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Chapter Five. Running the Breakers.

The Almighty Hand that had thus far helped the castaways on their course, with a favouring wind bringing them in sight of Borneo’s isle, was not going to crush the sweet hopes thus raised by wrecking their boat upon its shores.

And yet for a time it seemed as if this were to be their fate. As they drew near enough to the land to distinguish its configuration, they saw a white line like a snow-wreath running between it and them, for miles to right and left, far as the eye could reach. They knew it to be a barrier of coral breakers, such as usually encircle the islands of the Indian seas—strong ramparts raised by tiny insect creatures, to guard these fair gardens of God against the assaults of an ocean that, although customarily calm, is at times aroused by the typhoon, until it rages around them with dark scowling waves, like battalions of demons.

On drawing near these reefs, Captain Redwood, with the eye of an experienced seaman, saw that while the wind kept up there was no chance for the pinnace to pass them; and to run head on to them would be simply to dash upon destruction. Sail was at once taken in, by letting go the sheet, and dropping the tarpaulin back into the bottom of the boat. The oar that had been set up as a mast was left standing, for there were five others lying idle in the pinnace; and with four of these, Saloo and Murtagh each taking a pair, the boat was manned, the captain himself keeping charge of the tiller. His object was not to approach the land, but to prevent being carried among the breakers, which, surging up snow-white, presented a perilous barrier to their advance.

To keep the boat from driving on the dangerous reef, was just as much as the oarsmen could accomplish. Weakened as they were, by long suffering and starvation, they had a tough struggle to hold the pinnace as it were in statu quo—all the tougher from the disproportion between such a heavy craft and the light oar-stroke of which her reduced and exhausted crew were capable.

But as if taking pity upon them, and in sympathy with their efforts, the sun, as he rose above the horizon, seemed to smile upon them and hush the storm into silence. The wind, that throughout the night had been whistling in their ears, all at once fell to a calm, as if commanded by the majestic orb of day; and along with the wind went down the waves, the latter subsiding more gradually. It was easier now to hold the pinnace in place, as also to row her in a direction parallel to the line of the breakers; and, after coasting for about a mile, an opening was at length observed where the dangerous reef might perhaps be penetrated with safety.

Setting the boat’s head toward it, the oars were once more worked with the utmost strength that remained in the arms of the rowers, while her course was directed with all the skill of which an American skipper is capable.

Yet the attempt was one of exceeding peril. Though the wind had subsided, the swell was tremendous; billow after billow being carried against the coral reefs with a violence known only to the earthquake and the angry ocean. Vast volumes of water surged high on either side, projecting still higher their sparkling shafts of spray, like the pillars of a waterspout.

Between them spread a narrow space of calm sea—yet only comparatively calm, for even there an ordinary boat, well managed, would be in danger of getting swamped. What then was the chance for a huge pinnace, poorly manned, and therefore sure of being badly trimmed? It looked as if after all the advantages that had arisen—that had sprung up as though providentially in their favour—Captain Redwood and the small surviving remnant of his crew were to perish among the breakers of Borneo, and be devoured by the ravenous sharks which amidst the storm-vexed reefs find their congenial home.

But it was not so to be. The prayer offered up, as those snow-white but treacherous perils first hove in sight, had been heard on high; and He who had guided the castaways to the danger, stayed by their side, and gave strength to their arms to carry them through it.

With a skill drawn from the combination of clear intelligence and long experience, Captain Redwood set the head of his pinnace straight for the narrow and dangerous passage; and with a strength inspired by the peril, Murtagh and the Malay pulled upon their oars, each handling his respective pair as if his life depended on the effort.

With the united will of oarsmen and steerer the effort was successful; and ten seconds later the pinnace was safe inside the breakers, moving along under the impulse of two pairs of oars, that rose and fell as gently as if they were pulling her over the surface of some placid lake.

In less than ten minutes her keel touched bottom on the sands of Borneo, and her crew, staggering ashore, dropped upon their knees, and in words earnest as those uttered by Columbus at Cat Island, or the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, breathed a devout thanksgiving for their deliverance.


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