A campaign to acquire memoirs, historic documents and artwork

by a skipper of San Francisco's square-rigger Balclutha, Captain John J. Bertonccini

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Captain John Justus Bertonccini (1872-1947) sailed from San Francisco for decades as master of steam whaling barks and of the Balclutha when it was called Star of Alaska. His father, an artist, was Italian and his mother, Swedish. Born in Stockholm July 7, 1872, he first went to sea about 1892 on a voyage to the Arctic where he served almost continuously on whalers and trading vessels until the 1930s. He was master of the Star of Alaska in 1925 during a season in the Alaska salmon trade. Sailor, artist and historian, Bertonccini recorded and vividly illustrated his long maritime career. He was known as "Johnny the Painter" for his skill at painting scenery for amateur theatricals with which crews amused themselves when wintering-over at Herschel Island in the Arctic Circle. Bertonccini also painted several whaling scenes in 1893 -96, one of which is part of the collection. He died in Seattle in 1947 at age 75. These excerpts from Bertonccini's memoirs with his colorful illustrations recount hair raising sea adventures with a giant octopus and whales.

 Bertonccini 1.jpg(This section describes an attack by a giant octopus in the Okhotsk Sea)

"We had about a hundred codfish and halibut when Mr. Fraser booked something heavy. Giving him a hand, we both hauled in on the line. Soon something greenish brown appeared and recognizing our catch, with a yell of warning. I cut the line. It was, however, too late as the object kept rising until it reached the boat. It was a monster 'Octupus' or 'Devilfisb,' the most loathsome and dangerous of animals. Its eight long arms are studded with several hundred slickers, like cupping glasses...capable to suck the blood and vitality out of a man's body... The eyes are large and always glaring, it is vulnerable only in the head. This specimen had arms about seven or eight feet long. After reaching the surface, he at once proceeded to climb into the boat. Had it been rough or had he been amidship instead of astern, he would either have swamped us or rolled us over. On my frenzied shout of warning, the other four men had crawled forward out of the way, but Mr. Fraser and myself were instantly held prisoner by two of those terribly snaky arms. "We were both fighting madly, Mr. Fraser with the boat hatchet while I was desperately stabbing and hacking away with a sheath knife at one tentacle that held me, while another one was trying to [capture?] my knife hand which I however managed to keep free. The other men were ... jabbing away at the monster with our whaling lances. The lances being long and unwieldy for such close fighting, the 'Octupus' soon got possession of both of them. Our bow oarsman ventured too close and got within reach of an arm. He was promptly seized, both arms being pinned fast. Twice he was pulled out of the boat and returned and the third time, thru some vagaries of the monster, he was released and flung more than twenty feet from the boat. "...He nearly capsized the boat several times. The beast was always protecting his head by holding it outboard and under water as much as possible, where we could not reach it from the boat. He soon gave up and sank, leaving several pieces of his tentacles behind"

Bertonccini 2.jpg(This section describes actual encounter with a sperm whale evocative of MOBY DICK)

"...Two days later, [ struck my first whale. It was not a bad chance as the whale was right under the boat, but for a slow man, it would have been hopeless... the whale suddenly broke water under us, lifting the boat partly out of the water and as suddenly commenced to sink, not however before he had my gun iron firmly embedded in his back... "When the whale again broke water, he was only a scant filly feet ahead of my boat... "I was leaning over the bow of my boat, clearing a line when I heard a frenzied shout behind me. Looking around, I saw a sight I'll never forget. Out of the water, between our boats shot up a whale's lower jaw, with the whale's head on the other side of Spencer's boat so that the boat was fair in the whale's mouth. Next second came the sickening crunch as the frail boat was crushed. All had jumped clear except Mr. Spencer whose head and one arm was protruding outside the whale's jaw. The agonized expression on the Old Man's face drove me to action. Picking up a loaded darting gun, I rammed it down the brute's throat. The next instant something hit us, sending me flying through the air. Partly stunned by the blow, I felt a line by my hand and held on. The water soon revived me. I was floating by the dead whale, holding onto the line from my boat."

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