In Hazard - Richard Hughes, John Crowley This book is based on the true story of the Phemius, a ship which was sucked into the circular trajectory of a hurricane in 1932. The captain’s report of the experience so intrigued the Holt Line owner that he gave a copy to Richard Hughes (A High Wind in Jamaica) who turned it into this novel.

The ship was the well-cared-for Archimedes with a very competent captain and crew. The month being mid-November, the likelihood of a West Indian hurricane was more than remote, it was unheard of. The cargo was the usual motley of items including quantities of newspaper, which, because of their lightness, were stored fairly high in the hold. The barometer continues to drop precipitously and thinking he is sailing around the storm, Captain Edwardes finds himself in its clutches, perhaps from a twin since this storm doesn’t seem to be following the rules. Dick, the cabin boy, at first mesmerized by the fur of the wind, is in its thrall. “Then the exultation which the storm had raised in him whirled up in his head giddily, and he was sea-sick.”

At first the ship seems to be riding the waves with equanimity until a coir matting becomes lodged in the steering rods and steerage is lost leaving the ship to wallow broadside into the waves. To make matters worse, hatches, which are designed to withstand enormous pressure from above, were now subject to tremendously strong winds blowing across the deck, and, much as with an airplane’s wing, generated lift and creating a vacuum across the top of the hatches pushing them up from below.

It goes without saying (but I will anyway) readers disinclined to enjoy nautical books will not like this book. Tant pis pour toi. The rest of us will love it.

A picture of the Phemius at that gives you a good idea of the superstructure and funnel which was lost in the 1932 hurricane. (The one described in the book took place fictionally in November 1929.)

Read the introduction by John Crowley to the NYRB edition. In it, he quotes Ford Maddox Ford as describing Hughes writing as so good as to be almost inhuman. “It’s hard … not to wonder whether Hughes ever made clear to himself the distinction between all-knowing divinity and pitiless chance.” Indeed.