CHAPTER VII: THE MEETING WITH THE "CHOISING"
WITH a light wind astern, the "Ayesha" slowly made her way out from among the Dutch islands, and toward three o'clock in the morning had passed beyond the limits of Dutch territorial waters. I had but just turned in when Lieutenant Schmidt, whose watch it was, waked me with the words: "Captain, a German boat is coming alongside."
As I knew that we were then well out at sea, I growled out: "Man, don't talk nonsense! Let me sleep!"
But he assured me again that it was as he had said, and would not be frightened off even by the most violent protests. At the same time I heard loud voices from outside crying: "There she is, there she is! We have caught her after all."
As I came on deck, I saw a little rowboat with a few people in it swiftly approaching us from out the darkness of the lingering night. Soon one traveling case, and then another, came flying on board. Their two owners appeared immediately afterward, and turned out to be an officer of the reserves and a chief engineer's mate, also a reservist. Both reported to me for duty. As we were outside of the limit of Dutch territorial waters, there was no reason for deferring their enrollment.
Our only difficulty was to provide quarters for the officers now aboard the "Ayesha," as there was but the one bed, which was hardly big enough for three. In the end, it was arranged that one officer should sleep in the bunk in the cabin, while another chose the place on the floor under the mess table for his bed, a resting place which was not wholly free from disturbance, however, as the third officer, who had the watch, was inclined to put his feet there.
By evening, a moderate, favorable breeze had taken us as far as Seaflower Channel, with which we were well acquainted. To our surprise, we discovered a large steamer coming toward us on an easterly course. As there are no beacon lights on this strait, it is avoided by steamers, most merchantmen preferring to go by way of the more northerly route through Siberut Strait, where there are many lights. The appearance of a steamer in this unfrequented spot was, therefore, to say the least, rather remarkable. I strongly suspected it to be a warship.
As quickly as possible every sail, to the very last rag we had, was set, our course was changed hard to starboard, and, with all the speed we could muster, we tried to get back into Dutch waters. To our great relief, the low, palm-covered coral islands soon came into sight, easily distinguishable by the broad white line of the surf that always breaks on their shores. We crept as close as we dared to this line of surf, keeping at a distance of about a thousand meters from the shore. To anchor in this depth of water was quite impossible, for these coral islands rise abruptly, almost perpendicularly, out of the water.
Our frame of mind was in no wise improved when suddenly our unknown steamer began to exchange flashlight signals in secret code with some other vessel as yet invisible to us. Soon afterward the second warship, for it could be no other kind of vessel, steamed away toward the south, while the other cruised back and forth through Seaflower Channel. Unfortunately the wind died down more and more, so much so that our hope that by daylight we would be out of sight of the cruising steamer, was doomed to disappointment.
It was my intention now to run in between the many small islands, to tie the "Ayesha" fast to the first convenient palm tree, take down top-masts and sails, and so make it impossible to discover us from out at sea. Then I meant to find out the nature of the ship in which we were so much interested. The calm which set in rendered it impossible to carry out this plan, however. At sunrise we were only a few nautical miles distant from the warship, and hardly had the daylight revealed to her the masts of the "Ayesha," when she changed her course and approached us at high speed. We were still within the limit of Dutch territorial waters, and I bad not the least desire to leave them. Fortunately for us, the man-of-war turned out to be neither English nor Japanese. It was the Dutch flag-ship, "De Zeven Provincien." The iron-clad followed us, always at some distance, however, until we had left Dutch waters in our course westward.
We continued to sail toward the west, intending to keep the "Ayesha" within the vicinity of a certain point where we hoped to meet with some German steamer. Although it had not been possible for us to make any definite arrangements with any of the German vessels that were lying at Padang, nevertheless, from the conversations that had taken place from deck to deck, their captains had some knowledge of the course we intended to follow. We took it for granted, therefore, that some one of these steamers would follow us with a view of aiding us on our farther journey. So we drifted about at sea for nearly three weeks. During a part of this time we had rough weather, which was especially trying to our ten pigs, for whom quarters had been put up in the bows near the capstan. To make life aboard the "Ayesha," when she was rolling heavily, at all endurable to these animals, we had nailed slats on the flooring of their quarters. Before this had been done, the poor creatures went sliding back and forth across the smooth deck, from rail to rail.
