Requiem for a Princess December 10, 1948 Unknown Waters
THE WAVES TURNED VICIOUS and worsened with every rush of wind. The calm weather of the
morning transformed from Dr. Jekyll into a vehement Mr. Hyde by late evening. Whitecaps on
the crests of towering waves were lashed into sheets of spray. The violent water and black
clouds merged under the onslaught of a driving snowstorm. It was impossible to tell where
water ended and sky began. As the passenger liner Princess Dou Wan fought through waves
that rose like mountains before spilling over the ship, the men on board were unaware of
the imminent disaster that was only minutes away.
The crazed waters were driven by northeast and northwest gales that simultaneously
caused ferocious currents to smash against the ship from two sides. Winds soon reached a
hundred miles an hour with waves that crested at thirty feet or more. Caught in the
maelstrom, the Princess Dou Wan had no place to hide. Her bow pitched and drove under
waves that swept over her open decks and flowed aft and then forward when her stern rose,
throwing her wildly spinning propellers free of the water. Struck from all directions, she
rolled thirty degrees, her starboard rail along the promenade deck disappearing in a
torrent of water. Slowly, too slowly, she sluggishly righted herself and plunged on,
steaming through the worst storm in recent history.
Freezing and unable to see through the blinding snowstorm, Second Mate Li
Po, who stood watch, ducked back inside the wheelhouse and slammed the door. In all his
days of sailing the China Sea, he had never seen swirling snow in the middle of a violent
storm. Po did not think the gods were fair to hurl such devastating winds at the Princess
after a voyage halfway around the world with less than two hundred miles to go before
reaching port. In the past sixteen hours, she had only made forty miles.
Captain Leigh Hunt and his chief engineer down below in the engine room, the entire crew
were Nationalist Chinese. An old salt with twelve years in the Royal Navy and eighteen as
an officer for three different shipping-company fleets, Hunt had served fifteen of those
years as captain. As a boy he went fishing with his father out of Bridlington, a small
city on the east coast of England, before shipping out as an ordinary seaman on a
freighter to South Africa. A thin man with graying hair and sad, vacant eyes, he was
deeply pessimistic about his ship's ability to weather the storm.
Two days earlier, one of the crewmen had called his attention to a crack in the
starboard outer hull aft of the single smokestack. He would have given a month's pay to
inspect the crack now that his ship was enduring incredible stress. He reluctantly brushed
the thought aside. It would have been suicide to attempt an inspection under
hundred-mile-an-hour winds and the raging water that spilled across the decks. He felt in
his bones the Princess was in mortal danger, and accepted the fact that her fate was out
of his hands.
Hunt stared into the blanket of snow that pelted the wheelhouse windows and spoke to
his second mate without turning. "How bad is the ice, Mr. Po?"
"Building rapidly, Captain."
"Do you believe we're in danger of capsizing?"
Li Po shook his head slowly. "Not yet, sir, but by morning the load on the
superstructure and decks could prove critical if we take on a heavy list."
Hunt thought for a moment, then spoke to the helmsman. "Stay on course, Mr. Tsung.
Keep our bow into the wind and waves."
"Aye, sir," the Chinese helmsman replied, feet braced wide apart, hands
tightly gripping the brass wheel.
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