Something was wrong. Tom could not bring himself to sit in Jan’s chair, so he remained in the chief officer’s, on the port side. The Melody was silent despite repeated calls and offers on the VHF by the Filipino tug until Tom called and told the Captain, “Cosel Salvage are salvors in possession. My office is talking to Manila.”
They were clear of the reef and hove to waiting for a destination but Tom was not happy to remain there for long. He wanted to be out of the reef area before nightfall. The casualty was still silent and there was no sign of life, apart from the people they had seen on the bridge while passing to make the connection.
“What would Jan have done?” thought Tom, then said to himself, “No, it’s what I should do, Jan is gone.”
Miguel appeared with a can of cold beer but Tom said, ” Thanks, Miguel, I am not Jan. I prefer tea and if I want a beer, I will ask.”
“Captain Jan is in the freezer,” said Miguel quite cheerfully, which surprised Tom.
“You cheerful, Miguel? I thought you liked Captain Jan,”
“Of course I liked him, he was a real man, but he gone. We should bury him at sea,” said Miguel, seriously.
“His family need him,” Tom pointed out.
“It’s just dead meat now,” said Miguel, still serious, which shocked Tom and it showed in his face.
“It’s the spirit that matters and I am sure he has not gone yet, he still here to make sure we okay,” continued Miguel, still deadly serious.
The tug pitched quite heavily as a strong breaking swell passed and Tom stood up to watch the tow. She pitched, but the motion was quite gentle at this low speed. It was still overcast but the drizzle had stopped, the sea now leaden. Tom felt the germ of an idea stir; he simply could not stay here. Then it came to him and it was quite clear what he should do.
He walked back into the wheelhouse and into the chart-room where Jesus was writing up the log, his face serious, concentrating.
“Lay off a course to Labuan, Jesus,” said Tom, “make sure we miss that reef.”
“I only have a DR but I know where the reef is relative to the other one. No worry, cap, we won’t hit it,” said Jesus, smiling, his white teeth prominent.
“Alfredo, tell Gonzales to send a lookout up the foremast, I’m altering course. The wind and sea will be on our port side. Make sure the tow wire is free running. You understand?”
“Okay, cap,” said Alfredo brightly, repeating what Tom had said. He was younger than Jesus, his face fresh and unlined. He was quick witted and learning fast.
Tom slowly increased power to about half, the tow wire tightening satisfactorily, lifting the chain out of the water, the anchor still not visible. As the Mercury picked up speed, the chain went down back into the water. It was clear that a good deal of cable had been let out and the reef where the Melody almost fetched up was very steep to, or the anchor would have touched bottom.
“Starboard easy, Rene,” said Tom, noting Rene’s long hair was neatly tied into a pigtail, keeping it off his face. He moved from the starboard wheelhouse door near the engine controls, and walked to the wing where he could clearly see the tow and tow wire. There was a man on the tow deck, greasing the towing gunwale.
“Keep your head down!” shouted Tom. “Midships, Rene.”
But the tow wire had already started to move towards the unsuspecting man. Why is he there, thought Tom, when I told Gonzales we were altering course?
“Hard a port, Rene!” shouted Tom urgently, and Rene frantically spun the big wheel, realising something was wrong. He pressed the button, sounding the ship’s electric horn and the man looked up at the sound to see Tom waving madly, indicating he should duck. He fell to the deck as the wire passed over but Tom did not see whether it had hit him or not. The tug started turning to port under the hard a port rudder and the wire passed back over where the man had fallen.
“Midships, Rene,” said Tom in a more normal voice. He saw the man pick himself up off the deck and, keeping his head down, run off the tow deck. Tom gave a huge sigh of relief and started the turn again with no-one on the tow deck.
“Bring her round easy to the new course, Rene,” said Tom. “Silly fool on the tow deck nearly lost his head.”
He returned to the wing to watch the tow wire and tow.
Alfredo returned as an AB was climbing the foremast.
“The reef should be on the port side!” shouted Tom, and the lookout raised his arm in acknowledgement as he clipped himself on.
“Did you tell Gonzales we were altering course, Alfredo?” asked Tom sharply, watching the casualty beginning to turn the tow wire out on the starboard beam.
“Yes, captain,” replied Alfredo.
“The reef does not show up on the radar, too much clutter from the sea,” said Jesus, looking up from the screen.
“Keep a sharp look out, Alfredo,” ordered Tom.
“On course,” reported Rene, and Tom saw the tow settle down and take station on the port quarter, her aft accommodation acting as a sail, pushing the bow up into the wind.
