OIL ON THE WATERS
With a low silver-tongued monotony
The little billows whisper as they fall;
the forehead of the outer sea,
As though it would not reawake at all.
But yestermorn, like mountains earthquake-shaken,
The waters swayed against the dawning light,
And now they lie, like
sleep, that cannot wait for night."
Grey Rain—Portree Harbour—Becalmed—Whistling for a Wind—Oil on the
Waters—St. Kilda Puddings—Shetland Cods' Livers—Oily Fish— Fishermen of many
Lands—Wrecks averted by use of Oil—Mr. Shields at Peterhead—Application of
OR to Life-buoys—Wreck Register.
Och hone! Och hone! to think that such a change could
have passed o'er the spirit of our dream. Here we are once again in
beautiful Loch Staffin. But can it be that this is indeed the fairy bay in
which, so few days ago, we took such exceeding delight! Now the pattering
rain falls with dull plash on the sullen waves; a heavy ground-swell rolls
us to and fro, and the cold spray dashes over us; the bitter wind whistles
through the rigging, or blows in hollow gusts, echoing among the crags; on
every side the lowering sky is black with gathering storm; the slippery,
black rocks are flecked with salt sea-foam, and there is no beauty in the
dripping sea-weed, or the wet sands, or the flapping sails of the fishers'
boats —with their rich brown changed to dirty black.
It is with infinite difficulty that we effect a
landing (for business has brought us here, and must be attended to); but as
to embarking again, it is simply impossible. So there is nothing for it but
to spend the night ashore in the little inn. All night we hear the sullen
moaning of the wind, and the waves beating heavily on the shingle; and when
the cheerless dawn breaks over the cheerless land, nothing is visible
through the colourless mist, save heaps of tangle and dank weed lying in
dark masses along the shore. Nevertheless we must re-embark with all speed,
for the skipper distrusts his anchorage, and wants to run for Portree. So we
are off, and look up at the great basaltic rocks, all dim and grey,
wondering what had made them so beautiful in our eyes.
Our question is answered by the sun himself, shining
out suddenly through the mist, lighting up the grand old Storr—now right
above us, and revealing a thousand beauties of form and colour. Still we
pass along the same basaltic pillars, which at one spot are fairly bent
over, as if by some vast pressure in their early life. By the time we reach
Portree, the evening is clear and sunny. Next morning, when we would again
set sail, we find ourselves becalmed.
You remember our first arrival at Portree was by the
steamer at 4 a.m., and we awoke to find only torrents of rain. Now we had
time enough to row about the harbour, fishing and sketching from all points,
and rejoicing in the stillness of a calm as perfect as that wherein Milton
describes the beginning of Messiah's reign of peace:-
"The winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters
Whispering new joy to the mild ocean,
Which now hath quite
forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave."
I think no more perfect image of peace exists than
these soft white-breasted "birds of calm," floating on a mirror so still,
that each white plume is reflected; the brightest spots on the broad plain
of gleaming light.
This fine sea-loch divides itself into an inner and an
outer harbour, perfectly land-locked. The former is still known to the older
fishers as Loch Columbkille, being one of the spots specially dedicated to
St. Columba, who was patron saint of half of Skye, and many neighbouring
isles. The other half was the property of that St. Maelruhba to whom, as we
have seen, were offered such strange sacrifices.' At the further end of the
loch, close to the sheriff's house, is a small rocky islet, where a few
fragments of building, and traces of old graves are all that now remain to
mark the spot where once stood the oldest monastic building in Scotland; so,
at least, say certain of our wisest antiquarians.
Early and late we rowed about on those calm waters;
sometimes landing in some little creek, where the great rocks sheltered us
from the burning sun, and the cool wavelets, rippling over white sand,
whispered an irresistible invitation to bathe. Then, wandering along the
shore, some heathery knoll would tempt us to linger amid its fragrant purple
till the mellowing evening light called us back to our floating home.
At last we made sure of a gale, and determined to sail
next morning. So at 3 a.m. I went off to the head of the bay to get a final
sketch of the Storr; and returned, of course, to find the breeze more sleepy
than ever. Next day we determined we would get under weigh; so we contrived
to get to the mouth of the harbour, and there lay immovable till the men got
into the boat, and, rowing with all their might, contrived to tug us back.
