Disasters At Sea by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

During last year the register of slaughter on the ocean was worse than any ever before seen since the Royal Charter took her crew to destruction; and it seems as though matters were growing worse and worse. One dismal old story is being repeated week in, week out. In thick weather or clear weather–it does not seem to matter which–two vessels approach each other, and the presiding officers on board of each are quite satisfied and calm; then, on a sudden, one vessel shifts her course, there are a few hurried and maddened ejaculations, and then comes a crash. After that, the ugly tale may be continued in the same terms over and over again; the boats cannot be cleared away, the vessels drift apart, and both founder, or one is left crippled. I shall have something to say about the actual effects of a collision presently, but I may first go on to name some other kinds of disaster. A heavy sea is rolling, and occasionally breaking, and a vessel is lumbering along from crest to hollow of the rushing seas; a big wall of water looms over her for a second, and then comes crashing down; the deck gives way–there are no water-tight compartments–and the ship becomes suddenly as unmanageable as a mere cask in a seaway. Again, a plate is wrenched, and some villainously-made rivets jump out of their places like buttons from an over-tight bodice; in ten minutes the vessel is wallowing, ready for her last plunge; and very likely the crew have not even the forlorn chance of taking to the boats. Once more–on a clear night in the tropics an emigrant ship is stealing softly through the water; the merry crowd on deck has broken up, the women, poor creatures, are all locked up in their quarters, and only a few men remain to lounge and gossip. The great stars hang like lamps from the solemn dome of the sky, and the ripples are painted with exquisite serpentine streaks; the wind hums softly from the courses of the sails, and some of the men like to let the cool breeze blow over them. Everything seems so delightfully placid and clear that the thought of danger vanishes; no one would imagine that even a sea-bird could come up unobserved over that starlit expanse of water. But the ocean is treacherous in light and shade. The loungers tell their little stories and laugh merrily; the officer of the watch carelessly stumps forward from abreast of the wheel, looks knowingly aloft, twirls round like a teetotum, and stumps back again; and the sweet night passes in splendour, until all save one or two home-sick lingerers are happy. It never occurs to any of these passengers to glance forward and see whether a streak of green fire seems to strike out from the starboard–the right-hand side of the vessel–or whether a shaft of red shoots from the other side. As a matter of fact, the vessel is going on like a dark cloud over the flying furrows of the sea; but there is very little of the cloud about her great hull, for she would knock a house down if she hit it when travelling at her present rate. The captain is a thrifty man, and the owners are thrifty persons; they consider the cost of oil; and thus, as it is a nice clear night, the side-lights are not lit, and the judgment of the tramping look-out man on the forecastle-head is trusted. Parenthetically I may say that, without being in any way disposed to harbour exaggerated sentiment, I feel almost inclined to advocate death for any sailor who runs in mid-ocean without carrying his proper lights out. I once saw a big iron barque go grinding right from the bulge of the bow to the stern of an ocean steamer–and that wretched barque had no lights. Half a yard’s difference, and both vessels would have sunk. Three hundred and fifty people were sleeping peacefully on board the steamer, and the majority of them must have gone down, while those who were saved would have had a hard time in the boats. Strange to say, that very same steamer was crossed by another vessel which carried no lights: but this time the result was bad, for the steamer went clean through the other ship and sank her instantly.

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To return to the emigrant vessel. The officer continues his tramp like one of the caged animals of a menagerie; the spare man of the watch leans against the rail and hums–

We’ll go no more by the light of the moon;
The song is done, and we’ve lost the tune,
So I’ll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid–
A-roving, A-roving, etc.

–the pipes glow in the clear air, and the flying water bubbles and moans. Oh, yes, all is well–beautifully well–and we need no lights whatever! Then the look-out man whistles “Hist!”–which is quite an unusual mode of signalling; the officer ceases his monotonous tramp and runs forward. “Luff a little!” “He’s still bearing up. Why doesn’t he keep away?” “Luff a little more! Stand by your lee-braces. Oh, he’ll go clear!” So the low clear talk goes, till at last with a savage yell of rage a voice comes from the other vessel–“Where you coming to?” “Hard down with it!” “He’s into us!” “Clear away your boats!” Then there is a sound like “smack.” Then comes a long scraunch, and a thunderous rattle of blocks; a sail goes with a report like a gun; the vessels bump a few times, and then one draws away, leaving the other with bows staved in. A wild clamour surges up from below, but there is no time to heed that; the men toil like Titans, and the hideous music of prayers and curses disturbs the night. Then the vessel that was hit amidships rolls a little, and there is a gurgle like that of an enormous, weir: a mast goes with a sharp report; a man’s figure appears on the taffrail and bounds far into the sea–it is an experienced hand who wants to escape the down-draught; the hull shudders, grows steady, and then with one lurch the ship swashes down and the bellowing vortex throws up huge spirts of boiling spray. A few stray swimmers are picked up, but the rest of the company will be seen nevermore. Fancy those women in that darkened steerage! Think of it, and then say what should be done to an owner who stints his officers in the matter of lamp-oil; or to a captain who does not use what the owner provides! The huddled victims wake from confused slumbers; some scream–some become insane on the instant; the children add their shrill clamour to the mad rout; and the water roars in. Then the darkness grows thick, and the agonized crowd tear and throttle each other in fierce terror; and then approaches the slowly-coming end. Oh, how often–how wearily often–have such scenes been enacted on the face of this fair world! And all to save a little lamp-oil!

