Note Concerning a Wreck named T—, Published in Mariner Issue No.455, 2983rd year, aut: The Golden Whale

It was called Unsinkable. Not unsinkable, but capital-U Unsinkable, to indicate that this vessel did not merely possess this characteristic, but fully owned it, exercised dominion over it. As if the very nature of unsinkability was to be found embedded in its hull, inside the metal frame, the antithesis of the idea of weakness. Was not to be disentangled from it. Maybe this capital-U Unsinkability was nestled placentally among the ropes, or maybe was stashed, glowing secretly, in the cargo hold, or made its home in the forest of davits that lined pockets of the deck.

It was very beautiful. (The “is” does ask itself, but maybe later.) It was made during that time when people didn’t really think about beauty when building something, but thought more about things like, I suppose, weight, size, solidity, nobility, aristocracy – and so really it must have been beautiful. Unconsciously. It is very easy to see even now its big bronze nose opening the pages of the water. Lumbering along. Well, not lumbering, but with the feeling of lumbering. With weight and confidence.

At seven minutes past midnight on June 1246[1] the ship collided with an iceberg. A miscommunication meant that its position had been relayed wrongly, and by the time it was spotted and the 113-tonne rudder was turned to move the ship hard to port it was too late. The inertia of a 80,000-tonne ship travelling at over 40 knots is very substantial.

The iceberg collided glancingly with the bow, crumpling a W-shaped section of it about 20 metres across, and then dragged itself along the starboard hull. It was the damage caused by the latter that proved fatal. The hull was too thick to break, but buckled inwards at portions along a 400-foot span, pulling the rivets that held the plates together loose and allowing water to flood into seven of the forward compartments. The total area of the openings that were created was less than four square metres. Water came through this space at a rate of 10 long tonnes per second. There is a bitterness to the thought that if the T— had not attempted to avoid the iceberg, and have collided with it head-on, it would probably have survived – only two compartments would have been flooded otherwise, or at least this is as much as I am willing to guess right now. Just before the collision a radio cry went out, tangled in the ionosphere, but the nearest ship, the D—, was too far away to be of assistance.

At 1.12 a gangway door was opened in the port side of the ship to load passengers onto the lifeboats. Four minutes later a wall of water came through this opening, and to the horror of the engineers it was found that the massive door could not be closed; gravity and the increasing lean of the ship made it simply impossible. At this point Engine Rooms 1 and 2 were fully flooded, and water was coming through Engine Room 3 into the main gangway of the lower G deck, where nearly two thousand people were crammed. Most of them died.

One hour later the bow had filled with so much water that its weight lifted the stern clear of the sea, exposing the propellers, each 7 times the height of a man, and causing one of the funnels to crack. The stresses building up on the middle of the ship soon became catastrophic. At 2.35 the water in Engine Room 4 reached the main cable bundle that carried power to the rest of the ship. The housings had peeled off as the entire room had warped with the ship – one end of the room was a full two feet lower than the other. At 2.37 the lights on the T— that had filled its corridors and halls with brightness and made the sea shine flickered once, came back on, flickered again, and went out.

Then the T— cracked in half. The sound was so alien that very few of the passengers recognized it for what it was. It was a groan, a rattle, an agonised tearing noise that went on for over 20 seconds, not the explosion that many expected.  The T— broke in two at one of its weakest points in the structure, the area of the main engine room hatch. All the decks were ripped in two, but the double-bottomed hull held for a minute longer, so that as the bow descended it pulled the stern along, lifting it over 45° out of the water, until the two-inch plates holding the two halves of the ship together snapped and the bow rolled free into the freezing water.

The hydrodynamic leading edge of the bow meant that it descended smoothly at a steep angle and gained speed fast. The water flowing over it sheared the funnels away. As they detached the tangle of ropes they took with them scoured the decks clean. The wheelhouse crumbled away. After eight minutes of relentless descent in the dark the bow crashed into the seafloor at 42km/h, digging itself 20m into the mud. The impact bent the hull in two places and caused it to buckle downwards by about 16° under the forward well deck cranes and by about 7° under the forward expansion joint. The weakened decks at the rear, where the ship had broken apart, collapsed on top of each other. The forward hatch cover was also blown off and landed a couple of hundred feet in front of the bow due to the force of water being pushed out as the bow was crushed against the bottom. A slipstream formed behind the bow as it was falling, and when the bow hit the seafloor a 6000-tonne column of water crushed the bridge into an puzzlement of broken steel.   The vertical steel columns supporting the decks were bent into C-shapes, railings were blown outwards, and the roof of the crew quarters and main hall were pushed in.

On the surface the forward section of the stern, having fallen back into the water, was filling so fast that in 20 minutes it assumed a near-vertical position and was dragged beneath the surface. It lacked a streamlined leading edge, so its descent was traumatic. As it sank the rudder swung around to a 40° angle, so it tumbled and corkscrewed tightly as it fell, rotating slowly like a Dipterocarp seed or a helicopter blade. A large V-shaped forward section just aft of midships, the weakest portion of the ship due to the two large spaces it contained (the First Class Stair and fuel store), simply disintegrated into nothing, spitting its contents into the blackness. The engines tumbled out like hundred-tonne marbles.

