Authors: Willard Price
By Willard Price
On all the hills of Honolulu people looked to the sea. Spectators crowded the docks lining the harbour.
They were all gazing in the same direction. They paid no attention to the steamers and yachts, cargo vessels and tugs. They did not bother to glance at the helicopter passing overhead, or the plane setting out for San Francisco.
These they could see any day.
They looked at something that seemed to have come from another world. It was the kind of ship that used to take men sailing and whaling a century ago.
It had no funnels, no black smoke, no grinding, growling machinery. Its three masts towered more than a hundred feet high. From them hung its twenty great sails, drying in the still, sunny air. It looked like a huge bird about to fly away.
‘A fine sight!’ said someone.
‘Didn’t think there were any of those old beauties left,’ said another.
‘Beauty my eye,’ said a man who looked like a sailor.
‘You wouldn’t think she was such a beauty if you knew what happens to the men who sail on her.’
‘Hope it isn’t too bad,’ said a new voice, ‘because we’re going to sail on her.’
Tm sorry for you,’ said the sailor, and looked up at the newcomer. He saw Hal Hunt, tall, well built, nineteen years old, his deeply tanned face lit by a pleasant smile.
‘Well,’ admitted the sailor, ‘you look as if you could
take care of yourself. But I hope this kid isn’t going too.’
Roger bristled up and tried to look as big and tough
as his thirteen years would permit. He was about to
make a smart reply when Mr Scott cut in.
‘I don’t think well have any trouble,’ he said as he and the two boys pressed on through the crowd.
The sailor shook his head doubtfully. But Hal and Roger felt confidence in their older companion. Everything would be all right so long as they were accompanied by the scientist, Arthur Scott of the American Museum. Still, the sailor’s remarks left them a bit uneasy. Reaching the edge of the dock they climbed down a ladder into a waiting launch and were taken out towards the great bird with the twenty white wings. The closer they came the more uneasy they grew. For the ship itself was not white and beautiful like its sails. It was a black evil-looking hulk, and from it drifted the strong smell of whale oil and rancid blubber.
Now the name of the bark could be seen on the stern and U was not a pretty name. Killer was the name, and the home port was St Helena.
‘She’s named after the killer-whale,’ said Mr Scott. ‘That’s the most vicious and deadly of all the whales.’
‘Where is St Helena?’ asked Roger.
‘It’s an island far down in the South Atlantic It has always been a great whaling port. Only fifty years ago you could see as many as a hundred whaling ships in the harbour at one time. And there were hundreds more in northern ports.’
‘Only fifty years?’ said Hal. T thought it was centuries ago.’
‘No - whaling under sail was not as ancient as you might suppose. As late as 1907 New Bedford had a fleet of twenty-two whalers. Of course, today the business has been taken over by the big factory ships - but with the new demand for whale products a few of the old sailing vessels have been put back into service. That gives us a chance to see how whaling used to be done. And that’s why the American Museum wants me to make a complete record of the operations and take motion pictures for the museum’s library.’
‘Has the captain really agreed to take you?’
‘Yes. But he says he won’t sail until he can get two more men. Two of his crew deserted - he has to fill their places.’
‘And that’s where we come in,’ said Hal.
‘Exactly. You’ve never sailed in a square-rigger, but he probably wouldn’t be able to find anybody who has. You know something about the sea, after sailing your own boat all over the Pacific. Even Roger is not too young to be useful as a mess-boy or lookout - there are dozens of jobs he could do on a sailing ship.’
He glanced up at the savage black hulk of the Killer.
‘The only question is - do you want to go? I’m not going to press you, and I don’t want any quick answer. It’s up to you. I can tell you it’s hard work - so hard that crews accustomed to the soft duties on a steamer won’t touch it. I can tell you, too, that the captain looks to me like a bully and a brute. That’s another reason he has trouble rinding men. I’m glad you cabled your father and got his consent, because I can’t be responsible for you. You’re on your own. After you’ve seen the captain and looked over the ship you will have time to back out if you want to.’
