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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

At age forty-two, Marlowe sits drinking with four other Englishmen who began their working lives in the merchant service. Most have other work ashore now, but they share the bond of seafaring men. He tells them the story of his first trip to the East, when he was an adventurous young man of twenty and had hired on for the first time as an officer, second mate on an old freighter bound for Bangkok.

Engraved on the stern of the ship was “Judea, London. Do or Die,” a grandiloquent motto that appealed to the youthful enthusiasm of her youngest officer. Her skipper, John Beard, was also on his first voyage as captain, but at sixty years of age, he was an old hand in the merchant service. The first mate Mahon was also an old man. Much of the underlying irony that pervades this adventure is the implied contrast between what such an experience meant to a high-spirited young man and what it must have meant to the old captain. The storyteller, now midway between the ignorant youth he once was and the sorrowful but dignified old man, appreciates both perspectives.

The ill-fated Judea had nothing but trouble from the very beginning. She had not even reached the port where she was to be loaded with coal, when her ballast shifted dangerously in a murderous North Sea storm. Everyone began shoveling sand ballast to right the listing ship. It took them sixteen days to get from London to the Tyne, where they were delayed for two months because they had lost their turn at loading. When at last all was ready, they were rammed by a steamer, requiring further repair and three weeks’ delay.

The Judea actually made it out into the Atlantic when another storm brought on an even more desperate struggle with multiple leaks. The crew pumped water furiously from the leaky hold for days and nights as the ship began to break into pieces about them. Only with great difficulty did they flounder back to the English coast, where the ship was unloaded and put in dry dock for repair.

The crew departed in disgust at that point, and the frustrated officers had to bring in another crew from far away because everyone around had learned of the bad luck of the Judea. Even the rats deserted the ship at Falmouth, a development of ominous portent. Marlowe and Mahon joked of the obvious stupidity of rats, however, because they should have left before, when the ship was really unseaworthy. Now, it was well caulked and shipshape.

The freighter got clear to the Indian Ocean before further disaster assailed it. The coal in the hold started smoldering from spontaneous combustion. Whereas in the Atlantic they had pumped for dear life to prevent drowning, they now poured ocean water into the hold to prevent being burned alive, wishing for the old leaks, which would have flooded the coal more efficiently. At last the smoke stopped pouring from the pile, but only as a precursor to another calamity. As the men began to relax for the first time in many days, the hold exploded from trapped gases, resulting in serious damage to both the ship and its men.

The “Do or Die” Judea eventually fulfilled the second part of her motto, sinking in flames as the men watched from three small lifeboats. Marlowe eventually reached Java as the captain of a rowboat with two crew members.

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