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A short story by James Runciman

In The Bay

Title:     In The Bay
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The screw steamer "Coquet" left a little port on the north coast early one October. She was bound for Genoa; and as this was a long trip, a little group of men, among whom were several who owned shares in her, waved their farewells from the end of the pier. A number of small tradesmen and a few well-to-do fishermen had formed a company to buy her, so she was regarded as quite an institution of the port. A smart captain had managed her cleverly, and she paid, during five years, an average dividend of nearly fifty per cent., after the modest claims of the "managing" owner had been satisfied. Naturally she was regarded as a treasure, and her fortunate owners used to make triumphant observations about her to less lucky men. The steamer had gone through some very bad weather; but as every rivet in her hull had been examined while she was being put together, and that too by a man whom no skulker could deceive, she had lived in seas that sent scamped ships to the bottom.

The "Coquet" got away down Channel and struck for Ushant without any mishap; but when she got well into the Bay the sky began to look ominous. On the second morning the sea ran very strong, and by mid-day the gale had fairly come. All the fine descriptions of heavy weather in the Bay help one but little to understand what it is really like. It is hardly possible to think coherently about the enormous hurly-burly, much less to write or speak so as to make anyone understand how the masses of water move and how they sound. The "Coquet" got into a very bad quarter indeed, and the captain soon saw that it was useless to try running her. All hands were warned; the formalities of watches were dispensed with; and the engineers received orders to get on every possible ounce of steam. Then the ship was placed with her head to the sea, and the master took his place on the bridge. He did not know what a very long spell he would have. Only by keeping the engines at full speed ahead the vessel was enabled to hold her ground, and sometimes when the usual eight great waves were followed by the mountainous ninth, she lost considerably. The captain had to watch like a cat; for an instant's nervousness, a momentary failure of judgment, would have let her come round, and then all would have been soon over. The men hung on anyhow, and the two hands at the wheel were lashed, for the hull was seldom above water. A pouring stream rushed over the steamer; and hardly had one volume of water passed away when another came down like thunder. There was very little of the usual creamy foam, for the sea ran over the ship as though she were not there. When the downward flights came, the captain on the high bridge was often up to his knees in water; and again and again he made up his mind that his vessel could never come out of it. Once, when the mate dodged aft and clambered to the bridge, the "Coquet" took a long rush down, after she had reared on end like a horse. Her plunge was like the dive of a whale, and the screw "raced"--that is, whirled round high above the sea-level. The mate said, "She's gone, sir;" the captain replied, "Give her time." Once more she came up and shook herself; but it seemed as though her elasticity was gone. In truth, her deck had an ugly slant. During all this time the wind was growing, and the sea was gaining speed and strength. It could not very well last, and nobody knew that better than the captain. A blinding scuffle of cross-seas came and the "Coquet" was smothered for a while; the captain heard a crashing sound, and when he looked round the starboard boat was smashed and hanging in splinters, while the port boat was torn clean away. These were the only two boats that the vessel had. The slant or "list" grew more pronounced, for the cargo had shifted; and the steamer was now like a boxer whose left hand is tied behind his back. She seemed to take the blows passively, only lungeing doggedly up when the wild welter had flowed over her, and still keeping her nose to the sea. All night long the captain hung on the bridge. It was his second night, and in that time he had only had one biscuit, that the mate gave him. His legs were very tired, and every muscle was strained in the effort to cling fast. He could, of course, see nothing; and it was only by the compass that he could tell how to keep her head. At midnight a wave swept everything; the compass amidships and the one astern both went, and a man was taken overboard. Still the wind kept on, and the only light to be seen was the flash of the curling spray. The dawn broke, and still the sea was bad. At seven o'clock a tremendous crash sounded, and the vessel staggered: there was a long ripping grind, and the port bulwark was gone; so all the seas that came aboard after this had their own way, and as the vessel "listed" to port the deck was a very dangerous place. The mate managed again to get near the captain. He said: "The men want you to put her before the sea, sir; so do I." The captain replied: "If you propose such a thing again, sir, I'll break your head as soon as I can get loose from here. Keep the men in heart." At noon the second mate came forward with a white face, saying: "The tarpaulin's gone off the after-hold, sir." The captain was badly put out by hearing this, but he shouted: "Lash the men how you can, and try to make fast again." While the men (with ropes round their waists) were wrestling with the tarpaulin, a wave doubled over the ship, making her shake; and, as the captain afterwards said, "the fellows were swimming like black-beetles in a basin of water." One poor "ordinary" went overboard in the wash of this sea, and nothing could be done for him. At four o'clock the chief engineer came up, and managed to tell the captain that two fires were drowned out, and that the firemen would stay below no longer. The captain asked, "Have you the middle fire?" and receiving an affirmative answer, he said, "Give the men each half a tumbler of brandy to put some pluck in them." A merry Irish fireman was so influenced by his dose of spirit that he joked and coaxed his mates down below again, and once more the fight was resumed. The sun drooped low, and threw long swords of light through rifts in the dull grey veil. The captain knew it was now or never, so he managed to get the men called where they could hear him, and shouted: "Now, when that sun dips we'll have the warmest half-hour of all. If she lives through that and the gale breaks, I can save her. If she doesn't, you must die like men. You should say your prayers." When the "warm half-hour" came it was something beyond belief. The "Coquet" was as bare as a newly launched hull before it was over; then came a kind of long sigh, and the wind relaxed its force. All night the sea lessened; and at dawn there was but a light air of wind, with no breaking waves at all. The captain then dared to run before the sea; he got his vessel round, and she went comfortably away on the steady roll. He had known all along that if he tried to fetch her round she would assuredly share the fate of the "London." That steamer was smashed in by a doubling sea that came over her stern while the captain was trying to take her about.

The master of the "Coquet" had been seventy-two hours on the bridge, and he was nearly asleep as he walked. In trying to get to his berth he fell face foremost, and slept on the cabin-floor in his wet oilskin suit. When he woke he had a nastier problem than ever, for his compasses were gone, and the ship had a dangerous "list." However, he soon bethought him of a tiny pocket-compass which he had in his state-room. Working with this, and managing to get a sight of the sun, he contrived to get within fourteen miles of Gibraltar--which was very fair seamanship. He reached Genoa; but the ship was sixteen days overdue, and the people at home were alarmed. On the morning after the "Coquet's" arrival one of her owners looked through a local journal, and, finding no good news, went and got his shares under-written 60 per cent. more. On coming out of the office he was met by a friend, who heartily congratulated him on his good luck. When he asked wherein the good luck consisted, he was shown a paragraph in another local journal which stated that "The steamship 'Coquet' arrived at Genoa, sixteen days overdue. Boats gone, port bulwark gone, compasses gone, and two men lost overboard."

The lesson to be learned from the "Coquet's" escape is simple. In that very gale as many men were killed at sea as would have fallen in a moderately important battle. The number of missing steamers was great, and there is no doubt but that most of these vessels foundered. The "Coquet" was built under the eye of a critic who did not suffer champagne to bias his ideas of solid workmanship. She is still earning heavy dividends for her owners. The steamers that broke in two and went down were not superintended on the stocks by a shrewd and vigilant overlooker: so they drowned their crews.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: In The Bay