You see our sailors were above the common world-wide
practice of whistling for the wind, as their brethren the fisher-folk do to
this day in most real earnest. Hugh Miller tells us how, often, when he has
been sailing with the Cromarty fishermen in calm weather, he has watched
them with faces anxiously turned in the direction whence they expect the
breeze, and earnestly invoking the wind in a shrill, tremulous whistling. He
says that one evening when it was blowing hard, be commenced whistling a
careless tune, whereupon one of the men instantly silenced him, saying,
"Whet, whist, lad! we has mair nor eneugh wind already." He traces this
superstition back to the old days of mythology, when each spirit of air or
earth or water must be invoked in its own language and in its own manner.
He quotes another instance of this conciliatory
dealing with the elements, when, in the case of a rising storm, one of the
fishers used to be told off to sit astern, and continually move his hand to
and fro over the waves, as though making mesmeric passes, to soothe the
spirit of the storm.
Sometimes the fiery Highlanders opposed wrath to
wrath; and there is one angry tide always chafing and fretting off the coast
of Mull, which is called the "Men of Lochaber," because, having occasion to
cross over to Mull, the contrast of these waves with their quieter waters
amazed and angered them to such a pitch that they drew their dirks and
stabbed the waves!
The men of St. Kilda came far nearer to a practical
dealing with the difficulty, when they discovered for themselves the
efficacy of "pouring oil upon troubled waters," a piece of wisdom with
which, in its metaphorical sense, we have all our lives been familiar,
though we have hitherto been so slow to apply it to practical, everyday use,
on stormy seas. (By the way, how strange it is that no one should yet have
been able to trace to its source this proverbial saying. I have heard many
persons confidently assert it to be a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures!)
To St. Kilda apparently belongs the honour of having
been the first British island to apply the discovery to daily life. It seems
to have occurred to some reflecting islander that the oil, so abundantly
bestowed on all sea-birds, might be somehow specially adapted to the
requirements of the beautiful white-winged creatures to whom wind and wave
are alike ministers of delight. So the thought of carrying sea-gull oil to
sea took form, and the fishers made puddings of the fat of sea-fowls, and
fastened them astern of their "coblos" to hinder the waves from breaking.
Away to the north-east, their neighbours in the
Shetland Isles likewise found means to apply the lesson they had learnt from
noting the smooth surface of the water, which invariably betrays the spot
where a seal chances to be feasting, and they had remarked that the sea was
most glassy when the victim was a specially oil- yielding fish, such as cod
or ling. So familiar is this effect, that the Shetlanders have a special and
singularly descriptive word to express it, namely, "lioˇm." If you have ever
noticed the appearance of the sea in a dead calm, you will at once perceive
how the very sound of this word suggests the oil-like smoothness of surface.
The hardy Shetland men are a race of bold fishers, and
seek their harvest far away in the deep sea, sometimes rowing forty or fifty
miles ore they reach their fishing-ground, in boats so small and light that
a good haul soon overweight.s them. Yet in these they face the fiercest
storms and most treacherous currents. The worst dangers await them as they
near home, for there are certain points where the currents meet, and
headlands, off which the sea is always tempestuous, while, in the straits
between the islands, the tide rushes in an impetuous flood, more like a
raging river than like a well-regulated ebb and flow. However calm may be
the outer sea, these headlong sea-rivers are always tumultuous, breaking in
crested billows, and marking their course by a pathway of foam extending far
out to sea.
Even in calm weather it is rarely considered safe to
cross these currents at high tide, and the experienced fishers lie off till
it slackens. But when, homeward bound, and heavily laden, they encounter
foul weather, and are compelled to face these furious tideways, then, in
truth, they have to encounter such peril as tests the coolest heads and most
iron nerves. And then it is (but only when driven to the last extremity)
that they put in practice the seal's method of producing the "li÷om," and
purchase their safety by sacrificing part of their hardly-earned cargo.
Cutting open their fish (chiefly cod and ling), they tear out the livers,
and, crushing them in their hands to free the oil, they throw them overboard
on every side.
Immediately, as if by a miracle, the mad raging of the
waters is allayed. In one moment, a film of oil overspreads the surface, and
though the great waves still heave and roll, they are spell-bound, and
cannot break, and the little boat, which but a few seconds before was in
imminent danger of being swamped, now rides securely on the smooth green
billows, which from that moment have become powerless to work mischief.
