Poetic Justice - A true tale from my days at sea.

I was feeling seasick. It was 7.45pm and I was lying on my bunk waiting for the Indian bridge seaman to call me for my evening 8 to 12 watch. I groaned as the ship heaved over the crest of another north Pacific roller and launched herself, with a stomach churning drop into the trough, which ended abruptly with a juddering crash as the bow slammed into the next wave.

The deadlight, sealing my window against the elements, had been in position for several hours so my cabin was a sealed box in which the electric light reflected dully from the cream painted steel bulkhead down which condensation dripped. My duffle coat was hanging on the hook behind the door, and I knew I would need it. Despite being enclosed the bridge was far from weather tight and the icy, winter wind would have penetrated the cracks around the windows and doors.

The knock on the door and the seaman’s cheery voice reminding me that it was quarter to the hour was almost a relief, as it forced me to pull myself together and concentrate on negotiating the staircase, three decks up to the wheelhouse, without being overcome by the need to vomit.

Pushing open the chartroom door I hurried past the chart table and the orange glow of the radar display, and thrust aside the canvas screen to step into the wheelhouse. The bow rose again as the ship rode up the face of the oncoming swell, paused momentarily at the top, and plunged sickeningly into the trough, pitching me against the bridge front. I scrabbled for the grab rail and braced myself against the impact as the bow slammed into the next wall of water. There was an explosion of white at the forecastle (which I clearly made out even though my eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the darkness), and then great fists of spray hammered against the bridge windows.

A voice to my right indicated the presence of the second officer and, as my night vision increased, he handed over the details of our course, engine revolutions, speed, the absence of nearby traffic, and drew my attention to the captain’s night orders. We were expecting to make landfall off the coast of northern Japan before midnight. The captain had left instructions that he was to be called at 11.30pm, or before then if I was unsure of our position. Then he slid behind the screen and I heard the chartroom door close behind him.

In the red glow of the steering compass I could see the helmsman working the wheel hard to keep the ship to her course, as she laboured in the swell and the heavy sea whipped up by the westerly gale. The icy wind was whistling through the gaps around the windows and doors, and I huddled into my duffel coat, peering at the sky through the streaming windows. I was hoping that there was sufficient cloud cover to hide the stars. No such luck though, there were several that I could identify, and I braced myself to go outside.

Taking a compass bearing of a star was an essential element of my evening watch, as I used it to check the accuracy of the compass itself. But the compass binnacle was outside, on the monkey island above the wheelhouse, so I had no choice but to pull back the sliding door on what looked to be the more sheltered side, and step out into the fury of the gale.

The wind clawed at me, trying to drag me off the ladder, as I struggled to climb up to the monkey island. The bow was climbing again, and I was alarmed to see another huge foaming wave crest rolling down on us. I scrambled to reach the top of the ladder as the bow climbed higher and higher, and then I lunged for the binnacle as we started the roller coaster plunge into the trough on the other side. There was another juddering crash as the steel bow plates slammed into the face of the next wave, and I ducked into what little shelter the binnacle afforced, as the air filled with solid white spray hurled aft by the gale.

As the air cleared of flying water I hauled myself upright, quickly scanned the heavens for an identifiable, bright star, swivelled the azimuth ring around and sighted it through the prism to obtain a bearing. Repeating the bearing under my breath so as not to forget it, I scrambled back down the ladder and regained the shelter of the wheelhouse just as another monster wave thundered over the bows.

Taking that bearing was the better part of the exercise, however, because I then had to enter the chartroom and calculate the correct bearing to compare with my observed one. It only took a few moments of trying to focus on the dense columns of figures in the nautical almanac before my stomach was churning, so it was with distinct relief that I finished the calculation, recorded the compass error in the logbook and dashed back into the wheelhouse, gulping lungfuls of cold, refreshing air.

As my queasy stomach settled the telephone rang and the duty engineer asked if it was okay for him to blow the boiler tubes with steam to dislodge the daily build of soot. The process resulted in a dark cloud of sooty smoke and it was often necessary to alter course to ensure that it did not cover the decks with a layer of oily black smudges.

