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The Drift of the “Oregon”
By Theodore Acland Harper
“Just a pack o’ rotten plates puttied up with tar,
In we came, time enough, ‘cross Bilbao Bar.”

Editor’s Note: We believe this manuscript, written by Theodore Acland Harper, has never been published in the United States, it may have appeared only in the Register, Uncle Toby’s school newspaper in New Zealand in 1902.

As it is not everybody who has had the luck to be at sea in a steamer without a rudder, it has struck me that the Register might like to find space for a short account of that which befell myself and some six hundred other people on board the SS “Oregon” last autumn in the north Pacific.

Owing to the fact that the Cape Nome gold-fields had not developed nearly as richly as had been expected, the majority of the 10,000 white men on the Peninsula were anxious to get out of the country; and in the autumn of 1901 there were about 7,000 men ready to take passage for the United States on any of the boats that might come along.

Cape Nome is not marked on many maps, so, for the benefit of the small boys, I will tell you that it is within ninety miles of the southern entrance of Bering Straits, on the American side.

As Bering Sea is outside the pale of the average insurance company, the class of boats running to Nome was remarkable more for age than for anything else – many of the boats having dodged the inspectors for years, for fear of being laid up as unseaworthy.

In September, when I decided to come out, I chose the list of a thoroughly bad lot of boats, and took a saloon passage on the SS “Oregon” – an old iron ship of about 2,000 tons burden and possibly twelve knot speed.

One of the characteristic features of a country like North Western Alaska is the constant dread of famine in the winter; all communication with the outside world being impossible for eight months, between November and June.

As the season advances, food goes up in price, each settler trying to lay in sufficient to last him until next spring.

Captains of ships, therefore, make nice little sums by selling all their spare supplies to the settlers at fancy figures, before going south on their last trip for the season.

The “Oregon” being empty, the captain had succeeded in knocking up accommodation for some 600 passengers, of whom 250 were first-class. The accommodation even in the saloon was miserable, as the ship was only designed to carry 75 first-class passengers; while the steerage passengers were stowed away in the empty forehold, and the less said about their quarters the better.

On the 6th of September, having filled his old ship to the limit with 626 passengers of all classes, amongst whom were 40 women and about 15 children, the captain discharged and sold all his spare grub, keeping only six days’ rations on board, which should have been enough, “bar accidents”, to supply the ship for the run down. Unfortunately for us, accidents were not “barred”, and we were nearer a month than six days on the trip.

We sailed at sundown, and, having perfectly calm weather, arrived at Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, just before dark, on the 8th; passed through without incident, and turned our nose towards Seattle. On the 9th, a big roll came along from the westward, and, catching us on our quarter, we went rolling along towards home with everything in our favor and everyone in good humor.

About 3 o’clock that afternoon things began to happen. I was lying in my berth smoking, that being the only place in the ship I had an exclusive right to, and was discussing with my neighbor in the bunk opposite what we would have for dinner the night we landed, when we heard a great commotion at the stern; the engines bumped something hard, and then stopped, and the ship swung round into the trough of the sea.

I tumbled out in company with the rest of the six hundred and twenty-six passengers, and tried to find out what was the matter. Of course the crew were far too busy to talk, and the passengers made far too great a crowd to work in, so the decks were cleared and we were left to await further information.

What actually happened, as I learned afterwards, was this:

The rudder lines got foul and stopped the steering. The officer of the watch, not wishing to go to the trouble of yoking the rudder head properly, just disconnected the lines, leaving the rudder loose. The sea running on our quarter caught the rudder, which now hung loose, and swung it hard over each time a wave came along. The third or forth wave broke the rudder off from the step and it fell in amongst the screw. The screw then took up the game, and succeeded in breaking the whole rudder post off short, as well as in stripping itself of two out of four of its blades before the engines were stopped. Now the rudder took up the running alone, and after spending fifteen minutes pounding the plates under our counter into all sorts of original shapes and springing a nasty leak, tore itself away altogether and departed.