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Yet again–a great vessel plunges away to sea bearing a precious freight of some one thousand souls. Perhaps the owners reckon the cargo in the hold as being worth more than the human burden; but of course opinions differ. The wild rush from one border of the ocean to the other goes on for a few days and nights, and the tremendous structure of steel cleaves the hugest waves as though they were but clouds. Down below the luxurious passengers live in their fine hotel, and the luckier ones are quite happy and ineffably comfortable. If a sunny day breaks, then the pallid battalions in the steerage come up to the air, and the ship’s deck is like a long animated street. A thousand souls, we said? True! Now let some quiet observant man of the sailorly sort go round at night and count the boats. Twelve, and the gig aft makes thirteen! Allowing a tremendously large average, this set of boats might actually carry six hundred persons; but the six hundred would need to sit very carefully even in smooth water, and a rush might capsize any one boat.

The vast floating hotel spins on at twenty miles an hour–a speed that might possibly shame some of the railways that run from London suburbs–and the officers want to save every yard. No care is omitted; three men are on the bridge at night, there is a starboard look-out, a port look-out, and the quartermaster patrols amidships and sees that the masthead light is all right The officer and the look-out men pass the word every half-hour, and nothing escapes notice. If some unlucky steerage passenger happens to strike a light forward, he stands a very good chance of being put in irons; and, if there is a patient in the deck-house, the windows must be darkened with thick cloths. Each officer, on hazy nights, improvises a sort of hood for himself; and he peers forward as if life depended on his eyesight–as indeed it does. But there comes a bright evening, and the monster liner’s journey is all but over; three hours more of steaming and she will be safe. A little schooner comes skimming up on the port side–and the schooner is to the liner as a chip is to a tree-trunk. The schooner holds on her course, for she is not bound to give way at all; but the officer on the bridge of the steamer thinks, “I shall lose a quarter of an hour if I edge away to starboard and let him fall astern of us. I shall keep right on and shave his bows.” The liner is going at nineteen knots, the schooner is romping along at eight–yet the liner cannot clear the little vessel. There comes a fresh gust of wind; the sailing vessel lies over to it, and just touches the floating hotel amidships–but the touch is enough to open a breach big enough for a coach and four to go through. The steamer’s head is laid for the land and every ounce of steam is put on, but she settles and settles more and more. And now what about the thirteen boats for a thousand people? There is a wild scuffling, wild outcry. Women bite their lips and-try, with divine patience, to crush down all appearance of fear, and to keep their limbs from trembling; some unruly fellows are kept in check only by terror of the revolver; and the officers remember that their fair name and their hope of earthly redemption are at stake. In one case of this sort it took three mortal hours to ferry the passengers and crew over smooth water to the rescuing vessel; and those rescued folk may think themselves the most fortunate of all created souls, for, if the liner had been hit with an impetus of a few more tons, very few on board of her would have lived to tell the tale. Unless passengers, at the risk of being snubbed and threatened, criticise the boat accommodation of great steamers, there will be such a disaster one day as will make the world shudder.

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The pitiful thing is to know how easily all this might be prevented. Until one has been on board a small vessel which has every spar, bolt, iron, and plank sound, one can have no idea how perfectly safe a perfectly-built ship is in any sort of weather. A schooner of one hundred and fifty tons was caught in a hurricane which was so powerful that the men had to hang on where they could, even before the flattened foaming sea rose from its level rush and began to come on board. All round were vessels in distress; the scare caused many of the seamen to forget their lights, and the ships lumbered on, first to collision, and then to that crashing plunge which takes all hands down. The little schooner was actually obliged to offer assistance to a big mail-steamer–and yet she might have been rather easily carried by that same steamer. But the little vessel’s lights were watched with sedulous care; the blasts might tear at her scanty canvas, but there was not a rag or a rope that would give way; and, although the awful rush of the gale carried her within eight miles of a rocky lee-shore, her captain had sufficient confidence in the goodness of his gear to begin sailing his ship instead of keeping her hove to. One rope faulty, one light wrong, one hand out of his place at the critical time, and the bones of a pleasant ship’s company would have been strewn on a bleak shore: but everything was right, and the tiny craft drew away like a seagull when she was made to sail. Of course the sea ran clean over her, but she forged quietly on until she was thirty miles clear of those foaming breakers that roared on the cliffs. During that night more good seamen were drowned than one would like to number; ships worth a king’s ransom were utterly lost. And why? Simply because they had not the perfect gear which saved the little schooner. Even had the little craft been sent over until she refused to rise again to the sea, the boats were ready, and everybody on board had a good chance. Care first of all is needed, and then fear may be banished. The smart agent reads his report glibly to the directors of a steamboat company–and yet I have seen such smart agents superintending the departure of vessels whereof the appearance was enough to make a good judge quake for the safety of crew and cargo.

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What do I advise? Well, in the first place, I must remind shoregoing folk that a sound well-found vessel will live through anything. Let passengers beware of lines which pay a large dividend and show nothing on their balance-sheets to allow for depreciation. In the next place, if any passenger on a long voyage should see that the proper lights are not shown, he ought to wake up his fellow passengers at any hour of the night, and go with his friends to threaten the captain. Never mind bluster or oaths–merely say, “If your lights are not shown, you may regard your certificate as gone.” If that does not bring the gentleman to his senses, nothing will. Again, take care in any case that no raw foreign seamen are allowed to go on the look-out in any vessel, for a misunderstood shout at a critical moment may bring sudden doom on hundreds of unsuspecting fellow-creatures. Above all, see that the water-casks in every boat are kept full. In this way the sea tragedies may be a little lessened in their hateful number.

March, 1889.

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