“Faint echo, twelve miles on our beam,” said Jesus, excitedly.
There was a crash in the chartroom as the door was flung open, almost tearing it off its hinges.
“Bearing 290 relative!” shouted Ricky, his normal quite, placid self galvanised by the chase. ”Bintour offering LOF.”
“Tell them we have him on our radar and will be there first,” shouted Jan, leaping out of his chair. “Tom the VHF, Gonzales take the wheel, hard a port steer for the echo. Jesus, tell him when it is ahead,” and he pushed the engine levers forward, flat on the consul. Black smoke poured from the funnel on the port side as the tug surged ahead. She spun round under full helm and power, her bow thrown up by the sea, and lurched heavily to port.
“Coming ahead now!” shouted Jesus, his voice muffled by the radar cover.
"Melody, Melody! This is the salvage tug, Sunda. Offer you our assistance on the terms of Lloyds Open Form,” said Tom into the VHF microphone, his voice calm.
Silence. Then the voice of an agitated Filipino on the radio offering the Bintour.
The tension on the bridge was electric, the gloom and greyness of the overcast morning dissipated, and the drizzle, which had just started, again un-noticed.
“Keep your eyes skinned for breakers!” roared Jan from the bridge wing, as the tug rolled in the sea and swell, an occasional wave flooding the tow deck.
“Pray, Tom, the reefs here are uncharted,” said Jan, returning into the wheelhouse, his moustache appearing to bristle in the dampness, his hair in disarray from the wind outside.
There was a cry, almost a scream, from the foremast.
“Breakers ahead, cap!” an arm pointing frantically and then from above, “Breakers ahead!” shouted voices, almost in unison.
“Hard a starboard,” said Jan loudly but calmly. “Can you see them, Tom?” he asked his voice now cool, which had a calming effect on the others on the bridge.
“On the port bow now,” said Tom, “just a few breaking waves but quite clear.”
“The Bintour must have turned,” said Jesus excitedly, his head out of the radar. “She is approaching rapidly.”
“Ship no tug on the port bow!” shouted the foremast lookout.
“Hard a port and steady,” said the calm voice of Jan.
The Sunda steadied on the new course and the white waters of the breaking seas could now be clearly seen on the port side, but she was steaming away from the casualty.
“Damn, I’ve gone the wrong way! Hard a port, Gonzales, can’t let them get this one.”
The tug took a sea over the foredeck as she turned rapidly back towards the casualty, heeling with the tightness of the turn, another sea hitting her side, the breakers rapidly moving ahead, then across the bow and onto the starboard side.
“Twenty fathoms!” shouted Alfredo, whose eyes were glued to the depth sounder.
“Switch to feet,” urged Tom.
The depth was shoaling rapidly but the tug was still turning and the breakers were on the starboard beam. The Sunda was turning away from the danger, the reef between them and the Filipino tug.
“Forty feet,” Alfredo’s voice raised an octave.
“Thirty feet,” and there was not a sound in the wheelhouse, except the remorseless ‘click click’ of the depth sounder.
“Twenty-five feet,” Alfredo’s voice, almost falsetto, but the tug was now steaming away from the breakers, which were out on the starboard quarter.
“Bottom sighted!” screamed the mast look out.
“Midships!” ordered Jan, still calm and unruffled.
Tom admired him even more; the man was facing the loss of his command with apparent equanimity.
“Ship four points on the starboard bow!” shouted the lookout
“Twenty feet!” screeched Alfredo.
Tom looked astern and could see a huge, breaking wave following the tug, built up over the shallow water. There was only five feet beneath the keel. Jan moved the engine levers into the upright and the stern immediately lifted the wave, falling away.
“Twenty-three feet,” gasped Alfredo, and Jan hissed as though he had been holding his breath, the sound like a deflating tyre.
“Twenty-four feet,” said the calmer voice of Alfredo and then, “thirty feet.”
Jan pushed the levers forward again, the breakers now well abaft the starboard beam.
