Author Topic: In the Stream  (Read 1178 times)

Offline HenryC

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In the Stream
« on: May 20, 2011, 10:01:21 PM »
A little bit of fiction, although it is based on an actual historical incident...

In the Stream

The knock on the door did not catch me asleep.  I had been up for a quarter of an hour, had finished shaving and needed only my coat and hat to be fully dressed.  My breakfast, which had been brought in by the steward while I slept, was cold but I had already finished the coffee and had a bit of biscuit.  I did not want a full stomach today, even if the sea sickness which had plagued me since the start of the voyage seemed to have finally abated. My newly-acquired and hard-earned sea legs told me that Drift was on a flat sea and with no sail up.  The captain obviously had the perfect weather he had been waiting for.  Today was going to be the day.

There was a knock, the door opened and a seaman stuck his head in.  "The Captain sends his compliments, and requests you join him on the quarterdeck, sir."

"Offer Captain Fremont my respects, and please inform him I am on my way."

"Aye, Aye, sir."

Having satisfied the requirements of Naval protocol, and feeling better than I had in days, I stuffed some cold bacon and what was left of the biscuit into my mouth, and followed the sailor on deck.

The captain, actually a Lieutenant in rank, as befitted such as small ship, was on the rear deck with a speaking trumpet in one hand and a telescope under the other arm.  He seemed too young to be in command of a crew of two score souls and a dozen geographers and cartographers, not to mention this very unseamanlike journalist.  He barked some commands at the boatswain and his mates as they toiled on the foredeck, stole a precautionary glance up at the Drift's tall masts, and greeted me.

"Good morning, Mr. Dalton, I was afraid you were going to miss this historic occasion.  As it is, we had to start without you."

I could see for myself, from the activity of the foredeck crew, that the anchor was already being lowered.  Drift had no fancy steam machinery, the line was being paid out by hand, carefully, a foot at a time, by a half-dozen men under the watchful supervision of the boatswain. 

"I wouldn't miss it for the world, Captain.  Tell me, how far offshore are we, and how deep is the sea here?" 

Fremont glanced about at the cloudless sky and calm seas, he was wearing his best dress uniform and had made it a point to polish its brass buttons and decorations. 

"We're twenty miles off the Florida coast, Mr. Dalton, in 200 fathoms of water, it's about a quarter mile to the sea floor. This is the deepest a ship has ever anchored, and soon, we will be the first to have ever anchored in the great Gulf Stream current.  God willing, over the next few weeks we will continue anchoring farther offshore, in progressively deeper water, to the very edge of the abyss itself, two miles down."   

I scribbled furiously in my notebook as the captain continued his account of the ship, and crew's, activities.  Almost a mile of cable had been lowered into the water, a small anchor fastened to its end.  Because of the speed of the current, Drift was being carried backwards, north, at almost five knots, while the anchor and cable streamed from her bows, at an angle to the surface, and bottom, of the sea.    Once the hook dug into the bottom, Drift would become a stationary object, fastened to the sea floor, her long anchor line absorbing the shock of the current.  From her solid position, the geographers and assisting sailors would lower current-measuring "logs" and be able to determine with the highest possible accuracy the speed of this great river in the sea. 

The logs and their associated tackle were already being assembled on the ship's stern.  They were metal canisters designed to float just below the surface while providing the greatest possible resistance to the flow.  Lines would be extended as they were swept away, and a delicate clockwork mechanism would register the speed of their drift in the current.  The men slowly paid the lines from the tubs they were stored in, carefully arranging them on the deck so they would not tangle as the canisters floated away from the ship. I had watched the procedure drilled earlier, and the men worked with the single-mindedness and precision of skill and practice.  Forward, the anchor cable spun out into the water, first having passed through a brake controlled by a burly seaman.  The boatswain hovered about supervising his division, who carefully pulled the wire rope from below.

Captain Fremont surveyed his trim little ship, and saw that it was good.  "Mr. Dalton," he remarked, "I hope you can communicate to your readers the scientific value of this moment. It is a time of great pride for me, the Naval Service, and my crew.  We live in an age of progress and reason, and America has taken its place in the world at the head of the march.." 

I must confess I felt the pride welling within me too, watching the Stars and Stripes lightly waving in the gentle breeze against a deep blue tropical sky; the clean, trim little ship and its smart crew hard at work, the wide and beautiful sea and its great currents tamed to the standard of industry and commerce for the benefit of all peoples and all nations.  I wrote Fremont's words down verbatim, a shorthand record of a historic moment for the world to read and cheer.

"Anchor's on the bottom, Cap'n.", bellowed the boatswain.  He placed his foot on the cable to feel it dragging on the distant plain below and communicated to the man on the capstan with hand signals to slowly apply the brake, just enough to dig the anchor in but not so hard that it would pull free and bounce along the bottom, possibly fouling on its own cable.  I watched the Captain's face and the change of expression when he felt the hook grab far below (he knew the feel of his ship well!).  A moment later came the word from the forecastle, "Anchor's fast, sir."  Fremont pulled his watch from his jacket pocket and ordered the quartermaster to log the the exact time.  I could dimly hear the officer on watch mumbling orders to the helmsman.