I had discovered this to my cost one night in the tropics when a canvas cinema screen had been hoisted between the derricks on the boat deck, and the passengers and officers had settled back in deck chairs to watch a star lit film show. It was a warm, balmy night with a gentle breeze blowing over the quarter. The duty engineer had made the usual call and I had made the usual reply, only to be horrified when the black cloud emerging from the funnel hung motionless, keeping pace with the ship. The response from the boat deck was immediate and forceful, the captain’s voice burning my ears as he yelled up at me to “alter the ship’s fucking course so that the fucking soot doesn’t fall on the fucking deck!” No such problems this time, however, as the gale instantly shredded the soot cloud.

After an about an hour I was relieved to realise that my stomach was adjusting to the motion and I was able to check the radar in the chartroom, and examine the chart, without feeling the need to vomit. Some indistinct orange smudges on the edge of the radar screen indicated that the coast of Japan was roughly were I expected it to be, and even though were battling a heavy gale the visibility was good and I was confident I would sight the expected lighthouses well before 11.30 when I had to call the captain. And so it proved. First the loom of a light appearing over the horizon, then the light itself, flashing its warning and also its welcome to sailors making landfall at the end of a long ocean passage.

Promptly at 11.30 I sent the lookout down to call the captain, and a minute or two later the chartroom door pushed open and the great man himself bustled in to join me. He was wearing a green, silk dressing gown and had a large cigar clamped between the lips of a cherubic face topped with unruly tufts of white hair. He wished me a cheerful good evening, checked the line of positions I had plotted on the chart, and puffed vigorously away on his cigar, filling the chartroom with a cloud of acrid, blue smoke.

Cigar smoke! Suddenly I was conscious that the ship was still heaving and pitching uncomfortably, and that my stomach had started to churn again. I hurriedly pushed past the curtain into the wheelhouse, trying to get as far away from the smoke as possible, thankful that the bridge windows did not seal properly and gulping the cold, fresh air.

Those windows were of the sash type, the pane sliding up and down inside the frame, adjusted by a leather strap with holes punched at regular intervals, which could be hooked over a brass peg. Wooden wedges were pushed between the frame and window to hold it securely in position.

I knew I was fighting a losing battle. The fresh air forcing its way around the cracks was no match for the clouds of pungent smoke, and my stomach was heaving. I looked around in desperation, calculating how long it would take me to wrench the sliding door open so that I could empty the contents of my stomach onto the bridge wing.

The bows were climbing again and I looked ahead, my stomach almost jumping up my throat, as I saw the biggest wave yet bearing down upon us. I glanced at the captain. He was busy checking the course recorder, and in any case his eyes had probably still not fully adjusted to the darkness. The bows climbed higher, the deck taking on a frighteningly steep angle. I took a firm hold of the grab rail and braced myself.

Higher still, and then that awful moment when the bows slid over the crest and, no longer supported by the wave, the ship began to free fall into the trough. Down and down we fell, and there, rising ahead of us, reared the sheer face of the next wave, the crest curling viciously towards us.

The impact of the bow slamming into the cliff of water was like the ship hitting a brick wall, and there was a thundering shudder as the forecastle buried itself under the wave, which rolled forward engulfing the foredeck. The impact threw me hard against the bridge front. I was expecting it, but the captain wasn’t and he was lifted off his feet and flung forward like a rag, his hands pawing at the air, searching desperately for a handhold to break his fall.

As the foredeck disappeared the wave continued to roll aft, hundreds of tons of green water crashing down onto the deck with nothing to stop it expect the flat front of the accommodation block with the wheelhouse perched on top of it. The captain landed against the bridge front with a bruising thud, his hand grasping at the securing strap of one of the windows. He gripped the strap and pulled at it, dragging himself upright, but unhooking it in the process. The window rattled loosely in its frame, the wedges dislodged by the repeated pounding, and dropped, at precisely the moment the wave crashed into the front of the accommodation with a horrendous bang, the crest exploding against the bridge windows and flinging a solid white cascade through the open one.

The captain reeled back, instantly drenched, water streaming down his face and dressing gown, white hair plastered over his forehead, the extinguished stump of the cigar still, somehow, improbably, clamped between his teeth.

I rushed to close the window and watched him disappear below to dry off, with as much dignity as he could muster. But inside I was howling with laughter and, even better, the seasickness was gone. At midnight I had the pleasure of recounting the episode to the third officer and his chuckles sent me on my way to a well-earned watch below.


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