The launch hugged in under the black counter of the Killer. Looking up from this point the sight was dizzying. Up they looked to the gunwale over which a rope ladder dangled. Up to the bottom of a lifeboat swinging from its davits. On up the three masts, the mainmast and foremast, square-rigged, the mizenmast carrying fore-and-aft sails in the manner of a bark. Up past mainsail and foresail, topsails and topgallant sails, royals and trysails, up to the lookout’s cage at the very tip of the mainmast a good hundred and ten feet above water.
Loving the sea as they did, they had many times studied pictures and descriptions of the old square-riggers, but this was the first time they had seen one. It gave them stomach-butterflies to think of climbing those ratlines that went skyward like narrow spider-webs, up, up to where the gently swaying masthead seemed to scrape the clouds. If it made them dizzy to look up, how would they feel looking down from that unsteady basket, say in a storm, when the sway of the mast would be anything but gentle?
‘Oh, a sailor’s life is a jolly life,’ sang Roger, but he was quite out of tune and didn’t sound very convincing.
‘All right, over you go,’ said Scott.
The boys came out of their trance and scrambled up the rope ladder, Scott following. They tumbled over the mil on to the deck.
Was the ship on fire? Red flames shot up and white steam filled the air. Men seemed to be fighting the fire. The boys came closer. Now they could see that the fire was confined inside a brick wall. Huge black pots, each big enough to hold several men, rested in the flames. Men hauled great chunks of meat as big as themselves across the deck and dumped them into the pots.
‘Just trying-out,’ said Mr Scott. ‘That’s blubber. Blubber is the whale’s overcoat. It’s very fat. They put the blubber into the pots and cook the oil out of it. It’s called trying-out.’
The men, in ragged blood-and-oil-stained clothes and unshaved beards, looked as rough as pirates. The roughest and biggest of them gave orders. He noticed the newcomers and walked growling towards them as if prepared to throw them bodily off his ship. His eyes were large and bulging, like big marbles; his mouth had a mean twist to starboard; and his chin, covered with black bristles like porcupine quills, projected forward like the prow of a pirate ship.
‘What do you want -‘ he began gruffly, then recognized Mr Scott. ‘Oh, you’re the scientific fellow.’ He made an obvious effort to be more polite. ‘Welcome aboard. Are you ready to pay me for your passage?’
‘I am,’ said Mr Scott, producing from his breast pocket a large roll of notes. ‘I believe that’s the price you asked for three weeks’ passage.’
‘All that,’ exclaimed Hal, ‘for passage on this?’ At once he realized be should not have said it. After all, it was none of his business.
The captain glared. ‘Who’s this smart alec? What does he know about the cost of running a ship? And how about all the trouble I’m going to have with the science fellow stumbling around in our way?’ He stuffed the money into his trouser pocket and advanced upon HaL ‘By the Holy Harry, I wish I had you in my crew. I’d trim you down to size I’
Hal did not flinch. He was as tall as the captain, not so heavily built but perhaps just as wiry and strong.
‘Start trimming,’ he said with a smile, ‘because I think I’m going to be in your crew.’
Mr Scott hastened to pour oil on troubled waters.
‘It’s my fault,’ he said. T should have begun with introductions. Captain Grindle, this is Hal Hunt and his brother Roger. You are short of two men - perhaps they will sign on. They’ve had some sea experience. Of course, they don’t know much about square-riggers.’
‘Nobody does,’ growled the captain.
‘But they will learn as fast as anyone you could pick up. They’re used to roughing it. Their father is a famous collector of animals for zoos and circuses. He has sent his boys on various trips to collect wild animals, and on scientific expeditions to teach them something about the world we live in. They’d learn a lot on your ship.’
‘They would that,’ agreed the captain sourly. ‘I’d learn them things they’d never forget. But I don’t know about taking on a couple of gents.’
