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The Journal of George Hepburn
Part I - The Journal of George Hepburn, 1850 - Chapter VI


Another month of storms at sea—"The mighty wonders of the deep"—Death of another child—The Islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam—The sinful sailmaker, sings profane songs on the Sabbath.

Monday, May 6th, 1850.—Yesterday (Sabbath) fine weather. Had the usual morning service on deck, private reading McDonald’s Life during the day, and the evening meeting. During the night a heavy storm of rain and lightning, a deal of rain water came down on us by the main hatchway. To-day is again fine and sailing rapid and beautiful. During the last 24 hours we have run over 240 miles, having now fairly caught the south-west trades which, if they continue steady at this rate, will carry us to New Zealand in five weeks. The days have now become considerably shorter, it being now quite dark by half past 5 p.m., and no light in the morning until past 6 a.m.

Thursday, May 9th.—On Monday evening we went again on deck to see the vivid lightning, so different from any we had witnessed in Scotland. It confined itself within or between the clouds and the sky, bursting regularly at two given points at about two miles distant, darting with the rapidity of lightning from one point to the other behind the clouds, showing their transparency. It was more like an exhibition of fireworks than otherwise, and continued through the evening. To us it was quite a new display of the Creator’s works, but since then we have paid for the sight, for in this southern latitude, as well as in the northern, fire at night indicates broken weather, so ere the next morning’s dawn it rained heavily and continued to do so throughout the entire day, keeping us under hatches. But that was nothing compared to the following night when the rain and the wind increased to a strong gale, raising the sea tremendously. We had to run under close-reefed topsails. The mizzen sheet gave way, by which we nearly lost two men; they were thrown over, but hung on by the rope and were immediately restored. Through the night the ship both rolled and pitched heavily, the sea frequently striking her broadside with great violence, so sleep there was none but with the children. From 4 to 8 in the morning the sea broke regularly across the main deck, pouring down upon us in torrents, even though the hatches were on and covered with a tarpaulin (observe the main hatch is only grated). Of course those of us nearest the main hatch had to turn out of bed and gather up the water with all speed to keep our berths from floating. Those next you never trouble themselves though you were floating.

Happily the next day the sun broke through brightly early in the forenoon, and a few of us got on deck, and standing on the forecastle it was truly a fine sight to look across the seas running mountains high and our gallant barque rising over and skimming through these seas at the rate of ten knots an hour. It is only now that we are seeing this "mighty wonders in the deep." In the morning one of the good wives attacked the assistant for a glass of brandy after getting so much wet, but he got off by saying he had none on board. However, at about 12 o’clock, when a number of gentlemen were standing on the poop, a tremendous sea unexpectedly broke over the stern sweeping the poop, rushed into the cuddy, and in torrents down both the fore and main hatches, giving us the same labour to do over again. Shortly after the surgeon came down and said he would treat all the adults with a glass of gin, from which we made a drop of warm toddy, which we felt did us much good. Little or no more water came down after this; still the sea is very high. I fear in writing this minute account of a bit storm that it may deter others from following our path, but while it lasts we must be of necessity very much alarmed. Let me assure those who may read this that such is not the case. Fear never seems to enter the head of anyone, either male or female. The general result is, when the sea gives some a good ducking, a hearty laugh. However, it is far from being comfortable.

It is once again my painful duty to record the death of another child, viz., one of the twins of Dr. Coward, our superintendent surgeon, being the stoutest of the two. It was weaned before coming on board, while the other was still nursed by the mother. I am not at liberty to hazard any observations, but we would not have liked to see any of ours nursed in the same way. What we have seen of the English here exhibit great want of skill in nursing young children. This child, however, got a coffin made, lined with white and covered with black cloth and a quantity of sand at its feet to carry it down. It was cast over privately from the captain’s cabin window in the stern. This is the third child’s death, besides poor Donald.

Friday, May 10th.—Since writing the above we have been sailing at a very rapid rate at about ten knots an hour over a heavy sea and strong favourable breeze with a good deal of rain.

Tuesday, May 14th.—Latitude 39 degrees east longitude 61 degrees.--During the last seven days we have sailed 1,240 miles, good work, and still running nine to ten knots. Yesterday forenoon we were doing twelve knots, but it came on to rain by 12 o’clock and continued so all day, keeping us in darkness, and hence an uncomfortable and weary day; but to-day is dry and sailing very pleasant. We expect to see the Island of St. Paul by Saturday lying in 78 east longitude.

