“… a sudden and violent heel over …”

I am all admiration for Janet Schaw, a Scotswoman who sailed to North Carolina in 1774. Her journal conjures otherwise unimaginable realities of a voyage of seven weeks to the West Indies and an additional twenty-four days to Charlestown. Here is her account of the impact below decks when the ship “broached to,” or rolled onto one side. It is a catalog of horrors—with a sudden, comic conclusion.

We were sitting by our melancholy Taper, in no very chearful mood ourselves; my brother … was within the companion ladder. The Captain had come down to the Cabin to overhaul his Log-book and Journal, which he had scarcely begun to do, when the Ship gave such a sudden and violent heel over, as broke every thing from their moorings, and in a moment the great Sea-chests, the boys’ bed, my brother’s cott, Miss Rutherfurd’s Harpsicord, with tables, chairs, joint-stools, pewter plates etc, etc., together with Fanny, Jack and myself, were tumbling heels over head to the side the Vessel had laid down on.

It is impossible to describe the horror of our situation. The candle was instantly extinguished, and all this going on in the dark, without the least idea of what produced it, or what was to be its end. The Capt sprung on deck the moment he felt the first motion, for he knew well enough its consequence; to complete the horror of the scene, the sea poured in on us, over my brother’s head, who held fast the ladder tho’ almost drowned, while we were floated by a perfect deluge … a favourite cat of Billie’s … happening to be busily engaged with a cheese, just behind me, she stuck fast by it, and sadly frighted with what she as little understood as we did, mewed in so wild a manner, that if we had thought at all, we would certainly have thought it was Davy Jones the terror of all sailors, come to fetch us away.

Busy as this scene appears in description, it did not last half the time it takes in telling. Nothing can save a ship in this situation, but cutting away her masts, and the time necessary for this generally proves fatal to her, but our masts were so shattered by the late storm, that they went over by the Board of themselves, and the Vessel instantly recovered. This second motion, however, was as severely felt in the Cabin as the first, and as unaccountable, for we were shoved with equal Violence to the other side, and were overwhelmed by a second deluge of Sea water. At last however it in some degree settled, and, thank God, no further mischief has happened, than my forehead cut, Jack’s leg a little bruised, and the last of our poultry, a poor duck, squeezed as flat as a pancake.

When the light was rekindled, a most ridiculous scene was exhibited, vizt the sight of the Cabin with us in it, amidst a most uncommon set of articles. For besides the furniture formerly mentioned, the two state rooms had sent forth their contents, and the one occupied by the Captain, being a sort of store room, amongst many other things a barrel of Molasses pitched directly on me, as did also a box of small candles, so I appeared as if tarred and feathered, stuck all over with farthing candles.

This excerpt is from In the Words of Women Chapter 9, pages 249–250.

posted March 26th, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Ocean Voyages

one comment so far
  1. when I emigrate, I’m definitely taking my harpsichord with me. for sure.

    Comment by Melissa Vail — March 26, 2012 @ 9:02 am

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