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In the Hebrides
Chapter 13


OIL ON THE WATERS

With a low silver-tongued monotony
The little billows whisper as they fall;
Calm is 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 sorrows overtaken

By weary 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 kisst,
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 boats.

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 natural oil-vat.

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 ripples.

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 spent.

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 storms.

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 many yards.

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 size.

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, inspecting engineer.

"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 decks."

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 landed."

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 boiling surf.

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 considerable advantage.

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 cork.'

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 begin.

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 man.

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 remains unchanged.

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.


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