Ever since rounding the Cape we have a goodly company of flying fowls attending the ship. The largest of these is the albatross, about the size of a good swan or goose, with wings extended from nine to 12 feet, a beautiful bird, of which two have been caught with a simple bait and thread line by some of the young gents. Mrs. H. would very fain have got the entire skin of one or two of them to send home to certain gentlemen in the Lang Toon for being stuffed, but the birds were foolishly dissected. The next largest are Cape Hens - a brown bird with a short tail, about the size of a common hen at home. Next are the Cape pigeons, a beautiful bird, with speckled wings and white breast, about the size of home pigeons. Then there is Mother Carey’s chickens and stormy petrels— smaller birds like water crows and swallows.

Tuesday, May 21st.—After a few days of fine weather last week it came to blow very hard on Friday evening, bringing us down to reefed topsails. At same time a watch is kept all night on the outlook for the island of Amsterdam lying in our direct course. On Saturday the wind moderated considerably, and about half past twelve noon we heard the cry of land ahead, which was first observed by Mr. Archibald, late of Burnt Island. We were soon all on deck, at which hour we fancied we could see in the distant horizon a hazy cloud which was called land. However, every hour brought it more distinctly in view.

By 3 o’clock we were so near it as to see the nakedness of that desolate isle, rearing its rocky head in the midst of those waste waters. Passing it about two miles off, or even less, we could not discern the smallest vestige of either bush or shrub. It is a bold precipitous rock to the westward, sloping gradually into the sea towards the east, on which side only a little greenness was to be seen. To my judgment it appeared about the size of Inch Keith, but it is said to be five miles broad and 15 miles in circumference, without possessing a single inhabitant. Still it is said wild goats are to be found on it, and the South Sea whalers lounge about for a few months in summer. Barren as it was, it is surprising how much interest was exhibited in it among the passengers, chiefly from the circumstance of having been entirely shut out from such a sight for the last three months and a half. I should think we will all give three cheers when we first see the high lands of New Zealand, barren though they should be.

By 5 o’clock we were quite past it, and very glad we were so by daylight, for very shortly afterwards again began to blow very hard, and continued to blow a strong gale for 36 hours, during which time the wind carried away our bomb yard foresheet and split the main top gallant. At last we ran for some time with almost bare poles, at most only one sheet on the fore and mainmast. The sea of course rose very high, and the vessel both rolled and pitched heavily. The sea often broke across ‘midships and poured down the water on us in volumes, chiefly through the night; but during the time of a storm the water also comes oozing through the sides of the ship or drops down by the beams from the deck so as to wet our bedclothes in the cabin to such a degree that they are unfit to sleep on, but we have been more fortunate than some of our neighbours for, when we had only a few drops, it was running out of their cabin door.

Sabbath was again a silent one, hatch closed on us and no light to see to read even though we could. The company allows no oil to burn through the day; so what with one thing and another it was a very uncomfortable and unprofitable day.

Monday forenoon it still blew as hard as ever, but towards afternoon it fell down to almost a calm; but before 8 o’clock in the evening the breeze freshened so much as to hurry us on at 11 to 12 knots an hour. The wind being favourable we moved on steadily, so we passed a tolerably good night—the first for the last three nights.

Tuesday, May 21st.—To-day is fine. The wind and sea both fallen. The hatches off again, and all is bustle again on deck refitting the sails, etc. We are to-day in east longitude 90 degrees; all well.

Tuesday, May 28th.—We have had another week of wretched weather, heavy rains and strong winds. Before Saturday last the fore topsail had been split through several times, and that a strong new sail. Between Saturday night and Sabbath morning it blew a regular gale and no mistake, by far the heaviest we had yet encountered. The sea rose very high and tossed our gallant barque like a piece of cork upon the waters, the rolling and tumbling were very uncomfortable, but nothing to the quantities of water that found its way down upon us from the seas which continued to break over the ship both fore and aft (and the poor bull on deck was nearly washed away). It took us most of the night gathering up the water to keep ourselves from being flooded, and yet could scarcely keep our feet without holding on; but Sabbath morning brought a change, even almost a calm, with sails flapping in the wind. Still a very heavy swell in the water, causing the vessel to roll from side to side like a cradle. It was next to impossible to walk the deck, and everything both above and below was so miserably wet that we could do nothing but keep the children in bed all day, and again it was a poor Sabbath. The sailmaker sat near our cabin door, below the main hatch, for a little light, repairing the fore topsail all day Sabbath, and at times singing profane songs, and he a Scotchman, an old man from the north, but has been out of it for 30 years—poor old sinner.

Monday and Tuesday were both nearly calm, but Wednesday and Thursday rained again throughout, with a strong head wind, so we did little good on our journey; but yesterday morning it changed quite favourable, and a smart breeze sprang up in the evening, sea calm, and sleeping soundly again, but still everything so damp that the general complaint is weariness to get to our journey’s end.


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