The Lesson

Stormy seasby John Guy

There are times when you think you’ve got the better of the sea. You can go on fooling yourself for years. It’s safe up in your Space Age bridge, mile after endless ocean mile, mechanical monotony cutting nice straight lines from port to port. You lean on the bridge front and watch the ship thrusting the waves aside, technology dominating environment.

You don’t get like that straightaway. It’s a feeling that grows up in you. It’s born of disillusion and fed on boredom. When you wobble fearfully up your first gangway you carry with you, along with far too much other luggage, a romantlc vision of the sea. The sea is something mysterious, an element of storms and surprises. You are embarking on a life that will set you apart from lesser men. For a trip or two that feeling lasts. At least, you try and make it last.

You desperately want the sea to have a character. You want her to be a wild-eyed woman that will bind you to her soul, answering your passion with hers. You can’t keep it up, though. Even the most steadfast romantic is no match for the humdrum reality of modern seagoing. Palm-fringed tropic shores are a distant orange line on the radar. Bustling, exciting ports are inhuman, remote terminals. Desperate fights for survival in raging seas are a thing of the past. You just check back the engines and head into the sea.

Visions of yourself in an Aran sweater and reefer jacket, wiping salt spray from the binoculars as you cling to the swaying binnacle, soon fade in today’s heated, enclosed, windscreen-wipered wheelhouses. Even the tropics aren’t hot any more. Sarong-clad, sweating limpid nights have been dehumidified out of existence.

You soon begin to think that if the sea is a woman then she’s a pretty quiescent one. She’s more of a doormat than the spirited, turbulent creature of your dreams. You don’t live with her, you live apart from her. You are spiritually and physically as remote from the sea in your fluorescent bright cabin as in any placid cottage far inland. The sea has lost its life, its status as an element. It is nothing more than a great pathway along which ships carry their burdens in a well-ordered stream.

It’s not really a good feeling. There’s a longing for the romantic in all of us. You want to dominate the sea, but you want to have to struggle to achieve it. You pace the bridge restlessly, a faint beginning of sea fever troubling your pulse.

Lots of people leave the sea after a few years, their disillusion still intact. For them the sea is a neutered world, something they set out to conquer and found already tamed. For those who stay on, though, the sea waits and watches and one day shows them who’s the boss.

I was Second Mate on a small general cargo ship when it happened to me. She wasn’t anything special, not old, not new. She grossed about five thousand tons. There were four hatches and a sprinkling of derricks of different sizes. We trudged ingloriously around the world picking up a transformer here, a thousand tons of animal food there, a few containers on deck somewhere else. I was pretty full of myself then. I’d been at sea for five years, done well in my exams. I didn’t think I had any more to learn from the sea.

The deck crew was a mixed bunch. The bosun was almost a caricature. He was a barrel-chested, salt-wrought, monosyllabic man of about fifty. There were two other old-timers, ABs who plugged steadily away, not too much, not too little. The rest were youngsters, my age or less, as cocky as I was. We swapped tall stories in the night watches.

I had been there six months when we fetched up in Baltimore to load construction equipment for South and East Africa. The holds and ‘tween decks were blocked out with porta-cabins, earthmovers and diggers. Then we battened down the steel hatch covers and loaded half-a-dozen bulldozers on top. They were big machines, great ugly yellow beasts, twenty tons each. The Yank stevedores swung them aboard using our thirty- ton heavy-lift derrick. It squealed in protest, but it did the job.

The ‘dozers were lined up on number three hatch, side by side, resting on timber dunnage. We were supposed to get a shore gang to lash them. Then we were going to load pipes on deck each side. As usual, the charterer changed his mind at the last minute. In a big hurry-up to sail, our crew lashed the ‘dozers and off we went.

Sailors like lashing. They get double pay for it. That’s why, after a couple of hours, the mate knocked them off. It was a sunny day slipping down Chesapeake Bay. The lashings were someone else’s problem. I took no notice.

We had a good crossing of the Atlantic. It was when we got down to the Cape of Good Hope that the fun started. There’s always a great long swell there. The westerly winds that blow unchecked around the Southern Ocean push these up into a heaving switchback. If you get a storm, the wind-driven waves compete and combine with the swells to form groups of roaring, spray-flecked monsters. They hurl ships carelessly one way and another as they chase each other downwind.

Each gang of waves has a leader. It dominates the group with its curling crest, throwing sheets of spray over its consorts. The ship trips and checks at the smaller waves, then crashes headlong into the big one. She staggers and shakes all over as the engines thrust her through the wall of seething water. Burrowing through the Cape swell with a southerly gale blowing over the top, it’s hard to tell which wave is worse than the next. You certainly aren’t doing any counting.

