As a former matelot I can wholeheartedly agree that the story could have happened "back in the day".
Blue Moaning – A small tale.
Part the First
The creaking decks held an eerie grip on their planking. Boards groaned, rivets strained and water washed those decks clearing away any corrosive spume. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse danced white caps on mountainous swells.
The wheel and all the yards aboard were storm-rigged and lashed, the sole figure littering the upperdecks that of the nightwatchman tied to the after bulwark. The slumped figure hung by his lashings around his waist, his lungs stained with salt-water burns, testament to his painful drowning. SS Blue Moaning sailed on, oblivious of the fate of her crew.
But true to her name and some would claim from earlier passages, true to her nature, the ship did moan. Her every plank and sail, yard and mast, whip and stay moaned her displeasure at the rough seas. So too did three figures lashed to their hammocks in the fwd mess. Not one of the three dehydrated and hungry crewmen had eaten or taken water since the inception of the storm, partly due to being lashed in their hammocks, partly due to the bucking decks beneath them. Death lurked the storm tossed ship.
The boatswain, Broghie O’Callaghan, the ships cook, Banger Naills, and the ship’s youngest crewman but third most adept sailor, Lofty Blomquist lay below lashed to their hammocks clinging on for dear life and awaiting the storm to abate, or the onset of their own death. Judging by recent events in the fwd messdeck, death came quicker.
The death toll was extreme, especially when giving credence to the stormy weather, starvation and stupidity. Of a normal compliment of eighty seven, hauling molasses, rum, and sugar beet, only three remained, and in dubious condition at that. Eighty-four dead, twenty-two of who had perished when the storm first hit and they were trying to trim the Blue Moaning for the sudden weather change.
The storm, though now abating coupled with the cold blue gray seas off Cape Horn, had raged incessantly for eighteen days. It had taken it’s pound of flesh and then some. The ship had been blown northwest, out into the southeast Pacific Ocean.
The survivors noticed the drop in intensity of the wind howling through the rigging and gunwales, and felt the slackening of the grip of the merciless sea on Blue Moanings’ hull. Slowly at first, then even more noticeably.
Broghie untied his bindings on his hammock, and slipped jitteringly to the deck. His once strong legs reduced to weakness thanks to the long stay in the canvas bed. He reached into a locker and extracted a bottle of Nelson’s Blood, good strong Navy Rum he had purchased prior to starting the trip. All the older sailors had their own rum supply, but Broghie preferred the Queens Rum to the lesser potent stock rum supplied to the merchant marine. He stretched his flagging muscles. They ached, but still worked.
Lofty and Banger remained in their hammocks, fragile eyes watching the Bosun like laboured bulls. They were still to ill to venture from the safety of their respective pits and they informed Broghie as he accosted them about some assistance. Truth be known, both were too mollified by the slackening of the violence and could probably have moved but felt an unhealthy need to not trust the weather conditions topside, in case it came on rough again. Therefore they both concluded, it has been safe in the hammock thus far, just a little more time and we’ll know the full score with the weather.
Broghie donned his sou’westers; heavy oilskin coat and leggings, and a tie on oilskin hood or hat. Most preferred the hat. He then donned his large seaboots, rubber galoshes or Wellington boots that suited life on a ship at sea, if dry feet were wanted.
He advanced through the messdeck unsteadily, as the ship still lurched occasionally as she surfed down a large swell out of the Antarctic Sea came rolling on through. He caught hold of the ladder handrail that lead from the messdeck to the topside deck or the Main Deck as it was more commonly called. The ladder exited aft of the focsle and just in front of the foremast. Broghie grabbed one of the Watchlines that was suspended from the deckhead, and attached the belt end to his waist, coiling up the clip-end of the line and the remaining 50 feet for ease of laying out when he clipped on topside. This rope was a Blue Moaning invention, attributed to her former second mate, until recently the second longest serving member of the 1868-built New Zealand flagged Barque.
Broghie then rechecked the manila hemp line for snags, then pulled himself up the ladder to the topside sliding hatch. Grasping the clip, he affixed it to the ringbolt at the top of the hatch placed there for such purposes, laid the coiled line down on the top rung, and grasping the hatch with both hands, slid the hatch back smoothly to it’s stops.
The rope securely fastened to avoid being washed overboard, the Bosun eased himself out of the hatch, occasionally wearing a greenie or sea spray wash, on his body. But the sea had abated he noticed, and the force of the wash was not threatening. He undid the clip, and refastened it to the foremast ringbolt, and standing on the Main deck, took stock of the sea across the deck, noting the intervals and intensity until in his mind he was happy that he could proceed without the line fixed to the ring bolt. He now felt he could trust the runner lines between the masts, so he unclipped the ringbolt end and clipped onto the runner line between the Foremast and the Mainmast.
He took a moment longer to assess the damage. At this stage, the ship was sailing on one storm jib up the foremast, with two storm mains blown out and fluttering dangerously in the wind that still raged. Rigging lay about the masts in a state of disrepair, but not as badly as he had expected. As the chief seaman onboard, his appraisal of the ship was rapid but knowing. The motion of the ship beneath his feet, and from his observations in his hammock, indicated the Blue moaning had taken on a fair amount of water, but not a dangerous amount such that she would heal over and sink.
His perusal aft, however brought him back to a sense of reality. At this stage he had no idea how many of the ships compliment had survived the storm, but based on the dead forward, and now the figure slumped on the Poop deck meant that his estimates may be a little below what he first though it would be. Even in any storm, someone always managed to man the Poop deck and the Helm, but the lashed figure aft was obviously very dead.
