One thing the young chief mate had yet to learn ... that not all sailors steer by the same star
FROM THE navigating bridge of the S. S. Craighill, her chief mate, Mark Ruark, glanced aft sceptically at a seaman who was trying to paint the after rail of the lower bridge. Sloppy Burwell, lanky, loose jointed, with thinning carroty hair, and a dazed look in pale blue eyes, had come aboard with A.B.’s rating. After noticing him at work a few times, however, the mate had taken him into his own four-to-eight watch, where it would be easier to keep an eye on him.
Ruark’s voice broke out in sudden exasperation: “Sloppy! What the devil are you doing there? You’ve painted all the inside of the rail and you haven’t touched the outside yet.”
The seaman straightened up gradually, his dirty, oversized dungarees hanging in folds about his long legs. The civilian felt hat he wore had once been of good quality, but now all shape had left it, and it was tied on by a rope yarn under the chin. Sloppy pushed it back slightly and scratched his head.
“Never thought nothing about that, sir.”
His voice held, beyond huskiness built up in hundreds of water-front bars, a curious echo of flexibility; and although he made slips in grammar he often said the same things correctly the next time around.
The mate waited silently. He was broadshouldered and sandy-haired, and in the line office, some said he was young for his job. But these were still good times for ships’ officers as well as for seamen. A really strong recommendation from the captain after this voyage might give Ruark, himself, his first command. A subordinate like Sloppy could upset all that, though.
Now Sloppy had an idea:
“It’s okay, sir. I can crawl through and paint the outside. If I rub any off the inside I can get it again when I come back.”
What he’d do about the white paint which would be smeared all over his dungarees and dilapidated peacoat, he did not say. Probably nothing. Such a figure at the wheel of even an elderly medium-sized freighter like the Craighill could disgrace an entire watch. But if told now he would forget all about it long before his full wheel trick from six to eight p.m.
For relief Ruark turned his gaze forward in the early twilight. The dark, sullen seas left by a vicious North Atlantic blow were steadily subsiding, although no break had yet appeared in the steel-grey plate of cloud.
The Craighill by and large had behaved well through the gale. With a splintered stub of a jack staff, an emergency oil-burning starboard running light, and empty davits of both lifeboats on that side she still rode on an even keel, hatches un broached, and cargo Continued on page 33
Continued on page 33
Continued from page 20
unshifted. Only a little way from her present position the Eastern Banker, a twin-screw vessel nearly twice her size had, according to the radio, been beaten down and sunk. There had been an alert for her boats for a while, but now all were reported picked up.
A warning instinct, rather than any clear sound, made Ruark glance aft again. Sloppy, scrambling back through the railing, had planted one foot squarely in his pot of white paint. Lying on its side it spread a ghostly, widening pool across the deck just outside the entrance to the captain’s quarters.
The seaman merely gazed dumfounded at the mess. When he could the mate spoke:
“All right, all right. It’s done now.
Go down to the paint locker, get rags and turps and clean it up the best you can.”
At that moment two bells struck from the wheelhouse, and Sloppy looked up more cheerily. “Two bells, sir. I got to go to supper now or I can’t relieve Joe on time.”
The third mate appeared at Ruark’s shoulder, his own relief for supper. He realized, reluctantly, that to hold Sloppy on the job actually would throw the watch into confusion.
“Very well,” he sighed. “You can clean it up later. But before you go below warn the captain it’s there.” Then Ruark himself went to supper in the saloon mess.
Back on the bridge in 15 minutes, with old Joe, a real A.B., at the wheel, the chief mate had a little time which should have been peaceful. Worry about Sloppy, however, still harassed him. The days of more commands
than men to take them were on the way out. The Adams Line, which owned the Craighill, was a sound, longestablished, but not very large outfit. They looked like an excellent bet for the future; but the command of a sister ship, the Taneyhill, which would soon be open, might be the last with them for a long time.
Sloppy must be watched every minute, that was all; or there would be no luck for an ambitious chief mate, and no joyful pride for a recent redheaded bride at finding herself a captain’s wife.
Accordingly, when Sloppy came clambering up the port ladder to relieve his watchmate for supper, Ruark followed him into the wheelhouse, kept a hawk eye on him while he took the wheel, and peered intently into the binnacle to check the man’s course. The voyage wouldn’t last forever; and in this way—
Then the hope was lost in a thud, a roar, and a string of Anglo-Saxon exclamations from the lower bridge. Captain Holm, a big, handsome man, was usually good-tempered; but the voice had to be his.
