The Dare

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Chapter 6

Nothing like action, Tom thought, as he climbed the pilot ladder, knapsack on his back, and made his way through the hot car deck to the accommodation. The artificial lighting was dim after the bright sun outside and the glare from the calm sea. He found the Salvage Master at the writing desk in the owner’s cabin.

“Lunch with Jan, I see,” he said, looking up from his paperwork, making Tom feel guilty about the beers he had drunk.

“Not to worry. Now, here is the plan,” he continued, unsmiling, in his rather toneless voice, with its hint of an accent, either from Australia or New Zealand, just discernible.

“I have calculated she is so far out of her draft that technically she can’t re-float without cutting her up,” he gave a short snort. “But of course, she will, I just don’t know when. We will discharge as much of the fuel as possible, ballasting until we are ready. We will discharge from the top decks, stability may be a problem. The divers have reported, here is the sketch, you will see she is aground to just abaft amidships over half her length. The rudder and propeller are in deep water and undamaged.”

“The Coselversatile, our salvage and mooring vessel, will be here this afternoon and lay ground tackle. The fuel barge, which has heating coils, will also arrive this afternoon and go alongside the port side. The ship’s crew are all ready to discharge the fuel.

“We will have a re-floating attempt at high water but it is just for show to keep the captain happy. The fuel discharge should take twenty-four hours or so, which will give us plenty of time to discharge the cars and possibly lorries onto the barges, which you will put alongside on the starboard side. So it looks like an attempt tomorrow evening. I don’t like night time re-floatings, especially with all this kit around, so will probably delay until the next morning.

“We can expect an owners’ rep, surveyors and other hangers-on to come out but hopefully through Cosel. We are in Indonesian waters and they have to clear out of Singapore immigration and clear back in on return and it is much easier if they are with us and it gives us a position of control.

“The Indonesian Navy will be here sometime. I am waiting for the salvage permit, which is being flown up from Djakarta. I already have the permit number. Our agents were efficient, for once, this morning, and obtained it quickly before our competition had a chance. I have primed the Master to hand out cigarettes and booze as cumshaw when the Navy turns up. It is very important to remain on good terms with the Indonesians, they can stop us working at any time they feel like.”

“My salvage ship, Coselvenom, will be here shortly and we will then have a full salvage crew on hand. I will tell the chief officer to anchor her off, she had an engine problem, now fixed, as no doubt you heard on your radio.”

Tom had a busy afternoon. The Coselvenom crew came on board, led by a very handsome, very competent Filipino, Juan Ventur. Tom and he hit it off immediately, which made working together so much easier and of course, Juan was an experienced salvage man. The fuel barge turned up, towed by two small tugs, one forward and one aft, and Tom put her alongside satisfactorily; Juan, with a fitter staying on the barge, to work it for the fuel discharge. Juan had tanker experience, which made him doubly useful.

A large, flat-top barge arrived and Tom put that alongside on the starboard side, opposite the midships loading and discharge position. He kept the small tugs with the barges in case of emergencies and needed to be moved. The fuel discharge started later in the afternoon with Juan in charge. Tom and two AB’s who could drive, soon loaded the first barge, packing them as close as he dared. They were not lashed, relying on the calm weather. The barge was towed off to anchor by the two small tugs, while they waited for the second barge to arrive.

At 1800 the Salvage Master held his show re-floating attempt, Tom being on the bridge with him, and as expected, there was no movement of the casualty. They had not even bothered to move off the fuel barge, continuing with the discharge of fuel.

The Coselversatile arrived on site later that evening after dark, having been engaged on a mooring at Malacca. She had a Malay Captain and crew, and a bald-headed Englishman, Wayne Dawson, was in overall charge, and turned out to be very knowledgeable as well as speaking fluent Malay. He explained to Tom, who had come over in the zed boat, how he would anchor the Versatile with the bow facing the casualty, then run the main wire to a slip hook secured on the casualty on the opposite side to that of the Sunda, and immediately with the powerful winch had a 100-ton pull, but ground tackle blocks laid out on the fore deck would increase this by another sixty or seventy tons, much easier to control than using the big winch alone.

DB had brought out various surveyors and interested parties in the Coselone, the fast crew boat, during the afternoon, and except for the owners’ rep, had departed back to Singapore that evening. The Indonesian Navy gunboat had departed with happy officers clutching cigarettes and bottles of whisky, and was scheduled to return the next day to pick up a copy of the salvage permit, which had not arrived when DB left Singapore.

“Busy day,” commented Tom, as he and the Salvage Master discussed the day’s progress that night in the owners’ cabin, while enjoying a cold beer sent over by Jan.

