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Pitcairn Sea Tales -- 1

The Wild Wave Disaster

--from Shipmasters of Cape Cod, by Henry C. Kittredge

Captain Josiah N. Knowles became one of the most brilliant of the commanders of the late clippers, conspicuous first for a dramatic disaster and afterwards for a record passage.

The disaster came in 1858, after Captain Knowles had been in command of the medium clipper Wild Wave for four years, engaged in miscellaneous trade.  In 1856, sailing between Callao and Harve, he was off Plymouth in seventy days – a record which is believed never to have been broken.  Two years later came his great disaster. 

On the voyage in question, the Wild Wave sailed on February 9, 1858, from San Francisco for Valparaiso.  At one o’clock in the morning of March 5, when the ship was going through the water at the rate of thirteen knots, the lookout cried, ‘Breakers,’ and at the same moment the Wild Wave was on top of a coral reef.  A terrific surf broke over both reef and ship; all three masts went over the side, and sheets of copper, torn from the bottom of the vessel by the coral, were picked up by the breakers and hurled across the deck.  What with falling masts and spars, tangled rigging, swinging blocks and dead-eyes, flying sheets of copper and waves breaking clear across the deck, it is a miracle that everyone on board was not killed.

At daybreak Captain Knowles discovered that what he had struck was a circular reef that lay about two miles off the uninhabited island of Oeno and completely surrounded it.  The island, as figured in the chart, was twenty miles out of its true position – a mistake which was responsible for the wreck.  The island itself is a low strip of sand, half a mile in circumference and covered with meager shrubs. 

All day long the crew boated provisions ashore through the surf, wondering with every trip whether the ship would hold together for another one.  They pitched two big tents on the beach, one for the officers and passengers, one for the crew.  Luckily there was plenty of water on the island, as well as sea-birds’ eggs – for what they might be worth – and there were prospects of good fishing.  The steward cooked supper, and all hands turned in, though with little prospect of sleep because of thousands of land crabs that lay hidden in conch shells and coconut husks and bit deep with claws like a lobster’s.  There were rats on the island, too, from an earlier wreck, the remains of which were still visible. 

In the morning Captain Knowles called his mate, Mr. J. H. Bartlett, for a consultation, the upshot of which was that the two men should sail in one of their boats to Pitcairn Island, twenty miles (actually 76 miles) south, on the chance of getting some sort of craft there from the descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty.  A boat was made ready for the trip, but for the next four or five days it blew a gale, kicking up a surf that completely buried the hull of the Wild Wave and of course made it impossible either to start for Pitcairn or to get any more supplies from the ship. 

Finally, after a week of waiting, the surf flattened out, and the Captain started.  “I cannot divert my mind,” he writes in his diary, “from the one subject – home and friends.”  Bartlett and five men went with him; they left the second mate in charge at Oeno with orders to proceed to Pitcairn with the rest of the ship’s company if the Captain was not back in a month.  He also took several sea-birds from their nests, on the chance that they could be used as carrier pigeons to take messages between the two parties.  As the little boat pushed off, the rest of the company gave three cheers.  Before finally laying his course for Pitcairn, however, the Captain stopped at the wreck to pick up $18,000 in gold, an item that had been worrying him ever since the ship struck.

On the first night came a return of the bad weather, with thunder, lightning, and a high sea that made the boat dance about so wildly that it was impossible to read the compass.  They shortened sail and the next morning found that, as nearly as they could figure, they were ten miles farther from Pitcairn than when they had started, and it was blowing so hard that for most of that day they could not carry any sail.  However, what with rowing until they were ready to drop, and long after Captain Knowles’s hands were raw from the unaccustomed labor, and now and then setting a patch of sail, they raised Pitcairn at dusk.  But they were on the wrong side of the island, where the surf ran so high that no boat could land.  They lay on their oars all night and in the morning found a spot where it was possible to run through the surf.

Once on the beach, they found that a thickly wooded mountain separated them from the settlement.  They made their way over it only to discover, when they reached the other side, that all the inhabitants had left, having migrated in a body to Norfolk Island.  The houses stood empty, with live stock and chickens running freely in and out. 

Knowles and his party returned over the mountain to the boat and there, after letting the birds go with messages to Oeno, had their first sleep for fifty-six hours, Captain Knowles and Bartlett each with half the gold buried in the sand under his head.

The next morning the surf was too high for them to sail round the island to Bounty Bay, where the houses were; they therefore took the tedious overland route again.  Once arrived, however, they made themselves comfortable enough, cleaning out a house, broiling chicken, catching a goat, and in every way taking a new lease on life.  But their boat, left on the far side of the island, was smashed to pieces by an unusually high surf which reached it even in what they had supposed its safe position well up on the beach. 