Tom felt quite happy with her there, rather than yawing. He walked back into the wheelhouse and sat down firmly in Jan’s chair, emphasising to himself he was the Captain, the port chair being for the chief officer. Ricky walked into the wheelhouse, his face rather pasty compared to the rest of the crew who spent time out in the fresh air and sun.
“Weather forecast, cap, still the same. Strong monsoon.”
“Thanks, Ricky,” said Tom, taking the flimsy. “Tell Singapore something wrong on casualty, no communication nor sign of life, am proceeding Labuan Bay. Strong monsoon, presently wind NE force 8 rough sea.”
“OK, cap, I will bring it out when I’ve typed it.”
Tom nodded and Ricky turned and left the wheelhouse. Tom rose from his chair and walked out onto the port wing to look at the casualty. She was in the same position and he was satisfied all was well with the tow, if not on board her.
“Breakers on the port bow!” shouted the lookout, as Alfredo did the same, rushing out and pointing. Tom lifted his binoculars to his eyes and, adjusting the focus, saw them, spray spouting up into the air.
“Sixty fathoms!” shouted Jesus. Gonzales appeared on the bridge wing from the boat deck.
“Sorry about the AB, it was Pablo, on the tow deck. It was a misunderstood instruction,” he said.
“Well, he nearly lost his head,” said Tom sharply, “let it be a warning. Captain Jan never lost a man in all his years in command and I don’t intend to start now.”
“Fifty fathoms,” shouted Jesus, his voice rising.
Tom shook his head as though to clear his mind from the near death of Pablo and brought it to bear on the shoaling water, the hanging anchor worrying him because he did not know how much cable was out and he had no communication with the casualty, nor could he tell them to heave it in.
“Starboard twenty, Rene,” ordered Tom, thinking to turn the casualty away from the shoaling water, as the Melody was closer to the reef than the Sunda.
“Forty fathoms!” shouted Jesus, with real concern in his voice.
Tom saw the vertical hanging chain begin to lead aft and the tow wire tightened. The anchor has touched bottom, thought Tom. The tug was still turning to starboard, the tow wire moving amidships as the bow of the Melody started to turn to port under the pull from the anchor on the bottom, the main tow wire tightening even more, the chain from the bow of the casualty almost horizontal.
“Mid ships, steady as she goes,” said Tom, turning his face to the wheelhouse door so Rene could hear.
“Steady,” said Rene and spun the wheel.
The Melody was still following but much further out on the port quarter and the Sunda had slowed down, even though Tom had not touched the engine controls held back by the dragging anchor.
“Forty-five fathoms,” called a relieved Jesus, and Tom moved back into the wheelhouse and over to the engine controls, pushing the two levers forward to increase power. He walked back to the port side and watched the tow from the doorway through his binoculars and saw the port anchor cable tend off to the port bow, indicating the bow was being pulled to port.
“Fifty fathoms,” and Tom knew they were in the clear.
He was sweating profusely, his heart pounding. Miguel appeared with a mug of tea but Tom said, “Cold coffee, Miguel,” who smiled, and produced a can from his pocket.
Tom continued watching, after taking the opened can and drinking, handing it back to the waiting mess man. He saw the chain swing back to the vertical; the anchor was off the bottom. He sat in his Captain’s chair and called to Gonzales, who was still on the port bridge wing.
“We are clear back into deep water,” said Tom. “I’m going to slow right down and let the tow come up to us, hoping the strop will slip down the chain to the anchor, we then have proper control. I can keep the anchor off the bottom and we can shorten the tow wire to allow for the amount of chain out, which I estimate at about four shackles.”
“Good idea, cap, maybe I slacken the tow wire at the same time?” he queried.
Tom thought a little.
“Yes,” he said.
Gonzales walked out through the chartroom and Tom moved to the controls. With the controls on the starboard side in front of his chair, and the tow on the port quarter, it was difficult to coordinate the slowdown, so he told Jesus to man the levers while he watched the tow.
“Sixty fathoms,” said Alfredo, who had taken Jesus’s position at the depth sounder.
Jesus moved the levers to Tom’s commands and the tow pitching and rolling slowly approached the tug, the bow still tending to port as the wind blew on the aft accommodation. The chain from the bow to the strop slowly moved into the vertical position and Gonzales, standing at the stern, signalled to Pedro, who was slacking the tow wire, which was pinned between the raised dolly pins, the two movable pins on top of the towing gunwale. The tow deck was occasionally awash as a wave came on board. The bow was very close to the tug and Gonzales gave the ‘thumbs up’ signal and said into his radio, “I think it has slipped down, cap.”