“Steer for the Melody, Gonzales,” said Jan. “Take her, Tom, I’ve got to go below for a second,”
The Melody was now clearly visible, a large, modern ship with the accommodation aft. There was still no reply to the messages, the VHF was silent. The Sunda was now some miles closer to the casualty than the Bintour.
Jan returned to the bridge wearing a different pair of trousers. “That feels better,” he laughed, as he took a cold beer from Miguel, who had appeared with a tray. “Must be getting old, first time that has happened to me.” He picked up the binoculars and studied the fast-approaching, drifting ship.
“Not answering me any more!” called Ricky from the chartroom, closing the door with a bang.
“Good heavens, there are breakers almost beside her! She will run aground on a lee shore unless we are quick,” exclaimed Jan.
“Two miles,” said Jesus.
Tom was studying the ship as well. “Looks like port anchor is down,” he said, his voice well under control, hiding his excitement and apprehension.
“Yes, but not on the bottom, otherwise she would have swung bows into the wind,” said Jan.
Jan continued studying the ship and Tom wondered when he might slow down. The Sunda was still at full speed making, fifteen knots, rolling quite heavily at times and shipping water aft. The sea and swell had increased the further they steamed west.
“Right,” said Jan purposefully. “You can see the reef on her port side, the Melody is in effect sailing towards it. Do I dare and risk all?”
He was silent for a moment, then continued, “We have no communication with the ship, so must assume no help from the crew. The Bintour is not far behind. I have to go inside, between the reef and the casualty if we are to beat her and save the casualty.”
He was quiet a moment, then continued in a firm voice, full of confidence.
“Yes I dare, and risk all. You hitch on to the hanging cable as we pass and I can then cross her bow and out to sea, turning her so she will be sailing away from the reef. We can then adjust the connection as required, once clear of the reef. The Manila tug is not as manoeuvrable as we are and we will be connected before she can do anything. You go aft, Tom, where Pedro and the crew are waiting. Gonzales, you stay on the bridge with me. I am going to switch over to the aft manoeuvre position.”
The ship was close now, as Jan slowed down and Tom moved quickly aft and told Pedro of the plan. A suitable piece of wire joined together to form a loop, a strop was already on the tow deck, connected to the forerunner, which was in place right aft. The deck was wet from the occasional wave, which came on board.
“Strop all ready,” said Pedro. “I will put it round the cable,” and he issued a string of commands in Tagalog.
Jan was at the aft control as the Sunda passed the stern of the ship. Some figures stood on the bridge, on the port side, the black hull rolling heavily, the waves almost reaching her deck. The roar from the breakers on the reef could clearly be heard. Tom firmly brushed aside the first flicker of fear as he wondered if Jan had left it too late to go between the ship and the reef.
No, he just made it, they were passing close to the Melody’s hull. Tom thought it most odd that he could see no men on the forecastle and Jan’s assumption of no help was correct. Jan slowed more and altered to close the bow. For some reason, Tom looked up at Jan from his position by Pedro. They were standing right aft, ready to hook onto the cable and connect the strop.
He saw Jan fall. One minute he was standing rock like, his hands on the controls, looking forward on the starboard side, his hair blowing in the wind and the next minute, he was not there but flat on his back on the catwalk gratings.
Tom instantly saw the tug was swinging too far to starboard and would hit, rather than pass the casualty, but no one was at the controls. There was no sign of Gonzales. The roar from the breakers seemed to intensify.
He had never moved so fast in his life. The rolling tug might have been as steady as a rock as he flew across the wet and slippery tow deck, up the ladder to the boat deck and then leapt for the rails on the catwalk, heaving himself up and over until he was standing by the controls.
