CHAPTER III: ON BOARD
ON the following day we undertook a closer inspection of our new abiding place. The "Ayesha" was a ship of 97 tonnage, as we learned from an inscription on one of the beams in the hold. Her length was about thirty meters, and her width somewhere between seven or eight. She was rigged with three masts. Of these, the after two, the mainmast and the mizzenmast, carried only fore and aft sails, whereas the foremast had two square sails. The ship was originally intended to be manned by a crew of five, besides the captain. There were now fifty of us aboard her. Provision for berthing the crew had been made in a special crew's cabin in the extreme forward part of the ship. But here there was room for only six men at the most; the rest of my crew had to sleep in the hold.
When we took possession of the "Ayesha" there was no cargo aboard her - nothing but iron ballast in the hold. Luxurious couches my men surely did not have, for we had brought with us from Keeling but few blankets and mattresses. For the time being, the men slept in a spare sail spread over the iron ballast. In time, however, they would be able to better their condition considerably. They therefore went busily to work at making hammocks out of old ropes which they untwisted, out of twine, and out of old sail cloth torn into strips, and other like material. These hammocks were swung wherever a place could be found for them and afforded the occupants relief from the rather violent motion of the ship.
Below deck, aft of the hold, were two small cabins originally fitted out for sleeping rooms, but in which we were compelled to store our provisions. Moreover, swarms of huge cockroaches made them impossible as living rooms. In the extreme after part of the ship was another small cabin, designated by a sign over the door as navigation room. In it the petty officers were quartered.
On deck was a little deck house. This was divided into two cabins, with a bed in each. One of them I occupied myself; the other was shared by my two lieutenants. Adjoining these cabins was another tiny one, furnished with a table and a few small benches. This served us as mess, as navigation, smoking and wine room, as saloon and for occupation by the officer whose watch it happened to be.
Our commissary department was carried on under many difficulties. To be sure, the canned provisions that we had taken with us from Keeling were of an excellent quality, but the caboose, that is, the ship's kitchen, was, of course, planned for cooking to be done for only five men, and the Lilliputian hearth was in no way sufficient for our needs. Nor could the fresh water we had with us be used for cooking, as the supply was sufficient only for drinking purposes. To enlarge our cooking facilities we brought pieces of iron ballast from the hold, and with this and some strips of tin torn from places in the ship where it was not absolutely necessary, we fashioned a fireproof hearth, and in this improvised fireplace we kindled an open fire. Around it, in a circle, sat the men holding the cooking pots on rods over the fire, until the food was cooked. To set the cooking utensils on the fire and leave them there was quite impossible, as the rolling motion of the ship would soon have dislodged them.
All our cooking was done with salt water. What each day's bill of fare was to be, we left to the decision of the cook. We did not fare poorly on the "Ayesha" by any means. For the most part our meals consisted of rice cooked with fruit, smoked sausage, corned beef, or the like.
The drinking problem was a more difficult one. Aboard our little ship we had found four small iron water tanks in which a supply of fresh water sufficient for a crew of five could easily be carried. These tanks we had not had time to examine while getting the "Ayesha" ready for sea. We had been obliged to fill them as quickly as possible. Now, with the small crew, only one tank had been used, and after a few days we discovered that the other three had become foul. The water we had put into them was therefore unfit to drink. The supply of bottled Seltzer water which I had put aboard at Keeling, I felt must not be used except in case of extreme emergency, for I had to reckon with the possibility that the "Ayesha" might prove unseaworthy, and that we would have to abandon her, and take to the "Emden's" two cutters, that we had aboard. In that case, the bottled water would be all that we could take with us.
We hoped to be able in a reasonably short time to replenish our water supply by refilling with rain-water the three tanks in which the water had fouled. In this hope we were not disappointed. On the thirteenth of November, only four days after our departure from Keeling, the first of the usual tropical rains set in. Our bad tanks had been cleaned in the meantime, and an old sail got ready to catch the rain. It was stretched horizontally across the main hatch. In the middle of the sail was a hole, and directly under this hole a man was stationed with a petroleum can, the kind in which the Standard Oil Company delivers petroleum, and into which the rain-water ran. When it was full, it was passed from hand to hand along a line of men until it reached the tank into which it was to be emptied. In addition to this, the cabin roof was arranged to catch rain-water. Along the edges of the roof we fastened strips of moulding, and the water which collected on the roof was conducted through two gutters into petroleum cans hung where they emptied. This rain-water was not only fit to drink, but was rendered quite palatable by the addition of a dash of lime juice, of which we had fortunately found a few bottles among the provisions of the former captain.
