by John H Marsh
|PLAYING A GAME WITH DEATH||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.
Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)
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