Sound of foghorns piercing the dense mist, a muffled blast warning of perilous reefs. Captain Abraham Picklewink on the bridge and peering into the gloom, wondering how close to the jagged reef he was. “Look out for those rocks,” he warned the officers. “One of the most dangerous reefs in the world.”
Too late. Sickening crunch, followed by a lengthily ear-splitting screech. And so on 15 June 1951 at 2 AM, the ocean liner Princess Beatrice was split from bow to stern, rent asunder by huge granite rocks just a fathom below the surface. “Abandon ship,” the captain cried, and from the bridge he piped down to the radio room and ordered an immediate SOS message. “Aye, Aye captain,” the communications officer replied and frantically tapped out the message in Morse code.
Below decks passengers waded through icy waters gushing in from the torn hull, crawling over each other in their desperate scramble to escape.
“Man the lifeboats … women and children first,” shouted the boatswain as the doomed ship slowly listed to the side.
Captain Picklewink abandoned his position, scrambled down the metal stairs and filched his way into one of the cabins. Searching through the drawers he pulled out a dress and a wig. Smearing pink lipstick over his lips, he put on the dress and wig, a chiffon scarf and a pair of women’s shoes and made his way back to the upper deck and the lifeboats.
Multitudes of passengers were gathering around the lifeboats. Raising the pitch of his voice, he pushed his way to the front of the queue. “I’m pregnant,” he screeched. Two crew members helped him aboard an already crowded lifeboat, then lowered it to the heaving waves below.
Rowing as fast as they could, the crew members gradually drew away from the doomed ship. The fog began to clear as Captain Picklewink watched the stern upended and then slowly slide beneath the waves, passengers silhouetted by the silvery moon as they lept into the cold water. Their screams continued for several minutes then all was silent, just the gentle lapping of the waves against the side of the lifeboat and the murmurings of the passengers that had survived.
Trying to conceal his stubble, the captain pulled the delicate scarf up around his chin and cheeks.
“Listen up,” one of the crew members shouted. “I’m having a rollcall and need each passenger to name themselves.” When Picklewink’s turn came he raised the pitch of his voice and called out Camila Redgrave.
“Say that again?”
“Camila Redgrave.” The captain slunk down into the shadows.
“Captain, is that you?”
Silence. Picklewink had cocked a deaf ‘n.
“Show yourself,” demanded the crewmember. “I SAID SHOW YOURSELF!” Sensing that something devious was going on, he threaded his way through the startled passengers towards the shadowy figure crouching in the darkness. Shaking the person’s head, his hand came away with a wig. “Captain Picklewink, it is you. Explain yourself. What the hell are you playing at? Why are you wearing women’s clothes?”
“I won’t be spoken to like this,” Picklewink said, speaking in his normal gruff voice. “I’m still the captain.”
“If I may say so sir, captains don’t wear dresses.”
“I was dressing up for a fancy dress party.”
“There was no fancy dress,” the crew member said. “You are a liar.”
Turning to the passengers he shouted: “The captain’s sneaked his cowardly way onto the lifeboat, putting himself before women and children. I say chuck him overboard.”
“Now listen to me. You can’t do this,” Picklewink said as passengers and crew dragged him towards the edge of the lifeboat. “It’s against all maritime morals,” he shrilled.
But they weren’t interested. Stripped of all honourable values, the true nature of the captain was laid bare. He was nothing but a cowardly wretch, a dishonourable man dressed in a woman’s clothes. And so it was that Abraham Picklewink found himself cast into the cold waters of the Drake Passage, just off the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. He drowned dressed in a pink frock and still wearing high-heeled shoes.