“Have a beer, it’s lunch-time,” Jan greeted Tom.
“Thanks,” said Tom. “It’s agreed we tow back to outside Singapore Western Anchorage.”
“Good, and the harbour tug?” asked Tom.
“Excellent, she’s a good tug. This will be a big award. Lucky we have you to write it up, in addition to our Salvage Master. The old man will be pleased, let’s hope nothing goes wrong,” Jan laughed, and drank from his can.
“The drunk captain,” said Tom seriously. ” I don’t want him on the Singapore, he could cause trouble.”
“I agree, send him across in the stretcher. He won’t cause trouble on my tug,” said Jan, grimly.
“Right, I will arrange. Presumably we will start as soon as the slip hooks are ready, although the Coselhare won’t be here until this evening?”
“Better we start. If we tow slowly, we will be all right,” said Jan.
“Pedro should have completed securing the slip hooks,” said Tom. “I’ll go and check and report to Rogers.”
“I will stay here and receive the drunk. I should think we will make about three knots, more with the tide less against it. Its 1300 on Boxing Day, so by the time we are connected it will be mid-afternoon,” he paused. “So early morning, day after tomorrow, and we can adjust to make it daylight. It’s good. We go down the East side of the Malacca Strait and the Coselvenom can lead. Ricky can send the TTT to Singapore Radio, no problem. I have been looking around with Juan and forget about the anchors, they are jammed good. The divers have patched and sealed cracks on deck. Check if there is a stern anchor.”
It was a long speech for Jan and he laughed. “Perhaps I will make a Salvage Master!”
“Right, thanks for lunch and beer.”
Tom climbed back on board the drifting tanker to find his bosun and Pedro with some salvage crew, returning from aft.
“Slip hooks secured,” reported Pedro, head and shoulders taller than the rest of the men, his smooth face wet with sweat in the afternoon sun.
“Well done. Now, Pedro, we have a bit of a problem on board the Singapore. Her captain is sick. I would like you to help Jose here strap him into the stretcher and bring him over to the Sunda. Captain Jan will take care of him.”
“What’s wrong with him?” demanded Juan, who had joined the group.
Tom moved Juan away from the group, although he suspected the crew of the Singapore already knew, and said, “Drink.”
Juan looked shocked.
“Okay. I will take charge,” said a shaken and angry Juan. “Don’t tell Captain Rogers it is drink.”
Tom made his way aft, the sun hot on his bare head. He had forgotten his hat, and the heat was reflecting off the steel deck plates, the sea calm and glimmering. He found the hooks well secured and backed up to the forward bollards. Pedro had done a good job.
Walking back to the tugs, he saw the stretcher, with its load strapped in, being heaved up the side of the ship. The captain was sweating profusely, his arms pinioned by the straps, moaning piteously. Tom was shaken and felt sorry for the man, knowing he was finished at sea. The crew carried him along the deck and he was lowered onto the tow deck of the Sunda, where Jan was waiting with his mess man and cook, who carried him inside. Tom felt for Juan, sensing he had been humiliated, that one of his people – and a senior one, at that – had let the side down, just as Tom would have been if it had been a European.
Tom climbed up to the bridge on the outside, passing the lifeboat that had been hoisted and stowed in its davits by the ship’s crew. He found the Salvage Master, Captain Kios and Nicky, the diver, pouring over the chart of the Malacca Strait.
“Nicky here reckons the plate hanging down has added another twenty feet to the draught. We don’t want to hit bottom, although if we knocked it off, it would solve a lot of problems.” He gave a chuckle, which Tom had got to know, was his effort at a laugh, “So we will follow the deep water channel to Singapore. It adds a little distance but no matter. We cut across at the bottom to the anchorage,” and he pointed to a large cross in pencil, some miles outside Port Limits.
“Understood,” said Tom. “Jan says the anchors are jammed and unusable, however there is a stern anchor, although lighter than the main anchors.”
“No problem, I will have Coselversatile lay a mooring for us,” said Captain Rogers. Captain Kios looked surprised and said, “That is very good.”
“The slip hooks are all secured and ready,” reported Tom.
“Good, we can start. You arrange with Jan which side you are taking.”
"Sunda starboard, Singapore port side,” said Tom. “Jan suggests the main engine is on immediate standby for emergencies but please, in no circumstances, use it without informing him first.”
“Right. He is the tow master,” agreed Captain Rogers. “Juan, my chief officer, will drive the Coselvenom and lead, to warn any ship that approaches too close.”
“Captain Jan wants his third mate, Alfredo, to be in charge of the party, standing by the slip hooks. He wants three men, one at each hook and one standby. He requests two of your men and he will supply one AB.”
“Okay, agreed. Suggest you make fast first, as you have a single screw and no bow thruster,” he chuckled, his thin lips curving into a smile. “Gives you a bit more room. Sunda is more maneuverable.”
It was a hot Boxing Day afternoon and as remote from snow-covered England, with its Christmas trees and coloured lights, excited children and stressed out parents, food and drink, day of sales, as Tom could imagine, as he walked along the deck of the fire-damaged casualty with Juan. Tom spoke with Jan from the deck of the tanker before returning to the Singapore.
