He was young to be in command, even if it was only for sea trials of a harbour tug, but it was still a command and that was what he wanted. He was thrilled at the prospect but tried his best not to show it.
“Take the new tug, Jurong, out and thoroughly put her through her paces,” said the manager, leaning back in his black office chair, his brown eyes holding Tom’s as though looking inside him to see what was there.
“Here’s the sea trial programme,” he continued, handing Tom a small, printed pamphlet entitled Jurong Sea Trials. “Make sure everything is completed and don’t run aground.”
He stood up and shook Tom’s hand.
“Welcome to Cosel and I hope you enjoy working with us,” he said, again looking Tom in the eye.
Tom left the manager’s office and its curtained windows. On the one hand, he felt elated, yet on the other, he couldn’t help thinking he was being tested. That searching look from those very brown eyes was unnerving and he hoped his own return was steady and confident, masking the turmoil he felt inside. It was all so new and exciting and so utterly different from his previous life.
The burning bright sunshine and harsh light shook him out of his reverie, the heat already making him sweat. Pull yourself together and act as though you know what you are doing, he berated himself. He walked through the yard past a barge on the slip, the noise from the air-driven chipping hammers pulsating through his brain, and reached the waterfront. There alongside the quay was his first command, her new paintwork gleaming in the tropical sunlight, smooth and unbroken, as befitted a new ship. The smell of the shipyard, grease from the slip, mingled with that of dead barnacles, while an indefinable brine smell from the dirty water, paint, wood shavings belied the newness of his first command.
He climbed on board. There was no gangway, so he entered the small wheelhouse. He looked forward and saw the bow was closer than he had imagined, realising she was not much bigger than a decent-sized motor yacht, although rather a different shape. He flicked away the twinge of disappointment that she was not larger and set about familiarising himself with her layout and bridge controls. It did not take very long as he had been around yachts and ships all his life, so he knew his way around knew what to look for. The engine room was very neat and compact, the bilges still completely clean and the paintwork unmarked. Various workers were still on board finishing off, but they took no notice of him. There did not appear to be any crew, no doubt all would be revealed on the morrow.
Back on the bridge he took stock, planning how he would manoeuvre her off the berth with her single screw and no bow thruster. He saw there was no chart and made a note to obtain one. He was unfamiliar with this part of Singapore, knowing only the main port and anchorages, and not Jurong, on the western side of the island.
As he climbed ashore, his shirt wet with sweat, he was confronted by a European, dressed in a white shirt and blue tie, looking cool in the heat, his dark slacks well-pressed, and who greeted him cheerfully.
“So you are the new boy,” he said. “Going to do the trials, are we, for the latest addition to our fleet?”
“Well, yes,” replied Tom, slightly flustered.
“Welcome to Singapore and welcome to Cosel, the mad house which is our company,” he laughed. “I’m Steve. I manage the yard.”
Tom shook hands, a nice firm grip, noting the man had said “our” company not “the” company, a good sign, which boded well for the future. He was cheered by the welcome he had received so far since arriving in Singapore. Was it only yesterday, he thought?
“Come up to my office, you look as though you could use a cold drink,” suggested Steve.
Tom followed him into the large, faded, green-painted, corrugated iron shed alongside the slipway, the barge and the chipping hammers still making their infernal racket. It was a hive of activity on what appeared to be a number of fabrication jobs, and it was slightly cooler out of the sun. It seemed to Tom that the framework for another tug or large work boat was also under construction. It was good to see everyone was busy, a far cry from the UK.
Tom and Steve climbed a wooden stairway to a platform half-way up the river side of the shed. Glass surrounded the office on three sides, enabling the manager to keep an eye on the work below. The wall formed the fourth side, with a large window allowing a view of the wharf and the vessels alongside it. Steve ushered Tom in and walked over to the large fridge on the outside wall, while Tom shook the wet shirt off his skin, feeling the cool air from the air conditioning.
“What will you have?” offered Steve, the open door showing an array of soft drinks, Tiger and Anchor beers.
“A bit early for me,” Steve continued, pointing to the red Anchor beer tin, “but don’t let it stop you,”
“Sprite will do me fine, thanks,” replied Tom, slightly surprised at being offered a beer when it was only half-way through the morning.
Steve sat down in front of his desk facing the activity below while Tom sat facing him with a view of the river and the yard opposite.
“Your first visit to Singapore?”
