Squall at Sunrise

Rain streamed down the windows of the passenger ferry’s upper deck accompanied by Mahler’s 5th Symphony on the headphones. Across a short throw of water, the Kingston auto ferry was silhouetted against a dark squall. The lights on the ferry’s passenger deck seemed to puddle in the rain. Beyond, the squall descended like nightfall.

A small sloop made its way out of Appletree Cove into Puget Sound, the helmsman wearing bright oilskins, his shoulders humped against the rain. Down channel an enormous container ship moved with its decks stacked five stories high. Deckloads of containers are sometimes lost to storms at sea, swept overboard by high seas. Originally, the containers were as watertight as a ship’s hull. They continued to float for months, awash like deadheads*, invisible at a distance or in rough weather. The hull of a small boat or even a ship could be gashed by a container’s steel edges. A ship’s hull might only be scarred by such a collision; a boat could be killed, her hull filling in minutes, with perhaps just enough time for a practiced crew to grab the emergency bag and launch the canister raft. It was one of those hazards that troubled the sleep of captains but were promptly forgotten by their crews.

The containers are still vulnerable to storms but they are now fitted with plugs soluble in salt water. After a few days of immersion the plug dissolves and the container sinks to the bottom like a stone.

*Deadheads are driftwood, often complete trees—Douglas-fir, Western red cedar, and maple—that float just below the surface throughout the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest. They are difficult to see during the day and impossible at night. Hitting a waterlogged deadhead is like striking a rock.

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