We need not go far for instances of the
rough-and-ready application of fish-oil in its crude form. Mr. Anderson,
writing from Edinburgh, tells how, some years ago, a number of fishermen in
his employment were caught in a storm thirty miles east of the Isle of May,
in the Firth of Forth. As their only hope of salvation, they had to cut open
the skate, ling, and cod, mince up the livers, and cast them all round the
Almost instantaneously they found themselves floating
in gentle rolling waves, though on every side of them the crested billows
continued to break furiously. The oil was not quickly dissipated, but
floated in a compact body, and in this smooth water the boats, so lately in
dire peril, lay for ten hours, till the tempest subsided, and they were
enabled to return to port.
Fishermen take note of how the sea falls to a gentle
roll when they are hauling up their well-filled herring nets, though it had
previously appeared ready to engulf them. Thus at Fraserburgh, where there
is a constant influx of boats laden with herring, the large amount of
bilge-water from the boats calms down the sea to a gentle roll, and allows
of the boats entering the harbour with the greatest safety, though the waves
are breaking over the pier.
On our own northern coast, the herring fishers say
they can tell at a distance where the shoals of oily fish are lying, by the
smoothness of the water over them. The Cornish fishers can likewise detect
the position of the pilchards. In the same way those engaged in the seal
fisheries know where their victims are eating their oily prey below the
water, by the unruffled surface above them. So, also, the track of a wounded
whale or porpoise is clearly defined by the escape of oil, and it has often
been observed that the body of a dead whale always floats in calm
water—however rough the sea all round may be, no breakers can form near that
In the Highlands (where the excitement of leistering
salmon by torchlight on a dark night is a sport not altogether unknown, even
in these days of salmon commissioners, and watchers, and water- bailiffs) we
are well aware of the use often made by poachers (and other folk besides) of
a good flask of oil, wherewith to smooth the surface of the deep brown pool
where the silvery salmon lie all unconscious of the impending spear. Often
the oil is mixed with sand, and thus thrown far up-stream to calm the
Just in the same way is oil used by the fishers of
Bermuda, and by the men of Corsica and Syria. The boatmen of the Persian
Gulf habitually carry bladders filled with oil, and in rough weather tow
them astern of their frail craft, having first pricked them so as to cause a
moderate leakage as they run through the waves.
The oyster fishers of Gibraltar always carry a flask
of oil to still the motion of the sea, and enable them better to discern the
largest oysters. So too do the men of Samoa, and other Pacific Islanders,
carry gourds, or large nuts, filled with cocoa-nut oil, to aid them in
spearing fish on the coral reef.
Strange, is it not, that a phenomenon so widely known
should through so many ages have been turned to so little practical account!
How many centuries have elapsed since Pliny recorded how "all seas are made
calme and still with oyle, and therefore the dyvers do spurt it abroad with
their mouths into the water, because it dulceth the unpleasant nature
thereof, and carryeth a light with it." At the present day the divers of the
Mediterranean actually do spurt oil in the way Pliny described, in order to
clear the light under the surface of the water by the stillness so caused.
Year by year has passed by, each season swelling the
multitude of unnumbered dead who have perished within sight of land, because
no boat could live in the white sea of breaking billows, and yet until quite
recently no steps have been taken to bring into systematic use this most
unobtrusive, but most valuable, ally of all whose life-work involves hard
struggles with stormy waves and tempests. Indeed, so entirely has the
subject been treated as a vain dream, that any person venturing to bring the
topic forward as one worthy the attention of practical men, has generally
been listened to with the polite incredulity usually bestowed on stories of
the great sea- serpent.
And yet there were not lacking proofs enough and to
spare. Again and again have vessels engaged in collecting palm-oil on the
African coast, or Ceylon, or the Pacific Isles, and still more frequently,
whaling ships laden with whale-oil and blubber, reported the strange calm
which always seemed to surround them, owing to the leakage of oil pumped up
with the bilge-water, whereas the ships lying near them, carrying dry cargo,
are tossing and pitching on a white-crested sea. So fully is this fact
recognized, that a multitude of vessels employed on the whale fisheries are
so old and rotten that they could not be sent on other service, but the
nature of their cargo is their safeguard.