“No, I first came here as a cadet on a British India ship some ten years ago and have been coming on and off ever since. I was with Indo China on their Bay of Bengal Japan service, Calcutta to Yokahama and all ports in between. So I know Singapore quite well, or rather the port and its environs, but I have never been to Jurong before or in fact this side of the island.”
“Back yard of Singapore,” Steve laughed, his piercing blue eyes twinkling. “Singapore is a very different place to live in, rather than just visiting. I expect you know haunts I have never dreamed of, never knew existed,” he laughed.
Tom felt himself relaxing in front of the cheerful yard manager who was obviously secure in himself and what he did. He looked fit and healthy, his face well-tanned, his fair hair parted in the middle. Tom reckoned he must be in his mid-forties.
“I’ve run the yard for the last five years from when the old man took over,” said Steve. “We’re building these small harbour tugs, renewing the Cosel fleet. Apart from port work, they mainly tow barges to Indonesia and Malaysia. I am hoping to land a contract to build a coaster for Indonesian clients, which could lead to greater things and make the old man happy.”
Tom raised his eyebrows, which Steve picked up.
“The old man, commonly known as Mr R, Rosenberg being his name, sixties, chequered career: Shanghai, Bangkok and finally here, Singapore. Fortunes made and lost and now onto his latest fortune. He knows nothing about ships, tugs or salvage but is a businessman and a very successful one at that. He’s a good man to work for. The company is still small enough for him to know what is going on and he does not miss a trick.”
“I see. And the manager?” queried Tom.
“Ah! DB, Mr Dan Brown, been with the company since the beginning, what, 10 years ago? And stayed when Mr R took over some five years ago, when he brought me in to run the yard. D B runs the tugs, barges and salvage, as you know we have a largish salvage tug stationed in Singapore. I say we, the businesses are run separately but we all feel we are part of Cosel. The old man is very ambitious and keen to expand on all fronts, which suits me just fine.” Steve sipped from his can of Coca Cola, the pattern on the tin blurred with the condensation.
“Well, thank you for that. And the trials tomorrow?”
“I will be on board because I like being afloat. There will be a classifications surveyor to approve whatever he approves, it’s all in the pamphlet you have. The yard chief engineer, a couple of foreman, a couple of hands will be onboard as well. DB seems a bit disinterested so I expect you will end up signing for the tug on behalf of Cosel Salvage so I can get my money.”
Steve laughed, the sound infectious, and Tom smiled.
First command, sea trials, signing for the tug as well felt as though he was being thrown in at the deep end and he had to pinch himself to make sure he was still in the real world, not some fantasy land, and that he would awaken to cold, dreary England.
“I expect you know we are waiting for the arrival of the new tug from Japan. I say new, she is second-hand and I expect the old man picked her up cheap and I will have to make her work. She is big in size, anyway, for us and we are preparing for her. She’s expected to arrive in the next few days. The Pansy. The old man will have to change her name sharpish,” he laughed. “Rumour has it, old Jan Smit almost refused to sail unless the name was changed. Jan is a big, burly Dutchman with a wife and three kids, been with the company as long as DB.”
“I am supposed to be sailing as chief officer to learn the ropes,” said Tom.
“I am sure you will get along fine with Jan, he is very knowledgeable and been in tugs and salvage most of his life.”
“Well, thanks for that, all very helpful.”
Tom stood up to leave, not wanting to overstay his welcome.
“You must come to supper and meet my wife, one day next week. I’ll let you know after consulting with her.”
“That is very kind of you, I would love to. I’m staying at the Orchid Inn.”
“OK, until tomorrow. Oh, by the way, the yard supplies the refreshments.” Steve laughed, his blue eyes sparkling as he showed Tom out of his office.
Once outside, Tom wondered what he should do. He had familiarised himself with his tug for the next day, it was now mid-morning and he could hardly go back to the hotel, although a swim in the pool would be most welcome, but it would be rather like sloping off, going absent without leave.
He decided to go back into the main office and see what happened. He went in through the door from the yard that faced the slip with the barge on it; the chipping hammers were silent.
In the cool and apparent semi-darkness inside the office, the windows were all curtained like the manager’s office. Tom stood, getting his bearings and allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He saw a sign saying ‘ops room’ and thought this would be a good place to start. He opened the door and walked in.
A handsome Malay face looked up from the desk at which he was sitting, with a large log book in front of him, pen in hand.
“You must be Captain Matravers,” said the Malay as he stood, holding out his hand. “Welcome to Singapore and Cosel Salvage.”
Tom shook the proffered hand.
“My name is Ishmael, I’m in charge of the operations room.”
