The Return Cruise
Ensign Kevin James had duty on the bridge that day. He was scanning the seas and had picked up a signal of another ship on the radar.
“Captain, there’s a blip on the radar that should not be there. I didn’t record any other ships in this corridor an hour ago. I wonder where it came from and whose ship it is?”
“Keep an eye on it and let’s see where it is heading. Have you tried hailing it yet?”
“Yes sir. Twice. No response.”
“Strange. Do we have a visual as yet?”
“No sir. It is too foggy out there, but it is still a couple miles to starboard.”
“All right, well keep me posted if there is any change or if you are able to hail it.”
“Aye, Sir. I will.”
“Carry on.” said the Captain as he left the bridge. To the Exec, he said, “You have the bridge, Commander.”
“Yes Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“What do you make of it, Ensign?” asked the second in command.
“There is something strange about the ship but I can’t put my finger on it. It seems to be sailing at a fair speed, sir. Nothing close to our capability but not bad for a passenger liner which is what it appears to be.
Something later, the weather began to clear and the fog started to lift. Occasionally, glimpses of the other ship would appear when skies and weather permitted.
“The funny thing is, sir, that when we catch glimpses of the ship, we see port lights on our starboard side which means that the ship should be heading west but radar shows the ship about two miles to starboard and traveling east. According to the lights, the ship should be heading west. I can’t figure it out. We have been tracking it for about an hour or so now and it is definitely heading east, as we are, but the lights are on the wrong side. That is impossible. Every shipyard ensures the lights are correct before it signs off on it. So does the owner.
“You say it is a couple miles to starboard?”
“Aye, Sir. It is showing on the radar on our starboard side.”
“The Commander gave the order to slow to the same speed of the other ship. Keep the same heading but try not to lose it.
“Aye, Sir.” We are locked on so will not lose it, Sir.
“I am sure it is merely a malfunction somewhere in the system – either ours or theirs.”
“Aye, Sir. Ah, Sir?”
“What is it, Ensign?”
“There is only one other possible explanation that I can think of although it sounds quite illogical, Sir.”
“And what would that be, Ensign?”
“The lights would be correct if the ship was traveling backwards. I realize it is a ridiculous possibility, sir, but it is the only way that the ship’s lights would be on the wrong side and traveling the same way as we are on our starboard side.”
The exec was about to say something but then he thought better of it and stood silently for a couple of minutes. “Is that possible? Could the ship travel that quickly in reverse?”
“It should not be possible, sir, but that seems to be what is happening. I have no logical answer to support that theory, sir, except what our instruments are telling us.”
“I hate to do it, but I think we need to get the Captain in on this. I would suggest that we try to move close enough to the ship to get a continual visual and verify which way it is heading. If they are going backwards, it would seem to be at full speed, which just cannot happen.”
A few minutes later the Captain arrived and the exec told him the Ensign’s theory.
The captain said, “As much as it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, if the light readings we are getting are correct, then Ensign James is correct. Proceed to close on the other ship and match its speed so that we can get a visual. Let me know when you can see the ship on the horizon. How is the weather?”
‘The wind has died down so the seas are not so choppy. So far, our sightings of the other ship have been limited to occasional glimpses. However, the fog is lifting and I think we should soon be able to keep the other ship in view shortly, Sir.”
“Get me some binoculars, please,” ordered the Captain. Within a minute, a pair was handed to him and he scoured the sea with them. Several other pairs of binoculars had appeared as well. The sky was clearing and it would soon be daybreak which should help them to solve the mystery.”
“According to our instruments, Sir, the other ship is definitely on a course for the U. K. and it seems to be making good time at it as well.”
“But why are the lights on the wrong side. That is what I want to know.” growled the Captain. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It will have to be reported to the authorities as soon as we can find out the name of the ship and the flag under which it is flying.”
“There, Sir! A little towards the stern, Sir. I believe that is it. The waves are still quite high so we only see the ship when it is riding high on the waves. Why, it appears to be an old cruise ship. Perhaps it is under tow but I don’t see a vessel towing it.”
As they closed in on the other ship, they could not only see the profile of the ship in the gloom of early morning but through the binoculars, many people could be seen walking on the deck or standing, drinks in hand, and peering over the railing. Some of the people spotted the new arriving ship and started to cheer and wave.
“It looks as though a huge party is happening over there, Sir.” said the Exec.