Twice our hope that a friendly steamer was coming to our relief was disappointed. Each time it was an English ship. One of them behaved so peculiarly, and made such unusual manoeuvres as we came in sight, that we believed her to be an auxiliary cruiser. We therefore cleared the "Ayesha's" deck for action. To occupy the attention of the cruiser, with whom we wished to pass for a harmless merchant vessel, we signaled: "Please give me the geographical position." This is a signal very commonly used by sailing vessels when meeting a steamer. The desired information was given us, but with it came the embarrassing question: "Who are you?" We had no special signal of our own, and the "Ayesha's" signal, which we had learned from the ship's papers, we did not, for obvious reasons, care to give. So we took four flags that happened to be at hand, arranged them one above the other, tied a knot in the two upper ones, so that no one could tell what they were, and then hoisted this signal in such a way that it was half hidden by the sails. This scheme we hoped would lead the steamer to believe that we had answered the question, but that she had failed to decipher our signal. About half an hour later the steamer had disappeared. We saw her answering signal, "I have seen your signal, but cannot make it out," fluttering after her at half mast as long as she remained in sight. The second English steamer came in view at a great distance from us, and probably did not see us at all.
The fourteenth of December, 1914, was a thick, foggy and rainy day, with rather high seas running. The "Ayesha" was tacking back and forth under close reefed sails, when suddenly, through the dense atmosphere, we could see, only about four thousand meters ahead, a steamer looming up out of a thick, gray fog bank. She had two masts and one smoke stack, and was steering an easterly course. We were sailing toward the west. At this point the course of the ordinary merchantman can only be either to the north, or to the south. Hence, a steamer running on an easterly course here, must have some unusual reason for doing so. The natural inference was that this was one of the German steamers looking for us. We steered our course for her at once, under as much sail as our ship could carry. We sent off red and white fire balls that are visible by day as well as by night, in the hope of attracting the attention of the steamer, which by this time we had recognized as the Lloyd steamer, "Choising." Our great fear was that the "Choising" would fail to see us in the foggy weather, and so would pass us by. At last, after we had sent off our fourth or fifth fire ball signal, we saw the ship turn, and come towards us.
Up flew our flag and pennant. The steamer ran up the German flag. The crew laid aloft into the shrouds, and three cheers rang from deck to deck. As usual, our men were dressed in the manner customary in the Garden of Eden, a costume which necessity had forced upon them. The men of the "Choising" confided to us later that they were blank with astonishment when suddenly, out of the fog, emerged a schooner, the shrouds of which were filled with naked forms. Because of the heavy seas running, an immediate transfer to the "Choising" was not possible. As better weather had prevailed in the region to the south, from which we had come, I signaled the "Choising" to follow the "Ayesha."
But, instead of growing better, the weather grew steadily worse on the following day, until, during the course of the night, it developed into a heavy storm. The "Ayesha's" sails were close reefed, and, it must be said, she behaved well. Not one of the heavy combers broke over her; she rode them like a duck. Of course, the inside of the ship was as wet as the outside, for the spray dashed over the deck without intermission.
At daybreak the "Choising," which is a ship Of 1,700 tonnage, signaled by flag: "On account of the storm and heavy seas I cannot remain here." I therefore decided to run in under the lee of the land, so as to make the transfer there, and accordingly, signaled another place of meeting to the "Choising." The two ships separated again, as I, in my sailing vessel, could not steer the same course that the steamer took.
The next night was the worst that we experienced on the "Ayesha." All night long the tempest raged. Although aware of our proximity to the islands, we did not know just where we were. Both the wind and the current threatened to dash us against the reefs. The night was so black that we could not see anything. If, under these conditions, we should get too near the shore, both ship and crew were doomed. Even the small rags of sails, closely reefed as they were, which we still carried, were almost too much. Towards morning an especially fierce squall set in. It was too much for our rotten old sails. We heard a sharp crack, and then another, - our foresail and our staysail had torn away from their bolt ropes, and only a few small rags were left whipping in the wind. The departing foresail took with it a third sail, the fore staysail, so that we lost all our forward canvas. To set a spare sail was quite impossible at the time, both on account of the darkness and of the heavy running seas. We had to lay to, therefore, with only the aftersails, and trust to luck to keep away from the surf.
As soon as the day dawned, the spare sails were got out and bent on. Before long, the wind began to die down. We found it possible to increase our canvas and steer toward the place appointed for our meeting with the "Choising." As we drew near to it, at about nine o'clock in the morning, the "Choising" appeared in the distance. In the meantime, however, the wind had fallen off so completely that the "Ayesha" could hardly make any headway at all. I therefore signaled the "Choising" to take us in tow, and get in the lee of the nearest island. There we would find shelter from both wind and waves, and the transfer could be safely made.