Tom was immediately awake on hearing the telephone ring. He was lucky, having the ability to go from sleep to awake almost instantly. He picked up the telephone receiver, fumbling in the darkness.
“Salvage, Nipa shoal, van will pick you up in twenty minutes,” said the crisp voice of the duty ops man.
Tom quickly dressed and picked up his small emergency bag, which contained, among other things, money and his passport. He was in reception, which was open to the elements, when the van arrived. The early morning tropical coolness was pleasant, belying the heat of the day to come. The dawn faded quickly into daylight as he was driven out to Jurong, and the air was much warmer when he walked into Ops.
“Car carrier, loaded, about 15,000 dead weight,” briefed Ishmael, who was sitting at his desk, as though he never left it, various Lloyds publications spread out before him. “Salvage Master has gone out in Cosel One, Sunda to sail as soon as possible. It’s high tide, Captain Smit will be here shortly. We have given you crew from the small tugs in the new yard. Chief Engineer, Second Engineer and Radio Officer are on board.”
Tom was impressed at the speed things were happening. “We have a problem,” he said, “the tow deck is full of equipment.”
“Get rid of it, dump it on the quayside, but be quick, don’t forget we have competition. If the Salvage Master obtains the Lloyds Open Form, it is important you are there and he is not made to look a fool waiting for your arrival. The Singapore is towing a ship in from the Indian Ocean, as you know.”
Tom felt galvanized; problems were to be overcome, not talked about.
“Okay,” he said, and walked quickly down to the Sunda. Pedro, the tall, rather thin, dark, boatswain, had already organised the scratch crew and they were landing equipment, using the newly installed crane, proving its worth and efficiency.
“Good work, bosun,” said Tom, as he walked up the gangway. “We need a clear tow deck.”
“Okay, cap,” grinned Pedro, the Filipinos and Malays working with a will, the prospect of salvage and a bonus a spur. It was fully daylight now.
On the bridge, the cook handed Tom a cup of tea. The acting second officer was clearing the chart table of equipment left by the shore workers, not yet on board, who were installing a second radar and other equipment. He stepped out onto the bridge wing to check that the radar scanner of the old machine was clear, then returned inside the wheelhouse to switch it on. As he waited for it to warm up, Jan appeared, looking bright but serious, his normal bonhomie missing.
“Make sure the tow deck is completely clear, Tom,” ordered Jan, “nothing loose must be left. Throw everything ashore, clutter on the tow deck means an accident, and I don’t tolerate accidents, especially if preventable. As soon as it is clear, get the towing gear ready.”
“Understood,” said Tom, leaving the bridge by the outer companionway. He walked along the clear boat-deck, with its rubber boat and launching crane in place of the lifeboat, and down onto the tow deck.
“Throw all this rubbish ashore,” said Tom pointing to a heap right at the aft end. “The deck must be completely clear.”
“OK,” replied Pedro.
The Jurong appeared alongside and Pedro handed the crew member on her aft deck a mooring line with an eye in it, which he put over the towing hook.
“Jurong secured. Another five minutes to clear the tow deck, Jan,” said Tom into his walkie-talkie, as he heard and felt the big diesels start, one after the other, puffs of smoke appearing out of the still un-painted funnel. The chief has been quick, thought Tom, and wondered what scratch crew he had with him. It was amazing how everyone one jumped to it with the prospect of a salvage, and things happened quickly.
“Let go aft and send a man forward to let go,” ordered Jan over the radio.
Tom repeated the order.
Shortly afterwards, the Jurong started towing the Sunda, stern first, clear of the wharf and out into the creek. Although high water, Jan obviously thought it was safer not to use the main engines too close to the shipyard and risk his propellers. Tom found Jan on the port bridge wing, walkie-talkie in hand, directing the small harbour tug. Towing the big tug stern first was no easy matter, she wanted to sheer all over the place and there was not much room. The second mate was at the wheel, almost as tall as himself. Tom checked the radar was working, set up on the one and a half mile range, and the chart for Singapore Western Anchorage was on the chart table. As soon as the Sunda was in the main channel, Jan dismissed the Jurong.
“Full ahead, both engines!” he ordered.
Tom, apprehensive at using the bridge controls for the first time, checked the rev counter and clutched in. He pushed the single control lever for each engine forward slowly and the Sunda rapidly picked up speed. After a few minutes, the engines were at full power, black smoke pouring out of the funnel, and the tug was already creating a big wash. The black smoke soon stopped. Jan was still on the bridge, wing binoculars raised to his eyes, his hand pointing.
“Steer for that beacon,” said Jan.
“Okay, cap,” replied the second mate, spinning the wheel and settling the tug on the new course.
The Sunda was soon into the anchorage proper, racing past the anchored ships, causing the smaller ones to roll with her huge wash. Heads appeared on bridge wings, wondering why the tug should be running at such speed. Sultan Shoal was soon abeam as she entered the main strait proper, crossing the lines of traffic in both directions, passing close ahead of a large container ship which provoked an angry voice on the VHF, which Jan ignored, now standing inside the wheelhouse at the centre window. The sun was on their port side, well up in the sky, heating the day.