He had no idea how he had managed to get there, but he was calm as he quickly assessed the situation. He instinctively knew what to do and increased power on the starboard engine and slowed the port, leaving the rudder amidships. The tug swiftly turned but she was too close to the black hull with its high accommodation, which rolled and seemed to be right on top of the Sunda. For a second, Tom was thankful that the lifeboat had been removed, for it certainly would have been crushed. He increased speed on both engines, the breaking waves on the reef seemed even louder and closer as the tug shot ahead and along the hull. The bow was passed and he went full astern on both engines to stop the tug with the stern alongside the hanging cable, hoping the anchor would not touch bottom or be too close to the surface and hit his starboard propeller. He managed to hold the tug stationary, long enough for Pedro, assisted by an AB, to pass the strop round the cable, which was rising and falling as the casualty rolled, and shackle it back onto the forerunner.
Pedro gave the thumbs up and they moved clear of the wire as Tom went hard a starboard on the small helm lever, and full ahead on the port engine, swinging the tug round the bow and heading out to sea on both engines, slowing down as he regained control.
Tom was suddenly aware of a presence beside him and turned to see Gonzales, kneeling alongside Jan’s body, whose staring eyes Tom found most disturbing, along with the slight body movement as the tug rolled and pitched. He turned back and concentrated on the tug and tow. He could not afford a mistake or both the casualty and the Sunda would be on the reef, which Tom fleetingly thought must be steep to, or the anchor would have touched bottom. Miguel had suddenly materialized and was kneeling next to the body, shaking his head, his fingers on Jan’s neck and then he pulled the eye lids down, shutting off the staring eyes for ever.
“He is dead, heart attack probably,” he said quietly, and burst into tears.
Tom tore his eyes away from the corpse of his friend, and watched as the last of the forerunner slithered over the greased towing gunwale, followed by the shackled connection to the tow-wire, making a clanging sound. The tug pitched as a larger wave than usual passed under the hull and he had to increase power. The forerunner tightened, the towing wire lifted off the tow deck and the ship’s cable moved from the vertical, towards the horizontal. The bow of the Melody started to turn and there was a cheer from the tow deck. Tom was as tense as he had ever been, totally concentrating on what he was doing.
Tom had told Pedro what Jan intended to do and Pedro did not slack out any tow wire until Tom had pulled the bow of the casualty round through the eye of the wind and she was on the other tack, sailing away from the reef. Tom increased power and saw Pedro paying out the tow wire. The ship pitched in the heavy swell and as she turned further to starboard, started to roll again.
“Secure Pedro!” he shouted down to the tow deck and Tom, still concentrating, towed the casualty clear of the reef when the tragedy hit him as he looked down Jan’s face, lying on the catwalk, his eyes closed, looking quite peaceful, as though asleep. He started to shiver and shake with delayed shock, and the violent physical activity reached the controls. It had all happened so quickly.
“You okay, cap? There’s blood on your shirt,” said Miguel, who was still with the body, having folded Jan’s hands across his chest. Gonzales had disappeared. “Don’t worry about Jan, his spirit is still here.”
Tom looked down and saw blood, pulling out the shirt to inspect his front, which was heavily bruised, the skin on his stomach broken in places. He must have grazed himself climbing over the rails onto the catwalk. Miguel saw the wound and, holding on to the rail, got to his feet. He felt all round the bruised and bloody area with his hands, completely surprising Tom and said, “No bones broken, I fix you later.”
Two AB’s carrying the stretcher walked along the catwalk, Gonzales watching from the bridge. Tom pulled himself together, tucking in his shirt and shouted, “I am switching to bridge control, keep her on this course and speed.”
Gonzales raised his hand in acknowledgement and shouted back, “Okay, cap,” the wind and noise from the powerful engines making it difficult to hear anything.
Gonzales now had control of the tug from the bridge and Tom felt they were free from the immediate danger. He looked down at the corpse of his friend and mentor, the moustache still luxuriant, his mouth closed, never to give one of his loud guffaws. It seemed impossible that someone so full of life and fun could so suddenly be gone. The AB’s opened up the stretcher and then lifted the body onto it, almost falling as the tug gave a lurch. They closed it and tightened the straps, securing it in like a straight jacket.