Unlike the bow the stern had not fully filled with water, and so for five kilometres it made its tortured descent to an overwhelming symphony of sounds: compartments imploding, bulkheads rupturing, steel support warping, hull plates ripping out, the poop deck folding in on itself, spraying out debris over kilometres of ocean floor. Crackings and slow grinding peals echoed for hundreds of kilometres.

When the stern reached the seabed the decks pancaked so violently that today no single deck is more than a foot in height. The hull plates splayed out to either side of the shattered section. The center propeller is totally buried, while the force of the impact caused the two wing propellers and shafts to be bent upwards by an angle of about 20°. The naked eye finds it difficult to believe that this is the stern of a ship.

When T— sank she carried over 2000 to the bottom with her. Imagine what is was like to be them, sitting in this celebration of metal feeling to the grand shudderings, the soft buffetings that muffle the catastrophe outside, hearing the colossal wrenching and trembling sounding everywhere. I want to say that this is too terrible to imagine, but of course it is not. We are all drawn to this kind of grandeur. There is something hortatory about it.

It is all too easy to imagine.

For those of you who are kind enough to read my reports regularly (enjoying, I hope, my writing) and are aware of my hobby then this note comes as a small surprise to you, concerning as it does a great tragedy of no particular importance happening on an old and primitive world. I suppose I owe you, in some form or another, an explanation of my fascination with T—.  It reminds me of me: a great new vessel golden in brass and manganese and steel nosing its way into the night, a ship with too much love in its name, a symbol of a gilded age, weighed down, pushed forward by the pride of an entire people, faultless and nimble as it darted across a sea, ended by something as old and slow as ice. There are many things out here that are older than me, and slower, and I fear that one of these will nick me fatally, and bring me to my end.

[A brief biological survey of the site was undertaken. The results were extraordinary. For the new organism discovered I suggest the name Halomonas theophagia.]

[1] Local reference

The word is stopped by the water

The boy squats by the canal. His clothes are flecked with spray. In his hands he holds something slick and alive, like a bomb. It is struggling so he holds it out, away from his face. He laughs. The water in the canal is smooth and deep and muscular. The thing that is alive is fighting for its life. It is struggling. As it moves it nearly slips out of the boy’s grasp and its centre of balance shifts out, away, toward the water. The boy’s voice goes high with delight. It is a shriek with a small intake of breath in it, in the middle. Adults do not make this sound. Without knowing it the boy adjusts to the thrashing weight he holds, as everyone adjusts without knowing it. His hands go out further, he leans forward. He leans forward too fast and topples into the water without a sound. The water carries him away swiftly. He cannot be seen. The thing that he was holding, the thing that is alive, leaps briefly out of the water. Then it is a shape, moving arrowly away, holding against the current. The boy cannot be seen. The canal is long and straight. On one side is wildness and on the other the buildings come down right to the edge. The boy comes to the surface for a moment. He is far down the canal, further than one might think. His arms are out in front of him. They only just come above the surface of the water. His fingers are rigid and clutching. He cries out. The word is stopped by the water. The frail sound disappears fast. It is difficult to tell where he is because of the turbulence. Eddies, foam. He comes up again. His limbs are pale and thin or maybe the stretching water makes its look so.  He turns, burbles. He turns and his face shows. He is not paralysed but the panic and terror of it is pure. He tries to see through the water and his hair. His hair is long and one eye is covered with a wet sheen of it. He cries out but the water grayly pulls him under. The movement looks graceful. The boy sees flashes of blind white sky and then black autistic water, bubbles. Sometimes the sides of his body feel the stony bottom. The boy tries to grasp at things but there is nothing to grasp. It is hard to see him in the water. His head looks like a rock beneath the surface. He tries to cry out again and again until he can only breathe and cannot afford any sound. Then the child is at the surface again. This time he does not disappear underneath. The child tries again and a sound comes like a miracle. It is high and bright with terror. It sounds like he is crying but surely a child in this dark water would be too stupefied to cry. The child makes the same sound again and again. A woman comes running down the canal. Her voices rises but not in the way the child’s voice rises. Her shoes make a stony noise against the pavement. Frantic she takes them off. She nearly trips but does not. She does not stop calling for help. Then she calls the child’s name. She says that she is coming. She tells him to wait. The child cannot wait, the water is taking him down the canal, past the buildings and the storm drains. He turns one way and another and he cannot see the woman but he can hear her. The voice of the woman is hoarse. There is an animal inflection to it. The second syllable of the child’s name she draws out. Not a scream, more necessary than it. Someone hears her. The woman points as she runs. She moves her finger as if tearing at the air. The stranger cannot see the child in the water. The woman is infuriated without feeling it because she can see the child very clearly. She can see him every time he comes up. His hair is grey against the current and it shows. There, she shouts, and the stranger runs to a bend and waits and jumps. The stranger swims well. He goes into the canal often. As he comes out of the water the child’s arms are around him. They are cold. They clasp so tight it is frightening coming from a child. The boy’s eyes are very wide. Water comes off him and his clothes and runs down the legs of the stranger. Even though in the canal it is massed and gray it is very clean on the boy. The woman ignores the stranger. She takes the child in her arms and wetness expands over her clothes. There are small pink cuts on the boy’s palms. His clothes stick to him. The stranger stands against the railings and bends over. He puts his hands on his knees. The child speaks. I was not afraid, the child says. His voice is slightly muffled. His feet are bare. The woman is crying and she presses the boy into her chest and she does not hear him as he says, Mother, Mother, I am not afraid.