On the seventh day of May, 1897, the “Flipper” weighed anchor and sailed
before a light breeze through the Golden Gate and away on her voyage
toward Alaska and its gold fields. Stored within her hold was a vast
quantity of provisions of the sort that could be kept indefinitely
without danger of spoiling. Flour, hams, bacon, sugar and coffee were
represented; but canned meats and vegetables, tobacco and cheap cigars
comprised by far the greater part of the cargo. Uncle Naboth had been
seriously advised to carry a good supply of liquors, but refused
positively to traffic in such merchandise.
Indeed, my uncle rose many degrees in my respect after I had watched for
a time his preparations for our voyage. Simple, rough and uneducated he
might be, but a shrewder man at a bargain I have never met in all my
experience. And his reputation for honesty was so well established that
his credit was practically unlimited among the wholesale grocers and
notion jobbers of San Francisco. Everyone seemed ready and anxious to
assist him, and the amount of consideration he met with on every hand
was really wonderful.
“We’ve bought the right stuff, Sam,” he said to me, as we stood on the
deck and watched the shore gradually recede, “and now we’ve got to sell
it right. That’s the secret of good tradin’.”
I was glad enough to find myself at sea, where I could rest from my
labors of the past two weeks. I had been upon the docks night and day,
it seemed, checking off packages of goods as fast as they were loaded on
the lighters, and being unaccustomed to work I tired very easily. But my
books were all accurate and “ship-shape,” and I had found opportunity to
fit up my little state-room with many comforts. In this I had been aided
by Uncle Naboth, who was exceedingly liberal in allowing me money for
whatever I required. At one time I said I would like to buy a few books,
and the next day, to my surprise, he sent to my room a box containing
the complete works of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, with a
miscellaneous collection of volumes by standard authors.
“I don’t know much about books myself, Sam,” he said; “so I got a feller
that _does_ know to pick ’em out for me, an’ I guess you’ll find ’em the
I did not tell him that I would have preferred to make my own selection,
and afterward I frankly admitted to myself that the collection was an
By this time I had come to know all the officers and crew, and found
them a pretty good lot, taken altogether. The principle “characters”
aboard were the dismal Captain Gay, who was really as contented a man as
I ever knew, Acker, the ship’s doctor, and two queer black men called by
everybody Nux and Bryonia. Acker was a big, burly Englishman, who,
besides being doctor, served as mate. He was jolly and good natured as
the day was long, and had a few good stories which he told over and over
again, invariably laughing at them more heartily than his auditors did.
Singularly enough, Captain Gay and “Doc” Acker were close friends and
cronies, and lived together in perfect harmony.
The black men interested me greatly from the moment I first saw them.
Bryonia, or “Bry,” as he was more frequently called, was the cook, and
gave perfect satisfaction in that capacity. “Nux” was man-of-all-work,
serving the cabin mess, assisting the cook, and acting as “able seaman”
whenever required. He proved competent in nearly all ways, and was a
prime favorite with officers and men.
They were natives of some small island of the Sulu archipelago, and
their history was a strange one. In answer to my question as to why the
blacks were so queerly named, Uncle Naboth related the following:
“It were six years ago, or thereabout, as we were homeward bound from
our third Australy trip, that we sighted a native canoe in the
neighborhood of the Caroline Islands. It was early in the mornin’, and
at first the lookout thought the canoe was empty; but it happened to lay
in our course, and as we overtook it we saw two niggers lyin’ bound in
the bottom of the boat. So we lay to, an’ picked ’em up, an’ when they
was histed aboard they were considerable more dead ner alive. Bill Acker
was our mate then, as he is now, an’ in his early days he studied to be
a hoss doctor. So he always carries a box of medicines with him, to fix
up the men in case they gets the jaundice or the colic. Mostly they’s
pills, an’ sugar coated, for Doc hates to tackle drugs as is very
dangerous. An’ on account of a good deal of sickness among the crew that
trip, an’ consequently a good deal of experimentin’ by Doc on the
medicine chest, the pills an’ such like was nearly used up, though no
one seemed much the worse for it.
“Well, after we’d cut the niggers’ bonds, an’ rubbed ’em good to restore
the circulation, we come near decidin’ they was dead an’ heavin’ of ’em
overboard agin. But Doc wouldn’t give up. He brought out the medicine
box, an’ found that all the stuff he had left was two bottles of pills,
one of ’em Nux Vomica, an’ the other Bryonia. I was workin’ over one of
the niggers, an’ Doc he hands me one o’ the bottles an says: ‘Nux.’ So I
emptied the bottle into the dead man’s mouth, an’ by Jinks, Sam, he come
around all right, and is alive an’ kickin’ today. Cap’n Gay dosed the
other one with the Bryonia, an’ it fetched him in no time. I won’t swear
it were the pills, you know; but the fact is the niggers lived.
“Afterwards we found the critters couldn’t speak a word of English, ner
tell us even what their names were. So we called one Nux, and the other
Bryonia, accordin’ to the medicine that had saved their lives, an’
they’ve answered to those names ever since.”
