I just wanted to share this beginning to a short story I penned a while back…the title is “The Fog”
Captain’s personal log, USS Cyclops (AC-4), 13 March 1918
The ship is en route from Bahia, Salvador, with a full load of manganese ore bound for Baltimore, MD, and the munitions factories. We’ve been sounding fog signals fore and aft every two minutes. The fog’s been with us for two days. Unable to raise anyone by radio and no beacons have been sighted to get a navigation fix. I suspect the compass is unreliable. By the dead reckoning track the ship should have made landfall yesterday. In all my years sailing these waters I’ve never seen such a thick, cold fog.
“Captain to the bridge!” came the call from the loudspeaker, squawking like a noisy parrot perched above Captain Worley’s cabin door. He didn’t need to be called twice. Anytime he was summoned to the bridge something serious was afoot and with this fog he knew it could easily mean his ship was in danger. Grabbing his bridge coat from its hook by the door, Captain Worley moved his six feet, four inch frame hurriedly along the length of the ship. It took him less than two minutes to get from his quarters to the bridge, traveling the length of the ship and up two ladders. On his way he scrutinized the ocean on the side of the ship he traversed.
“What’s the trouble, Mr. Higgins?” he asked, out of breath and sweating, despite the cold, from his efforts to get to the bridge quickly.
“Forward fog watch reports what he says looks like a boat in the water ahead, tracking across our bow,” Higgins answered but his eyes continued their attempt to penetrate the veil of fog.
“Two points off the port bow, sir. I’ve slowed to bare steerageway.”
“Very well.” Captain Worley’s eyes sifted the fog, then, “There she is…crossing our bow, dead ahead. Go all stop, Mr. Higgins, then back down to take all way off.”
“Aye, aye, Captain. All stop,” he ordered.
“All stop aye, sir,” answered the lee helmsman as the engine order telegraph bells chimed away. A moment later he announced, “All engines answer stop, sir.”
“Very well, all back one-third,” came Higgins next order.
“All back one-third, aye, sir,” came the response from the lee helm followed by, “all engines answer back one-third.”
As the lee helm repeated his order, Higgins moved to the port side of the bridge where he could observe out the porthole the water alongside the ship, making a judgment on when to give the order to stop engines that would leave the large ship motionless in the sea. “All engines stop.”
“All engines stop, aye, sir,” came the reply followed almost immediately by, “sir, all engines answer stop.”
“Very well,” answered Higgins. Turning his attention back to the captain he asked, “Your orders, sir?”
“Hail them. Find out what the devil they’re doing out here without sounding fog signals and why the hell they didn’t respond to ours. I’ll be in the bridge office.” With the immediate danger to his ship passed, the captain was at liberty to vent his anger. Nautical rules of the road commanded ships and boats to sound signals in fog whether navigating or at anchor. To ignore those rules put all vessels at risk. It’s something mariners take very seriously.
Thirty minutes later there was a knock on the door of the small office just off the main bridge. This is where Captain Worley spent most of his waking hours while at sea when he wasn’t physically on the bridge. His more comfortable quarters aft were used primarily for sleeping, which came in short supply. “Come,” barked the captain.
“Captain,” said LT Meisner as he opened the door, “she looks to be abandoned. We hailed her with lights and bullhorns. No response. None on VHF either.”
“That’s strange; she looked as though she was under power when we first came upon her.”
“She’s adrift now, sir.”
“Very well, Lieutenant, take the whaleboat over for a look. Let’s see what’s going on over there.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“And Paul,” the captain added using the young lieutenant’s first name in an unusual breech of decorum, “be careful.”
Giving the captain a smile that spoke of the lieutenant’s youthful confidence he replied, “Aye, sir,” and turning left the captain alone.
Taking his pen in hand, Captain Worley entered the following in his personal log,
‘Came across what appears to be a derelict vessel drifting in the fog. I can’t explain it, call it a Dutchman’s intuition, but I have an uneasy feeling about this boat. When I first saw it, the thought came to me from nowhere—death boat.
The captain spent the next hour and a half awaiting word back from the boarding team. He had the utmost faith in LT Meisner. He’d been Worley’s Executive Officer, or XO, for the past three years, an unusually long period for peacetime, but with the war on, transfers for career officers were rare. Worley had begun to think of the younger Meisner as a son. This, and the inexplicable unease he felt over the adrift vessel, made the waiting difficult.
Signals were exchanged at regular intervals between the ship and the boarding party, but the sparse information received back was negative. After an hour and a half the signalman delivered this message to the captain:
‘Returning to ship. Entire crew and all passengers missing except one.’
As he awaited the boarding party’s return Captain Worley paced the bridge. With each trip across he stopped to check the launch’s progress—now it was tied alongside the derelict vessel; now it’s bow turned back toward the ship, the bow-wave barely discernable in the fog; now it was halfway between the derelict vessel and his own ship, more clearly visible, though not distinct enough to make out faces. As the boat pulled alongside, aft by the accommodation ladder, the captain made his way to where the boatswains were securing the rigging for the ladder. He wrung his hands together in nervous anticipation, his earlier uneasiness increasing to dread, dread of the unknown. Who was this last remaining survivor, crew or passenger, survivor or murderer, friend or fiend? When he reached the top of the ladder he called down to LT Meisner, “Report to my cabin; bring your charge.” He didn’t wait for a reply. Without further word he walked aft to his quarters.
It was a full thirty minutes before the XO knocked on the captain’s cabin door.
“Come,” called the captain. He didn’t know what it was he expected to see, but whatever he expected, it wasn’t what accompanied the Executive Officer into his cabin. Standing there, shivering in a too large foul weather jacket was what looked like a ten-year-old girl, her dark curly hair spilling out from under a watch cap donated by a crewman. The jacket he recognized as belonging to the chief boatswain’s mate who’d been coxswain for the boarding team. The captain’s heart was instantly touched by the innocence of the young eyes peering up through the curls.