Captain Tug Mottram could almost feel the barometric pressure rising. The wind had roared for two days out of the northwest at around forty knots and was now suddenly increasing to fifty knots and more as it backed. The first snow flurries were already being blown across the heaving, rearing lead-colored sea, and every forty seconds gigantic ocean swells a half-mile across surged up behind. The wind and the mountainous, confused sea had moved from user-friendly to lethal in under fifteen minutes, as it often does in the fickle atmospherics of the Southern Ocean--particularly along the howling outer corridor of the Roaring Forties where Cuttyhunk now ran crosswind, gallantly, toward the southeast.
Tug Mottram had ordered the ship battened down two days ago. All watertight doors were closed and clipped. Fan intakes were shut off. No one was permitted on the upper deck aft of the bridge. The Captain gazed out ahead, through snow that suddenly became sleet, slashing sideways across his already small horizon. The wipers on the big wheelhouse windows could cope. Just. But astern the situation was deteriorating as the huge seas from the northwest, made more menacing by the violent cross-seas from the beam, now seemed intent on engulfing the 279-foot steel-hulled research ship from Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
"Decrease speed to twelve knots," Mottram said. "We don't wanna run even one knot faster than the sea. Not with the rear end design of this bastard."
"You ever broached, sir?" the young navigation officer, Kit Berens, asked, his dark, handsome features set in a deep frown.
"Damn right. In a sea like this. Going just too fast."
"Christ. Did the wave break right overyou?"
"Sure did. Pooped her right out. About a billion tons of green water crashed over the stern, buried the rear gun deck and the flight deck, then flooded down the starboard side. Swung us right around, with the rudders clear out of the water. Next wave hit us amidships. I thought we were gone."
"Jesus. What kind of a ship was it?"
"US Navy destroyer. Spruance. Eight thousand tons. I was driving her. Matter of fact it makes me downright nervous even to think about it. Twelve years later."
"Was it down here in the Antarctic, sir? Like us?"
"Uh-uh. We were in the Pacific. Far south. But not this far."
"How the hell did she survive it?"
"Oh, those Navy warships are unbelievably stable. She heeled right over, plowed forward, and came up again right way. Not like this baby. She'll go straight to the bottom if we fuck it up."
"Jesus," Kit said, gazing with awe at the giant wall of water that towered above Cuttyhunk's highly vulnerable, low-slung aft section. "We're just a cork compared to a destroyer. What d'we do?"
"We just keep running. A coupla knots slower than the sea. Stay in tight control of the rudders. Keep 'em under. Hold her course, stern on to the bigger swells. Look for shelter in the lee of the islands."
Outside, the wind was gusting violently up to seventy knots as the deep, low-pressure area sweeping eastward around the Antarctic continued to cause the daylong almost friendly northwester to back around, first to the west, and now, in the last five minutes, to the cold southwest.
The sea was at once huge and confused, the prevailing ocean swells from the northwest colliding with the rising storm conditions from the southwest. The area of these fiercely rough seas was relatively small given the vastness of the Southern Ocean, but that was little comfort to Tug Mottram and his men as they climbed eighty-foot waves. Cuttyhunk was right in the middle of it, and she was taking a serious pounding.
The sleet changed back to snow, and within moments small white drifts gathered on the gunwales on the starboard bow. But they were only fleeting; the great sea continued to hurl tons of frigid water onto the foredeck. In the split second it took for the ocean spray to fly against the for'ard bulkhead, it turned to ice. Peering through the window, Tug Mottram could see the tiny bright particles ricochet off the port-side winch. He guessed the still-air temperature on deck had dropped to around minus five degrees C. With the windchill of a force-ten gale, the real temperature out there was probably fifteen below zero.
Cuttyhunk pitched slowly forward into the receding slope of a swell, and Tug could see Kit Berens in the doorway to the communications room, stating their precise position. "Right now, forty-eight south, sixty-seven east, heading southeast, just about a hundred miles northwest Kerguelen Island . . ."
He watched his twenty-three-year-old navigator, sensed his uneasiness, and muttered to no one in particular, "This thing is built for a head sea. If we have a problem, it's right back there over the stern." Then, louder and clearer now, "Watch those new swells coming in from the beam, Bob. I'd hate to have one of them slew us around."
"Aye, sir," replied Bob Lander, who was, like Tug himself, a former US Navy lieutenant commander. The main difference between them was that the Captain had been coaxed out of the Navy at the age of thirty-eight to become the senior commanding officer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Whereas Bob, ten years older, had merely run out his time in dark blue, retiring as a lieutenant commander, and was now second in command of the Cuttyhunk. They were both big, powerful men, natives of Cape Cod, lifelong seamen, lifelong friends. Cuttyhunk, named after the most westerly of the Elizabeth Islands, was in safe hands, despite the terrifying claws of the gale that was currently howling out of the Antarctic.
"Kinda breezy out there now," said Lander. "You want me to nip down and offer a few encouraging words to the eggheads?"