Hungry as the Sea

Hungry as the Sea

'The action is swift, taut and convincing, the portrayal of men and situations colourful and alive' (Scotsman). This earlier judgement of Wilbur Smith's writing is magnificently borne out in Hungry as the Sea.

The 'Golden Prince' is deposed: once the flamboyant chairman of a huge shipping consortium, now the captain of a salvage tug – such is the revolution in the life of Nick Berg.

Then a cruise ship, stranded with six hundred people in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, could be his chance to fight back. His heroic salvage of the liner in some of the most terrifying weather on this planet sweeps him back to even greater power and an even more deadly conflict with the man who has supplanted him as chairman.

Blazing action is the keynote of this splendid novel of the sea: in the ice-world of Antarctica; in the thundering surf of a South African beach; in the unbearable tension of a hushed courtroom in the City of London; in the subtle conflict between two women, the irrepressible Samantha and Nick's lovely former wife, and finally in the striding devastation of a Caribbean hurricane.

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Text Extract from 'Hungry as the Sea'

Nicholas Berg stepped out of the taxi on to the floodlit dock and paused to look up at the Warlock. At this state of the tide she rode high against the stone quay, so that even though the cranes towered above her, they did not dwarf her.

Despite the exhaustion that fogged his mind and cramped his muscles until they ached, Nicholas felt a stir of the old pride, the old sense of value achieved, as he looked at her. She looked like a warship, sleek and deadly, with the high flared bows and good lines that combined to make her safe in any seaway.

The superstructure was moulded steel and glittering armoured glass, behind which her lights burned in carnival array. The wings of her navigation bridge swept back elegantly and were covered to protect the men who must work her in the cruellest weather and most murderous seas.

Overlooking the wide stern deck was the second navigation bridge, from which a skilled seaman could operate the great winches and drums of cable, could catch and control the hawser on the hydraulically operated rising fairleads, could baby a wallowing oil rig or a mortally wounded liner in a gale or a silky calm.

Against the night sky high above it all, the twin towers replaced the squat single funnel of the old-fashioned salvage tugs – and the illusion of a man-of-war was heightened by the fire cannons on the upper platforms from which the Warlock could throw fifteen hundred tons of sea water an hour on to a burning vessel. From the towers themselves could be swung the boarding ladders over which men could be sent aboard a hulk, and between them was painted the small circular target that marked the miniature heliport. The whole of it, hull and upper decks, was fireproofed so she could survive in the inferno of burning petroleum from a holed tanker or the flaming chemical from a bulk carrier.

Nicholas Berg felt a little of the despondency and spiritual exhaustion slough away, although his body still ached and his legs carried him stiffly, like those of an old man, as he started towards the gangplank.

‘The hell with them all,’ he thought. ‘I built her and she is strong and good.’

Although it was an hour before midnight, the crew of the Warlock watched him from every vantage point they could find; even the oilers had come up from the engine room when the word reached them, and now loafed unobtrusively on the stern working deck.

David Allen, the First Officer, had placed a hand at the main harbour gates with a photograph of Nicholas Berg and a five-cent piece for the telephone call box beside the gate, and the whole ship was alerted now.

David Allen stood with the Chief Engineer in the glassed wing of the main navigation bridge and they watched the solitary figure pick his way across the shadowy dock, carrying his own case.

‘So that’s him.’ David’s voice was husky with awe and respect. He looked like a schoolboy under his shaggy bush of sun-bleached hair.

‘He’s a bloody film star.’ Vinny Baker, the Chief Engineer, hitched up his sagging trousers with both elbows, and his spectacles slid down the long thin nose, as he snorted. ‘A bloody film star,’ he repeated the term with utmost scorn.

‘He was first to Jules Levoisin,’ David pointed out, and again the note of awe as he intoned that name, ‘and he is a tug man from way back.’

‘That was fifteen years ago.’ Vinny Baker released his elbow grip on his trousers and pushed his spectacles up on to the bridge of his nose. Immediately his trousers began their slow but inexorable slide deckwards. ‘Since then he’s become a bloody glamour boy – and an owner.’

‘Yes,’ David Allen agreed, and his baby face crumpled a little at the thought of those two legendary animals, master and owner, combined in one monster. A monster which was on the point of mounting his gangway to the deck of Warlock.

