The Bloody Pumps

The pumping was the worst, he said to himself. Of all the thousand and one tasks a sailor was called upon to do, it was pumping they hated most. Most of what they did was strenuous, all of it was tedious, and much of it was dangerous. They complained about it all, but the pumps were different. They broke men.

He put his shoulder under the steel bar and heaved it up until he could brace his arms under it and straighten up. The top of the upstroke was just at his fingertips when he stretched up, so that for a few seconds he dangled there, unable to brace himself against the heaving deck. Then his weight would gradually draw the bar down. When it passed his chest he threw his weight over the bar and forced it down, until his knuckles rasped against the deck. Then he’d heave his back straight and use his legs to raise it again. Each stroke was an exhausting effort, and there was no way to vary it in the slightest. Each required the same awkward series of heaves. And of course it never ended.

Like as not if the pumps are needed, the ship is in trouble. But pump trouble wears many different aspects. The ship may have sprung a leak impossible to find or to plug at sea, and you’re driving desperately for a safe harbor before the sea rises over the decks. Then your greatest fear is the calm, when a sunny smiling blue sea swallows a ship and leaves her crew drifting in a boat to nearly certain starvation.

Sometimes your ship is some ancient hulk that should have been broken up years before, but which seemed like such a thrifty purchase to some far-off investors committee. And some unlucky bastards are trying to keep it together long enough to allow them to jump ship at the first port. Half the crew is over the side in a bosun’s chair all day, trying to keep the planks on the frames, and the other half is at the pumps.

But most often it’s like this, he thought glumly, throwing his stomach onto the bar for the ten thousandth time, landing on exactly the same bruises each time. You’re in a full gale, simply trying to keep the ship on top of the water until the storm passes. All thought of the world beyond the next wave crest fades away; even the holiest duties of the seamen, holding a course and maintaining the ship, are forgotten. It’s not possible to cook, so there’s no food - besides, the cook and the steward, sometimes even the third mate, are needed at the pumps.

No wonder the cry “Below watch to the pumps!” was so dreaded. They knew when it was likely, and they lay awake in their bunks, still dressed in their streaming oilcloth, staring up into the dank and creaking darkness of the foc’s’l, waiting. When the call came, there was none of the usual chorus of groans and rough punches to waken exhausted sleepers. They were all awake, and each man just sat up silently in his bed, dropped to the deck, and pulled himself wearily up the ladder.

When you first threw back the scuttle and looked out, it was seldom encouraging. Usually night, usually snowing or raining, usually blowing so hard there’s but a rag of a lower fore-tops’l on her, and that like as not blown out and thundering itself to pieces up there in the dark. On every side waves loom threateningly over the ship, foam streaking their great mountainsides and spindrift whipping from their crests. The ship would be wallowing, now and again driving her nose deep into a sea, which rolled aft to cover the scuttle and break with a roar over the main hatches. Many an exhausted man has hesitated there in the scuttle to rub the sleep from his eyes and has been swept into the sea before being fully awake.

The trick was to listen for the right moment, then throw open the scuttle, leap out, jerk the scuttle closed, and grab for the lifeline, all at the same time. When the first sea swept over you, you realized that you had forgotten just how cold the water was. Clutching the whipping lifeline, you dragged yourself aft to the fiferail at the foot of the mainmast. There in the darkness, eight dark shapes leaped and bowed in some mad satanic dance. At first sight of the off watch creeping toward them, they would fall from the bars and lay crumpled on the deck, their arms locked around the lifeline. Then it was your turn. The pumps could not stop or they would lose their prime. You leaped at the bars and heaved. With the tenth stroke your whole body cries out in complaint, with the hundredth you feel that you will certainly collapse before the next, with the thousandth you think of nothing.

Hunhh! He threw his body over the bar again. His knuckles were bleeding where they rubbed the deck at the bottom of each stroke, but he dared not open his hands to spare them, for waves constantly swept the deck. Foaming water swirled around their knees, and masses of icy ocean lunged heavily and erratically about the deck. It was cold, of course, bone-chilling cold, but they had been cold and wet for so many weeks now that they hardly noticed. But now and then the ship would roll heavily to weather and a great gray sea would roll unimpeded over the bulwark, sweeping the men from their feet. They would roll and twist in the dark water for an eternity, feeling the sea tug at their legs, at their clothes, trying to pluck them from the cold steel bars that were their salvation and their damnation. Then the ship would lurch and fling the sea over the lee rail, and the men would struggle to their feet and resume the hated pumping.

