March 22, 2015

Some fires to remember

FIRE ON A BOAT is a dreadful thing. Fire on a ship is dreadful, too, even if it’s not your ship. Even if you weren’t on the ship at the time of the fire. . . . Let me explain.

When I was a young and innocent newspaper reporter, a British cargo ship called the Forresbank caught fire down the coast. Her crew abandoned her and were rescued by another ship. The Forresbank ran aground on the Wild Coast, a 100-mile stretch of darkest Africa sparsely populated by black tribes.

To the astonishment of  everyone on the newspaper, the salvage rights to the Forresbank were auctioned off for next to nothing to one of us — a copy editor who worked at night. He figured he could salvage the ship during the day, and trek back to the newspaper at night. He was, of course, a misguided optimist, since the Forresbank lay at the foot of a steep cliff about a five-hour drive from the city and the newspaper.

Two friends and I decided to pay him a visit at the wreck site, and we set off from Durban one afternoon in my friend’s rickety old car after carefully provisioning with a large bag of jerky and an even larger jug of cheap red wine.

There were no coastal roads along the Wild Coast. The few dirt roads that did exist wandered through scarred valleys running toward the coast from the main road inland.

We eventually ran out of roads altogether and crept along a rough and furrowed track that looked vaguely as if it might be going in the right direction. After several stops to replace bits that had fallen off the car we found a flattish area were we could camp for the night. We reckoned the Forresbank was only about an hour away by foot, though we could see nothing of it, of course. We planned to set out the next morning.

Meanwhile, by luck, we had found an abandoned native mud hut in a state of ruin. But it still had half a roof and, interestingly, a rusty old bed frame with springs and a thin, stained, coir mattress that had apparently been partially consumed by some animal. There was also a newer cushion with metal thread running through it that somebody must have used for a pillow. The bed obviously wasn’t fit to sleep on, so we decided to doss down on the floor alongside it.

We had jerky for supper and took turns at sipping from the wine jug, remarking all the time on the fine scenery floodlit by the full moon, and agreeing with each other about how wild the Wild Coast was.  

About midnight, after final sips from the wine jug, I lit a final cigarette and sat on the bed to take my socks off. Next thing I knew there was someone coughing and shouting “Fire, Fire!”  It was about 3 a.m. and the hut was full of thick smoke. My face was tingling and the mattress on which I found myself lying was smoldering.

We all ran outside and had a good laugh, then I went back in and dragged out the mattress, clear of the hut. I left it to smolder away outside then went back inside to find the important thing, the wine jug. After a few more sips, during which time the hut had cleared of smoke, we went back inside to resume sleeping. I woke up early next morning to discover I had slept on the bare bed springs. My face had red stripes on it from the metal threads in the pillow, which had also been smoldering.

As we had run out of jerky and wine, we decided not to risk the trek to the Forresbank. We were city boys. We weren’t used to living off the land and we didn’t think the natives would be friendly when they discovered the remains of the fire. So we drove back home to Durban and never did see the Forresbank. Which just goes to show you how fire at sea on a ship can have grave consequences even if you were nowhere near it.


Today’s Thought
Man is the animal that has made friends with the fire.
— Henry van Dyke, Fisherman’s Luck

Two inmates of a mental home were strolling in the grounds with a nurse when a passing pigeon dropped something white on the coat of one of the men.
“Wait here a minute,” said the nurse, “and I’ll fetch a tissue.”
The man turned to his friend. “She’s nuts,” he said, “by the time she gets back that pigeon will be miles away.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Alden Smith said...

Sounds like a real adventure you had!

Fire on a yacht / ship at sea is no joke, very dangerous stuff - and where else but at sea is there usually an excellent wind to fan the flames - doesn't bear thinking about.