Read CHAPTER X - ADRIFT ON A DERELICT of The Boy With the U. S. Life-Savers , free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on

“Looks to me as though we’re going to have a ripsnorter for Christmas,” said Eric to his friend, Homer, the day before the festive season. “If the sea gets much higher, Cookie won’t have to stir the plum duff at all!”

“How’s that?”

“All he’s got to do is to leave the raisins and the flour and the currants and whatever else goes into the duff lying loose on a table. The old lady is kicking loose enough to mix it up all right. Doesn’t she pitch!”

“Great cook you’d make,” laughed the other. “I’m glad we don’t have to mess from your galley. But you’re right about the weather. It’s all right to go hunting for derelicts, but I don’t know how the deuce anybody can be expected to find one in a sea like this!”

“We might hit her,” suggested Eric, cheerfully.

“You’re a hopeful prophet, you are,” retorted his chum. “I’m not aching to feed the fishes yet awhile.”

“Well, we might bump, just the same. Then the Seminole would have a chance to hunt us as a derelict, and Van Sluyd he’s on her now, you know would have the time of his young life.”

“I don’t think you need to worry about sending a message to Van Sluyd yet awhile,” the other answered; “after all, the Miami is still above water.”

“She is, once in a while,” Eric commented, as the cutter “took it green” and the water came flooding down the deck. Homer, seeing the wave coming, scuttled for the companion hatchway and went below.

As Eric had said, it seemed difficult to try to locate a derelict in a half a gale of wind. Yet, so dangerous to navigation was the floating wreck which the Miami was seeking, that the risk was worth taking. When he remembered what the lieutenant of the Bear had said to him once about derelicts, he realized the terrible importance of the quest.

“Every year,” he had said, “hundreds of vessels, both sail and steam, leave their home ports for foreign shores, or start from foreign ports for home. The day of the expected arrival comes and goes, two or three days drag by, and still there is no sign of them. Anxious relatives and friends besiege the shipping offices daily for word, and no word comes. When suspense has passed into assured disaster, the underwriters inscribe against that vessel’s name the one word, “Missing!” An average of a vessel a day is the toll of the Seven Seas upon the world’s shipping. And the principal cause is derelicts.”

As the Miami plowed her way through the water, dipping her nose into the waves raised by a stiff southeaster, Eric thought of the suddenness of the catastrophe if the Coast Guard cutter, in the darkness, should strike one of those abandoned hulks, floating almost level with the water, and scarcely visible from the vessel’s decks.

It was a night calculated to shake the nerve of a youngster who knew that this deadly menace to the life of every one on board might be suddenly lurking in the trough of any one of the waves, that came shouldering their vengeful resentment against the sturdy little vessel that defied them. They had nourished their grudge against Man, the violator of their ancient domain, over a thousand leagues of sea, for the Miami was a hundred miles to the eastward of the Lookout Shoal, though westward of the limit of the Gulf Stream. The billows thus had a stretch of unbroken ocean from the frozen continent of Antarctica. Of this they made full use, and staunch little vessel though the cutter was, she was making bad weather of it.

The fog was dense and the gale whipped the spray into a blinding sheet. This was varied by squalls of sleet and hail and for three hours a blinding snowstorm added to the general discomfort. Less than thirty miles to the eastward lay the Gulf Stream, where the water was over 70 deg. and where no snow could ever be, but that gave the crew of the Miami little comfort.

It was not a coast on which vigilance could be relaxed, and Eric was glad when the search for the Madeleine Cooney was abandoned for a while. It was time, too, for the Miami had all she could do to take care of herself. The Coast Guard vessel was midway between the Frying Pan and the Lookout Shoals, two of the most famous danger points on the Atlantic coast, and the wind had risen to a living gale. The first lieutenant was on the bridge a great deal of the time. For forty-eight hours there had been absolutely no sign of the sun or any star. There was no way to determine the vessel’s position except by dead reckoning always a dangerous thing to trust when there is much leeway and many cross-currents. The lead was going steadily, heaved every few minutes, while the Miami crept along cautiously under the guidance of that ancient safeguard of the mariner.

It was the evening of the second day after the worst part of the blow started that the Miami dropped her anchor in eight fathoms of water off the North Carolina coast. Steam was kept full up, although the position of the cutter in the lee of a point of land precluded the immediate possibility of her dragging her anchors.

Almost exactly at noon the next day, the wireless operator intercepted a message from the Norfolk Navy Yard that the steamer Northwestern was anchored 55 miles southwest of Lookout Shoals, with her propeller gone. As this position, pricked on the chart, showed the steamer to be in a dangerous and exposed position, and as, moreover, she was a menace to navigation, being full in the path of vessels, the Miami got under way immediately.