From Newfoundland and Labrador we have heard how such
vessels, when riding out fierce gales, have saved themselves by throwing
overboard small quantities of blubber; and many cases are on record of
vessels having been well-nigh wrecked—the breakers pouring over them till
they seemed on the point of foundering— when happily the oil-casks have
broken adrift and been smashed. So instantly have their contents overcome
the mad waters, that the raging waves could no longer break over the ship,
though they heaved and tossed as tumultuously as before. They seemed
spellbound, and could not succeed in forming crests. And so the men have
been enabled to work the pumps, and of course the oil from the broken casks
in the hold kept up the supply —effectually preventing the waves from
breaking. Thus the vessels have actually been enabled to ride out the storm,
and eventually reach their desired haven.
All on board have known that the preservation of the
ships, and of their own lives, was due to the action of that precious oil,
yet, year after year, thousands of vessels start to face the dangers of the
deep, and never think of shipping a few extra casks of oil in case of need.
This may be partly due to the notion that a very large quantity would be
required; but, in truth, a most marked point of the seeming miracle is the
exceedingly small amount which produces such amazing results. So
extraordinary is the fluidity of oil, that one drop falling on water will
instantly form a film of about four feet in circumference. It has now been
proved, in dozens of cases, and on the sworn evidence of ship-masters, that
vessel after vessel of heavy tonnage has been saved by the use of a couple
of oil bags, no bigger than a man's hat, hung over the side of the ship, and
allowed slowly to drip during several hours, till the fury of the gale was
The subject of thus "smoothing the waters" was brought
very forcibly to my mind when, crossing the Yellow Sea in a small brig, we
came in for some rough weather; and though we had no occasion actually to
test the matter, our good Danish captain was ready to do so, had the gale
increased. He told me he had frequently carried a long wicker basket astern,
containing oil-bags, so contrived by their gentle dripping, a constant
supply should be kept up. The result was admirable. Not one wave broke over
the ship. The expenditure of oil was a trifle not worth a moment's
consideration, compared with the damage which would certainly have been done
had even one white-crested breaker been permitted to form, as any one must
realize who has once experienced the awful crash when a huge curling wave
strikes a shivering ship—the weight of falling water crushing boats and
bulwarks, and sweeping the decks.
Another of my nautical friends, Captain Champion
(under whose good care I have visited many a beautiful spot in the Fijian
Archipelago), had also tested this magic power of oil in allaying the tumult
of the waters. On one occasion, when off the coast of New South Wales, he
encountered a hurricane so severe that he believes his schooner would
undoubtedly have been swamped, had he not had recourse to oil-bags, which
smoothed the crested waves in a manner that seemed miraculous. He made five
small canvas bags, each to contain three pints of fish-oil. To each of these
he attached a cord of about a dozen fathoms in length, and threw them
overboard from different parts of the ship, fore and aft. The leakage from
these bags spread an oily film over the surface of the ocean all round the
ship, and lasted for two days and nights. Beyond the charmed circle the
white-crested waves were dashing madly, but so soon as they approached
within the magic influence of the oil, each wave ceased to curl, and rolled
by in great glassy undulations. From the moment the bags were hung out, not
another wave broke over the schooner, which during those two days rode in
comparatively smooth water.
Instances, almost without number, can be brought
forward, of vessels which have undoubtedly been saved from destruction by
means of this most simple and blessed safeguard, but in every case it is
recorded as though some strange thing had happened to them, instead of being
the natural result of a certain cause.
A very striking example was recorded in the year 1846,
when the schooner Arno, commanded by Captain Higgins, was caught in a heavy
gale off Sable Island. She had been engaged in the fisheries off the Quero
Bank when the storm commenced. For some hours she rode at her anchor through
a tremendous gale, but as the danger of foundering seemed imminent, the
captain deemed it wiser to run her on shore than to face the almost
certainty of foundering in deep water during the night. Lashing himself to
the helm, he bade his men fill two large casks with fish-oil and blubber,
and lash the casks near the fore-shrouds, and lash the two best men to the
casks. He then bade all go below, while these two, armed with long wooden
ladles, scooped up the blubber and oil, and threw it as high as they could
in the air, that the wind might carry it before them.
