It’s eight o’clock on a Monday morning and my ship has come in. Shielding my eyes from the summer sun, a mirage of Manhattan skyscrapers shimmers before my eyes. After a quick stroll on Boat Deck, I’m ushered to an elevator and sucked down deeper and deeper into the void; twelve decks beneath the sky, into the “jaws of hell” as officers call it. I feel like Persephone, kidnapped by the king of Hades and forced to follow him home to his palace buried within the bowels of the earth. Instead of a palace, the elevator doors open onto a grilled platform two flights above an abyss. The howling noise and a blast of heat welcome me to the engine room of a 14-story, 963 ft. superliner.
Donning a borrowed hard hat, I zipper myself into a boiler suit. Needless to say, sailor’s supersitions still hold firm this deep within the ship. So women are rarely, if ever, seen here. “Right then! Steady on!” Richard hollers over his shoulder. Richard is my guide. We first met when I was 17, on a solo crossing from Southampton to New York. This was in the 70′s. Over the next twenty five years, I would see him once or twice, every couple of years, sometimes, in ports as far away as Kagoshima and Hong Kong. He even gave me a wedding gift. A beautiful Cunard tea set, swiped from a 1st class pantry, and engraved with my own initials.
Richard is one of thirty two engineers onboard. All of whom still wear a band of purple mourning on their shoulders in honor of the engineers who perished on the Titantic. He’s accepted a certain amount of risk in allowing me to accompany him on his watch. For the moment, the coast is clear.We’re navigating through a maze of pipes that drip, hiss, and spit at us. They fog Richard’s spectacles and ambush every footstep.”Infernal fuckin’ pipes!” he swears furiously to himself. “And watch out for the puddle.” We squirm past catwalks and ladders, over gaping, dark holes in the floor. “Mine eyes have digged a pit for me!” Richard bellows as if from a church pulpit. “Where the devil are the floorboards?”
I’ve always thought Richard was slightly mad. Orphaned during the war (his parents died in the blitz) and brought up a crazy aunt somewhere on the Isle of Man, he is has been at sea for seventeen, solitary years. Maneuverering blindly through clouds of steam, we forge ahead to a clearing. “The Control Room,” he notes. A Starwarsian chamber of wall-to-wall computers, manned by engineers in starchy white lab coats. Heavy brass. “Stay out of sight,” mutters Richard. “I’m going inside.” I slink past thick glass walls. For a brief moment, the panels of blinking green and yellow lights, the gentle hum, remind me of Hal, the world’s first psychotic computer. I assume he’s found a happier home at sea as everything appears ship shape.
Not for long. Richard emerges from the inner sanctum and young boy grips his sleeve. “Everything’s run amuck, sir. We need help.” I’m reassured by a tolerant smile. “It’s his first tour of duty,” Richard says. “Nothing to worry about” as he leads off to find his team and survey the damage. Eventually, an echo beckons us from the back of beyond. “Over here, sir. Hurry up!” A valve is stuck. “The damn thing’s been stuck for years,” Richard grins. “Leave it that way!” A sea water pipe has also burst and a pump is leaking. Not too serious, either, apparently. I breathe a short-lived sigh of relief, just as Richard barks: “How the fuck did that happen?” I don’t like the tone of his voice. A shower of sparks suddenly brightens up the gloom and I smell smoke. A lot of smoke. Richard’s men spring into action as he throws a canvas cover over the burning piece of machinery. “It’s probably just a short-outed motor. Bring me a blowtorch.” I’m thinking, maybe fire extinguisher. But I’m a copywriter not an engineer. I slink helplessly off towards a corner and wait for the smoke to subside.
Richard trots over, fire extinguisher in hand. “Friggin’ busted,” he smiles. “What else is new? But we’ll have to weld a new three-quarter ton motor on there for the reverse osmosis unit.” The what? “Desalinization system, Brenda. Fresh water for the passengers.”
“Uhhuh,” I mutter.
“Can’t afford to shilly shally about. On your feet, B.”
I’m up like a phoenix from the ashes. “Cheer up!” blusters Richard. “This is comic relief compared to what you know this ship has been through…”
Do I ever know what this ship has been through. While chain blocks are rigged to hoist the new motor into place, I reminisce. Over the years, the Q.E. 11 has survived a series of perilously close calls; hair raising disasters straight from the pages of the Ancient Mariner.
In 1978, a sheet of flames swept through the engine rooms at 2 in the morning. The Captain decided to let his passengers sleep. After the fire was, finally, brought under control, four hours later, the liner limped into port on one engine. The two flight staircase that leads down into the engine room was so twisted and charred, it looked like a Marcel Duchamp sculpture. The stink of burning metal lasted for months. Richard called me and said it was the scariest crossing he’d ever experienced. Another year, her boilers broke down…
Tomorrow… more at sea disasters