“What happened, sir?” Ruark called, diving out into the darkness. “Do you need any help?”
“There’s some kind of slush on the deck outside my door,” the captain shouted. “No, it’s not slush. It’s white paint. If I had my hands on the man who did that!”
Recovering his dignity, or remembering that he could not actually lay a finger on the man who had done it, he checked and started again with biting disgust.
“It’s all over my second-best blues. And I almost broke my leg. I wouldn’t expect a thing like that to happen on the chief mate’s watch, Mr. Ruark. You’re supposed to know what’s going on.”
The door of his cabin crashed shut behind him.
Ruark strode into the wheelhouse where Sloppy was leaning gracefully against the king spoke, humming to himself.
“Look here, you. I told you to warn the captain about that paint.”
The seaman twisted slightly from side to side. “Well, sir, I didn’t exactly like to bother him about it. So I just tied a rope yarn across his outside door the way the bo’s’n does when a ladder’s been painted. I thought that’d be enough.”
“But you didn’t think, did you,” Ruark enquired intensely, “that the Old Man would go down to chow by the inside ladder and come back up by the outside one and walk right into the paint?”
“No, sir,” Sloppy said helplessly. “I didn’t.”
“Or that he would slip and fall on his second-best blues and then blame me for it?”
Ruark took a quick turn across the wheelhouse and back again. This was too important for an ordinary bawling out.
“Just out of curiosity, Sloppy, how’s it to pull yourself together? I never yet knew you to have your mind on what you’re doing. Got trouble at home or something?”
It would be possible to sympathize at least with that. Sloppy’s face in the dim, brass-reflected light showed no responsiveness. “Not me, sir. None in the world. I was born dumb, but not that dumb.”
“You mean you’ve never been married?”
“Oh, sure, I’m married. Couple of kids somewhere.”
“You mean you never see them?” Ruark demanded. “They don’t get any allotmentout of your pay, I know that.”
“Haven’t seen cr heard from any of ’em for four years,” Sloppy replied unconcernedly. “Probably wouldn’t know them if I run into them.”
Contemptuously the officer turned and tramped out of the wheelhouse. You didn’t have to be recently married to a girl like Susy Ruark to reach an accurate judgment of a man like this. But if it happened that you were, you saw just that much more clearly why, without any inspiration, any star to steer by, Sloppy was so useless in a ship. The sooner he got out of the Craighill the better it would be.
WHEN HE came off watch at eight o’clock, Ruark turned in. Rocked by the long ground swell, he slept. He dreamed happily that he held a winning ticket on the Irish Sweepstakes, then in horror that it was being chewed up by Sloppy Burwell, who had grown the chin whiskers of a goat. The mate woke shaking in his bunk.
Already in cold reality Sloppy had made him trouble enough. Captain Holm, even in a freighter, paid more attention to his appearance than the skippers of most passenger liners. Blaming his chief mate, justly or not, for what had happened to that secondbest uniform, he would not put his heart into any recommendation for promotion after this trip.
The chief mate was still wide awake when he was called to go on watch again.
With a few minutes to spare after he finished his coffee he stepped out on deck amidships to sniff the weather. The Craighill rolled very slowly and easily now; but few nights that he could remember had been so dark, and a damp strong breeze swept in ceaselessly from the east.
After a final drag on a cigarette the chief mate stepped to the port rail to flick it overboard. A sighing sound barely clear of the Cra ighill’s own quiet breathing drew his gaze ahead, teased his nerves once more. Then a blink of white water dead ahead, where no waves should be breaking, seemed bright as the flash of a broadside.
As Ruark dived for the ladders to the bridge he heard the second mate’s shocked yell to the helmsman, “Right rudder! Full right! Hard over!”
Then came the whir of the engineroom telegraph desperately swung.
From the greater height, as the freighter’s headway kept her plunging on, Ruark saw the white upper works of a wallowing hull take shape like mist along black hills. The Craighill answered her helm at last, her bow starting crabwise to starboard. She could not clear the derelict entirely he saw; but he was not prepared, when she struck, for the heavy, surging shock of full collision.
By the time the two mates had picked themselves off the bridge planking and switched on the ship’s searchlight, Captain Holm was on the bridge, overcoat over pyjamas, uniform cap jammed low on his head.
