The Cruise of the Dazzler

Chapter XV

Good Sailors in a Wild Anchorage

Jack London

ALL afternoon the Dazzler pitched and rolled at her anchorage, and as evening drew on the wind deceitfully eased down. This, and the example set by French Pete, encouraged the rest of the oyster-boats to attempt to ride out the night; but they looked carefully to their moorings and put out spare anchors.

French Pete ordered the two boys into the skiff, and, at the imminent risk of swamping, they carried out a second anchor, at nearly right angles to the first one, and dropped it over. French Pete then ran out a great quantity of chain and rope, so that the Dazzler dropped back a hundred feet or more, where she rode more easily.

It was a wild stretch of water which Joe looked upon from the shelter of the cockpit. The oyster-beds were out in the open bay, utterly unprotected, and the wind, sweeping the water for a clean twelve miles, kicked up so tremendous a sea that at every moment it seemed as though the wallowing sloops would roll their masts overside. Just before twilight a patch of sail sprang up to windward, and grew and grew until it resolved itself into the huge mainsail of the Reindeer.

“Ze beeg fool!” French Pete cried, running out of the cabin to see. “Sometime—ah, sometime, I tell you—he crack on like dat, an’ he go, pouf! just like dat, pouf!—an’ no more Nelson, no more Reindeer, no more nothing.”

Joe looked inquiringly at ’Frisco Kid.

“That ’s right,” he answered. “Nelson ought to have at least one reef in. Two ’d be better. But there he goes, every inch spread, as though some fiend was after ’im. He drives too hard; he ’s too reckless, when there ain’t the smallest need for it. I ’ve sailed with him, and I know his ways.”

Like some huge bird of the air, the Reindeer lifted and soared down on them on the foaming crest of a wave.

“Don’t mind,” ’Frisco Kid warned. “He ’s only tryin’ to see how close he can come to us without hittin’ us.”

Joe nodded, and stared with wide eyes at the thrilling sight. The Reindeer leaped up in the air, pointing her nose to the sky till they could see her whole churning forefoot; then she plunged downward till her for’ard deck was flush with the foam, and with a dizzying rush she drove past them, her main-boom missing the Dazzler’s rigging by scarcely a foot.

Nelson, at the wheel, waved his hand to them as he hurtled past, and laughed joyously in French Pete’s face, who was angered by the dangerous trick.

When to leeward, the splendid craft rounded to the wind, rolling once till her brown bottom showed to the centerboard and they thought she was over, then righting and dashing ahead again like a thing possessed. She passed abreast of them on the starboard side. They saw the jib run down with a rush and an anchor go overboard as she shot into the wind; and as she fell off and back and off and back with a spilling mainsail, they saw a second anchor go overboard, wide apart from the first. Then the mainsail came down on the run, and was furled and fastened by the time she had tightened to her double hawsers.

“Ah, ah! Never was there such a man!”

The Frenchman’s eyes were glistening with admiration for such perfect seamanship, and ’Frisco Kid’s were likewise moist.

“Just like a yacht,” he said as he went back into the cabin. “Just like a yacht, only better.”

As night came on the wind began to rise again, and by eleven o’clock had reached the stage which ’Frisco Kid described as “howlin’.” There was little sleep on the Dazzler. He alone closed his eyes. French Pete was up and down every few minutes. Twice, when he went on deck, he paid out more chain and rope. Joe lay in his blankets and listened, the while vainly courting sleep. He was not frightened, but he was untrained in the art of sleeping in the midst of such turmoil and uproar and violent commotion. Nor had he imagined a boat could play as wild antics as did the Dazzler and still survive. Often she wallowed over on her beam till he thought she would surely capsize. At other times she leaped and plunged in the air and fell upon the seas with thunderous crashes as though her bottom were shattered to fragments. Again, she would fetch up taut on her hawsers so suddenly and so fiercely as to reel from the shock and to groan and protest through every timber.

’Frisco Kid awoke once, and smiled at him, saying:

“This is what they call hangin’ on. But just you wait till daylight comes, and watch us clawin’ off. If some of the sloops don’t go ashore, I ’m not me, that ’s all.”

And thereat he rolled over on his side and was off to sleep. Joe envied him. About three in the morning he heard French Pete crawl up for’ard and rummage around in the eyes of the boat. Joe looked on curiously, and by the dim light of the wildly swinging sea-lamp saw him drag out two spare coils of line. These he took up on deck, and Joe knew he was bending them on to the hawsers to make them still longer.

At half-past four French Pete had the fire going, and at five he called the boys for coffee. This over, they crept into the cockpit to gaze on the terrible scene. The dawn was breaking bleak and gray over a wild waste of tumbling water. They could faintly see the beach-line of Asparagus Island, but they could distinctly hear the thunder of the surf upon it; and as the day grew stronger they made out that they had dragged fully half a mile during the night.

