Tom was preparing himself to go ashore to meet his date. Miguel had somehow inveigled out of him that he was taking Hilda, not Shelia. Tom could have bitten off his tongue when he realised his mistake. Miguel had made extra effort with Tom’s shore-going clothing, the white shirt freshly ironed, and he thought the little bugger had put starch in it, which he had expressly told him not to. The light grey trousers were well pressed and his black shoes gleamed. He put on the matching jacket and was pleased with plain light blue tie.
“You must look good for the chairman’s daughter,” burbled Miguel, it apparently being important to him, and Tom wondered how much the crew seemed to know. The bosun had put out the steel ladder to make it easier to climb into the zed boat, the first time he had done this for Tom, and that was when Tom knew Miguel had been gossiping. I’ll wring his neck, thought Tom, then relaxed and laughed to himself. “What the hell does it matter?”
Rene, his hair seeming even longer, was just pulling away from the tug at a sedate speed when there was shout from the bridge and Ricky waved a piece of paper at him. They returned alongside and Tom landed on the tow deck at the same time as Ricky, a little out of breath from his unaccustomed exercise.
“Sail immediately full speed, South China Sea.”
The message was signed DB.
“Pedro, give him a crew man. Rene, pick up Captain Jan, usual place.”
An AB hopped into the boat and Rene sped away at his normal full throttle. Tom climbed to the bridge and rang down to the engine room but the chief engineer had heard the buzz and beaten him to it, for Tom heard the powerful diesels start up. He went onto the bridge wing with his binoculars and saw the Mississippi had not moved. The light was fading fast and it would soon be dark. Gonzales, whose Christian name Tom had still not picked up, the chief officer, Jesus, the second mate and Alfredo, the third mate, were on the bridge in a state of suppressed excitement. It was a month since the Kinos ended and they had been idle since.
“Alfredo, watch the Mississippi. Gonzales, pick up the anchor, Jesus, lay a course to pass close to Horsburgh Light and check the tides in the straits,” ordered Tom, as he took off his jacket and tie, laying them down on his chair.
The tug was a bustle of activity and with her engines running, felt like her heart was beating again. The clank of the chain over the windlass told Tom the anchor was coming in. He could see the radar scanner turning, which meant the radar was switched on, and with the ‘click click’ of the echo sounder, they were ready to go. Within twenty minutes of the shout, the Sunda was underway, and Tom turned the tug to head straight out into the main strait, not wishing to alert the opposition by passing her. He had not switched on the navigation lights and was proceeding at a slow speed until Jan was on board.
“Jesus, where the hell is Rene? Call him up on the radio, he should have been here by now.”
“Okay, cap,” and he picked up the microphone to the company radio, talking in rapid Tagalog. It sounded like an argument, when Jesus turned and said, “Five minutes, cap.”
“Tell him I am heading south, no lights.”
Tom was steering slowly past the closely-anchored ships, keeping a sharp lookout for country craft, with Alfredo on the bridge wing doing the same, while still monitoring the Mississippi.
"Mississippi navigation lights on!” called Alfredo, the excitement clear in his voice.
“Hard a-port, helmsman, turn on the navigation lights, Jesus!” ordered Tom, walking towards the engine control levers, which he pushed forward, increasing the speed.
“Midships, steady as she goes,” said Tom. “Jesus, tell Rene our lights are on and we are heading east.”
Now the opposition were under way, there was no point trying to hide, it was more important to be ahead of her.
“Captain coming,” shouted an excited Alfredo and Tom slowed the tug.
“Captain on board,” said Alfredo a few minutes later, in a calmer voice, and Tom pushed the engine levers to give half speed.
The Sunda immediately picked up speed and Tom maintained a careful lookout. Jan appeared on the starboard bridge wing, slightly out of breath from his rush up from the tow deck, took a quick look round and said, “All mine, Tom, full ahead, both.”
Jan entered the wheel house and sat in his chair and Miguel, who had appeared, handed him a cold tin and picked up Tom’s jacket and tie. Tom, pushing the engine levers to full ahead, heard the pop of the tin opening and the satisfied sigh as Jan drained it. The tug quickly picked up speed as did the wash. Jan heaved himself out of his chair and stood by the centre window, giving quiet helm orders as he weaved his way past the anchored shipping. Tom watched the zed boat being stowed in its cradle on the port side, the new crane proving its worth.
