Tom saw the jets from the Sunda monitors droop and stop and, brought back to earth himself, rang down to the engine room and told them to stop the foam and fire pumps. He climbed on board the tanker and made his way forward along the deck, stopping opposite the bridge of the Sunda.
“Have a beer,” laughed an ebullient Jan, as he threw a can at Tom, who managed to catch it, the cold tin a sudden shock to his hands. Tom drained it in one; it tasted like nectar. The accommodation of the tanker was faint in the darkness, the smell of crude surrounding them reminded him of the danger they were all in.
"Coselvenom, now the fires are out, will be here shortly, I have her on the radar at six miles. The Salvage Master will take charge,” and he gave a mirthless laugh as he took a swig from his can. “If it was me, I would connect up and tow her to Singapore, an abandoned tanker. Loaded, we would get a nice bonus. I have told the divers to dive at daylight, we need to know what the damage is forward.”
“Any news of the crew?” asked Tom.
“Not worried about them, they are quite safe in their lifeboat. No one has been on the radio to say they have been picked up. The crew of the first tanker were all picked up, lucky they abandoned quick enough. I have cancelled the SOS.”
At that moment, Tom saw a lifeboat emerging from the darkness, full of men approaching the Sunda.
“Speak of the devil!” exclaimed Tom, loudly. “It’s the captain come to reclaim his ship.”
“Good, I will get him to sign LOF before the Salvage Master arrives and claims the glory.”
Jan disappeared into the wheelhouse and shortly afterwards appeared on the after deck to welcome the captain and his crew.
Tom saw Jan shake hands with the captain and then almost drag him along and up to his bridge. The rest of the crew made their way across the tug, helped by the salvage men, and climbed aboard their ship, leaving the lifeboat loaded with the luggage alongside the tug. Tom went on board the Sunda to find Jan and the captain in heated argument about the LOF.
“I no sign!” shouted the captain, his sallow face flushed with anger.
“You sign. I risk my crew and my tug to save your ship and you run away!” boomed Jan, his moustache quivering with rage, his clenched fist raised as though about to strike. “I claim salvage!” and he brought his fist down on the table.
Tom wondered what how best to break what looked like fisticuffs, when Jan saw him and shouted, “My legal man, he will explain!”
“It is much better you sign,” said Tom quietly, trying to defuse the situation, the second mate trying to make himself invisible in the corner as Jan disappeared. “If you don’t sign, we will arrest your ship and claim salvage through the courts, all very expensive and unnecessary for your owners. Just sign and it is all taken care of through Lloyds, no courts, just an arbitration in London.”
Tom felt he was in some sort of fantasy-land, divorced from reality. Here he was, in the Malacca Straits, in the middle of the night, standing on the bridge of a tug alongside a tanker where they had just put out a major fire, a lifeboat alongside, talking about arbitration in London, while ships passed, some quite close, their navigation lights bright in the darkness; but he knew this was reality, not fantasy, and very important.
Jan reappeared, carrying an armful of cold beers, followed by the mess man carrying glasses and some biscuits.
“A nice cooling drink,” said Jan, thrusting a filled glass at the captain who, looking distraught, took it and drank. The mess man handed Tom a glass but Jan just opened a can and drank. The captain munched on a biscuit and seemed to have calmed down.
“You can’t move until we have had the divers down,” continued Tom, “and I suspect the forepeak is damaged. You will have to be towed. Our Salvage Master is arriving in the next few minutes. Much better you sign and save a lot of trouble. You have the option of an easy, well-known procedure through Lloyds or an expensive court action.”
“My owners say no sign,” said the worried captain, appearing much calmer.
“That was before you abandoned your ship. We are now what is known in legal terms as ‘salvors in possession’ and the situation is entirely different. Don’t forget, we are here to assist you but we prefer a contract,” Tom said, his voice quiet.
“Okay, I sign but you help me.”
“Of course,” said Tom, and Jan slapped the captain on the back, handing him another beer.
A voice came over the company radio. “I am coming alongside, move the lifeboat.”
Jan grabbed the microphone, beer in hand, and said, “Go alongside the Singapore or better still, the tanker, the fire is out. The lifeboat is full of luggage.”