The rest of the fleet had likewise dragged. The Reindeer was almost abreast of them; La Caprice lay a few hundred yards away; and to leeward, straggling between them and shore, were five more of the struggling oyster-boats.

“Two missing,” ’Frisco Kid announced, putting the glasses to his eyes and searching the beach.

“And there ’s one!” he cried. And after studying it carefully he added: “The Go Ask Her. She ’ll be in pieces in no time. I hope they got ashore.”

French Pete looked through the glasses, and then Joe. He could clearly see the unfortunate sloop lifting and pounding in the surf, and on the beach he spied the men who made up her crew.

“Where ’s ze Ghost?” French Pete queried.

’Frisco Kid looked for her in vain along the beach; but when he turned the glass seaward he quickly discovered her riding safely in the growing light, half a mile or more to windward.

“I ’ll bet she did n’t drag a hundred feet all night,” he said. “Must ’ve struck good holding-ground.”

“Mud,” was French Pete’s verdict. “Just one vaire small patch of mud right there. If she get t’rough it she ’s a sure-enough goner, I tell you dat. Her anchors vaire light, only good for mud. I tell ze boys get more heavy anchors, but dey laugh. Some day be sorry, for sure.”

One of the sloops to leeward raised a patch of sail and began the terrible struggle out of the jaws of destruction and death. They watched her for a space, rolling and plunging fearfully, and making very little headway.

French Pete put a stop to their gazing. “Come on!” he shouted. “Put two reef in ze mainsail! We get out queeck!”

While occupied with this a shout aroused them. Looking up, they saw the Ghost dead ahead and right on top of them, and dragging down upon them at a furious rate.

French Pete scrambled forward like a cat, at the same time drawing his knife, with one stroke of which he severed the rope that held them to the spare anchor. This threw the whole weight of the Dazzler on the chain-anchor. In consequence she swung off to the left, and just in time; for the next instant, drifting stern foremost, the Ghost passed over the spot she had vacated.

“Why, she ’s got four anchors out!” Joe exclaimed, at sight of four taut ropes entering the water almost horizontally from her bow.

“Two of ’em ’s dredges,” ’Frisco Kid grinned; “and there goes the stove.”

As he spoke, two young fellows appeared on deck and dropped the cooking-stove overside with a line attached.

“Phew!” ’Frisco Kid cried. “Look at Nelson. He ’s got one reef in, and you can just bet that ’s a sign she ’s howlin’!”

The Reindeer came foaming toward them, breasting the storm like some magnificent sea-animal. Red Nelson waved to them as he passed astern, and fifteen minutes later, when they were breaking out the one anchor that remained to them, he passed well to windward on the other tack.

French Pete followed her admiringly, though he said ominously: “Some day, pouf! he go just like dat, I tell you, sure.”

A moment later the Dazzler’s reefed jib was flung out, and she was straining and struggling in the thick of the fight. It was slow work, and hard and dangerous, clawing off that lee shore, and Joe found himself marveling often that so small a craft could possibly endure a minute in such elemental fury. But little by little she worked off the shore and out of the ground-swell into the deeper waters of the bay, where the main-sheet was slacked away a bit, and she ran for shelter behind the rock wall of the Alameda Mole a few miles away. Here they found the Reindeer calmly at anchor; and here, during the next several hours, straggled in the remainder of the fleet, with the exception of the Ghost, which had evidently gone ashore to keep the Go Ask Her company.

By afternoon the wind had dropped away with surprising suddenness, and the weather had turned almost summer-like.

“It does n’t look right,” ’Frisco Kid said in the evening, after French Pete had rowed over in the skiff to visit Nelson.

“What does n’t look right?” Joe asked.

“Why, the weather. It went down too sudden. It did n’t have a chance to blow itself out, and it ain’t going to quit till does blow itself out. It ’s likely to puff up and howl at any moment, if I know anything about it.”

“Where will we go from here?” Joe asked. “Back to the oyster-beds?”

’Frisco Kid shook his head. “I can’t say what French Pete ’ll do. He ’s been fooled on the iron, and fooled on the oysters, and he ’s that disgusted he ’s liable to do ’most anything desperate. I would n’t be surprised to see him go off with Nelson towards Redwood City, where that big thing is that I was tellin’ you about. It ’s somewhere over there.”

“Well, I won’t have anything to do with it,” Joe announced decisively.

“Of course not,” ’Frisco Kid answered. “And with Nelson and his two men an’ French Pete, I don’t think there ’ll be any need for you anyway.”

The Cruise of the Dazzler - Contents    |     Chapter XVI - ’Frisco Kid’s Ditty-Box

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