The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic
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IN THE TEETH OF THE STORM
An old German bos’un came by as Jack was picking himself up.
“Hullo! Almost man overboard, – vat?” he chuckled. “Don’d go overboard in dis vedder, Mister Vireless, aber vee nefer see you no more.”
“Did you ever see a storm as bad as this?” sputtered the dripping Jack.
“Dis not amount to much,” was the reply. “Vait till you cross in midt-vinter, den you see storms vos is storms.”
He hurried off on his work, while Jack, having recopied his messages, started forward again. This time he met with no mishaps.
On the reeling bridge he found Captain Braceworth. The captain was clinging to the railing, a shining, uncouth figure in dripping oil-skins. The clamor of wind and sea made speech almost impossible, but Jack touched the captain on the elbow to attract his attention.
In spite of his feeling, almost of aversion to the grim, strict captain, Jack felt a sensation of admiration for this stalwart, silent figure, guiding his wallowing ship through the storm as calmly as if he had been seated at a dinner table. One thing was certain, Captain Braceworth was no fair-weather sailor. Martinet though he might be, he was a man to meet a crisis calmly and with cool determination.
The captain took the messages silently and once more retired to the wheel-house to scan them. At the other end of the bridge the chief officer stood, an equally silent figure, looking out over the tempest-torn ocean. The captain was soon back on the bridge. He went over to the chief officer and Jack could see the two talking, or rather shouting.
He stood waiting respectfully for orders, crouching in the lee of the weather-cloth for protection against the screaming gale.
As soon as he saw that the captain had finished his conference with the officer, Jack came from the shelter and clawed his way to the skipper’s side.
Captain Braceworth placed his hands funnel-wise to his mouth and shouted into Jack’s ear:
“Try to get Cape Race or Siasconset, and tell the office in New York that we are in a bad gale and running under reduced speed. From the look of the glass it may last two days and delay our arrival at Antwerp.”
Jack saluted and was off like a flash, while the captain resumed his silent scrutiny of the racing billows. Five minutes later, the young wireless boy sat at his post, sending his message through the shouting, howling turmoil of wind and wave.
Experienced as he was at the key, it was, nevertheless, a novel sensation to be sitting, snug and warm in his cabin, flashing into storm-racked space, the calls for Siasconset or “the Cape.” Occasionally he groped with his key for another vessel, through which his message to the New York office might be “relayed.”
He knew that some of the big liners had a more powerful apparatus than he possessed, and if he did not succeed in raising a shore station, his message could be transmitted to one of the steamers and thence to the land.
The spark whined and crackled and flashed for fifteen minutes or more before there came, pattering on his ears through the “watch-case” receivers, a welcome reply.
It was from Cape Race.Jack delivered his message and had a short conversation with the operator. He had hardly finished, before, into his wireless sphere, other voices came calling through the storm. Back and forth through the witches’ dance of the winds, the questions, answers and bits of stray chat and deep sea gossip came flitting and crackling.
But Jack had scant time to listen to the voice-filled air. He soon shut off his key and prepared to go forward again, with the news that the message had been sent. In less than an hour some official at the office of the line in New York would be reading it, seated at his desk, while miles out on the Atlantic the ship that had sent it was tossing in the grip of the storm.
Jack thought of these things as he buttoned himself into his oil-skins, secured the flaps of his sou’wester under his chin and once more fought his way forward along that dancing, swaying bridge, below which the water swirled and swayed like myriads of storm-racked rapids.
The captain, grim as ever, was still on the bridge, but now Jack saw that both he and the officer who shared his vigil were eying the seas through the glasses. They appeared to be scanning the tumbling ranges of water-mountains in search of some object. What, Jack did not know. But their attention appeared to be fully engrossed as they handed the glasses from one to another, holding on to the rail with their free hands to keep their balance.
Presently the chief officer shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if he had negatived some proposition of the captain’s.
The latter replaced the glasses in their box by the engine room telegraph, and Jack, deeming this a favorable opportunity, came forward with his report.
He had almost to scream it into the captain’s ear. But the great man heard and nodded gravely. Then he turned away and drew out the glasses once more and went back to scanning the heaving seas.
Jack, from the shelter of the wheel-house, within which an imperturbable quartermaster gripped the spokes of the wheel, followed the direction of the skipper’s gaze.
All at once, as the Ajax rose on the summit of a huge comber, he made out something that made his heart give a big jump.
It was a black patch that suddenly projected itself into view for an instant, and then rushed from sight as if it would never come up again.
SIGHTING THE WRECK
The captain wheeled suddenly. His eyes focused on Jack.
