It really was a dark and stormy night

5 November 2010

We all have a brown trouser story tucked away somewhere. It wasn’t the intention to put any of that stuff here, but someone asked me the other day if I had any roughty-toughty, hairy-arsed fishermen’s tales to tell about big trips and bad weather. So this is one.
It was a dark and stormy night. No, it really was. It was blowing like hell, a real depths-of-winter storm, and not far from the Arctic Circle, it was most definitely dark. But it was a big boat and we’d been through worse often enough before.
We were steaming home at the end of a trip deep west of Iceland, a decent few boxes in the fishroom but light on fuel, so the ship was a touch lively and having the weather on one quarter didn’t help. 
There wasn’t a lot to do, what with the factory deck washed down and the trawls already overhauled for the next trip. It wasn’t easy to get much done with the ship rolling like a turd in a pisspot, to use a suitably fruity nautical expression, so any less-than-essential jobs were being kept until we were inside some kind of lee.
I was asleep. We were all tired after a three-week trip and days on end of bad weather can be exhausting. For some reason I’ll never be able to fathom, I woke suddenly and immediately rammed my elbows up and into the bulkhead above. To this day I don’t know why, but as I did so, the ship began to roll further than usual and I wondered just how long it was going to be before it started to roll back.
Then the locker in the cabin crashed open and the contents cascaded over the floor. A moment later the snoring second engineer tumbled from the lower bunk as the ship hung at what felt like the far edge of that long roll.
I could hear the engineer scrabbling for the light switch, cursing as he struggled to get his bearings in the pitch dark with our little steel room pitched at an absurd angle, while I lay in my bunk, elbows jammed against the bulkhead, trying desperately not to fall out.
So much passed through my mind in a few short moments. Should I try and get out? No, probably not worth it. Once the ship went over there might be a few emergency lights on, but I’d probably have to find my way along the corridor in the dark, up the stairs, and along another corridor to get to the deck which might well be under water by then. Even if I got out, I’d have scant minutes to find a life raft before hypothermia set in, and sixty miles offshore in a January storm, the chances of being found before it was too late were so slim as to be hardly worth thinking about.
Oh, well, I thought, lying there in the dark. I would have liked to see the children grow up.
Then, painfully and gradually, as if fighting its way back inch by inch, the ship began to slip back, groaning and complaining. A few seconds later and the movement was back to normal.
The light flickered on and the engineer asked crossly if I was awake. I mumbled something and left him to stuff the contents of his locker back before he flung open the door and stalked out. Panic over, I turned over and went back to sleep.
A few hours later when my watch started, I saw the roll indicator in the wheelhouse had been pushed to a new record. In the hold the 2” timber beams holding the boxes in place had splinted under the pressure, scattering cartons of frozen fish that we painstakingly re-stacked.
But what I found most satisfying was that the wave that had knocked us sideways had also forced open a door at the front of the wheelhouse and flooded out the chief mate’s cabin – which the bos’un’s watch was given the pleasant job of clearing up.

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