CHAPTER XI: SHIPWRECK
OUR return to Sanaa was accomplished in the same manner as we had traveled thither, and without hindrance of any kind. In order to make arrangements for our onward journey by sea, I had taken a few of my men with me and hurried on ahead of the caravan. In this way I succeded in getting to Hodeida a day and a half ahead of the others. It took the caravan eight days to get there. To be sure, our little advance guard had spent both day and night in the saddle, the only halts being made when we changed animals.
As the "Choising" had been sent on, and there was nothing in the way of steamboats to be had at Hodeida, there was but one thing left for us to do, -- to continue our journey in zambuks. A zambuk is a small sailboat much in use all along the Arabian coast, and is provided with a dhow sail.
I procured two such boats in Hodeida, each about fourteen meters long and four meters wide. These two zambuks I sent to Yabana, a little bay to the north of Hodeida. Because of the French armored cruiser, still sleepily rocking at anchor, a departure from the harbor of Hodeida was out of the question for me. The Frenchman might accidentally have a spell of wakefulness. As I was aware that the country was swarming with English and French spies, I took pains to spread abroad the report that it was our intention to sail from Isa Bay on the thirteenth of March. It happened just as I had foreseen. On the afternoon of the twelfth of March the little and out-of-the-way Isa Bay, where no house, nor tree, nor bush is to be seen, and where there is hardly any water, was honored for the first time since the beginning of the war by the presence of an English gunboat, which hunted for us with its searchlight all up and down the shore. The poor fellows! How they must have wondered where we were!
On the fourteenth of March, at five o'clock in the afternoon, my fleet sailed from Yabana. The Imperial war flag flew proudly at the mast-head of my flagship, and with three cheers for his Majesty, the Emperor, we began our onward journey. The flagship of the second admiral was in command of Lieutenant Gerdts. We made up for the total lack of any further ships in the fleet by our absolutely correct discipline. As the second zambuk was somewhat larger than mine, the sick were put aboard of it. Malaria, dysentery, and typhus were still prevalent among the men, of whom there were always one or two so ill as to cause us the gravest anxiety. Under no circumstances, however, would I have been willing to leave any of them behind, for their only hope of improvement lay in a change of climate.
With regard to the English I had kept myself posted up to the last minute as best I could, and I was aware that an English blockade was being maintained by two gunboats together with the auxiliary cruiser "Empress of Russia," in a line extending from Loheia across Kamaran, Jebel Sebejir to Jebel Soghair. My problem now was how I could run this blockade with my sailboats. To avoid the possibility of both boats being captured at the same time, I gave Lieutenant Gerdts orders to separate from me. A meeting place farther to the north was appointed, where we were to wait a while for each other.
Soon the other zambuk was lost to sight in the darkness of the approaching night. Now, for the first time, our lucky star forsook us, for, as the day dawned, the wind died away entirely, and, after the sun had risen, we discovered to our extreme discomfiture that we were exactly where we had no wish to be, namely, right in the middle of the English blockade line. We expected at any moment to see the mast-head of an English ship appear above the horizon. Our frame of mind was not of the happiest. The absence of wind detained us more surely than the most superior of foes could have held us. But it had not been without a good reason that I had delayed our departure to the end of the week. I was sufficiently familiar with English customs to know that the gentlemen are disinclined to work during week ends, that is, on Saturdays and Sundays. And nothing did, in fact, come in sight during the entire day.
The breeze, which set in during the course of the afternoon, helped us onward considerably, and by evening, soon after sunset, we could go to rest with the comfortable assurance that with two sailboats, and making but little headway, we had succeeded in running the English blockade.
With my flat-bottomed zambuks it was possible for me to shape my further course so as to keep within the coral reefs of the Farsan Bank. This is a dangerous and very long coral bank having an extent of about three hundred and fifty nautical miles, and near which large ships dare not venture. It is not wholly free from danger even for small craft. In the course of the following day, my second zambuk came in sight, and received orders to keep by me.
Life on the zambuks was rather pleasant and quite cozy. An abundance of room we did not have, of course. Including the interpreter, the pilot, and the Arabs we had taken with us for service with the sails and the ships, we numbered thirty-five men to each zambuk. With a length of fourteen meters, and a width of four, it can be readily seen that but little space could be allotted to each man. Moreover, a large part of each boat had to be devoted to the storing of provisions, water, ammunition, and the machine guns. To protect ourselves, in a measure at least, from the burning rays of the sun, we stretched woolen blankets across the ship so as to be able to keep our heads in the shade. Our culinary department was not run on a lavish scale. In each zambuk there was a small open fireplace lined with tin. Here the meals for thirty persons had to be cooked. We tried to make our meals as varied as possible with the limited means at our disposal. Thus, for instance, if we had tough mutton with rice and gravy on one day, we would have rice with gravy and tough mutton on the next, and on the third day, there would be gravy with tough mutton and rice, and so on.