The wind carried the oil far to leeward, scattered it
over the water, and made a broad shining strip of smooth water,—billowy
indeed, but quite glassy,—and over this the schooner flew, never shipping a
sea. On either side the white crests were pitching and breaking, but the
little vessel glided securely over her charmed pathway, and not a barrel of
water fell on her deck, till she ran right on to the sandy beach, and the
crew, with their clothing and provisions, were safely landed ere the vessel
went to pieces. She was so old and rotten that she would probably have
broken up long before, had not her constantly renewed cargo of blubber kept
her always floating in comparatively smooth waters.
Another striking illustration of the use of oil as a
safeguard in tempest was furnished by the evidence of Captain Bette, of the
King Cenri, running coal from Liverpool to Bombay. He encountered a furious
gale, which raged continuously for nearly five days. Tremendous seas poured
over the quarter and stern of the vessel, which was in imminent risk, when
happily the chief officer, Mr. Bowyer, bethought him of an expedient which
he had seen successfully resorted to on various occasions in Atlantic
He got out two canvas clothes-bags, and into each
poured two gallons of pine-oil. He punctured the bags slightly, and flung
one over each quarter, towing them along. The effect was magical. The waves
no longer broke against the poop and sides of the ship, but at a distance of
Around the poop, in the wake of the vessel, was a
large circuit of calm water, where the oil had overspread the surface. The
crew were thus able to repair damages, the ship being relieved from those
tremendous shocks received from the mass of waters which had previously
poured over the vessel, and the danger was considerably lessened.
The two bags lasted two days, after which, the worst
fury of the gale having expended itself, it was unnecessary to renew the
supply. Four gallons of oil, scarcely worth 30s. perhaps, saved the King
Cenric, its cargo, and the lives and property of its crew.
In the New York shipping list for 1867 the evidence of
an experienced skipper is given, to the effect that on two occasions he had
saved his ship by the timely use of oil. As the result of his own
experience, he recommended that every large vessel should be fitted with a
couple of iron tanks, one on each side, each to contain forty gallons of
oil, which might readily be drawn off into small casks, as required. He also
strongly advocated that every boat should be furnished with a five-gallon
oil-tank, to be kept always full, in case of need.
To the natural objection that such a well-filled
oil-tank would add a considerable item of dead weight to a boat, the answer
is obvious, namely, that the labour and danger of battling with the waves
would be so enormously lessened, that the mere weight would appear a
comparatively trifling drawback. Moreover, any accidental leakage of oil
would tend to keep the boats water-tight at all times.
Some men carry oil-bladders merely pricked with a
needle, and suspended from the sides of the ship, so as to drip slowly. They
consider that several small bladders answer better than only one of larger
Captain Atkinson, of the ship British Peer, states
that he carries leather bags punctured with small holes, and in stormy
weather he fills them with oil, and hangs them astern of the vessel. He says
it is marvellous to see the angry billows subside, and ride under the oily
track which lies in her wake. He attributes the safety of his vessel in
several perilous gales to the use of this simple precaution.
Very noteworthy, too, is the case of a small
sailing-boat, the Leone di Caprera, in which two rash Italians last year
crossed the Atlantic from Buenos Ayres to the Mediterranean. They had had
the forethought to lay in as much oil as their tiny craft would carry, and
this they used freely each time that the waves were dangerously high, with
the happy result of reaching their destination in safety.
Again, look at the case of the screw-steamer Diamond,
of Dundee, which was wrecked off the island of Anholt. Though the crew did
not really believe it possible that their frail boats could live in such a
raging sea, still, as it was their only hope, they resolved to forsake the
steamer. Each boat was provided with a five gallon can of oil, and from the
moment each was lowered, one man was told off to pour it very slowly over
the stern. The effect was instantaneous; each boat passed safely through the
awful breakers, and actually reached the shore without taking in so much as
a bucketful of sea water!
Within the last few months, since some measure of
public interest has been aroused in the subject, a considerable number of
cases have been recorded, in which the safety of vessels has undoubtedly
been due to the timely use of this simple safeguard.
A very noteworthy case is that of the screw-steamer
North Cambria, of Newcastle, which reached Liverpool from New York in March
1883, after passing through one of the worst gales which in this terrible
year of storms has visited the wide Atlantic. The case is thus reported in
'The Newcastle Chronicle.'
