The Sinking of the Britannia
“I quit,” the Captain said.
He lifted the cap from his brow and slung it over the rung of the wheel, whilst strands of straw danced atop his head in their new found freedom.
“Pardon!?” came the incredulous reply from the steersman, his eyes fixed on the cap, its shining braid glinting in the sunlight. “You can’t quit! You got us into this mess, you need to get us out! The ship is going down!”
The Captain's jowls shook as he waved his arms, batting away the accusation.
“No, no, my good man, it’s not my fault. The course was set by the old captain, my predecessor. She is the one who ran us onto the rocks. There is nothing more that I can do, I’m afraid. The Britannia will sink. Them's the breaks. I have managed to get us as close to shore as I can. I can get her no further and I can hear the crew complaining. They want me gone. They blame me for shipwrecking us. Can you imagine!? It’s preposterous! They’re all a bunch of supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies! But now they won’t work for me and want me out. And so I must go. Take care now.”
The steersman, with widened eyes, looked through the bewilderment from the Captain to the crew gathered around, their eyes averted with hands in pockets.
“But we’re sinking, Captain!” he cried, “She’s going down!”
“Toodle-loo,” the Captain said over his shoulder as he made his way through the hatch, the stiffened breeze catching and tossing his blonde mane wildly.
The ship heaved, pitching all to one side as the steersman gripped and fought the wheel. The hat fell to the deck, sliding across the lacquered planks. It nestled at the feet of a middle aged woman who stooped to lift it. She batted away other reaching hands and, in one swift movement, placed it upon her head, where its crisp whiteness clashed against her dirty blonde hair. She flashed a Cheshire smile at the crew around her.
“I’ll take charge,” she said confidently, “I’ll get us out of this mess. You there - give me a sit-rep immediately.”
A young deckhand tremorred before her.
“Well Miss- I mean Captain- we’re taking on water. A lot of water. It seems we ran aground and the rocks have punctured the hull. The last captain said to open the Bow Release EXIT but that only made things worse and allowed more water in. We’re going down by the nose.”
The new Captain blinked in silence. The deckhand continued.
“We… we also don’t have enough lifeboats for everyone on board-”
“Like the Titanic?” she interjected.
The deckhand nodded. “Just like the Titanic Miss- I mean Captain. We’re a tragedy that could have been avoided just like the Titanic.”
She waved her hands exasperatedly.
“No, no, boy, I mean we don’t have enough lifeboats like the Titanic.”
“Oh sorry Captain, yeah, we don’t have enough lifeboats. And the water is icy cold too, the people might freeze if they're in it too long. They also haven’t eaten yet as we had to cancel dinner, so they’re probably hungry. First, second and third class are all in danger, we’re going down fast.”
The Captain began to pace, her head bobbing upon her slim body. She paused as she passed her head steward, a elderly black gentleman who’s shirt collar was a little too tight, giving the appearance that it was constricting the blood flow to his head. They whispered to each other and the Captain smiled, nodded and continued pacing.
“Alright!” she said, turning to face her crew, “I’ve got it! What we need is buoyancy. So we get all the first class passengers into the lifeboats and then-”
“First class, Captain? Don’t you not mean the women and children? You know, the vulnerable? Isn’t that usually how these things go?”
The crew stared on stunned as the deckhand broke her rhythm.
The Captain rolled her eyes.
“Silly boy, be quiet. You see, once we have all the first class passengers in the lifeboats and away from our ship then our weight will reduce and we won’t sink. Sure, there may be a little water around the third class passengers for a while but that will trickle out into the sea once again. I’m sure of it.”
Concerned murmurs spread themselves around the onlooking crew, like oil on water, the smear of doubt staining the air.
The ship lurched hard again, throwing them all into a stagger. Cries of protest engulfed the Captain, some calling for her immediate resignation.
“Well, it’s his plan!” she wailed, throwing the accusation at the tight collared steward, “If it doesn’t work, it’s not my fault!”
The steward remained silent, lowering his eyes and accepting the blame.
“What if the second class passengers get agitated because they’re not on the lifeboat, Captain?” the steersman asked over the tumult of a sinking ship, still gripping tight to the wheel.
“We’ll give them life vests to make them feel safe. Even if we do go down, they can bob about in the water for a while. They might get picked up by a passing ship and be rescued.”
“And… and the third class passengers?”
“Oh I don’t know. Teach them how to swim over the tannoy system. That’ll do. Oh and while you're at it, tell all passengers to be on the lookout for stowaways. They’re dead weight and will sink us quicker. If they look like they don’t belong on this ship, then they are to be thrown overboard. Let them swim to shore!”
“Here, here!” cried a lone voice from the back, grey haired man in a suit, donning a yellow and purple tie.
The Captain beamed around her crew, oblivious to the blank stares being returned.
“Right,” she said, clapping her hands together, “Let’s get to it and get this ship sailing again! Remember, she once ruled these waves, she can do it again!”
The crew nodded obediently and trudged off in wearied silence to carry out their duties as instructed.
In their distraction, they did not notice the Captain as she tiptoed across the deck, clambered into an empty lifeboat and lowered herself to safety. It wasn’t until she was a vanishing dot on the horizon that her absence was noticed.
Meanwhile the first class passengers were lifted, carried and laid in their lifeboats, a few complaining that their suitcases limited their leg room. Each little boat was hoisted and carefully set into the choppy waters with a crew member to pull and haul at the oars, pushing their precious cargo far from the sinking ship, lest she should sink them with her.
The second class passengers admired their lovely clean life vests as they donned them over their clothes, oblivious to the encroaching peril. Once the lifeboats were a safe distance away, they were allowed to roam the decks for themselves. Most of them admired the craftsmanship, the wrought iron benches, the polished wooden floors. Only when it was too late did they recognise the dangers before them. As the icy waters approached, a few jumped into the sea in hopes of swimming ashore, but they were pulled below into the frigid abyss with the ship as she went down.
Lastly, the third class passengers never heard the instruction to swim, for the tannoy system was broken. They were locked below deck and the doors were never opened for them. They did not know the ship was in danger until the water was around their ankles. Instead they wandered the halls with rumbling stomachs wondering why dinner hadn’t been called and why the air had grown so cold. Unable to turn on the heating themselves, most put on their heavy coats to keep warm. Laden with their layers, the perishingly cold sea engulfed them and the ship brought their bodies to the sea floor with her.
And so she sank, nose first, bringing countless souls with her. As the waves lapped over stern, obscuring the golden letters of her name ‘Britannia, a green plane adorned with a white shamrock flew overhead bound for somewhere in Europe.