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Sunday, June 15, 2003

Atrocities at sea deemed necessary

Jerry Bowen

This is part three of a continuing account of Captain Robert “Bully” Waterman’s journey to Solano County. Part two was called Waterman Quits the Sea. Look for the next installment on June 29.

In my last column, the Challenge was just beginning to experience heavier seas as it rounded the southern tip of South America. Cape Horn was about to live up to its infamous reputation as the spawn of lethal storms as the struggling ship approached Diego Ramirez Island.

The men had to be forced onto the slippery yardarms to pull in the sail as an icy storm began to ravage the ship, furiously tossing her about in the boiling sea. Sudden gusts of gale-force winds filled the canvas to the breaking point, and then, in a split-second, it would fire the sail back into the men with the force of an exploding cannon. It was inevitable that some of the crew would be wrenched from the yardarms.

Suddenly, a sail recoiled, knocking one of the men from his perch and sent him screaming and clawing at the air into the wildly churning sea. Any attempt to rescue him would be futile; the fall and the plunge into the icy water would claim life almost instantly.

The flapping canvas was out of control and, as the desperate men tried to pull it in, the wind shot the unruly canvas back again - sending two more men into space; one fell to the deck, the other into the sea. Men waiting to be sent aloft were forced to tie themselves to the rails for safety as lethal waves washed over the ship’s deck.

In due course, the remaining men aloft managed to gather and restrain the sails, and some semblance of control returned to the helm. The bruised and battered men climbed down and staggered off to their bunks.

The body of the man who had fallen to his death on the deck was placed in the forward compartment. The following day, during a short period of relative calm, his body was consigned to the sea in a brief ceremony.

But the screaming winds soon returned in gusts of nearly 100 knots. The constant pounding of the heavy seas continually threatened to sink the Challenge. As many as 17 battered men suffering from injuries, exhaustion and frostbite filled the sickbay seeking treatment, as well as those feigning illness to avoid a return to duties on deck.

The most notable malingerer, George Lessing, was ordered on deck. When he refused, an incensed Douglass screamed at him, “Go aft! The captain will cure you.”

When Waterman arrived, he grabbed the hapless man and tossed him into the frigid water that sloshed around the ship’s scuppers. Holding his head underwater, he released him just short of drowning. Douglass then lashed him to a rail and left him in the freezing wind for nearly an hour. Soon after, Lessing exhibited signs of acute dysentery, and 12 days later he was dead.

PawPaw, an Italian crewman who only spoke and understood Italian, met his death several days later at the hands of the unrelentingly brutal Douglass and his deadly club. It must have been obvious to the exhausted Waterman that his first mate was out of control, but he did nothing to stop him.

The storms persisted for three weeks before mercifully subsiding as Waterman steered the ill-fated ship into the Pacific Ocean.

The cleanup began, but the fair weather did nothing to improve Waterman’s mood as the crew’s slothful behavior continued. The Challenge was at least 66 days from San Francisco and he knew his chance at earning the $10,000 bonus for a record passage was completely lost. Two more men died in sickbay.

Finally, the whereabouts of Fred Birkenshaw were betrayed. Once he was apprehended, Waterman had him put in irons. He pleaded he would make a full confession of his part in the mutiny if Waterman and Douglass would not hurt him.

But during questioning, he refused to admit his part in the mutiny, and Waterman hit the prisoner with a club and then ordered a hangman’s noose to be placed on a yardarm. A few jerks on the noose placed around the accused mutineer’s neck finally convinced him to come clean. After confessing, he was placed in handcuffs and sent to sickbay.

The Challenge finally sailed into San Francisco Bay on October 29, 1851, 108 days after leaving New York, flying a distress flag. Eight crewmen were sent ashore and charged with mutiny.

Before long, every sailor free of illness or injury went over the side and off to the saloons, brothels and gambling halls that lined the waterfront.

As each drink was tossed down, stories of the atrocities committed by Waterman and Douglass were embellished. The local newspapers hung on to every word without question and spread the news of the “Hell Ship” and her cruel captain.

Crowds soon began to gather on the wharf, threatening Waterman as he left the ship.

San Francisco had been returning to normalcy after the Vigilance Committees disbanded. But a new “vigilance committee” consisting of thugs and criminals began to form as the tales of the cruelty aboard the Challenge made the rounds. Threats to burn the ship and execute Waterman and Douglass soon surfaced. U.S. Marshals charged Waterman and Douglass with assault and murder, and Douglass was jailed for his own protection.

Waterman insisted on a trial as the Grand Jury handed down several indictments. The trial dragged on for months with a bewildering series of charges and countercharges. All the while, the newspapers continued to fuel mob rage.

After the crew testified, the jury found them to be incompetent, mutinous and the punishment meted out by the ship’s officers in an attempt to maintain proper discipline under difficult circumstances was deemed necessary to maintain the safety of the ship and her cargo.

The mutineers were released, and Waterman was exonerated of all blame for the deaths of his crew. In addition, he was commended for his nautical skills in bringing the Challenge safely into San Francisco “without the loss of a spar, sail or piece of rigging.”

Public opinion gradually turned in favor of Waterman and Douglass after an editorial favorable to the beleaguered captain appeared in the Alto California newspaper.

The Challenge was Waterman’s last voyage as a Captain. He was about to embark on a new life away from the sea. In my next article I’ll delve into his life as a landlubber, entrepreneur and his influence on the history of Solano County.