I had the middle watch, midnight to four in the morning, the night we rounded the Cape of Good Hope. We weren’t making much of a speed as we wallowed our way down past Table Bay. There was plenty of wind and sea but on that course we were heading into it, throwing a lot of white water about and pitching fairly heavily. It was enough to make the lookout and me feel we were doing something exciting without being dangerous.

At half past two the Cape came abeam and I altered course to port to head down for Cape Agulhas. That is the turning point where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean. The alteration of course put the ship across the weather. The swell grabbed her by the keel and began to rock her in long shuddering arcs from side to side. Each time she rolled upwind a wave would break over the starboard gunwale. The crests curled right over the deck, then collapsed into a boiling mass of water. The decks were covered in white swirls as the ship heaved herself up on the next wave and tipped the first intruder overboard.

It was pretty spectacular but we were very blasé about it, and the ship seemed to be taking it all right, so I just hung on and wished the watch away.

We had been on that course for about half an hour when I went out on the lee bridge wing. I wanted to take a bearing of the Cape light. Before I reached the compass repeater I realized something was wrong. There was a noise that shouldn’t have been there. Above the wind’s scream I could just pick out a shriller tone. It was steel grating on steel. My stomach turned right over as I realized the bulldozers were shifting. It wasn’t fear I felt. It was excitement. I hadn’t got the sense to feel afraid.

The seas smashing across the deck must have loosened the lashings, allowing the twenty-ton monsters to start sliding about. I turned on the deck lights and peered forward through the flying spray. Sure enough, the aftermost machine was shifting a little, first one way, then the other, as the ship rolled. In the dim light I could see broken wires flailing around. It would be only a matter of time before that bulldozer broke the next one free, and so on. We were all set for a rodeo with six steel bulls charging around the deck.

The adrenalin had hold of me: I started rushing about, trying to get everything done at once. I was in a hurry to get out on deck and re-secure the loose machine. I turned the ship’s head to sea again to ease the rolling. Then I cranked the sound-powered telephone and rang the engine room. As usual, the Third Engineer regarded it as a personal imposition that I wanted to slow down. Ship’s engineers either like their engines stopped or rung full ahead. They are all convinced that any other maneuvers are unnecessary evidence of the incompetence of deck officers.

There was an incoherent conversation, neither my broad West Country nor his broad Glaswegian being any match for the antiquated telephone system so beloved of ship designers. In the end, I gave up the attempt. I rang the telegraph to slow ahead, and after a decent interval the answering pointer flicked across. The engine beat died away to a slow throb. The motion of the ship eased immediately. The shuddering and crashing became a stomach-heaving swoop as we lifted to the seas rather than pushed through them.

I sent the lookout down to put the bosun and the sailors on the shake, to tell them to get ready to go on deck as soon as possible. Last of all, I blew down the voice pipe to the old man’s cabin. As soon as I’d blown, I moved my head aside to avoid the gust of whisky fumes which would carry his reply. Equipped with a box of matches he would have made an efficient fIame-thrower. I told him what was going on, my excited tale being acknowledged with what sounded like a death rattle.

Much to my surprise, after a couple of minutes, he appeared on the bridge. He was wearing his usual evening rig, an old reefer jacket with the stripes hanging off one sleeve, and pajama trousers. His bare feet were thrust into black uniform shoes with the laces undone. The epitome of the best traditions of the British Merchant Service, he felt his way across the darkened wheelhouse and peered foggily through the for’rd window.

“You should have let t’booger roll itself over t’wall” … I couldn’t understand why he was annoyed. “Anyway, son, you’d better get down there and sort it out.” I was raring to go and didn’t need telling twice.

I rushed downstairs to my cabin, pulled on my shiny yellow oilskins and jumped into my Wellies. Feeling tremendously nautical I strode down the alleyways to the crew mess room. I was ready to lead my trusty sailors out to do battle with the sea. Briskly opening the door I called out, “Let’s go, lads.” This imperative was wasted on a mess room empty except for the slipper-clad bosun, startled in the delicate act of using a teaspoon to fish a teabag from his brimming mug. The teabag fell on the deck, accompanied by half the bosun’s tea. The bosun looked from the teabag to me with an expression that I might easily have considered rude had he not been such a large man.

“Aye, all right,” he grumbled, and strode past me out of the mess room, the remains of his tea leading the way. I followed him down into the sailors’ alleyway. The young sailors were already dressed, milling around and asking excitedly what was happening. The two old-timers were slowly parcelling themselves up with old black oilskins and endless bits of twine. They didn’t ask anything, just looked enviously at the bosun’s tea mug.

