So Lonely the Sea

Arthur Jenner
15th January 2009, 11:07
by AJ
Dawn broke over a heavy, rolling sea. Dull, grey hills of water rolling eternally eastward. A barren world: in all directions, nothing but the endless mass of water: seemingly lifeless, apart from the slow, gliding albatross and the occasional, spouting whale..
A heavy, dull, leaden sky matched both the colour and the mood of the ocean. Low, swirling clouds, of a volatile fluidity, pushed along, by the steady force of air that keeps the sea forever rolling around the southern pole: that force of air that controls the entire world in which it operates. Should it be a mere breeze, then all is calm: the surface of the ocean an enormous millpond: but should it move at a more violent pace, it will arouse the massive, liquid monster and goad it into becoming a gigantic engine of destruction: with strongly built little ships, just fragile shells, entirely at its mercy.
A ship appears, just visible in the early morning light. A ship plodding its lonely way across this grey, fluid desert towards some distant port. A little tramp ship; entirely at the mercy of the great, amorphous monster on which it floats, assisted in its eastward passage by the rolling ridges of water, and edging closer to the icy wasteland of Antarctica in its great circle passage across the southern Indian Ocean
This is a cold and lonely world; far from any habitation of man with nothing but air and water for possibly thousands of miles in every direction except downwards; and just a short distance downwards; solid ground; the ocean bed; the ocean deathbed for very many ships and men.
Thinking of these things can produce a dreadful feeling of isolation. The man on the forecastle head of the little tramp ship, thought such thoughts and shivered. He shivered in spite of the warm clothing beneath his suit of oilskins. Keeping a lookout on a ship in such a place with nothing to look out for, seemed utterly ludicrous to James Stevens, ordinary seaman on his third trip to sea. It seemed more ludicrous with each passing moment, because it was the normal practice for the Mate; the Chief Officer; on the bridge to dismiss, with a wave of his hand or by a whistle, the man on look-out, as soon as it started to get light enough to see the horizon.
James, glancing occasionally at the bridge, started to become impatient. He looked at his wristwatch. It was a quarter to seven. In fifteen minutes he would be relieved. There was no sign of the Mate on the bridge. James supposed that he was in the chartroom, and that he’d forgotten the man on the forecastle head. He decided that there was nothing to be gained by getting agitated and that he may as well resign himself to spending the next quarter of an hour where he was. He was longing for a cigarette, having been in his present location since five. He looked around the horizon and was again filled with a sense of loneliness and isolation, which made him long for company.
He looked again at the bridge, but there was no-one visible. Because they were travelling east, the lightening morning sky was reflected in the wheelhouse windows, making it impossible to see through them. He glanced at his watch. Two minutes to go. He was becoming obsessed with thoughts of getting off the forecastle and concentrated his gaze on the end of the alleyway from which Eddy Kane would come to relieve him.
Seven o'clock came and Eddy did not appear. James was now in a quandary. He supposed that Eddy had assumed that the Mate had dismissed the lookout. He supposed that he ought to remain where he was until either stood down or relieved. If he walked off the forecastle, he could be in trouble. It was now seven fifteen, and it occurred to him that six bells had not been sounded by the helmsman at seven o'clock. Now that he came to think of it, he hadn't heard any bells sounded at all since he had woken from an illegal snooze, huddled close up to the front of the windlass, lightly sheltered from the biting wind. He must have been asleep for considerably more than an hour. He had relieved Sam Dodson at five and shortly after, had settled himself down. Something must be wrong.
James felt a chill shiver run through his body; a shiver of fear. Something was wrong. Suddenly he was reluctant to leave the forecastle head. If he went aft what would he find, or, even more frightening, what would he not find. The ship might be deserted. He might be alone on this small ship in this dreadful cold and lonely place. Sooner or later he must make up his mind to walk down the foredeck and past the bridge, to face whatever lay beyond. He still hesitated; unwilling to face what he firmly believed was awaiting him.
Still glancing hopefully at the bridge; hoping to see the reassuring figure of the Mate signalling to him to stand down.
"Don't be stupid James," he told himself, "Relax. Of course nothing's wrong. Another hour and you'll be in the warm mess room eating your breakfast. I'll wait another five minutes," Twelve times he told this to himself, and then it was eight o'clock.
Holding the handrails, he raised his feet and slid down the ladder to the foredeck. He started to walk quickly. Now that he was on his way towards the mystery, he was in a hurry to face it. Emerging from the alleyway beside the bridge, he arrived at the waist of the ship. There was no-one around. He did not really believe that he would find anything horrific or that he would find the ship deserted. It was just a fancy; a fearful imagining to which most of us are prone at some or other. He headed for the galley. He would have a bit of a yarn with the cook.
The galley windows were open and the lights were on, but James could see no movement within. He walked up to the door and looked in. The galley was empty. He could see that both fires were alight, but were dying down. The large black kettle was just boiling and a thin wisp of steam struggled from its spout. The cook had obviously not started cooking the breakfast yet. James again felt a shiver of fear. Normally there would plenty of activity in this area of the ship; catering staff would be busy; firemen and sailors would be calling at the galley for breakfast for their respective mess rooms.