“Aye, aye, sir!”
“Have you had any calls from a ship in distress?”
“No, sir. I should have reported any message to you at once.”
“Of course. I’m not used to this wireless business, although it seems to be useful.”
“There – there’s a ship in distress yonder, sir?” Jack ventured to ask.
“Yes, they’re badly off.”
The captain tugged at his brown beard which glistened with spray.
“Call the third officer. He is in his cabin.”
Jack hastened aft and soon returned with Mr. Brown, the third officer of the Ajax, an alert, active little man. Jack ventured to linger on the bridge while they talked. His heart was filled with pity for whoever might be on board the storm-tossed derelict. He wanted to know what the captain proposed to do.
Fragments of speech were blown to the young operator’s ears as the three officers talked.
“Hopeless – Boat wouldn’t live a minute in this sea – she’ll go before eight bells – Yes, bound for Davy Jones’ locker, poor devils.”
Jack’s pulses beat fast as he heard. Could it be that the Ajax was to make no effort to rescue the crew of the wreck? His heart throbbed as if it would choke him. He felt suddenly angry, furiously angry with the three men on the bridge, who stood so calmly talking over the situation while, less than a mile away, there was a wrecked ship wallowing in the mighty seas without a chance for her life.
Had he dared, he would have stepped forward and volunteered to form part of a boat’s crew, no matter what the risk. His father’s seafaring blood ran in his veins, and he could recall hearing both Captain Amos Ready and his Uncle Toby recounting to each other, over their pipes, tales of sea-rescues.
“Uncle Toby is right,” thought the boy, with a white-hot flush of indignation; “seamanship is dead nowadays. The men who go to sea in these steel tanks are without hearts.”
They rose on the top of another mountainous wave and Jack had his first good view of the forlorn wreck. She was evidently a sailing vessel, although of what rig could not be made out, for her masts were gone. A more hopeless, melancholy sight than this storm-riven, sea-racked derelict could not be imagined. Her bowsprit still remained, and as she rose upward on a wave with the star pointed to the scurrying gray clouds, Jack’s excited fancy saw in it a mute appeal for aid.
And still the three officers stood talking, as the Ajax ploughed on. No attempt had been made to veer from her course.
“They’re going to leave her without trying to help her,” choked Jack, clenching his hands. “Oh! the cowards! the cowards!”
The boy made an impulsive step forward. In his excitement he was reckless of what he did. But, luckily, he came to his senses in time. Checking himself, he gloweringly watched the captain step to the wheel-house. As he did so, the commanding officer beckoned to Jack.
“I suppose he’s going to haul me over the coals for standing about here,” muttered the boy to himself; and then, impulsively, “but I don’t care. I’ll tell him what I think of him if he does!”
With defiance in his heart, Jack, nevertheless, hastened forward to obey Captain Braceworth’s motioned order.
Within the wheel-house the hub-bub of the storm was shut out. It was possible to speak without shouting. The captain’s face bore a puzzled frown as if he were thinking over some difficult problem. As Jack entered the wheel-house, he swung round on the boy:
“Oh, Ready! Stand by there a moment. I may have an order to give you.”
He stepped over to the speaking tube and hailed the engine-room.
“He’s going to give some order about saving that ship,” said the boy to himself.
But no. Captain Braceworth’s orders appeared to have nothing to do with any such plan. Jack felt his indignation surging up again as the commander, in a steady, measured voice, gave a lot of orders which, so far as Jack could hear, had to deal with pipes, pumps and something about the cargo. At all events, the boy caught the word “oil.”
“Well, if that isn’t the limit for hard-heartedness!” thought the lad to himself as he heard the calm, even tones. “What have a lot of monkey-wrench sailors like those fellows in the engineers’ department to do with saving lives, I’d like to know! If this was my dad’s ship, I’ll bet that he’d have a boat on the way to that wreck now.”
He gazed out of a port-hole. The wreck was still visible as the Ajax rode the high seas. From one of the stumps of the broken masts fluttered some sort of a signal. Jack fancied it might be the ensign reversed, a universal sign of distress on the high seas. But what ensign it was, he could not, of course, make out.
It seemed to him, too, that he could distinguish some figures on the decks, but of this he could not be certain.
“They may all be dead while this cowardly skipper is chatting with the engine-room,” he thought angrily.
“Yes, sir.” It was with difficulty that Jack spoke even respectfully. He felt desperate, disgusted with all on board the “tanker.”
“I want you to stand by your wireless. Try to pick up some other steamer. Tell them there is a ship in distress out there. Wait a minute, – here’s the latitude and longitude. Send that, if you chance to pick anybody up.”
