1 year ago
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
The Epiphany of Maschmeyer the Ordinary.
Herman Melville, above, the “Moby Dick” author, went to sea as a young man, so I figured, why shouldn’t I?
So I did. For almost four years.
And the internet gives me a chance to write about it.
This was a few decades ago. Since there was a war going on – when hasn’t there been? – they desperately needed personnel for American ships, so I rose rapidly up the ranks.
Though I didn’t look much like the guy in the above picture, I nevertheless started as a lowly deckhand and developed into a “90-day wonder” – which was the sarcastic way they had of describing a simple seaman who rapidly, too rapidly, made it to the rank of officer. I ultimately became the Second Officer of the ship, incredible as that may seem.
One night we had quite an adventure: my ship ran smack into a coral reef. (Not as a result of my navigation, I assure you.)
We had run at full speed onto a coral reef in the South Pacific in the middle of the night and our ship was stuck there, dead, as the saying goes, in the water.
The thing about reefs is that they don’t play fair. A coral reef is like a huge rock sticking up out of the water, except it doesn’t stick up out of the water; it hides just beneath the surface, waiting to get you.
Science tells us that coral reefs developed through biotic processes through much of the Phanerozoic period.
Good to know.
But all that means to the seafarer is simply that for a thousand years coral reefs have been lying in wait for ships, and they still are.
And what this indicated, even to the slowest-witted member of our crew, was that we probably had a hole in the bow, and that would mean that water was probably pouring in.
What you don’t want, as the Second Officer aboard the “Titanic” could have told you, is a hole in the ship, with water pouring in.
(Later, much later, when we got back to port, a diver went down and checked it out. He said the hole in the bow was big enough to drive a jeep into.)
In today’s ships I suppose they’ve got a little computer up on the bridge that tells the officer of the watch if he’s got a hole in the bow. “Oh, I say,” the computer will opine, “there’s a whopper of a hole in the bow. Just thought I’d mention it.”
The officer, who presumably would be better trained than I was, would know what to do.
We had nothing like that. As to what kind of hole we had in the bow, and whether or not we were sinking, we had to fall back on logic, guessing and a certain amount of hoping.
For me it was an unforgettable moment, standing there in the dead of night on the bridge with the captain – who I strongly suspected had been a 90-day wonder himself – desperately trying to figure out if we were sinking.
What was needed at that moment was the ship’s carpenter. Even steel vessels, not just wooden ones, needed a ship’s carpenter. One of his duties was to regularly “sound” the bilge, the lowest part of the ship.
Here’s how you “sound.” There’s a sounding tube that leads from the ship’s bottom up to the main deck. The carpenter takes a rope that has a weight on the end and drops it down the tube. He then pulls it up and checks to see if there’s water on it and if so, how much. Not very high-tech – nothing was in those days – but it did the job.
However, at this rather tense moment, no one could find the carpenter. I now believe he slept through the whole collision with the reef, even though it had sounded like a bomb going off in the general direction of the bow when we hit.
But not to worry. We had an ordinary seaman who was a deckhand on board – “Maschmeyer the Ordinary,” as he was known – whose job it had been to accompany the carpenter as he did his soundings, so he knew how to do it. The skipper sent him up to the bow on the double to sound the deep tank and see if we were taking on water, and if so how much.
We waited nervously on the bridge as Maschmeyer, quite a distance away up on the bow, did his work.
No report came back. He said nothing. I learned later that he had been unable to believe what the sounding line told him, so he had to go through the process again.
“Well, what is it?” shouted the captain, who was irascible even in the best of times, “For God’s sake, how much water is there down there?!”
You understand, any ship might have a little water sloshing around down in the bilge; that’s normal. So if the sounding line indicates an inch or two that would be okay. More than that and you’re in trouble.
“Fifteen feet, Captain,” called back Maschmeyer, in a kind of apologetic tone.
Fifteen feet! That meant that the ship’s hull was full of water and we were sinking fast; we would have about five minutes to get the boats over the side and abandon ship.
However, someone had gotten the carpenter out of his bunk and he was now up on the bow. He shouted back to us to relax. It was then that Maschmeyer had his epiphany: he realized he had sounded the fresh water tank, the tank that held the water we used for our showers!
So – we had a huge hole in the bow, and the sea had poured in, but the watertight bulkhead, placed up there for that very purpose when they built the ship, had kept the water from filling the rest of the hull.
We limped back to shore and the ship was put up on drydock and we all got a nice three-week’s shore leave while the damage was repaired.