Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
It is a few years after World War I when experienced American sailor Gerard Gales sails as a deck hand aboard the cargo ship Tuscaloosa from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Western Europe. In Antwerp, Belgium, Gales leaves the ship for a night on the town. After carousing, he returns to the docks to find that the Tuscaloosa had left on its return voyage earlier than scheduled. He is stranded penniless in the foreign port. Worse, he had left his seaman’s card and other proof of identity aboard the ship. Picked up by local police, he is brought before a magistrate, who orders Gales to be deported under penalty of life imprisonment. In the dead of night, he is escorted to the border with the Netherlands, given food, and told to cross the border.
In Rotterdam, Gales approaches the American consul for assistance. However, without proper documentation—such as a passport, birth certificate, or sailor’s identification—he cannot prove he is a U.S. citizen, thus the counsel cannot do anything except provide Gales food and lodging for a few days. Once again, local police become aware of his presence. Threatened with imprisonment at hard labor for vagrancy, he is given enough food and money to return to Antwerp. Unwilling to do so, Gales hitchhikes around the Netherlands, surviving on the generosity of strangers.
When his money runs out, Gales begs passage on a British ship, which carries him as far as Boulogne, France. Traveling to Paris via train, he is discovered without a ticket and sentenced to ten days in prison. Upon his release, he is given fifteen days to leave the country, or suffer a long term behind bars. Gales again sees the American consul, who can do nothing for the sailor without documentation. Caught in Toulouse, Gales on a lark claims to be German rather than an American. He is imprisoned for a short time and again ordered to leave France. He drifts south toward Spain, sleeping in barns and living on handouts from peasants. Stumbling upon a French fortress, he is suspected of being a German spy; he is to be shot at sunrise. However, the French relent, and he will be pardoned if he goes to Spain.
In his guise as a German, Gales is welcomed to Spain. He is fed and clothed, and the authorities, indifferent to such things as formal identification, allow him to travel the country freely. He journeys from Seville to Cadiz to Barcelona, living by begging, and is accepted as one more among the rootless millions unable to find work in the global recession following the Great War. One day, fishing off a pier and feeling purposeless, he is offered work on an ancient, decaying freighter called the Yorrike. Gales accepts the job, although he realizes the vessel is a death ship: overinsured, flagless, near-derelict, and staffed by men like himself, who are without documentation. The ship limps aimlessly from port to port carrying random cargo, including smuggled munitions to war-torn nations, until the owners decide when it is most profitable to sink it.
Aboard the Yorrike, Gales—hiding his identity by calling himself Pippip and claiming to be Egyptian—is made drag man, the worst job on a ship of horrors. He is required to shovel tons of coal for the ship’s voracious, temperamental boilers and perform other dangerous tasks that burn and scar his body. Working conditions are deplorable. Passageways are unlighted and hazardous. Lifejackets are absent, and lifeboats are riddled with holes. There are no mattresses or blankets for the narrow bunks, and food is monotonously awful. No soap is provided to wash off coal residue. Petty officers are martinets who throw troublemakers into a hold to be devoured by rats. Pay is at best uncertain.
Gales soon becomes friends with a Polish sailor, Stanislav Koslovski, who helps him learn the ropes and teaches him how to survive day-to-day. Despite the hellish conditions, Gales adapts. After four months, he comes to accept his lot, and his fire-gang crew mates have become comrades. What choice does he have? Without documents, his only options are to exchange the Yorrike for another death ship, or to leap over the rail and drown himself.
Having made peace with his circumstances, Gales goes ashore one day with Stanislav in an African port. Walking along the docks, they admire other ships, in particular a new British vessel called the Empress of Madagascar. Invited to dine aboard a neighboring Danish ship, Gales and Stanislav learn about the Empress of Madagascar from a friendly sailor. Despite many amenities that the crew of the Yorrike can only imagine, the Empress of Madagascar is also a death ship: A flawed engine design makes it too slow and impractical to haul freight, so it is doomed to be sunk.
Returning to the familiar, now comfortable Yorrike, Gales and Stanislav are shanghaied. When they awake, they find to their dismay they are aboard the Empress of Madagascar and are pressed into service as firemen to keep the boilers stoked and the engines turning. Though the pay is union standard, meals are plentiful and cabins are spacious. Gales and Stanislav know the ship will be scuttled soon, probably while they are tending to the boilers; they will be unable to escape death if this is the case. They search for the best route to the deck, and settle down to wait.
The destruction of the ship occurs within days, somewhere off the west coast of Africa, away from usual sea lanes. Crewmen drill holes in the hull to flood the ship and cause the boilers to explode. However, the unexpected happens: Instead of rolling over on its side, the Empress of Madagascar goes down by the bow, smothering the boiler fires and drowning most officers and able-bodied seamen. Prepared for the sinking, Gales and Stanislav are among the few survivors. Two lifeboats, with the captain aboard, manage to launch, but both are smashed by waves. Only Gales and Stanislav are left alive. The ship, meanwhile, has not sunk, but is wedged half-submerged, stern-up on a reef. Gales and Stanislav clamber aboard, and for a few days live like kings, gorging on fine foods and swilling expensive liquors.
Inevitably, a storm brews and heavy seas dislodge the ship, forcing Gales and Stanislav into the water. They lash themselves onto a piece of wooden wreckage to await rescue. During the next several days, they hallucinate, seeing the lights of cities and believing fondly that their former vessel is steaming to pick them up. Stanislav, after swallowing salt water, goes insane, unties his bindings, and plunges beneath the waves, leaving Gales, too weak to undo his own knots, to his fate.