The Deckhand

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
"Their love was the only force strong enough to keep me standing on that deck."

A deckhand is faced with a critical decision in the last hours of his life. As the RMS Titanic sinks, he is torn between choosing to save himself or staying behind to save others, facing his own death.

A short Story

Submitted: August 05, 2017

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Submitted: August 05, 2017

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The Deckhand

April 14th 1912

Some have called me a fearless man, and for 27 years of my petty existence, I believed it. It takes a fearless man to leave behind a gentleman's upbringing, and budget his life on a barely manageable 5 pounds a month in sailor's wages. It's no wonder my father can't stand to look at me. Not that I'm moved at all by his threatening angry letters, which I rarely bother to open anyway, but I suppose he has a point in the grand scheme of things.

I was not bred for a life at sea. As the only son left standing after an outbreak of small pox, tuberculosis, and insanity, it was up to me to solider on, waving the flag of family legacy through the new industrial age. Therefore, it was considered very selfish of me indeed to pursue my own happiness when it came to choosing my path in life. I might have gotten by with being a lawyer, or a businessman, or perhaps even a writer of sonnets, but I couldn't bring myself to compromise so much of my own happiness.

Thus, when I gave up my soul for my dream at sea, all I had was courage. I had no home to go back to. No wife or child to carry on my name. Nothing important enough to keep me on land. I had nothing to lose by going to sea, except myself, and every noble idea I had about myself.

I will never again be so bold as to call myself fearless, because on the night of April 14th 1912, I was everything but fearless.

There are a number of things I could say about the night Titanic sank, but at present, I can only bear the mention of one. I wasn't the iron-nerved brute that my shipmates knew me by. More damning still, I fell painfully short of the standards of my profession, and the expectations I held for myself. If I were a better man, I should have gone down with that ship. I should have been enough of a man to imitate the courage of the other men around me that night. A courage that appeared so impermeable on the outside, that one would've never guessed the internal struggles going on as the mighty Atlantic took us down. It wasn't just the sea that these men were up against, but a warfare of character against trepidation, a battle which tells a man exactly who he is in the last defining moments of his life.

Fear. I didn't know how to address it when it came to test me. If I could somehow override that instinct which defines so much of my humanity, I might have acted nobly. I might have left Titanic as a man I could be proud of, and not as the coward I must now learn to reconcile with.

I remember it being oddly dark, even for the dead of night in mid-Atlantic waters. I had been assigned to lookout duties, but it was no small task to tell where the murky sea and the night sky met at the horizon. Anything beyond the lantern-lit decks of the ship appeared to get sucked in by this abyss of black nothingness, like we'd been swallowed up by purgatory itself. The only way to distinguish between sky and sea were the pale sapphire gems glittering above us, indicating the heavens, and a hope that some divine hand was still out there guiding us. In all her pomp and vanity, Titanic raced full speed ahead at a rate of 23 knots.

I had been relieved from my duties that night as lookout, and was allowed to use the five hours of sleep I'd rationed throughout the day. By the time I reached my cabin, I had exactly four hours and 52 minutes to catch up on sleep before I had to drag myself out of my bunk and cover the morning watch too.

At 11:41pm, I finally stood in the corridor searching for my key.

Then it happened.

The walls creaked as the ship leaned toward the starboard side, slanting into an angle so suddenly that the momentum slammed me into my cabin door. I steadied myself against my flattened palms, feeling the walls rattling under my gloved hands. Gut wrenching crashes erupted nearby, as if the vessel were being savagely ripped apart from the hull. I couldn't see anything except the long white corridor where I stood, which led out to the open darkness that covered the officer's promenade deck.

I forgot to breathe.

I forgot I knew how to do anything but listen, trying to make sense of those fading crashes over the quickened beating of my heart.

Gradually, the vibrations in the walls stopped. It was only then that I realized my head was spinning, and that I needed to breathe after holding in air for so long. I finally exhaled a deep shaky breath, but it did nothing to settle my nerves or revive the color to my cheeks.

"Bloody hell. What have they done now?"

Whatever it was, I wasn't going to be the one who got the axe for it. I'd be damned to let those novice deckhands try to put the blame on me this time, only just after I'd turned in for the night. If my superior officer, Lowe, came pounding on my door to tell me all about what my deck trainees had been up to, it would be more than a piece of mind they'd get out of me.

I had worked hard for those precious 5 hours of sleep, and if I was planning on keeping them, I'd have to beat Lowe to the punch and get to my trainees before he did. I marched for A deck, but froze just before I entered the officer's promenade. Rather than confront the reddening faces of my seafaring novices, I came face to face with the towering ghostly figure of an iceberg floating by the railing. That's when I knew that this was more than just a novice sailor's mistake.

