Nautical Disaster

Kohan L. Eybergen

It was a ship, and quite a large one by the looks of the array of coloured lights heaving up and down in the rough Atlantic waters. Frances kept going over all of the things that he had been pondering for the past two or so hours since he’d spotted the lights peering over the dark horizon before him. “Possibly British Navy,” he grumbled aloud to himself in French. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in the Dover Strait since the war started in 1939. However, if it were a Navy vessel, it was strange that all the lights would be on for fear of being spotted by the enemy; they would usually be off.

Frances grabbed his tobacco jar off of the little roll top desk in the watch room of his lighthouse. He had been the lighthouse keeper there for nearly twenty-three years since the end of the first Great War, in which he had served. The small room was already filled to the brim with an eerie blue haze of pipe smoke, but Frances filled another bowl full of tobacco; he had been smoking incessantly since he glimpsed the lights of the ship through his dated binoculars. He had a nasty, anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach that something wasn’t quite right.

Seeing a ship at night was nothing out of the ordinary; it was the world’s most trafficked waterway, but seeing a ship this close to the rocky shore during a late November storm was cause for at least a little concern. He fumbled with the matches as he lit the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe.

There was hardly any chance at all that the ship was a fishing boat. There were too many lights spaced too far apart from one another, he thought, and the strait was much too rocky for fishermen’s nets anyway. And the vessel was certainly too small to be a freighter carrying goods. It was almost definitely a Navy vessel, he had deducted.

Outside in the dark of the night, the storm raged on with an unholy fury. The wind pounded and rattled the glass panes of Frances’s watch room with continuous gusts, and the lightning over the strait illuminated the night to reveal the sinister clouds and vicious waves. Frances was certainly not a virgin when it came to storms by any means, but even he couldn’t ignore the particularly vehement way in which this storm violently attacked and buffeted everything in its path. The wind whipped the tops of the waves causing whitecaps like snowy mountain peaks, screaming around the lighthouse. Whoever was on that ship, Frances thought, was in for a hell of a night.

 

***

It was chaos aboard the HMS Gordon. The navy men were hustling around the deck, buckling on life preservers, and shoving towards the nearest lifeboats. It had been at least two and a half hours since the torpedo had ripped through her bow and torn a large chunk out of the hull. Despite the considerable damage, the ship was going down slowly. The captain had commanded that the major hatchways that led to the compromised area of the ship be closed off immediately after they had been hit, regardless of the men that may be trapped in those quarters. This bought The Gordon some time afloat. The captain had also ordered the engine room to haul forward full steam ahead, making for the rotating beam of the lighthouse off in the distance.

Benjamin hustled towards a lifeboat where men were jostling each other and cursing at one another in their desperate attempts to board it. He was fortunate that he was quite large and did not have much difficulty in wading through the rest of the men. As Benjamin boarded the lifeboat, a second torpedo rocked the ship. The German submarine must have lost track of the HMS Gordon in the ungodly storm that was thundering around with a drunken fury in the strait. But evidently, the submarine had recovered its prey and began the assault once again. The cables suspending the lifeboat went momentarily slack and the boat swung out and slammed back into the side of the ship. The Gordon shuddered from the force of the blow. The lifeboat dropped into the churning water adjacent to the ship, and the men aboard it began to row for their lives.

 

Benjamin rowed with a ferocity that caused every muscle in his body to shriek in pain, but against the gargantuan waves, it made no difference as if they had been rowing like children. As he glanced up to witness The Gordon go down, he saw many men who were not fortunate enough to board a lifeboat jump from the railings into the sea, and begin to swim frantically towards the boats that had escaped in time. It was easier for individual men wearing life preservers to cut through the waves than it was for the small watercrafts, and this posed a difficult problem. The small lifeboats could only support ten people apiece, and the men, if left in the water, would inevitably die of hypothermia or drown in the tyrant of waves from the storm. Benjamin looked into the near distance towards the rotating beam of the lighthouse and continued to row with an intensified determination.

 

***

Frances peered through the binoculars pressed painfully against his eye sockets. Most of the ship’s lights had flickered and extinguished, and he could now see multiple, smaller boats rising and falling in the turbulent white-capped waves. The ship and its crew were also now close enough to the lighthouse that Frances could partially make out tiny orange dots that speckled throughout the rough surf around the dark silhouettes of lifeboats. The orange specks, which he took to be floating men, were thrashed madly by the waves like ants in a flood, and many of them would disappear out of sight for a while only to resurface again moments later.