Fairly bursting with anger, Jack hurried off. He did not dare to let the captain see his face. He was naturally a frank, honest youth and his emotions showed plainly on his countenance when his feelings were strong.
So, after all, this miserable skipper was going to run off and desert that poor battered wreck! He was going to leave the work for somebody else, for some other ship, for some captain braver than himself to undertake.
As he was entering his wireless room, he encountered Raynor.
“What’s up? You look as black as a thunderstorm,” said the young engineer.
“No wonder,” burst out Jack, his indignation overflowing; “we’re deserting a wreck off yonder. The old man’s lost his nerve, that’s what. I’d volunteer in a moment. He ought to have launched a boat an hour ago.”
“Hold on, hold on,” said Raynor, laying a hand on the excited lad’s shoulder; “we couldn’t do anything in this sea, anyhow. The old man’s all right. – Ah! Look! What did I tell you!”
From the signal halliards above the bridge deck, a signal had just been broken out. The bits of bunting flared out brightly against the leaden sky.
“We will stand by you,” was the message young Raynor, who knew something of the International Code, spelled out.
A TALK ON WIRELESS
“Good for him!” cried Jack, surprised into what was almost a cheer. “But,” he added grudgingly, “he took long enough about it.”
“Suppose you go ahead and attend to your end of the job and let the skipper manage his,” rejoined Raynor, in a quiet voice; and Jack, with a very red pair of ears, set himself down to the key.
The young third engineer was off watch, so he took a seat on the edge of Jack’s bunk and watched the lad manipulating the key with deft, certain fingers.
Crack-ger-ack-ack-ack! Crack-ger-ack-ack-ack! whined the spark as the boy alternately depressed and released the sending key. Then he switched over to “listen in.”
But no answering sounds beat against his ears. The signal had, apparently, fallen still-born on the wings of the storm. This went on for some fifteen minutes and then Jack gave up for a time.
“Nothing in our field or else my waves are too weak,” he explained to young Raynor, who listened with interest.
“I don’t understand what your wireless gibberish means,” he laughed, “but if you’ll teach me, I’ll learn some day.”
“Sure you will,” said Jack cheerfully; “it’s as easy as rolling off a log.”
“Yes, when you know how,” rejoined Raynor.
They sat silently for a time, while Jack again tried to raise some other ship, but without success.
“Looks as if the ocean must be empty just about here,” he commented.
“Would you be bound to get in touch with another ship if there was one within range of your instrument?” asked young Raynor presently.
“Not necessarily. There might be a dozen things that would interfere.”
“The storm, for instance?”
“Not that cause any more than another. There’s a lot that is mysterious about the wireless waves. Even to-day, nobody knows all about them. Sometimes, for no apparent cause, they will work better than at other times.”
“On a fine day I suppose they work best.”
Jack shook his head.
“On the contrary, at night and on foggy days, the Hertzian waves are sometimes most powerful. All things being equal, though, they work better over the sea than the land.”
“What is the longest distance a message has ever been sent by wireless?” was young Raynor’s next question.
“The last one I heard of was seven thousand miles. At that distance a ship off the coast of Brazil heard a call from Caltano, Italy. Think of that! That message had traveled across Italy, over the Mediterranean, slap across the northwestern part of Africa, and then went whanging across the Atlantic to a spot south of the Equator!”
“Going some,” was young Raynor’s comment.
“But that isn’t the most wonderful part of it. If that message went seven thousand miles in one direction, it must have gone an equal distance in an opposite one. That would make it encircle almost half the world.”
“Curves and all?” asked Raynor.
“Curves and all,” smiled Jack.
“And how fast does this stuff – the electric waves, I mean – travel?” asked the young engineer.
“Well,” said Jack, “it is estimated that a message from this side of the Atlantic would reach the Irish coast in about one-nineteenth of a second.”
“Oh, get out! I’m not going to swallow that.”
“It is true, just the same,” said Jack. “I know it is hard to believe; lots of things about wireless are.”
“Well, I mean to learn all about it I can.”
“You’ll find it well worth your while.”
“I believe that it is the most fascinating thing I’ve ever tackled.”
“In the meantime, I wish I could raise a ship,” grumbled Jack, again sending out his call.
“If we were sinking or in urgent difficulties right now, would you stick on the job till we raised some rescue ship?”
“I hope so. I’d try to,” said Jack modestly. “The history of wireless shows that every operator who has been called upon to face the music has done so without a whimper.”
While he worked at the key and the spark sent out its crepitant bark, young Raynor peered out at the tumbling sea through the port of the wireless cabin.