Once back on board his tug, he called for tea, took a minute or two to put himself in command mode, and with Juan and his men letting go the lines, neatly manoeuvred the Singapore clear, with an ahead movement to kick out the stern and clear of the Coselvenom, then full astern. The tug moved off smartly, with a gentle, increasing curve to starboard. When clear, and the bow pointing at the tanker, he went full ahead and hard a-starboard, until parallel with the side of the ship. He slowed down off the port quarter and put the stern of the tug close to the stern of the Kinos, where Juan just tossed the heaving line onto the tow deck. The towing connection was quickly made and Tom slowly moved ahead, paying out the tow wire to almost its fullest 1,500 feet extent. The Sunda followed and was soon connected on the starboard quarter.
Tom and Jan had discussed the tow and agreed the Singapore would tow at a steady speed while Jan, in charge of the towage convoy, would increase or decrease power as necessary, in an attempt to control the loaded tanker. It was still some hours before the Coselhare was due to arrive.
“Increase to half speed, Tom,” ordered Jan over the radio.
“Course sou’ sou’ west,” came the voice of the Salvage Master.
Tom slowly increased to half power, watching his wire, which remained satisfactorily in the water. The Sunda paid out, most of her wire ending up well ahead of the Singapore. The Kinos took a long time before she started to move, and took a sheer towards the Sunda, and Tom saw the tow wire slacken and go deeper into the water as Jan slowed his tug. The sheer stopped in time and the tanker altered course, heading towards the Singapore. Tom saw the tow wire tauten as Jan increased power. It was hot in the wheelhouse, with the doors open, Tom darting out frequently to check on his tow, and inside checking the compass.
“We will keep it slow until the Hare arrives,” said Jan, his disembodied voice filling the hot space.
The yawing was quite gentle at slow speed and the tugs settled down into towing routine, the towing gunwale regularly greased as the wire swept across it, the AB with the duty keeping his head well down. Tom soon began to catnap, the previous thirty hours without sleep and almost non-stop, high stress action catching up with him.
“Why don’t you sleep, Captain?” suggested Gonzales.
“No, I’ll stay up here and catnap, thanks. However, I am going to have a shower and shave, etc.,” said Tom.
“No problem, everything good.”
Tom returned half an hour later, clean and refreshed, and calling for more tea. Daylight faded quickly as the sun went down over Sumatra, and the warm, tropical night set in. It remained calm, the tug gently moving in an almost imperceptible swell, the tow steady as a rock, except for her incessant yawing. The proper towing signal lights were displayed on the tugs and the Salvage Master had arranged for temporary side lights to be fitted while the casualty was making stern way.
There was an increase in radio traffic when the Hare appeared and was made fast to the bow of the Kinos, Jan increasing the speed of the convoy. The yawing increased at first but the Hare master, under Jan’s guidance, soon had the hang of it and quite good steerage control was made. The convoy made about three knots as Jan had predicted.
The night progressed peacefully enough as they were overtaken by all southbound traffic, mainly heavily laden tankers bound for Japan. The cloud had increased at sunset and there was now spectacular lightening to the north. Just after midnight, a rain storm hit, with strong gusts of wind whipping up the smooth sea, and visibility was reduced to less than half a mile.
“Ship ahead of me, you can see my searchlight, alter course to starboard. You are in the southbound deep water channel and I am leading a damaged, loaded tanker under tow,” said the strained voice of Juan over the VHF channel sixteen.
There was no answer.
“Alter course to starboard, you are standing into danger,” he repeated, his voice raised in apprehension, and a little time later the rogue ship, a small coaster, appeared out of the reducing rain, dead ahead of the two tugs, looking as though it was about to pass between the two and hit the tanker.
“Switch on the searchlight, second mate!” shouted Tom, “Point it at the idiot.”
The Sunda searchlight found the coaster, first bathing it in light, revealing it to be a tired-looking thing, loaded to the gunnels with a deck cargo. It was only at the last minute that it altered course to starboard, just missing the bow of the Sunda, and disappeared into the night.
“Anyone get her name?” asked the calm voice of Jan, but there was no answer.
“Can do without that, ” said Tom into company radio microphone, his heart racing.
“It happens,” said the laconic voice of Jan.
Tom sent the lookout off to make tea. The night seemed longer now that he was too apprehensive to catnap. The general noise of a tug at sea seemed to set in louder, the steady beat of the engine large for the size of the vessel, the click click of the eco sounder, the glow from the radar, and the occasional order from Jan on the radio to the Coselhare, the Singapore keeping a steady course and speed while the tow maintained her continuous yawing. He occasionally left his chair to stretch his legs, walk out onto the bridge wing and sniff the damp Malacca Strait air, and look up into the sky, which was now
clear of the rain storm, the stars shining brightly and the waning moon falling. The lights of the ships on the port side bound north were clearly visible in the distance, those bound south behind them.