‘You’d better go down and kiss him on the soft spot,’ Vinny grunted comfortably, and drifted away. Two decks down was the sanctuary of his control room where neither masters nor owners could touch him. He was going there now.

David Allen was breathless and flushed when he reached the entry port. The new Master was halfway up the gangway, and he lifted his head and looked steadily at the mate as he stepped aboard.

Though he was only a little above average, Nicholas Berg gave the impression of towering height, and the shoulders beneath the blue cashmere of his jacket were wide and powerful. He wore no hat and his hair was very dark, very thick and brushed back from a wide unlined forehead. The head was big-nosed and gaunt-boned, with a heavy jaw, blue now with new beard, and the eyes were set deep in the cages of their bony sockets, underlined with dark plum-coloured smears, as though they were bruised.

But what shocked David Allen was the man’s pallor. His face was drained, as though he had been bled from the jugular. It was the pallor of mortal illness or of exhaustion close to death itself, and it was emphasized by the dark eye-sockets. This was not what David had expected of the legendary Golden Prince of Christy Marine. It was not the face he had seen so often pictured in newspapers and magazines around the world. Surprise made him mute and the man stopped and looked down at him.

‘Allen?’ asked Nicholas Berg quietly. His voice was low and level, without accent, but with a surprising timbre and resonance.

‘Yes, sir. Welcome aboard, sir.’

When Nicholas Berg smiled, the edges of sickness and exhaustion smoothed away at his brow and at the corners of his mouth. His hand was smooth and cool, but his grip was firm enough to make David blink.

‘I’ll show you your quarters, sir.’ David took the Louis Vuitton suitcase from his grip.

‘I know the way,’ said Nick Berg. ‘I designed her.’

He stood in the centre of the Master’s day cabin, and felt the deck tilt under his feet, although the Warlock was fast to the stone dock, and the muscles in his thighs trembled.

‘The funeral went off all right?’ Nick asked.

‘He was cremated, sir,’ David said. ‘That’s the way he wanted it. I have made the arrangements for the ashes to be sent home to Mary. Mary is his wife, sir,’ he explained quickly.

‘Yes,’ said Nick Berg. ‘I know. I saw her before I left London. Mac and I were shipmates once.’

‘He told me. He used to boast about that.’

‘Have you cleared all his gear?’ Nick asked, and glanced around the Master’s suite.

‘Yes sir, we’ve packed it all up. There is nothing of his left in here.’

‘He was a good man.’ Nick swayed again on his feet and looked longingly at the day couch, but instead he crossed to the port and looked out on to the dock. ‘How did it happen?’

‘My report –’

‘Tell me!’ said Nicholas Berg, and his voice cracked like a whip.

‘The main tow-cable parted, sir. He was on the afterdeck. It took his head off like a bullwhip.’

Nick stood quietly for a moment, thinking about that terse description of tragedy. He had seen a tow part under stress once before. That time it had killed three men.

‘All right.’ Nick hesitated a moment, the exhaustion had slowed and softened him so that for a moment he was on the point of explaining why he had come to take command of Warlock himself, rather than sending another hired man to replace Mac.

It might help to have somebody to talk to now, when he was right down on his knees, beaten and broken and tired to the very depths of his soul. He swayed again, then caught himself and forced aside the temptation. He had never whined for sympathy in his life before.

‘All right,’ he repeated. ‘Please give my apologies to your officers. I have not had much sleep in the last two weeks, and the flight out from Heathrow was murder, as always. I’ll meet them in the morning. Ask the cook to send a tray with my dinner.’

The cook was a huge man who moved like a dancer in a snowy apron and a theatrical chef’s cap. Nick Berg stared at him as he placed the tray on the table at his elbow. The cook wore his hair in a shiny carefully coiffured bob that fell to his right shoulder, but was drawn back from the left cheek to display a small diamond earring in the pierced lobe of that ear.

He lifted the cloth off the tray with a hand as hairy as that of a bull gorilla, but his voice was as lyrical as a girl’s, and his eyelashes curled soft and dark on to his cheek.

‘There’s a lovely bowl of soup, and a pot-au-feu. It’s one of my little special things. You will adore it,’ he said, and stepped back. He surveyed Nick Berg with those huge hands on his hips. ‘But I took one look at you as you came aboard and I just knew what you really needed.’ With a magician’s flourish, he produced a half-bottle of Pinch Haig from the deep pocket of his apron. ‘Take a nip of that with your dinner, and then straight into bed with you, you poor dear.’