He spat out the word ‘gents’.
‘They’ll want special favours,’ he went on. ‘Believe me, they won’t get them. They’ll sleep in the fo’c’sle with the crew. They’ll eat what’s put before ‘em.
They’ll step lively or smart for it, and I don’t care if their father is the King of Siam.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Hal. ‘Our father isn’t the King of Siam. And we’re not “gents”. We want no favours.’
‘Like as not too soft for this kind of work,’ grumbled the captain. ‘Let me see your hands.’
The four palms held out for his inspection were hard and tough. The captain may have been surprised but he wouldn’t admit it.
‘Soft as butter,’ he said scornfully. ‘You’ll have blisters as big as plums before you’re on this ship a day. Oh well, if I can’t get what I want I have to take what I can get. Come down and sign on.’
Captain Grindle clumped down the steps to his cabin. Hal and Roger, about to follow, were stopped by Mr Scott.
‘I like this fellow less and less,’ said Scott in a low voice. ‘I’ve got to go with him - but you don’t have to. I’m sorry I got you into this. Why don’t you just back out now before it’s too late?’
Hal looked at Roger. He felt he could take what was coming, but it would be harder on his younger brother.
‘It’s up to the boy,’ Hal said.
Roger, whose heart had sunk into his shoes at the thought that they might after all miss this great adventure of sail? and whales, was suddenly happy again.
‘K it’s up to me,’ he said, let’s go,’ and he led the way down the steps.
On a table in the captain’s cabin lay the papers. Hal began to look them over.
‘Come, come,’ said Captain Grindle impatiently. ‘Do you think I have time to stand around while you read all the small print? Sign and have done with it. I’m paying you a one-three-hundredth lay.’
Hal knew the system of lays. Whalers got no wages. Each got a share of the profits of the voyage. This share was called a lay. Hal’s lay of one three-hundredth meant that if the ship came back with three hundred gallons of whale oil Hal would be paid the price of one gallon. It was a very small lay.
‘And my brother?’ asked Hal.
The captain’s eyes flashed. ‘You don’t expect me to pay a child! He goes as an apprentice. He gets nothing but his food and bunk - and won’t be worth that.’
It didn’t seem fair to Roger. But he held his tongue. After all, he was taking this trip for experience, not money. What bothered him most was being called a child. Wasn’t he thirteen years old and so big that some people took him for fifteen or sixteen? He itched for a chance to show this contemptuous captain that he was no child.
When the papers were signed the captain showed Mr Scott his cabin, a small room next his own. ‘Really the first mate’s,’ he said. ‘But since I’ve got no first for this trip, you may have it.’
He turned to the boys. ‘Go up and ask for Mr Durkins. Second mate. He’ll tell you the difference between a clove hitch and a donkey’s breakfast. And mind you learn fast. You’ll be no use to me on a three weeks cruise if it takes you three weeks to learn which end your head is screwed on. Get your gear aboard this afternoon. We sail before dawn.’
‘Thank you,’ said Hal, going out of the door.
‘Wait a minute, young fella,’ bawled the captain. ‘The first thing you want to learn is to say “sir” when you speak to an officer.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Hal, and went on deck followed by Roger.
They found Mr Durkins waiting for them. He was as rough as gravel but he had a ready smile.
‘I usually get the job of showing the greenies the ropes,’ he said. ‘First you might like to see where you bunk.’
He led the way forward and down the hatch into the fo’c’sle.
It was dark. There were no portholes. The only light came from two sputtering whale-oil lamps. They also sent out black smoke and nauseating fumes.
There were other smells, walls of them, waves of them, smells so strong that they seemed like something solid that could only be cut through with a hatchet or a knife. Clothes hanging from pegs stank of dead whales. There was no ventilation except through the half-opened hatch. That would be closed in rough weather. There was a smell of mouldy rags and mildewed boots and unwashed bodies and decayed food. And the heat made all the smells more suffocating.