“This is my daughter, Hilda,” said Mr R, introducing Tom. “Hilda, this is Captain Matravers.”
“I have heard a lot about you,” she said in a quiet voice. She was small and petite, with black hair. Her face had lovely, smooth sallow skin but her nose was too small, making her face look bigger than it was. Her eyes were a deep, smoky blue, at odds with her black hair, with hidden depths, and were watching him, appraising and sizing him up. It made Tom feel quite uncomfortable.
Mr R moved off, leaving Tom tongue-tied and wondering what on earth to say, his usual sang froid deserting him. The rest of the party were all chatting away, drinks in hand, the morning hot as usual in the tropics, even though it was Christmas Day. All the people Tom had met in the last few months were gathered for this annual party, together with surveyors and other business associates of Mr R.
“The rising star,” said Hilda, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
“Now you are embarrassing me,” said Tom, blushing. Taking the bull by the horns, he continued, “As you know so much about me, perhaps you can tell me what you do?”
“Nothing,” she answered seriously. “Spend the old man’s ill-gotten gains.”
Tom looked shocked but quickly smiled.
“And you believed me,” she laughed, but the laughter did not reach her eyes, which were still searching him out.
Tom laughed too and the ice was broken.
“Actually, I work for a fashion designer who is completely disorganised. He’s a brilliant designer but not much use at anything else so I am his anchor, arrange and order his life, a completely different world from salvage, tugs and barges.”
They chatted away in the garden, a tree shading them from the hot tropical sun, until Mr R came and took her off to meet some business acquaintance.
Tom gravitated to the salvage people. Jan was in good form, with his wife and three children. Time passed quickly, and the buffet food was good. Tom was enjoying himself and only drinking soft drinks, aware that they were on salvage stand-by. The Sunda was at anchor in Eastern Anchorage and they could be on board and away in less than an hour. The refit was finished. She had been dry docked, completely re-painted, fully equipped and was ready for anything.
Tom went inside to find the lavatory and when he came out, he found Hilda sitting on the sofa.
“It’s cooler in here,” she said. “Come and sit next to me.”
Tom did as she bid and they started a serious conversation about Singapore politics and the rights and wrongs of Lee Kuan Yu. The conversation was going well, when Tom’s pager went off and he looked around to find the phone, spotting it on a table near the bar. As he stood, Hilda said, “Work comes first,” with a glint in her eye.
“But, of course,” he said, “and in your father’s house too.”
He smiled as he got up from the sofa and walked over to the phone.
“Collision, two tankers Malacca Straits,” said the voice of the duty ops man. Ishmael was outside in the garden with the party. “I can’t raise Ishmael on his pager.”
“Okay, I organise,” said Tom, his brain racing. He knew he must get Jan and himself away as soon as possible, and maybe Jan’s wife could run them down to Clifford pier. It was how to tell the old man and DB, without alerting the other salvage men at the party that something was up.
“Hilda, I wonder if you could help? Could you get your old man to come in here without alerting anyone? There are lots of salvage people here and I don’t want to alert them something is going on.”
“Involved in a salvage?” she jumped up. “How exciting,” and she gave a big smile, transforming her rather plain face.
A short while later Mr R came in alone. On seeing Tom, he asked, “What’s up?”
“Collision, Malacca Straits, two tankers. I was just trying to see how I could get Jan away without alerting the Salvage Association people something was up, so we get a head start over the competition.”
“Get his son to pretend he is ill and wants to go home. He’s done it before. I will fix this end and get Ishmael to the office. Quick, quick we need the contract!” hurried the old man, alive and alert despite his advancing years.
It was early afternoon and most people had eaten and been drinking since mid-morning, so were not as vigilant as they might have been. Tom was able to put the old man’s suggestion into practice and it was not long before Jan was driving the car like he drove his tug, with his family holding on for dear life and his wife, Gerda, gritting her teeth. They made Clifford pier in record time, the roads clear on this Christmas Day holiday, and found the zed boat waiting for them, the tug alerted by Ops.
The second mate, Jesus, had used his initiative; the anchor was aweigh and the engines running as they climbed aboard. The crane was already lifting the zed boat out of the water as they made their way onto the bridge. Jan clutched in and pushed the two engine control levers forward, the propellers stirring up mud from the bottom. The tug was soon moving fast, Jan himself steering, weaving the big vessel through the anchored ships, with Tom at the engine controls. By the time they were at port limits, the Sunda was at full speed, her huge wash causing the smaller ships to roll, and a few fists had been waved at them.
“We haven’t reported to port control,” said Tom, as Jan handed over the wheel to an AB, giving him a course to steer that would take them past Raffles Light.
