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A Hard Swim by David Ker


There are few things more delightful than to be at sea on a fine summer day, with a bright blue sky above and a bright blue sea below, while the fresh breeze fills your sails, and the great smooth waves toss you lightly along, and spatter you at times with their glittering spray, like frolicsome giants. But it is a very different thing to be out in the teeth of a real equinoctial gale, with the whole sky black as ink, and the whole sea one sheet of boiling foam, and a huge wave coming thundering over the deck every other minute, sweeping everything before it, and making the whole vessel tremble from stem to stern.

So, doubtless, thought Olaf Petersen, captain and owner of the Norwegian schooner Thyra, of Bergen, when just such a storm caught him half way across the North Sea. It did seem rather hard, after escaping all the storms of blustering March, that fresh, genial April should serve him such a trick; but so it was, and instead of having a short and easy run northeastward to Bergen, as he expected, he found himself flying away to the west, driven by a gale which seemed strong enough to blow him right round the world, if it did not happen to sink him by the way.

All the sails had long since been taken in, and the little craft was scudding under bare poles, no one being on deck but the two men at the wheel (who had quite enough to do keeping her head straight) and the captain himself. A fine picture Olaf Petersen would have made as he stood there, with the spray rattling like hail upon his drenched tarpaulins, and his clear bright eye looking keenly out through the wet hair that was plastered over his face. It might be seen by the firm set of his mouth that he meant to fight it out while a plank would swim; but he looked grave and anxious, nevertheless.

And well he might. This time it was not only his vessel and the lives of himself and his crew that were in danger: his young wife was on board, after whom the Thyra had been named, and it was now too late to blame himself for having granted her entreaty to be allowed to sail along with him, instead of being left at home by herself for so many weary weeks, without knowing whether he was alive or dead.

Still it blew harder, and harder yet. Had not the Thyra been as good a sea-boat as ever swam, it would have been all over with her. Even as it was, she could barely hold her own against the mountains of water that came plunging over her deck with a force that seemed sufficient to rend a rock. More than once the captain's stiffened fingers were almost torn from their hold upon the weather rigging, while the men at the wheel were under water again and again. Vainly did Olaf strain his eyes to windward in the hope of seeing a break in the inky sky. All was grim and gloomy, and amid the blinding spray and the deepening darkness it was hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.

All that night and all the next morning they drove blindly onward, not knowing where they were; for the sun had not been seen for two whole days, and no observation could be taken. But Captain Petersen, who had those seas by heart, began to fear that they were being driven in among the Orkney Isles, and he knew only too well what chance the stoutest three-decker would have against those tremendous rocks with such a sea running.

Toward afternoon the wind fell suddenly, though the sea still ran high; but now came something worse than all—one of those terrible Northern fogs which turn day into night, and make the oldest sailor as helpless as a child. The lanterns were lit and hoisted, the ship's bell was kept constantly tolling, and the captain ordered up two "look-outs" besides himself; but the fog grew thicker and thicker, till those on the forecastle could barely make out the foremast.

Ha! what was that huge dim shadow that loomed out suddenly just ahead, like a threatening giant? Could it be a rock?

"Port your helm!—port!" roared the captain, at the full pitch of his voice.

But it was too late. The next moment there came a deafening crash, a shock that threw them all off their feet, and the vessel, with her bows stove in, was sawing and grinding upon the sharp rocks that had pierced her through and through, with the water rushing into her like a cataract.

The next few minutes were like the confusion of a troubled dream—a shadowy vision of a huge dark mass overhead, a short fierce struggle amid swirling foam and broken timbers—and then the captain and wife found themselves upon one of the higher ledges, hardly knowing how they had reached it, while the crew, with bleeding hands and sorely bruised limbs, dragged themselves painfully up after them.

They were not a moment too soon. Scarcely had the last man gained the ledge, when a mountain wave took the vessel aback. She slid off the rocks which had held her up, and went down so quickly that the captain, turning at the shouts of his men, just caught a glimpse of her topmasts vanishing under water.

The situation of the shipwrecked crew was now dreary enough. Alone upon a bare rock in the midst of a stormy sea, with no means of escape, and no food but the few brine-soaked biscuits in their pockets, there seemed to be nothing left for them but to give themselves up and die. But, of all men living, a sailor is the least apt to think his case hopeless, however dark it may appear. Having just been saved from apparently certain death, the stout-hearted seamen were in no mood to despair so easily; and settling themselves snugly in a sheltered cleft of the rock, they ate their scanty meal (a good share of which had been reserved for Mrs. Petersen) as cheerily as if they were lying at anchor in Bergen Harbor.

Just as the meal ended, the fog suddenly rolled away like a curtain, and the last gleam of the setting sun showed them an island several miles to the north, on the shore of which the keen-eyed captain made out a few white specks that looked like fishermen's huts.

"Lads," cried he, "if the wind rises again, it'll blow us all into the sea; and even if it don't, we shall freeze to death if we stick here all night, with no room to move about. There's just one chance left for us, and I'm going to take it. Somebody must swim to that island for help, and as I believe I'm the best swimmer among us, I'll be the one to do it."

"Olaf!" cried his wife, catching him by the arm, "you won't think of it! It's certain death!"

"Pooh, pooh!" said the captain, cheerily. "I haven't swum across Bergen Bay and back for nothing. It's certain death to sit here and freeze, if you like; but you'll soon see me coming back with half a dozen stout fellows, and we'll all have a good supper before the night's out. Keep your heart up, dear. God bless you!"

The next moment he was in the water, and vanishing from the eager eyes that watched him into the fast-falling shadows of night. Then came a long silence. The men looked at each other, no one daring to utter the thought which was in every one's mind, while Thyra Petersen hid her face in her hands, and prayed as she had never prayed before.

Meanwhile Captain Petersen, who had told no more than the truth in calling himself a good swimmer, was breasting the waves manfully. But he soon found the difference between attempting a long swim when quite fresh and vigorous, and doing the same thing after a hard night's work, on short allowance of food, and with limbs stiffened by wet and cold. Moreover, the sea, although much quieter than it had been, was still rough enough to tell sorely against him. Before he had gone a mile he felt his strength beginning to fail; but he thought of his wife, and of all the other lives that now depended upon him alone, and struggled desperately onward. But now came a new trouble. In the deepening darkness the island for which he was heading soon disappeared altogether, and he found himself swimming almost at random. Every stroke was now a matter of life and death, and yet each of those strokes might be taken in the wrong direction. It was a terrible thought. Heavier and heavier grew his cramped limbs, harder and harder pressed the merciless sea. He sank—rose—sank again, and as he came up once more, lifted his voice in a despairing cry, feeling that all was over.

"Hist, laddies! there's some ane skirling" (screaming), shouted a hoarse voice near him.

There was a sudden splash of oars, a clamor of many voices, and then a strong hand clutched him as he sank for the last time. So utterly was he spent that he could barely force out the few words needful to tell his story; but these were quite enough for the Orkney fishermen, who at once put about and steered straight for the rock.

It was a glad sight for the weary watchers, when the boat came gliding toward them out of the darkness. But when they recognized their captain, whom they had long since given up for lost, they gathered their last strength for a feeble cheer, while poor Thyra sprang into the boat, and threw her arms round his neck without a word.

So ended Captain Petersen's daring swim, which brought him good in a way that he little expected; for when the news of the feat reached Bergen, the townspeople at once started a subscription to buy him another vessel, in which he is voyaging now.