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Disasters At Sea
by [?]

During last year the register of slaughter on the ocean was worse than any ever before seen since the Royal Charter took her crew to destruction; and it seems as though matters were growing worse and worse. One dismal old story is being repeated week in, week out. In thick weather or clear weather–it does not seem to matter which–two vessels approach each other, and the presiding officers on board of each are quite satisfied and calm; then, on a sudden, one vessel shifts her course, there are a few hurried and maddened ejaculations, and then comes a crash. After that, the ugly tale may be continued in the same terms over and over again; the boats cannot be cleared away, the vessels drift apart, and both founder, or one is left crippled. I shall have something to say about the actual effects of a collision presently, but I may first go on to name some other kinds of disaster. A heavy sea is rolling, and occasionally breaking, and a vessel is lumbering along from crest to hollow of the rushing seas; a big wall of water looms over her for a second, and then comes crashing down; the deck gives way–there are no water-tight compartments–and the ship becomes suddenly as unmanageable as a mere cask in a seaway. Again, a plate is wrenched, and some villainously-made rivets jump out of their places like buttons from an over-tight bodice; in ten minutes the vessel is wallowing, ready for her last plunge; and very likely the crew have not even the forlorn chance of taking to the boats. Once more–on a clear night in the tropics an emigrant ship is stealing softly through the water; the merry crowd on deck has broken up, the women, poor creatures, are all locked up in their quarters, and only a few men remain to lounge and gossip. The great stars hang like lamps from the solemn dome of the sky, and the ripples are painted with exquisite serpentine streaks; the wind hums softly from the courses of the sails, and some of the men like to let the cool breeze blow over them. Everything seems so delightfully placid and clear that the thought of danger vanishes; no one would imagine that even a sea-bird could come up unobserved over that starlit expanse of water. But the ocean is treacherous in light and shade. The loungers tell their little stories and laugh merrily; the officer of the watch carelessly stumps forward from abreast of the wheel, looks knowingly aloft, twirls round like a teetotum, and stumps back again; and the sweet night passes in splendour, until all save one or two home-sick lingerers are happy. It never occurs to any of these passengers to glance forward and see whether a streak of green fire seems to strike out from the starboard–the right-hand side of the vessel–or whether a shaft of red shoots from the other side. As a matter of fact, the vessel is going on like a dark cloud over the flying furrows of the sea; but there is very little of the cloud about her great hull, for she would knock a house down if she hit it when travelling at her present rate. The captain is a thrifty man, and the owners are thrifty persons; they consider the cost of oil; and thus, as it is a nice clear night, the side-lights are not lit, and the judgment of the tramping look-out man on the forecastle-head is trusted. Parenthetically I may say that, without being in any way disposed to harbour exaggerated sentiment, I feel almost inclined to advocate death for any sailor who runs in mid-ocean without carrying his proper lights out. I once saw a big iron barque go grinding right from the bulge of the bow to the stern of an ocean steamer–and that wretched barque had no lights. Half a yard’s difference, and both vessels would have sunk. Three hundred and fifty people were sleeping peacefully on board the steamer, and the majority of them must have gone down, while those who were saved would have had a hard time in the boats. Strange to say, that very same steamer was crossed by another vessel which carried no lights: but this time the result was bad, for the steamer went clean through the other ship and sank her instantly.