an out-take from A Dream Of Steam
Fog cloaks, it isolates, it sometimes brings an end to an existence.
The relieving watch took their stations quietly while the ship ran before the wind, slicing through heavy fog. In the pilothouse the captain squeezed single handed dividers and walked them down his course line, measuring the remaining miles to run before the ship would enter Whitefish Bay.
“Very good, I accept the deck,” he said and formally took over from the mate. Eight bells chimed, a new helmsman grasped the pins of the wheel and so the watch was changed. The retiring men shuffled below to the fo’c’s’l, bleary eyed from the graveyard watch, eager for nothing so much as the humid embrace of their clammy bedding.
Lake Superior’s misty gusts left traces of their passing in beads of wet respiration sticking to every surface she breathed upon. Water clung to every line and stay, every sail and spar, before acknowledging gravity and letting go in large slow drops. A breezy silence was observed on the deck, divided into two minute intervals by the warning of the ship’s hand cranked foghorn to other vessels that might be nearby. The particular duty of the lookouts, while enshrouded in fog, was to listen for approaching ships. Fog often came with light air, but a peculiar mood of Lake Superior was fog and twenty knots of wind, which made listening a rigorous exercise. As the sidelights beamed out red and green in swirling swaths of moisture, the ship bowled along ahead of the northwest wind. Tense lookouts held onto the foremast on the galley house roof and attempted to project their hearing into the opaque dampness ahead.
Captain Thomas McGrath swigged lukewarm coffee and contemplated the ship’s estimated position; his ship would soon enter Whitefish Bay. Although there was still some room in the bay, encountering shipping traffic became more likely, making the fog a little more wearing.
The lookout’s messenger had travelled aft and appeared at the pilothouse door, causing Thomas to wonder superstitiously what influence thought had over events and outcomes.
“Lookouts can hear something ahead, sir.”
“Very good, I’ll come,” Thomas replied. With measured haste, he made his way toward the bow he could not see, until he was just forward of the galley house and joined the listening watch. After a brief wait he thought he made out the high pitched hoot of a steam whistle concealed in the fog ahead. As he continued to listen, the sound repeated itself and remained ahead. He returned aft more quickly than he had come after instructing the lookout to begin sounding the horn at thirty second intervals.
Arriving at the helm, Thomas altered course to starboard twenty degrees, bringing the wind behind the starboard beam. The sound of the other ship’s whistle was plainly audible now as well as her engine noise; she was closing quickly on a disturbingly constant bearing from his own ship, Genevieve’s, bow. Thomas guessed that the other vessel had altered course, but had come to port, thereby keeping both ships on a collision course. The ‘shush-shush-shush-shush’ of a steam engine was growing in volume now, terrifyingly close to be heard so clearly upwind. Loaning his own broad back to the effort, he quickly put the helm over another fifty degrees, knowing that little time was left to avoid collision.
As the yards braced around and sheets were being hauled taut, Genevieve heeled into her swing to starboard and for a moment it was hard to hear the other ship’s approach. But then, there she was again, clear and close; and every member of the watch, united in anxiety, faced the direction from which they thought the threat would appear. Simultaneously the approaching ship sounded her next blast on the whistle and a port sidelight broke through the fog, helping to illuminate the spectral shapes of a wheelhouse and tall funnel, speeding at an oblique angle toward the mizzen shrouds. Thomas ordered the helm hard a-port, throwing the stern away from what now appeared to be a tug. After a few more seconds of apprehension, Genevieve’s stern was clearly evading the oncoming vessel’s bow, and it was obvious that this would end as a close call.
The watch began trimming sail as Genevieve resumed her old course. Thomas observed that the tow, now passing close, was an old schooner that had lost a mast. Briefly illuminated in Genevieve’s port sidelight beam, the broken stump of her foremast protruded, jagged, from the foredeck of the old ship. Thomas ordered the wheel further to starboard once again, as these scows were often towed in strings of three or four. He might encounter one that didn’t follow in perfect line. After another thirty seconds had elapsed however, it was certain that the danger had passed.
The men settled into listening again and Thomas brooded over the incident: rightly or wrongly, he saw this close pass as carelessness on the part of the tug.
Norman, his cantankerous cook, luffed up alongside of him.
“Why did he turn to port? Was he even listening or was it just a routine course change?”
“You know how it goes. Some fellas sit inside heated wheelhouses. A man on an open deck has to keep a sharper lookout.”
Above him Thomas could see an occasional star, a sign that the fog could be thinning. He sent a lookout up to the masthead in case any lights could be spotted from high above the foggy deck. Ah, there was a falling star, its trail burned into the night sky. It cheered him. What should he wish for? When he was a child he would have thought of a pony, but life was less simple now. It was probably best just to wish for a clear horizon.