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Sunday, June 01, 2003

Thievery, mutiny among captain’s woes

Jerry Bowen

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This is part two of a continuing account of Captain Robert “Bully” Waterman’s journey to Solano County. Part two is called Waterman’s Deadly Passage Through the Horn. Look for the next installment on June 15.

In my last column, Captain Waterman had sailed from New York, bound for San Francisco with a rebellious, unruly and thoroughly inexperienced crew. Problems began to mount almost immediately as the ship steered a course for the southern tip of South America and the treacherous storm-tossed seas of Cape Horn.

Sundays were normally used to relax but that was about to change abruptly as problems began to mount.

“Big Jerry,” the quartermaster, was at the wheel as two passengers, William Masten and Cornelius Sterling, were lounging with two of the ship’s boys on top of the main cabin. Waterman and Douglass were engaged in conversation on the subject of complaints from a seaman about missing items. The men had been stealing from each other throughout the voyage and the captain and first mate decided they needed to put an end to it. As a result, an enraged Douglass roared into the forecastle and ordered all hands to bring their chests and sea bags on deck to be searched.

After ordering the men to dump their belongings on deck, an impatient Douglass began to use his belaying pin to rush the action along. Suddenly, while sifting through the men’s belongings, he was jumped from behind by Fred Birkenshaw. Half a dozen other men rushed in to join the melee. George Smith grabbed Douglass by the throat, forced him to drop his club, and toppled him to the deck, where one of the other men slashed him in the thigh.

Waterman was about to take a sextant reading when he heard the commotion. He ran down the steps, joined the scuffle and smashed Smith over the head with the sextant forcing him to let go of Douglass. Smith turned on Waterman who bashed him again and tied him to a rail with a piece of rope.

The men scattered as Douglass picked up his belaying pin and attacked the mutineers, taking them out one by one. Waterman and Douglas then took the six injured men and tied them to the rail alongside Smith.

Waterman was examining Douglass’ wound when Alexander Coghill finally arrived on the scene. An irate Douglass shouted at Coghill to search for Birkenshaw “and be damned quick about it.”

Coghill searched the entire ship but was unable to locate Birkenshaw. After his wound was dressed, Douglas limped back on deck along with Waterman when Coghill approached, reporting that he could not find the missing man. One sailor claimed he saw him jump over the side but Douglas didn’t believe it and searched the ship himself without success.

The crew had attempted mutiny, the worst offense you can commit at sea, and now Waterman was free to sanction any punishment he deemed appropriate without fear of retribution from sea lawyers.

George Smith was placed in irons as the other men were released from the rail and escorted to their quarters to await their punishment.

At dinner that evening the conversation between the passengers and Waterman recounted the events of the morning. Waterman wondered aloud as to whether the incident had been a provoked isolated incident or a planned mutiny. He decided it was the latter.

Later that evening, passengers Masten, Sterling and Richard Morse were called upon to serve as witnesses during Waterman’s interrogation of the prisoners. George Smith was the first to be questioned. Waterman calmly started his interrogation hinting that his punishment was apt to be most severe, but could be reduced if he confessed and named the other attackers. Above all, Waterman wanted to know if the attack had been planned.

At first, Smith denied that there had been any conspiracy, but he gradually fell apart and finally admitted that a mutiny had been planned just a few days after the Challenge had set sail from New York. They had planned to kill Waterman and Douglass and take the ship to Rio de Janeiro.

The other eight mutineers were brought before Waterman. Seven confessed to the conspiracy but George Smith claimed only to have heard of the plans. Even though flogging had been outlawed aboard merchant ships in 1850, Waterman pronounced all eight guilty and sentenced them to be flogged. The whereabouts of Birkenshaw was still a mystery, but he would be dealt with if and when he could be found.

Waterman marched the eight men on deck the next day, had their shirts stripped off and their wrists tied to the rigging. The remainder of the crew was ordered to witness the punishment.

Douglass laid a dozen lashes to each man, reducing their backs to a bloody pulp with a lash made of knotted ropes. With the sentence carried out, the bloodied men were returned to their quarters.

Douglass never walked the deck again without his sheath knife for the rest of the voyage, and Waterman always kept a gun in his cabin close by his bunk and for good reason. The worst was yet to come as the Challenge approached Cape Horn with its screaming winds, mountainous seas and the inexperienced and deadly crew.

As they approached the treacherous passage around the Horn, a silent rebellion still simmered as many of the crew looked for ways to avoid duty on deck. Many pretended to be ill, although several were legitimately suffering from various ailments including dysentery and crippling injuries from the first mate’s heavy use of the belaying pin to enforce his orders.

Waterman knew the mutinous crew would have to be driven hard with the continued use of force in order to survive the treacherous passage around Cape Horn. Heavier sails were finally rigged and everything loose was tied down as the ship began to experience increasingly heavier seas.

A short, furious squall previewed the future for the Challenge and her crew as she approached the Strait of Le Maire between Tierra Del Fuego and Staten Island. The storm cleared, but ominous clouds to the south promised more of the same as they continued their passage around the southern tip of South America. The weather held back its fury as they made good progress toward Diego Ramirez Island. Then all hell broke loose as a fierce gale suddenly whipped the sea into waves as high as 60 feet. Sails had to be taken in and lashed down before they were ripped to pieces.

Douglass limped on deck, screaming for all hands on deck and began forcing them into the slippery, icy rigging. The waves thrashed at the yardarm tips as the frightened men in the rigging held on for dear life while they attempted to pull in the violently whipping canvas. Death was in the air and they all knew it.

To be continued ...