Then there were bells. All I could hear around me were bells screaming from the wheelhouse. Phone bells, lookout bells, control bells, watertight door bells. The whole world was full of bells. Nonetheless all of them were too late. Whatever disaster they were meant to foretell had already come and gone.

I knew if there was any kind of emergency, everyone would be moving. The senior officers were trained for these kinds of situations. They'd been handpicked by Captain Smith because they could keep their heads on straight when put under pressure of making split second decisions. They'd know what to do, and when that was done, all would be fine. By morning, it would all be a punchline to a badly timed joke.

But no one moved. The color in their faces drained as fast as their ability to speak. That's what scared me most. Why was nobody moving?

My charge of deckhands now looked to me for direction. I avoided their wide and questioning eyes, knowing I couldn't give them any answers. This was out of my jurisdiction. I was just a seaman covering a night watch on Officer Lowe's shift, and I knew Lowe would have my ass if I started barking out unconfirmed orders in a situation like that.

Lucky for me, he marched over to us to bark those orders himself, and though I had called him a hard ass before, I was never more grateful for the composed and cool-headed way he took control of the situation.

"Look sharp, Oliver, we have our orders," he told me. "You and your men are to start preparing lifeboats one, two, and three for launch on the starboard side."

I blinked in astonishment. "Those lifeboats, sir?"

"What are you playing at, Oliver? Of course I mean those lifeboats."

"Well, what I meant, sir, is that we've never been trained to launch those boats. Nobody thought it was necessary, sir."

"Well you have an hour to figure it out and to get as many passengers as you can off this ship before we're dragged straight down to the locker."

"Has something happened to the ship, sir?" I furrowed my brow in concern.

"That's not what's important right now. What's important is that you follow orders, and the captain's orders are to prepare the lifeboats for the passengers to board off the ship. Start with first class, move on to second, and then third. Swiftly but calmly. Don't give them a reason to panic."

"What should they be panicking about, sir?" I asked, quite honestly.

"There's a good man. Keep that attitude," he said, nudging me toward the lifeboats and patting me on the shoulder. "Step lively now. And remember, swift and calm."

I didn't understand any of it. The lifeboats, I had been told, were for display only. In fact, I was under the impression that they weren't lifeboats at all, but rather hollow wooden containers for extra storage space. Where would the passengers fit with no benches to sit on inside? Still, the fact that the boats had even been mentioned raised ever more provoking questions. What exactly had happened, and how bad was the damage that a lifeboat might be warranted?

However, as I said before, I was just a deckhand. It wasn't my job to give orders, just as it wasn't my job to defy them. I put aside the inconsistencies and went right the work. By then, the crew had staggered back to life. We trusted our captain. No man had a more respectable reputation than Captain Smith, and everyone knew that White Star Line company had handpicked him for this voyage so the passengers would feel at ease under his leadership. Thus, whatever it was we were up against, whatever danger lurked beneath our feet, Captain Smith was the man to make it right.

"Give me a hand with this," I called to a confused seaman nearby, as I began cutting the ropes tying down lifeboat number 1.

We heaved off the heavy tarp canvasing the lifeboat, and to my great relief, it was complete with seats and space for the passengers.

Lifeboat 1 was already preset for launch, and it didn't take long to settle it onto the davits and swing it out to sea. The deck was deserted and quiet at first. We waited around idly in the bloody cold for passengers, but no one was mad enough to hang in a boat over a body of freezing dark ocean. Not a single passenger came out to meet us. I didn't blame them for it. Who wouldn't choose a safe warm bed over the nipping midnight Atlantic chill?

The cold and lack of urgency around us got to me, and just when I thought this was all an unnecessary hassle, the captain strode right pass me. Following suit were his top advisers, Chief Officer Wilde, Bosun Seaman Nichols, and the ship designer, Thomas Andrews. To see the captain out on deck was one thing, but to see that entire trio chasing after him was a disaster. Something had gone terribly wrong, and the captain didn't look too well. By the phantom look in his eyes, I saw a man gazing into his last critical hours.

A wireless operator sprinted to the captain's side, his feet too slow for the urgency of his message. "Sir, we've got a response back from the Carpathia," he panted. "She's 93 kilometers out and can reach us in 4 hours at a top speed of 14 and a half knots."

"And the light seen heading westward from the lookout? What of that?" the captain asked eagerly. "Are there any other ships in this area?"

"It is very likely that the light we saw might have been the Californian, sir. Her last reported location was a little less than 16 kilometers out. Her final transmission was made at 22:30 hours, reporting that she'd approached ice field and stopped her engines for the night. Her radio has gone off since then. We got a response back from the Olympic, but she was shut down near ice as well, and is firing up her boilers as fast as she can. The Carpathia was the only one ready and able to respond to our CQD code, sir."