The blacks were gentle and good natured, and being grateful for their
rescue they had refused to leave the ship at the end of the voyage, and
were now permanent fixtures of the “Flipper.”
“They are not slaves, are they?” I asked, when I had listened to this
“Mercy, no!” exclaimed Uncle Naboth. “They’re as free as any of us, an’
draw their wages reg’lar. Also they’re as faithful as the day is long,
an’ never get drunk or mutinous. So it were a lucky day when we picked
Bryonia stood fully six feet in height, and was muscular and wonderfully
strong. He had a fine face, too, and large and intelligent eyes. Nux was
much shorter, and inclined to be fat. But he was not a bit lazy, for all
that, and accomplished an immense amount of work in so cheerful a manner
that never a complaint was laid at his door. Not a sailor could climb
aloft with more agility or a surer foot, and both Nux and Bryonia were
absolutely fearless in the face of danger.
Although these men were black they were not negroes, but belonged to a
branch of the Malay race. Their hair was straight, their noses well
formed and their eyes very expressive and intelligent. The English they
had picked up from the crew, however, was spoken with an accent not
unlike that peculiar to the African negroes, but with a softer and more
Before I had been on the ship a week both Nux and Bry were my faithful
friends and devoted followers, and in the days that were to come their
friendship and faithfulness stood me in good stead.
A very interesting person to me was big Bill Acker, the mate, called by
courtesy “Doc.” He seemed far above his mates in the matter of
intelligence, and was evidently a well bred man in his youth. A shelf
above his bunk bore a well-thumbed row of volumes on the world’s great
religions, together with a Talmud, a Koran, a Bible, the works of
Confucius and Max Müller’s translation of the Vedas. One seemed to have
been as thoroughly read as the others, yet never have I heard Doc Acker
say one word, good or bad, about religion. Whatever the result of his
studies might be, he kept his opinions strictly to himself.
A stiff breeze sprang up during the first night, and the second day at
sea found me miserably ill, and regretting that I had ever trusted
myself to the mercies of cruel old ocean. Indeed, I lay in a most
pitiable plight until the big Englishman came to me with doses of
medicines from his chest. He might have been merely “a hoss doctor,” as
Uncle Naboth had said; but certain it is that his remedies helped me,
and within twenty-four hours I was again able to walk the deck in
Perhaps I had inherited some of my father’s fondness for salt water, for
my new life soon became vastly interesting to me, and it was not long
before I felt entirely at home on the dingy old “Flipper.”
One morning, after standing by the bulwarks for a time watching the
water slip by, I climbed upon the rail and sat with my heels dangling
over the side. Suddenly I felt a strong hand grasp my shoulder and draw
me to the deck, and I turned around indignantly to find black Nux beside
“Bad place to sit, Mars Sam,” he said, coolly; “might tum’le ov’bode.”
Before I could reply, Uncle Naboth, who had witnessed the incident,
strolled up to us and said:
“Nux is right, my lad. You never find a sailor sitting on the rail; they
know too well how onreliable the motion of a ship is. If anybody drops
overboard the chances o’ bein’ picked up alive is mighty slim, I tell
you. Only fools put ’emselves into unnecessary danger, Sam. Take it on
them orful railroad cars, for instance. Old travellers always wait ’till
the train stops afore they gets on or off the cars. Them as don’t know
the danger is the ones that gets hurt. Same way handlin’ a gun. An old
hunter once told me he never p’inted a gun at anything he didn’t want to
kill; but there’s a lot o’ folks killed ev’ry year that don’t know the
blamed thing is loaded. It ain’t cowardly to be keerful, lad; but only
fools an’ ignorant people is reckless enough to get careless.”
I am glad to say I took this lecture with good humor, admitting frankly
that Uncle Naboth was right. At least once in the future a recollection
of this caution saved me from hopeless disaster.
On the sixth day the breeze died away and the ship lay still. There was
not a breath of air, and the heat was so intense that the interior of
the ship was like a furnace. At night we slept upon the deck, and by day
we lay gasping beneath the shade of the tarpaulins. Bryonia let the
galley fire die out and served us cold lunches, but our appetites were
There being no occasion to work, the crew gathered in little bunches and
told a series of never-ending yarns that were very interesting to me,
because most of them were of hair-breadth adventures and escapes that
were positively wonderful—if one tried to believe them. One of the best
of these story-tellers was Ned Britton, who had been appointed our
boatswain and was already popular with his mates. As his yarns were all
of the Atlantic, and most of the “Flipper’s” crew had sailed only on the
Pacific, Britton opened to them a new field of adventures, which met
with universal approval.
Nux and Bry, who bore the heat better than their white brethren, added
to the general amusement by giving exhibitions of the Moro war dances,
ending with desperate encounters, with sticks to represent spears, that
were sure to arouse the entire crew to enthusiasm. They sometimes sang
their native war songs, also—a series of monotonous, guttural chants.
And then Dan Donnegan, a little, red-whiskered Irishman, would wind up
with “Bryan O’Lynne” or some other comic ditty that set the forecastle
roaring with laughter.