As soon as the Coast Guard cutter reached the bar, a snowstorm, which seemed to have been waiting around, as if for that very purpose, struck down upon the water and the Miami clawed out over the bar in a blinding smother. There was a nasty, choppy sea, the wind having hauled round to the westward, though it was not as violent as the day before. At two o’clock in the afternoon the radio operator received a storm warning for a nor’wester.

A passing vessel spoke the Miami by wireless and stated that she had sighted the Northwestern, but gave her position twelve miles to the westward of the point first quoted. It was evening before the steamer in distress was sighted. The Coast Guard cutter ran up under her stern, and asked if she could hold on for a while. The captain of the steamer answered that he could.

“I’m all right, so far,” he shouted back through the megaphone; “it’s that blithering bally-hoo of a propeller!”

His language was picturesque, fluent, and convincing, and everybody on board the cutter grinned while the old sea-dog expressed a highly colored opinion of the whole tribe of ship-fitters, machinists, and mechanics generally. After ten minutes of descriptive shouting, during which he never repeated an adjective twice, he wound up by saying that he considered “an engine-room an insult to a seaman’s intelligence,” and said that “he’d like to pave the bottom of the sea with the skeletons of engineers diving a thousand fathom for his lost propeller!” Following which, he seemed to feel better, and discussed what was best to be done with his ship.

The situation was dangerous. The sea was far too rough for the lowering of a boat, no matter how well handled. The gale was such that it was unsafe for the Miami to anchor. In the case of the Northwestern, anchoring had been her last resort. There was fully twenty fathom of water, and fortunately the steamer’s anchors held. The captain had put ninety fathom of chain on each anchor, and though the weight pulled her nose into the water, so that she snubbed into the sea like a ram trying to butt down a wall, still everything held. The Miami stood by all night, keeping close to the imperilled vessel.

Next morning the conditions were no better. The advantages of daylight were more than overcome by the increased fury of the sea. The Northwestern lay in an angry rip, for the gale had come on in full force and was countering the long rollers from the southeast that had been blown up by the storm of two days before, the same which had driven the Miami to shelter and which had crippled the big steamer, twice the size of the revenue cutter. The Miami stayed near by, hove to, waiting for the storm to abate. But of this there were no signs. The force of the gale increased steadily through the day.

The Northwestern was pitching terribly. She was heavily loaded with a cargo of crude oil, and as she swung to the squalls, the sea breached her completely and continuously. Only her high bow, poop, and pilot-house were out of the water for any length of time. The big steamer was tearing viciously at her anchors and it was amazing that they held. The long scope of chain, however, was probably her salvation.

As darkness came on, the captain of the Miami called the first lieutenant.

“Mr. Keelson,” he said, “I think we’d better get a line to the steamer.”

“Very well, sir,” the other answered.

“If we’re going to take her in tow,” said Eric to Homer, overhearing the order, “we’re apt to get our stern works pulled out of us. She’s pitching like all billy-o!”

“We’ll make it if the skipper says so,” his friend said cheerfully.

It was then nearly half past four o’clock, and fortunately there was just a slight lull in the storm. Swinging across the Northwestern’s bow the gunner shot a line into her rigging. The steamer’s crew were on the alert they had good men aboard that craft and tailed on to the line. The Miami forged ahead and dropped anchor with sixty fathom of chain on the disabled steamer’s starboard bow.

The Northwestern had got enough steam up for the donkey engine. It did not take long for them to get first a strong rope and then the big hawser aboard, and make fast. As soon as the hawser was aboard, the Northwestern began to heave up to her anchors. Closely watching, the Miami hove up to hers, ready to break at the same instant that the steamer broke free. The instant the larger vessel’s anchor raised, the Miami swung hers free, to avoid fouling, for in so fierce a gale the merest touch would have been fatal to one or both vessels.

The Northwestern swung down broadside to the sea and stood a fair chance of being swamped. The Miami, however, going ahead at full speed, just managed to bring the strain on the tow-line in time to swing the steamer clear into the crest of a huge comber which struck her bow harmlessly instead of hurling its tons of water on her unprotected deck.

The strain on the Miami was extremely great, but the hawser held well, although the Northwestern yawed frightfully. She would run up on the line, and the sea would strike her bow, throwing her off, tightening the tow-line suddenly with a jolt that shook the Miami from stem to stern. It was an awful night’s tow, but just at eight bells of the middle watch the cutter and the rescued vessel passed the Frying Pan Shoals Lightship, and as soon as they got within lee of the shoals they met a smoother sea. At nine o’clock the next morning the Northwestern was safe and sound in a good anchorage in Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

When Eric came on deck again, he found the Miami on her way south again on the search for the derelict, Madeleine Cooney, this time reported by the United States Army mine planter, Schofield. Two days afterwards in latitude 27 de’ N., longitude 84 de’ W., a vessel was found in 65 fathom of water, with her anchor down, burned to her main deck and on fire aft. She was dismasted and her bowsprit had gone. Eric was sent in charge of one of the boats to run a line. The sea was comparatively smooth, so that the Miami made fast alongside her stern and put two lines of hose aboard. The cutter’s heavy pumps were attached and in fifteen minutes the fire was out.

