The Ship That Found Herself

by Rudyard Kipling

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"The Ship That Found Herself" Summary

The Ship That Found Herself” is an 1895 short story about the first voyage of a cargo steamship, the Dimbula, from Liverpool to New York.

  • As the voyage begins and the weather grows rough, the various parts of the ship converse and argue with each other.
  • The Steam that powers the ship moves among all the ship’s parts, encouraging them to embrace their individual functions and work together with the others.
  • After sixteen days at sea, the Dimbula docks in New York, and the ship becomes aware of itself not as many separate parts, but as a single being.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Dimbula is a cargo steamer ship poised for its first voyage at the port of Liverpool. Made with the best steamer ship technology, the Dimbula weighs twenty-five hundred tons and is strong enough to carry thousands of tons of cargo. It is easier to engineer an expensive, luxury passenger ship than it is to build an economical, sturdy cargo vessel meant to endure rough weather and enormous weights. The Dimbula has been fitted by a well-known Scottish firm of shipwrights. Miss Frazier, the owner’s daughter, is on board to give the brand-new ship a send-off to New York. Since the Dimbula is freshly painted and magnificent, the proud Miss Frazier tells the captain “she’s a real ship.” However, according to the captain, though the Dimbula may have the form of a vessel, it is yet to find itself as a ship. A ship is more than its parts: undergoing a voyage on the rough seas is what enables the parts to become a whole.

After the Dimbula is loaded with “some four thousands tonne dead weight,” it leaves Liverpool for New York. On the water, the hundreds of parts of the ship begin to function and talk. Since each of the Dimbula’s well-crafted pieces has its own name or number, each has its own voice, “in exact proportion to the amount of trouble spent upon it.” However, the conversation between the ship’s parts is not as wise as human talk, the parts being more bound by space than people are. As the ship clears the Irish coast, a large wave of the Atlantic Ocean rolls over it, drenching the steam-capstan, a part that uses steam power to lift the ship’s anchor. The spluttering capstan heaves against its attached deck beams, which complain of being pushed. In turn, the port and starboard upper deck stringers—large iron girders that run from a ship's stern to its bow—complain that the deck beams are straining against them. Meanwhile, the thousands of little rivets holding all the structures together begin to squeak under the weight and motion of the waves. As the sea grows rough, the screw begins to bob up and down in a frothy mix of air and seawater; the pistons of the engine begin to snort out water and accuse the screw of being too flighty. The screw defends itself, but the thrust block, which takes the push of the screw, rounds up on it, too. When the thrust block demands justice, so do all the bearings supporting its fifty-foot length.

Meanwhile, another large wave hits the ship, and the engines flap in panic. The high-pressure cylinder moans, while the piston begins choking as the steam behind it merges with dirty seawater. The Steam itself, which is the force powering the engines and the entire ship, is more circumspect, since it has been to the ocean before, in the form of a cloud or a thunderstorm. The Steam asks the ship’s parts to calm down, since the rough weather will blow over by morning. But the extra-strong web frames grumble that the thrust and push of the sea is straining their costly structure considerably. From the ship’s hold, its thick, bottom-most plate—the garboard strake—booms that the heavy cargo, rather than the sea, will prove its undoing. The huge load-bearing web frame by the cargo hatch agrees with the garboard strake. The patented sea valve, which can let in seawater intermittently to cool the engine, warns that if it is forced to open for good, the entire ship will be swamped. However, the centrifugal bilge pump boasts that the ship faces...

(This entire section contains 1378 words.)

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no such danger, since it alone is capable of pumping out thousands of gallons of seawater.

While the ship’s parts creak and complain, the winds outside quicken to a gale. Having a skyward view of things, the foremast declares that the wind and the water are in an “organized conspiracy” against the parts. As the other parts echo the foremast, the rolling waves respond that they have no malice toward the equipment, being natural phenomenon. Washed over by seawater, a bulwark plate on the hull discovers that it can swing outward, pushing water back into the sea. All the frames brace themselves as a giant wave lifts the Dimbula and tips her sideways, the cargo straining against all its joints and rivets. “Ease off,” each part cries under the enormous pressure. The plates beg the rivets to give a little so they can stretch out, but if the rivets loosen, the ship’s structure will begin to come apart. In the tumult, the upper deck’s wooden planking suggests that instead of pulling in opposite directions, the parts should all pull together. The funnel interjects, since it needs all its fourteen wire stays to pull in different directions to keep it upright. The upper decks want all the parts to pull lengthways, while the stringers want a gentle curving motion. However, the iron pillars in the hold urge every bit to strain upright and rigid, like them. As all the pieces advocate a motion intrinsic to their nature, the garboard strake proudly proclaims the discovery that it can expand a little. This sets the bottom rivets weeping because by letting the garboard strake give, they have failed at their task. Wisely, the Steam assures the rivets that it was always in their nature to give a fraction: they have just happened to discover it now.

The Steam rallies the morale of the parts, telling each it is indispensable. As the rain pours down, the foremast cries that it is being pummeled. The scuppers protest that they are drowning. They are mollified when the Steam tells them they are not alone: many other ship’s parts on the sea are in the same predicament. However, though the rain has picked up, the sea is quieting down. The complaining chorus from the lower decks and hold is not as loud as before. The stringers tell the Steam they have made a discovery, which is unique “in the history of ship-building,” that they are made to endure great strain without coming loose. The other parts, too, are full of such proud declarations, and some, like the bow plates, even show off their strength to the amused Steam when a big wave hits the ship. As the Steam heads off to the engine room, it finds the engines and cylinders talking in the seasoned tones of experienced sailors, even singing snatches from old sailors’ songs. The Steam tells them they will soon come up with an original composition of their own.

Over the next sixteen days of the rough journey, the Steam travels through the ship, coaching, soothing, and ordering the parts. The parts learn their own strengths and that of their neighbors. As the Dimbula pulls into New York, it is no longer the fresh-looking vessel that set out from Liverpool. Covered with salt and rust, the ship is also dented and in need of innumerable small repairs. Yet as the chief engineer assures the captain that, despite appearances, the ship has done very well, the parts swell with pride. Other and greater ships are now leaving the New York port as the Dimbula is docked for repairs. The Steam proclaims to the passing “princes, dukes, and barons of the high seas” that the Dimbula is a worthy vessel who made a rough crossing but did not founder. The passing vessels acknowledge the Dimbula grudgingly, not sounding too impressed. The Steam tells the parts not to be disappointed, since the large vessels have often performed worse at sea than them. Suddenly, the Steam’s voice is cut off, and a long silence descends on the ship. No part seems to be speaking at all. Then a new, slow voice speaks out, “as though the owner had just waked up.” The voice tells the Steam that it is the Dimbula, and has always been, rather than just the separate parts. The Steam replies that it is glad the ship found itself, since the Steam was tiring of coordinating the parts. Telling the Dimbula to rest and clean up, the Steam readies to go on another journey with the ship next month.