Fickle and hostile waters home to undersea tale
Somewhere between Hunt for Red October and The Secret Sharer lies the British submarine Alert and her motley crew. The time: Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Alert is old and obsolescent, one of the few remaining subs armed with a deck gun. Her job — to patrol off Gibraltar and find Soviet submersibles threatening the NATO blockade. A bit like going to sea in a dory looking for Moby Dick.
The enemies here are many. First and foremost, the sea always threatens, especially when you’re spending much of your time under it. The Soviet undersea boats which Alert is particularly to seek are more modern, equipped with stateofthe- art weaponry. No war has been declared, but the geopolitical psyche is on a hair trigger to explode. And that is the deadliest enemy here — the human psyche.
Canadian naval Lt. Ted Hawkins is protagonist in Robert Mackay’s action- packed novel. A submariner, Hawkins suffers from trauma- induced claustrophobia, hell for a man confined to the narrow spaces of a long, five- metre- diameter tube built to withstand the pressures 150 metres down. He has a sweet, independentminded wife, Anne- Marie, and a lot of fear. He also has a personal enemy in the powerfully built, bloody- minded Anton Rijker, executive officer of Alert, and Ted’s rival since cadet days in Victoria. Rijker even lusts after Anne- Marie.
Mackay writes with the authority of a memoirist — which is not far from the truth, since Mackay served for a time in A- boats, although never in the kind of action Alert endures. The waters of this book are fickle and hostile as those in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Cruel Sea, the seamanship as lovingly felt as that in the books of C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. And Mackay yarns with the best of them.
After peacetime- navy events, shenanigans and a bit of romance, Alert sails from the Portsmouth Harbour base at Gosport under secret orders. Technically a Royal Canadian Navy vessel in the process of being transferred to Halifax, Alert remains under British Royal Navy command. Her crew are expecting to go on a final training voyage before heading west across the North Atlantic. So why are they sailing south?
“We are to proceed with all due dispatch to waters off Gibraltar … Our job is to identify, report and shadow any Soviet submarines.” A Second World War- design boat with dysfunctional rear torpedo tubes and a deck gun in the nuclear age. Typical preparedness in a democratic nation’s armed forces.
Forget identifying — even finding anything less than an island in the stormy, spumeswept seas is far from easy. Hawkins thinks he sees a periscope. The captain orders a dive. They can’t see an alien periscope. A faint sonar signal is detected. It grows a little stronger, and moves. At length, the signal becomes clear enough to be classified. Whales.
Tension is now dismissed because they were in contact with nothing more sinister than a pod of cetaceans. But this later turns out to be untrue. Poor claustrophobic Lt. Hawkins had not been hallucinating: the periscope was real, and belongs to a Soviet nuclear sub. It is Alert who is being shadowed. And Lt. Rijker is becoming sinister himself. His remark to Ted Hawkins is, “Maybe they were narwhals … You know — tusks. Except they’re usually horizontal, not vertical like a periscope.”
The while, Rijker has gradually gone mad. This I find the least satisfactory among Mackay’s otherwise excellent characterizations — but it is hellaciously effective. Alert is badly damaged in combat with the Soviets, her captain mortally injured and Lt. Hawkins, increasingly disabled by the terrors of claustrophobia, is forced to take command. Rijker arms himself with a brace of 9- mm pistols and sets out to kill Hawkins and commandeer the submarine. This showdown culminates in Alert sunk to an ocean shelf just shallow enough to permit escape by the free ascent method. I won’t tell you what happens.
Mackay’s book is a triumph of well paced action, fascinating characters and patient, loving attention to persons and nautical detail. I put down Terror on the Alert only when biological necessities demanded. This is as satisfying a tale of the sea as any I’ve read, a sailor’s book to be enjoyed by anyone.