“Collision, Mr. Stafford?” he barked. “You in collision?”
“Derelict, sir,” the second mate gasped. “Big as the Queen Elizabeth; but I couldn’t see her till just before we hit.” -
The Craighill’s searchlight showed the derelict’s flush forward deck almost awash. ■ Although a big ship, she appeared to be a freighter also, far from the class of the Queen Elizabeth. The name on her bow was submerged, but the light moved aft, steadied upon a gilt-and-black name plate on the starboard side of the wheelhouse. Again for a moment, Ruark thought he was dreaming, or that the Craighill had gone down with all hands while he slept. This great rolling hulk with the
Craighill’s bow gripped tight in her starboard side just forward of the foremast was the Eastern Banker, supposedly on the bottom of the North Atlantic for the past 24 hours.
“Well,” said Captain Holm tersely, “she didn’t sink so much, after all. But what I want to know, how about us?”
Ten minutes later, Ruark returned soberly from his inspection trip. “We’re smashed bad, sir. Forepeak flooded, and taking plenty of water in number one. Bo’s’n and first assistant have a gang trying to get to the bilge strainers. Something wrong on the port side. I’d better get back down there.”
“Leave it to them a while, Mr. Ruark.”
The mate waited.
“We hit hard,” the captain said aftèr a minute. “Get a sounding on all the holds. This ship feels to me like she’s sinking.”
Perhaps from suggestion, perhaps in reality, Ruark too felt a deep, sickening unsteadiness beneath his feet as he obeyed the order.
“Two and four dry, sir,” he reported back. “Don’t see why she’s taking water in number three and not in number two, but she is, all right.”
“I thought so,” the captain said sharply. “If we could locate the leak in a hurry we’d still have a chance, but there’s general cargo right up to the hatches.”
His fingers suddenly clamped on Ruark’s shoulder. “Look forward there. The ships are going to swing together any minute, the way the wind’s catching them. Our port side’ll be right against her starboard, with the torn plates forward still keeping us locked. You see what that means?”
“Yes, sir,” the mate replied after an instant. “We couldn’t lower our two port boats, and they’re the only ones we’ve got left.”
“Then lower away now, Mr. Ruark,” the captain ordered. “Put a few men in each boat. Have them pull clear and stand by, until we see whether either of these ships is going to float.”
With the bo’s’n and the best seamen still at work below decks, the mate gathered for his critical job a collection of firemen, mess boys, two ordinary seamen, and Sloppy Burwell. Sloppy had put a life jacket on backward and was almost blindfolded by its padded collar, but there was no time to set him right.
The ships heaved and groaned, feeling for easier positions, and just as the captain had foreseen, the gap between them began slowly to close.
Ruark drove hard in the cold light of electric clusters. Soon the boats were dropping down, on an even keel, with plugs in place, but unmanned since the mate had fully expected them to hit the water on end.
The instant they were water-borne he gave the order for the skeleton crews to embark. But then he saw the vast, forward - tilted side of the Eastern Banker beginning to swing faster. There wouldn’t be time to man the boats, out oars, and pull clear. The Craighill’s deck now had an unmistakable list itself; water and air were close to freezing. Without lifeboats, if the Craighill went down and carried the even now barely floating Eastern Banker with her, none of her 40 men would live much past daylight.
Captain Holm’s voice came harshly from the bridge: “Belay embarking,
Mr. Ruark. Take the stern fasts from where you are and tow the boats all the way aft. Bear a hand with it.”
In that way the falling away of the quarter plates should save the boats from being crushed when the ships came rail to rail. But the falls, without patent releasing gear, must be cast off from the boats by hand. They lay
bow to stern in the dark water far below—one man could cast off all four blocks. But where was that man?
AS RUARK automatically stepped „ forward a second hail from the bridge stopped him.
“Send a man down, Mr. Ruark. You’re there to give the orders. Send an A.B.”
The mate held his voice away from desperation. “Burwell. Slide down those after falls and let go all the boat blocks. Hold on with your arms and legs or you’ll burn your hands so you can’t do anything.”
Surely no A.B. except Sloppy would have to be reminded of that.
The gangling seaman made the trip somehow down the slack boat falls. A moment later he hailed the deck plaintively.
“Can’t get the shackles loose, sir. Somebody lower me a spike.”