Our boats made but very slow progress. Oftentimes we were becalmed, and there were frequent struggles with head winds and opposing currents. Nor were these troubles from without our only ones, for there were conflicts within our boat as well. These raged most fiercely at night, for then the cockroaches, bedbugs, and lice were especially active. All articles of clothing that were not in use had to be tied fast to something for fear they might run away. In the morning, as soon as the sun was up, every man of us pulled off his shirt, and the general "early louse hunt" was begun. The record number for one shirt was seventy-four.
On the seventeenth of March I signalled to my fleet: "I intend to anchor in the evening." According to our pilot, we were getting into a vicinity where the reefs made it unsafe even for our small craft to sail at night. By six o'clock in the evening we were drawing near to the island of Marka, where we were to anchor. Our pilot was conducting us to our anchorage. My zambuk led the way. The second one followed at a distance of two hundred meters. There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing, with correspondingly high seas, and we were looking forward with eagerness to getting a little rest in the lee of the sheltering island. But we had made our reckoning without our host in the person of our capable Arab pilot. He directed our course so skilfully that my boat suddenly struck a coral reef. A second and a third time she pounded so hard that I had grave fears for the safety of the boat. The next moment we were free of the reef, however, and in deeper water. I dropped anchor at once. Then, in order to keep the boat behind us from running aground upon the same reef, I quickly gave her captain orders by signs and shouts to hold off. This he did, but his boat was already so in the midst of the reefs that, in the endeavor to avoid one reef, he struck another. In a moment more I saw a flag run up, a sign that something had happened. The next instant the boat dipped slowly. From the motion of the mast, I knew that the boat was pounding. Suddenly it disappeared, - only the top of the mast could be seen rising on a slant out of the water. It was now just before sundown.
Night sets in very suddenly in these southern latitudes. Ten minutes after the sun has set, it is absolutely dark. There was no moon at the time. Instant help was therefore necessary. Up went the sail on our zambuk. All hands set to work. The anchor was pulled up, and by a difficult manoeuvre in which we came near running aground again, we got away, and hastened to the relief of our comrades. I took my boat as close to the submerged zambuk as possible, and cast anchor again. But on account of the reef I was obliged to keep at a distance of four hundred meters. We had no small boats that we could send back and forth. Each zambuk carries but a single dugout, - a very small and narrow paddle boat, made from a single tree trunk, and capable of carrying no more than two men at the most. With the high seas running at the time, their usefulness was a matter of doubt. Nevertheless I sent mine out at once.
In the meantime it had grown dark. We had a lantern aboard our zambuk, but all the many attempts we made to light it, in order to show our ship's position, failed, as the strong wind that was blowing extinguished the light again and again. "Torchlights!" was my next order. We had taken with us a few torches from both the "Emden" and the "Choising" for possible cases of emergency. These were now brought out and nailed up. The fuses worked all right, but the torches refused to burn. They had grown too damp in the many months that we had carried them about with us.
Suddenly, out of the darkness of the night, I heard voices rising from the water just behind us. The first men from the foundered zambuk had reached us, and, unable to see us in the darkness, they were swimming past us. By shouting, by whistling with the boatswain's whistle, we tried to call them back, and, after some anxious moments, we succeeded in doing so. The men had swum away from the other zambuk, and, having nothing else to guide them, they had followed a star that shone down from the direction of our boat. How many of the men were in the water we had, of course, no means of knowing. My anxiety for them was great, knowing, as I did, that the water in this vicinity is full of sharks. My greatest concern, however, was for the sick, and I wondered what had been done for them, for many of them were too weak to help themselves. That which was needed above all else now, was for us to show a light. As every other means had failed us, I had the men bring wood, pile it together, pour petroleum on it, and, with little care for the danger we ran of setting our boat afire, we set it in a blaze. In the fire thus kindled, we held our torches until they were dry enough to burn. At the same time we set off a few white fire balls that we had with us, and which, thank God, were still in good condition, although by firing off these rockets, we revealed our presence to other ships for miles about.
At last the two dugouts returned. They were rowed by one man, and in each one lay one of the sick. The others who were too ill to do anything for themselves were either brought aboard our boat in the same way, or else they were tied to one of the dugouts, and towed along in the water. Meanwhile, all those who could swim were arriving from every side. The men who could not swim - and there were a number such - had put on life-preservers, and were paddling along as best they could. One after another they came aboard. Soon there were fifty of us in my little zambuk, and then it settled so low in the water that it was evident it would hold no more. I therefore ordered everything that could possibly be spared, including provisions and water, to be thrown overboard, in order to lighten the boat sufficiently to carry us all. Finally, all that was left us was our arms, ammunition, and food and water sufficient for three days.