Sometimes he pumped with his eyes closed. It seemed that even the effort of holding his eyes open was too much to add to the pumping. He was often nearly asleep, moving without thinking at all. There was nothing much to think about. There could be no complaint, no question of the imminent danger, or its only remedy. The ship is full of water; we must keep pumping it out until we reach safety or we sink. No other actions are possible.

More often he kept his eyes open, locked on the greasy, mossy lip of the oak pump. It was square, a yard across, with a heavy plug of oak for a piston and a leather flap for the valve. Each upstroke sucked up another three or four buckets of water from the well of the bilge, some thirty feet below, and it vomited from the throat of the pump onto the deck at their feet. The water was dark and oily as it swirled around their boots, and flecked with chips of paint and soggy bits of rope. It was not a pretty sight by any standards, but they watched it for hours on end - it was the only sign that their endless purgatory had a purpose.

The flow of water was impressive, and it seemed that surely such a flood of water would quickly empty the ship. Then the pumps would give forth a last sludgy discharge and, with a lugubrious gargle and a whiff of putrid breath, lose their prime and suck air. What a wonderful sound that was! The bars would suddenly fall slack in your hands, and the men would stand staring dully at each other, not quite understanding that there was nothing more for them to do.

But they had been pumping now for over forty hours, and there was no sign of an end. The storm was as bad as ever, the seas were if anything worse. The ship had been hove to with lashed wheel for a day and a night. Every two hours the mate and the carpenter sounded the well to determine the level of water in the ship. If it were falling, the mate would cry encouragement to the men, cheering them on. But sometimes the carpenter spoke in a low voice, and the mate crept aft and went below to report to the old man, and they knew that the sea was gaining on them. But there was no way to increase their efforts - the pumping just went on as before.

He heaved the bar up from the deck and glanced at the man beside him. It was Luis, the steward. He had no oilcloth, but worked in his short tarred jacket that he used to serve the officers’ meals. His black face was devoid of all expression, but he moved like a machine, never altering his stroke even when a sea swept over him. His head would rise dripping from the sea, still rising and falling in the same unhurried motion.

He looked at the two men on the other side of the pump. Roberts, the Australian boy, looked done in. This was his first passage, and he had yet to develop the immunity to pain and discomfort that the old hands had - not so much from physical fortitude as from a kind of resigned apathy. His lips were white and pressed tightly together, so it looked as if he were grinning across the pump at you.

The fourth man was Svenson, the old Swede. He was sour and taciturn and spoke little to anyone except when he was drunk. Then he would rattle on for hours in his gravelly voice, accent still thick after fifty years in British ships. Then he talked of the old days, when men were really men and not these soft-handed city boys one got at sea nowadays. He had been around the Horn twice before he was nine, and so many times since that he had long since lost track. He seemed a part of the ship, a piece of the equipment that had been installed along with the winches by the builders.

He stared across at Svenson, and the old man stared back, their eyes locked as they rose and fell oppositely. He couldn’t even tell that Svenson looked tired. His face looked the same as ever, as if he were painting a hatch cover instead of trying to pump the Atlantic out of the ship.

Suddenly Svenson disappeared in a welter of foam, and an instant later they were all under water, each as alone as a man can be, enduring the clutching of the sea and the burn of salt water in the nose. His fingers were peeled from the bar as if they had no more strength than paper. For a second he floated in the sea, then something struck his back. The water rushed away. He was lying under the fife rail, back against the mainmast, one hand still grasping for the pump handle. The mate clung in the main shrouds and shouted at him, but he couldn’t hear above the howl of the storm. He looked dazedly around and saw Luis clinging to the lifeline a few feet away. There was no sign of Roberts or Svenson. He was shocked that Svenson could have been moved by any sea.

Another sea surged over him, throwing him painfully against the fiferail, then drawing him out and up, away from the ship. His head broke the surface. As he rose on the swell, he saw that there was no sign of the ship’s deck above the sea. The masts rose from the water as if they had grown there, like pines leaning on a steep mountain slope. He had a glimpse of someone clinging to the mizzen shrouds, a white face glimmering toward him in the dark, then the sea rose again and covered everything. He was pulled under, and the sea filled his mouth. He felt calm, even relieved.

“At least I’m through with the bloody pumps!”

copyright 1989 by Brian K. Crawford