AFTER leaving Puerto Colombia the steamer touches at La Guayra, where was ” the low white house, two or three hundred feet up the steep mountain side,” where Amyas Leigh and his brother had word with the Rose of Torridge. The ship puts in again at Trinidad and Barbados, and then shapes her course for home. ” Home ! ” as Hawkins once wished, ” with a good large wind.” ” Home ! ” as Drake once cried, ” for our voyage is made.”
We are to call at the Azores on the way to England, and so must pass across the Sargasso Sea. This remarkable piece of water lies in the centre of the North Atlantic, a tideless pool almost equal in area to the continent of Europe. It lies encircled by the Great Equatorial Current and the Gulf Stream, which ever sweep around its untroubled depths. It is an oasis in the heart of the whirling ocean, a place of sanctuary, a dead sea. Its name is derived from the curious amber-coloured weed, the sargasso, with which its surface is covered and through which the steamer ploughs its way. The weed carries a number of grape-like berries on its branches, while each clump affords a shelter to endless parasites, to minute fishes and tiny crabs. The source of this strange, wandering, rootless plant is not fully known. It is cast into the pool by the Gulf Stream as it hurries northwards. Some believe that the sargasso is torn from the rocks about the Gulf of Mexico, from the shores of Florida and the Bahamas, and that it is drawn from the Stream into the great still eddy. Others affirm that the weedwhatever its origingrows and multiplies in the sea in the course of its aimless drifting to and fro. The largest collection of the plant is found just south-west of the Azores, and those who maintain its source to be from the land state that it will need six months to float from Florida to these far-away islands.
This weed-strewn sea seemed strangely beautiful as we made our way across it. The light-blue sky was edged along the horizon with countless fleecy clouds. There came from the south a gentle following wind. The water was a deep indigo colour, every wrinkle, curve and dip of which was polished bright as if its surface were moulded out of purple metal. Here and there a fleck of white foam marked the summit of an ocean furrow. The weed when first seen appeared in the form of long bright lines of plum yellow, streaking the blue and following the trend of the wind. In a while the streaks turned into clusters or islands, which made an amber dome on the crest of the wave and an amber cup in its hollow. These masses varied from- a few feet to a few yards across, and they floated past like floes of yellow ice. The individual weeds, when examined closer, looked fresh and brilliant, so that the whole sea might have been littered with a drift of cut flowers. Further on were larger islets that covered an acre or more, great sponge-coloured tracts whose undulating ridges sparkled in the sun. One writer has compared these floating fields to an inundated meadow full of yellow flowers, and the comparison is very apt.
Other things than weeds find their way into this stagnant pool. The Sargasso Sea is haunted by derelict ships that have lost both master and men, and that, with none to guide them, wander blindly through the waste of weed, like weary ghosts seeking a harbour that is never gained. In this ocean purgatory they drift uneasily, round and round the seasons through, in piteous circles until at last the ocean takes them to itself.
In the book just referred to is a chart of the courses followed by these sad craft, as noted, from time to time, by passing ships. Some of these outcasts have wandered here for long. One schooner, the F. E. Wolston, cruised to and fro about this sea for at least three years. The Gulf Stream would take her in its warm embrace and carry her gently away to the north. Then the Trade Wind would seize her and hurry her south again, to within sight of the palms and the coral reefs. She has rested for days in the hush of a tropic calm, motionless as a sleeping bird. She has fled wildly across the deep before a gale, like a tormented soul chased by revengeful spirits. She has sighted many a living ship as it passed by, trim and bustling, with cheery passengers leaning over the rail, and sailors yarning by the foc’sle gangway. The smug captain, after a long look through his glasses, has stepped into the chart room to enter the name of the poor homeless waif in the log, and the place of his meeting with her.
Think of the ghostly schooner speeding along before a gentle breeze on a moonlight night ! Her masts and her broken spars are so white that they may be made of ice. The shining grass on her hull flashes in the light as if she were sheathed in emerald. The shadows of her jagged bulwarks stretch across decks where never is heard the footstep of man. The moonlight falls upon the cabin stair, upon the table under the skylight, upon the swinging lamp. The locker doors open and shut as the vessel heels over, the pilot jacket hanging from a peg is green with mould, while in the water which washes to and fro on the cabin floor is floating the captain’s pipe.
On the deck are ever the moan of the creaking rudder, the thud of a block against the mast, the clatter of a kettle tossing loose in the cook’s galley, and from all the black hollows of the ship comes the groaning of rotten timbers. The compass in the binnacle points now N.E., now E., now S.W. by S., now S. With each shift of the wind the vessel turns over wearily, while the water spurts out from her weather planks.
The last call comes on some wild day when the terror of the gale is upon her, as she flies down the path of the wind. The seas chase her like a pack of hounds, until in the end a great white wave, majestic and terrible, falls like an executioner’s axe upon her quaking deck and her ” voyage is made.” When the storm lifts, it may be that a wreath of golden weed will mark for a while the spot beneath which she rests.