“Very satisfactory, something usually goes wrong but it has been a good day. I see you have been keeping notes. I expect a full report when this is all over,” said the Salvage Master. “You can call me Paul when not on duty,” and he gave a rather thin smile, which did not reach his eyes. “We are going to have to watch stability with almost no fuel and no ballast but still plenty of cargo. I’ve told the mate to work it out and am awaiting the result.

“The fuel discharge will continue all night, Juan is a good man and we can leave him to it. Another flat-top will be out in the early hours so we can continue the car discharge at daylight. A third barge may or may not arrive on time. The Versatile is connected on the port quarter giving Jan lots of room to swing around. We won’t be making a re-floating attempt at all tomorrow. I want to finish the fuel transfer and have the barge clear before any attempt. She might come off with a bit of a rush, a bit like launching a ship on a slipway. Once they start to move off, they go.”

He chuckled, then continued coughing on the cigarette he was smoking. “Get your head down and berth the flat top at first light.”

It had been a long day and Tom was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

The next day was not so frantically busy and the discharge of a car and a few lorries was completed by noon. The two loaded barges at anchor added to what seemed to Tom the almost surreal scene: the reef showing at low water with its beacon, the car carrier with its bow stuck up in the air close by, the cars sitting on the two flat tops, the large, business-like, ocean-going tug, Sunda, anchored off with the tow-wire over her stern. The salvage vessel, with her horns pointing at the casualty, was rather like some marine monster, also attached by a wire, and the fuel barge still alongside. It was another hot day and the calm sea shimmered and shone rather like a mirage in the desert.

The fuel discharge was completed that evening and Tom un-berthed the barge with the two small tugs anchoring it close by the car barges. All was ready for the morning re-floating attempt at 0700, just after daylight, when the de-ballasting would be complete. The Salvage Master had told Tom to station himself aft with Juan and his men, and to be ready to slip the Versatile and Sunda if necessary.

“It will be good experience for you.”

Tom would much rather have been on the bridge where the Salvage Master would be controlling the operation. He would, however, be able to follow most of the action from the radio traffic.

It was a cloudy morning when the attempt began. The wire to the Versatile was bar taut out on the port quarter, the horns emphasising the monster-like appearance in the early morning light, with a human figure perched on top of the starboard. The Sunda anchor was aweigh and she was towing out on the starboard quarter, the tow wire taut but most of it in the water, looking magnificent in the rapidly brightening day. Tom was looking through his binoculars, forward on the starboard side at the beacon, which had white marks painted on it, residue from some previous salvage, and could see it was not yet quite high water.

"Sunda, this is Mike 4, tow full power,” ordered the Salvage Master. All traffic on the company frequency was suspended until the salvage attempt was over.

“Roger, Mike 4, tow at full power,” replied a Filipino voice, Tom’s temporary replacement, he thought. Tom could see an increase in the turbulence around the stern of the ocean-going tug, caused by her two big propellers, and the tow wire lifted, the centre still just in the water. The stenhouse slip hook came off the deck as the lashing wires tightened themselves round the bollards. An AB was standing by each slip hook with a seven-pound sledgehammer, ready to slip either vessel.

Suddenly, there was the deep cough of a powerful diesel starting and the stern began to vibrate as the casualty main engine came to life. Power was quickly built to what Tom thought must be full astern and the vibration and noise from the propeller was considerable. It was fully daylight now, the sun well above Batam Island, when Tom heard on the radio, “Commence salvage yawing,” and could feel the tension the Salvage Master was under.

“Commence salvage yawing,” replied the Filipino voice.

The Sunda turned to starboard, towards the Coselversatile, healing sharply the way she was turning. The tow wire came out of the water with the increased pull and began to hum, water droplets spurting from the wire. Tom stepped away and Juan laughed.

“Don’t worry, cap, it won’t break,” embarrassing Tom as the rest of the salvage crew smiled.

The Sunda crabbed her way towards the Versatile quite quickly, the current being with her. When just past amidships, Tom saw the Sunda turn rapidly to port, the tow wire humming. The pitch increased, causing even Juan to step back. The Sunda heeled to port and started moving sideways, away from the anchored salvage vessel.

“High water, Juan,” Tom called over the noise, looking through the binoculars at the wash from the propellers running forward along the side of the ship.

Quite suddenly, Tom heard what appeared to be a loud crack. He flinched, not knowing where the noise came from. Juan looked startled and then the casualty started to move and heel over to starboard. The wire to the Sunda was extremely tight, humming away, but that to the Versatile was slack. Wayne Dawson on the horn saw what was happening and frantically signalled to his winchman, but the winch was not fast enough to pick up the slack.

Tom urgently called into his radio.

"Versatile wire slack, shall I slip?”

There was no answer.

