The Dare

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Chapter 19

Once the Mississippi had left, Tom called Gonzales and Jesus to the bridge. Alfredo was already there, having been on duty all day and he rang down and invited Francisco to attend. The Melody was lying quietly to her anchor, in complete darkness, with the Sunda anchored ahead. The sea was almost calm apart from a slight current.

“I am going to go alongside the casualty for the night and provide lighting. Francisco, you check out the engine room make sure no leaks etc. We will prepare her for towage tomorrow, dead ship. The cook will have to check the contents of the freezer and we will have to ditch, otherwise it will go bad and cause more problems. We are still on LOF so the more we do, the bigger our bonuses,” he laughed, and the others smiled politely.

“Gonzales,” he continued, “tell Pedro to heave up the tow wire and instruct the welder to cut the strop, easiest way to disconnect. Rig the mini Yokohamas on the port side and I will go alongside 69 port side to her starboard. Tomorrow, Francisco, you can check the windlass and see if we can supply power to raise the anchor, otherwise it will be a long and hard exercise.”

It did not take long to disconnect, the tug perfectly steady in the calm sea with no swell in the bay. Amazing, Tom thought, how calm it was, considering how rough it was outside. Gonzales heaved up the anchor and Tom, perfectly confident, manoeuvred the tug alongside, more gently than Jan but no less effectively. She was quickly moored, kept well off the black hull by the fenders. The electrician soon had some temporary lighting rigged and an anchor light shining forward. Enrico, so Tom heard, had a beautiful wife and twelve children. He was a scruffy individual with a smooth, almost unlined face, and was almost bald, but he was an excellent electrician and a real asset on salvage.

Tom noticed the men crossing to and fro, from the tug to the casualty, using the fender as a bridge and a rope ladder, and told Gonzales to rig a proper gangway. Francisco reported the engine room secured for the night. Tom gave a short message for Ricky to telex to Singapore.

At last relaxing, Tom took his cold beer to the starboard bridge wing and looked up at the star-speckled sky, the moon not yet risen. He had dragged out his chair and sat down. He felt completely comfortable in command. The short time he had been on the Singapore, along with his sea trial on the Jurong, even though that was only a day, had given him the taste and the inkling he could handle tugs and the Sunda had no surprises for him. He had been with Jan long enough to have the feel of the tug and the instinctive knowledge he displayed when he took control after Jan dropped dead, emphasised this. Handling the Buron was completely different, but somehow he had just known what to do; it was not something he had been taught, but an instinct he could not explain when he was doing it, and he had to think very carefully before he could give an account after the event or manoeuvre.

The night was cool after the heat of the day and all activity had stopped. Tom thought back over his time with Cosel, especially that with Jan, and gave thanks for knowing such a man; he missed his guffaw and his exuberance for life. He knew something irreplaceable had been taken. There was no going back now, he had entered a new phase, almost a new beginning, but he was on his own. His ambition had been fuelled, he would build on what Jan had taught him, facing and overcoming his fears, but he had not reached a plateau like Jan. He was still single, although he wondered about Sheila, and the future seemed very bright, not least the promised command of one of the world’s super tugs, which held no terrors for him; he could not wait for it to begin.

The next morning, soon after sunrise when there was good daylight, Tom crossed the gangway to the casualty. It was an eerie experience, the first time he had boarded a dead ship. Nothing was running, no generators, no pumps, the engine room was quiet, silence pervaded the whole ship. The cabins, all with the same brown curtains open, letting in the sunshine through the round portholes, still contained their former occupants’ personal effects, photographs of girlfriends or wives and family. In some, clothing was lying on the deck, magazines on the bunks, their colours bright, all suggesting an abandonment, which in some ways, it was.

He walked through the alleyways, which needed a clean, and up onto the bridge, where he could look down on the green, painted deck of the Sunda. Pedro and his men were rigging the towing gear, connecting the white nylon spring between the forerunner and the main tow wire. Gonzales appeared.

“Make sure all the cabins are secured and the doors shut, I don’t want any charges of looting. The personal effects are to be left alone.”

“Okay, cap, the cook and mess man are looking into the freezer.”

Tom went down and found Durano and Miguel.

“Not much in the fridge,” said the cook, “they were very short on food. Can we take anything?”

“No,” said Tom, emphatically, “and I want a full inventory of the freezer. We will be ditching it tonight and I want to make sure the owners cannot accuse us of stealing.”

Durano looked at Tom, as if to say, how are they going to know if it is thrown to the fishes or in the Sunda freezer, but sensibly said nothing.

