Tuesday, 12 May 2015

JOSEPH CONRAD'S 'NEVER SAY DIE'.

The Register (Adelaide) Wednesday 25 November, 1909
THE WARATAH.THE SILENCE OF THE SEA.A STUDY IN SEA TRAGEDIES.
                 'NEVER SAY                     DIE'.
The missing Waratah and the silence and mystery which broods over her fate have deeply stirred the imagination of the world, and Mr. Joseph Conrad - perhaps the best of all living writers on sea subjects contributed a few weeks ago to one of the London journals an article on 'The Silence Of The Sea'. 'Overdue' and 'posted missing' he says, are 'two leaden words of doubt and resignation which belong to the very realm of the ocean'.
                       'Overdue'
There is no year in which ships are not posted as 'overdue' and given up as 'missing'. These words have a perpetual sinister actuality. But it does not often happen that an 'overdue' ship looms large in the eyes of an anxious world, a ghostly craft growing indistinct in the mist of an uncertain fate, tragic with the freight of hopes and dread.
Many hearts in two hemispheres are straining with intolerable anxiety for some sight of the steamship Waratah. Her looming form grows more ghostly from hour to hour - though, of course, 'never say die'.
We on shore should whisper the precept to ourselves, since we may be certain that the responsible men on board would be acting on it from the first moment of trouble to the very last moment of existence.
But the ship has been overdue now for weeks. And this sort of  anxiety does not grow stale. All the world is in possession of the only sea facts which are certain: the ship left for a short coast wise run along the curve of the southern seaboard of  the African Continent: she left her port of call in threatening weather, which developed quickly into a very heavy gale from the westward, and therefore generally adverse to her on all the courses she had to steer while pursuing her way parallel to the contour of the African shore. And she has been six, nearly 10 weeks overdue. 
The sea does not give up its secrets to the prying anxiety of men. The anguish of hearts is nothing to it. It is not tamed enough to surrender what terrors have been left to it by the progress of science and the records of experience, by patient surveys and patent sounding machines, by the alliance of iron and fire, by the accumulated knowledge of a multitude of seamen, and the perfect riveting of watertight bulkheads. No. Not tamed enough yet, not sufficiently stripped of its robe of mystery; within the rent and tattered folds of the somber garment there may lurk yet the form of some inconceivable disaster. But - 'never say die'!
                   'Missing Steamers'.
The first 'missing' record in the history of the passenger service was, I believe, the paddle steamship President, bound from England to New York in the early forties. She was supposed to have run full tilt against an iceberg. That is very likely the true explanation of her disappearance. She must have gone down like a stone.
This is one of the dangers of the sea; yet within the recollection of my seagoing life the steamship Arizona, one of the ocean greyhounds of the middle eighties, repeated the supposed performance of the President. There can be no doubt that she did run against an iceberg, because the lived to tell the tale and exhibited wonderfully smashed bows. Verily the watertight bulkhead had robbed the ocean of some of its terrors. But, considered in relation to the fate of the Waratah, this danger of the sea, peculiar mainly to the North Atlantic, and to the far southern water routes of the globe, may be considered as inconceivable. It is inconceivable that a treacherous floe should have come all the way from the polar icecap to fish for steamers on the African coast - and in the dead of winter too!
Waterlogged wrecks and uncharted rocks are among the dangers of the sea. But waterlogged wrecks are only to be found in the track of the timber trade, and are very rare now, because the corpse of an iron ship, even if stuffed full of planks, generally manages to sink out of the way of the living in a very short time. As to rocks, the coast skirted by the Waratah is perfectly charted, if very rocky in many places. The fog is the most wicked accomplice of all the dancers of the sea; but we know that there was no fog. There was a gale. What a seaman would call very heavy weather. Against this were pitted the seamanlike qualities of the men who manned her and the seaworthiness of the ship - product of the science, the skill of honesty of other men whose hands crafted her lines, put together the hull and engines, and launched her upon the sea.
             On the Agulhas Bank
One of the dangers of the ocean is the seas. I use that word in the sense of waves. On the edge of the Agulhas Bank the seas driven by a westerly gales, are terrible in their steepness. In sailor's phrase they come at one like a wall. In the month of August of the year 1884 the writer was involved, on the very path, which the Waratah should have pursued, in a gale which missed narrowly being the cause of a missing ship. The vessel on board of which he served, went on her beam end and remained thus lying there on her side for 30 hours among these steep seas, whose menacing aspect and vicious rush are not to be forgotten. It was a long drawn experience, an agonizingly prolonged opportunity to 'never say die'.
I suppose we never said it from the habit and tradition of restraint in that professional matter, though we certainly believed that the time had come for us to do that thing which is never to be spoken of as long as one's ship remains afloat.
            Possibility of Collision.
We have seen lately in the case of a big Atlantic liner that this, the worst danger of the modern sea, it robbed of much of its deadliness by the invention of watertight bulkheads. Yet, more than once both colliding ships have been known to sink at one stroke. And a collision in heavy weather, even if not immediately fatal to either, is bound to put both ships in extreme jeopardy, for no ship thus wounded, and with one or more of her compartments full of water, can face with the buoyant courage of a good sea the stress of the gale and the blows of the assaulting seas. 
Reluctantly the possibility of this very thing having happened must be faced - the combination of two dangers of the sea. But he who remembers the tales passing from lips to lips in the world of great waters, tales of ships lost and found again; all these tales belonging to the tradition of the wonders of the sea, will 'never say die'. Never. At first in hope, afterwards perhaps because men's grave silence is the only dignified answer upon the cruel mysteries of the sea.
And, after all, ships have been lost not only for weeks on this small and stormy world of ours, but for months - whole months strung on end together to the number of three and more. One remembers brave tales, wonderful instances too long to tell of here, but whose moral is that we must 
'never say die'


  

1 comment:

Mole said...

A very moving comment by one of the greatest of maritime authors, it reverberates with the shock and concern felt worldwide at the time of the Waratah's loss. Thank you for making it accessible to Waratah enthusiasts.