"The s.s. North Cambria, which is a
comparatively new steamer of strong build, sailed from New York on February
22nd, and on March 1st fell in with a terrific gale, which so increased on
the following day, that the steamer received considerable damage through the
huge mountains of water breaking with crushing force on the decks.
"Such was the state of the weather in the afternoon of
the 2nd inst., when Captain Evans resolved to 'pour oil on the troubled
waters.' This he did with wondrous effect The waves, so to speak, were at
once quelled, and prevented from breaking on board with their previous
destructive force, and the crew were enabled to go about the deck without
apprehension of danger, and repair the havoc made by the seas.
"As mentioned in the log, in the first emergency, the
oil was poured over the ship's side, and so marvellous was the effect, that
the sailors' bags, to the number of eight, were then put over on the weather
side, until new canvas bags were made. These were filled with oil, and kept
in use, to the saving of the steamer, until the gale abated on the following
morning about one o'clock, and to this timely application of an old saying
is due the safety of the North Cambria, her crew, and valuable cargo.
"It may be mentioned that this is not the first
occasion on which Captain Wm.' Evans has proved the value of oil in
preserving a vessel in a gale. In the winter of 1877 he was master of the
barque Gateshead, and while bringing- the first cargo of Indian corn direct
from New York to the Tyne, he encountered a tremendous gale, during which
the ship was pooped by a heavy sea, which swept the decks fore and aft,
smashing the wheel, and washing the man overboard, besides doing other
considerable damage. In that emergency Captain Evans poured oil over the
bow, and immediately the sea was so calmed that he was enabled to heave the
ship to in safety.
"It may be mentioned that the above statements are
verified by Mr. Short, chief engineer of the North Cambria, and Mr. Farina,
"The following is an extract from the log of the North
Cambria:-' March 1st, 1888, 9 a.m.—An increasing wind and sea, with every
appearance of a severe gale. March 2nd. —The safety of the ship became so
seriously endan- gered that we tried to break the force of the seas by
pouring oil over the ship's side, which immediately produced a wonderful
effect on the sea, preventing it from breaking with force on time ship, so
that we were able to go about the decks to secure the hatchings and
tarpaulings. 4 to 8 p.m.—The hurricane still raging, and gradually veering
to the westward, with threatening, confused sea. Continued to use oil,
putting it into bags, which were put over the side. The oil bags proved a
wonderful protection. Midnight.—Fast moderating, with every appearance of
fine weather, and much less sea.
"March 3rd, 1 a.m.—Kept the ship to her course at full
every prospect of fine weather, the sea going down fast. Took the oil bags
on board, having used forty gallons of paint oil, and fifty gallons of
engine oil, and thirty yards of canvas for bags, and fifty fathoms of
rattling line to tow them with. The oil poured on the sea at first, and
afterwards used in the canvas bags, in our opinion, saved the ship from
destruction. On further examination, found signs of severe straining about
The 'St. James' Gazette,' May 10th, 1883, quotes
letters from H.M.S. Scifture, telling of a terrific gale on the 6th April,
when heavy was broke over her, and as an experiment, a bag containing oil
was rigged out over the weather side, with such marked effect on the waves,
that the vessel rode bravely through the gale.
From Melbourne come details of the wreck of the
steamer Balgaim on October 11th, 1882. "An attempt was made to land the
passengers and crew by means of a ladder run out from the ship to the edge
of the rocks, but the continual wash of sea prevented this, until one of the
engineers poured a large quantity of oil on the water, which had the effect
of at once making the sea smooth. The passengers and crew were then safely
I will only quote one other case, which occurred off
Tynemouth last December. A wild easterly gale was blowing with great
violence, and the sea at the mouth of the Tyne was one wild wide expanse of
The East Anglian, steamer, from Yarmouth, in charge of
Captain Beecher, made the entrance when the gale was at its worst, and when
great danger attended any vessel passing the bar. The master reports that he
resolved to try the effect of oil upon the waves, and stationed two men,
each with a two-gallon bottle of oil, at the vessel's bows, one on either
side. The oil was gently poured upon the "broken" water, and the effect was
that it became comparatively smooth at once, and the vessel passed into the
harbour with little difficulty. The oil used was that usually burnt in the
ship's lamps, and only four or five gallons were poured upon the sea.
