I Am All At Sea

I return to the ship almost every day. If it were not for the precariousness of her position I think I would stay aboard all the time. However that is a risk I must not take. It's very tempting, just the same. I could use the captain's cabin which, austere as it might seem to a landsman, is nevertheless well fitted-out with a comfortable cot, desk and basin. All the comforts of home - even a private head. Not that privacy is the issue now.

But no. Every time I come aboard the El Dorado, ducking my head and twisting my body to squeeze through the rent in the hull that is my only means of ingress, I can sense, by the steadily worsening complaints of strained metal and overstretched fabric and the ever-increasing list of the decks and companionways, that her end, while perhaps not immediate, is, all the same, inevitable, and that if I am not to go down with the ship I must not stay aboard her any longer than necessary. I must certainly not sleep on her.

So my task is primarily one of salvaging from the wreckage the things I will need if I am to survive. I have done what I can to stabilise the ship by paying out the remains of the forward mooring line (manually; there is no power to drive the windlasses) and looping it around the rocks. It took a day of hard labour, drawing out the heavy hemp cable one foot at a time and carrying the free end, also one foot at a time, away from the wreck and up to the outcrop where I have done the best I can, in my untutored way, to make it fast.

My efforts have been well rewarded. The rope, which was lying slackly on the ground when I first reeled it out, is now tautly suspended above it. The El Dorado has shifted downslope, and if I had not secured her when I did it is very likely that she would have been lost to me by now.

- 0 -

I am living in a cave. In this I am fortunate, I think. The vegetation here is sparse indeed and I would have been hard-pressed to find enough wood or foliage to build a shelter. And shelter is what I sorely need. With the ship's accommodation out of bounds I must take refuge here, on the cold bare land.

I was fortunate also in my discovery of this cave. It has a narrow entrance that opens up as it goes back into the hill. It has proved relatively easy to make a kind of door from the materials I have brought from the ship, which helps to keeps out the cold. I have no fire, as there is no wood to burn, but I have brought two cabin heaters, a cooking stove and a supply of paraffin, and that, together with the bedding I have recovered, have proved sufficient.

(Greatly daring, I once asked the ship's engineer why the cabins needed individual heaters when there was so much waste energy given off by the El Dorado's engines. Could there not be hot-water pipes, I asked. He smiled tolerantly and pointed out that every gram of weight expended in the provision of pipe-work for the heating of cabins that might or might not be occupied was a gram of paying cargo that the El Dorado would not be able to carry. Individual portable heaters were employed by all the leading carriers, he said. Profits, he added, tapping the side of his nose with his right index finger, and he returned to his engines leaving me wondering if I were not, despite my slim build, also an item of unprofitable excess mass.)

Private enterprise has contributed to my salvation; so down with Socialism, say I!)

- 0 -

I have decided to write this account as a form of self-defence. The court of Posterity is a place of stern judgement and if my body, and perhaps the corpse of the El Dorado also, are found at some future date and there is no word of explanation or excuse to justify the fate of either of us, it is possible that an incorrect judgement could be arrived at, and a sentence handed down that would represent, at the very least, a miscarriage of justice.

And so I have appropriated this book, the ship's log, from the captain's cabin and it is here that I shall set out my version of events.

To start off with the most salient point; none of this is any fault of mine. I am the innocent, not to say injured, party in the case. I cannot overstate this fact.

So far as I can tell, everything that Captain Hugo wrote in the log, up to his very last entry, is complete and correct. I would not like anyone to think that I would defame my colleagues in order to enhance my own reputation. Such tactics tend to misfire, I believe. So my account of events must naturally follow on from his. I shall tell it in my own words and eschew Service lingo.

To commence, then; I was left as the sole officer in charge on the night of the twenty-first of February. The officers and crew had gone to the land variously to spend their pay and report back to the owners. We had just completed a triangular voyage, and each leg of our journey had been fully laden and propitious. The owners already knew this, of course, as the El Dorado was fully equipped with apparatus for wireless communication as well as a Monitor's screen. Nevertheless, there were way-papers to be signed and portside officials to be dealt with.

