TITANIC-TITANIC.com | Titanic and Other Ships By Charles Herbert Lightoller



Having got my Master's Certificate, I decided to try the Atlantic again, and I'm not likely to forget my first ship; she was a real poem. It had become, as usual, a financial necessity to find a ship, and one day, as I was walking along Castle Street, Liverpool., I noticed Greenshield, Cowie & Co.'s plate. These were the owners of the old Knight Line, under whom I served in the four-masted barque Knight of St. Michael. On the impulse of the moment, I slipped in and asked for the managing director, and was shown in the sanctum of sanctums. "Oh, yes," in his deep sonorous voice, he "remembered me quite well," and we talked over some of the old days. Yes, he would appoint me to one of their steamers, in fact "the very best of the Line, the Knight Bachelor, lying in London; join her right away." Very hearty and very blunt, he held out his hand to say good-bye. This was all very well, but I wanted to know in what capacity. "Third Mate," said he. "Indeed," I replied, "but I am looking for a berth as at least Second Mate, or even Mate."

"Well, of course, Lightoller, you will be no time as Third Mate. In view of the fact that you served so long and so loyally in our sailing ships, we can never forget--" And so on and so forth.

To make a long story short, I allowed myself to be bamboozled into going out of that office with my sailing orders in my pocket. "Well," I thought, "it's a good ship, and the Western Ocean, and I will take good care that I am going to get my step up pretty soon." I still had malarial fever in my veins, and well I knew it on the train journey down and across London. I arrived at Tilbury Dock feeling like the complete West African dishcloth. All I wanted was to get my head down, and forget I was alive. I had, in my subconscious mind, all the comforts that one associates with the Royal Mail. A nice airy cabin, a bunk with clean white sheets, a boy to attend you, and practically every wish anticipated. Doctor, stewards and all the rest of it. Arriving at Tilbury Dock, I asked a porter wearily where the Knight boat was lying. He replied, "Oh, just near by, sir. Over the bridge," and suggested he should put my baggage on a truck and run it over. "Right," said I, my one anxiety being to get to my cabin, and try to forget this damnable fever. We trudged along, I simply following the porter, conscious of little but a terrific temperature. Suddenly the porter stopped. "Well," I said, "why have you stopped?" "Here is your ship, sir." I looked up. What a horror! About the dirtiest thing I'd ever clapped eyes on. Her rusty iron sides streaked with the horrible overflow from the cattle she had evidently been carrying. Smelling like nothing on earth. "But this isn't the Knight Bachelor, surely?" I exclaimed. "Oh, no sir, the Knight Bachelor sailed last week; this is the Knight Companion." Had I had the strength she would certainly have been no companion of mine. However, I was just about at the end of my tether, and thought, "Come, let's get on board, and between some blankets."

The deck was simply a jungle of old cattle pens, ashes, coal, dirt and filth of every description.

A man came up to me and asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted the Mate. In a very nasal voice he informed me he was the Mate. I really thought he was pulling my leg, and I told him abruptly that I didn't feel like joking with him, "Where was the Mate?" This time he asserted, a little more forcibly, that he was the Mate. I apologized, and said I was the Third Mate. His reply was, "When are you going to turn to?"

"I am going to turn in," I said, "Can you tell me where I can find the steward who will show me to my cabin?"

"Well," says my bucco, of the collarless flannel shirt, "I guess, in this ship, we find our own cabins."

After climbing over a pile of coal and ashes, I found mine. It really wanted scraping out--before it was washed!

I know I was a fool, but really malaria, when you do giet it, simply takes the heart out of you, and all I wanted was to get my head in line with my heels, get under a pile of blankets, and forget the world. I managed to dig out some blankets, and when the Mate found out how thoroughly bad I was, he became pretty decent about it and did what he could.

The West Coast sufferer's remedy is simple, if drastic, and consists of a tin of quinine powder and a packed of cigarette papers. Put as much quinine in a cigarette paper as it will hold, seal it up and swallow it. After a few of these, a couple of brass bands will start up in your head; but you get used to that also, and as it does not last more than a couple of days, one is soon about again.

Curiously enough, I had one more violent attack after this, and one only. That happened when bound down the river on that voyage out. I had one final and terrific upheaval off the Nore Lightship, which I thought was going to be the end of all things; it was actually the end of old malaria.

I have often grinned over the way I got shanghaied into that wretched ship, although it was a glorious voyage. Out to the West Indies, and round to the Gulf of Mexico, Barbados, Portobello, Vera Cruz, Tampico, Progresso, and all those old historical places with which the West Indies teems. One could easily write a book about each individual place, its inhabitants and their quaint and comical customs, though this applies more to the islands and the northern side of the Gulf. The inhabitants of the southern and western parts are mainly the Latin race in about its worst form. An Englishman appreciates a joke, but not when it's pointed with a knife, and no matter whether it's Mexican, Columbian, or Venezuelan, they are an untrustworthy lot, and forever digging buttonholes into their fellow men.

Whereas the West Indian negro is just a child of nature, full of fun and harmless devilment, stinks like a polecat, but sings divinely. There are in fact, born songsters. See them sitting in a row, with ragged hats, say on the New Orleans Levee, dangling their bare and often dirty feet over the stringer piece, is a sight in itself. Up and down the line goes a word a joke, and a deep throated laugh. Then, without the slightest premeditation, the whole line bursts into a quaint, chanting song, each part perfectly taken and harmonized. If you don't have creeps running up into your back hair, then you've no ear for music. And the water round the islands, clear as crystal; in fact there are mighty few places where you cannot see your anchor at five fathoms. All-coloured fish swimming about, great big rainbow-hued conch shells, and, of course, our old friend, John Shark.