“Ishmael will fix it,” replied Jan, opening a can of beer brought up by the mess man and settling himself into his captain’s chair. Tom put down the beer he had been given, unopened.
“This could be the big one,” said Jan, as he took the can away from his lips. “Get Pedro organised with the fire fighting equipment and check the monitors. Make sure the towing gear is ready. I will stay up here. It will be dark before we reach them. The Singapore was in Western Anchorage so has a head start on us and may reach the casualties first. There is a new Captain. Captain Hannibal is on leave, and I don’t know the new man. I don’t know why they did not give the chief officer temporary command, he would have been okay.”
The Sunda had been fully operational for a couple of months, during which time they had made two abortive runs out into China Sea. The refit had been completed a couple of weeks after the car carrier salvage. Jan had worked on Daniel Bang and secured most of the crew he wanted, denuding the Singapore of her best men. The Second Mate, Jesus, was ready to be promoted and the Third Mate would make a good Second Mate, so they had good officers. The two divers were experienced, ex-Philippine navy divers and proved to be reliable and resourceful. They had some good ABs and one of them was the zed boat driver who had caused Tom to fall during his first salvage, and proved to be an excellent boat handler. The Chief Engineer had a good team in the engine room and Tom thought all in all, they would be able to give a good account of themselves in any situation.
Six hours after leaving Singapore, Tom could see two fires burning ahead, one much bigger than the other, the radar indicating they were some six miles away. It did not look as though there were any other smaller vessels nearby indicating tugs, but there were three larger echoes, suggesting ships standing by. The Sunda was shaking and vibrating, almost as if she knew the urgency of the situation, and doing just over sixteen knots, a magnificent speed for the tug; the Chief Engineer had worked wonders. The distance rapidly reduced and the stern light of a small vessel appeared ahead, and from the radar echo, suggested it might be the Singapore.
Using the company radio, Jan made contact. It was indeed the Singapore, so Jan told the captain to tackle the smaller-looking fire while the Sunda would deal with the large one. He should make contact with the captain and agree Lloyds Open Form, agreement on the radio being quite sufficient. If they wanted to abandon ship, then they should move to his tug.
Twenty minute later, Jan slowed down the big tug approaching the larger fire. It was a large tanker and she appeared to be in ballast, high out of the water. The fire was raging in the accommodation, and it appeared their communications had been knocked out because there was no answer to Jan’s call on VHF channel sixteen. He circled the ship as the two monitors on the foremast and one on the after mast were manned and started, the powerful fire pump making a high-pitched whine, adding to the noise of the fire.
“They have abandoned,” said Jan, his voice strained with the tension. “Fires on tankers are dangerous and on tankers in ballast, even worse,” he continued.
Tom’s nerves were screaming, the sound and sight of the burning ship bringing back memories. It was like a reality flashback, and it was taking all his will power not to scream. He wanted to hide, but knew if he gave in he was finished; not just as a salvor, but as a man.
“I am going alongside the starboard side, the windward side, so the flames are blown away from us rather than towards. Use grapnels to make light line moorings. I don’t want anyone on board until we assess the situation. If the flames go forward and she is not gas-free, then there could be an explosion,” said Jan grimly, his voice loud, his face appearing yet more ruddy by the light from the flames.
At first, nothing came out when Tom opened his mouth, but taking a deep breath, he managed, “Understood, Jan.”
“I have to overcome this fear,” he thought, “I cannot let Jan or, worse, myself down, in front of the crew.”
Pedro was manning the foremast with an AB, so Tom went down onto the main deck and organised the crew, the ever-resourceful Pedro having already issued the grapnels. Jan brought the Sunda smartly alongside the starboard side of the tug to the starboard side of the burning tanker, in the 69 position, the fenders crunching as she touched the high side. The crew were quick with the grapnels and she was lightly secured. Tom could already hear hissing from the steam, produced as all three powerful monitors poured hundreds of tons of water into the burning accommodation. Tom returned to the bridge to see the mess man climbing the foremast, carrying water to the fire fighters. The heat from the fire made the wheelhouse extremely hot. Suddenly, there was a deep rumble from inside the burning ship and Jan literally screamed.
“She is going to go, stand clear!”
Rushing to the engine controls, he pushed the control levers firmly right forward “Man the wheel, Tom!” he shouted. “Steer straight ahead.”
