Wednesday, February 9, 2011

For "Writer's Island" and "A Thousand Years"

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.


chiccoreal said...

Dear Admiral Browne: Quite a commandeering tale that smacks of truth, just like that bulwark of a hull! What an adventure! Particularly enjoyed the part of not knowing the damage until the carpenter could report his estimate of "damage control". Minutes must have seemed like hours, not knowing. You were very brave, I bet your knees were shaking for at least a week on the three week shore leave, but that could have been the "sea-leg boogie-woogie". Love tales of the high seas! Thanks for sharing these unforgetable memories!

Paul C said...

Riveting tale. I have to think about the Titanic's bulkheads which deemed it unsinkable. Too bad the gash went a little too far.

Francisca said...

Hah,the Peter Principle in action, hey? I agree with chiccoreal, you must have endured loooong minutes of dread! Dazzling story! And lived to tell it.

Leslie: said...

Shades of the Titanic, indeed! You all must have been scared out of your minds...

Sara Katt said...

Meow! What an adventure! Glad you got out of that one and could tell the tale!
Sara Cat,
Sara Cat's ABCWedrd-8-D 'D is for Dog'

Berowne said...

Paul C.: "I have to think about the Titanic's bulkheads which deemed it unsinkable."
Very true. If the watertight bulkheads on that ship had been installed correctly, it would have stayed afloat.

Berowne said...

Francisca: "Hah,the Peter Principle in action, hey?"
Yes, I'm afraid that pretty well describes my career as a ship's officer. :-)

Berowne said...

chiccoreal: "Dear Admiral Berowne..."
Hah! I didn't quite make it to that rank. :-)

Roger Owen Green said...

I'm sure you looked JUST like the guy in the pic!
Scary story, but with a reasonably happy ending - shore leave!
ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Kathe W. said...

whew that's quite a story!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tale, wonderfully told.

I was halfway between Hawaii and Alaska when the shaft seal on our 65 footer began pouring a fine stream. Hardly as dramatic as a stove-in bow, of course, but boats, holes and water being what they are, you don't like to see any unexpected combination of the three.

As the saying goes, such events do focus the attention. Happy you escaped without further harm (as did we).

Berowne said...

shoreacres: "Wonderful tale, wonderfully told."
Thanks. Great to share seafaring tales with you.

Gigi Ann said...

Loved your real life story. What did you do on your three week leave?

Anonymous said...

A little bit of danger (or a lot, in your case) is so much better than a safe, untested life! As long as you survive it, of course. :) Glad you lived to tell the tale.

Berowne said...

evenstarwen: "A little bit of danger (or a lot, in your case) is so much better than a safe, untested life!"
Though it doesn't seem so at the time. :-)

Berowne said...

Gigi Ann: "What did you do on your three week leave?"
Well, I was a young guy who had been at sea for quite a while. Do the math. :-)

Anonymous said...

well written as well as exciting and humorous - what more could we ask.

Madeleine Begun Kane said...

I enjoyed your tale! Thanks! Here's my
Epiphany Tanka.

linda may said...

G'Day, great story, I enjoyed that. Hey, I have been taking part in a new prompt site that your story would fit perfectly in. It is on my sidebar , the link is "Monday Memories" if you click on it....well you know the story. So if you are interested.......

linda may said...

P.S. I hope that wasn't our lovely reef.

Kodjo Deynoo. said...

This is wonderful

flaubert said...

Berowne, I love this story. I am a huge lover of
boats, mostly sailboats. You were very lucky.


JTS said...

What a great story!! My Dad served proudly in the US Navy during WWII and his love for ships remained forever. I'm delighted that you linked to this post for "Memories on Mondays", and I hope you'll join us there again!

Gloria said...

So glad for the epiphany before the ship was abandoned. :) This was a great write for the prompt, and I learned a little along the way! I enjoyed it!

Everyday Goddess said...

wow, what a scary event! very suspensful to hear now, but that must have been terrifying at the time.

oldegg said...

Great tale. I can remember scenes such as this at the movies when the ship's carpenter struggles to stem the leak from a hole in the ship, drenched with icy cold water and the rest of the crew just wishing he would hurry up. Very well told indeed.

jaerose said...

What expansive knowledge and tales of the always teach me something new..I loved the voice of the computer as well..made me smile 'I say old, chap'..slaute to you cap'n..

Berowne said...

What a pleasure to read great comments from jaerose, oldegg, E. Goddess, Gloria, JTS, flaubert, Kodjo D., linda may, Mad Kane and vivinfrance -- thanks so much.

Dave King said...

The carpenter's apologetic voice... now, that's the bit I enjoyed the most! Great tale, though. And well told.

Kim Nelson said...

Felt like reading history, and I like reading history!

Catherine Denton said...

You had me glued to the computer. Beautifully told. I'm glad it all turned out okay and un-Titanic-like.

Lilibeth said...

Well I'm glad the story had a happier ending than that of the Titanic. I'm sure the first sounder felt pretty stupid...however so relieved that it overcame the stupid feeling.

Pat said...

That was a good story - amusingly told and thank goodness no tragic ending.

Old Altonian said...

A terrific story Berowne, my father would have liked that one. He WAS the ships joiner, but he got washed overboard during his wreck. He survived though.

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