The Lloyds Form was lying on the chart-room table where the captain signed, followed by Jan, who was grinning from ear to ear. He slapped the captain again on the back and said, “Get your generators started, captain, so we have some light and can inspect the fire damage.”
The captain left the bridge, climbed on board his own ship and made his way back to the bridge.
“My LOF the Kinos,” said Jan proudly. “I could not bear it if that prick had claimed it,” he laughed. “Ricky!” he shouted. “A message for you,” as he scribbled on a piece of paper.
A rather pale-faced, middle-aged Filipino appeared from the radio room and took the proffered paper.
“Send it quick,” ordered Jan.
Tom and Jan climbed aboard the tanker to find the tall, thin figure of the salvage master walking towards them, his figure illuminated by the searchlight of the Singapore.
“Are your spark arrestors in place on the funnels of your tugs?” he greeted them.
“Of course,” replied Jan, curtly.
“LOF has been agreed between the office and the owners,” he rather drawled in his flat, toneless voice, the southern hemisphere accent more apparent than usual.
“I’ve signed with the captain,” retorted Jan.
Tom thought it was a strange way to greet two colleagues who had just put out a major fire on a loaded tanker.
“We won’t need yours, Jan,” said Captain Rogers, as he walked forward to look at the fire damage.
Jan looked livid, his face clearly visible in the searchlight and Tom could see he was holding himself in check.
“Don’t worry, Jan,” said Tom, “your LOF binds the cargo much better than one signed by the owners only. We had a case about it.”
“Thank you, Tom,” said Jan, and then shouted, “I’ve told Singapore.”
They followed the Salvage Master, who neither turned round, nor said anything when they caught up with him. The deck lights came on, making it much easier to see their way amongst the pipework. The AB’s, who had been manning the fire hoses, were now reclining, waiting for orders.
Tom could see the forecastle was badly damaged. The door had blown out and the deck plates were badly buckled and torn from the explosion. Further forward, he could see that the collision had twisted and bent the plates. The foam blanket looked good and there was no sign of any fire, although the strong smell of crude oil lingered, reminding them of the danger they were in at all times. It only took a spark to cause an explosion.
Tom looked out to sea and saw the darkness was fading with the coming daylight. A new day, Tom thought, and immediately felt invigorated.
They entered the forecastle but the damage prevented them going in very far; the foam blanket, however, looked good.
“I am going onto the bridge to talk with the captain. Tom, you come with me,” ordered the Salvage Master.
“Tom is Captain of the Singapore, the new man is sick,” said Jan. Captain Rogers looked surprised.
“He can still come with me until we decide what to do.”
“Connect up and tow to Singapore,” said Jan forcefully.
The Salvage Master ignored Jan and started walking aft along the now brightly-illuminated deck. Jan nodded to Tom, who followed Captain Rogers. On the bridge, Tom introduced the captain, who looked much better, to the Salvage Master, who started asking questions and demanded to see the general arrangement plan and cargo plan. The Kinos was loaded with 150,000 tons of crude oil bound for Japan, and she was fitted with an inert gas system. The tanker was quite modern, only a few years old.
“Once we have the divers report,” said Captain Rogers, “we will decide what to do. I know an owners’ rep is on the way.”
Tom, standing in the wheelhouse, saw the sun, a golden orb, rising above a distant Malaysia, heralding in the day. The damage on the forecastle was clearly visible from the bridge and Tom studied it through the binoculars. He gladly accepted the captain’s invitation to breakfast but the Salvage Master declined, saying he was too busy. Tom was ravenous and thoroughly enjoyed the excellent eggs and bacon.
Back on the bridge, Tom found the Salvage Master in deep discussion with the senior diver from the Coselvenom, who handed him a sketch of the underwater damage. It was extensive, with the forepeak open to the sea and the bulbous bow all torn and twisted, one of the plates hanging down below the bottom of the ship. There was no sign of any oil, so the freshwater tank abaft the forepeak must be intact.
“I am pretty sure oil has leaked into the freshwater tank from the cargo tank, which was on fire because of the explosion and fire in the forecastle,” said Tom, when Captain Rogers had finished with the diver.