He looked up at the bridge, but nothing was moving there either. In a panic, he started to make his way aft; desperate to make contact with another human. About to enter the alleyway that runs alongside the engine room casing, he heard a sound; a welcome sound; a sound, which, if he had heard it correctly, meant that he was not alone on the ship. It was the sound of the scrape of a shovel on a steel plate. He stopped, turned and made his way towards the stokehold door. The sound was quite regular. He had noticed earlier that the engine seemed to running slower than usual. He entered the fiddley and looked down through the steel bars that comprised the platform on which he stood. He could see that one of the fire doors was open and a man was shovelling coal into it. He knew that he would not be heard if he shouted, so he rushed down the ladders, lifting his feet and sliding with his hands on the handrails. When he reached the bottom, he saw that the man shovelling was a young trimmer about his own age. The two knew each other by sight but had never before conversed, because firemen and sailors never meet in the course of their work, and almost never socially. The trimmer looked up as James stepped off the ladder.
"Whadder you want down 'ere?" He asked in strong Merseyside accent. James ignored the question.
"Where's the other blokes in your watch?" He asked.
"I dunno; having a bit of shuteye somewhere I suppose. Why?"
"D'ye know what time it is?"
"No, why?"
"Quarter past eight."
"Hell, we should'a been relieved by now. Don't say you've come to relieve us."
"No-one's going to relieve you. There's nobody on the ship except you and me," said James, and added, "I think."
"Don't be stupid. I did'n come down in the last shower, you know."
"Come up on deck, and I'll show you. I'm just going to take a look around the ship around the ship to see if I can find anyone else."
Having found company, James had lost a lot of his fear, and was beginning to take charge. "Where've they all gone?" asked the trimmer. "I don't know; that's another thing I've got to find out," replied James, "By-the-way my name's James; James Stevens; what's yours?"
"James, James," repeated the other derisively, "what the bloody 'ell's wrong with Jim."
"Alright, Jim, if it'll make you happy. What'll I call you?"
"They call me Rip van bloody Winkle in the fo'c'sle, on account of I'm fond o' me bunk, but you can call me Monty."
"I'm going to look around the ship to see if I can find someone else, or some clue as to where everyone is. Why don't you get cleaned up and make us a bit of breakfast."
"OK," said Monty, "But I think I'll finish topping up these fires first"
James, alone once again, decided to search all of the accommodation. He went aft first, but found no-one in either the firemen's or the sailor’s accommodation. He then searched all of the accommodation amidships, officers, engineers and catering staff without success. He then, hesitatingly, made his way to the Captain's rooms on the lower bridge. He tried to open the Captain's door but it was locked. So Monty and himself were the only people left aboard.
The ship must have been abandoned while he was asleep on lookout. Monty must have been overlooked also, while he was snoozing in the coal bunkers. He looked across at the boat deck and for the first time saw plain evidence that the ship had been abandoned. The port lifeboat was no longer there, and he could see falls hanging down over the ship's side. He couldn't see whether the starboard boat was still in its chocks or not. He was sure it wasn't, but it didn't matter anyway. It was strange that the engines were still turning; surely they would have stopped the ship to launch the lifeboats. Someone must have started the engines again. Who? It was a question that could wait. First find out why. He climbed the ladder to the bridge and entered the wheelhouse. It all looked very normal, the automatic pilot was switched on and the control cabinet was clicking erratically in its usual chatty manner. James opened the door to the chartroom, and entered. There was no clue here. A chart was spread on the chart table and a dirty coffee cup stood beside it. An ashtray was almost full of cigarette ends and ash. James returned to the main deck. He entered the galley. Monty was cooking eggs in a large frying pan. Two plates half covered in fried bacon stood on the end the stove.
"Let's eat in the saloon, Jim," Monty said, "It'll be the only time we ever will. Might as well make the most of it. Take the teapot in and I'll bring the grub."
James picked up the brown enamel teapot, left the galley and made his way to the saloon. Five minutes later, he and Monty were seated in comfort eating their meal.
"If only me ma could see me now," said Monty, "living like a Chief engineer. Call me Chief, Jim. I'll call you Skipper or Captain if you'd rather."
"Listen," said James, "do you hear a tapping noise?"
They both listened.
"Yes, I can hear something," answered Monty, "it's not very loud. What's up there anyway."
"The Captain's accommodation," said James," We'd better investigate, but we'll clear our breakfast out of the saloon first. If the Old Man is aboard we'll be in trouble for using the saloon."
Having returned the evidence of their meal to the galley, they made their way back to the saloon.
"I think that there's a stairway up to the Old Man's room from here: we'd better try it, since his outside door is locked," said James.
They found a door with a stairway behind it, and another door at the top of the stairs. The door was not locked so they entered, James in the lead. They found themselves in the Captain's dayroom. The room was comfortable looking and fairly tidy. It was deserted, but they heard the tapping, louder now, coming from a door that obviously led to the bedroom. Opening the door, they saw the Captain lying on the deck. His wrists and ankles were tied and he was gagged. Together they released him and helped him to his feet.
"Thank you, boys," he said, "I don't know how you come to be still aboard the ship, but I'm certainly glad you are. Tell me, is the engine running."
"Yes sir," answered James, "it seems strange that it should be with both lifeboats gone."
The Captain turned to Monty. "What's your name," he asked. "O'Grady Sir," replied Monty.
"Well O'Grady, go down to the engine room and see if you can find the Chief engineer. The only explanation for the engine running, is that the Chief must be still aboard. Stevens, come with me up to the bridge and take the wheel."