No man had ever called Nicholas Berg ‘dear’ before, but his tongue was too thick and slow for the retort. He stared after the cook as he disappeared with a sweep of his white apron and the twinkle of the diamond, and then he grinned weakly and shook his head, weighing the bottle in his hand.

‘Damned if I don’t need it,’ he muttered, and went to find a glass. He poured it half full, and sipped as he came back to the couch and lifted the lid of the soup pot. The steaming aroma made the little saliva glands under his tongue spurt.

The hot food and whisky in his belly taxed his last reserves, and Nicholas Berg kicked off his shoes as he staggered into his night cabin.

He awoke with the anger on him. He had not been angry in two weeks which was a measure of his despondency. But when he shaved, the mirrored face was that of a stranger still, too pale and gaunt and set. The lines that framed his mouth were too deeply chiselled, and the early sunlight through the port caught the dark hair at his temple and he saw the frosty glitter there and leaned closer to the mirror. It was the first time he had noticed the flash of silver hair – perhaps he had never looked hard enough, or perhaps it was something new.

‘Forty,’ he thought. ‘I’ll be forty years old next June.’

He had always believed that if a man never caught the big one before he was forty, he was doomed never to do so. So what were the rules for the man who caught the big wave before he was thirty, and rode it fast and hard and high, then lost it again before he was forty and was washed out into the trough of boiling white water. Was he doomed also? Nick stared at himself in the mirror and felt the anger in him change its form, becoming directed and functional.

He stepped into the shower, and let the needles of hot water sting his chest. Through the tiredness and disillusion, he was aware, for the first time in weeks, of the underlying strength which he had begun to doubt was still there. He felt it rising to the surface in him, and he thought again of what an extraordinary sea creature he was, how it needed only a deck under him and the smell of the sea in his throat.

He stepped from the shower and dried quickly. This was the right place to be now. This was the place to recuperate – and he realized that his decision not to replace Mac with a hired skipper had been a gut decision. He needed to be here himself.

Always he had known that if you wanted to ride the big wave, you must first be at the place where it begins to peak. It’s an instinctive thing, a man just knows where that place is. Nick Berg knew deep in his being that this was the place now, and, with his rising strength, he felt the old excitement, the old ‘I’ll show the bastards who is beaten’ excitement, and he dressed swiftly and went up the Master’s private companionway to the upper deck.

Immediately, the wind flew at him and flicked his dark wet hair into his face. It was force five from the south-east, and it came boiling over the great flat-topped mountain which crouched above the city and harbour. Nick looked up at it and saw the thick white cloud they called the ‘tablecloth’ spilling off the heights, and swirling along the grey rock cliffs.

‘The Cape of Storms,’ he murmured. Even the water in the protected dock leaped and peaked into white crests which blew away like wisps of smoke.

The tip of Africa thrust southwards into one of the most treacherous seas on all the globe. Here two oceans swept turbulently together off the rocky cliffs of Cape Point, and then roiled over the shallows of the Agulhas bank.

Here wind opposed current in eternal conflict. This was the breeding ground of the freak wave, the one that mariners called the ‘hundred-year wave’, because statistically that was how often it should occur.

But off the Agulhas bank, it was always lurking, waiting only for the right combination of wind and current, waiting for the inphase wave sequence to send its crest rearing a hundred feet high and steep as those grey rock cliffs of Table Mountain itself.

Nick had read the accounts of seamen who had survived that wave, and, at a loss for words, they had written only of a great hole in the sea into which a ship fell helplessly. When the hole closed, the force of breaking water would bury her completely. Perhaps the Waratah Castle was one which had fallen into that trough. Nobody would ever know – a great ship of 9,000 tons burden, she and her crew of 211 had disappeared without trace in these seas.

Yet here was one of the busiest sea lanes on the globe, as a procession of giant tankers ploughed ponderously around that rocky Cape on their endless shuttle between the Western world and the oil Gulf of Persia. Despite their bulk, those supertankers were perhaps some of the most vulnerable vehicles yet designed by man.