“Yes, thank you, I am trying to orientate myself,” said Tom, pleased he had been entitled Captain, though not sure he had earned it yet.
“I would be grateful if you would brief me.”
“Certainly,” replied Ishmael with a smile, his black hair shining in the artificial light. Tom noticed that there were no windows and the walls were painted an off-white colour.
“It’s quite simple, there is one operator on duty 24 hours a day, manning the telephone, company radio, and VHF Channel 16, and he also writes the log. He has one assistant. There is a radio room on the other side of the road in the new yard on a barge, also manned 24 hours a day, for sending messages to the tugs away from Singapore and monitoring the distress channels.”
He pointed to the red telephone on the wall, within easy reach of the desk.
“That’s the one dedicated to the radio room. This is our library, Lloyds intelligence information, etc., and that is the telex machine with the fax next to it.”
The telex machine started chattering with its distinctive noise, the keys rattling on the paper issuing out of it. Ishmael moved over to look at the message and said, “From Lloyds intelligence.” He paused. “No good for us, fishing boat in trouble in the Pacific, we don’t operate there.” He paused again, and then added, “Yet.” He smiled and said, “All very simple and only Mr Brown, the manager, Mr Hibbets, the technical manager, you will recognise by the array of radios and gadgets he wears, the old man, Mr R, and the salvage master are allowed in here, anyone else by invitation only. The ops room is for operations only, not a meeting or chat room.”
The telephone rang and the operator, another Malay, answered it.
“During the day, the main switchboard is with reception and at night with us. It is important that as a salvage company we are contactable twenty-four hours a day and our senior staff are in communication at all times. You will be given a pager. That,” he pointed to a grey box on the wall close to the desk with a microphone, “is the company radio with its own dedicated frequency. All the tugs are fitted with one, Mr Brown’s car, Mr Hibbets’ Landrover, the company vans and we have a few new Motorola portable radios, which are very effective our range is about 30 miles. The codes are, Mr Brown, Mike 1; Mr Hibbets, Mike 2; Superintendent, Mike 3; Salvage Master, Mike 4. All very simple but works very well.”
Tom was impressed. The beating heart of Cosel Salvage, communications.
He left the ops room, returning to the main office, where a European in the first glass fronted office waved him in.
“Welcome to Singapore,” said a very English voice, standing and holding out his hand as Tom entered the office. He was dressed in a white shirt and dark tie.
“Welcome to Cosel,” he continued, shaking Tom’s hand firmly.
“You must be Matravers, I’m Tony House, the marketing manager, for the tugs and barges and heavy lift crane. I’m not involved in the salvage. Have a pew,” and he patted the seat next to him on the sofa that he had moved to. Tom sat down, observing the same local chart of South East Asia hanging on the wall behind the desk as that in the ops room and covered in coloured pins, mainly in Indonesia.
A very pretty Chinese lady brought in a tray with tea, milk and porcelain cups.
“Milk, no sugar, please,” said Tom in answer to her silent query.
“Heard about you,” said Tony. “You are doing the sea trials tomorrow with our newest and latest, the Jurong, I understand. Thank you, Mary,” he said as the Chinese lady left the office.
“Yes, and everyone seems to have heard of me,” said Tom.
“That is one of the things that happens with a small company like this, we’re not unlike a family. I will be joining you; one, to get out of the office; two, I like being afloat; three, I like to have been on board all the vessels I market especially under way. I usually attend the on and off hire surveys of the barges as well,” he smiled.
“I noticed the sign over your door says Captain,” observed Tom.
“I served my time with BI and left as second mate because there was no promotion. I wouldn’t have reached command until I was fifty. I came out here, joined Straits Steam, got my command, married a Chinese lady and been here ever since. I joined Cosel when Mr R took over, having known him from his days in Bangkok. If he goes on expanding I will be here until I retire,” he laughed. “And you?”
“I served my time with BI too and left for the same reason, promotion was no quicker. Joined Ellermans for a couple of years but left, again for the same reason, and joined Indochina in Hong Kong. I found a job ashore in London with a firm of admiralty solicitors who occasionally acted for Cosel, met Mr Brown and here I am.”
Tom sipped his freshly brewed cup of tea, Earl Grey, the one tea he disliked, but obviously could not show it.
“Do you know anyone in Singapore?”
“My wife is away at the moment so if you like you can borrow her car. It is the best way to find your way around the place. Could be very useful.”
“That is very kind of you,” replied Tom, almost overwhelmed.
“Come round to my house at 1800 and you can drive it away. Your UK license is valid here,” Tony handed Tom his card.
