Friday, 27 January 2012

The Storm

The wind howled out of the northeast sending the snow horizontally across the hatchcovers. Curtains of spray and tons of solid water, forming ice on the rigging and coating everything in a white translucent sheen, crashed over the ship as it ran before the wind. Like a toy boat tossed about in a toddlers bath tub, the Arrow pitched and rolled, rushing forward on the crest of each huge wave only to crash with a shudder which vibrated along the length of the ship as the wave passed and the bow slammed into the sea. Wires once the size of a finger now started to look the size of an arm and the frozen spray formed tattered banners of some mediaeval army on the lifeboat tackles over the boat deck. The snow did not settle on anything, blown away into the dimness beyond the ship by the strength of the wind.
Standing on the bridge wing with the snow coating the backs of our fur lined coats and stiffening the leather of our hats, Captain Ross and I looked anxiously out into the murk but could see nothing beyond a few yards ahead of the bow. The ship shuddered as another wave washed across the deck, adding more ice to the equipment, the rigging and the hatch covers. The wave raced foaming white away into the gloom and the almost horizontal snow. Even the lookout on the other bridge wing was hard to distinguish against his surroundings covered in snow as he was.
“ We have to turn into the Gulf Of Finland,” the Captain remarked calmly looking back at the waves coming out of the snow from the direction he wanted to steer.
“ Do you think she will come round?” I asked trying to keep my voice as calm as that of Captain Ross but casting a nervous glance in the direction of the waves.
“ Your guess is as good as mine, Mate but we have to try.” Captain Ross grimaced. “ Go and warn everybody to hang on to something fixed. I am afraid this is going to be rough.”
Captain Ross walked purposefully into the wheelhouse and positioned himself by the engine telegraph. I followed and noted in passing that the wheelman was fighting to keep the ship on something like a steady course, the wheel spinning back and forth in his hand. Picking up the microphone, I advised all the crew to hold onto something immovable, hearing the metallic tones of my voice echoing through the corridors of the ship
Clamping his pipe firmly between his teeth, Captain Ross gave the order to the wheelman, never taking his eyes off the sea. “ Port ninety degrees!”
He turned the wheel, holding tightly to the spokes until his knuckles were white. The bow started to turn to port. The wind screamed even loader through the open door of the wheelhouse. Those on the bridge hardly noticed the sound. At the same time, the ship rolled violently. The movement of the Arrow was like a corkscrew causing the structure to grunt and groan. Soon the ship was heeling more and more to starboard as each wave swept over the decks. When almost side on to the howling wind, the bow stopped turning. The ship heeled over even further until those on the bridge were clinging onto the handrails. Then the bow fell away from its heading and the waves were battering the ship in such a way that I thought it was not going to come back upright.
With obvious reluctance, Captain Ross gave the order to turn back. At first nothing happened but then in a rush, the ship turned away from the wind. With what sounded like a sigh, the Arrow continued her ahead long rush before the raging sea, the waves once more lifting the stern and almost flinging the ship forward.
All of the time, the snow continued to rush horizontally passed across the wheelhouse door and across the bridge wing. As though with a mind of its own, the Arrow sailed through that howling wind, with spray and snow restricting visibility to a few metres. The noise of the groaning structure, the violent vibrations felt through the feet and the sickening lurches where at times the ship felt as though it was not going to come upright beat at my senses.
The wheelman stood stiff legged and fought the ship through the wheel trying to keep a steady course. My face was highlighted by the glow of the radar as I fought down the building panic as I watched the echo of the approaching land. Staring one moment out into the gloom and the next at the echo sounder, the third mate tried to keep his voice untroubled as he related the lessening depth of water under the keel. Like a statue carved out of wood, Captain Ross, gripping the rail with his fur lined mittens, stood on the bridge wing, pipe clamped to his teeth staring at the ice accumulating on the structure and rigging.
Suddenly the snow was no longer hurtling passed the wheelhouse door horizontally but was falling much closer to vertically than before. At the same time, the wind appeared to have dropped and the sea had moderated a trifle. The third mate announced that he thought he saw the beam of a lighthouse on the port bow but could not be certain. On hearing this, Captain Ross strode into the wheelhouse and consulted the chart.
“ How far do you make it to the shore?” he asked me frowning.
“ Five miles.” I replied looking up from the radar.
“ Depth?” he barked at the third mate.
“ Fifteen fathoms and shallowing.” There was a hint of hysteria in the third mates voice.
“ Now is the time to alter course,” the Captain remarked. “ We do not have much leeway. Third Mate, get everybody to hold on. I will turn to starboard this time, hopefully away from the shore.”
I had to admire the way the Captain still managed to sound calm, as though he was in complete control.
The third mate picked up the microphone, announced that they were about to turn the ship and told everybody to hold on. Like mine had before, his metallic sound echoed through the ship.
With a last look back at the raging sea, Captain Ross gave the order to turn the ship to starboard. The wheelman turned the wheel and in silence we all held tight to the rail and watched. The bow turned slowly to the right, hit a wave and came back to port. With a roar that wave passed and the bow was turning at a giddying pace to starboard only to slam into another wave and stop dead in its tracks. The bow came back a little to port but had I noted that the Arrow had turned a lot more to starboard than it was being pushed back to port.
As though to emphasise the precarious nature of their plight, the ship rolled violently as she came beam onto the wind making the watchers cling ever harder to the rails. There was the sound of breaking crockery and Captain Ross muttered something about bang goes my afternoon tea. For one horrible, breathtaking moment at which the thought that this might be the end flashed through my mind, the Arrow hung side on to the wind and waves heeled over at an impossible angle. Then with what sounded like a relieved whoosh, the bow turned, the ship came back upright with a rush and heeled over the other way.
Now the Arrow was heading into the wind and was riding the waves in a way for which she was designed. Captain Ross unclasped his pipe from his jaw and looked around as though awaking from a nightmare. Almost gently, he gave the order to steer a north easterly course, ordered the engine to be slowed so that the ship did not pound into the waves too much and looked out over the decks.
Turning to me, he said with a relieved grin, “ You had better get some of the crew turned out to chip the ice off the deck, Chief Officer. While you and the crew are down there, I will try to avoid too much water coming aboard though it might be a good idea to wear safety harnesses. When things calm down a little, join me for a drink in my cabin.”
The ship still bounced and shuddered through the waves but there was a feeling that we were once more in control.