“I was a nurse,” said Miguel, firmly wiping the tears from his face. “I will prepare his body for burial.”
Tom tried to think to clear his head, detach himself from the grief he felt. Suddenly, he went back in time. He was in the lifeboat as a teenager, with another body face down in the bottom, shaking it until he realised it was dead. When he managed to roll the corpse over, the face was quite composed, like Jan’s. He was faced with the quandary then, but the teenager had not hesitated and insisted that the Japanese crew take it on board and they, too, had used a similar stretcher. With a huge effort, Tom brought himself back to the present.
“Miguel, we can put Jan in the freezer? His wife and children will need to see him before they bury him. It is very important for them,” said Tom, his voice raised over the noise of the engines.
“Yes, captain. I will prepare him and wrap him in sheets. I fix the cook.”
Miguel followed the AB’s along the catwalk, dry-eyed now, and Tom brought up the rear. The tow was following well, heading into the wind.
Once on the bridge, the enormity of what had happened hit Tom and he almost started to weep, but he was now in command and with a supreme effort, held himself in check. The moment was broken when a voice on the VHF brought him back to reality and the present.
"Sunda, this is the Bintour. We have been awarded the LOF, please hand over the tow.”
He grabbed the microphone, the sudden rage he felt almost causing him to lose control. He was about to shout some obscenity when reason prevailed and he put the transmitter down and said nothing.
“Ricky!” he shouted. The chart room door had been left hooked open by the stretcher bearers. “Get DB on the telex, quick. Have you told them Captain Jan is dead?”
“Been connected to Berne radio and told them,” Ricky called back.
Gonzales was well in control, the tug almost hove to and clear of the reef. Tom saw Jesus had plotted the position of the reef they had nearly hit on a piece of paper, relative to the reef the Melody had been drifting towards. The chart was too small-scale and the reefs were not on it, just part of the dangerous area.
“You happy with our position, Jesus?” asked Tom.
“No problem, cap, I know where the reefs are and we will miss them.”
“Very good,” and he carried on into the radio room and sat down in the spare chair to compose himself. He picked up a pencil and, taking out his notebook, he sketched out the events as he remembered them; so much had happened in such a short time. Miguel appeared with the first aid box and Tom opened his shirt. The iodine hurt and Tom was about to remonstrate.
“DB on the line,” said Ricky.
“Tell him we are connected to the anchor chain,” and looking at his notes, “half an hour ago. Bintour on site and claiming they have the LOF.”
Ricky typed away and the telex chattered and clattered, amazing machine, thought Tom. Miguel told him he did not need any bandages or plaster and left the radio room. A reply was quickly returned.
“LOF awarded to first on site so you have it, especially as you connected. I will deal with Manila,” which Tom thought sounded very reassuring.
“Captain Smit died, apparently of heart attack, while making difficult and dangerous connection,” typed in Ricky on the telex, over radio to Tom’s dictation.
There was silence as the machine stopped. Tom continued dictating.
“Intend bring body to port for passage to Singapore for family, now in freezer.”
“Agreed, congratulations,” came back the answer.
“Where do you want casualty?”
“Awaiting owners’ instructions,” came back the reply.
“Okay, Ricky, sign off. Thanks.”
Tom remained seated, happy that they were safe for now. He thought long and hard, then picking up the pencil, he wrote in his note book, his tears blurring the page as he wrote.
“Gerda, Jan died doing what he loved best, manoeuvring his tug to save a ship running aground in bad weather. He was a brave and honourable man. Mourn not his loss but celebrate the good times you had together and your three wonderful children.”
He pushed the paper across to Ricky who was busy writing his log, rose from the chair and left the radio room.
He stood outside the door of the chart room for a while to compose himself, feeling very alone. His mentor, his friend and teacher, was gone.
He walked firmly and purposefully onto the bridge. He was in command and had a tug, crew and casualty to look after.