“There she is,” said Jan, pointing at a car carrier stationary ahead of them. As they came closer, they could see her bow high out of the water.
“Well aground,” commented Jan, “will keep Paul our Salvage Master happy. It will be a good excuse for him to lay ground tackle, it’s what might be called his thing.”
They were now rapidly closing the stricken ship and Jan moved over to the bridge controls, slowly pulling the two levers back, slowing the big tug.
"Sunda, this is Mike 4. LOF signed. Connect up astern,” said the voice of the Salvage Master over the company radio.
“Answer him, Tom,” said Jan. “I don’t want to talk to him.”
Tom acknowledged the Salvage Master’s instructions.
“Right, Tom. We may only have a scratch crew and usually it is better not to mix Malays and Filipinos, but it is a salvage and only for a short time, so should be okay. Thank heavens we have Pedro, the bosun! He is very good and will get the best out of all of them. Launch the zed boat, the rescue boat, take Pedro and three men with you and the slip hook and lashing wire. When you have secured the slip hook and backed up the bollards, send Pedro back to the tug and I will manoeuvre in stern first, to make the connection. You will have to use the casualty crew because we don’t have enough men here on the tug. Once connected, come back here,” said Jan, very much in command, crisp and clear with his instructions, stroking his luxuriant moustache.
“Understood, Jan,” acknowledged Tom, leaving the bridge.
The newly-installed crane proved its worth and the rubber boat was quickly launched and loaded. Tom drove the boat himself to what appeared from sea level, the huge car carrier, the high vertical sides very tall from the water. Underneath, the reef was clearly visible when they reached the pilot ladder hanging from an opening amidships. It was hot now in the mid morning sun, but Tom did not feel it, being far too busy and suppressing his excitement.
He handed over the control to an AB who said he could drive the boat, and climbed the pilot ladder followed, by the bosun and the other two AB’s. The enclosed car deck appeared huge and cavernous, despite the luxury cars. A crew member showed Tom onto the bridge while the bosun and AB’s made their way aft. The Salvage Master, Captain Paul Rogers, was a tall man, over six feet, rather thin, with an unsmiling long face and prominent nose, with black hair parted in the middle.
“Welcome,” said the Salvage Master. “this is Captain Roland,” and he introduced a thickset European. “Captain Matravers will be my assistant during this salvage.”
This was news to Tom and he wondered what Jan would say. Tom shook hands with the grim-faced Captain, which was not unsurprising given the circumstances; he would have some explaining to make to his owner.
“Once the divers are out of the water and have reported, I will make the final decisions, but it looks like ground tackle. Offload as much fuel as possible consistent with stability, and discharge some of the cargo,” said the Salvage Master in his rather toneless voice, betraying a hint of an accent from the Southern Hemisphere. “I want the Sunda connected as soon as possible.”
“The bosun should be aft now, the slip hook and gear are in the zed boat,” reported Tom.
“You go and get the Sunda connected and report back to me. I have been assigned the owners’ suite on the next deck and that will be my headquarters,” ordered the Salvage Master.
“Very good, Captain Rogers,” replied Tom formally, and left the bridge. He found Pedro, easily distinguished by his height, directing some of the ship’s crew he had rustled up from somewhere and they were in the process of heaving up the slip hook and wire lashing, using one of the mooring winches. Once it was on board, Tom told the zed boat driver to return to the Sunda. He spoke on the radio to Jan.
“The Salvage Master wants you to connect as soon as possible. He wants me to remain here as his assistant.”
“Okay,” replied Jan, the annoyance coming through his voice on the radio. “Will speak to you later. When you are ready send Pedro and the men back, keeping the best AB for yourself. I am short-handed here and it is a big tug. You organise the ship’s crew to heave the forerunner on board and our AB can connect it.”
“Very good, Jan, all understood,” replied Tom.
Pedro had organised the ship’s crew, who were working with a will under his leadership, directing them, lashing the slip hook to the aft bollards and backing them up to those at the forward. It was not long before Tom was able to call up Jan and tell him they were ready. Pedro had obtained a heaving line and had it ready, handing it to the AB, chattering away in Tagaloc. Tom watched Jan manoeuvre the Sunda off the stern of the car carrier, which looked huge, high out of the water because there was little fuel on board and the hull had still not been painted. His radio crackled.
“The current is running towards Singapore so I will come in your starboard quarter. Be quick, I don’t want to be set too far to the north or onto the reef.”
“Understood. Pedro is on the way back.” He had climbed down on the rope ladder hanging over the stern, and Tom could see the zed boat going alongside the tug as she manoeuvred, stern first towards the car carrier.
The AB with the heaving line climbed up onto the rails, helped by two of the ship’s crew, and stood waiting held by his two helpers. The Sunda came in faster than Tom thought prudent and when close in under the stern, stopped with a great swirl of water from the two propellers in what he thought must have been a full ahead movement, black smoke pouring from the funnel. The AB just dropped the heaving line onto the tow deck below him and in a trice, Pedro picked it up and made it fast to the messenger line.