“See you on board the Jurong at nine tomorrow morning,” said Tony, rising from the sofa.
Tom returned to the main office, full of people working. A Chinese wearing shirt and tie waved him over to his desk.
“I am Daniel Bang, in charge of personnel.” He shook hands with Tom. “Here is your contract, Mr Brown says you had better sign it before you take out the Jurong tomorrow or we won’t be insured.” He smiled, handing Tom a folder. “You can leave it on my desk if I am not here. Welcome to Singapore and Cosel Salvage and good luck.”
Tom decided he would have a look at the radio room and clutching the folder, left the office via reception and the main entrance, noticing the car park outside was full.
He walked across the road, his eyes still adjusting to the bright sunlight, into what was obviously the new yard and on one side of what looked like a wooden office block, with a workshop underneath, diving kit spread out all over the floor and men working on it. There were various pieces of equipment lying around the yard and at the far end, alongside the bank, a barge. A single plank acted as the gangway onto the barge, which had two Portacabins and was festooned with radio aerials from a single mast at one end. Tom, sweating again in the hot morning sun, mounted the single plank, thinking it might not be so easy at night. The first Portacabin was locked. He entered the second one after knocking and found himself in a well-equipped radio room, various radios crackling and humming away, along with the air conditioner mounted on one wall. There were no windows.
A dark Indian looked up and gestured with his hand for Tom to be quiet. He was listening intently with one headphone pressed to his ear. The VHF on channel 16 was loud and clear, someone calling port control, a faint voice on one of the SSB’s, saying something Tom could not quite hear. The Indian was writing in his log. He put down the headphone.
“You must be Captain Matravers,” he said, “welcome to Singapore and Cosel Salvage.”
He held out his hand and Tom shook it. “My name is John Gomes, radio officer. With two others, I man the radio twety-four hours a day. I was just picking up the Pansy, giving her ETA.”
“Yes,” said Tom, surprised at the firm handshake and confidence of the Indian.
“1800 in three days’ time, that’s Monday,” said Gomes.
“Thanks, I am familiarising myself with Cosel, I’m due to join the Pansy as chief officer.”
“We heard,” said Gomes, smiling and continuing.
“Captain Smit is a very good captain, I sailed with him for a couple of years on the Singapore, Cosel’s salvage tug. He is very knowledgeable, I am sure you will get on fine with him,” echoing Steve’s words.
“So how do we operate here?” asked Tom.
“SSB’s, single side band radios, for communicating with the tugs, one dedicated for the distress channels, VHF for port operations, company radio for dealing with the tugs when in range, and of course, the chart.”
“Nothing at the moment, but you never know when it is gong to happen. Those yellow pins on the chart are the tugs and smaller brown ones are the barges, the big red one is the Singapore, presently on salvage stand-by in Eastern Anchorage. The black pins are ships in trouble and if there is a salvage, a big green.”
“Thanks for that,” said Tom. “Do you mind if I use your desk for a minute, to read this?” he continued holding up the folder he was carrying.
“You are welcome,” replied Gomes, picking up a hand-set and speaking into the microphone. “Base here, go ahead, Java.”
Tom opened the folder and started to read the employment contract. It was not quite what he had been told at the interview in the pub, but it was good enough. The salary was a little higher in pound terms but depended on the rate of exchange with the Singapore dollar. He noted he was to be employed by Cosel Hong Kong and made a mental note to ask why. Overall, he was happy enough and signed.
He left the radio room, waving at Gomes who was still busy taking the noon positions, and walked back to the main office and left the folder on Daniel Bang’s desk. It was very hot outside. Feeling a bit spare, he poked his head into Ops and asked Ishmael how he could get back to the hotel.
“There is a van going into town and it can take you. Tomorrow morning it will pick you up at seven-thirty, so plenty of time to prepare for your sea trials.”
“Thanks, Ishmael, if I may call you that?”
“Be my guest and good luck for tomorrow.”
Tom went to bed early that night, not noticing the sterility of his hotel room, the air conditioning turned high, and reflecting on his day before sleep. He felt he was on the verge of something important and life-changing; he felt alive, as if he was going to be part of something that was thrusting ahead, looking forward not back, expanding and looking to the future, not contracting and looking into the past; looking outwards, not inwards, unlike the UK; involved with itself, almost withdrawing from the rest of the world. It was like a re- birth, a new chance, a new beginning, and he was going to grab this opportunity with both hands, give it his all and make it a success. Something like this only came once in a lifetime.