James climbed the internal stairs to the chartroom, walked through to the wheelhouse and stood behind the wheel. The Captain followed him into the wheelhouse, went to the automatic pilot and switched it off. "What's your course, Stevens," he asked. "Ninety seven degrees sir," responded James. " Right, now steer two hundred and seventy five degrees, we're going back a little way."
James spun the wheel hard to starboard and slowly the ship's head started to swing. "When young O'Grady returns I'll put you lads in the picture, you must be quite bewildered by now. In the mean time I'm going into the radio room to see if I can make contact with anyone."
The Captain turned and slowly limped out of the wheelhouse. He was still stiff and sore from his bonds, and as he walked he rubbed his wrists; trying to restore the circulation. The ship was still turning and was now beam on to the rollers. She rolled violently in the swell and James, still holding the wheel hard over, found it difficult to maintain his balance on the wooden grating that was provided for the helmsman to stand on. Gradually the ship's head came closer to the required course; almost due west. The rolling diminished, and was replaced by a heavy pitching, as the ship wearily pushed her bows into the oncoming seas, burying her forecastle in a fury of foaming brine.
‘It wouldn't be much fun on the forecastle head now.' James mused. The wind was rising and it blew the spray from the foredeck hard against the wheelhouse windows, like flurries of squally rain. The wheelhouse port door slid open and the Captain edged his way through, closing it quickly behind him.
"The bastard smashed the radio before he left. It looks as though we may be done for." He spoke as if to himself, and James was unsure whether he was expected to respond.
"How's your head, helmsman," the Captain enquired.
"Just about on course." responded James.
"I don't like putting her in automatic in this sea," the Captain remarked, "although it's not going to make any difference, since she's doomed anyway. I'm sorry, Stevens. I forgot that I haven't told you what it's all about yet," he added as he went to the auto pilot and set the course.
The wheelhouse port door opened again and Monty came in. He had a wild frightened look, and his thin pale fireman's face looked even paler than it had before. He had obviously been down to the sailor’s accommodation in order to find warm clothing. He was dressed in a very large black oilskin coat and sou'wester which emphasised his natural pallor.
"I think the Chief's dead, Captain," he announced; his voice high pitched; almost hysterical; "I found him leaning up against the throttle, and when the ship rolled, he fell on to the plates and lay there staring up at me: staring right through me like: just like a dead fish."
"Calm down O'Grady," said the Captain, "Go down to my cabin Stevens. You'll find a bottle of whisky in one of my cupboards. Bring it up, and some glasses. We could all do with a drink.”
“Alright, lads," said the Captain after James had returned with the whisky and their glasses had been filled, "I'll tell you what's been going on. This ship was chartered to carry a cargo of very dangerous chemical waste products from the UK to Australia. It was all sealed in very strong drums incidentally, so we were in no danger from it. We; that is the Chief Officer, the Chief Engineer and myself; were told that it was to be buried in a very remote part of Australia, but because of the possibility of protests from environmental conscious groups, we were sworn to secrecy. I had been concerned for some time that we had been engaged to carry out a rather immoral job, purely for the sake of the profits of the chemical companies, so after some wrestling with my conscience, I sent a message by radio to my brother-in-law, who is a member of parliament, telling him to inform an influential member of the government that we were doing this; all in the hope that the British government would take steps to prevent the chemical companies from continuing with their plan.
What I, in my innocence, did not realize was that the British government was the instigator of the plan. Yesterday morning I sent the message: yesterday evening I received a message from the ship's owners saying that the plan had been changed. Instead of taking the cargo to Australia, we were to scuttle the ship and take to the lifeboats. A British aircraft carrier which happens to be in this area, would respond to our `mayday' call, and pick us up. The world would be told that our ship had foundered and sunk with her cargo of motor cars and farm machinery. Insurance would be claimed and paid, together with a large and secret compensation payment to our owners.
I discussed the situation with the Chief Officer and the Chief Engineer. The Chief Engineer agreed with me that it would be just as immoral to secretly bury the waste in the ocean as it would to bury it in a remote place on land. The Chief Officer didn't agree, probably because he has relatives on the board of the company. I was prepared for his disagreement, but not for his reaction. I replied to the company that I would not consider scuttling the ship, and that I would continue to Fremantle, where I would report the matter to the Australian authorities, and if necessary to the press.
At four thirty this morning the Chief Officer came into my bedroom on the pretext of wanting further discussion. He produced a pistol and made me turn round. He must have knocked me out with the gun because the next thing I remember was waking up bound and gagged. What happened while I was unconscious, I can only guess at. I imagine that he opened the sea cocks, aroused the whole crew and told them that the ship was sinking and that I had ordered that the ship be abandoned. In the dark, and in the panic we three would not have been missed. I am not going to ask you two what you were doing when this was all going on.
Where the Chief Engineer fits into the picture, I'm not sure. I suppose that the Chief Officer either shot him or clubbed him and left him for dead. The old Chief must have still had a fair amount of life in him. He probably dragged himself down to the engine room after the ship was abandoned, closed the sluice valves and died while opening the throttle." James and Monty sat in fascinated silence while the Captain told the story; and for some moments after he stopped, the silence continued. James eventually broke the spell. "Why are we going back, Sir," he asked.