It has been stated that oil is not always efficacious
in quelling the short, jagged waves, which form what is called a "chopping
sea." This, however, does not appear to be proven. There is also some
diversity in the evidence as to the power possessed by oil in overspreading
the surface of the water in the teeth of the wind. The whalers appear to
have decided that the surest solution of the question is to keep their
whales to windward, so as to insure calm water while they are being cut up
and shorn of their blubber. Ordinary cargo is generally discharged, or
shipped, to leeward.
Of course if oil cannot spread to windward, its
efficacy must be considerably diminished. Some very simple mechanical
appliance might, however, be devised, with a force-pump and jet, whereby the
oil might be mixed with sand and thrown from the boat or vessel, so as to
sprinkle the water at a distance of a few feet ahead, thus gaining a
We have seen how, in such a case as that of the
Shetland fishers, a well-laden fishing-boat carries her best protection in
her cargo. As, however, she may chance to fall in with foul weather, and
empty nets, it is obviously more secure for every boat invariably to carry
two or three gallons of coarse oil ready for use in any emergency. The dark
oil extracted from the livers of various fish is probably the cheapest,
costing from is. 9d. to 2s. per gallon. Indeed, this can be made by the
fishers themselves, from the refuse thrown aside in cleaning their fish.
A boat thus provided can smooth a path for herself
across the stormiest bar, at the most dangerous harbour-mouth.
As one clear fact outweighs many vague statements, I
will quote the case of the Stonehaven boats, which were caught in a very
severe gale on the 13th of April, 1882. The first to return experienced the
utmost difficulty in crossing the bar, and as the storm increased, and the
waves waxed more and more tumultuous, the gravest fears were entertained for
the boat Pioneer, which was still missing. Happily, her skipper, Alexander
Christie, bethought him of the experiments recently tried at Peterhead, and
though he had no oil on board save a little colza, and a little paraffin,
for the boat's lamps, he determined to try whether so email a quantity could
be of any use. There was so little of it that it really seemed childish to
suppose that so infinitesimal a remedy could avail. Nevertheless, he
stationed a man on either bow, and just as they approached the awful wall of
raging surf, they slowly poured out the contents of their oil-flasks. The
result was magical. The white waters were driven back, and the boat glided
into harbour over great billows of glassy green.
There were some who, on hearing of this case, refused
at first to give it credit, till it was proved beyond all question. Yet this
is simply the course adopted by the fishermen of Lisbon whenever they find
the surf on the bar of the Tagus unusually rough. They empty a flask of oil
on the sea, well knowing, from long experience, that the white-crested
breakers will thereby be transformed to great green rollers, over which they
can glide in safety.
But though this has been well known for many years, no
one ever took that hint as the embryo of some grand scheme for overcoming
the horrors of landing in the surf at Madras, or at many another port where
traffic is endangered by the fierceness of the breakers.
No one ever tried to apply it to the dangerous bars at
the mouths of several of our own large rivers, where we have had to mourn
such pitiful wrecks of fine vessels, literally dashed to pieces by the mad
surf breaking on the bar.
The only systematic application of this branch of the
oil question which has yet been attempted, is that made by Mr. Shields of
Perth, at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, a spot selected as being the most
exposed to every gale that sweeps the eastern shores of Scotland, and one,
moreover, where a dangerous bar makes the entrance to the harbour a matter
of exceeding difficulty and risk in stormy weather.
Mr. Shields determined to try a series of experiments
to prove in what manner oil might most certainly be made available, to
enable ships and boats to enter this and other harbours at all seasons.
His tests have been made on a very large scale. He
carried 1200 feet of lead and iron piping from the shore to some distance
beyond the mouth of the harbour, where they terminated in deep water. In a
shed on the beach stands a 100-gallon cask of oil; a force-pump carries the
oil through the pipe, and ejects it through three conical valves at the
further end. Thence it rises to the surface, and straightway forms a thin
film, which overspreads the tempestuous waters above the bar. Straightway
the white crests, which are the source of so much danger, disappear, and
though the strong tide still sweeps inwards in huge swelling billows, they
are shorn of their terror, and become smooth rollers, on which any vessel or
boat may ride safely into the haven.