In the meantime our torches had burned low, and I was filled with anxiety lest their light would not hold out until the last man from the wrecked zambuk had come aboard. At last all were accounted for except the officers, and, with the arrival of the last one of these, the last torch died out. So, for the present at least, all were safe. The wrecked zambuk, according to the reports of the officers in command of it, lay hard aground on an abruptly descending coral reef, and we had reason to be grateful that at least the mast had remained above water. It might have happened quite as well that the zambuk had slipped down the side of the reef, and vanished in the deep. In that case all the sick would surely have been lost, and most likely some of the men who could not swim would also have been drowned.
Near us lay another zambuk, which belonged to the Idriss tribe. The Idriss are an Arab race that is not very friendly to the Turks, and is especially averse to European influence of any kind. From this zambuk a canoe had been sent to the rescue when my second zambuk stranded. But as soon as it was discovered that we were Europeans - a circumstance which was revealed by the tropical hat worn by our doctor - the canoe turned back, and left our men to their fate. To continue our journey in my one greatly overladen boat was a very precarious undertaking, - there were now some seventy persons aboard of her - and especially so in consideration of the very meager supply of provisions we had with us. Therefore, just before sunrise, I sent our Arab interpreter to the Idriss zambuk to offer those in charge of it a large sum of money for the use of their boat for a few days. They refused my offer flatly, however, saying that, should I offer them a hundred thousand pounds, they would do nothing for dogs of Christians. It would, of course, have been an easy matter for me to have made myself master of the desired zambuk by force, and, indeed, it had been my intention to do so as soon as it should be fully day. I was very averse to such a proceeding, however. It might have had some very unpleasant consequences politically, for it involved the use of armed force against allies, even though these allies were but a race of wild and uncivilized people.
But the day brought us better fortune; our lucky star was once more in the ascendant. A stiff southerly breeze was blowing, which made it possible for me to sail even with my overloaded boat, as I could run before the wind. It gave us the promise of rapid progress during the day. So I left the Idriss boat in peace.
We now hurried to save what we could from the wrecked zambuk. We wanted most of all to recover our arms. The zambuk had sunk still lower during the night. The mast was broken off, and the ship lay on the bottom, tilted downward. By diving, we succeeded in recovering the two machine guns, a few pistols, and a part of the ammunition. Everything else, our provisions, our clothing, and the like, was lost, and, unfortunately, our entire medical outfit as well.
The stiff breeze from the south carried us in a single afternoon over a distance which it would have taken us about six days to cover under the previously existing conditions.
By evening we had arrived at Coonfidah. Here we were given a most friendly welcome. As there had been no opportunity to make special preparation for our coming, a genuine Turkish meal was quickly made ready for us, and we ate it according to the local custom, without the use of plates, forks, or knives. A whole sheep, boiled and stuffed with rice, was placed on the table. With eager hands we set to work to denude the bones of the meat that was on them, and with our fingers we put the rice into our mouths. At Coonfidah we met a Turkish government official and his wife, who were also on their way to Constantinople, and who became our traveling companions. In the further course of our journey this official rendered me good service as dragoman, that is, as interpreter.
It was our good fortune to find a large zambuk while we were in Coonfidah. We chartered it, and so were enabled to continue our journey all together in one boat. Without meeting with further difficulties of any kind, we reached Leet on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth day of March. This town marks the northern extremity of the Farisan Bank, between the coral reefs of which we had so far found safety from pursuit by our English foes. Our further course by water would now take us out into the open sea. It was evident that the English would do all in their power to capture us there. While in Leet, chance placed in my hands a letter that had come from a merchant in Djidda. He wrote that Djidda was closely blockaded by English warships, and that not even a zambuk was allowed to enter the harbor without inspection by the English.
This prohibited our further journey by sea. There was therefore but one way open to us, and that lay overland. We remained in Leet two days, just long enough to get together the animals needed for our caravan, to provide ourselves with the required amount of water, and to make all other necessary preparations for our onward march.
In Leet occurred the first death in our number. One of our seamen, Keil, had been suffering from a severe attack of typhus ever since our sojourn at Hodeida. The hardships of the shipwreck had proved too much for his already exhausted body, and, as our medical stores had all been lost, we could not even give him medical aid as we journeyed on. He died on the twenty-seventh of March, at three o'clock in the morning. Two of his comrades watched at his bier, as they had at his bedside throughout his illness. We made a row-boat ready, sewed the body in sailcloth, and weighted it with stones. The war flag was then draped over it, and on this was laid the hat and bared sword of the dead. After a brief religious service, we laid the body of our comrade in the boat, and, taking it out to where the water was deep, we committed it to its last resting place. Three volleys resounded over his watery grave. We did not deem it wise to give our dead a burial on land, as, in all likelihood, the wild and fanatical people of the country would have disturbed his last sleep.
On the twenty-eighth of March we began our onward journey.
“In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
– Proverbs 3:6