“Heave!” he shouted, his voice shrill from the urgency of the situation.
Led by the AB who had jumped down off the rails, the crew heaved the line on board and rushed it to the drum of the mooring winch. The messenger tightened as the drum turned and with tension on the line, the forerunner moved along the tow deck and up into air, watched by Tom. As the eye neared the fairlead, he signalled to the winch driver to slow down, but it slipped through without catching and Tom stopped it opposite the slip hook. The AB slipped the eye over the hook, closed it and secured it with the safety locking pin.
“Okay, C=cap,” grinned the AB.
“Forerunner secured,” reported Tom into the radio, as the Sunda, now opposite the stern, turned to port and headed up tide.
“That was quick, well done,” said the voice of the Salvage Master from the radio.
Then quite quietly, but clearly audible to anyone listening carefully, a voice said, “Prick.”
Oh dear, thought Tom, all is not so rosy underneath, bad blood somewhere. He continued watching as the tow wire lengthened and the Sunda appeared a little smaller as she increased the distance from the casualty.
"Sunda, this is Mike 4. Anchor off and await instructions,” ordered the Salvage Master.
“Roger,” said a Filipino voice.
The forerunner tightened, the slip hook held firm as the lashing wires tightened themselves, then slackened as Tom clearly heard the anchor cable running out. He left the AB to watch the connection and found his way up onto the bridge through the accommodation. The Salvage Master was standing on the starboard bridge wing, hatless under the midday sun, looking at the big tug.
“Fine sight, even better when she is painted in the new colours,” he said, as Tom joined him. “Jan is a very good tug master. The divers are making their inspection now.”
“Yes, most impressive,” said Tom, feeling the heat on his bare head. He must obtain a hat he thought.
“I want you with me on board the casualty, there is a spare bed in the owners’ suite. Go back to the Sunda and collect enough gear for two or three days. Jan will moan and groan but he is connected now and will be fine. I have arranged with Daniel Bang to send out a temporary replacement.”
Tom called up Jan and asked him to send over the zed boat to pick him up. He made his way to the pilot ladder amidships, not fancying trying to climb down the ladder hanging over the stern, which was free to swing twist and turn.
“He is a prick,” boomed Jan, as Tom came onto the bridge of the Sunda. Jan was ensconced in his Captain’s chair, beer in hand. “He steals my chief officer without even asking me,” shouted Jan, taking a swig from his can. “Have a beer, lunch coming up.”
“I’ll collect my kit,” said Tom. “He says for two or three days. A temporary replacement is being sent out from Singapore.”
Jan grunted as Tom left the bridge. When he returned Jan was tucking into a chicken curry, a fresh beer unzipped.
“There’s yours,” he said, pointing to a tray on the wheelhouse table containing the same.
Tom started eating, the tug at anchor with the tow wire slack. It was hot, with the sun high, almost overhead, in a cloudless sky. The sea was calm, reflecting the bright sunlight, the water shimmering in the heat. The car carrier loomed huge and somehow incongruous with her bow high up in the air, the forepart clear of the water, part of the reef visible at low water, the light beacon just off her starboard bow. It seemed to Tom he had entered a different world where nothing was ordered or routine; life was full of surprises and diverse problems to be solved, exciting and different.
“Mike 4 and I do not see eye to eye,” said Jan, in a low, uncharacteristically sombre voice. “I know him of old and for what he is, he knows it, but he also knows I won’t do anything which will harm or hurt the company, but be warned, Tom, be warned.”
Tom’s heart sank and he wondered what was behind this apparent bad blood. Captain Rogers seemed to be okay, a bit dour, but he was thrilled to be at the centre of things and be the Salvage Master’s assistant.
“What do you mean, Jan?” he asked, worried.
“I said be warned. He will be nice to you, your best friend or mate, then stick a silver knife into you, especially if thinks you are a threat to his position. I am safe and secure, a tug master, and am happy as I am. I have no wish to go further, I am no threat. You, however, are an unknown quantity, fresh, new, it’s known the old man has seen you. Don’t forget we are a small company, you’re obviously well-educated, a master mariner and you have worked ashore with lawyers. The best way to find out and assess you is to keep you close by and if he thinks you a threat, beware. The fact I am your captain he has dismissed without even the courtesy of asking. He knew I would not make a fuss, would not do anything to hurt the company. Just be warned, be on your guard. Enough.”
He paused and then his mood changed. “Second mate, fetch two beers from my fridge.” The jovial tug master was back.
“Enjoy and learn,” he guffawed, “but keep me informed. Best of luck.”
Tom finished the second beer and left. He looked back at the big tug, with Jan waving from the bridge wing, and tried to throw off the sombre and pensive mood he felt, after what Jan had said. It might be new world, he thought, but there was not much change in human nature and behaviour.