The Dare

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Chapter 20

Tom felt in a better mood the next morning and he was glad he had spoken with Frank about Jan’s death. After an early breakfast on the bridge just after sunrise, he set to work on his Melody report, and made good progress. Miguel kept him well supplied with tea, taking the handwritten sheets to Ricky for typing. He told Jesus to draw a sketch of the relative position of the two uncharted reefs and the route taken by the Sunda. He knew the Arbitrators would be impressed if his report contained good sketches and diagrams, which the lawyer would no doubt incorporate into his statement. He shuddered at the thought, relieved Mr Dickinson was not in Singapore.

Tom had spoken with DB and he agreed for the Sunda to come round to the yard and temporarily shut down so the whole crew could attend the funeral. Steve would put one of his engineers on board to keep the generator running so the freezer was not stopped and thus spoil the frozen food.

As soon as it was daylight, he obtained permission from port control to move round to Jurong, arriving at the yard mid-morning. He used the Cosel harbour tugs to tow the Sunda into the creek, not wishing to risk his propellers in the shallow, debris-strewn waters. The sun was bright and many of the office staff came out to admire the white-hulled tug, now famous in the company, standing out amongst the black-hulled barges and a coaster under repair.

At 1300, the entire crew left the tug. Tom felt proud of them, all smartly dressed, unlike some of the clothes worn on board; no jeans and sweat shirts, either, for Jan. The officers wore suits and looked very different. Even Rene managed to look respectable, his hair tied in a bunch, rather than the usual pig-tail. Alfredo looked particularly dapper and handsome, with his classic aquiline nose and firm chin, in a white shirt with a black tie and dark grey suit, with black, polished shoes. The three, white company vans with Cosel Salvage painted on the sides in black lettering took them all to the cemetery. It was to be an open-air affair, making it easier for all religions to attend, with Cosel laying on the refreshment afterwards. Tom acknowledged Frank’s hand greeting, having spotted his red hair amongst the many people in the marine world who knew Jan. The sun was hot and some of the ladies were carrying parasols. The green grass among the white headstones had a cooling and soothing effect.

A few minutes before the service was due to start, while the priest was testing the microphone, Tom’s pager sounded. He had meant to turn it off for the ceremony.

“Too bad,” he thought, he had not brought his radio, then remembered the vans. Moving as unobtrusively as he could, he left the assembled crew and quickly made his way to the parked vans.

“Base Mike, five,” he called.

“Ship broken down Malacca Straits, request assistance of a tug,” the duty man said.

Ishmael was at the funeral along with the other Cosel people, all well-dressed, the men wearing suits and the women frocks.

“I have spoken to the owners and they will agree LOF on arrival.”

Tom was in a quandary as to whether he should sail on his own recognizance. The decision really was DB’s, or the old man. They were both there, but the ops man was right to contact him so as not to alert the competition. Everyone in the marine world was at the cemetery so all the opposition were there and would notice any senior Cosel person moving away.

“Okay, I will round up my crew. Tell the owner we will sail within the hour. Tell port control.”

He returned to his crew and instructed Gonzales to marshal them all into the vans and then looked around for the drivers who were attending the service. He saw Ishmael had seen what was happening, although the crowd were listening to the priest who had just started.

Tom felt awful and sent up a little prayer.

“Sorry, Jan.”

He swore he could hear the guffaw encouraging him to go.

He found one of the drivers and decided not to waste time looking for the others, but to drive one of the vans himself; they would all have to squeeze into two. He did not think to check whether his license covered driving a mini-van in Singapore.

It was lucky the priest had a good voice and was interesting, holding the attention of the large crowd, because Tom managed to sneak away unnoticed with his crew. Miguel, very smart in a suit, was weeping quietly, being comforted by one of the divers.