 

Frances was right: it was a navy vessel, and it was obviously in distress. However, there was nothing practical that he could ever hope to do. The storm and waves were much too rough for him to attempt a rescue mission in his tugboat, and it was much too small, and he was too old to rescue all of these men anyway. If he did decide to set out to save these men, he certainly would have been spit back out violently by the sea onto the hellish rocks along the shoreline. There was absolutely nothing that Frances could do.

 

He continued to stare through his binoculars at the ship that was now only illuminated for a few seconds at a time by the flashes of lightning. He saw that it was sinking rapidly. He parted his ageing eyes from the haunting image of the capsizing vessel, and now focused them on the small lifeboats that were being tossed around by the white-capped waves as easily as if they were children’s toys. Frances also noticed that many of the orange-jacketed men seemed to be struggling in the water around the lifeboats and grabbing onto the sides. He watched on, transfixed as boats were overturned and men were cast into the violent, frigid water. Some of the boats were now dangerously close to the rocks just off the shore, and the ones that were further away were being overcome by the men swimming frantically in the waves.

***

As Benjamin rowed, he watched his fellow navy men in the water getting closer and closer to the lifeboats. The rowers on the port side shoved the first man that reached them roughly away back into the waves. All the lifeboats that were still afloat were already full, and the struggling navy men in the water were trying desperately to grab hold of the sides and pull themselves up. As more and more men swarmed the boats, the small crafts were taking on water under the weight of the bodies.

 

The men on the boats were forcefully pushing the swimmers away and hitting approaching men with the oars. A struggling man thrust his hand out of the water and grasped ahold of one of the straps on Benjamin’s life preserver and hung on for his life. He tried prying the man’s corpse-cold hand off, but the man had wound the loose strap around his hand and wrist and it was too difficult for Benjamin to free himself. Benjamin shed off his life preserver and it slipped over the edge and into the sea along with the waterlogged navy man. He peered over into the rough water to see the man sputtering and thrashing, and he knew that the men in the water were doomed to die.

 

As he rowed, he looked forward past the stern of the lifeboat to see if he could catch a last glimpse of the HMS Gordon going down, but it had been already overcome by the waves, so he turned and focused on the lighthouse and its rotating beam of light. The storm raged on with thunder louder than gunfire, but not quite loud enough to silence the drowning navy men’s screams in Benjamin’s head. He felt ashamed and guilty about the man he had stopped from getting into the boat. Why should he live while the men in the water should die just because he had got himself to a lifeboat quicker than the others?

 

Through tears and seawater he saw what had to have been the largest wave yet, a leviathan-sized wall of black water surging towards the lifeboats. He could not even shout as he was paralyzed with fear. Benjamin did not even feel the force of the wave as it slammed into his body and the lifeboats were crushed; he was numb bone-deep with the cold. His mind turned to black as his life preserver-less body was swept down and away in the undertow of the strait.

 

***

The morning had arrived slowly as thick clouds shrouded the sky and obscured the rising sun. Frances had awoken earlier than usual after a restless night of waking sleep to notice that the storm had finally ceased. He limped slowly down the spiral staircase of his lighthouse with immense labour until he reached the bottom. He donned his raincoat, knitted wool hat, and wellington boots, and lit his pipe before heading for the doorway. Frances opened the iron studded driftwood door and stepped outside feeling the moist ocean wind on his bearded wrinkled face.

 

Before reaching the steps that led down the rock face of the low cliff, Frances confirmed his assessment of the severity of the storm, and he realized that he was wise in not attempting a rescue. His small tugboat was laying on its caved-in side nearly fifteen yards from the edge of the cliff; the sea swells must have picked it up out of the water with such force to break the lines holding it to the pier, and set it down roughly on top of the rocks. He certainly would have perished if he had tried to brave the storm the night before, especially at his age.

 

Frances climbed down the steep concrete and wood steps that led to the rocky beach below. As he reached the bottom, he passed shards of wood and debris strewn across the shore, and then he came across the first body. It was bloated and waterlogged, and the corpse’s face was hardly recognizable as human. Frances felt an overwhelming sensation of guilt rise in his chest, part of which would never fade despite his knowledge that he could not have done anything to save these men from their fate. He resolutely did not look at any of the other bodies as he limped past them towards the small pier. When he reached the end, he looked down into the black ocean water rising and falling below him. He had seen many storms in his lifetime, and he had seen too many nautical disasters in his days as lighthouse keeper, but this one topped both of those lists. He took a box of matches out of an inside pocket of his rain jacket. With cold, fumbling fingers he relit the bowl of his grimy pipe and dropped the match into the frigid water. Frances watched it float in solemn silence as the sky began to rain.

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