"By Aeroplane to Pygmyland" Accounts of the 1926 Smithsonian-Dutch Expedition to New Guinea

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Journal of Matthew Stirling
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April 14, 1926

April 14th

Plenty of excitement last night; and our first piece of hard luck thus far.

After finishing the bridge game, I turned in to my berth last night at about 11:30. We were steaming along through quiet seas. I was almost asleep when a peculiar rushing, hissing sound seemed to fill the air. I set up in bed wide awake. Then there was a sudden shock, the boat stopped, shuddered and keeled steeply over to starboard. A violent gust of wind slammed the shutter of my stateroom window shut and instantly following this a deluge of salt spray came in between the slats. A great clatter and banging of packing cases and cans could be heard on the decks above and below, followed by yells from the Malays and Dyaks who had been sleeping on the decks. All of us immediately left our staterooms to find the deck partly flooded and the Malays in a great state of excitement. The ship quickly righted herself and we began to pick up headway again. Packing cases, cans, deck chairs and other loose materials were thrown all about the decks. {p. 13} It was black dark and excepting for the illumination cast by ships lights, nothing could be seen. It was a few minutes before we found that we had been hit almost amidships by a waterspout. The captain was asleep in his cabin on the bridge, when he was awakened by the same sound that aroused all of us. He jumped out of bed and onto the bridge. As he did so, he saw what appeared to be a towering column of flame close alongside the ship, extending high above the bridge. His first thought was that the gasoline was afire, and before he had time for a second, he was knocked back into his stateroom by a deluge of salt water.

The second officer on watch had much the same experience and, like captain, did not see the spout until it was illuminated with red by our ship's port light, just a second or two before it struck. The mate reported that just a few minutes before the spout came it suddenly became black dark, as it was when the rest of us came on deck. The darkness continued, with gusty winds and rain for the rest of the night and we were only able to make about 3 miles per hour as visibility was practically nil and the sea was too rough for our boat in tow. When daylight came we had a chance to see what damage had been done.

Twenty yards of the superstructure covering the bridge was wrenched off, breaking a dozen or more heavy wooden girders in doing so. The aeroplane, lashed down in the extreme after part of the ship was fortunately at the farthest point on the ship from the center of impact. It was lashed to the deck by heavy ropes, {p. 14} but had been lifted up off of the deck, in spite of being wedged between over a hundred cases of gasoline, to a height of a few feet and then crashed down on the gasoline cases on the port side. The two main after struts were jammed through the tops of the pontoons and the rope which held them down bit into the pontoon on the port side about four inches. It will be rather a mean job to repair the damage, and will necessitate unloading the plane at Ambon so that two or three days can be spent working on it on shore or on the dock.

However, we feel that we were lucky after all, as if the spout had struck the after part of the ship we would have had no plane left. Another piece of luck was that the ship was not struck in the space between the forward and after cabins where a large number of coolies were sleeping, as well as our European sargeants [sic]. There is no doubt had this happened a number of them would have been carried overboard along with some of our most valuable luggage.

But as the captain said, "What can you expect? It was the 13th. First we had trouble with the motor boat, then we hit a dangerous thunder storm, then comes a water spout. That is the third, so now it is finished."

This morning at sunrise the weather cleared and we have had calm seas and clear skies all day. At 3 P.M. we came in sight of the peaks of Boetoe [sic], so should arrive at Ambon some time early tomorrow morning, if, as Hans says, "We don't get hit by a meteor or something".

Early this afternoon a very large school of porpoises, numbering several hundred came up to the ship. They accompanied {p. 15} us for about 10 minutes, churning up the water for a hundred yards or more around our starboard bow, then they left us still rolling and "porpoising" until all that could be seen of them was a white line of foam on the horizon before they finally disappeared. When there is nothing else to do we amuse ourselves lying on the bow looking for sea snakes. These curious creatures are not eels, but real snakes of a poisonous variety that live entirely in the sea. They are usually about three feet long and have a flattened tail. They swim on the surface like any water snake, their little heads darting from side to side as they go. Their most interesting feature is the surprising range in colors among them; yellow, brown, red and blue are most common but there are others as well, including spotted and striped individuals with several colors.

Yesterday, Dr. Van Leeuwen and le Roux saw a pure white one. All in all they offer a more pleasing variation to the eye than the D.T.'s. "What's the use of a man drinking down here, when you can see things like that sober?" says Hans.

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