He picked up the position from ops and the Sunda was away within the hour, towed by two Cosel harbour tugs into the main channel, one of them, the Jurong still looked new. Tom quickly increased to full power and thundered out through Western Anchorage, the usual huge wash making it pretty obvious to any competition tug that something was up. The duty ops man had spoken to port control and the open-dated port clearance was on board. She must have made a fine sight, thought Tom, her white hull shining in the late afternoon sunshine, the red funnel in stark contrast. He wondered if the large black tug anchored off Sultan Shoal would follow.

The crew had all changed back into their normal working clothes, very different from the smart men at the cemetery. It was an uneventful rush through the early evening, up the Malacca Straits. Tom became more impressed by the third mate, Alfredo, every time there was an emergency and was now content to let him continue his watch while he cat-napped in his chair. It was just after 2200 and the moon had risen, when they came up with the ship, her deck lights rather obscuring the anchor light. She was a small container ship of about 5,000 tons, Container Three, a most uninspiring name, thought Tom.

"Container Three, this is salvage tug Sunda. I will come alongside on your port side,” said Tom on the VHF.

“No,” said a firm, continental-sounding voice, German, thought Tom. “Assistance not required.”

“LOF was agreed,” said Tom, perturbed.

“Repeat, assistance not required,” and a little later the deck lights and anchor lights went out and the navigation lights came on, the two steaming lights and red side-light indicating she was heading north. Not even a thank you, thought Tom, as he told Alfredo to turn the tug and head back to Singapore at economical speed. He walked into the radio room and told Ricky to inform Singapore.

It was a fine night, although there was lightening far to the north on the horizon. The stars were bright above and the moon almost full, casting an eerie glow on the Straits, which was full of traffic, the southbound passing well to the west. Tom was cat-napping, his tea having grown cold, confident Alfredo would wake him if necessary, when he heard what he thought was a muffled ‘May Day’ on the VHF channel 16. He was instantly awake and alert, the notebook and pencil he kept by the radio, in his hand, ready to take down the message, in particular the position. Suddenly, there was a crash as the chartroom door was flung open and Ricky shouted, “Captain!”

Tom rushed into the chartroom and snatched the message from him, scanning it for the position, and said urgently, “Offer LOF, quick, before anyone else gets in.”

He plotted the position and shouted to Ricky, who was busily sending in the radio room, through the still-open door, “We will be there in twenty minutes!”

He moved quickly into the wheelhouse and said, “Alfredo, take the wheel steer south,” as he pushed the engine controls levers to full power.

“Pablo, alert everyone, passenger ship on fire.”

He pressed the electric fire alarm button three times, his signal that there was a salvage. In very short order, Gonzales and Jesus were on the bridge, followed by Pedro and the Chief Engineer, Francisco.

“Whether we have agreement or not, I am going straight alongside to fight the fire,” said Tom.

“I’ve got him on the radar, I think,” said Jesus excitedly, his head still in the radar. “Twenty degrees on the starboard bow,” his hand holding the plotting pencil.

“Steer two hundred degrees, Alfredo,” ordered Tom. “We should see her, unless the fire is on the other side.”

The figures standing in the wheelhouse were indistinct in the darkness. A clap of thunder in the distance and a flash of lightening added to Tom’s sense of foreboding and he made a mental effort to shake it off and concentrate on the matter in hand: the tug rushing towards a burning ship, only a few miles away.

“Have the Yokohamas ready. I don’t know which side yet. When we reach the casualty, start the fire pump and be ready with the foam. Have all our hoses ready with the portable foam attachments. We’ll have to get inside the accommodation as soon as possible. Gonzales will remain on the tug, I will be boarding the casualty.”

The thought of impending action banished all sense of fear, even though it was a passenger ship, and Tom gave a quick thanks for the meeting with Jan on the Buron. Amazing, he thought, how a confrontational talk and the supposed a confession had helped him.

“Call on the VHF channel 16, name Seahorse!” called Ricky from the chartroom door.

“Three miles,” said Jesus. Twelve minutes, thought Tom.