The sensation was not what I would have expected from a ship swinging at anchor.  Drift was no longer floating free in the stream, but the force of the water continued to push her astern until the great weight of the long curve of almost a mile of steel cable slowly brought her to a stop, the force of the Gulf Stream against her bows exactly counterbalancing the power of that enormous mass of wire.  There was no shudder, no quiver, just a gradual stop.  But the sensation aboard was entirely different than expected; it was as if the ship had instantly sprung forward and was sailing in a fresh breeze, except there was no wind and no sail.  It was eerie and disconcerting, the vessel did not heel, but the stem parted the sea casting spray about her bows, a wake trailed at her stern.  The crew seemed startled, they had never experienced this before, they looked about in confusion at this unfamiliar motion, so different than in all their combined years at sea.  I watched the steward cross himself, and Fremont and the first officer glanced at each other, almost in surprise.  The boatswain and his men, the idle hands and watchstanders, the helmsman and quartermaster, all froze in a moment of disorientation and confusion.  Drift suddenly appeared to be moving along at a rapid clip; the vessel had gone in a moment from placid motionlessness on a calm sea, to about the speed of a leisurely running man. 

But of course, Drift was not in motion.  She was securely anchored, it was the flat, waveless water that was rushing past us, at a furious six miles per hour.  It was as if the surface of the ocean had tilted and the sea was pouring off the edge of the earth, threatening to take us with it. For as far as the eye could see in all directions to the horizon, the flow of a million Mississippis roared past us.  We could not begin to comprehend the size of it all, the power, the horrifying presence. We had all known what would happen, we had studied the charts, we knew the obvious result of anchoring in this great current.  But when faced with it directly it was almost too much to bear.  I felt a feeling of dread come over me, slowly metamorphosing to panic which I scarcely was able to contain.  The sight of that breathless torrent, hitherto unnoticed because we had been part of it, was now inescapable.  Drift was a speck, a mote, a nothingness against this awesome power. Only the puny thread of the anchor cable kept us from being swept along to the precipice. In a mighty river hundreds of miles across, thousands of miles long, God only knew how deep, the sea rushed past us as if we were not there, as if we did not matter, as if we were a bubble of foam about to be swept away in the maelstrom.

I watched Captain Fremont, shaken,  walk to the rail and steady himself, although the deck scarcely moved, and I saw the look in his eyes as he stared across at that impossible Niagara that swept past us. This man was no coward, he had spent a life at sea, but nothing had prepared him for this.  He slowly tore himself away from that dreadful scene, his ship needed him now, and he composed himself before he began issuing orders to his crew.  But for that one moment, I saw the fear in his eyes and realized it was in my eyes also.  He had stared into the face of the Demon, and so had I.

Offline Bob23

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Re: In the Stream
« Reply #1 on: May 30, 2011, 05:26:20 AM »
Henry:
   Great story! I almost felt as if I were there! A while back I bought the book "The Gulf Stream" by Stan Ulanski. It is a great book touching on the statistical and historical significance of the stream and other ocean currents. Me, being primarily a bay sailor in NJ am amazed at the volumn of water conveyed by the stream. I don't remember the amount and can't just now find it in the book. It really is a wonderful means of moving heat and nutrients northward. I'm always amazed at how "alive" our planet is.
   Thanks for all your writings here at the site; Keep 'em coming.  My literary contributions to the magazine world are limited to "Messing about in boats". It's all voluntary...I just enjoy doing it.
Bob23

Offline HenryC

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Downstream
« Reply #2 on: May 30, 2011, 09:09:51 AM »
Thanks, Bob, I really appreciate it.

You may be getting a lot more of them.  I've been writing pretty steadily now for Florida Wildlife Magazine,  20 articles over the past 6 years.  I've been their unoffcial "boating editor". They have just notified me they are going out of business, immediately after the May-Jun issue.  It will have my last article for them, "Trailer Sailing". FWM is published by the Florida Wildlife Commission, and they are shutting the magazine down on account of the economy.

It's really sad, FWM is a real asset to Florida sportsmen and naturalists, and has terrific articles and wildlife and nature photography and art.  It is a resource for all Floridians and those who love our natural environment.  I was very proud to have been considered and chosen by them as their resident "boating guru".  FWM may continue on as an internet publication, but no firm plans have been made yet.  I suggest you check their website, some of their back issues are preserved there.

I used to write for Good Old Boat as well, (11 articles over 5 years) mostly sailing bios, wind-and-wave pieces and boat and yard reviews, but that publication is now concentrating mostly on repair and maintenance upgrade type articles, and I have no expertise in that area.  The only aspect of seamanship I am particularly qualified in, traditional navigation, is rapidly becoming a lost art.  GPS has made me obsolete.

Fortunately, writing has always been just a hobby for me. I never depended on it for my livelihood and I am comfortably retired now so I'm not expecting to suffer from these developments. But I will miss it. For those of you interested in my work, a complete catalog of it and some links to online copies can be found at

http://www.sandyjdesigns.com/page19.html

I've written about Com-Pacs, I've sailed in them and I have friends who own them, but I've never owned one myself.  I'd like to thank you guys for letting me hang out with you and putting up with my occasional rants. I've really made some good friends here.
« Last Edit: May 30, 2011, 09:16:05 AM by HenryC »

Offline Bob23

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Re: In the Stream
« Reply #3 on: May 30, 2011, 09:21:57 PM »
   You keep writing..I'll keep reading. Maybe I'll email you my latest attempt at literary excellence in diguise as a short story for Messing About in Boats. I welcome your feedback.
   A while back, I completed a short test for a writing school specializing in childrens books. It sounded interesting and I like childrens stories. It may because I was once one myself. Some say I still am! The school sail I had talent and wanted me to enroll in a course or two. I haven't done it yet because available time is just not, well, available.
Bob23