There are three circles of hell, he thought. There is the hell of this storm beating my ship to death. There is the hell of the noise and downdraft from the helicopters trying to save my crew. And there is the hell I shall always be in for bringing the ship here.
Captain Anand was calm. Time seemed elastic. He was on the bridge, holding the ship up to the seas. The engine was still running dead slow ahead, and with the steering control he could keep the seas just on the port bow. The ship was visibly flexing now, bending as it passed over each wave. He knew the end was inevitable, but he felt relieved. She will break in two, but we have done it. The helicopters are here and the crew will be saved.
Aft of the bridge three helicopters were hovering, leaning into the driving wind and rain. Powerful searchlights lit up the desperate scene on the deck. One helicopter was in closer, winching the crew one by one up from the deck. The Captain was using the walk-about control, so from the bridge side he could count them while he was steering. Ten times the wire and harness came down, swinging wildly as the wind caught it and the ship rose and fell sharply as it passed over the seas. Ten times he saw the frightened face of one of his crew as they were winched up and into the helicopter.
The first helicopter closed its door and inched away, crabbing to one side and shouldering the wind. Its searchlight came on and lit up the deck as the second helicopter powered in to take its place. Captain Anand could feel the ship’s motion changing now. It was almost two ships already. The forepart will float, he thought. There is buoyancy there. But the aft part, with the engine room and accommodation, will sink quickly. I hope the engine gives us another five minutes. Long enough to get the rest of my boys off that deck.
He saw three more crew winched up, or was it four? He could not be sure. It was getting harder to hold the ship in position. He did not want it to fall off the seas now. If the ship came into the trough it would roll so heavily that it would be impossible to get into the harness and be lifted clear. He saw more figures being winched up. The second helicopter was inching clear of the ship now. Had it taken ten, or eleven? They would all be safe, thank God. Who is left?
“Captain,” he heard. “Captain, you must come now. We are the only two left. Come now and we will make it.”
The Third Officer was pulling at his arm. “Captain,” he was yelling now. “You have saved us, now save yourself. Come on.”
He dropped the control and started to move aft to climb down the accommodation ladders to the poop. The Third Officer was already ahead of him, sliding down quickly to get to the harness. Below his feet he felt the engine stop. Without power the ship began to fall off to starboard. The deck lurched under his feet, almost throwing him into the sea. He found the strength to cling on and was able to pull himself onto the aft deck. The ship wallowed sideways. He looked to the port side and could see the forepart of the ship. It cannot be there, his mind told him. But it was. The ship had broken into two pieces just forward of the engine room.
The noise of the helicopter was deafening him. I should go down with the ship, he thought. This is all my fault. Then two wiry hands grabbed him and the Italian Search and Rescue diver pulled him into a fierce embrace. The wire tightened and they were going up quickly. They were over the sea now, the helicopter moving quickly sideways to clear the sinking ship.
Four arms reached out and pulled him roughly into the helicopter. He saw the winch man pull the diver in and turn to give the thumbs up to the pilot.
The diver was beside him on the floor, laughing with relief.
“Welcome to Sicily, Capitano,” he said. “Not a good time for an ‘oliday, but ‘ere we go.”
Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence