For over a week of strong westerly gales we had kept
the open sea, steering to the north as best the wind allowed. A lull had come-a
break in the furious succession, though still the sea ran high-and the Old man,
in part satisfied that he had made his northing, put the helm up and squared away
for the land. In this he was largely prompted by the coasting pilot (sick of a
long unprofitable passage-on a 'lump-sum' basis), who confidently asked to be
shown but one speck of Irish land, and, "I'll tell 'oo the road t' dub-lin
Moderately clear at first, but thickening later, as
we closed the land, it was not the weather for running in on a dangerous coast,
ill-lighted and unmarked, but, had we waited for clear weather, we might have
marked time to the westward until the roses came; the wind was fair, we were over-long
on our voyage; sheet and brace and wind in squared sail thrummed a homeward song
for us as we came in from the west.
At close of a day of keen sailing , the outposts of
the Irish coast, bleak, barren, inhospitable, lay under our lee-a few bold rocks,
around and above wreathed in sea-mist, and the never-dying Atlantic swell breaking
heavily at base.
"Iss, indeed, Capt'in! The Stags! The Stags of
Broad-haven I teel 'oo," said the pilot, scanning through his glasses with
an easy assurance. "indeed to goodness, it iss the best landfall I haf ever
Though pleased with his navigation, the Old Man kept
his head. "Aye, aye," he said. "The Stags, eh? Well, we'll haul
up t' th' wind anyway-t' make sure!" He gave the order, and went below to
Rolling heavily, broad to the sea and swell, we lay
awhile. There was no sign of the weather clearing, no lift in the grey mist that
hung dense over the rugged coast-line. On deck again, the Old Man stared long
and earnestly at the rocky islets, seeking a further guidemark. In the waning
daylight they were fast losing shape and colour. Only the breaking sea, white
and sightly, marked them bold in the grey mist-laden breath of the Atlantic. "Present
themselves, consisting of four high rocky islets of from two thirty-three to three
ought-six feet in height, an' steep-to" he said, reading from a book of sailing
directions. "Damme! I can only see three." To the pilot, "D'ye
know the Stags well, Mister? Are ye sure of ye're ground?"
"Wel, wel! Indeed, Capt'in" Mr. Williams
laughed. "I know the Stags, yes! Ass well ass I know Car-narvon! The Stags
of broad-haven, I tell 'oo. When I wass master of the Ann Pritchard of Beaumaris,
it wass always to the west of Ireland we would be going'. Summer and winter, three
years, I teel 'oo, before I came to pilotin', an' there iss not many places between
the Hull and Missen Head that I haf nor seen in daylight an' dark. It iss the
Stags, indeed! East South-east now, Capt'in, an' a fine run to Sligo Bar!"
Still unassured, the Old Man turned his glasses on
the rocky group. "One-two-three-perhaps that is the fourth just open to the
south-ard" - they certainly tallied with the description in the book - "high,
steep-to." A cast of the lead brought no decision. Forty-seven! He might
be ten miles north and south by that and former soundings. It was rapidly growing
dark, the wind freshening. If he did not set course by the rocks-Stags they seemed
to be-he would lose all benefit of landfall-would spend another week or more to
the westward waiting for a rare slant on this coast of mist and foul weather!
Already eighteen days from Falmouth! The chance of running in was tempting! Hesitating,
uncertain, he took a step or two up and down the poop, halting at turns to stare
anxiously at the rocks, in the wind's eye, at the great Atlantic combers welling
up and lifting the barque to leeward at every rise. On the skylight sat Mr. Williams,
smiling and clucking in his beard that "he did not know the Stags, indeed!"