A stone grave silence fell over the superiors. The captain stared out into the ocean paradise that had now become our watery execution. I'm sure then he regretted postponing his retirement and time with his family. Titanic, after all, was supposed to be the highlight of his career.

"Captain, sir," Officer Wilde pulled him from his dazed thoughts. "Will the women and children be loaded into the boats first?"

"Of course," the captain stammered, remembering that he was still a captain. "Women and children first."

I watched bewildered as he walked with stiff shoulders back to the wheelhouse. No one had to say a word further. We all saw it. Nature had proved itself to be a stronger contender against his reputation. Against all human egotism. We were so far gone in the abyss of our vanity, that not even God could hear a sound out of us now.

I had a duty to stay and secure the lifeboats, to save as many of those on board as a lifeboat could hold. It was my obligation as a senior seaman to keep myself collected for the 2,200 souls who depended on me. Those lives were a greater priority over my own. I never thought much about death. I didn't revere it as some unsolved mystery beyond the living world. It's a natural process that comes to all who take our loan for life. In the end, we all have the devil to pay. Death is inevitable, and I saw no point in fighting it if my name were called to leave Earth, and sail an eternal ocean with the lost at sea. After all, I had given everything to the sea. Why should my life be the exception?

"You expect the angels to fly down and guide our ship to safety?" I called to a couple of deckhands kneeling in prayer near the unlaunched lifeboat. "God won't save us, gentlemen. We have only ourselves now. Let's get these boats loaded as quick as we can, please."

I glanced around at the fifteen or so passengers who had finally come out to inspect the boats. There were so few of them. The world was sinking from under them, and no one would look up long enough from their expensive brandy and fine things to notice.

"Where are all the other passengers?" I called to a deckhand under my charge.

"They're all still inside, sir," my assistant answered. "The commotion on deck was causing a disturbance."

"Don't they understand what's happening?"

"I don't know, sir. Same incident happened on the Oceana. The passengers were loaded into lifeboats only to be swept away by high tides. There's a compelling majority among them who believe these measures aren't the safest of precautions. I tried to reason with them, but these are the only passengers I could convince to come out."

"Excuse me, sir," a man in a top hat and coattails approached me with his boy following close behind. "What's the youngest age you'll take for boys?"

The young boy standing next to him kept his eyes to the deck, trembling as he awaited my answer, which would decide the outcome of his fate. He didn't dare look up at me, out of fear that I'd see the damning adolescence in his face, and I kept my eyes off of him, knowing that what I had to say would not save his life. The boy looked years older than a child I could accept.

"I can't take them any older than twelve," I told his father. I meant that to be the end of it, and quickly turned back around to look busy at supervising my deckhands.

"Get a move on," I heard the father tell his boy behind me. "You heard him. There's plenty of room for you."

"I'm fifteen," the boy replied. "I can't get in."

"He doesn't know that," his father hissed back fiercely, pushing him toward the boat. "And don't give him a reason to doubt it. Now get moving, and take care of your mother and sister. Agatha!" The man turned to his wife and daughter huddled next to a lamppost nearby. "You have to trust me, darling," he told his wife as he guided her back to the lifeboat. "You and the children take this one, and I'll catch another one once all the other women and children are safely boarded."

"But can you really promise me that?"

"I'll be right behind you, I promise."

"Sir! Excuse me, sir," his wife called to me, as she brushed pass her husband with her little girl's hand still tightly gripped in hers. "Sir, I won't go without my husband or my boy. You put me in that boat, and I'll jump right back out, you understand? I won't leave them. Either they come with us, or me and my girl stay here with them. That's the only way this is going to go."

"I'm sorry, sir, I can't have you in this boat," I reluctantly told her husband. "Women and children only. I will arrange another boat for men when all of the ladies are safely boarded."

"But there's plenty of room. I don't understand what the issue is," his wife persisted. "You could fit in every one of these women right here and still have more room for the gentlemen. I'm sure none of these girls would mind the inconvenience of being snug, if their mind can sit with them."

"Don't make this any more difficult than it already is, Agatha," her husband quickly hushed her as he guided her away from the scene. "The man's got a job to do. They've trained him thoroughly for situations like these. He knows what he's doing. Let him work. We'll wait for another boat so we can all leave together."

"Are there any more women and children who will take this boat?" I continued calling to the crowd of first class passengers around me. "Anyone at all?"