The captain had joined them on the bridge. Captain Rogers said, “It is quite clear we will have to tow you stern first to Singapore. You better hoist, you’re not under command signal, captain.”
“I talk to my owners first,” said a worried captain, his face drawn with black bags under his eyes, emphasising his sallow skin. He was not a large man but he seemed to be shrivelling under the weight of the disaster that had struck his ship. The chief officer, a burly younger man, shook his head.
“Not to worry, captain, you are in good hands,” said Tom.
“She will have to be dry docked, the damage is too great for the divers to tackle,” said the Salvage Master, in quite a lively voice. “That means a full discharge,” and his eyes lit up at the prospect.
“Tom, we will make preparations to tow by the stern to Singapore. Rig two Stenhouse slip hooks, one on each quarter.”
“Understood, Captain Rogers,” said Tom, and left the bridge, making his way forward to confer with Jan on board the Sunda.
“Okay, I tell Pedro to fix. Have a beer,” and he rang down to the mess room.
Tom was sitting comfortably in the chair on the port wing of the bridge, which Jan had fixed up so he had his captain’s chair on both sides of the wheelhouse. Jan was well ensconced on the starboard chair with a convenient ledge to rest his beer can.
“Could do with a cigar,” Jan laughed, “that would upset our Salvage Master. Still, even I can smell the crude.”
At that moment, they both heard the distinctive ‘thrump thrump’ of rotor blades slashing the air, heralding the approach of a helicopter. Jan rushed out onto the bridge wing, hotly followed by Tom.
“He can’t possibly land, there is the smell of crude. I’ve had the divers searching the fire area for a hole or leak on deck. There is not much wind but what there is blowing aft and a good chance of an explosive mixture somewhere. Go and hold the Salvage Master’s hand, Tom,” said Jan, an urgency creeping into his voice.
"Kinos, Kinos, this is helicopter Charlie Echo, permission to land,” said a voice on VHF channel sixteen.
“Negative, negative,” was the Salvage Master’s repsonse, high pitched with tension, or was it fear, thought Tom.
“Go,” urged Jan and Tom quickly climbed aboard and made his way up to the bridge of the tanker where he found Captain Rogers in something of a state, and the captain of the Kinos looking at him rather oddly.
The helicopter hovered above the bridge, making it difficult to hear, but Tom caught the words “winch down.”
“I don’t want that thing anywhere near this ship,” said a visibly worried Captain Rogers. Tom saw him in a very different light, his voice still high pitched with the strain.
“Why not send out the Sunda to stand off the ship and the helicopter can land on her tow deck? There’s plenty of room,” suggested Tom, quietly.
“Good idea,” said a relieved Salvage Master, and in a calm, clear but toneless voice, gave his instructions to the tug and helicopter.
It was not long before the Sunda was standing off. Tom was not sure he would have done it quite the way Jan had manoeuvred the tug, which appeared to have been simply putting both engines on full ahead, because the tug suddenly shot ahead, her bridge apparently shaving the damaged forecastle of the drifting tanker. Tom watched the helicopter land, the rotors appearing very close to the accommodation, but it was an illusion because Tom knew there was plenty of room. Four figures jumped out onto the tow deck of the tug as the rotors slow, and had stopped turning by the time the zed boat with the people had left the tug.
The four figures turned out to be the owners’ rep, Lloyds classification surveyor, Cosel’s dive master – the bald-headed Wayne Dawson – and the Salvage Association surveyor. The Salvage Master, who seemed to know them all, introduced the captain of the Kinos and said, “We can use the owner’s suite which has a table.”
“Nice one here,” said Wayne. “Well done getting the fires out, the damage forward from the air looks extensive. I see the Sunda seems to have some burnt paint on the side.”
“The first tanker blew up when we were still close, although we were moving off,” said Tom tautly, momentarily reliving the moment of panic and fear.
“A bit hairy, eh?”
“Bit too hairy for my liking,” laughed Tom, relieving his own tension.
They were sitting around the table in the owners’ suite, the Salvage Master and Lloyds Surveyor in chairs, the rest on the L-shaped settee. The Salvage Master came into his own with the general arrangement plan and diver’s sketch spread out, explaining the damage as he saw it and the necessity for a dry docking, thus a full discharge.