The engine revolutions and propeller pitch rapidly increased as black smoke poured from the funnel, adding to the smoke from the fire. the big tug surged ahead, breaking the lines to the grapnels, leaving them trailing in the water. The rumble grew louder and then there was a massive, ear-splitting explosion and sheets of flame seemed to lick the tug as she gathered speed past the high side. Although Tom could not see it happening, the deck of the tanker seemed to open up, the two sides folding to the side of the ship, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. There was another explosion and the ship split in two, the aft end beginning to sink as the Sunda cleared the stern,
“Hard a-port!” shouted Jan, and the tug heeled over as Tom spun the wheel midships, and the swing slowed as Jan brought the engine levers to neutral. The tug was now facing the sinking tanker, the aft end capsizing with great clouds of steam as the fire was extinguished and it disappeared into the water, the darkness hiding the final end. The forepart, with no apparent fire, was slowly sinking by the stern, the water rushing forward through the breached tank bulkheads and within minutes that, too, had gone, the bow high in the air. One minute, a large and substantial object; the next minute, it was gone. It was a shattering sight and experience, and Jan, Tom and Jesus said nothing, shocked and subdued.
Jan suddenly walked forward and pushed the levers forward. “Steer for the other ship, Tom,” he said roughly, hiding his shock and picking up his binoculars. “I don’t see the Singapore.
“There she is,” said Tom. “She seems to be standing off. Take the wheel, Jesus.”
The Sunda reached the other ship, a loaded tanker with a fire in the forward tanks.
“Jesus, call up the Singapore and ask why he is not fighting the fire!” ordered Jan, as he manoeuvred the Sunda close enough to the fire so the forward monitors could reach the flames. “Tom, call up the tanker and offer Lloyds Open Form.”
“Ship on fire, this is the Sunda, we are fighting your fire and offer our services on the terms of Lloyds Open Form,” said Tom, the VHF tuned to channel sixteen, the emergency and distress channel.
There was no answer and Tom repeated his message.
“I am consulting my owners,” said a voice.
Jan grabbed the microphone from Tom and said, “Don’t be a fool, you have just seen one ship blow up! Anyway, I am claiming salvage, in any event.”
At that moment, Jesus, who had been talking in Tagaloc on the company radio, still steering the Sunda, said, “Something wrong on Singapore. The chief officer says they can’t fight a tanker fire.”
“Launch the zed boat,” he shouted, then in a calmer voice, added, “Tom, go across and take charge. If necessary, depose the master and take command, logging it.”
Tom’s fear and shock disappeared. The sight that had caused the flashback had gone and action cleared his head, the past forgotten in the excitement of the moment, and he left the bridge. The burning tanker looked huge from the zed boat, the Sunda small in comparison as her monitors poured water into the flames.
“Wait!” ordered Tom, as he climbed on board the Singapore, shocked to see the fire monitor un-manned. He quickly made his way to the bridge, where he found the chief officer.
“Captain not very well, he say cannot fight fire,” he said, pointing to a figure slumped in the captain’s chair.
“What’s wrong, captain?” Tom asked, walking over to the chair.
The smell of alcohol caught Tom’s attention as a voice mumbled, “Monitor not working.”
“Is that true?” he asked the chief officer, whose face he could just discern from the light of the flames.
“This man is sick, I am taking command. Get him below, out of the way. Start the fire monitor, alert the crew, get moving. Mr Gonzales, you should have told us. Send the second and third mate up here, move it!”
Tom’s firm voice and orders galvanised the man and in short order two ABs and the mess man carried the un-protesting captain off the bridge as Tom manoeuvred the Singapore closer to the tanker. The company radio microphone in his hand, he told Jan what he had done and asked for instructions.
“Don’t forget to log the takeover,” said Jan. “As you can see, I am on the windward side, although there is not much wind, but I am not made fast and bow on. You go alongside aft of the fire but be ready to pull off. We must not let the fire move aft, if we can contain it to the single tank it will be good. We need to get some men on board, I don’t see any of the ship’s crew crew. Send the zed boat back.”
“What’s your name?” asked Tom of the smaller of the two officers.
“Rudi,” he answered.
“Tell the zed boat to return to the Sunda. Go down and tell the bosun we are going alongside the tanker starboard side to. Use grapnels at first and get a man on board to secure the mooring lines.”
The single monitor on the foremast was manned and the whine of the fire pump could clearly be heard, although not as loud as that on the Sunda, as a satisfactory amount of water gushed forth.
Tom was a natural boat handler, as he proved with the tug. He could just feel the right thing to do, although if asked, he would not have been able to tell anyone what he was doing, he could only describe his actions after the event. He angled the tug so that when he went astern, the tug straightened up and came alongside parallel to the hull. The loaded tanker freeboard was such that an agile AB was able to leap from the bridge onto the tanker, catching hold of the rail. The Singapore was soon made fast, with the monitor fighting the aft part of the fire, the water streaming off the deck of the tanker.
Tom saw the Sunda alter course and she, too, went alongside, the lines being taken by the Singapore men. Hoses were soon snaking on board and shortly afterwards, half a dozen hoses poured water into the fire from the other side of the deck, some lashed to the deck fittings. There were now four monitors fighting the fire and the flames appeared increasingly subdued. Tom had climbed aboard the tanker, leaving Gonzales in charge of the tug.