As, from this time forth, the tropical downpours set in with pleasing regularity, every morning and every evening, our tanks were soon full. In addition to these, all the available utensils and petroleum cans were filled with water. These rainfalls were very welcome for other reasons also. Since all the fresh water had to be reserved for drinking purposes, our prospects for washing seemed rather dubious. Soap will not dissolve in salt water, and to wash with salt water alone is not cleansing. We therefore utilized these tropical downpours to wash ourselves, and as shower baths, our necessity resulting in the invention of a new sort of bath, - a swinging bath. To prevent the rain-water from running off the deck, we stopped up the drain holes, the so-called scuppers, with old rags. With the rolling motion of the ship, the water which had thus been collected on the deck ran from one side to the other, and so gave us a most excellent opportunity for a bath, while the descending rain answered for a final shower.
Moreover, the "Ayesha" carried two small jolly-boats, the one barely large enough to hold two, the other to hold three men. These boats hung on the davits near the deck house. They also were now used to collect water by closing the drain holes with the plugs provided for that purpose. Although we were disappointed to find that the water contained in them was somewhat salty, and therefore unfit to drink, it nevertheless served us very well for washing purposes.
For the ship's service the crew was divided into two watches, a starboard and a port watch. Most of my men were, of course, wholly unused to life on a sailing vessel, and the handling of the gear was entirely new to them. This was particularly the case with the stokers, who, naturally enough, had never seen service on a sailing vessel. Still, there were among the crew a sufficient number of fishermen and seamen who at some former time had served on sailing vessels, to make it possible for me to handle the ship with safety. Whenever there was a job to be done that required great physical strength, every man aboard was available as so much man power.
At first the gear gave us much trouble. Most of the sails were old and rotten, and tore at the slightest provocation, so that we were constantly at work mending and patching the canvas. The tackle also gave way frequently. We were therefore obliged to exercise the greatest care during a squall, as we never knew just how much the masts could bear.
The condition of the ship itself was not such as to inspire one with any great degree of confidence. The captain's opinion, expressed in the words, "The bottom is worn through," as he left the ship, seemed to be well founded. When we went down into the hold and cautiously scraped away at the planking, we discovered that the wood was red and rotten, so much so, indeed, that we quickly stopped our scratching, as we had no desire to poke the point of our knife into the Indian Ocean.
During the first days out we had a heavy swell astern, and the "Emden's" two cutters performed some wonderful dancing at the ends of the long ropes by which we carried them in tow. In one of its wild gyrations one of the cutters took a notion to catch on to the ship, just under the overhanging stern. Usually such set-to's between a ship and its jolly-boat end to the decided disadvantage of the latter, but in this case the conditions were reversed. With a sharp plunge the nose of the boat buried itself in the rotten wood of the stern, and broke a plank above the water line. I had little desire for a repetition of this performance. We therefore set the ill-mannered cutter adrift, and so had but one left, which, for a while, behaved very well. But this proper behavior was not of long duration, for, seized by an overweening desire for its fellow, no doubt, the remaining cutter departed one night, and carried with it a large piece of the bulwarks to which it had been fastened. And again the break in the ship showed red and rotten wood.
In those first days, the "Ayesha" also leaked badly. In a short time we had so much water in the ship, that it rose to the height of the iron ballast on which the men slept. When we tried to work the ship's pump, we found that it was out of order. The packing of the pistons was gone. So we took the pump to pieces, got the piston out, replaced the missing rubber packing with rags soaked in oil, and finally succeeded in pumping the ship dry. Taking it all in all, the "Ayesha" cut a pretty sorry figure as a ship.
Had we had visitors at this period of our sea voyage, they would have been amazed at the resemblance our costumes bore to those in vogue in the Garden of Eden, for even aside from the times when we took our tropical shower baths - then we wore nothing at all - our clothing was very scant. For the landing at Keeling we had not only clothed ourselves as lightly as possible, but I had given the men orders to wear their oldest clothing. Now, with the continuous handling of the sails, and the other strenuous work aboard the ship, our wearing apparel was fast disappearing. Having neither needles nor thread, we could not even mend it. To be sure, we had some garments that had been given us at Keeling, but these served rather as a source of amusement than as clothing. I had always had the impression that Englishmen generally are tall and spare. Whether those at Keeling were an exception, or what the reason was, I cannot say, but certain it is that most of their trousers reached only to a little below the knees of my men, and their jackets and blouses were big enough for two.
“It is most profitable, it is blessed, to be always looking beyond second causes in all our trials and distresses, and to discern the Lord's hand, in infinite love and wisdom, appointing all. For this brings the soul into a state of resignation and tranquility at least, if not of holy Joy.”
–Robert Hawker, Poor Man’s Commentary, Psalm 17