for some trace of the brig. But the wreck, sitting very low in the water and with only a few feet of her masts left, had drifted out of the line of vision, though she was probably not fifteen miles away. Wind and sea were still boisterous, but the search began immediately.

The conditions in general seemed to favor a speedy recovery of the Neptune, for the wind was still in the same quarter, the day was clearing rapidly, and the wreck having no sails and being practically under water, could drift but slowly. But the brig’s condition, coupled with the fact that the tug herself sat very low, ormed no slight obstacle to early success. Had the Atlas possessed a tall mast, the derelict might have been visible from it, but nothing could be seen from the roof of the pilot-house save the smoke of a steamer on the northern horizon. As time passed, bringing no tidings of the missing vessel, the excitement increased, and a handsome reward was promised any man who should first sight the wreck. Twice a false alarm was given, but the day waned until the shadows stole over the deep. Still there were no tidings.

Through the starlit night Captain James thought of his absent men and of the sufferings they must be enduring. He sent up rockets at intervals, though with little hope of an answer; for the Neptune’s signalling apparatus was doubtless ruined by water, and his men would be powerless to make their presence known.

The sea was calm at daybreak, the sun shone brightly as the hours flew by, and the tug covered many leagues, while the promised reward kept all hands on the alert. The Atlas overhauled a large bark, and spoke her, but she had seen nothing of the Neptune; and another day drew to a close.

One of three things had happened: the derelict had foundered, had been taken in tow by a passing steamer, or was still drifting helplessly about. The first supposition was improbable, if not impossible. Experience has shown that a vessel in the Neptune’s condition can survive tempests that send stout ships to the bottom. As to the second, the number of steamers having facilities for towing wrecks is small, and the castaway’s value must be great to induce one to attempt salving her. The last supposition was probably the true one. A vessel may float about the steam-traversed North Atlantic for weeks without being seen, and not five derelicts in a hundred are ever brought into port. After weighing the chances carefully, the captain came to the conclusion that the brig was still an aimless wanderer, though it was incomprehensible how she could have eluded so thorough a search.

The next day was but a repetition of the one preceding, and this continued until the days became a week. Hope was almost gone, the coal was two-thirds consumed, and still Captain James would not give up.

Finally, ten days after the loss of the Neptune, the Atlas abandoned the search and returned to Philadelphia.

As soon as she was sighted by the operator in the marine signal station, the fact was telephoned to the city; and when she reached the dock, one of the owners was on hand to meet her. Joe Miller and Sharkey were there also, sitting on a box of merchandise, and exhibiting no traces of suffering or emaciation.

The surprise of the tug’s people was great, but the captain was soon enlightened as to the derelict’s fate. That troublesome craft had been picked up the morning after she broke adrift, by a West India fruit steamer bound to Boston. Three-fourths of the steel hawser was still attached to the Neptune, so the steamer had only to fish up the broken end, secure it to her stern bits, and continue on her way. The weather remained fine and she reached her destination the second day afterward.

The division of the salvage money was a delicate matter. An abandoned vessel becomes the property of whoever brings her into port, but in the present instance the derelict was held to be the tug’s property even after she broke adrift, because she continued in possession of two of the tug’s crew, who remained on her from the time the hawser parted until she was safely beached on the mud-flats in Boston harbor. Consequently, she was not legally “an abandoned vessel” when the fruiter picked her up; nor could the latter have handled her at all except for the tug’s hawser. But the steamer had rendered an unquestioned service by towing the wreck into port, and was therefore entitled to a portion of the money. She was finally awarded 25%, while the remainder went to the Atlas.

The lumber cargo realized a trifle over $6,000 at auction, but the brig’s hull had been badly strained and battered in the last gale, and brought only $500. Her age, combined with her severe injuries, made it unprofitable to put her in sea-going condition, and she was converted into a lighter for transferring merchandise about Boston harbor, in which humble capacity she will probably end her days.


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