During this period of enforced idleness the dismal Captain Gay walked
the deck with solemn patience and watched for signs of a breeze. Bill
Acker, the mate, read his religious library all through—probably for the
hundredth time. Uncle Nabe taught me cribbage, and we played for hours
at a time, although I usually came out second best at the game. Also I
learned the ropes of the ship and received many lessons in navigation
from my friends the sailors, not one of whom knew anything about that
“Thay ain’t a man o’ the lot as could take the ship back to ’Frisco, in
case of emergency,” said my uncle; and I believe he was right. Common
sailors are singularly ignorant of navigation, although they have a way
of deceiving themselves into thinking they know all about it.
After being becalmed six days, the intense heat was at last relieved by
a thin breeze, which sprung up during the night. The sails were at once
trimmed, and within an hour the “Flipper” was skipping the little waves
to the satisfaction of all on board.
But the wind steadily increased, and by morning all hands were called to
shorten sail. By noon we encountered a stiff gale, which blew from the
east, and soon lashed the waves into a mad frenzy.
As the storm gradually increased Captain Gay began to look anxious.
There was a brief lull toward evening, during which a great hail-storm
descended upon us, the icy bullets pelting the sailors unmercifully and
driving all to shelter. Then the wind redoubled its fury, and the
Captain put the ship before it, allowing the gale to bear us
considerably out of our course.
Uncle Naboth growled considerably at this necessity, but he did not
interfere in the least with Captain Gay’s management of the ship. Safety
was more important to us than time, and Gay was not a man to take
The three wild days that followed have always seemed to me since like a
horrible dream. I had no idea a ship could be so tossed and pounded and
battered about, and still live. It was a mere chip on the great, angry
ocean, and the water washed our decks almost continually. After one of
these deluges, when every man strove to save himself by clinging to the
life lines, two of our best sailors were missed, and we never saw them
again. Uncle Nabe began to whistle, and every time he saw me he gave one
of his humorous winks or fell to chuckling in his silent way; but my
white face could not have been much encouragement to gaiety, and I
believe he was not over merry himself, but merely trying to cheer me up.
But, although the danger was so imminent, not a man flinched or gave way
to fear, and Nux and Bryonia performed their duties as calmly as if the
sea were smooth. The vessel was staunch enough, so far; but it pitched
and tossed so violently that even burly Doc Acker was obliged to crawl
into the cabin on his hands and knees to get his meals.
We fled before the wind until the third night, when the rudder chain
broke and the helmsman was thrown, crushed and bleeding, against the lee
bulwarks. The “Flipper,” released from all control, swung quickly
around, and the big mainmast snapped like a pipe-stem and came tumbling
with its cordage to the decks, where our brave sailors rushed upon it
and cut it clear. I thought the ship would never right again, after the
careening given it by the fallen mast; but, somehow, it did, and morning
found us still afloat, although badly crippled and at the mercy of the
As if satisfied with the havoc it had wrought, the gale now abated; but
the waves ran high for another forty-eight hours, and our crew could do
nothing but cling to the remaining rigging and await calmer weather.
Fortunately our ballast and cargo held in place through all, and the
hull showed no sign of a leak. When the sea grew calmer we floated
upright upon the water and it was found our straits were not nearly so
desperate as we had feared.
Yet our condition was serious enough to make me wonder what was to
become of us. The rudder had been entirely washed away; the mainmast was
gone; the mizzenmast had broken at the head and the foresail royals were
in splinters. All the deck was cumbered with rigging; the starboard
bulwarks had been stove in by the fallen mast, and our crew was lessened
by three able seamen.
But Captain Gay, no less dismal than before, you may be sure, promptly
began to issue orders, and the men fell to with a will to repair the
damage as best they might. First they rigged up a temporary rudder and
swung it astern. It was a poor makeshift, however, and only with good
weather could we hope it would steer us to the nearest port.
While the men cleared the decks and rigged up a jury mast under the
supervision of the mate, Captain Gay took our bearings and ascertained
that we had not departed so greatly from our course as we had feared.
Yet it was impossible to make the mouth of the Yukon in our present
condition, or even to reach a shelter in Bering Sea. It was found,
however, that the Alaska peninsula was not far away, so we decided to
draw as near to that as possible, in the hope of meeting a passing
vessel or finding a temporary refuge on some one of the numerous islands
that lie in this part of the North Pacific.
For four days we labored along, in our crippled condition, without
sighting land; but then our fortunes changed. During the night a good
breeze from the southwest swept us merrily along, and when daylight came
we found ourselves close to a small, wooded island. It lay in the form
of a horse-shoe, with a broad, protected bay in the center, and Captain
Gay, anxious to examine his ship more closely, decided at once to enter
the harbor and cast anchor.
This was by no means an easy task, for long lines of reefs extended from
each point of the shore, almost enclosing the bay with jagged rocks. But
the sea was calm and the position of the reefs clearly marked; so that
by skillful maneuvering the “Flipper” passed between them in safety, and
to the relief and satisfaction of all on board we dropped our anchor in
the clear waters of the bay.