Now Nick turned and looked across the wind-ripped waters of Duncan Dock at one of them. He could read her name on the stern that rose like a five-storied apartment block. She was owned by Shell Oil, 250,000 dead weight tons, and, out of ballast, she showed much of her rust-red bottom. She was in for repairs, while out in the roadstead of Table Bay, two other monsters waited patiently for their turn in the hospital dock.

So big and ponderous and vulnerable – and valuable. Nick licked his lips involuntarily – hull and cargo together, she was thirty million dollars, piled up like a mountain.

That was why he had stationed the Warlock here at Cape Town on the southernmost tip of Africa. He felt the strength and excitement surging upwards in him.

All right, so he had lost his wave. He was no longer cresting and racing. He was down and smothered in white water. But he could feel his head breaking the surface, and he was still on the breakline. He knew there was another big wave racing down on him. It was just beginning to peak and he knew he still had the strength to catch her, to get up high and race again.

‘I did it once – I’ll damned well do it again,’ he said aloud, and went down for breakfast.

He stepped into the saloon, and for a long moment nobody realized he was there. There was an excited buzz of comment and speculation that absorbed them all.

The Chief Engineer had an old copy of Lloyd’s List folded at the front page and held above a plate of eggs as he read aloud. Nicholas wondered where he had found the ancient copy.

His spectacles had slid right to the end of his nose, so he had to tilt his head far backwards to see through them, and his Australian accent twanged like a guitar.

‘In a joint statement issued by the new Chairman and incoming members of the Board, a tribute was paid to the fifteen years of loyal service that Mr Nicholas Berg had given to Christy Marine.’

The five officers listened avidly, ignoring their breakfasts, until David Allen glanced up at the figure in the doorway.

‘Captain, sir,’ he shouted, and leapt to his feet, while with the other hand, he snatched the newspaper out of Vinny Baker’s hands and bundled it under the table.

‘Sir, may I present the officers of Warlock.

Shuffling, embarrassed, the younger officers shook hands hurriedly and then applied themselves silently to their congealing breakfasts with a total dedication that precluded any conversation, while Nick Berg took the Master’s seat at the head of the long table in the heavy silence and David Allen sat down again on the crumpled sheets of newsprint.

The steward offered the menu to the new Captain, and returned almost immediately with a dish of stewed fruit.

‘I ordered a boiled egg,’ said Nick mildly, and an apparition in snowy white appeared from the galley, with the chef’s cap at a jaunty angle.

‘The sailor’s curse is constipation, Skipper. I look after my officers – that fruit is delicious and good for you. I’m doing you your eggs now, dear, but eat your fruit first.’ And the diamond twinkled again as he vanished.

Nick stared after him in the appalled silence.

‘Fantastic cook,’ blurted David Allen, his fair skin flushed pinkly and the Lloyd’s List rustled under his backside. ‘Could get a job on any passenger liner, could Angel.’

‘If he ever left the Warlock, half the crew would go with him,’ growled the Chief Engineer darkly, and hauled at his pants with elbows below the level of the table. ‘And I’d be one of them.’

Nick Berg turned his head politely to follow the conversation.

‘He’s almost a doctor,’ David Allen went on, addressing the Chief Engineer.

‘Five years at Edinburgh Medical School,’ agreed the Chief solemnly.

‘Do you remember how he set the Second’s leg? Terribly useful to have a doctor aboard.’

Nick picked up his spoon, and tentatively lifted a little of the fruit to his mouth. Every officer watched him intently as he chewed. Nick took another spoonful.

‘You should taste his jams, sir,’ David Allen addressed Nick directly at last. ‘Absolutely Cordon Bleu stuff.’

‘Thank you, gentlemen, for the advice,’ said Nick. The smile did not touch his mouth, but crinkled his eyes slightly. ‘But would somebody convey a private message to Angel that if he ever calls me “dear” again I’ll beat that ridiculous cap down about his ears.’

In the relieved laughter that followed, Nick turned to David Allen and sent colour flying to his cheeks again by asking, ‘You seem to have finished with that old copy of the List, Number One. Do you mind if I glance at it again?’

Reluctantly, David lifted himself and produced the newspaper, and there was another tense silence as Nick Berg rearranged the rumpled sheets and studied the old headlines without any apparent emotion.


Nicholas hated that name. It had been old Arthur Christy’s quirk to name all of his vessels with the prefix ‘Golden’ and twelve years ago, when Nick had rocketed to head of operations at Christy Marine, some wag had stuck that label on him.