It was not unusual for me to find myself in this position. Each of the navigating officers had his own duties to attend to on the land - purchasing stores, negotiating contracts, refuelling, recruiting - and the hands, their tasks completed on board, had a full round of drinking and wenching ahead of them. It would be my job as the El Dorado's doctor to sort out the sore heads and minor injuries that the crew would be sure to bring back on board with them the following morning.

A ship's surgeon is a strange creature, neither fish nor fowl. By virtue of his education and presumed family background he is considered a gentleman, and therefore an officer. He is assigned a rank - usually that of lieutenant commander - and messes in the wardroom. He has a private cabin and shares a steward with his brother officers. But while the vessel on which he serves is under way he has no practical function. He is there in a purely reserve position. If an officer or man is taken ill or is hurt then the surgeon's duty is to restore him to active service as quickly as possible. At such moments the very survival of the ship may depend upon his skill and efficiency. But at all other times he is a superfluity, taking up space that could be used for cargo and consuming food and drink that could otherwise be left on the dock. But... the carriers are ruled by the Board, and the Board has decreed that for humanitarian reasons if nothing else any vessel with a crew exceeding ten officers and men or a rating of more than two hundred tons must carry a certified doctor.

I should mention here that there is one rule that all landsmen - and the ship's doctor, despite his notional rank, is regarded as a landsman - disobey at their peril. It is this - that at no time must they take any part in the operation of his ship. The surgeon is to regard himself as a passenger and keep well out of the way of the crew as they perform their duties. In addition, he may not question the action of any crew member - not even the most junior cadet officer or greenest recruit - nor may he make any inquiry about the principles or practice of navigation. Any infraction of this absolute law may result in his instant expulsion from the ship - whether she be in port or not. The Service is very jealous of its mysteries. Nobody who is not appropriately qualified may touch any control, wire, handle, valve or spar. It is a simple matter of safety, which is ever paramount. It is important that you understand this point fully before you go on to read the main part of my account.

As stated above, I was alone on board the El Dorado that night. My assigned duties were easy and few. At two-hour intervals I was to check the readings of certain dials and gauges. A walk around the ship and a visual inspection of the fore and aft mooring ropes, and my tasks were done. (You may have formed the impression that ships such as the El Dorado are routinely moored by the nose only. This is often true at minor and improvised ports where there is little traffic and enough room for a ship to swing around in the wind. However, at busy depots such as the one where the El Dorado was berthed at this time, ships are tied up alongside an elevated loading dock.)

I had been provided with a check-list of items to sign off on inspection. It was simple enough even for a landsman like myself to fill in. So simple that, once midnight had passed, and I being tired, and having taken a few glasses, and the night being calm, I turned in, resolving to rise before the crew returned and tick the appropriate boxes retrospectively.

Do you see how honest and straightforward this account of mine is? How freely I admit that I neglected my duties? The awful outcome of my dereliction will quickly become apparent and you will find that I freely accept the blame for it. One small action (or inaction) over a short space of time and everything changes, does it not?

To resume; I awoke at 06:00 hours. I can always wake at a time of my own choosing; a result of my hospital training, I believe. Immediately, landsman though I am, I realised that something was wrong. At all times a ship has her native sounds and rhythms, but they are overlaid by circumstances. A docked vessel sounds, moves and feels different from one that is free, and a free vessel is herself transformed when she is under way. So, even before I raised my scuttle blind I knew that the El Dorado was no longer tied up at her moorings. The view from the window confirmed it.

I threw open my cabin door and dashed, half-dressed as I was, along the passageway and down the spiral companionway to the bridge. What I saw there only reinforced what I already knew. The ship was floating freely, completely surrounded by sparkling ocean. There was no sign of land in any direction, either viewed directly or via the navigator's magnifying periscope. The diffuse lines of foam riding on the caps of the waves suggested a wind of approximately twenty knots although, of course, it could not be felt, even though an open port.