“No need to bother about the dry stores, just leave well alone,” said Tom.

“Okay, cap,” said Durano, tonelessly.

Tom found Francisco and his men working in the engine room, lit by temporary lighting.

“No problem securing the propeller,” said the chief engineer, “and I have been down the steering flat and we can fix the rudder amidships, but you better secure it with wires.”

The two divers were working on the tow deck and Tom gave them their instructions, telling Rene to launch the zed boat. Pedro would secure the wires on deck once attached to the rudder.

“When you have done that, I want patches on all the sea intakes.”

“Okay, cap,” said Eduardo, who was thickset and very tough, glad to be diving and using his special skills. Libre, who was small and wiry, smiled his agreement.

“And I want a sketch of both the rudder and patches when you have finished. We are still on LOF,” added Tom.

Tom retired to the bridge and inspected the log book which, during most salvage manoeuvres, was written up by Alfredo and Jesus. He added a few times to his notes and was satisfied with the compilation of a good log.

Ricky called through the open chartroom door. “Message from Singapore, ‘tow to Singapore’.”

The wheelhouse doors were closed and the air conditioning was working well. Alfredo and Jesus were on the casualty, so Tom had the bridge to himself. He decided to use the time and started to write his salvage report. The preparations would not be completed until the next afternoon, the windlass was electric and the electrician made it work using power from the tug. Tom decided to connect up and leave at daylight the next day. The contents of the freezer had been ditched the previous night, which made good fishing for the Filipinos, inveterate fishermen, and the cook was pleased with the extra fish in his freezer.

The cloud returned on sailing day when Enrico started the windlass and heaved in the anchor cable. Tom let the tug and tow drift while Gonzales and Pedro secured the anchor and removed the gangway, leaving three men with Gonzales to start the tow and make sure the chain bridles, which had been rigged, were in order. It was a simple movement to let go the lines, turn the tug and head out to sea, Pedro slacking out the tow wire. Tom increased to about three quarters power, which gave a good speed; no point wasting expensive fuel, he thought. Gonzales reported on the walkie-talkie that he had made a thorough inspection, including the engine room, and all was in order.

“Launch the zed boat, Rene, and pick them up,” said Tom. “Alfredo, you have the watch,” and he left the bridge with Rene.

Pedro drove the crane and Rene started the engine just as the boat touched the water, the propeller biting as it went into the water. Rene increased power and signalled for the painter to be let go, speeding away from the moving tug. Very neat, thought Tom. He returned to the bridge and when the zed boat returned, watched Rene skilfully disembark his passengers and then ride with the boat when lifted out by the crane. Tom did not slow down.

The tow to Singapore was uneventful. Once clear of Labuan Bay, it was rough but the wind and sea were behind and the tow yawed from side to side, but Tom was not worried. Once they turned westwards to cross the bottom of the South China Sea, the tug rolled but the Melody stayed out on the starboard quarter of the tug, the accommodation acting as a sail. Two visits were made to the tow, Tom slowing down each time in the rougher weather before launching. All was in order, reported Gonzales, Alfredo joining him on one visit, for experience. Tom went across himself on the third visit and felt very odd, seeing his command without him; the eeriness and silence on board the dead tow more pronounced at sea, it was almost like being on a ghost ship.

Tom adjusted speed to make Singapore Eastern Anchorage at daybreak but at the last minute he received a message, diverting him to Sembawang, and he picked up the pilot at the beginning of the Straits. The pilot left him to it, passing the new airport to port and the green jungle on the other side, until they reached the shipyard where the yard tugs assisted. He put the Melody alongside the grey concrete wharf with its huge, tall cranes, it not being so easy to slip the chain bridles. Tom wanted to make the manoeuvre and complete the salvage. The tide was ebbing, going downstream, so it was not difficult, he simply stemmed the current and let the harbour tugs gently push the Melody alongside, putting the Sunda alongside in the vacant berth ahead.

Pedro and his men walked along the quay to climb aboard the safely moored casualty and slip the chain bridles, bringing back all the Sunda equipment. The blue-uniformed customs and immigration officers took time and completed a mountain of paperwork before they allowed the undertakers to take Jan’s frozen body ashore, wrapped in white sheets. Tom ordered the ensign at half mast to be fully hoisted.

Tom steamed the tug round to Singapore feeling very flat. No one had appeared from the office; when he thought about it, why should they? He was somehow expecting a thank-you, a pat on the back, after all, it is not every day a tug master is brought back dead after a successful salvage.