It seemed ages before the last piece of twine was wrapped round the last piece of flapping oilskin, the bosun’s tea was drunk, and we set off. It took a good heave to open the weather deck door against the force of the wind. Even with the ship hove to, there was a blustery gale blowing across the deck. The odd green sea was still managing to climb over the fo’c’sle, sending rushing streams of white water down each side of the hatch covers. I led the way forward to number three hatch, the bosun and 11 sailors crowding behind me. We had to grab hold of the hatch coaming every few steps and hang on as the waves plucked at our legs.

When we reached the aft end of number three, the bosun and his two shadows turned smart left into the comparative shelter of the gap between the hatches. The youngsters stood out on the open deck beside the hatch whilst I climbed up on the hatch cover to have a look at what was happening.

With the big bulldozer towering above me I began to feel my confidence rapidly evaporating. In the dim deck lights I could see that the dunnage beneath the machine had been chewed into matchwood. Broken wires and rigging screws dangled uselessly across the machine. Worse, it was still moving, despite the easier motion. Every heave was making it skid a few ominous inches from side to side, grumbling a warning of what would happen when the rolling started again in earnest.

The crowd were waiting for me to tell them what to do, but I didn’t really know where to start. The young sailors were all shouting suggestions, the wind whipping their words away. The old sailors stood quiet, content to wait until told to move. The bosun was stolid with the patience of watching a thousand young officers make fools of themselves.

I didn’t have to make a decision: The sea made it for me. As I balanced precariously on the hatch edge, only feet from those huge steel tracks, I felt the deck falling away beneath me. The ship suddenly plunged downwards, dropping like a lift into the trough in front of a huge wall of dark water. Before I’d realized what was happening, the bows dug in with a solid crash and the wave toppled over onto the ship, burying the foredeck completely.

Behind me the three wise men were holding on to the derrick crutches and the youngsters had time to grab the hatch coaming. I didn’t have time to grab anything before the crest of the wave plucked me off the hatch. The sea was roaring down the deck, covering the hatches, bulldozers and mast houses completely. The huge force of the water tumbled me over and over down the deck. I felt myself smashed against the ship’s side rail and just managed to grab and hold on as the wave threw me overboard. I couldn’t think or breathe; I didn’t feel any pain. I was just holding on for all I was worth.

I hung suspended over the side of the ship as the Niagara pulled at me. The ship was lifting now, shedding the water from the decks. I was vaguely aware of a rumble beside me, then another force, greater even than the sea, which was doing its best to break my grip, twisted and buckled the rails that I had clamped myself on to. I couldn’t hold on. For one terrible moment I hovered in free space before the ship rolled into the sea and I was thrown back onto the deck again.

I lay there gasping, wondering what the hell had happened. The deck was clear of water now. The ship was heaving menacingly, but I had a breathing space. The sailors appeared around me and helped me up, the youngsters all talking at once. “Christ, Sec’, did you see that ‘dozer go?” was the only sentence that I picked out. I looked behind me at the ship’s side where I had been holding on. There was a huge gap in the rails, either side of which were bent and tangled like steel spaghetti.

The bulldozer had followed me down the deck and gone overboard just inches from me. I had been thrown back aboard through the gap which it had made on its way out. It was then that I started to shake with fear. It was a bit late to be afraid, but until then I had not realized how close to death I had been. There was another feeling there too, beneath the stomach-churning fear and relief. It was respect, respect for the sea. I would never take the sea for granted again.

I looked around at the dripping sailors, expecting to see them in some way changed, as I was. They weren’t, though. They were wet through, buffeted, and incredibly exhilarated. They had held on as the sea swept past them. Now they had another story, more evidence of how they were stronger than the sea. I started to tell them what I had felt. Then I caught the bosun’s eye.

“Better get a move on before that happens again,” he said flatly, stopping my rhetoric before it started. The sea had tried and condemned me for being cocky. It had thrown me overboard, hurled a twenty-ton bulldozer at me, then given me a pardon and thrown me back on board. No dramatics in that for the bosun, just get on with the job and get back to his tea. I saw it in his eyes, though, before we set off behind him to check the other lashings.

He knew what had happened and he knew what I had learnt. No one gets the better of the sea.

One Comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your story, “The Lesson”. Been there, done that and wish more people could. Then active seafarers would not have to put up with “interesting”
    regulations, coddled together by people that never learned, “The Lesson”.

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