Seamanship: The Lesson (Part 1)

By MarEx 2014-11-15 00:46:00

A personal journal by 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. 

(To be continued…)

Having sailed the seven seas, John Guy currently lives in Wales. He wrote this short story in 1980 and now writes novels.