(first published in The Sea Letter, Issue 7, Nov 2019)
Darek was thinking about how his children slept, sprawled so peacefully in their bunkbed, back in Gdansk. It was a long time since he’d slept like that. Indeed, it was quite a long time since he’d slept. As the tanker’s first officer, cargo was his responsibility, and delays at the terminal had kept him on duty for sixteen hours. Yet, back in his cabin, he was too fidgety to sleep. He kept replaying the incompetency of the terminal staff. He kept scratching his psoriasis. He wondered about the contents of the unopened Head Office emails on his desktop. He struggled to remember which Personnel Reports he had still to write. He worried about whether his wife was being hoodwinked by the roofers repairing the February storm-damage.
Too soon, he was back on watch, as the tanker steamed through the Straits of Hormuz, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. He was frequently distracted by the smugglers’ launches, with their contraband cargoes of alcohol and pornography, bound for theocratic Iran. The launches manoeuvred perilously close to the tanker, so that they would be shielded from the Iranian coastguard radar. The tanker was much too ponderous to be able to avoid collisions with the launches – Darek was wholly dependent on the on the nimble skills of the smugglers – but his helplessness only served to concern him further. By the time the second officer arrived on the bridge to take over the watch, Darek was near to collapse.
Then he slept. He slept not like child, but like a drunk in a ditch. When his alarm went off, he awoke like a drunk – painfully, confusedly, wretchedly. The shower cleared his mind, but not his fatigue. Bolting some breakfast in the messroom, Cookie told him that the captain had asked him to drop by his cabin. Darek really needed to have a word with the bosun about slippage in the maintenance schedule, but it wasn’t smart to keep the captain waiting.
The captain was a mumbling mess: ‘Sorry, Darek. A return attack of the malaria… first time in years… taken my meds… should be fine after a few hours sleep. But you must take my watch. Sorry…’
The ship had three watch-keeping officers – the captain, the first officer, and the second officer – who manned the bridge sequentially, eight hours at a time. If one is sick, another must take an extra watch.
Back on the bridge, Darek counted himself fortunate that the tanker was now steaming on a south-east course towards Sri Lanka, in quiet waters with little traffic. The weather was balmy. Flying fish were playing with the tanker’s bow wave. The radar incorporated ARPA tracking: it showed no vessels on a converging course. He filled the bridge’s electric kettle, for the morning cup of coffee that he’d forgone in the messroom. While it boiled, he sat for a moment.
Twenty minutes later, the tanker smashed into the fishing outrigger-canoe that had sat too low in the water to be picked up on the radar. The Baluchi fishermen had only shrill whistles to sound the alarm. The bosun had heard the whistles only seconds before the collision. He raced to the bridge to find Darek still sprawled in the chair, sleeping peacefully at last.