The natives here, like the West African natives, are born to the watered, and will dive off the rail, after a threepenny bit had actually touched the water, and pick it up long before it reaches the bottom. One evening we thought we would have a try and bringing up some of these bright coloured conch shells ourselves. We had seen how the natives go down, and how when they got to the bottom they slipped their hands under the shells, detaching them from the rock, and brought them up stuck to their hands. This sport came near to be our undoing.

That evening. whilst we were leaning over the rail, smoking and yarning, someone spotted a huge conch shell a little way out from our quarter, Like a fool, one of the chaps was going to have that shell! So, clothed in a birthday suit, he jumped up on the rail and dived over the side, and down. After a struggle he got his hand between the fish and rock. The fish then attached itself to his hand, and short of putting the shell in between his feet and pulling with all his might, it was impossible to get the thing off, for your fingers are sucked right into the shell itself. This however, did not worry him. Up he came, but at an angle that took him still further from the ship. Once again on the surface, he waved his capture above his head, still stuck to his fist, swimming slowly at the same time, towards the gangway. At this moment, we spotted a sinister black shape, still some distance away, and below water. One of the chaps sang out, "Come on, you ass, buck up." He caught an anxious inflexion in the voice, and glanced round on the surface of the water, but there was nothing to be seen from water level, so he thought it was just his imagination, and continued to swim leisurely towards the ship. Two or three of us rushed down the gangway, whilst another fellow hailed him, and this time there was no mistake about the anxiety. He looked again, and there, sure enough, was that black fin, now cutting the water like a knife and about a hundred yards away from him. He had not twenty feet to go, but, as he said later, the leaden feet one experiences in dreams, trying to run away from some overtaking horror, was mild compared with his feeling of pure unadulterated terror. Of course, try as he might, he could not get that infernal shell off his hand. He went through all the gyrations imaginable, trying to swim with it, trying to tow it, trying to do anything that would bring him to the gangway. By this time, we were down the gangway and on the platform, waiting to make a grab. There was no boat in the water, and no time to lower one, so no help was available from that source. Did he bring his feet up when we grabbed him under the armpits? Did he not! We beat John Shark by a good ten yards. After that episode, however, diving for shells became unpopular--much to the amusement of the natives.

A round of the islands and we loaded up in New Orleans for home. Deep loaded with grain, and cattle on deck, she wallowed her weary way, far worse than the proverbial canal barge. All went comparatively well until crossing the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Here, owing to the shallowness of the water, a wall sided sea gets up that is the terror of all small and moderate-sized ships. It is well known to all Western Ocean sailors, and with a small deep loaded ship, it behoves one to treat it with respect and heave to in plenty of time.

One afternoon it blew up and there was every indication that we were in for a dirty night.

The Knight Companion was really an Eastern trader; so was the Captain. The ship was not built to face the Western Ocean, and the Skipper lacked Western Ocean experience. She was running heavily all afternoon, and when I left the bridge, I half suggested that it was getting time to heave-to. The skipper jokingly, though, half seriously said, "Oh, I thought you Western Ocean sailors were never afraid of bad weather." There was nothing more to say, so I went below. Even then she was lurching and labouring far too heavily for anyone to remain long in his bunk, so I made myself up a bed on the floor of my cabin and jammed myself in as best I could. The pitch and heave to the following sea rapidly grew worse, one could feel her difficulty in rising and getting away from the seas racing after her, and threatening to overwhelm her. An hour or so later I felt that horrible and unmistakable feeling of a ship pooping. A sea had broken over her stern, and she shuddered horribly as it tore its way along the decks, crushing and smashing everything in its wake.

There was no object in dashing up on deck and chance getting washed overboard; if the ship were going down, one might as sell stay where one was. A few minutes later I felt her broach-to, and over she went, almost on her beam ends, being pounded all the time by the huge seas breaking on her. After a few long drawn minutes she eventually came to, head on to wind and righted.

Of course, by this time, my cabin, along with everybody's was all afloat. Water everywhere, but evidently some of the fires in the stokehold were still alight, and the ship was able to keep head to wind. I went on deck. What a ghastly wreck! The sea had simply crushed down flat the whole of the cattle pens fore and aft, and cattle in all shapes and forms were lying dying, maimed, bruised and broken, all over the ship. Numbers, had, or course, mercifully been washed overboard. Unfortunately, steam had been left on deck, and was running through many of the pipes, which only added to the horror. There was nothing for it but to release what we could, and simply let them wash overboard. Seas breaking over us all the time, but the main aim and object was to save the ship.

We remained hove-to for the best part of forty-eight hours before the gale eased down and we were able to keep her away again for our home port. So much for the Western Ocean in general and the Grand Banks in particular. When we did get home, I wasted no time in getting ashore, and finding something a little more orderly and seaworthy.

After another year or so of knocking around, a good part of the time spent ashore, mostly doing things of not much interest to anyone but myself, I discovered one day that I had arrived at the mature age of twenty-five, and it struck me that it was just about time that I quit this roving and settled down to something really permanent. I fully realised that I might quite easily have been much ahead of were I was; still, I never regretted the time I had lost. I had had good times and I had enjoyed them. Experience is always a good companion, if you look at it that way. Granted there had been a considerable element of luck that had always enabled me to catch up; in fact, in the end, when I joined the White Star Line, I was still ahead of the average age.

Chapter 27



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