1996. Just before dawn. A Japanese fishing boat ploughs south through the rolling waves of the Central Pacific, her huge engine ceaseless. The autopilot is on and, in the bridge, the man on night watch snoozes peacefully. Below deck in the salon, between empty bowls and chopsticks, the engineer and cook drink brandy and play cards. Two bug-eyed, pickled seahorses silently watch them through yellowing jars.
The radio man lies in his bunk, a single sideband (SSB) radio and related bank of equipment gives off low static next to him. He is frustrating himself in his attempt to write a meaningful letter to his fiancé back home. He looks again at the beautiful calligraphy she gave him before he left, the one taped with pride to the end of his bunk, and redoubles his efforts. The rest of the ten man crew are asleep.
And then, out of nowhere, a huge jolt jars the superstructure of the ship, followed by the sickening whine of metal scraping on rock. Everyone is awake and alert in an instant, and everyone knows what has happened: the boat has hit a reef. Alarms go off willy-nilly. The captain and his first mate are on the bridge within a minute, both in their pants, to find the watchman, eyes the size of golf balls, throwing the boat into full reverse. There is general panic and anger. The boat has stopped moving. The captain is white with both rage and the knowledge of a thousand implications crowding in on him. Liver spots showing on his skinny torso, all too human, he slaps the watchman hard across the face and then, some of his fury dissipated, looks out of the windows and takes a deep breath. In the smudge of dawn he can pick out a couple of islands to his right, and one on his left, each no more than 200 metres away. Silhouettes of palm trees reclining in the still air, not giving a shit.
This must be an atoll, with coral running just under the surface between the islands. He tries reversing the propellers again, but the ship is stuck fast. It is high tide, and the Mai Maru is not going anywhere.
No one died. It took 18 hours for the nearest fishing boat to show up and take them aboard, offering them makeshift beds and a different brand of ramen. This boat had its own fishing quotas to hit though, and the Mai Maru’s crew were stuck on there, politely ignored by this ship’s crew, for two weeks whilst the long fishing lines stretched for kilometres behind the boat, snaring tuna, mai mai, shark, dolphin, all gutted, packed and frozen in the hold. The radioman wasn’t sure which period of waiting had been worse. Those first 18 hours had themselves felt like two weeks: an initial freak out that the boat would sink and they would be truly Robinson Crusoe’d. The subsequent the relief as the boat held firm fading to a quiet desolation as they tottered on the reef like a giant whale corpse, the low tide exposing the unmoving coral below them, the high tide scratching the boat millimetres along the reef with each pounding wave, hard coral peeling the steel hull like a can opener on a tin of beans.
The mood had been deadly. The watchman, who after coarse interrogation admitted to being asleep when he should have been not crashing into reefs, was entirely shunned and didn’t leave his cabin. The captain remained on the bridge, the flawlessly blue sky and breathtaking beauty of the place only sharpening his misery, knowing his career was over. Knowing that this accident, rather than the previous thirty years of impeccable seamanship, would define his reputation and his legacy. The engineer and cook got back down to their cards and brandy, completely ignoring the gravity of the situation, or perhaps reveling in it, putting down all the money that they weren’t going to get paid on the table; focused on the present.
The radioman, red eyed, sent hourly status reports to the fleet’s head office in Kyoto and imagined the fevered activity behind the curt, blandly intoned replies he received. He wondered if anyone has told his family what is going on, or if they are keeping the whole disaster a secret from family and shareholders alike. He wonders if he will be treated as a hero for coping so well under pressure, or a failure for being part of the whole debacle in the first place. Later, on the fishing-boat-cum-rescue-ship, he realized he had left his fiance’s calligraphy on the cabin wall. Damn. She would be hurt unless he came up with a good excuse. Perhaps he could say he left it there to provide a flash of beauty, of human brilliance, among the rust and the waves and the wet bedding. Yes, he smiled to himself, that is suitably poetic. Someone might even find it one day. She digs that kind of cosmic stuff.
I found it. And worked backwards from there. It looks like this:
Twenty years later and the ship sits like a nautical Angel of the North, burnt copper, visible on the horizon, a rusty magnet of intrigue. We anchored in the lagoon and scaled the side with grappling hook and knotted rope, the ultimate Boy Scout fantasy, poking around, every salt-preserved map and smashed up cabin became a window into a thousand possible stories.