Only one brave boy stepped forward with his two sisters, but his mother quickly yanked him back by the collar, and scolded him in some language I didn't understand. The other women clung stubbornly onto their husbands' arms, unwilling to make the sacrifice for the loss and uncertainty that would inevitably follow. It was a hopeless feat. They were going straight down into the Atlantic, but none of them seemed to understand that. Or perhaps, they understood the situation more fully than I did. To stay behind on that deck and bravely face their fate was a choice they were prepared to make if it meant avoiding a life of uncertainty without the people they loved. I was frustrated by their refusal to save themselves, but even more vexed by their raw display of courage. If a mother or daughter could put on this mask of gallantry, what sort of man did it make me for wanting to jump into a lifeboat the first chance I got? What kind of human being would it make me to escape that ship, paddling my lifeboat away, and never once looking back at those stone faced women standing like citadels on Titanic's deck?

"We don't have time for this," sixth Officer Moody approached me from his post at lifeboat 2, unable to bear the scene any longer. "Launch this lifeboat and get on with another one. You've done your duty. Their lives are in their own hands now."

"I can't lower a boat built for 70 men into the sea with only ten people. I'd never be able to justify it," I told him.

I turned back to the gentleman and his candid wife Agatha. "Take care of your family. Whatever may happen, do not leave their side," I told him. Then I faced the other passengers huddled around me. "If there's anyone else, man or woman, willing to take this boat, step forward now, or else stand clear for launch in two minutes."

"God bless you, sir! God thank you, sir!" the wife Agatha cried to me, as she dabbed her handkerchief onto her eyes, following her husband and children into the lifeboat. "I'll be praying for you, sir. God protect you. May God show you mercy, sir."

By the end of it, the boat was filled by three quarters, and only a handful of skeptical couples stood watching from the deck.

"Prepare to lower them down!" I called to the deckhands.

"What are you doing?" Officer Moody pulled me aside. "Captain's orders were to put women and children on first. This is insubordination, a charge that could put you off this ship for good. If someone finds out you were letting men on over women, you'll put a black mark on all of us."

"How can I look another person in the eyes and tell him he has no right to live?" I asked him. "I am following captain's orders. He said get the women and children off this deck. That's what I'm doing. He did not specify by what means I should do it, but only that I should make sure it happens. The only way of getting these women out of here is to let their men go too, and if it means saving these children while doing it, then that's what I'm going to do. There's no way around a stubborn woman."

"And will you be leaving with this boat?" Moody asked.

I froze, unable to say yes, unwilling to say no. I forgot how to say anything intelligible, as fear and courage battled for dominance over my decision. I glanced at the women and children waiting for my answer in the lifeboat. There were 45 of them, and the men who accompanied them were first class gentlemen, who had no experience with seafaring or boats. They were not sailors. They would need someone who knew the boats to guide them through the ocean until a rescue ship picked them up. But what of the other women and children who were hadn't yet been given the privilege lifeboat? What about the working class ladies below decks who deserved a chance to live as much as these heiresses born with a title? Who would guide them?

"No," I finally managed to get the word out. "I won't be taking a boat yet. There will be time later for that. For now, I believe I'm more useful on deck. You take this one instead."

"You two," Moody called to a pair of crewmen assisting with the pulleys. "You'll be accompanying the passengers. Quickly, please. We've lost enough time already."

Then Moody stood beside me again as we watched the last crewmen jump into the lifeboat. Quietly, he muttered, "You understand there may not be a 'later' for us, Oliver? If you've done the math, you know the odds."

"I know them as well as anyone."

"Just be prepared for it. There's no going back once it's started," he said. Then he left my side, stepping up to direct lifeboat 1 down Titanic's starboard side. "And lower away!"

My heart pounded as I watched the lifeboat vanish over the edge, and all instinct of survival pushed me to leap over the railing into the safety of that boat. I almost did it.

Fear will make you realize parts of yourself you never knew existed, and destroy everything honorable you thought you were. I was anything but fearless, and I might have taken Moody's offer.

Nonetheless, love won over my fear in the end. The love and courage of a mother, a wife, and a daughter in the face of their own demise. Their love was the only force strong enough to keep me standing in their place on that deck, even though I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I knew that choosing to stay behind would likely be a fatal decision, but I couldn't see myself living with the alternative. I didn't know what was to become of me. I just knew I had to do something. Nothing, not the mighty Atlantic, or the heavens falling away from me, or the ground sinking from under my feet, would tear me away from the responsibility I had to these people on board. If that night were to be my last, I could not go quietly without knowing that I had done everything in my power to save as many of them as I could. It wasn't just duty, it was destiny. Everything that I wished I could be, and everything I had learned as a sailor had brought me to this moment. I had to trust that I'd learned it well enough, and that my training and instincts as a sailor would pull me safely through this. And even if they didn't, I had to trust that in my last hour, I was making the right decision.

Feeling lightheaded, but oddly collected and resolved with myself, I finally let go of the railing and stepped away from the lifeboat, never to look back on it again.


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