My first thought was that I should run up the propellers and attempt to make my way back to port. I knew that I must have drifted westwards under the influence of the prevailing winds and that, so long as I kept the Blessèd sun on the starboard side of the vessel (taking chronometer readings into account) I should be able to make landfall with no great difficulty. Once in sight of land, I would find civilisation and a place to dock. There was only one problem with this scheme. Even if I had known how to start the engines and steer the ship I would not have been able to. The captain and engineer both held keys to the engines, and both keys were required to start them.

No go with the propellers, then. I would have to drift wherever the winds sent me and I should have to hope that I would not be forced south to the dreaded regions of ice.

What about the screen or the wireless? Surely I would be able to call for help? There was a Monitor's screen on the bridge and radio shack was situated next door, as one might expect, and although there was no power available from the generators, there would be batteries, I knew. They were always kept freshly charged against just such an emergency as this. But first, the screen. I stood in front of it, clapped my hands twice and cried 'Help!' six times, as I had been taught. There was no reply. That was puzzling. I tried again. Still no reply. The screen remained dark and its speaker silent. I noticed that the pilot light was flashing amber. Did this mean it was faulty, or merely in standby mode? I tried a third time. Still nothing.

There would be another screen in the Monitor's cabin, but that was strictly private and I was not yet ready to defy the rules of the Service – and common decency – and break down its door. Instead I resolved to try a call on the wireless, although I had no idea how to operate the transmitter. Sitting in front of the set, I turned knobs and flicked switches until the dials lit up and a crackling hiss came from the headset. I picked up the microphone, pressed the button mounted on the side and spoke, 'Hello, do you hear me? This is Doctor Powell on the LAV El Dorado. Help, I am cast off and adrift without motive power. I am unable to make progress. Please reply.' I released the button and listened, but I heard nothing but noise. I called again, many times, without success. After a while it seemed that the lights on the wireless panel were glowing less brightly than before and I guessed that the batteries were becoming exhausted. I sat back with a sigh and turned off the set. Something was wrong. Either nobody was listening to me or - unlikely as it may sound - I was no longer in the world of men but had somehow been transported overnight to a place where I was the only living human being. That idea frightened and excited me equally.

I left the bridge and returned to my cabin to take stock of the situation. In one respect it was extremely serious. I was all alone and far from land, adrift in a vessel that I could neither steer nor control and of whose working principles I was largely, by custom of the Service, ignorant. If anyone was aware of my predicament they were apparently doing nothing about it.

On the other hand, I was in no immediate danger. The ship was in ballast, having discharged her cargo, and so there was no shortage of fresh water for me to drink (salt water is not used for ballast as it causes corrosion). In addition there was plenty of food to eat - the galley stores were well stocked and I was the only person on board.

The El Dorado was riding smoothly, travelling vanes-first under the pressure of a gentle easterly wind. She felt very stable (the effect of the ballast) and her mechanisms were humming and clicking and whirring and buzzing in their normal manner. After all, her engineer was a highly capable man who kept all the machinery in as near a state of perfection as he could. In fact she was a very well-found ship, with a competent crew and conscientious owners. It was probably my fault that the wireless had not responded to my attempt to communicate with the shore and no doubt a search party was already setting forth to find me. In brief, all was as well as might reasonably be expected and the patient would surely soon be returning to normal everyday life. How was that for a diagnosis, Doctor?

Pretty encouraging, I told myself, and I left the confines of my cabin and proceeded down catwalks and ladders to the stern observation port, where I picked up the binoculars that were chained there and looked out, expecting to see aircraft already within sight. Nothing yet, but what of that? The ocean was broad and the skies were wide and there was lots of time for my rescuers to find me. Meanwhile, I would enjoy my isolation.

Lots of time…