In his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of In Hazard, John Crowley describes the book as “one of the great gripping true sea stories of modern literature, for much of its length rich with salt spray and engine oil and skillful desperate men doing unimaginably difficult tasks.” I don’t think a more apt description is possible. Richard Hughes took a true story of an incredibly powerful hurricane that swept up a steamer in its track for six days and turned it into a frustratingly beautiful novel. Six days of men pushed to the boundaries of the imaginable, and us right with them, watching helpless as “the seas, huge lumps of water with a point on top, ran about in all directions in a purposeful way at immense speeds.”
Even Hughes’s explanations of weather patterns are a joy to read. He is great for explaining, for giving the full picture of where everything is and what is happening and how it all works. But never, not for a second, boring. After we learn how hurricanes are born:
Thus the spin of the Earth is only the turn of the crank-handle which starts it: the hurricane itself is a vast motor, revolved by the energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air.
Wait a minute—“energy generated by the condensation of water from the rising air”? Did I mention the Archimedes is a steamship? A status which presents such interesting problems. Steamships don’t get caught in hurricanes. By now we have the technology to avoid them, and steamers are fast enough and not beholden to wind to do so. And if a steamer does get caught, she can just sit there with no sails and nothing to worry about while the storm blows over. And the main funnel of the Archimedes was built to withstand wind pressures of up to a hundred tons.* But when the engine fails and no one can understand why, the men finally realize that the funnel is gone entirely. Hughes’s fatalism is harsh:
That funnel, guyed to stand a lateral pressure of a hundred tons! A hurricane-wind, at 75 m.p.h., would exert a pressure on it of fifteen tons. But the pressure exerted by air (leaving humidity out of account) increases according to the square of its velocity: the pressure of a wind at 200 m.p.h. therefore, would be roughly seven times as great. And that would mean a total of…but you can work that out for yourself, as Captain Edwardes did, in his head, while Mr. Buxton ran into the engine room yelling “The funnel’s gone! The funnel’s gone!” like a maniac.
And once the funnel is gone, and the steam is gone, they cannot do anything. They cannot even steer, which is what does them in and leaves them pushed by the hurricane broadside for days on end, listing some 45 degrees (creating a vacuum on the lee side of the decks, which sucks off all the hatches and leaves the hold to fill with thousands of gallons of spray).
She was dead, as a log is dead, rolling in the sea; she was not a ship any more. She was full of men, of course; but there was no work for them to do, because ships having once discarded man’s strength, cannot fall back on that strength in an emergency.
There’s that work again, we’ve seen that before. It’s a big deal. And the work on a steamship is very different; for one thing, there are two crews: the ship’s actual crew, and the engine room workers. They are entirely separate, work separately, and experience the storm separately.
And for all the really well-done man mastering nature bits, the bits about the men themselves are even better. These are men doing some really grand and wondrous things, and the fear, desperation, and desperate avoidance of fear are perfect. An argument between the chief engineer and one of his men on hell is, at least to me, one of the best pieces of dialogue I have ever read.
And there is so much more: the Chinese members of the crew; Mr. Rabb, the terrified supernumerary officer; Richard Hughes’s own comments in his afterword that the story prefigures in some ways the second world war; the meaning of the end of the age of sail. Religion is everywhere, in all the men, all over, worth studying all on its own, probably. Almost as good as the hell argument: Dick Watchett, recalling his adolescent instruction about a less literal God, was disappointed to find out that He did not really do miracles anymore “simply because He was above that sort of thing, and meant us to learn Boyle’s Law and so on”—Boyle’s Law!!!
Even though the Archimedes is a dead log, with no steam, no power, no steering, and no sail, the men do find ways to work. Unbelievable ways, like pouring oil a single drop at a time onto the water to deaden the waves. And they come through it all alive, and no one even hurt with more than a cut or bruise. Even in a world of amazing stories, this one is on another plane, and the men in it as well.
*In Crowley’s introduction, he says two hundred. But he says Hughes says two hundred, not implying this is merely a difference between the fictional and real-life ships. What is up with these mistakes?