Title: Against All Odds
Author: John Milton Langdon
Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Tate Publishing & Enterprises (February 1, 2006
Stepback in time – it’s the Victorian era, when Great Britain is at the forefront of industrial development. Based loosely on fact, author John Milton Langdon weaves a tale of romance and adventure on the high seas. “Against All Odds” describes the early years of an average man. Although he is born into humble circumstances, he shows how a combination of perserverance and intelligence, aided by a little good fortune, can help any child overcome the disadvantages of lowly birth status and a poor education. If you long for a sense of wonderment in life read this first volume of a set of four, and discover how Jason Smiley Stewart transforms from callow village boy to a ship’s officer in Volume 1 of Jason Smiley Stewart – My Life Story.
I was envious and very disappointed to be excluded from the group, but there was no need for us both to go and he was a much more experienced small boat sailor than I was. Consequently, when he went down to organise the boat, I took over his watch on the bridge with the best grace I could muster. The ship was lying with the bows into a gentle southerly breeze and the island was almost due north of us beyond the stern.
The jolly boat was cast off and Evans ordered his crew to hoist the small lugsail to take advantage of the breeze that was blowing. Evans waved cheerfully and sailed away towards the island on the long run that would take him to the western and lower end of the island. The Captain took a last look around the horizon and went below to his cabin. I watched the jolly boat for a few moments and clearly the whole party were enjoying themselves. Like a Sunday school outing I thought as I resumed my duties as officer of the watch and checked that the ship had not drifted off position.
Fifteen minutes later, when the boat with Evan’s party in it were about half way to the island, the Captain came hurrying back to the bridge. Nothing had changed that I could detect. The sky remained a cloudless blue and the breeze was slightly lighter if anything, but that was all. But clearly Captain Stewart was worried. He had seen or felt something while he was in his cabin, that I hadn’t detected and from the expression on his face, the instincts of a very experienced sailor were giving him considerable concern.
He picked up a telescope and started to scan the horizon. He looked seaward and then slowly but progressively examined the visible horizon, carefully studying the shore line and the tops of the surrounding hills. He said nothing and may not have known what he was looking for, but he suddenly stopped moving and studied a particular area almost directly in line with the island for several moments.
He suddenly snapped the telescope shut, reached above his head for the lanyard controlling the ship’s whistle and blew five short blasts, the danger warning, followed quickly by another five blasts and then another five. He rang the engine room telegraph to standby and ordered me to signal the boat.
“Jason! Quickly! Hoist flags ‘U’ over ‘K’ over ‘X’.
Even as I rushed to the flag locker, a tiny part of my mind registered the fact that the Captain had addressed me as Jason instead of his customary Mr. Smiley. I was thankful that my many hours of practice under the Bosun’s watchful gaze were being rewarded, as I had all three flags, bent on, hoisted and flying within a few moments of receiving Captain Stewart’s terse order.
As I carried out the instruction, I remembered that ‘U’ means ‘you are standing into danger’, ‘K’ means ‘you should stop your vessel instantly’ and ‘X’ means ‘you should stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals’. The Captain had sent a very comprehensive message with the minimum of wasted effort but the wind was now very light and, as it was blowing almost directly from the ship towards Evans, I did not think he would be able to see them. Captain Stewart called the engine room on the voice pipe in the corner of the bridge near the telegraph and the half of the conversation I heard was
“Call the Chief Engineer immediately.”
“Chief?” Captain here. There is a storm approaching. Raise steam as quickly as you can. How long before I can use the engine?”
“I see. That may not be soon enough. You will have to do better!”
There was a significant pause as the Captain listened to the Chief and he then said, “I see. If the storm that’s coming causes the anchor to drag, you may not have an engine to worry about this afternoon.”
The Captain obviously thought the wind direction was preventing Evans from seeing the flag signal as he blew another series of danger warnings on the steam whistle just as the First Mate arrived on the bridge followed closely by the second officer.
Captain Stewart gestured towards the north and said “There’s a bad storm coming and Evans is right in its path”.
Captain Stewart turned to the second mate and ordered, “Go round the ship and make sure all portholes and hatches are closed. Tell the crew there is a severe dust storm coming and all off watch crew are to go to their mess rooms to wait further orders”.
In company with the Captain and Mr. Richards, the First Mate, I used a telescope and looked in the direction the Captain had pointed and could see low, dark, rolling clouds rushing out of the mountains towards us. It came even closer as we watched and the sea between the mainland and the island began to smoke and boil from the fury of the approaching wind. Suddenly the main land behind the island became a blur and then disappeared. Between the island and the ‘Earl Canning’, our boat with Evans and the surveyors on board sailed serenely on. They were clearly unaware of the approaching danger, possibly because they were close enough to the island for its bulk to block out most of the mainland and the approaching storm beyond. They had obviously heard the siren and knew something was amiss, as we saw in our telescopes Evans pass the tiller to one of his crew and stand in the stern of the jolly boat looking back at us with the small telescope that he always carried with him. We could see the dust being blown like smoke horizontally from the top of the island as the storm approached it but we were incapable of indicating where the danger to Evans and his party was coming from. Apart from the helmsman, everyone was looking back towards us.
The Bosun arrived on the bridge. He had also heard the steam whistle blowing and knew from experience that he would be required in an emergency.
He reported directly to the Captain who said, “Ah Bosun, just the man. There is a storm coming. Set an anchor watch. Two of your most experienced hands. I need to know immediately if the anchor starts to drag. Put some men at intervals along the deck so that there is no delay passing information to me from your men on the forecastle”.
The Captain again blew on the whistle to attract attention to the storm and as he did so a freak gust of wind blew our signal flags out to port. Evans saw the hoist, spun round and saw the approaching danger himself, and the lugsail started to drop. But his action was far too late, as the sail was not half down before the boat listed steeply in a sudden violent blast of wind. Both boat and occupants disappeared from our horrified view into an impenetrable blanket of dust.
We watched with fascinated horror as a thick brown cloud of dust, only rising a few hundred feet into the air, roiled and boiled rapidly across the sea towards us. Amazingly there was a serene blue sky above it and turbulent white capped sea at its base. The noise from the wind was deafening and seemed louder than the hurricane winds I had experienced a few years before.
My thoughts and prayers were with my friend Evans who was fighting three enemies at once. The sea, the wind and the dust. – – – -
– Excerpted from Against All Odds by John Milton Langdon