“I can see her,” said Gonzales. “Looks like emergency lighting only and I think the fire must be on the opposite side to us.”

Tom picked up the VHF microphone.

"Seahorse this is salvage tug, Sunda,” he said. “Offer you my services on the terms of Lloyds Open Form.”

His voice was cool and steady, inspiring confidence, he hoped.

“Agreed,” replied a cultured English voice.

Tom felt elated and he could feel the excitement in the others on the bridge.

“Log it, Alfredo,” commanded Tom, seeing Pablo had returned and taken over the wheel, “and tell Ricky to inform Singapore.”

“Yes, cap,” he replied, trying to keep his voice calm.

“Fire on my port side, started in the first class galley and spread aft. Been let down by my crew,” continued the voice of the captain.

“There is not much wind, I will come alongside on your port side and attack the fire with my monitors,” said Tom.

“Yes, but don’t bank on anyone taking your lines, the lifeboats are turned out on the starboard side. I have four hundred and fifty passengers on board.”

“Have the grapnels ready, Gonzales, starboard side to,” said Tom.

“I can see your stern and about to alter round it,” said Tom, dropping the microphone and pulling the engine control levers back, slowing the Sunda.

“Alfredo, tell Ricky to man the VHF, then go down and assist the Chief Officer.”

Tom could see the white hull with its counter stern, a few emergency lights showing, and altered course round it, close to. He slowly went ahead along the hull of the burning ship, the fire a red glow ahead with occasional flames flickering out of the hull through the smoke. He turned on the searchlight situated on the monkey island and directed it from the wheel house control handle on the deck head to shine on the fire area.

“Fenders secured, cap,” said the voice of Gonzales, through the company radio.

Tom indicated to Pedro, who was manning the foremast monitors with an AB, where to direct them and put the tug gently alongside the drifting ship just abaft the fire, Pedro already directing the jets on to the hull.

“Use the grapnels, Gonzales,” said Tom into the radio round his neck, and he watched from the starboard wing, feeling the heat of the fire. He heard the clang of the grapnels hitting the metal railings under the still-stowed lifeboats.

“Jesus, go and assist Gonzales,” ordered Tom, and then into the radio, “Gonzales, Jesus and Alfredo to lead the teams onto the boat deck and into the forward lounge. There will be a stairway down to the galley deck and we attack the fire in what looks like the dining saloon. Once anyone is on board, lower the lifeboat ladders.” The whole area was well lit by the powerful search light.

Rene, his hair now loose, had climbed one of the grapnel lines and was letting down the wooden ladders. Tom climbed a ladder onto the boat deck, followed by his crew carrying portable equipment and heaving lines. The lines were soon used to heave up the fire hoses and tins of foam, while Tom found the door into the lounge, hesitating before opening it, in case he created more ventilation for the fire. Rene was behind him with a hose.

“Open up cap or we can’t get at the fire,” he said, which brought Tom to the practicality of the situation, thoughts of his previous passenger-ship fire dissipating.

The lounge was not on fire but very warm and the deck was hot underfoot, lit up by the light from the searchlight. He soon found the stairway, billowing smoke making it difficult to see, although through it he could see the red glow of the fire, reminiscent of what he had seen as a teenager. He vigorously thrust it from his mind.

Rene dropped his hose, coughing, and disappeared. Tom could hear the water from the monitors hitting the hull. Three men clad in breathing apparatus passed him and climbed down the stairway into the smoke, one returning shortly afterwards, gesticulating to Tom for the water to be turned on.

Tom spoke into the radio and shortly afterwards the hoses filled with water under pressure, bucking and moving like snakes until the men had them under control. Tom knew that too much water was going to cause stability problems.

“Ricky, tell chief engineer change to foam both monitors and fire main,” he said into his radio.