Tom told Jesus to increase speed and Gonzales moved forward into the shelter of the towing drum house and off the tow deck. The dolly pins were lowered and the wire was free running again. The speed was slowly increased once the tow wire had been secured until Tom decided about three quarter power was enough, and course was set to Labuan. The anchor had appeared briefly at the surface so Tom knew the strop was near or around it. The Melody stayed out on the port quarter as before, and followed well.
“The tow is following well. Jesus, it’s your watch, put her on automatic steering and thank you, Alfredo, you can go below,” said Tom.
The tow had settled well and Tom relaxed in his chair with a fresh cup of tea. It was still a dull and dreary day, the tug’s pitching and rolling much reduced by the tow wire. He was suddenly almost overwhelmed by the loss of Jan and felt so sad for Gerda and the children, who so obviously doted on him. Tom made a conscious effort to thrust such thoughts from his mind and concentrate on his charges.
He had thought it very odd that there was still no sign of life on the casualty and no communication. By nightfall they were well clear of the dangerous area and into the Palawan Passage traffic. The Melody had switched on her navigation lights but Tom was unable to instruct them to turn off the white steaming lights, so he sent a TTT, warning other ships of his tow.
Base had sent a message that Ricky had brought out as night was falling.
“Owners lost communication with Melody. You are not, repeat not, to make an attempt to board casualty. We have chartered Mississippi to pick up police contingent to board vessel on arrival Labuan,” and the message went on to give the anchorage co-ordinates.
The Bintour stayed with them until dusk and then turned northwards. Back to Manila, thought Tom. The VHF remained silent. He cat-napped through the night, the tow continuing to follow well in the reducing sea and swell, the strop holding firm. The three Filipinos were competent enough watch-keepers and Tom left them to it.
Miguel brought him toast and tea at dawn, with the sun rising over Malaysian Borneo, the sky almost clear of cloud, which gave a good lift to his spirits.
“Captain’s cabin ready for you, captain,” said Miguel. “I pack Captain Jan’s things and clean.”
Tom had not said a word about moving cabins, and surmised there was much more to Miguel than met the eye. It was time to move on; Jan was not coming back; he was the captain now.
“Thank you, Miguel. You told me you were a nurse. How come you’re mess man on a salvage tug?”
Miguel’s face closed in and he shut his eyes and Tom thought he was not going to reply.
“I was a good nurse,” he said firmly, opening his eyes and looking at Tom. “I train and am qualified, I pass all the exams. Someone died and the doctors blamed me, but it is not my fault. I no strong man like Captain Jan and run away to sea. I lucky to get job and good captain so I look after you now.”
He turned and left, leaving Tom wondering at the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.
Tom showered and changed into the clean whites Miguel had laid out in the bedroom of the spotlessly clean cabin, all trace of Jan gone, his own, few pictures hanging.
The convoy entered Labuan Bay late in the afternoon and Tom ordered the tow to be shortened so the anchor cable did not drag on the bottom. The Mississippi was waiting at the anchorage, her ensign at half mast, as was the Sunda’s. He had told Frank over the VHF about Jan, and he could go alongside any time. No one seemed to know what was wrong on the Melody and the police on his tug were armed.
As Tom slowed so the anchor went deeper into the water, and Pedro slacked out the tow wire until certain it was on the bottom, the Melody, overran it at first, but fell back in the light breeze. Tom anchored the tug, still connected, noting the Mississippi was alongside the casualty and presuming the police were on board.
Some time later, a rubber boat was launched from the Mississippi and Tom could see the red hair of Frank, sitting upright on the middle thwart, the boat being driven at a very sedate speed. Rene, who was on the bridge, laughed. Pedro had seen the boat and rigged the metal boarding ladder.
Miguel served the cold beer in the captain’s air-conditioned day room, Tom and Frank comfortable in the arm chairs, nuts and crisps on the table.
“The head policeman, a very smart man, told me they would be taking the entire crew ashore with the dead body after the initial interviews.”
“Dead body?” said Tom, surprised, thinking of Jan in the freezer.
“Yes, the captain,” said Frank, making the most of the moment. “Unfortunately, they did not put him in the freezer and he has been some days in his cabin, so you can imagine the smell.”
Tom took a sip from his glass.
“I don’t know the whole story yet, but no doubt on the way into port I will find out. However, you will have a dead ship so perhaps you had better get your mob on board once the police leave and secure the engine room?” said Frank
“Thanks for that. It will be dark, maybe I will go alongside,” said Tom, thinking about lighting.
It was after dark when Alfredo came down from the bridge with a message from the Mississippi that the police were ready to leave. Frank stood up, thanked Tom and left. From the bridge wing, Tom watched the boat return to the Mississippi.