Wednesday, December 5, 2012


In the sailing ship Euterpe, on the voyage of 1879, there was one day that the three diarists on board – George Lister, Joshua Charlesworth and James Martin – agreed was most memorable. It was 12th October, about halfway through the voyage that began on 1st August and lasted five months.

Euterpe's flag
(Courtesy Mike Wood Photography)
It began when the sun rose with a stunning display of beautiful colours. Lister observed that it rose and set differently in the tropics than it did on shore. The sea was like a great tableland, they could scarcely detect the motion of the ship and "the water was so clear that we could see a great way down – some said a quarter of a mile." 

Charlesworth too found the day spectacularly beautiful, as fine a day as he had ever witnessed. There was not a breath of wind, the sea was perfectly calm, not a ripple on the water, and they could see the horizon for twenty miles. The laconic Martin wrote that he had never seen a pond as smooth.  

A whale was spotted half a mile off, and came to within a few feet of the ship. It blew twice, then raised its head and back out of the water and disappeared. Porpoises and flocks of large birds, including albatross, floated on the water. Sharks, bonitos and shoals of small fish were about, and soon a shark came swimming around the ship accompanied by its pilots, two to eighteen inches long and coloured like mackerel.  Some went "right before his nose" and others followed behind. Baits were let down to entice the shark to take a bite but he was shy, although he kept going round the vessel so that all could see him. 

More sharks arrived, people tossed them biscuits, and a sailor threw a harpoon at one but missed. Bait was more successful and two sharks were caught but broke away before they could be dragged on board. Finally one was caught, hauled up and slaughtered on the deck. Charlesworth wrote, "You may depend the affair caused great excitement on board" (only if you enjoy that sort of thing, say I).

Whales continued to spout about the ship in the evening and Charlesworth described such a "splendid sunset … as I have seen yet and perhaps ever I shall see again" and “altogether the day passed away the most beautiful we have had on the voyage.”

Martin felt contemplative: "We are in a dead calm and the sunset is splendid. Oh this uncertainty there is about a sailing ship. We may be stuck here for a month or gone in an hour." 

There was singing on deck at the end of that beautiful, exciting, memorable day.

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