He made his way aft and saw both lifeboats turned out and lowered to boat deck level. When he came onto the boat deck, he saw the boat on the starboard side was loaded with luggage, some men sitting on it.
“Where’s the captain?” he asked a rough-looking character dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt, the deck lights lending the fellow an unhealthy, pale look.
He pointed upwards towards the bridge. Tom carried on and in the wheelhouse found the captain sitting in the captain’s chair, with another man standing beside it.
“Good evening, captain, I am from Cosel Salvage and offer our services on Lloyds Open Form. As you can see, we are fighting the fire with our two tugs.”
“No sign. My owners say no sign.”
A swarthy face looked back at Tom, the light of the flickering flames on the foredeck rendering it redder than was natural.
“Very good. As you heard on the radio, my company will claim salvage anyway. Are you willing to help us in any way?”
“My crew say fire not their job and want to abandon ship,” sighed the captain.
“They can go onboard the two tugs if they like,” offered Tom.
“No good, you are too close to the fire.”
Tom walked out on to the starboard bridge wing, where he could see the two tugs alongside with tons of water being poured on board the burning tanker, cascading off the deck, down the side of the ship, some of it onto the tugs. It looked as though they were gaining on the fire.
“Captain won’t sign LOF, says he awaiting his owners’ instructions,” said Tom, into his radio.
“No problem, we will just claim salvage. What about the crew?”
“They say fire is not their job.”
“Even better for us, it means we will get a better award, provided we get this fire out. The salvage master is on the way with the Coselvenom, with more foam and men. We need to make a foam attack to get this fire out.”
“Okay, I am on my way back, the lifeboats are loaded with luggage.”
Tom heard Jan laugh.
He made his way back to the Singapore, the heat increasing as he came nearer to the fire. The sweat was soon pouring off him and he realised he should drink more water. He crossed over to the middle of the deck where there was a stack of water bottles, and just as he was picking one up, there was an explosion.
Tom fell on the deck, as did those with the fire hoses, the bottle rolling free from his hand. The noise had appeared loud and when he pulled himself together and looked up he saw flames shooting aft out of the forecastle, and then a whole series of small explosions. It must be the paint store, he thought, as he watched the forward Sunda monitors swing round and pour water into the forecastle. He stood up, ashamed of his weakness and walked back to the rails. The AB’s also stood up, laughing and joking.
The radio crackled and he heard Jan’s voice.
“Move forward, Singapore, closer to my stern and lift your monitor so it is more onto the flames.”
“Okay, cap,” came Gonzales’ voice.
Tom waved two of the AB’s across and told them to move the mooring lines of the Singapore as she moved forward. The flames in the forecastle seemed to be increasing, despite the amount of water being aimed through the door. He climbed back on board the tug and made his way to the bridge. He heard a noise and looking aft, saw the lifeboat being lowered, full of the crew.
“They are abandoning ship,” said Tom into the radio.
“To hell with them!” replied Jan. “We are going to have to make a foam attack and try and get the fires out. Something must be feeding the fire in the forecastle,” said Jan over the radio.
“Okay, just the monitors?” asked Tom.
“Just the monitors,” said Jan. “Start the foam in five minutes from now and tell the hose people to keep them away while the attack continues. If successful, we won’t need them.”
Tom told the chief officer to go on board and tell the firefighters what was happening while he spoke with the chief engineer. The flames provided illumination, but when they were out, they would need some lighting on deck. The deck lights had gone out some time before and now the tanker was being abandoned by its crew it would be up to the salvors. Tom saw the water jets from the Sunda change to white at the same time as the Singapore, the foam entering the forecastle from the forward two monitors and smothering the flames. In short order, the flames went out on deck, blanketed by the aft monitor of the Sunda and the single monitor from the Singapore. He saw Gonzales enter the forecastle, then indicate with his torch one of the hoses to be brought in.
It was dark now that the flames were out. The abandoned tanker had no deck lights, suggesting the crew had shut down the generators before they left. The only lighting was from the deck lights of the tugs, and there was a quietness after the roar of the flames, the only sounds coming from the tugs. Tom switched on the searchlight that was on top of the wheelhouse and saw that Jan had done the same. He saw Gonzales come out of the forecastle and, shielding his eyes from the glare of the searchlights, gave a thumbs up signal.
So the fires were completely out, thought Tom, and felt a huge surge of exultation. They had succeeded and he had had not failed, he had overcome that moment of panic and fear, fought off the flashback brought on by the fire on the first tanker and been able to fight a second fire in charge of his own tug.