Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Side Dish of Cockroach

We were having dinner below decks, The Captain and I. It was a risk, as we had left the cockpit unmanned. Nobody was present to watch for oncoming merchant ships, but it was our nightly ritual to sit down to a proper dinner in an attempt to interject a bit of civilization into what was a thoroughly uncivilized affair.

The Captain was a gruff old fellow, a no nonsense type of red blooded American with the old can-do attitude one rarely finds in the breed nowadays. Through our journey he had managed to repair or jurry-rig everything that had broken down on that tired old vessel. And a frightful list of things had gone terribly wrong already.

The Captain had purchased the ship for a mere six thousand dollars. A 54-foot sailing ketch that he had picked up in the Caribbean; it had been all but been destroyed in a hurricane. He had proudly showed me some pictures of his new acquisition during our initial first few days at sea. It had a hole in it the size of a Volkswagen bug. It was afloat, and he had somehow patched the gaping wounds and restored the lines of the hull, but it was not much improved from its original condition.

We had had several dangerous encounters with merchant ships already. When you are on a collision course with an oncoming ship, a great number of things have to be considered quickly. As a sailing vessel, We were the slowest and least manoeuvrable thing on the ocean. The law of the sea granted us the right of way, and these giant behemoths were obligated to yield, and change course to avoid us. This had not happened once. Attempts to communicate had failed, every time.

There is precious little time to make a decision upon first spotting an oncoming vessel. From the moment its light becomes visible, you have between three and ten minutes to alert the ship, or fall off course. It was hard to believe when staring out at that endless expanse of horizon. But horrible, crushing death can come upon you that quickly. And we we running dark, without a radar reflector. It was in The Captain's infernal temperment to consider lights and radar useless.

On one occasion, early in the journey, I had spotted an approaching vessel. It was night, and I had misread its trajectory, believing it would pass behind us. Almost too late, I realized my mistake. I flung myself below and scrambled to the radio.

"Merchant Ship! Merchant Ship! We are on a collision course, fall off, fall off!" I was met with silence on the radio, no matter how many times I repeated my desperate message. My cries into the radio had awoken The Captain, and shrugging off sleep, he dashed through the companionway to assess the situation for himself. Immediately grabbing for the ten million candle power beam, he shone it up to illuminate the voluminous expanse of sail. The white sails lit up, reflecting the light, creating a beacon that could be seen from horizon to horizon.

We waited.

Still the Juggernaut plowed through the sea toward us.

"We have to fall off!" The captain shouted.

We had no choice and no time to spare, I could now make out the hull of the ship in the darkness, and hear the sea parting as the great weight of the thing pushed relentlessly forward.

He leaned on the tiller, turning hard to port, mindless of the now wildly luffing sails.

There was always a chance that the ship could change course, or respond to our message too late, creating a new collision course, but we had no option at this point, the beast was upon us.

The roaring of the parting water of the ship's passage could now be heard over our own engine. I watched as a black monolith blotted out the stars to our starboard. It couldn't have been more than one hundred metres away. As it passed I stared up in amazement, shocked at this trespass of the unbroken horizon I had looked out upon for so long.

It left us wildly bobbing in the turbulence of its wake. The powerful engines creating a deep, throbbing hum that sent a violent vibration through our tiny vessel. We watched silently as its roar gradually softened, and it eventually disappeared from view.

"Goddammit!" The Captain cursed. "Asleep at the helm! Or more likely playing cards and drinking below decks!"

"If he had hit us, we'd have been done for!" The Captain exclaimed.

"Well," I asked, "wouldn't he have come back and searched for survivors?"

"Are you kidding? They'd have run us down and never felt a thing!"

Our dinners were hardly a relaxed affair, with this omnipresent threat lurking deep in the inky night all around us.

A large cockroach scuttled across the floor. The Captain paused his meal long enough to lean over and kill it with the flat of his hand. He stabbed at the corpse with his fork, picking it up and scraping it off onto the side of his plate. Undaunted, he turned his attention back to the remaining portion of his food.

“Damn things eat each other and just keep breeding” He grumbled.

It was true, the cockroaches were an invincible force of procreation, and no amount of slaughter could slow their ever increasing numbers. However, it was in The Captain's nature to never give up.

I finished up my meal, and made my way out into the frigid night, to watch.
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