"I'm not sure exactly what I want to do yet," replied the Captain, "but if we can find the lifeboats, it may be possible to persuade the crew to return to the ship. The aircraft carrier will naturally send out aircraft to search for the boats, and also to make sure that the ship is safely sunk. If they find the boats full of men and the ship not sunk they will probably sink the ship. What they do with the boats and the crew, I don't know. It all depends on whether the powers-that-be suspect that any of the crew knows the truth of the matter. Personally, I don't think much of our chances either way. Maybe we would have stood a chance if they'd stayed on board," he stopped and gazed at his clasped hands for a moment.
Suddenly he stood up. "If we are going to get back to the scene of the crime," he said light-heartedly, "we must keep up our steam pressure. It looks as though we are all going have to take a turn on the shovel. O'Grady, you are temporary Chief Engineer. Show Stevens here how to fire a boiler. When you've done that, go to the engine room, set the throttle at about half speed and do any oiling and greasing that you think may be necessary. While you two able-bodied youngsters are working hard, I'll make some tea for you and then I'll work out our approximate position. Off you go."
James stopped shovelling and pushed the fire door closed with the point of his shovel. The Captain had said he would make some tea for them, and that must have been an hour ago. James had been doing his best to keep nine hungry fires fed, but young and strong though he was, it was too big a job for him. Even at half speed he couldn't keep the steam pressure up. The needle on the gauge slowly and steadily crept towards the zero mark. He decided he would go and look for Monty and see if he would help. At the top of the ladders he opened the steel fiddley door and stepped out on to deck. The cold hit him like a physical blow and his first thought was to return to the warmth of the stokehold. The wind had strengthened considerably during his spell below and the sea was rising proportionately. As he started across the deck towards the bridge, he saw Monty leave the pantry door and come towards him. At the same time, the ship buried her nose into a wall of sea with an enormous crash that threw them both to the deck. James saw Monty rise to his feet at the same time as a wall of water more than waist high came hurtling through the alleyway beside the bridge. It hit Monty from behind and carried him fast past James and into the alleyway beside the engine room casing.
James, frightened, warily stood up and walked towards the alleyway down which Monty had disappeared. He didn't want to look for Monty, it was risky, but his conscience took charge and he quickly entered the alleyway and ran down it. Before he reached the end of the alleyway he saw Monty, a dark shape on the surface of the sea. He stopped; there was nothing he could do for him. His immediate thought was to get up to the bridge again; to tell the Captain what had happened to Monty; to escape from the danger of the deck.
He climbed to the port wing of the bridge and entered the wheelhouse. The Captain was not here, the clicking of the automatic pilot was the only sound. He entered the chartroom and went down the stairs to the Captain's dayroom. There was still no sign of the Captain. James again started to feel the fear in his stomach that he had experienced on the forecastle head.
`I expect he's in the galley making tea,' James told himself. He entered the Captains bedroom. The Captain was lying on his back on his bed.
`Asleep,' thought James. He stepped softly over to the bed. A large red patch stained the pillow around the Captains head. He was too still for sleep. James moved his head close to the Captain's and turned to listen for the sound of breathing. He could hear nothing. The blow from the Mate's gun must have been more severe than they had supposed.
Quickly James returned to the wheelhouse. He had had enough surprises: he felt weary. Was the Captain's story true or had the injury affected his brain. He leaned on the window sill and gazed at the bows of the ship plunging into the sea. The ship was still moving ahead but seemed to be much slower now. He could not hear the engine from here, but he knew it wouldn't be long before it stopped and that when it did, the ship would lie wallowing, beam on to the battering ocean.
As the bow of the ship lifted over the next roller, he saw the two lifeboats dead ahead. Men were standing up and waving; `Probably shouting' he thought. The ship must hit them; there was nothing he could do, but he could not help trying. He ran to the wheel, but he could not steer; it was under the control of the automatic pilot. He ran to the automatic pilot, but he didn't know how to switch it off. He went back to the window just in time to see both boats vanish from sight under the ship's bows.
`Oh my God,' he thought, `now I'm really alone,'
No sooner had the thought entered his head, than he realised that he was wrong. He could hear the roaring of aero engines above the sound of the sea and the creaking of the ship. He opened the port door and went out onto the wing of the bridge. He looked up; there were five of them; high up; straight above the ship. He could see the torpedoes slung under their bellies and he watched them as they flew away towards the horizon. He knew why they were here. The Captain had been right after all.
The planes were about a mile away now and starting to turn and to lose height. Now they were parallel to the ship, low down and still keeping about a mile distant; flying in line astern in a large circle.
The leader turned and started to fly toward the ship. James turned away from the window and headed for the chartroom. He was calm now and very, very tired: a very young man suddenly become very old. Such a lot had happened since he had stood, frightened on the forecastle head: how long ago? He looked at the clock on the chartroom wall. Its hands said nearly midday. Only about five hours and it seemed an eternity. Ha, eternity: that's where he was now headed it seemed. He went down to the captain's dayroom to sit and wait for the five explosions that were the signal for the start of his new experience: eternity.