Some time later, when almost clear of the anchored ships, Jan gave a long blast on the whistle as they overtook the Mississippi. The salute was not returned. The green sidelight appeared, then above it the steaming light and shortly afterwards, with a small alteration of course, the red light appeared as well. They were dead ahead of the opposition.
“Not bad,” said Jan, beer in hand, looking into the darkness ahead, the numerous lights of the ships astern fading.
“On board within half an hour of the call, that Rene is a mad bugger, and the tug underway. Poor Frank will be gnashing his teeth, he was quick though from his seat in the bar,” and he gave a great guffaw. “Life is for enjoying, Tom, enjoy it!”
Their wash, which had rocked the opposition tug when they passed, did not disturb the two new LPG carriers laid up, huge ships with their ugly, immense cylinders just visible in the darkness.
“The tide is favourable,” said Tom.
“Much stronger on the Indon side, starboard five,” said Jan.
“Starboard five,” repeated Pablo, a short, stocky man, dressed in the inevitable jeans and sweat shirt, a good steady man, thought Tom. The bow of the Sunda swung to starboard, just missing a fishing boat.
“Midships, steady as you go,” ordered Jan, moving his bulk back into his chair on the starboard side of the wheelhouse, the engine controls just in front of him.
“We don’t know the position of the ship yet,” said Tom, but they both heard the clatter of the telex over radio from Ricky’s wireless room. Someone had left the chartroom door open, letting in light from the alleyway, which Tom now shut.
The big tug raced through the night at a good sixteen knots plus two for the tide, making eighteen over the ground. Tom watched Jesus put a position on the chart from the cross bearings he had just taken. They were on track. Ricky appeared through the door, framed in the alleyway light, and handed Tom a telex message. He looked at it under the chart light.
“Melody, 10,000 GRT drifting.”
“Plot this, Jesus,” said Tom, handing him the message.
The chartroom door opened again and Gonzales appeared. Jesus spoke to him in Tagaloc, pointing at the chart. Tom walked into the wheelhouse as Jan popped open another can.
“Jesus is plotting the position, a 10,000 gross ton ship,” said Tom.
Jan was silent. The lookout on the bridge wing reported yet another light.
“Straits busy tonight. I would like to get over to the Indon side into the eastbound traffic zone and more tide,” said Jan.
Jesus and Gonzales came into the wheelhouse and Jesus said, “The position is in the dangerous zone off the Philippines.”
Jan got up from his chair, knocking over an empty can, which he picked up and threw out of the door, crying, “Watch her, Tom!”
“Have a look, Tom,” he said when he came out. “I think we should head up the Palawan passage. Anyway, I am going over to the Indonesian side,” and he gave a helm order. The tug heeled slightly and then steadied as he gave another order.
Tom looked at the chart. The straight line distance was considerably shorter but they would have to go round the dangerous area, whichever route they took. It was clearly marked “un-surveyed reefs.”
“It’s rough out there,” said Jan from his chair, his voice raised over the noise of the tug at sea. “Look at the weather report, strong monsoon and gale force winds further north.”
“Yes,” said Tom, walking back into the wheelhouse. Jan was standing looking out by the centre window, a tanker in ballast passing close by on the port side heading towards Singapore as the tug crossed the Straits to join the loaded tankers and container ships bound east. Jan looked into the radar and gave a new course to the helmsman. He then shut the starboard wheelhouse door saying, “Shut the door, Tom, let the air conditioning do its work.” He grunted as he sat down. “That feels better, I don’t like being on the wrong side of the Straits at night.”
“Will our better speed overcome the shorter distance, is the question,” said Tom, as they started overtaking a large loaded tanker, her length difficult to see until her mast head steaming light appeared. Miguel turned up, carrying a tray, which he put down beside Jan, on top of the flag locker.
“Thank you, Miguel,” said Jan.
“Captain Tom eat in the mess room?” asked the mess man.
“Yes, ten minutes, Miguel.”
Miguel disappeared and Jan said, “We will have to slow down to normal full ahead, Francisco is overriding the governor at the moment. Barry would have a heart attack if he knew,” and he laughed. “Better ring down now, Tom.”
“If we go the shortest distance,” continued Jan, as Tom rang down to the engine room, “and we still don’t have a position, except off the Philippines, we will be plugging straight into a very strong monsoon, gale force and you know what? It can be like from your days with Indo China. We would have to slow down further otherwise we may damage the tug. If we cross over to the Palawan Passage, the sea will be on our port side but we will be able to maintain speed, through the Passage. If we go outside, and the casualty is further south than we think, we might be the wrong side of the dangerous area. The Mississippi is much smaller than us and he will have to go the Palawan route. We are a good couple, if not three knots faster than him, especially in heavy weather, so we will arrive there first.”