“Hullo!” he exclaimed presently, “we’re swinging round.”
“I can feel it,” said Jack, as the Ajax, instead of breasting the seas, began to roll about in the trough of them.
The heavy steel hull rolled until it seemed that the funnel and the masts must be torn out by the roots. Both boys hung on for dear life. After a while the motion became easier.
“Good thing I’m not inclined to be sea-sick,” said Jack, “or this would finish me.”
He gave up his key for a while and groped his way to Raynor’s side. The Ajax was creeping along and was now not more than half a mile from the wreck. But the meaning of her maneuvers was not very apparent. Jack could not understand what Captain Braceworth meant to do. Even the inexperienced eye of the young operator told him that it would be suicide to launch a boat in those mountainous seas.
The two boys opened the door and went to the rail. The Ajax had beaten her way up to windward of the doomed wreck. Suddenly Jack gave a shout.
“Hurray! Bully for Captain Braceworth! I see his plan now!”
OIL ON TROUBLED WATERS
At intervals along the bridge we have mentioned as running between bow and stern superstructures, were tall standpipes connected with pumps in the engine-room. These were used in discharging the cargo at Antwerp.
The valves of these pipes had been opened while the boys were in the wireless room, and now, as the pumps were started, jets of thick, dark-colored oil spouted from them.
As the oil spread on the sea, the wind drove it down in a great band of filmy smoothness toward the tossing wreck. As the oil spread, the big combers ceased to break dangerously, and a shimmering, smooth skin of oil spread over them till they merely rolled beneath it.
It was like magic to see the way in which the oil calmed the troubled sea.
“Well, I’ve heard my father tell of skinning a sea with oil-bags,” said Jack, “but I never expected to see it done.”
“You’ll see stranger things than that if you stay long enough in this business,” said Raynor sententiously.
The Ajax slowly cruised around the floundering wreck under reduced speed, with oil spouting constantly from the standpipes. At last all about the hulk there was spread a sort of magic circle of smooth, oily water.
Jack looked on in an agony of impatience.
“Surely he’ll send a boat now,” he said to Raynor.
But the young engineer shook his head.
“Braceworth isn’t a skipper who holds with doing things in a hurry,” he said; “wait a while.”
“Surely it is smooth enough to launch a boat now,” pursued Jack.
“If the skipper thought so, he’d do it,” rejoined Raynor.
The call to dinner came without Jack having secured communication with any other ship. He could only account for this by the supposition that the atmospheric conditions were bad. The wireless was evidently suffering from an attack of “atmospherics,” as the professional operators call it.
Before going down to his meal, Jack went forward to report to the captain. He found the burly commander with a sandwich in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He was having a snack on the bridge in the shelter of the weather-cloth.
Jack, despite himself, felt a quick flash of admiration for a man who could face such discomforts so dauntlessly for the sake of his duty.
The boy would have liked to ask some questions, but he did not have the courage. So he stood in silence while the skipper pondered a full minute.
“Don’t bother about it any more,” he said at length. “I think we will be able to do without help.”
Jack could contain himself no longer.
“Oh, sir, do you think we’ll be able to get those poor fellows off?”
The captain looked at him sharply.
“I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “Don’t pester me with foolish questions. It is eight bells. Be off to your dinner.”
Jack, abashed, red-faced and angry at what he felt was an undeserved snub, obeyed. At dinner he told Raynor all about it.
“Well, if you had been on the bridge all night, maybe you would feel none too amiable, either,” said his companion.
“On the bridge all night!” exclaimed Jack, who had no idea that while he was snug in his bunk the captain had been facing the storm.
“Of course. Captain Braceworth never leaves the bridge in bad weather, even if this is only a freighter and not a dandy passenger boat with pretty ladies and big swells on board,” retorted Raynor.
“I – I didn’t know that,” said Jack, rather shamefacedly. “If I had, I wouldn’t have spoken as I did.”
“I know that, youngster,” said Raynor. “And now let’s hurry through grub and get up on deck again and see what’s doing. I’ve a notion we’ll see something interesting before very long.”
When the lads returned on deck, they found that the Ajax had made another complete circle of the wreck, this time covering the first film of oil with a thicker one. They were much closer to the wreck now. Jack could count two figures in the bow and three astern.
But even as they looked, both boys gave a cry of horror. A huge wave had swept clear over the floundering hulk, and when it vanished one of the men in the stern had vanished, too.
“Oh! That’s terrible!” exclaimed Jack. “Why don’t we launch a boat?”
“No use sacrificing more lives,” said Raynor, with forced calmness, although he was white about the lips. “Braceworth knows what he’s doing, I reckon.”
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