Part the Second to follow.
Broghie made his way aft, negotiating with care the rigging lying about, and dodging the lap of wave wash across the deck as each swell cap licked the side of the ship. His actions pure automaton, but his thoughts clearly focused on the final death toll. The ship would need to be cleared away and made seaworthy and with his two current shipmates the task was daunting.
He had been sent below when the crew numbers had been at fifty percent left, so he figured that with himself and his two companions forrid he figured that the better accommodated aft crew and Officers quarters, the survival rate was much higher than up forrid. Maybe fifty to seventy percent.
Broghie reached the poopdeck, passing a cursory glance at the wheel, which was lashed to the stand rail adjacent it, and approached the stooped figure. Topyardman Jackson was very dead. Water seemed to fill his upper torso dragging it forward and down. He’d been dead for some time, judging by the bluing of the lips and the amount of salt on his pallid skin. He made a mental note to give the young man a decent burial, then turned for the after quarters.
A sense of foreboding took hold of him as he approached the Officers quarters door. He stopped, hand on the door handle, took a languid look up forrid to ensure the ship was safe, and to see if his companions had made an appearance. Broghie turned the handle and entered to his fate.
A ship is a beauty, a beast, a scourge, and a lucky thing. Men aren’t! Blue Moaning was all of these and then some. But mostly she was lucky. The beauty was in her lines and shape. The beast in the way she rode the storms of the oceans. The scourge, her incompetent crew. But she was lucky mostly. Her hull and rigging were built to perfection to handle big seas. Man may have designed and built her, but the ship settled into her own comfort zone and took on a soul of her own. Men got lucky building her, but the ship made her own luck..
Her crew had in effect had murdered themselves. Out of the fear of the seas, and lack of trust in their special ship. Some had been worthy, with three survivors. But the ship had been just one, and was still one.
Take a pasting, me ‘earties,
Eat the salt in the air,
Take it like a man, me darlings,
Grapple nature’s fear,
Fight it, me shipmates,
Be damned should ye fail,
The only loser is you, poor fool,
The winner, ship and sail.
Blue Moaning, having been pumped out, and the dead ceremoniously deposited with Old King Neptune and souls passed heavenward, made way under abating winds. In four days since the Bosuns’ first walk around, the three remaining crewman had stripped away all the broken rigging, pumped out the hull and set a one third mizzen set, a set of lower mainsails and lower foresails, and one top foresail. The eighteen-knot wind had the ship progressing steadily on flattening seas. The crew stood two on watch, and one asleep below decks, a hard routine but necessary on to maintain the helm and the sails. Eight hours on watch and four asleep was a hard routine, but the sailors welcome to work after the near death experience of not doing anything in a big storm.
Broghie had managed to find a chart which just happened to have the ship’s intended track from Nova Scotia to the West Indies, then round the Horn and off towards New Zealand, their original final destination. Fixes on the track showed the ships’ track, which ended off the west coast of Chile, when the storm had full hold on them. He had estimated that with the storm rig set, and their current progress under their new set of sails, the ship had traveled approximately two to three thousand nautical miles to the Norwest, way out into the southeast Pacific Ocean. Certainly the warmer air and sea temperatures attested to that fact.
But even with that knowledge, Blue Moaning was lost at sea. What was worse is that none of the crew could navigate. Sure, they could steer a course, but as to actually taking a fix from sights’ and applying to the chart, they were without a doubt hopeless. The ship followed the wind, and the crew could only set a course to nowhere.
Captain Broghie, as his two crew now called him, had to make a decision. Head due east and reach the Chilean or Peruvian coasts, or head due west and cross the Pacific Islands or New Zealand. All three decided that the rogue Spanish colonies would be to harsh, and unfriendly to English speaking sailors. So west it was.
With plentiful supplies, a cook, a fair sea, and a graceful ship, they followed their ships’ bow, looking forward to their new fate. Blue Moaning thrived under her sails, her keel smoothly massaged by the great blue Pacific.
The next night, the skies cleared and shooting stars abounded. The ship was happy with her course, so Broghie decided to lash the wheel and the crew would have a little chance to let their hair down for a bit. The three sailors adjourned to the Captains cabin and proceeded to drink to old mates and the their own good fortune. Six bottles of Rum, two bottles of Cognac, and four bottles of Port later, the three ventured on deck to get a breath of air, and for Banger to relieve his stomach of it’s contents.
The other two helped him over to the starboard gunwale, all of them shuffling in a staggering motion. They leaned over, Banger feeding the Neptune God, and the other two looking on providing encouragement.
“Waz zat?” shouted Broghie, drunkenly.
Suddenly, Blue Moaning lurched onto a reef, spun sideways, and rolled over to starboard, tossing the three drunken sailors onto the reef. The next wave lifted the ship up and deposited it down on the reef again, crushing the three survivors. The next wave lifted her off the reef, swung her out to sea and she was on her way again, headed west by sou’west.
Her final sighting at Pitcairn Islands was recorded as “SS Blue Moaning, Course 260, Speed 18 Knots, signaled but no reply (ignorance!!).
In the closing the saga of the SS Blue Moaning, it is rumoured that if you listen closely to all the reefs in the South Pacific, you’ll hear the blue waters moaning. And wonder at what they are moaning at?
When men go down to the sea in ships……………..