When Gonzales, the chief officer, took over the watch from the second officer, Tom felt more comfortable and was able to catnap. It was soon dawn, the daylight and a shower enlivening and invigorating him, despite forty-eight hours with no proper sleep. The Kinos appeared much larger in the daylight than just the lights in the dark, the yawing continuous but controlled by the Coselhare, which he could occasionally see if she was out on the port bow of her tow, the master earning his salary and bonus.
The day passed quickly enough, remaining fine but hot, the sea glassy calm, the swell gone.
The second night seemed much longer, with no excitements, the tow having gained its own momentum and rhythm, and it became almost routine, although Tom knew he should remain alert, an emergency could occur at anytime without warning. The third day dawned, and by now it was seventy-two hours without sleep, and Tom was tired. He wondered and marvelled at Jan’s stamina, his calm voice occasionally giving an order or advice on the radio, as he controlled the unwieldy tow.
They had made the turn to pass across from the deep water channel to the anchorage off Singapore, which meant crossing the northbound traffic stream. Singapore Radio had issued the navigational warning TTT and by agreement, Jan’s radio officer, Ricky, reissued it over the VHF radio channel sixteen every fifteen minutes, warning all vessels of the convoy, Coselvenom still leading.
Tom had seen the container ship moving very fast past Raffles light and Sultan Shoal, and assumed she would leave the convoy on her starboard side. She must have been doing more than twenty knots, thought Tom when, to his consternation and no doubt Jan’s, let alone the Salvage Master, the container ship, Zeus, her name clearly visible, passed the Kinos closer than was normal or sensible, then altered course round her stern, between the two tugs and their tow. Tom could not believe his eyes and wanted to shout and scream but realised because the Zeus was going so fast, there was nothing she could do but carry on. If she altered course to starboard, she would hit the tanker, which would be a catastrophic collision, or if to port, she would hit and roll over one or both tugs.
Jan’s calm voice came over both the company radio and VHF channel 16.
“Slow down Singapore or you will take off his propellers. Let her pass over your tow wire.”
Tom had seen the tow wire from the Sunda slacken and sink further in the water. He slowed right down and the container ship passed safely between the tugs and tow, her wash causing the tug to pitch quite heavily. Tom’s heart was racing with the fear of what seemed to him another near miss with death, and he felt his hands shaking. The mess man appeared with a cup of tea, for which he was exceedingly grateful. Jan informed Singapore Radio what had happened but there was no response from the Zeus. No doubt the owners would have something to say to the master when the complaint came through.
“We are coming up to the Cosel mooring buoy,” said Jan. Tom, who had seen the Coselversatile some time before the container ship incident, was impressed at Jan’s continually calm voice as he gave orders to the various tugs bringing the tanker to the buoy, using her main engine to slow down the tanker, and slipping the Sunda.
“Very neat, Jan,” congratulated Captain Rogers, as the first line was run to the mooring buoy by one of the small harbour tugs that had been standing by, although Tom could not see it. The Singapore remained connected aft while the Hare was slipped and being used as a pusher tug, the control of the operation having passed to the Salvage Master when the Sunda slipped.
It was almost noon when the order was given to slip the Singapore and Tom went alongside the Sunda, the sea being flat calm with only the occasional residual wash from ships passing a good distance off. The Hare was connected to the stern of the Kinos to keep her off the buoy.
The lightening tanker, the Buron, slightly bigger than the Kinos, was due to arrive the next day, having been diverted from her voyage to the Persian Gulf in ballast, so there was a little down time before the cargo transfer started. Tom took the opportunity to go on board the Sunda and talk to Jan before seeking his bunk.
“Well done, Tom, a difficult tow. Well done, with only two near misses, and thankfully the Salvage Master kept quiet.” He guffawed. “Have a beer, lunch is on the way.”
“How’s the sick man?” asked Tom, drinking from the cold tin he had been handed.
“DT’s, delirium tremens, he has been shouting and screaming so we had to keep him strapped in the stretcher. Not a nice job for the mess man to look after. Look, there is the Coselone taking the surveyors and hangers on to the Kinos. She will take him ashore. He is finished, he should never have been employed.”
He took a swig from his can, shaking his head.
“Captain Rogers called me on the radio and said I should help him as his assistant for the cargo transfer, as I did with the car carrier. It would be good experience for me.”
“I heard and agree.”
“If the Singapore goes to sea, Gonzales, who should be okay, will need a good chief officer.”
“I’ve already spoken to Daniel Bang on the radio telephone, and he’s sending one out as soon as possible.”
“I’m dead on my feet, and after that curry, can barely stay awake,” said Tom, drowsily.
“Here’s the Coselone, so we can get rid of the drunk,” said Jan, looking equally tired, his chubby, unshaven face drawn, and black bags under his eyes. They watched the stretcher being passed over to the the crew boat, with Jan shouting down to bring the stretcher back.
“Right, I’m off to my bunk,” said Tom.
“Hold on a minute, Tom, I need to talk to you about ...” and his voice trailed off and his head fell on his chest, “Perhaps now is not the right time, we are too tired, but it is important. Go to bed and I will talk tomorrow, although it will be a busy day.”