“Jump on the next swell,” a voice shouts from above.
The side of the ship rises, opening a three metre gap of rusty hull between my head and the bottom of the rope ladder.
I grip the loop of rope around my chest. The next wave lifts our fisherman’s boat up to the third rung of the ladder. Deep breath; leap. Grabbing the ladder I swing out at 45 degrees. The gap of grey water opens between the fishing boat and ship. Dave’s face looks up from below, white in the gloom of the late February afternoon.
“Climb up,” voices yell from the ship’s deck.
Rung by rung I haul myself up. Arms reach down. I see surprise in the faces of my helpers. They are not expecting a woman. Our filming gear is already on deck. I grab the camera case to stop it rolling towards the edge. My knees quake. The rope is unfastened and lowered again for Dave. He doesn’t like heights. ‘Please God,’ I pray.
The ship’s engines throb, holding the vessel uncomfortably sideways to the fall and rise of the sea. At last Dave’s head emerges above the ladder and he scrambles onto the deck.
The fisherman’s boat disappears into the fading daylight.
An orderly, in dry waterproofs, hurries across. “Call him back. The Captain says you can’t stay.”
“We’ve come to do a job,” I shout above the wind. “It was arranged with the Captain by our client.”
“We haven’t room for you here. The Captain says you must go.”
“Well, we’re here now. The fisherman will come with first light to fetch us.”
Darkness falls. Rain sweeps across the deck. It is hard to believe that we are just a few miles from Eastbourne. On the stern deck workmen dodge the foaming sea that swirls in at every plunge into the waves. They risk their lives, unharnessed, to check that the huge winches continue to hold the fibre-optic cable in a straight line between ship and seabed. The ship’s engines strain to keep position against wind and current.
In the wee hours of the morning we attempt to film the first splice on the cross-Channel cable, but we have to abandon – the splice cannot be done in such severe conditions. Unwelcome, we hover on deck, wrapped in dripping waterproofs, clapping gloved hands together to combat the cold.
A steward comes up. “Best get some rest.” He ushers us into the heat of the mess room. We shed our wet outer clothes and perch on the plastic-upholstered benches. Fitfully, we sleep.
By dawn the storm has grown. Waves break over the prow, and spray whips up as high as the bridge. The lifeboat pod glows, alarmingly red in the grey of sea and sky. We mentally rehearse how we might leap onto the fishing boat, how we would avoid getting our legs squashed between the
boat and the side of the ship.
We check our watches and call the fisherman on our mobile phone. “It’s a six and a half metre swell - too dangerous. Ring again tomorrow.”
The steward finds us. “The Captain says you have to go to the bridge. There’s no room for you below.”
It’s Friday. We call our client. He is continually ‘in a meeting’. Our mobile battery runs out.
Trapped in the diesel-fumed space of the bridge, at the top of the ship’s rolling arc, we concentrate hard on not feeling seasick. Darkness falls again and this time we hot-bunk in the nightshift’s cabin. At 12.45 our heads touch the pillow and at 5.30am we vacate the cabin for the crew.
Saturday and Sunday follow the same routine. Our socks are so smelly we dare not take off our boots. Our minds are disorientated, our stomachs ache, and our hands crack, sandpaper dry. The Captain lets us make one call to our daughter at home.
Three days and three nights the storm rages. On Monday the Captain insists we should arrange an airlift. We ring our client. He’s in a morning meeting of course, and then in a lunchtime meeting. At 3.30pm we get through.
“Yes, we’re still here. No, we haven’t filmed the splice. They need us off. The only way is helicopter.”
“Can’t you get the fisherman?”
“Don’t think we can bear that cost.”
“We’re in the way here. We can’t wait indefinitely for good weather.”
“You’ll have to give me an hour or so.”
The line goes dead.