The anchor chain was fouled, so the first lieutenant gave orders that the cable should be slipped. Some of the cutter’s men worked around the masts floating alongside and the entangled rigging, and cut away enough of the rigging to make a heavy wire bridle which was passed through the hawse-pipes in the burned vessel’s bow. This was necessary as none of the upper works of the ship remained to which a tow-line could be attached. To this bridle was bent the ten-inch hawser of the Miami, and the derelict was towed into Tampa Bay.

On the way, however, rough weather came up and the masts and spars broke adrift. As they were right in the path of traffic, the Miami went back to destroy these. The spars were separated and allowed to drift, as the set of the current would soon take them ashore out of harm’s way. This got rid of everything except the lower part of the mainmast. As this heavy spar itself might be the means of sinking a vessel if left adrift, tossing on the waves, the Miami parbuckled the big timber on board, chopped it into small pieces none of them large enough to do a vessel any damage and set them afloat.

The weather continued squally as the Miami ran down the coast, the tag end of the gale blowing itself to tatters on the stretch from Cape Hatteras to Cape Fear. Little though Eric realized it then, before the year was out, he was destined to know that coast from painful experience and every curl of those hungry breakers was going to be imprinted on his brain.

The Miami was off Cape Canaveral when a radio message was received that there was a derelict bark two hundred miles to the westward of Abaco Island, the northernmost of the Bahamas. In less than three minutes after the receipt of the message over the wireless, the captain had been advised, the course changed and the Miami was headed for the derelict at full speed. She had been running for a little over an hour when a second radio was received from a land station, relayed from a steamer.

“Schooner Marie-Rose reports passing water-logged vessel 23 de’ N. and 73 de’ W. Signs of distress observed. Marie-Rose, crippled and running before gale, could not heave to. Not known whether any one on board.”

Then the wireless began to be busy. Within twenty minutes the same message was received from Washington, from the station at Beaufort, N. C., from Fernandina, Fla., from Key West and from Nassau. Then by relays from vessels on the coast, from the Seneca, the Coast Guard’s great derelict destroyer, far out on the Atlantic; from the Algonquin, stationed at Porto Rico; from the Onondaga patrolling the coast north of Cape Hatteras and from the Seminole in port at Arundel Cove undergoing repairs, came orders from the Coast Guard Headquarters. The Miami was instructed to proceed at once to the point indicated, to rescue survivors if such were to be found and to destroy the derelict which was floating into the trade route and was a menace to navigation. Meanwhile, the long harsh “buzz” of the answer sounded all over the ship from the wireless room as the operator answered the various calls with the information that the Miami was already proceeding under full speed.

“Van Sluyd will be sore,” said Eric to Homer, as the message from the Seminole was received; “she’d be sent instead of us if she weren’t in dock. When he hears that we’re going on this chase instead of his own craft, he’ll be green with envy.”

“He’ll get over that,” said his friend; “he’s under a good man. There’s very little gets by the Seminole that is possible of achievement.”

Dawn was breaking as the Miami neared the spot indicated by the wireless messages as the location of the derelict bark. Using this point as a center, the navigating officer of the Miami plotted a chart of the U-shaped course which would enable her to cruise and cover the greatest amount of space without doubling. At about four bells in the afternoon watch the speaking tube on the bridge whistled.

“Something that looks like a derelict, sir,” came the message from the man in the crow’s-nest, “bearing about a point and a half for’ard of the port beam.”

The officer of the deck gave a sharp order to change the course and the Miami swung round. The captain was on the bridge at the time.

“Observed anything, Mr. Hamilton?” he queried.

“Lookout reports an object, now right ahead, sir,” was the reply. He picked up the tube again.

“Can you see the derelict now?”

“Yes, sir,” came the reply; “we’re a-raisin’ her fast.”

“She must be nearly flush with the water,” said the officer of the deck, handing the glass to the captain; “I don’t see her yet.”

In half an hour, however, there was no doubt that this was the derelict that had been reported by the Marie-Rose. As the Miami neared her it was evident that she was heavily water-logged. Her bow was deep under water, only her stern appearing above the surface. On the poop rail had been hung a shirt, the white gleam of which might have been the distress signal referred to in the message of the Marie-Rose. The Miami slowed up as she neared the derelict to survey the wreck. Suddenly there came an order,

“Clear away both cutters! Lively now, lads!”

