Book Excerpt: The Cape Horners' Club

By Adrian Flanagan

In The Cape Horners' Club by Adrian Flanagan, there is a terrifying tale retold from The Log of a Limejuicer, in which the captain of a ship navigating the horn describes how one crewmember was tragically lost over the side.

The Cape Horners' Club book cover

At that moment the moon, which had been hidden behind a thick blanket of scurrying clouds, broke through a rift to reveal a scene which caused me to gasp with astonishment and awe ... there, stretching endlessly north and south, a mighty wall of water, towering high above its fellows and making them appear insignificant by comparison, was rolling towards the British Isles.

So far as the ship was concerned nothing could be done, for she was hove to under fore and main lower tops'ls, and a storm fore topmast stays'll. The helm was hard down, with relieving tackles hooked on to the tiller; under which conditions the duty of the man-at-the-wheel was simply to stand on the grating, gripping a spoke tightly in each mitten covered hand. Making a lee drift of seven points, she was creating that swirl and smooth to windward which has often proved the salvation of sailing ships.

The greybeard was racing towards us at a speed of not less than forty miles an hour, and only a few minutes would elapse ere it reached us. The members of the second mate's watch, down on the main deck clearing up running gear, were in imminent danger of being swept away to death.

"On the main deck there. Let everything stand! Jump into the rigging–quick. Climb high, and hang on for your lives."

In response to my orders, I had the satisfaction of seeing dim forms mounting the ratlines to the maintop. When I felt sure that everybody had left the main deck I again turned and looked to windward, where I saw that the space between us and the onrushing wall of water had greatly decreased. I then ran to the wheel, urged the helmsman to hang on, and myself grasped the spokes to await the inevitable impact.

The suspense was an agony to me, as I thought of my family lying helpless in the cabin below. The colossal greybeard seemed to approach with tantalizing slowness during these last few moments; but finally the ship slid down into an enormous hollow, and the water to windward rising like a frowning cliff and blotting out the moon, cast us for perhaps a split second into deep shadow. ...

Thoughts flashed through my mind: "The end of the voyage for us all — the old ship's gone."

The foaming crest rose and curled over with a vast sigh, and in the curling seemed to touch the tips of the lower yardarms. My God, what a sea! The ship fell over so far and so deep down to leeward that I expected her to turn turtle.

There was a terrific roar. Then — chaos. The ship was completely engulfed in the swirling maelstrom fore and aft. Overwhelmed by that depth of water, not a single elevated structure along the whole length of the decks could be seen. That the helmsman and myself were not swept overboard like match-sticks seemed miraculous to me, for the sea had rushed over the poop more than a fathom deep. I raised my bruised body from beneath the smashed wheelbox. The helmsman was jammed hard under the tiller and relieving tackle; but apart from being half drowned he appeared to have suffered no serious injury, for he pulled himself from his uncomfortable position and with nothing more than a throaty curse resumed his station at the undamaged wheel.

As the ship and her crew recovered from the great shock, I heard the faint cries of a man in dire distress. Not from anyone caught and bodily injured on the main deck did those pitiful wails come but, even above the droning of the wind, from out of the darkness far down to leeward. ... Whoever he might be he was doomed, for we aboard the British Isles were helpless to render any assistance. 

— Published: April/May 2018

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