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? I also notice that the Ensign appears to be correct. The stern of the ship is heading into the waves, where the bow should be. Am I seeing things?” The Captain let the glasses fall on their leather strap, wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and picked up the binoculars again. It cannot possibly be maintaining the speed that it is.”
“What is it now, Ensign?”
“I’ve noticed another anomaly, sir.”
“What do you mean by anomaly, Ensign.” asked the Captain starting to look a little perturbed.
“An anomaly, Sir, is something that should not be happening. Normally, as you know, Sir, every ship leaves a trail of disturbed water patterns as it plows through the waves. Well sir, the ship out there does not appear to be leaving a wake. Assuming the ship is traveling East, and traveling backwards, then the wake should be at the bow of the ship. There is no wake, Sir.”
The Captain swung his binoculars, as did the Commander and to other officers.
“What in the blazes is happening over there? A party ship traveling backwards and not leaving a wake? Am I dreaming?”
“If you are, Sir, then we all are. There is no possible explanation.”
“We see it happening right in front of our eyes so there has to be an explanation but what is it?”
“Should we close a little more, Captain?”
“It still looks awfully choppy out there. I am not sure how much closer we should get with these high seas. Can we get a navy flyboy to buzz the ship? How close is the nearest carrier?”
The Commander looked at a screen and then said, “The closest one is quite some distance away. It might take hours to get a plane over the other ship, Sir.
“Yes, Ensign James?”
“May I suggest that we ask Petty Officer Carruthers to come to the bridge, Sir?”
“And the reason would be, Ensign?”
“Sir, Petty Officer Carruthers is into all kinds of spooky things, Sir. Ghosts, phantoms, alternate universes and the like, Sir. He might have some ideas, Sir.”
The captain looked over at Ensign James. “Have you been drinking on duty, Ensign? Tell me you have not.”
“I do not drink, smoke or do drugs, Sir!”
“Well, this is a strange one indeed. Commander, get PO Carruthers up here on the double.”
Within three minutes, a tall, lanky seaman stood at the door. He saluted and looked at the Captain.
“Permission to enter on the Bridge, Sir!”
“Come in Carruthers. I hear that you are our resident spook expert, son. Here is our situation.” He explained about the other ship, backwards lights, ship travelling backwards, and no wake behind the ship. Someone handed Carruthers a pair of binoculars.
The Petty Officer looked out towards the other ship for quite a while. Finally, he dropped the binoculars and said, “Sir, you are NOT going to believe me and you will probably put me in the brig and then tell everybody that they did not see a thing and carry on without reporting the incident to command.”
The captain gave Carruthers a strange look. Carruthers shrugged his shoulders and asked the Captain to lift his binoculars. Carruthers began to talk quietly to the Captain.
“Just to review, Captain, that ship that we see out there is showing port lights but it is traveling east. The reason is that it is sailing backwards. However, there is no wake from the engines. There also appear to be many people on board, laughing, drinking and having a good time. I feel that this is because they believe the ship to be on a return journey to the port from where it started its cruise a long time ago.
“Captain, do you see the flag at the stern, sir?”
“British, right, Carruthers?”
“Correct, sir. Now move your binoculars towards the bow of the ship where the name is. As you do, sir, please take note of the profile of the ship.”
The Captain moved his binoculars slowly along the superstructure of the ship and then dropped them down below the top rail of the main deck as they reached the bow. He adjusted the focus and let out a gasp which made the others on the bridge wonder if their Captain was having a heart attack. He dropped the glasses, wiped his eyes and picked the glasses up again.
“Commander, you had better have a look at this as well or they will send a couple of fellows dressed in white uniforms and carrying butterfly nets to take me away to an insane asylum and throw away the key!”
Dutifully, the Commander followed the same line with his binoculars as the Captain had done. His reaction was similar to the Captain’s.
“Oh, my God!”
The Captain called everyone on the bridge together. He said, “Except for not putting Petty Officer Carruthers in the brig, we are going to do as he suggested – forget that this incident ever happened. As of now, it did not. No record of this incident will appear on the ship’s log or anywhere else; there will be no report sent to command, nor will any of you ever discuss with anybody what we might have seen out there today. Consider it a wild dream, a figment of your imagination or whatever you like but as of now, it did not happen. Those are my orders. Is that understood?”
In chorus, everyone said, “Understood, Sir!”
The name on the bow of the old ship that the Captain had seen through the binoculars was RMS TITANIC!
©April 2021 Robert W. F. Taylor
This story first appeared in my book of short stories ‘Where is Jacob? and Other Haunting Stories’. Amazon ASIN # 1687015864.