“You’ve got one down there,” Ruark bawled. “Under the afterthwart. Don’t you know anything about lifeboats?” The afterblock of the afterboat hung free at last. Sloppy fumbled his spike, bent to pick it up from the bottom boards. As he straightened an upward swing of the boat smacked his forehead full against an iron-bound, triplesheaved boat block. He dropped, lay curled between the thwarts, once more done with responsibility.
Ruark was on his way down the falls before any restraining order could reach him, and also, he made sure, before he could start thinking how much more needed his life was than Sloppy’s.
As he landed he saw the boats were past saving. The huge steel nutcracker had all but closed. Sloppy stirred, exhaled noisily, and sat up. A coil of line, dropped from far above, slapped the planking beside him. As the seaman staggered to his feet, Ruark, in what seemed the single flame of a blow in the eyes, saw three more things. The bowline which should have been ready in the end of the line was missing. There would be no time for even the smartest work on deck to pull up more than one man. The pickup crowd which had forgotten the bowline would hardly be smart enough to pull up anything except the flattened remains of even one.
“How’s your swimming?” the mate snapped.
“Fair,” Sloppy said. Then, “Not so good.”
One yank let go the slippery hitch which fastened his life belt. “Get rid of that.” A second brought him into the stern sheets of the disintegrating boat.
“Grab my belt then. When I dive, dive with me. We’re getting out of this—under the Craighill.”
Their plunge was awkward but heavy, aimed straight for the bottom of the Atlantic. As it spent itself Ruark added a powerful breast stroke. Darkness, absolute at once, could not increase. But cold and pressure could.
Before he had expected, the mate’s left hand touched the shallow Steel fin of the Craighill’s port rolling chock. He swung his course toward it, downward still, but at a less steep angle. Sloppy, taking a steady pounding from the mate’s legs, remained passive, less of a hindrance than he had expected. Once underneath the ship Ruark began to count strokes. Twenty should be enough to carry them clear of a 50-foot beam. Three, four, five. Beyond the cold all bodily sensations grew unreal, but he swam hard with the familiar frog kick.
Seven, eight, nine, ten. Reach out for life and your red-haired girl, pull them toward you. Kick death behind you. Reach again.
Triumph began and he let himself
lose depth. But too early—a blind, frozen force lifted him, slammed him full length against the ship’s flat bottom, and nailed him there.
Young barnacles sliced his scalp, raked into back and shoulders. His lungs swelled his chest to breaking, drove precious air out through barricading teeth. He began to fight wildly against the roughened steel, to lift it, throw it aside, smash through it. But then, just before this had gone too far, he felt a hand seize his hair, tugging him onward a foot or two. Sloppy, hardly able to swim at all, was squirming forward along the steel plates, with rivet heads and barnacles for handholds. How could he, with nothing on earth to live for, put up a fight like that, and spare a hand for another man while doing it?
The chief mate’s mind grew all at once unnaturally clear, seemed to float detached before him, a nucleus of dazzling white light. Surging and writhing, he rolled over, drew up his legs, and with one hand gripping Sloppy’s bony wrist, burrowed back headlong into the incredible cold and pressure. The plunge did not carry far, but he was swimming clear again, memory of the ship’s false keel against one foot to give him his direction. Sloppy caught his former hold on the mate’s belt, leaving his arms and legs free.
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen strokes.
Eighteen, nineteen . . .
The 20 strokes were counted before suffocation had more than begun. The hull above curved again. He stretched out his arms a last time, drew himself on and upward.
The two men shot half their length out of the sea. With his third breath Ruark began volleying yells for help.
A man’s silhouette popped up at the rail of the ship. “1 got you, sir. Here comes a life ring.”
Hanging, with Sloppy, to the tranquilly floating buoy, Ruark took a quick look at the Craighiil. She was listing and settling steadily. In haste to get back into the fight to save her he paddled close alongside, peered upward impatiently for a ladder or cargo-net to be lowered.
Just beyond the black, rust-streaked plates, almost in reach of his hand, lay number three hold, the dagger in the Craighill’s back. If it were not for the cargo inside concealing the location of that leak the game could still be won. A search from outside would he a ridiculously long shot; but here was a chance to make one.
To keep the buoy in position Ruark reached out to take a stroke. Then, puzzled, he saw that Sloppy was already holding it easily, with what seemed to be an adhesive hand on the ship’s sheer side;
“What are you doing?” the mate panted. “Hanging on by the rivet heads again?”
