by John H Marsh

WHILE the passengers below slept soundly, the liner raced on to her doom. Those were anxious minds on the bridge and in the engineroom below. A handful of men knew that they were playing a game with death, and the counters were the lives not only of themselves but of more than a hundred men, women, and children. And the final responsibility for what happened must fall upon the shoulders of one man, her captain. His decisions were not made any easier by the fact that this was his first voyage in command of the ship, and also his first voyage along this coast. He was a comparatively young man to be privileged to command so large and fine a vessel. He had had a master's certificate for 15 years and had an excellent record of service with his owners. They had given him his first command three years previously. In the intervening period he had not had an accident.
The harassed shipmaster was now in a quandary. He was in the dark literally as well as metaphorically. He dare not show any lights because enemy submarines were in the neighbourhood. The night was pitch dark, with an overcast sky, no stars, and an obscured moon. The ship seemed surrounded by an impenetrable wall of darkness. She was sinking fast and must be beached soon if she was to be saved. But he could not be certain how far the land was away, nor what kind of beach he would find. He dare not risk slowing down, for she might fail to make the distance. On the other hand if he carried on too long at full speed he might tear the bottom right out of her on jagged reefs, or crash into cliffs and land in yet worse disaster, with the risk of losing valuable lives. To make matters worse the echo-sounding gear that automatically records the depth of water under the ship was out of action. It had apparently been damaged by the first impact.
But luck, at last, was with the captain, for a spell at least. After nearly 40 minutes of hard driving through the swell, breakers were sighted ahead. The sea was fairly calm but the usual oily rollers were heaving sluggishly in from across the South Atlantic. Immediately the breakers were seen the order was given to reduce to half speed. Three minutes later the big ship ran up on the beach. She had been lucky not only in that the white crests of the breakers showing up through the darkness warned her of the proximity of shallow water, but that she had found a sandy, gently shelving beach, rather than a reef or bed of rocks. By the time she made her landfall she was well down with the water in her, listing heavily to starboard, and the water was swishing over the floor plates in the engineroom. The engineers were working ankle-deep.

Skilfully the captain manoeuvred his crippled liner. She took the sand gently and swung broadside on to the surf, facing southward down the coast. She listed further to starboard and away from the land, as she settled slowly but firmly on the bottom. Manoeuvring his engines carefully, her captain kept her in position until she was firmly resting on her bed. At first the swells merely slapped her side, then surged on toward the beach, ignoring her. As she settled further, however, and listed more to seaward, occasional waves smashed up against her low sides aft, and broken water swept across her well deck.
The passengers had turned out again when they felt the second bump, as the big ship came up all standing on the beach. They hurried on deck with their lifejackets. Officers told them to stand by and keep calm. There was no immediate danger and nothing could be done until daylight.
Another radio message was now despatched, announcing that the liner had beached herself.
Down in the engineroom they were fighting a losing battle with the water. Rushing in through a 200 ft. tear in the bottom, it was gradually overwhelming the pumps. An hour after the ship was beached, at twenty minutes after midnight, the engineers and greasers had to evacuate. By that time the men on the control platform were standing in two feet of water, and on the starboard side there were nine feet of water above the floor plates. As the waterlogged hulk moved uneasily under the weight of the swells, the water in the engineroom swished to and fro. Being a motor ship practically all the auxiliary equipment in the engineroom was electrical. As the water splashed onto the fittings they fused one after the other. A moment before the engineroom crew abandoned that part of the ship, the electric lights went out. The whole vessel was plunged into darkness. She lay lifeless in the surf, the plaything of the sea, while more than a hundred people huddled on deck or in the saloons, fearful that their uneasy platform would begin to break up beneath them. They stared into the darkness for the first glimmer of light that would reveal to them their full plight
Slowly the clouds began to roll away. Stars peeped out and at last the fitful light of the moon showed through the cloud banks. It played on line upon line of white surf, racing away from the ship towards the shore. Fascinated eyes saw a picture of beauty that entranced them. The surf was cascading over a long, low reef, a ship's length or two away, in myriads of scintillating waterfalls. Beyond was a wide, placid lagoon stretching into the far distance, its surface studded with islets. A rugged line, dark against the horizon, must be distant mountains.

That was the picture they saw in the moonlight. As dawn slowly crept across the sky, the light of day began, harshly and remorselessly, to chase away the fantasies created by the moon. The people on the wreck saw the reef and the waterfalls transposed into a line of boiling surf crashing thunderously upon the shore. The lagoon and its islets turned out to be a waste of white sea sand broken here and there by barren rock outcrops. The mountains on the horizon were sand dunes stretching away inland into the far distance.
There was no movement on the inhospitable-looking shore. Not a sign of life as far as the eye could see. Not a tree, a bush, nor a blade of grass, anywhere.
Anxious eyes turned from the land to scan the sea. It, too, was bare. Not a ship had come to answer their call for help. They were alone, castaways on Skeleton Coast.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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