In the terror of this moment, as a rancorous ocean violently lashed our frail craft and vented torment upon us, it seemed an eternity since Carrie and I exchanged farewells on that sunny southern shore.
I feared the vessel would founder and roll beneath a foaming turbulence, emit a despairing gasp of steam, and, clutching its luckless wretched human cargo, sink into the cold, dark, senseless depths.
As I clung to the rails, helpless before the blinding rain and stinging spray, I was momentarily calmed by the vision of my beloved Carrie waving from the dock. Perhaps she hadn’t seen clearly my tear-streaked face, or perceived the dismay curling my lips, dry and pale with regret. Or if she had, it was a brave face indeed that shone back at me.
Now paralysed with dread, I regretted my decision to leave and would give the world to be back on safe land and in her loving embrace. But an imperative had driven me to set sail and risk losing all I cherished – and perhaps my life.
Venturing forth amid tugboats hawsered to colliers, fishing trawlers besieged by seagulls, and the clanking of harbour buoys, lent an atmosphere of cheer onboard, palliating our disquiet at the dark purpose of this voyage. The port’s fleet saw us off with affirmative blasts of foghorns and encouraging waves from deckhands – a typical send-off for brave seafarers such as us.
For the first part of the journey we plied through peaceful waters with a brisk sou’ easterly and the ship made good speed. We were in fine spirit. Dolphins danced beneath the steamer’s prow and gulls chose to venture far from land to bid us safe passage.
All went well during the first leg of the cruise. Captain and crew were in a pleasing mood and all the engine room contrivances hissed, putted and grunted like any maritime engine should. We sauntered along the deck, or relaxed in the soothing motion of a sturdy boat at home in its element, under the firm hand of a seasoned crew.
It was a strange feeling when the gulls left us. The sudden quiet was not placated by rhythm of waves upon fo’c’s’le, nor the pervasive vibrations of the screw as it tore through the ocean, generating that frothy wake that spoke of progress – in opposition to one’s senses, that insisted we were ensnared motionless upon a featureless plain of water. At times all that dispelled such a depressing notion was the persistent thump of pistons that rattled the bulkheads so, day and night, and the occasional judder as the propeller clawed through a vortex clawing for traction.
Then, ominously, a petrel which had soared across our course on many occasions landed on the bowsprit. This unnerved the crew and troubled even the captain. Such abodement I dismissed as superstitious folly. For my part (a novice salt to be sure) disconcertion arose from the creature’s gaze, fixated, as though it had alighted on its chosen vantage in order to watch us, for reasons known only to it – or perhaps to also inform threads of providence that might have directed its action, machinations far beyond our ken, omens gathering like distant clouds on a darkening horizon.
And then the weather turned sour. A gale set in without warning. The brave little vessel rocked and lurched amongst the mountainous waves, tossed crew and passengers to and fro, who feared for their lives and souls in a world gone violently vindictive without cause or provocation. Or so it seemed to us, as it would to any helpless unwilling pilgrims caught in a capricious tempest out of nowhere.
The tall funnel shook, its guys straining the turnbuckles, while sooty fumes that would prefer to belch in generous black clouds against blue skies instead blew this way and that, curling around the decks and superstructure as if seeking somewhere to hide, fearing diffusion into nothingness by an unsparing squall.
The bluster stiffened and cargo hatches rattled and shook in discomposure. They threatened to break loose and flutter into the night, thereby inviting the angry surge to inundate the hold and drag us down into the deep six and the clutches of Davy Jones.
Such was the terrifying chaos of wind and wave that I was gripped by foreboding that our mighty little ship, should she escape all the forces that King Neptune arrayed against us, would, by some vagary of cruel fate plunge at flank speed into the side of a rogue wave and dive like a submarine to a watery grave through some aberrant action of her powerful engine churning that unyielding propeller… pushing us downward… downward…
Throsby was startled from reverie by the grinding thrust of a marine diesel as his ferry sidled up to berth at Stockton Wharf.
Children played in the sunlit park nearby, swallows swooped, warm zephyrs swung upon the boughs, while wavelets slapped the rocky littoral.
Down the gangway he strode, then steadfastly towards the pub where his two old mates sat, and wherein they would all enjoy a beer, some sustenance, and share a yarn or two.
Yet little did he sense that in the labyrinthine reaches of his mind a storm waned, clouds cleared, and a lonely little steamer faded distant on quietening seas.