After considerable discussion, it was finally agreed. The Salvage Master’s eyes gleamed and he almost became animated at the prospect.
“I think this will be the biggest tanker job Cosel has ever done,” whispered Wayne, who was sitting next to Tom.
“I think the LOF should be terminated as soon as possible,” said the Salvage Association Surveyor, Mike, a tall, clean-shaven man with a pleasant, well-worn face, “and the cargo transfer done under contract.”
“No,” said Captain Rogers emphatically. “I know you are trying to save underwriters’ money but I don’t think Cosel would agree to do it on contract. It is salvage, the ship is badly damaged, you need us with our salvage expertise and equipment. She needs towing to the transfer location and towage to the dry dock. You need salvors, not contractors.”
“We can always put it out to tender.”
“The only people who can do this sort of thing with a damaged ship are our competition,” pointed out Captain Rogers, “and they would be expensive, even if they would agree a contract, knowing we are on LOF.”
“I tend to agree with the Salvage Master,” said the owners’ rep, an overweight Englishman with white hair and a red face. “It will take time to bring in anyone else. Cosel, I was told, already have an option on a suitable tanker and have the necessary Yokohama fenders and equipment. I think we will leave it with Cosel and the cost can be fought over at arbitration in London. What about the damage, Mr Dawson?”
“Very extensive, as you can see from the sketch. I spoke with the senior diver on the Sunda… Ah, here is the diver in charge,” as a tall, thin Filipino appeared, dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt. “The main problem is the plate hanging down from the bulbous bow. Nicky?” and Wayne waved his hand in the direction of the smart-looking man.
“It is too big for us to cut underwater, anyway, with the equipment we have on site,” said Nicky, pointing at the sketch. “The forepeak is open to the sea, although there is no oil leakage, and the hole is too big and the surrounding plates so mangled and twisted, it would prevent us putting on more than a temporary plywood patch, which would not survive the ship going ahead. To do more than that would need more divers, fabricated steel plates from ashore and vastly more equipment than we have here. It would take a long time and be dependent on good weather, it can sometimes get rough in the Malacca Straits. Remember the Seawise ship, cap?” Nicky’s accent, somehow enhancing his excellent English, suggesting he had lived out of the Philippines at some point in his life.
“Time, gentlemen, time is money for us,” said the Englishman. “We need to get the ship back into commission as quickly as possible. She is on a good time charter and there are penalties for delay, although no doubt our lawyers are busy declaring force majeure at the moment.”
“So, we are agreed, tow by the stern to a designated transfer area, full discharge and tow to dry dock,” said the Salvage Master, summing up.
“We can discuss the situation of termination of the LOF after the full discharge. I expect she may be able to proceed under her own power in ballast,” said Mike, the Salvage Association Surveyor, his pleasant face now serious.
“I suggest the transfer be done just outside Singapore port limits, Western Anchorage, which is close to our base,” said Captain Rogers.
“Can the two tugs tow this large, loaded tanker stern first? It will be very difficult,” pointed out Mike.
“I have discussed this with our Towing Master, the slip hooks are in place now,” Tom put in, surprising Captain Rogers. “As you know, he is very experienced and he says there is no problem, providing we have a good, manoeuvrable harbour tug on the bow to assist in steering. She will tend to yaw.”
"Coselhare,” said the Salvage Master.
“Makes sense,” said the Englishman.
“I agree,” said the Lloyds Surveyor. “I have been talking with Nicky and Wayne.”
“I don’t disagree,” laughed Mike, breaking the tension, and the meeting broke up.
Tom escorted the four men back to the Singapore, where they boarded the waiting zed boat, the long-haired driver behaving himself, driving the boat at a respectable speed. Tom watched the helicopter take off and disappear in the direction of Singapore. Another new experience to add to those he had already packed during last twenty-four hours of this Christmas and Boxing Day. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would participate in such drama with such success. They still had a difficult tow and he suddenly remembered the sick captain; he wanted him off the tug. He walked along the deck and climbed on board the Sunda, when Jan brought her back alongside.