Saturday, August 27, 2011

Through the eye of Hurricane Flora.

In the autumn of 1963, while in my late teens, I was being trained in navigation on board the 15,000 deadweight tons British Merchant Navy vessel the M/V British Robin.

We had discharged a full cargo of aviation fuels from the UK in Reykjavik, Iceland for NATO and the civil avaiation authorites and were bound in ballast for Curacao in the Netherland Antilles, which island lies just north from the coast of Venezeula.

As we passed down along the Eastern Seaboard of the USA we were just sufficiently close to pick up the medium wave broadcasts of various American radio stations, one particulalry strong being from New York City. All on board were therefore fully aware of the destructive passage being made across the Caribbean by Hurricane Flora, one of the deadliest storms in history, with an eventual death toll over 7,000, whose very name was retired as a result, after that season, being replaced by that of Fern.

The navigating officers on board soon became aware that we might cross the predicted track of the storm. The evening before we were due to come our closest to the hurricane, I was summoned alone to the ship's chart-room by the vessel's Captain. I recall his name but will not provide it in this account. He was a Scotsman, one of the youngest to have been ever promoted to that rank, by virtue of his having passed his Extra Master Foreign Going Certificate of Competency, a superior qualification, normally sat by those with ambitions for careers ashore.

In great detail the expected track of the hurricane was explained to me, the mechanics of hurricanes and their most dangerous and benign quadrants, he concluded after some considerable time by explaining the course he had decided to take which would ensure our safe passage around the danger. Nevertheless, I went to bed that night uneasy.

On the morning of the storm, my first task was to assist in the taking on of extra ballast, thus allowing the ship to sit both lower and more securely in the water. As we approached the storm the skies took on a greenish hue getting ever darker as our eyes passed out towards the ever nearer horizon. Slowly at first, then with ever faster pace the wind began to rise in strength, eventually providing a low and constant background moan.

As the waves steadily climbed in height, our course was adjusted and speed reduced, so that we could meet them fine on the bow. The moan of the wind steadily increased to a whine, and the entire surface of the sea became increasingly covered with spindrift.

I stood with some engineers in the sheltered area aft of the midship's accomodation, looking aft. One moment, at the crest of the wave, our whole world became one of greenish grey and all-surrounding threatening sky, with the whole vessel ashake from the race of the propellor as it left the water. Soon after, following a careering descent, we would be surrounded by nothing but huge walls of white, then black then green and tumbling cascading water as we nestled in the trough between two of these monsters, before our ship shook free of the enclasping fronds of boiling liquid which tumbled from the decks and across the scuppers, as we steadily ascended the face of the next oncoming wave.

Before we reached the eye of the storm, I was summoned to the bridge, and clad from head to foot in black oilskins and souwester, assigned to the port bridge wing to sound the ship's siren for six seconds in every two minutes, in accordance with the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea, for periods of reduced visibility. A truly pointless task, as what other navigators would then be mad enough to be heading for the eye of such a storm, even should they have been gifted with super-human hearing, for I myself, could only tell the siren was sounding from the sight of the escaping steam from the sometimes only barely discernible whistle aft on the funnel.

When we finally reached the storm's eye, it was like nothing else I have ever seen. Almost perfect calm and virtually complete silence ruled in that strange world. Circular high walls of cloud surrounded us, so high, it was like looking through a telescope from the wrong end, at the height of these clouds could be seen the round patch and blue sky of a normally perfect summer's day. A glint of sunlight even fell on the calm waters of that small pool of tranquility. This peace did not last very long, for soon after we returned to the world of deafening noise, swirling spume and giant waves until slowly but surely the realisation began to dawn, that thanks to the skills of the naval archtitects and shipyard workers, combined with the magnificent strength of our still then largely riveted construction, our ship would carry us safely through to the other side.

When we arrived at the Shell refinery in Curacao, congestion, probably storm related, gave us some free days to recover from the experience, for the entire crew seemed almost in a state of shock, and none on board, I would still today wager, who went into that storm were quite the same men after they emerged from the other side. I made use of the facilities of the Shell Club, which had a sea bathing area netted off from the sharks, whose shadows I would sometimes see, and once even the eye of one such passing predator with which I shared a momentary exchange of strangely silent mutual recognition.

What happened to the ship's Captain I never knew, for when we eventually returned to the UK, he left abruptly without making the required notation of my seatime on my indentures. For 48 years I have suspected that he thought the hurricane had arrived by fate as a gift to him, so perfectly and fortuitously positioned, to be able to explore. With the benefit of the internet, I can now see that the hurricane did something very strange and unusual over Cuba, perhaps we were thus caught out and our passage through the storms eye was 'bad' luck rather than deliberate contrivance. The image of the track from the Wikipedia web site illustrates this very clearly.

Some years later, I again served on the British Robin, as third mate. I tried to find the log books on board for her voyage from Reykjavik to Curacao, but they were not there.

It was a defining moment of my life, which is why I recall it so vividly. The seeds of my distrust of, and dislike for, pompous individuals who strut their course across the world's stage, sometimes made obvious in my blog's postings, perhaps partly comes from having witnessed this force of nature first hand, although it was already partly there, as why else would I have been at sea from such a young age?

I have been reminded of, and recounted here, this event because of the approach this weekend of Hurricane Irene to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. We have family and friends who are there and our thoughts are with them. It is unfortunate that the Central Bankers of the World will still be in Wyoming this weekend, and thereby unable to witness the futility of their dangerous, self-serving and foolish existences.

Many others will be confronted with a once in a lifetime experience of nature's powers this weekend! Coming on top of the fracturing of the National Monument in the earthquake in Washington earlier this week, it is tempting to draw conclusions and lessons from the Old Testament about present events, but that would be more suitable for some of my shipmates from the British Robin in 1963, some of whom emerged from that experience with a newly discovered religious belief and a desire to bury their heads in their bibles for the remainder of our voyage!



Blogger A K Haart said...

Great story, really well told. An experience few of us will ever come close to.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks very much Mr Haart, it is nice to get feedback, particularly when its favourable.

Good luck with your e-book!

9:03 AM  
Blogger James McCormack said...

Evocative stuff, thanks for sharing!

5:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home