"We haul off, Pilot," said stout Old Jock,
coming at a decision. "If it had been daylight
for takin' no risks. They may be th' Stgs, belike they are, but I'm no going oan
in weather like this! We'll stand out t' th' norrard-'mainyards forward, "Mister'-till
Sulkily we hauled the yards forward and trimmed sail,
leaving the rocks to fade under curtain of advancing night, our high hopes of
making port dismissed. The "navigators" amoung us were loud of their
growling as the ship lurched and wallowed in the trough of the sea, the decks
waist-high with a wash of icey water-a change from the steadiness and comfort
of a running ship.
Night fell black dark. The moon not risen to set a
boundary to sea and sky; no play of high light on the waste of heaving water;
naught but the inky ridges, rolling out of the west, that, lifting giddily to
crest, sent us reeling into the windless trough. On the poop the Old Man and pilot
tramped fore and aft, talking together of landfalls and coasting affairs. As they
came and went, snatches of their talk were borne to us, the watch on deck-sheltering
from the weather at the break. The Old Man's "Aye, ayes," and "Goad,
man's", and the voluble welsheman's "Iss, indeed, Capt'in," and
"I tell'oo's". The Pilot was laying off a former course of action. """Mister
Williams," he said, "I can see that 'oo knows th'coast," he said,
I oo'dn't go in myself," he said; "but if 'oo are
"Brea-kers a-head!" - a stunning period to
his tale, came in a long shout, a scream almost, from the look-out!"
Both sprang to the lee rigging, handing their eyes
to shield the wind and spray. Faint as yet against the somber monotone of sea
and sky, a long line of breaking water leapt to their gaze, then vanished, as
the staggering barque drove to the trough; again-again;there could be no doubt.
Breakers! On a lee shore!!
"Mawdredd an'l! O Christ! The Stags, Capt'in
God! My God!" Wholly unmanned, muttering in welsh and English, Mr Williams
ran to the compass to take bearings.
Old Jock came out of the rigging. Then, in a steady
voice, more ominous than a string of oaths, "Luff! Down helm m'lad, an' keep
er close!" And to the Pilot, "Well? What d'ye make of it, Mister?"
"Stags, capt'in! Diwedd i! That I should be mistake
God knows!...If it iss the stags, Capt'in
the passage t' th'
I know it
.we can run
if it iss the Stags, Capt'in!"
"An' if it's no' th' Stags! M'Goad! Hoo many Stags
d'ye know, Mister? No! No! We'll keep th' sea, if she can weather thae rocks
if she canna!" A mute gesture-then passionately, "T'hell wi' you an
yer bloody Stags; I back ma ship against a worthless pilot! All hands, there,
Mister-mains'll an' togalan's'l oan her! Up, ye hounds' up, if ye look fur dry
All hands! No need for a call! "Breakers ahead"
the words that sent us racing to the yards, to out knife and whip at the gaskets
that held our saving power in leash. Quickly done, the great mainsail blew out,
thrashing furiously till steadied by tack and sheet. Then topgal'n'sail, the spars
buckling to overstrain;staysail, spanker - never was canvas crowded on a ship
at such a pace; a mighty fear at our hearts that only frenzied action could allay.
Shuddering, she lay down to it, the lee rail entirely
awash, the decks canted at a fearsome angle; then righted - a swift, vicious lurch,
and her head sweeping wildly to windward till checked by the heaving helmsman.
The wind that we had thought moderate when running before it how held at half
a gale. To that she might have stood Weatherly, but the great western swell -
spawn of uncounted gales - was matched against her, rolling up to check the windward
snatches and sending her reeling to leeward in a smother of foam and broken water.
A gallant fight! At the weather gangway stood Old Jock,
legs apart and sturdy, talking to his ship.
"Stand, good spars," he would say, casting
longing eyes aloft. Or, patting the taffrail with his great sailor hands, "Up
tae it, ye bitch! Up!! Up!!!" as, rasing her head, streaming in cascade from
a sail-pressed plunge, she turned to meet the next great wall of water that set
against her. "She'll stand it, Mister," to the mate at his side. "She'll
stand it, an' the head gear holds. If she starts that!" - he turned his palms
out - "if she starts th' head gear, Mister!"
