I took a deep breath and knocked on the door but there was no answer. I needed the captain on the bridge. The typhoon was upon us and I was very concerned. I knocked again and entered.
‘Captain you should be on the bridge.’
There was a particularly strong gust and the ship heeled, the wind even inside the accommodation howling, which emphasised my appeal. There was still no answer from the recumbent form lying on the settee dressed in his rumpled shore going clothes. He was curled up in the foetal position.
I shook his shoulder and said loudly. ‘Are you ill Sir?’
‘Go away,’ he screamed, the sound shocking in the confined space, the wind shaking the accommodation.
My heart sank and that first flicker of fear, that first feeling of panic started. I was young to be chief officer and this was my first ship in that rank but I knew I must fight the rising panic inside me. The realisation the captain was in a funk, or mad, or sick hit me and I had to do something about it or we would lose the ship. She was jerking on the too short a chain cable to the buoy and the ship would break free. What should I do? I thought hard as I looked at the captain and realised I had no option. I had to take over command, usurp the captain. It was a terrifying concept but once I accepted the situation there was no more time to ponder.
I quickly returned to the bridge. It was raining heavily, the water drops hitting the wheelhouse windows like bullets fired from a gun.
‘I’m taking over command John, the captain is in a funk or ill and will not come to the bridge. Log it, I will sign and you witness it.’
The second officer looked shocked. Another strong gust heeled the ship alarmingly and the bow swung off brought up suddenly by the chain accentuating the typhoon raging outside
‘We are going to fill the deep tanks with sea water John. Fill in the water ballast order book and the third mate can take it down. I will phone the Chief Engineer’
While telephoning I looked out of the wheelhouse window criss crossed by strips of plaster in case it shattered. The squall had passed and I could see up the harbour. The air was filled with spume and it was blowing so hard the tops of the waves were blown away making the sea appear white. I could not see the chain but I knew it was bar taught. It was time to use the engine and I pushed the telegraph lever to slow ahead.
‘Steer north,’ I ordered the quartermaster as I watched the engine revolution counter flicker then move to 20.
Another gust hit the ship heeling her sufficiently to make me hold on and I knew if I did not do something else quickly the chain would break.
‘John, do you think you could go forward and let go the starboard anchor? Take the bosun.’
‘I can but try,’ his slight frame belying an inner strength and determination. At that moment the chief engineer appeared in the wheelhouse agitatedly waving the ballast book in his hand, his normal unflappable manner gone.
‘What’s this Mr. Mate?’ he said pointing at the instructions I had written. ‘Its not signed by the captain.’
‘Captain is sick chief, I’ve taken over command. He is lying on his daybed. I have logged it.’
I felt rather than saw, as I looked out of the wheelhouse window, the “Redshank” was moving ahead. The whole accommodation was shaking in a gust and the air was filled with spume and spray blown off the sea. The noise of the wind meant we had to raise our voices to be heard. I did not want to overrun the buoy and so stopped the engine for a short while and then resumed slow ahead. The chief engineer, ballast book in his hand, stood watching and I said...
‘The sooner we ballast her down the better, chief, the eye of the typhoon will pass over Hong Kong and the wind may be even stronger afterwards.’
The door of the chartroom was flung open and the captain appeared, still in his shore going clothes. He staggered in and clutching the chart table for support shouted.
‘Everything alright Mr. Mate.’
‘Yes.’ I replied shocked.
‘Then I will leave you to it,’ and he left the chartroom slamming the door behind him.
My steward entered with a tray of tea and sandwiches wearing a life jacket over his uniform. He put the tray down on the chart table and left without a word. The chief engineer followed him out.
Suddenly over the noise of the raging typhoon I heard the rattle of chain, very faint, but I gave a sigh of relief. With the anchor down there was every chance the ship would stay attached to the buoy. The violent swings caused by the gusts would be much reduced and when ballasted she would be much heavier in the water.
John returned soaking wet but smiling, ‘we had to crawl and were lucky to make it.’
‘Well done well done,’ I said shaking his hand, ‘you’ve given us a good chance of making it now. The eye will soon be here.’
The eye of the storm passed over, an eerie calm with a cloudless star speckled sky. I could see the ships in the harbour all appearing to be normal but I knew we did not have long. I used the engine to try and swing the ship to head in the opposite direction so she would be bow onto the renewed typhoon once the eye passed. Quite suddenly the first gusts of wind and then the typhoon was upon us again with a vengeance from the opposite direction. The bow swung violently heeling the ship but the cable held. The wind moaned around the wheelhouse, shaking it ,vibrating the windows, causing the whole ship to shudder as though it was trying to detach the wheelhouse and fling it away. The tumult had increased and it was difficult to even think but I kept the engine on slow and sometimes half ahead guessing when she started to move ahead. The anchor made all the difference and eventually it was over, the wind decreased and life returned to normal. I went down to the captain’s cabin, knocked and walked in. The captain I had usurped was lying on his back and there was blood all over the place, he had cut his wrists. I turned to find the chief engineer standing in the doorway.
‘Well Richard, he was a weakling, you now really are the Captain.’
(c) Ian Tew