The men sprang to stations at the word.

“Lower away together! Easy now! Let go all!”

And with the routine of clockwork two of the Miami’s boats were in the water and off for the derelict. The sea was choppy but not high, and the water-logged bark lay so heavily that she scarcely moved. The waves came up and dashed over her almost like a rock. One of the second lieutenants, who was in charge of the large boat, was first to round the derelict. From the lee side, he pointed with his finger.

“There must be somebody aboard her,” said Eric, rightly guessing the meaning of the gesture. Then, noting the manner in which the other boat kept away, he realized that the wreckage was on that side. Wrenching the tiller round, he called,

“Back starboard!”

The boat spun round like a top, sweeping right under the vessel’s stern.

“Give way to starboard! Easy port!”

The boat slid up alongside the derelict as though coming to a landing place. The men trailed their oars, the bow oar grappled with a boat-hook and Eric leaped for the poop rail of the vessel, and swung himself aboard. The deck was pitched forward at an angle of 30 degrees, but evidently the vessel had floated in that condition for some time, for a sort of barricade had been made, with the right angle of the half-sunk cabin companion hatchway as a base, and on this three bodies were lying. A keg of water and a maggoty ham the latter exposed to the full sunlight of the tropics was all the food in sight.

Eric slid down the deck to this barricade. The first man seemed to be dead, the heart of the second was beating feebly, but the third, a white-haired old man, appeared only to be asleep, the deep sleep of exhaustion. When the boy put his hand on his shoulder, the old man opened his eyes wide.

“So you have come the third time,” he said, in a queer far-away voice, “but it is too late.”

Eric slipped his hand into his coat pocket and brought out a small phial of restorative he had provided just before leaving the cutter. He gave the survivor a few sips. The old man changed not a muscle, only repeated in the same dull and far-away voice,

“So you have come the third time, but it is too late!”

Perceiving that the sufferer regarded him as an apparition and that in his hallucinations born of exhaustion and exposure he must have believed he saw rescuers before, Eric picked the old man up bodily and, half crouching, half climbing on the sloping deck, carried him to the derelict’s side. Two of the sailors climbed up and helped him lower the old man to the boat.

Meantime the other boat had made fast and the second lieutenant joined him. He was a man of considerable experience, and while Eric was quite proud of his knowledge and skill as a life-saver, he was amazed at the deft handling of his superior officer.

“I think this one’s gone,” said Eric in a low voice, pointing to the first man he had seen.

The other cast a quick look at him and shook his head.

“Pretty far gone, but not quite,” he answered. “There’s always a fighting chance that we can pull him through. I’ll take these two into my boat and get back to the cutter. We’ll probably blow this craft up, afterwards; we couldn’t ever tow her this way.”

“Why, sir? Because she’s too heavy?”

“Not only that, but she lies too low. On end, the way she is now, she’s probably drawing thirty-five or forty feet of water. She might stick in a channel somewhere and that would be worse than getting rid of her out here.”

The boats raced back to the ship and the survivors were handed up to the Miami where the surgeon immediately took charge. All preparations had been made, meanwhile, for the placing of mines and Eric was told off in the boat under the second lieutenant to see to the placing of the charges.

This was work to which Eric was unaccustomed and he watched with considerable interest the gunner’s handling of the mines. It was easy enough to place the charges in the upper works of the stern where they would be sure to blow that part of the ship to pieces, but so much of the forward portion of the hulk was under water that the problem there was more difficult. In order to make sure of the job, five mines were set and connected with each other by electric wiring. A long strand of insulated wire was then carried to the boat, over a hundred feet in length.

At a signal given him by the lieutenant, Eric pressed the button. There was a tremendous roar as a waterspout shot up from the surface of the sea. As though some vast leviathan had passed underneath the old bark and shouldered her out of the water, the long black hull heaved herself up slowly. She seemed to hang poised for a fraction of a second on the surface of the water as if, in her death agony, she had for a moment thought of her old life when, under press of sail, she flew bounding over the billows, defying the very elements which at last had worked her ruin. Only for a moment she hung there, then with a dull crash she broke her back. The bow plunged downward with a sullen plunge, but the stern still held poised. Then, quite suddenly, the air imprisoned in the hull broke free and slowly, almost, it seemed, with dignity, the remainder of the vessel sank forever beneath the surface of the waters.

It was the end of the Luckenback and somewhere at the bottom of the sea her distorted steel plating marks the spot where rest the nine members of her crew lost before the rescuing Coast Guard cutter hove in sight.