"They'll hold, Sir!...good gear," answered
the Mate, hugging himself at the thought of the new landyards, the stout Europe
gammon lashings, he had rove off when the boom was rigged. Now was the time when
Sanny Armstrong's spars would be put to the test. The relic of the ill-fated Glenisla
now a shapely topgallant mast, was bending like a whip! "Good iron,"
he shouted as the backstays twanged a high note of utmost stress.
Struggling across the heaving deck, the Pilot joined
the group. Brokenly, shouting down the wind, "She'll never do it, Capt'in!
I tell 'oo!...An' th' tide
try th'south passage
Stags, sure!...See them
fair now!...Th' south passage, Capt'in
It iss some years, indeed but I know.
Diwedd an'l! Shel'll never weather it, Capt'in!"
and weather it
an' the gear holds!
Goad, man! Are ye sailor enough t'know what'll happen if Ah start a brace, wi'
this press o' sail oan her? T" wind'ard
she goes. Ne'er failed me yet"
- a mute caress of the stout taffrail, a slap of his great hand. "Into it,
ye bitch! T' wind'ard! T wind'ard!"
Staggering, taking the shock and onset of the relentless
seas, but ever turning the haughty face of her anew to seek the wind, she stuggled
on, nearing the cruel rocks and their curtain of hurtling breakers. Timely, the
moon rose, herself invisible, but shedding a diffused light in the east, showing
the high summits of the rocks, upreared above the blinding spindrift. A low moaning
boom broke on our strained ears, turning to the hoarse roar of tortured waters
as we drew on.
"How does 't bear noo, M'Kellar? Is she makin'
oan't?" shouted the Old Man.
The second mate, at the binnacle, sighted across the
wildly swinging compass card. "No' sure, Sir
th' caird swingin'
there's hauf a p'int
Hauf a p'int, onyway!"
"Half a pint!" A great comber upreared and
struck a deep resounding blow - "That for yeer half a point" - as her
head swung wildly off - off till the stout spanker, the windward driver, straining
at the stern sheets, drove her anew to a seaward course.
Nearer, but a mile off, the rocks plain in a shaft
of breaking moonlight.
"Nae change, Sir!...'bout east, nor'east
The Old man left his post and struggled to the binnacle.
east o' that, mebbe," he muttered. Then to Dutchy
at the weather helm, "Full, m'lad! Keep 'er full an' nae mair!...Goad man!
Steer as ye never steered
th' wind's yer mairk
D'na shake her!"
Grasping the binnacle to steady himself against the
wild lurches of the staggering hull, the Old Man stared steadily aloft, unheeding
of the roar and crash of the breakers, now loud over all - eyes only for the straining
canvas and standing spars above him.
"She's drawin' ahead, Sir," shouted M'Kellar,
tense, excited. "East, b'nor
The Old Man raised a warning heand to the steersman.
"Nae Higher! Nae higher! Goad man! Dinna let 'r gripe!"
Dread suspense! Would she clear? A narrow lane of open
water lay clear of the bow - broadening as we sped on.
"Nae higher! Nae higher! Aff! Aff! Up hellum,
up!" His voice a scream the Old Man turned to bear a frantic heave on the
Obedient to the helm and the Mate's ready hand at the
driver sheets, she flew off, free of the wind and sea - tearing past the towering
rocks, a cable's length to leeward. Shock upon shock, the great Atlantic sea broke
and shattered and fell back from the scarred granite face of the outmost Stag;
a seething maelstrom of tortured waters, roaring, crashing, shrilling into the
deep, jagged fissures - a shriek of Furies bereft. And, high above the tumult
of the waters and the loud, glad cries of us, the hoarse, choking voice of the
man who had backed his ship.
"Done it, ye bitch!" - and now a trembling
hand at his old grey head. "Done it! Weathered - by Goad!"