“Uh - uh,” Sloppy answered as casually as he could with rattling teeth. “Got the ends of my fingers in a row of holes where the rivets all come out.”
“What?” the mate bellowed. “Let me get there.”
With the life ring swung in, he stared at the ship’s side in the glow from the self-igniting light of the buoy. His mouth opened and stayed so until a surge of cold salt water reminded him to close it. Three rows of rivets were missing from a joining of plates at the water line. The easy heave of a swell broke Sloppy’s hold and showed more empty rivet holes extending downward. The plates must have been strained by the storm, then twisted apart by some far-carried sequence of shocks in the collision.
A pilot ladder clattered a little way
forward and Ruark hailed the deck loudly.
“Shift that ladder aft right to me. I want to mark this place.”
Back on board he raced dripping for the bridge.
FOR 10 seconds he made his new report. Then for two hours the whole ship’s company crashed into stunning labor. A tarpaulin collision mat, hauled down over the outside of the newly found leak, was forced and held against it by the water. This slowed the inflow enough to allow plugging and caulking from inside number three hold. But that could be done only after many tons of cargo had been shifted out of the way, shifted almost entirely by hand. Soft grey daylight was complete when the sounding wells showed for the first time that the pumps were gaining everywhere.
Only then did the chief mate take time to strip in his quarters, rub down, dab iodine and put on dry clothes. The ship and the lives of her crew were out of imminent danger. Queer that he should have saved his neck and his chance for command by a move which had looked like putting his seaman’s duty blindly above everything else.
On deck he found Captain Holm with the second and third mates at the port side, the rail of the Eastern Banker looming close above their heads.
“We’ll make it now,” the Captain greeted him. “We’ve got fenders down and Sparks has cancelled our SOS. Nobody near us anyway. That makes it a good thing you went overboard.” “Hard to locate the second leak otherwise,” Ruark agreed. “But I’d never have thought of looking for it that way and—”
He lost these words, staring at the derelict. “That ship’s not riding any lower, sir. Has anybody been on board
“No. Why? Do you want to go?”
“I sure do, if I can take the first assistant with me.”
In 20 minutes the mate and engineer were back.
“If we’d gone down we’d have pulled her with us,” Ruark declared. “But now a coupla’ hours with the torch will free her, and she’ll just barely float by herself. We can salvage her. Under her own power, maybe.” The captain nodded. “The glass is rising all the time, and we’re only 600 miles from Belfast. Could she make it?” “Yes, sir. She had her number one hatch stove in by the storm. Forehold filled and it must have looked as if the bulkhead between it and number two would give way any minute. That would have sent her down too fast to launch boats. So her master abandoned her, and I guess the boats had to run before the gale. It was just assumed that she sank.”
‘But the bulkhead held after all?” “Right, sir. As she settled by the head, cargo shifted against it and shored it up. It’ll keep on holding.”
“We’ll make Belfast inside a week,” the captain said slowly. “Both of us. You take command of her, Mr. Ruark. It’s time you tried your hand if you’re going to have the Taneyhill next trip.” ,4s he prepared to lead a small picked crew on board the Eastern Banker Ruark found that from some hidden resource he could still produce a sense of wonder. This business meant a small fortune to him as well, as permanent command. Salvage money was split in various ways, but a chief officer’s share here would be enough for anything he or Susy was likely to think of.
One of the strangest things about it was the decisive part which Sloppy, who cared nothing about women, had played in it.
As he left his room with sea bag and
suitcase, the newly rated captain almost ran over Sloppy himself, waiting in the saloon.
“Want to thank you, sir,” the seaman said awkwardly and unexpectedly, “for pulling me out of that lifeboat. It would have been bad if you hadn’t.” “Could have been, all right.”
“I don’t mean on account of me,” Sloppy explained. “The thing is—I never mention it around, but I had money when I was a young chap. Went through it so fast, the lawyer made me put what was left into an annuity I couldn’t get rid of no way. So when
I found my wife still wasn’t ever going to understand me, I just handed the income over to her and headed for sea.”
He turned his head and gazed through a forward square port. “I like the sea okay. All I got to do is stay alive to keep my wife sitting pretty. I almost didn’t want to go down in the boat on account of that reason.”
After a full minute Ruark gave up trying to think of any answer. Silently he extended his right hand, and Sloppy, looking almost unbewildered, gripped it. ★