Oceangoing Pioneers (Part Two)

There are many dangers upon the waters (D&C 61:4).

A young boy and his parents are on the Brooklyn with other Latter-day Saints going to California in 1846. A storm came up so terrible that the captain of the ship told them to prepare to die. But they had faith that they would be all right, and the storm finally ended.

Once the hatches were unbattened, the children rushed up on deck like buckshot exploding out of a shotgun. There seemed to be magic in the breeze as the ship sailed quickly along. How good it was to see the sun and to breathe fresh air again! We forgot all about the bumps and bruises from being banged about like marbles in a leather pouch.

The boys played hide-and-seek or blindman’s buff; the girls twirled their jump ropes or huddled over their jackstones.

The jerking, lurching ride during the earlier storm had killed two milk cows. Their heavy bodies were lifted over the ship’s side with a block and tackle and dumped into the sea. We watched the sharks tear away huge chunks of their flesh.

That gave us the idea of feeding the sharks. Shipboard meals were mostly fat salt pork and hardtack, biscuits almost too hard to bite. When we tired of gnawing on the hardtack, we tossed the leftover pieces into the water and watched the hungry sharks and other fish snap them up.

Every Thursday we had apple duff, a sweet, doughy pudding boiled in a bag. We enjoyed every mouthful. We never shared that with the sharks!

One man liked to hang down close to the water to tease the sharks. His actions made his wife so nervous that she hated to watch. But she always stood by, to try to pull him to safety if she had to. He seemed to enjoy worrying her as much as he delighted in teasing the fish. The sailors scolded him for his foolishness, but he ignored them. Somehow he managed to avoid disaster.

Not everyone was as fortunate. Ten deaths occurred in February and March while we were traveling in the Atlantic. The bodies were lovingly wrapped, weighted, and slipped into the sea for burial.

February 24 was a day to rejoice, however. A baby boy was born to Charles and Sarah Burr. He was named for the ocean we were traveling in: John Atlantic Burr.

The weather was getting warmer every day. “We’re approaching the tropics,” Papa told me.

“Tropics?” I’d never heard the word.

“That’s the name of the hot strip the earth wears like a wide belt around its middle,” he explained. “There’s a region on both sides of the equator where the temperature is high all the time. Any month of the year, day or night, it’s hot. It’s also called the Torrid Zone.”

In the warmer seas, flying fish pushed off with their strong tails, spread their filmy fins, and soared over the water. Dolphins chased and raced with the ship, sometimes leaping in high, graceful curves. Frigate birds with their wide wings and red throat pouches flew majestically overhead. Occasionally they dived with a hiss to peck up some food from the surface of the sea. Sometimes they snatched fish from other birds’ bills.

While I watched the antics of the animals, Mama read stories from the Harper Family Library. A kind man in New York had presented the set of 179 books to the passengers at the farewell party held just before we sailed.

Papa took part in the military drill conducted on the deck every day to give the men some exercise. All of us children who were old enough attended school.

In addition to Captain Richardson’s Baptist services, which we were all required to attend on deck each Sunday morning, we Latter-day Saints held meetings in the dining hall, where we also gathered each night and morning for prayers.

On March 4, exactly one month after we had left New York, we crossed the equator. The crew made a big fuss over the event by playing tricks and jokes on us.

By now the weather was hot, hot, sizzling hot! I understood what Papa meant about the Torrid Zone. “I call it the Horrid Zone,” I said, wiping the sweat from my face.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Papa told me. “We could get stranded in the Doldrums.”

“Doldrums?” I wondered how many more words Papa had in his head that I didn’t know.

“The trade winds blow from the north and the south toward the equator,” he explained, “but sometimes neither wind reaches the equator and the air is very still. It is known as the Doldrums. Sailors fear this area as much as any part of the ocean because there can be long periods of time with no wind at all. We could sit motionless for days in this unbearable heat on water as flat as a sheet of paper.

“On the other hand,” he went on, “a tropical storm could come up suddenly, and the winds and waves could dash the ship to bits.”

Papa sure had a way of making the hair stand up on the back of my neck! And his warning about the Doldrums turned out to be right.

The Brooklyn did get becalmed in the windless region! Not a breath of a breeze could be felt. The sea was as shiny as melted glass. The air seemed as if it was coming from a stove fired up to do canning. It was so hot that the pitch in the ship’s seams melted and oozed out. Seamen constructed an awning to protect us from the blazing sun.

Now we were praying for the wind to start instead of for a raging storm to die down. Finally, after several motionless days in blistering weather, a breeze came up to fill the sails and blew the Brooklyn south toward Cape Horn. Papa called that area “the most treacherous test of a sailing ship’s crew.”

I hated to think what might happen there.

(To be continued)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Brad Teare