15th January 2009, 11:33
Arthur, in a word- Brilliant


15th January 2009, 12:26
Arthur many thanks for a truly moving yarn.

jerome morris
15th January 2009, 13:58
Wow, What a great story!

15th January 2009, 16:50
Hell, Arthur that was bloody brilliant. Got any more like that ?. Riviting stuff.
Sure, you can give up that day job now! (Thumb)
Well done.

Gareth Jones
15th January 2009, 17:10
Cracking story - but as discussed in a recent thread there's no such things as "sea Cocks" ! ! !

John Briggs
16th January 2009, 01:19
Well done Arthur - I love it. Can't beat a ship story written by a seaman.

No such thing as sea cocks - so what, he probably meant sluice valves!!!

Arthur Jenner
16th January 2009, 08:38
Well done Arthur - I love it. Can't beat a ship story written by a seaman.

No such thing as sea cocks - so what, he probably meant sluice valves!!!

Thank you John. I stand corrected. I have closed the sea cocks and opened the sluice valves. (and closed 'em agin, o' course)


16th January 2009, 10:16
They'll be telling us there was no such thing as the golden rivet next ! Though i've no experience of it myself, I'll hasten to add.(?HUH)


Arthur Jenner
17th January 2009, 09:24
They'll be telling us there was no such thing as the golden rivet next ! Though i've no experience of it myself, I'll hasten to add.(?HUH)

Next time we are shipmates I will show you where the golden rivet is.

non descript
17th January 2009, 17:06
Thank you John. I stand corrected. I have closed the sea cocks and opened the sluice valves. (and closed 'em agin, o' course)


Arthur, I am shocked... You of all people should know that Sluice Valves can only be opened by duly certified persons (Jester)

17th January 2009, 17:23
Arthur that is an excellent tale. Was never in the roaring 40's myself but I can feel the seas and smell the salt air as I read your story.(Thumb)

Arthur Jenner
18th January 2009, 08:14
It's OK Tonga, I wore gloves so my fingerprints are not on them.