We were at this time 1400 miles from Cape Flattery, the nearest place where we could expect assistance. The next steamer due on the run was not likely to leave Nome for ten days, and we knew of nothing likely to be passing us going north. Two hundred and fifty miles to the north and east were the Aleutian Islands; and those of us who knew anything about the sea knew that a very little drifting in that direction would have put us ashore on one of the roughest and most uninhabited places to be found anywhere.

As I have not my diary with me, I am not able to give you exact positions, but reference to a map of that part of the N. Pacific will enable you to form a very fair idea of our position and the prospect ahead of us when we began our long crawl towards Camp Flattery.

At the time of the break-down there was not the slightest sign of panic amongst the passengers. This surprised me a good deal at the time; but I think the reason was easy to find. Probably not more than a dozen of the passengers realized the significance of the mishap – and a body of men who have just spent two years in Alaska have learnt what hard times mean, and some self-control.

That evening, at what ought to have been supper-time, the following notice was posted in the companion way.

“The loss of the rudder will cause some little delay in
making port. It will therefore be necessary to reduce all
passengers to two meals a day till further notice.”

At this there was some grumbling heard, and when next day a curt notice announced that one ration would be served daily at 3 PM, something very like a mutiny was started; but squashed by the more sensible of the passengers.

Meanwhile, the crew, having cleared away the wreckage, had been busy all night building a “jury rudder”, which was put into the water about 9 AM next day, the 10th, and found to be quite useless.

In the afternoon the wind freshened from the NW, and we lay in the trough and drifted nearly on our true course. We fooled about with our rudder all that night and most of the 11th, until the wind, which had been increasing all the morning, came down a regular gale. We nearly stove a hole in our bow trying to haul our rudder on board, and then paid it out on a long line and proceeded to ride out the gale sideways. It came on worse than ever after dark, and oil bags were put out to windward, the glass continued to fall, and, as the Americans expressed it, “we were up against the real thing at last.”

The next twenty-four hours’ experience is a great deal better to look back upon than to live through. By ten PM it was practically impossible to stand, or sit on a seat. When you rolled into a corner, if you were wise you stayed there. Bed was, of course, out of the question, and most of the passengers collected in the saloon and listened to the sea pounding away outside. Company is good on such occasions.

One would not have believed it possible to roll so far and not go right over. As it was, we nearly rolled the deckhouses off, and if a really heavy wave had struck us I don’t believe we would have come out of the gale at all. Tables and things in the saloon got adrift, and people who were sitting on the floor and not holding on would toboggan down the deck in groups and lie in the corner until we righted ourselves with a jerk.

About midnight somebody set fire to his cabin, which did not improve matters; but we succeeded in putting it out after rather more than one cabin had been burnt out.

I suppose the fire was the straw which broke the camel’s back, for after that people began to look wild-eyed and signs of real fear began to show. Then some brilliant ass proceeded to tell a group of women that the captain had been making inquiries about the life-belts available, and that the steerage had tried to get at the supply of whiskey. Quite suddenly the panic broke out. Women got hysterical and men began to edge and crowd towards the companion-way. To judge from my own sensations at the moment, I should say that panic is more catching than scarlet fever – far more! However, luckily for everybody concerned, there were enough men present to check the tendency, and some sensible talk and not a little bad language quietened things down; then we returned to the business of holding on to things.

Let me here suggest to anyone going into a similar position that the quickest and most effective way to stop a girl from crying from fright is to hold her hand – or, better, both of them; it does more good than much talking. The children are harder to control. But I believe it is better to be candid with them. It is the unknown danger rather than the actual danger ahead which has the chiefest terror for them.

This incipient panic impressed many of us with the importance of doing something, and the rest of the night was spent telling stories, singing songs, playing practical jokes: anything to keep the ball rolling, though I, for one, in the intervals thought seriously over my past life and wondered how cold the water would feel, and whether it would take long.