The Captain and Bartlett brought the gold to ‘town’ and buried it under a flat rock on the shore.  With it they brought a compass and a chronometer, still undamaged, and they began to consider what their next move should be.  Whatever they did could not be done in a hurry.  Tahiti, which they had had some idea of trying to reach in their boat, lay fifteen hundred miles northwest, and all that remained of the boat was a mast and sail.  The rain began and continued.

Captain Knowles passed the time reading Jane Eyre, which he picked up in one of the houses, hunting goats, and worrying about his young wife in Brewster, Massachusetts.  They kept, of course, a constant lookout for ships the while.  ‘Nineteen goat meals this week,’ he reports on March 24; and on March 28, still in the midst of rain, he writes, ‘Read, walked and thought of home.’

Before the month was up after which the second mate was to join them at Pitcairn, Captain Knowles had reached his decision: he would build a vessel and sail to Tahiti.  A miscellaneous assortment of old tools had been left in the settlement; trees for timbers and planking were at hand.  On April 5, one month after the wreck, the party began to cut them down and hew out a keel and a stem, using rusty axes from the abandoned houses.  For the first two weeks the Captain suffered severely from blistered hands; after that, they hardened up nicely. 

The chief trouble was the rain.  ‘What a host of troubles that blunder of sombody’s had made for me,’ writes Knowles, thinking of the hydrographer who had drawn the chart.  April 20 came and went, with no sign of the second mate.  Work on the vessel progressed between showers; but a constant cloud over the Captain’s spirits was the thought how his wife would worry when no word of the arrival of the Wild Wave at Valparaiso reached home. 

On April 28 they killed a wild hog and salted the pork with sea salt.  On the 29th they finished hewing planks for the vessel and stood them up against the church to dry.  They made sails from such pieces of canvas and stray rags as they could find, and began picking oakum from old rope.  ‘I didn’t think I should ever get down to that again,’ writes the Captain, ‘but so it was.’  They burned houses for nails and collected scraps of metal for fastenings – the scarcity of which was their chief concern. 

On May 26 the captain writes: ‘My 28th birthday....  My friends think I’m lost.’  They made a charcoal pit and burned charcoal for fuel for the voyage, began work on a rope walk, and always, when it rained, picked oakum in the church, living the while on goat’s meat, coconut milk, and chickens.

By June 3 the hull was finished, a schooner thirty feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep.  The next job was caulking her, and by the time this was finished, it was found that the green wood had shrunk so much that she had to be calked all over again.  While some were busy at this, others were shaping spars, using the flagpole for one of the masts; then they painted her, with paint left in the houses, salted a quantity of goat’s meat for the voyage, made some old barrels into water casks, wrote letters to leave behind them, and on July 23 launched the vessel.  They provisioned her, in addition to their salted pork and goat’s meat, with twelve hundred oranges, made an ensign out of such rags as had not gone into the sails, and christened her the John Adams, after one of the former inhabitants of the island.  The Captain and Bartlett dug up their gold from under the flat rock, and, bidding farewell to three of their company, who preferred to take their chances on the island, hoisted sail for the Marquesas, as the wind was dead ahead for Tahiti.

The John Adams developed a peculiar and uneasy motion at sea, which promptly made all hands sick; but she was staunch and able, and in time the sickness wore off.  On July 25 she was bobbing along nicely through a heavy sea; on the 26th it was calm enough to bring the stove on deck.  During the next week the schooner logged anywhere from 100 to 124 miles a day, and on August 3 looked in at Resolution By in the island of Ohitahoo, one of the Marrquesas, but the natives appeared so hostile that the Captain decided to try Ohevahoa instead.  A flat calm prevented them, however, and they headed for Nukahiva, which they sighted the next day, August 4.  They had decided, if there was no prospect of a vessel there, to continue their voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, but as they rounded the headland into the harbor of Nukahiva, they sighted the American sloop-of-war Vandalia lying at anchor, the only vessel in port.  Captain Knowles headed for her and hoisted his ensign.

Their tale was soon told.  The Vandalia promptly headed for Oeno to pick up those of the company of the Wild Wave that had stayed there and Mr. Bartlett went with her, subsequently joining her as an officer.  Captain Knowles, after selling the John Adams to a missionary for $250, went along too as far as Tahiti, whence he took passage for Honolulu on the French sloop-of-war Euridice and made the rest of the voyage to San Francisco on the bark Yankee, arriving on September 29 – seven months after he had left there in the Wild Wave.  He met many friends in port, who had thought him dead, and was interested to hear that he had become the father of a girl already seven months old.  On October 6 he left for New York on the S.S. Golden Gate and in due time joined his family in Brewster.