The casualty was moving fast now and heeling more to starboard, sliding down the slip, thought Tom, and he wondered about stability with the increasing heel, and if the Versatile was not slipped quickly, there might be a disaster. The Sunda, meanwhile, was still towing to port, pulling the stern away from the salvage vessel, while the main engine of the casualty still appeared to be going full astern. It seemed essential her wire was slipped or it would pull her under when the tension came back on it.

“Slip Versatile!” came the firm voice of Jan over the radio. Juan heard it and signalled to the AB standing by the safety locking pin to pull it out. The man wielding the hammer gave the iron ring round the hook a mighty hit, which moved, allowing the hook to open and the wire slithered out through the fairlead. The vibration and noise ceased as the main engine stopped and the voice of the Salvage Master ordered, “Cease towing!”

The tow wire immediately slackened and most of it went under water. The casualty rolled to port and steadied almost upright and Tom heaved a sigh of relief that she was stable.

Tom was back on the starboard side where he could see the beacon, now some distance away, indicating they were well clear of the reef. He found his hands were shaking as he looked through his binoculars.

“Slip Sunda!” ordered the Salvage Master, and shortly afterwards the forerunner slipped over the stern. The vibration began again as the main engine was started ahead, and then stopped. Tom could hear the rattle of the chain when the anchor was let go.

"Sunda to anchor. Versatile dismissed,” said the Salvage Master.

Tom shook hands with a grinning Juan and walked over to the other side were he could see the Coselversatile quite close by, recovering his pulling wire and, by the look of it, heaving up his stern anchor. He needed to be quick or when the casualty swung to the current, she would hit her.

Tom left Juan to organise returning the slip hooks and lashings to their respective vessels and made his way up onto the bridge. Captain Rogers was on his own, looking as though the successful re-floating had been unsuccessful.

“I’ve told the captain and owners’ rep we will reload here but they want to go straight into Singapore. They don’t seem to understand or realise we are in Indonesian waters. It would cause all sorts of problems with the barges now loaded with cars and fuel, they would have to be entered as such and the cargo would become trans-shipment cargo. Anyway, get the fuel barge first as quickly a possible and then the car barges.”

Tom called up the Sunda and arranged for the zed boat to collect him and Juan. They went to the fuel barge, Juan bringing his fitter with him, and while Tom directed the two small tugs for the berthing, Juan readied the pump room to reload the fuel. It all went well, and once berthed and the fuel pipe connected, the fuel was pumped back into the casualty.

Tom left Juan to it and brought the first of the two flat tops alongside. By noon the two barges had been discharged with no damage to any of the vehicles and they were towed back to Singapore by the two tugs, the fuel barge tugs remaining in case of an emergency. The sky had cleared and it was another hot day, the sea reflecting the glare from the sunlight. Tom had found himself a hat and wore sunglasses.

“Nothing more for you, Tom,” said the Salvage Master, still unsmiling, when Tom reported to him. “Return to the Sunda and tell Jan to escort the casualty to Singapore when we leave. The Captain has seen sense so it will be tomorrow when the fuel barge has finished. Juan can do the un-berthing. The divers report no serious bottom damage, just scratches and a few indents. They were lucky. Give me your report as soon as possible,” and he turned away as the casualty captain called him.

Tom felt rather deflated as he made his way down to the pilot ladder and back to the Sunda, his mini fleet dispersed. He received a very different welcome from Jan, who was jovial, his usual beer in hand, laughing and joking. Two huge curries appeared and Tom was soon in a better mood.

“I’ve got to write a report for the Salvage Master,” Tom said when he had finished his chicken curry, feeling bloated and desirous of an afternoon nap.

Jan suddenly became serious, his bonhomie gone. “Make sure you keep a copy and send another one to DB. Don’t ask questions, just do as I say, it’s for your own good.”

Tom, although surprised, said nothing.

“Understood?” queried Jan, looking at Tom.

“Yes, thank you, Jan,” replied Tom, studying Jan’s unusually hard-looking face, ruddy and smooth with its usual sweat line on his forehead, his grey hair slightly over-long and unruly, the moustache of which he was so proud, luxuriant on his upper lip, covering most of his mouth.

“Why did he not slip the Versatile earlier, leaving me to give the order? He knew you, being new, would not take it on yourself to slip but wait for the order, which should have come from him. He could see what has happening from the bridge as well as I could. I gave the order because I could see a disaster in the making, it’s almost as if he froze, even I cannot believe it was deliberate. It is very odd because in general, whatever I think of him, he is a good salvage master.” He paused and his face changed, “Enough, Cosel has another successful salvage under its belt, we have beaten the competition and it’s Sunda’s first. A celebration is called for, we won’t be moving until tomorrow. Second Mate, three beers from my fridge, one for you,” and he laughed, a deep belly-laugh, dispersing any gloom Tom might feel from his serious warning.

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