At daylight the gale began to abate, and many people, worn-out, went to sleep where they were, or went to bed. At 8 o’clock a man who had been drinking hard for months died, I expect from fright; we buried him at once. After assisting at the funeral, I turned in, and when I woke in the afternoon the gale had blown out and we were able to take stock of ourselves again.

This brings us to the afternoon of the 12th, three days after we had broken down, during which time we had drifted something like 400 miles nearly on our true course. As soon as the sea was calm enough, we hauled our jury rudder on board and began to build another. The 13th was spent in proving our second rudder worse than the first, and the 14th found us marking time and wondering, “What next?” We had now been on one ration a day for four days. I copy haphazard from some notes I made during the “drift” as an illustration of what a ration consisted of.

“9 AM 1 cup of coffee (no milk).
3 PM 1 spoonful of rice
1 slice of bread,
1 thin slice of tinned beef,
1 cup tea (no milk).”

We used, many of us, to save our bread for supper. But with bread in your pocket few men can see hungry children crying for food, and I fancy most of the bread found its way to the children.

Later on, when the jury rudder was got into working order, the women and children got two fair meals a day, but the men had much the same ration as above from the 10th until we got inside Cape Flattery on September 24th.

It was just about coffee time, the 14th, when we sighted a steamer which turned out to be the “Empress of China”; Vancouver to Yokohama, carrying mails. On making out our distress signal she hove to alongside, and we sent boats off to her with the skipper in command. What actually transpired between the two skippers no one on board knew; but after filling two boats with flour and rice and some rope and gear for our rudder, the “Empress” dipped her flag and left.

I believe a subsidized mail-boat is not allowed to tow; but she is allowed to take women and children off a disabled steamer, and the amount of food supplied, considering our numbers, was absurd. I fancy our skipper misrepresented things, to cover his own trail and to save his employer’s money; and he certainly deserved all the hard things that were said about him that day.

With the help of our new gear we built a new rudder, designed by a passenger, which did work; though, owing to bad weather, it was not until the 19th that we did any steaming.

A short description of the rudder will be in order.

Two spars were lashed together, with a hatch cover in between to act as a fin. A light anchor was lashed at the front end to keep it under water. This machine was then fastened to the ship by a chain passed out through one of the stern ports, so that it floated about 15 feet behind the ship. Two more spars were now lashed at right angles to the length of the ship, close to the stern, with their ends projecting over the side some little distance. Lines were trained from the after end of the rudder through the blocks at the end of the cross spars and taken to the windlass.

As the ship steamed it towed the jury rudder by the chain; in order to steer they hauled in our one line and let go with the other, bring the after end of the rudder to one side, the consignment drag bringing the ship slowly about. It was only in perfectly calm weather that we were able to control the ship, and therefore we either drifted about waiting for the weather, or waddled along on our course much as a drunken man goes home down a wide road.

We got inside Camp Flattery on the morning of September the 24th, nothing occurring during the last part of the drift worthy of mention, except an incipient mutiny of the crew and steerage combined, who tried to rush the store-room, but got beaten off in time. We were a thin and hungry crew when the doctor came off at Port Townsend, and an extra delay of half a day waiting for a tug hardly tried our patience at all, we were so used to waiting.

We tied up in Seattle at 2 AM that night. In company with a dozen other men I held up the first restaurant, woke the proprietor and kept him busy cooking beef-steak until nearly daylight.

I did not get over the indigestion which followed for three Weeks!

Of course the “Oregon” had been given up for lost long before she got in, and the papers had published imaginary passenger-lists, and all the Pacific coast had got in a flutter about it. After our safe arrival, passengers were interviewed and photographed, and we were the centre of a little nine days’ wonder. Meanwhile, the more thoughtful realized that though “all was well which ended well”, still we had been in a tight place, and were proportionately thankful to be safely out of it.
T. A. H.


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