“I agree,” said Tom.
“Go and enjoy your dinner. I am staying up here until we pass Horsburgh, and are on course for Palawan. You better stand watch with Alfredo, see what he is like.”
“Understood, Jan,” and Tom left to go below. The plates and cutlery were rattling and shaking on the mess room table, despite the tablecloth Miguel had spread for Tom, as he sat down. A little later, the vibration reduced and the rattling stopped, so Francisco must have slowed down, thought Tom. He did not like the room, finding it sterile and cold, and thought a couple of pictures on the bulkheads would make a big difference.
The swell was felt well before Horsburgh Lighthouse and the Sunda started pitching, increasing slowly the further north she ran, until just outside the lighthouse she was shipping water over the bow, the big flare deflecting most of it but the occasional crash hitting the wheelhouse windows. As soon as Jan altered course for the Palawan Passage, the pitching reduced dramatically but she started rolling, a quick, quite violent movement, indicating the good stability essential for a tug.
The passage to the dangerous area was uneventful but fast. The rolling stopped when they turned north eastwards into the prevailing strong monsoon and although there was quite a sea running, it was nothing as bad as had been indicated by the forecasts for the South China Sea. A couple of container ships reported containers lost overboard, which suggested how rough it was. It was blowing force seven to eight in the passage where they were steaming at full speed, and up to force nine in the main part of the China Sea, a very strong monsoon. The weather was foul, with low scudding clouds and drizzle, at times reducing visibility and making the sea, despite the white horses, grey and uninviting.
Third morning out was miserable, but the drizzle had stopped. It was rough, the sea resembling the North Sea in its dirty greyness, the breaking waves seeming colourless under the leaden sky, some spray coming on board over the flared bow. Jan and Tom were in the wheelhouse with the doors closed. Alfredo was keeping a look-out and Jesus was glued to the radar, Gonzales standing close to Alfredo, binoculars hanging round his neck. A look-out had been posted on the foremast, standing on the un-railed platform, his safety line clipped on to a ring on the mast, the movement much more lively up there than on deck. Two look-outs were above them on either side of the monkey island. Just north of the latitude of Kota Kinabalu, Jan altered course north westwards, turning the knob on the auto pilot, steaming into the dangerous area full of unmarked reefs.
“Open the door, Alfredo!” ordered Jan, while he opened the starboard wheelhouse door. “We should be seeing her soon and we are entering the reef area, keep your eyes skinned.”
He pulled back the engine control levers to about three quarters speed, about eleven knots, and immediately the motion was easier and no more spray came over the bow. She rolled more with the sea and swell on the starboard beam.
“I don’t like it in this area,” said Jan, uncharacteristically worried. “We will hit a reef before we see it, especially with no sun unless it is breaking.”
The look-outs had all been carefully briefed. Jan walked out onto the starboard wing and shouted up at them, “Keep your eyes peeled!”
There was a waved acknowledgement from the foremast and an, “Okay, cap,” from the monkey island.
“The position they have given is only a DR, a dead reckoning, and they may not have taken sights for days,” said Jan, back inside the wheelhouse.
Tom had also seen the messages. “Why not ask him to send a radio signal and Ricky can home in on it?”
“Your idea, Tom, tell him to do it.”
Tom came back into the wheelhouse after instructing Ricky, to hear the raised voice of Jesus, “Echo ten miles on the port bow.”
“Message from base,” reported Tom. “Owners say first tug on sight gets the LOF.”
“Echo proceeding same way as us but slower,” said Jesus, plotting pencil in hand, “so it’s not the casualty.”
“Agreed,” said Jan, “she will be drifting southwards, not north. I wonder if it is the Manila mob? This part of the ocean is claimed by the Filipinos.”
At that moment, the voice of a Filipino came over the VHF channel 16, calling the Melody, but there was no reply.
“Must be the Bintour,” said Jan, with disgust. “I did not know that ancient thing was still afloat.”
“She is,” said Gonzales, laughing, which surprised Tom as it was the first time he had heard the man laugh. Gonzales was normally quite a morose person; must be the tension, thought Tom.
“Captain Hannibal saw her in Manila when he was on leave.”
“Damn, it is turning into a lottery,” said Jan with resignation, “but we have to win it.”