He anchored the Sunda close by and to sea ward of the Mississippi and went ashore. Rene was back to his usual, high-speed behaviour, despite the darkness. Tom was no further than the pier bar, where he found Frank in his usual place.

“You are a jammy bastard, Tom, you really are! You have the luck of the devil,” said Frank, his red hair neatly parted, sipping his beer from a glass, rather than the usual bottle.

“You’ll have to get a bigger tug,” laughed Tom, already feeling better for seeing his friend, even if he was still the competition. “Tell me, what happened on the Melody?”

“The policeman was quite forthcoming over a beer on the bridge, returning to port,” said Frank. “He thought the European master was keen on boys or something and it was a mixed crew. I don’t understand owners, it’s well known there’s nearly always trouble with mixed crews, be it race or religion. Anyway,” and he took a long draught of his beer, “looks like the old man who was quite young, only in his early forties, nicked someone’s boyfriend and got himself murdered for his troubles. Everything broke down after that, and the two religions had a fight, the Christians won, locking up the others, leaving the ship, which had broken down, to her own devices. They’d been drifting for some days. At some stage the radio room and VHF on the bridge were smashed up. Someone had escaped or something, it’s very unclear.”

“That would explain why the communication stopped because my radio man received a radio signal, which we were able to home in on, and then silence. Just goes to show,

you should never mess around with your crew. Which reminds me, my crew seem to have accepted me,” said Tom.

“That’s because you are, as I said, a jammy bastard,” and Frank laughed. “Seriously, you have shown you are competent, can handle the tug, and so far have been lucky. What more do a crew want?”

Frank signalled to the barman for more beer.

“I should think there will be some fun and games in Labuan with a dead body and a crew with a murderer amongst their midst, the jail will be full. The diplomats will have to do some work for a change.”

Tom laughed.

“Still, not for us to wonder the why anything happens, just for us to solve the problem, preferably on Lloyds Form.”

“Jan’s funeral in two days’ time,” said Frank. “Looks as though the whole of maritime Singapore will be there.”

“I’m not looking forward to it,” said Tom, gravely. “I’m seeing Gerda and the children tomorrow and I’m not looking forward to that, either.”

He took a sip from his fresh beer. “I expect they’ll return to Holland. I don’t think Singapore holds anything for Gerda without Jan.”

“Well, look on the bright side,” said Frank refilling his glass, “if you have got to go, what a way to do it.”

Tom was silent, remembering the moment and the resulting bruising on his front from the rails he climbed over. He then told Frank in great detail exactly the circumstances leading up to seeing Jan fall, the rough weather and greyness, Jan’s all-or-nothing decision, almost daring himself to go between the casualty and the reef to save the ship from running aground on a lee shore, the courage and confidence to do it, the figure standing rock-like with his hands on the controls, and the fall. Frank listened intently, his face a mask of concentration, as though he was putting Tom’s words into pictures.

“Fantastic,” is all he said when Tom finished and then, “he was a man.”

He refreshed his glass from another bottle placed on the bar by the barman, who was smart enough to say nothing. Frank pondered on what Tom had told him, then shook himself, as though shaking off the images in his mind. Changing the subject, he said, “Well, you have a fine tug, Tom.” Looking him in the eye with a mischievous grin, continued, “And my spies tell me you are the master designate to the super tug, how lucky is that?” and he laughed.

“How the hell do you know that?” said Tom, not bothering to deny it, thinking of the few people who knew. There were not many secrets either company could keep from each other, despite management’s best endeavours. Frank stroked the side of his nose and smiled.

“Our big bosses are coming from Amsterdam to assess the Singapore operation in the light of your expansion,” he said.

“We heard,” said Tom, “and what you don’t know is, Mr R is going to meet them, joint venture perhaps.”

“You must be joking!” said Frank, shocked. “The Dutch would never do that.”

Tom laughed. “You never know what’s around the next corner, Frank, look what has happened to me.”

Frank was silent, then said, “Chinese?”

“Why not?” agreed Tom, feeling much better. telling Frank about Jan’s death had been very cathartic.

Hilda and Shelia were out of town. He had hoped to start moving in with Shelia but that seemed in abeyance for the moment, so he was glad of his friend’s company.

It was late when they returned to Clifford Pier and chartered a launch. Tom did not want to call out Rene unnecessarily and they went out together, dropping off Tom first. The watchman was alert and came onto the tow deck as Tom climbed on board, giving him a helping hand.

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