The Helmsman

Arthur Jenner
22nd February 2009, 02:44

By Arthur Jenner
One of the quietest places I know is a ship’s wheelhouse at night. It’s not just an absence of noise; there are many other places where the silence is more profound, but it has an atmosphere like nowhere else: a little like a church perhaps; for it has a kind of holy ambience: a quietness. The wheelhouse at night is like an oasis in a desert. On a cold night it is warmer than elsewhere. On a hot night it seems a little less hot than most other places. On a windy night it is calmer. On a rough night it is a little less rough. Apart from the noisy engine room, it is the only place at night that is awake.
It is located on the bridge which is the highest point on the ship that is normally accessible. I say normally accessible because there are other higher parts of the ship that are accessed only by climbing vertical ladders. Approximately in the middle of the wheelhouse is the binnacle which houses the compass. Behind the binnacle is the steering wheel and behind that, standing on a wooden grating, is the helmsman or as he is usually called ‘the man-on-the-wheel’. (Occasionally, perhaps just to make him feel good, he is addressed as ‘quartermaster’). Behind him is the wall; ‘bulkhead’ in nautical parlance; that separates the wheelhouse from the chartroom. At night, just two people occupy these two compartments; the aforementioned ‘man-on-the-wheel’ and the officer of the watch. Although they spend as much as two hours together every night they rarely communicate; the class difference is much too powerful. The privilege difference too: for instance - the ‘man-on-the-wheel’ may not smoke on the bridge - the officer may. Sometimes a friendly second mate will strike up a conversation but not often.
The MV Ibis is a motor ship and the faint rhythmic thump of the diesel engine can be heard from the wheelhouse. The man on the wheel is thinking about this. He is thinking it is like the beating of a heart: the heart of the ship. I suppose it is and if that’s so, the chartroom and the wheelhouse are the brain.
Outside the wheelhouse, the wind which has been steadily rising for several hours is now at gale force and its slave, the sea, is continuing to rise with it. Inside, it is comparatively peaceful.
The man on the wheel though, is now fully occupied in keeping the ship on a straight course. If he is feeling a bit devilish, and tonight he is, he can make life a little uncomfortable for his shipmates. The wind is a couple of points off the port bow as is its slave the sea. He sees a really big wave coming towards the port bow and just before it reaches the ship he turns the wheel quickly to port so that the wave and the ship meet with a crash. The ship shudders as though it has hit a wall of rock. If he had done the opposite, the ship would have lifted gently with the wave, perhaps rolled bit and no-one would have woken up. Not only that but the structure of the ship itself would have been considerably less weakened.
But the ‘man-on-the-wheel’ is not concerned with the structure of the ship. Subconsciously he has every confidence that the ship is infinitely strong. He is quite wrong of course.
Down below the bridge, in the bedroom of his suite, Captain Jones is woken by the crash. He feels at one with the ship and suffers the shock as though it were his own body being attacked. He rolls from his bed, quickly dons his dressing gown and rushes up his internal stairway to the chartroom.
“What’s going on,” he shouts at the second mate, “What moron is on the bloody wheel.”
“Smithers, Captain.”
“I’ll give the bastard Smithers. I’ll smithereens him.” He smiles to himself at his witticism as he enters the wheelhouse.
“Smithers, What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“No Captain, Smithers ain’t here. I’ve just relieved him. I’m Jarvis sir.”
“Oh never mind, Jarvis. Just watch your steering will you.”
‘I’ll get the bugger in the morning,’ he thinks to himself.
But it was not to be.
After Smithers had left the wheelhouse, he had, instead of going aft for an hour of relaxation, a smoke or two and a cup of tea before relieving Bob Watson who was keeping lookout on monkey island, gone.
Gone? You may well ask. Yes, really gone. But gone where? We will never know. He obviously knew he was about to get a dressing down but he avoided that by going. So I suppose you could say that by avoiding a dressing down he gave himself a dressing up. Now there aren’t many places you can go when you are aboard a ship at sea. So, although he was all dressed up with nowhere to go, he still managed to went himself off somewhere.
I suspect that in the morning Captain Jones would hope it was to hell.

John Briggs
22nd February 2009, 10:13
You have managed it again Arthur.
So real in the beginning and surreal at the end!

22nd February 2009, 11:53
Nice one Arthur ...More!!

22nd February 2009, 12:11
Arthur another rather nice story, Looking forward to the next one.

pete richards
22nd February 2009, 12:44
Hi all,i used to like anchor watch whilst coasting as arthur says the wheelhouse was peaceful especially at night and cleaning all that brass was
quite therapeutic.I was relieving on the Bridgeness and put on the wheel.The
compass was on the monkey island and if on the wheel you steered by the
header line on the periscope affair.It was a lovely day when the mate enquired of me as to why we were heading straight up the beach towards
the waters edge hotel at Barry and did i perhaps have a thirst on.I was steering by a crack in the glass and not the header line but it did teach me
that it helps to look through the wheelhouse window whilst on the wheel.
Cheers Pete.

22nd February 2009, 12:48
HI ARTHUR, yes the end is surreal ,however how very ,very true all the rest was you got it spot on. that feeling of being watched,to this day i cannot have anyone hovering near me or looking over my shoulder ,even when on the key board. because of them long 59 minuties on the wheel before asmoke, you new you were being watched, also the 2nd would be on the wings watching a certain star [at night]if he could not see the wake.then the shout in was [ hows your head] it allways worked ,he never knew you let her drift offcourse to brighten the night up.
You could allways sence when they were behind you or just sneaked out of the radar room, you could smell him.deodernt .did you ever blow smoke down the voice tubes from the monkey island into your mate on the wheel,that used to fox them..trouble was lighting the fag the slightest fliker of light would light the sky up ,you got under your souwester. [good old days] 1963GLOUCESTER,manz run.HOULDERS BROS.NO IRON MIKE all hand steer, and yes there was a them and us. i often wondered if the CAPTAIN,AND MATES thought the same.WOULD I DO IT AGAIN. A DOUBLE "YES"