Of course, the chief objection to this plan is the
very large amount of oil which must be expended every time that a ship or
boat approaches in stormy weather, and which would certainly result in
making the harbour authorities chary of its use, except in cases of extreme
danger. It is therefore very desirable that, in addition to the harbour
apparatus, means should be devised for applying the remedy to each several
ship at the moment of need. It has been suggested that oil-canisters might
be attached to rockets, or shells containing oil might be fired from
mortars, so as to discharge their contents on the water close to the ship in
distress, or at the moment she is about to cross the bar. Surely the
ingenuity which devises such intricate mechanism for destructive shells and
infernal machines might contrive some method by which the oil-shell might be
safely despatched on its errand of mercy.
Still more practical does it appear, that every vessel
should, as a matter of course, carry her own oil-supply, with which to make
a smooth pathway for herself in the hour of danger, which may meet her at
many a point besides the harbour mouth.
Another most desirable application of oil would be to
attach two copper pipes containing oil round every life-buoy--one on the
inner, the other on the outer edge—closed by a cork attached to the string
by which the buoy is hung up. A printed notice should be appended, bidding
the person who throws it overboard, jerk the string, and 80 pull out the
Every one who has been much at sea must have been
struck with the small chance that a drowning man has of even seeing the buoy
flung to him, as he and it rise and fall amid the mountainous waves. But
this simple addition would at once create a large space of glassy water,
viable for perhaps a mile, in which, moreover, he could float securely, till
the vessel, probably running before the wind, was able to lower her boat and
send him succour. At present, we all know how rarely such seekers are able
even to find their life-buoy.
If the vessel is running before a stiff breeze, the
life-buoy and the swimmer are left far behind ere she can be stayed and a
boat lowered, and it is hard indeed to mark the exact spot on that wearily
monotonous waste of ever-heaving, foam-flecked waters where the search must
With oil thus applied, and life-buoys made luminous,
one great danger in a sailor's hard life would be very greatly lessened.
Furthermore, it might be so contrived that the man at
the wheel could reach a handle, by which to open a valve or elbow in an
oil-tank in the stern of the ship. In the event of a person falling
overboard, the drip of oil thus produced would instantly form a smooth
track, and enable a boat to go straight back to the rescue of the drowning
So, too, the life-boat, fitted with a self-acting
oil-tank, would find her approach to a ship in distress vastly facilitated,
were the breaking of the crested waves hindered for even a little while.
This has been a very long digression from the puddings
of seagull fat, so judiciously applied by the islanders of St. Kilda. But in
truth the subject is one which, to me, as an old sailor in many seas,
possesses a special interest,—an interest nowise lessened as I look at last
year's terrible Register of Wrecks, knowing that, beyond all doubt, some at
least of these, and assuredly many a precious life, might have been saved by
timely use of this most simple remedy.
In truth, its extreme simplicity seems to be the
stumbling-block in the way of its use. Like the old Scriptural story of the
Leper General who scorned the Prophet's prescription, which only bade him
bathe thrice in the Jordan, instead of requiring some great thing, so is
this sprinkling of a little oil on the mighty waves. It seems altogether too
simple to be worth even trying. And yet the fact of this mysterious power
In that sad Wreck-Calendar I find that between June
1881 and June 1882, no less than 1303 British vessels are reported as lost
(besides 1622 which were seriously injured—and such injuries occur most
frequently by the breaking over the ship of big seas).
Of these wrecks, 208 are reported "missing" (the most
awful of all records, as it implies the total loss of all on board), 228 are
attributed to gales, 12 to heavy seas.
These are just some of the cases in which oil might
have lessened or averted danger.
The year's record of lost lives is 3978 (1055 more
than in the previous twelve months); of these 2245 were on board the vessels
reported "missing." No wonder that the President of the Board of Trade is
compelled to state that, notwithstanding all recent legislation for the good
of our sailors, marine casualties are as numerous and as fatal as ever.
And all the time this most gentle of all mighty
agencies has been almost totally ignored, or, even where it has been used,
and has successfully performed its magic task, its benefits have in general
received but a grudging recognition.
If, therefore, these few notes on its use serve to
bring the subject more clearly to the mind of any whose business lies in the
great waters, I shall console myself with the hope that this digression has
not been altogether in vain.