Jesus and Alfredo came into the lounge, followed by Rene dragging another hose. Tom remembered he had noticed that the galley portholes and some of the cabin portholes were open, and said into his radio, “Gonzales, tell Pedro to aim his monitors into the open portholes.”

Gonzales was directing the firefighters on the tug.

Tom wondered if he should flood the lounge. The deck was becoming hotter and it might not be too long before it caught fire. He thought about the stability and decided to wait, hoping his men would put out the fire in the dining saloon below. He thought he was hearing things apart from the noise around him, the monitor jets hitting the hull, the muted sound of the main engines and generator from the tug, the whine from the fire pump, but there was something else, something unearthly: music, voices, singing hymns. It must be the passengers, thought Tom. There was no sign of the ship’s crew.

“Jesus, you stay here, Alfredo you come with me,” said Tom, raising his voice, and led the way out onto the boat deck.

He climbed down a lifeboat rope-ladder, back onto the tug, followed by Alfredo, who was coughing, on another ladder. On the aft deck, Tom found what he was looking for, the stores loading door in the side of the Seahorse. If he could open it he could send in another team and fight the fire from aft as well as forward. He saw there was already less smoke and the flames in the dining saloon had died down, but the galley and cabins aft of it were burning fiercely. Pedro, who had been relieved by an AB, and his men were directing hoses into the open port holes and the monitor jets were covering those in the galley.

Alfredo had stopped coughing.

“Tell Gonzales I am going to try and get that door open. I want you to lead a team and attack the fire from aft,” said Tom, pointing.

Tom swiftly made his way onto the bridge, manned only by Ricky, and called up the Seahorse on the VHF. The Captain answered.

“Can you get anyone to open the loading door?” asked Tom, urgently.

“No. My crew are in a funk.”

Tom was surprised. “Your engine room OK?” he asked.

“Yes, except the main engine breakdown.”

“Make sure your bilge pumps are working. Quite a lot of water is going into the accommodation.”

“Of course.”

“What about stability?” asked Tom.

“Not good, we are due to bunker in Singapore.”

“Ballast a couple of fuel tanks, Captain,” ordered Tom.

“Can’t do that, contaminate my fuel.”

“Better that than capsize with all your singing passengers on board. Please, do as I say,” ordered Tom, firmly.

There was silence, then a subdued, “Of course, I was not thinking.”

“Fire in the dining saloon seems to be out,” reported an excited Jesus on the walkie-talkie. “They are moving to the galley.”

“Well done,” said Tom, noticing Miguel heaving up a bucket containing water bottles and glasses, and then disappearing into the lounge. And he thinks he is a weak man, thought Tom, with wonder.

He returned to the tow deck, collecting Alfredo on the way.

“The ship’s crew won’t open the door,” said Tom.

“Maybe I could get in through an open port hole, I’m thin enough,” Alfredo laughed.

“Look, there’s Rene, try with him.”

The hull of the burning ship just forward of the Sunda was covered in white foam, which was slowly sliding down with an unpleasant, animal smell, but it was both cooling the hull and much of it had entered through the portholes. The white foam was still pouring out of the monitors at pressure and Tom thought of the foam tank and the speed it must be emptying.

He watched as Rene and Alfredo climbed up onto the aft Yokohama fender. Rene gave Alfredo a leg-up, and then pulled himself into the open porthole. Rene pushed him through, it was a tight fit.

“Ricky, ring down and tell Francisco to stop the monitors,” ordered Tom into his radio.

He noticed the Seahorse had a two- to three-degree list to port and she had been upright when they arrived, which made Tom increasingly nervous about stability. It was a feature of passenger ship fires; too much water is pumped in and the ship capsizes due to the free surface affect. It had happened to the Rada.

Rene was looking up into the porthole through which Alfredo had disappeared. He tensed himself, leapt, holding onto the rim, and hauled himself through.

“My word,” thought Tom. “He is fit.”

Shortly afterwards, the loading door opened and the grinning faces of Alfredo and Rene appeared.

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