Salvage at Steeple Jason Download as PDF file.
Dropping a propeller on an ocean-going freighter wasn’t all that serious, unless you only had one. To have it happen with a storm brewing, and close to land, was the stuff that turned mariner’s hair grey, and made old men out of ships’ captains. Ross Sterling dearly wanted to reach the stricken vessel before dark, especially since he was short one crew member.
Seated on the bridge of his salvage tug, he commanded an all-encompassing view of the early autumn storm through seven thick windows whose wipers were working overtime to clear heavy rain lacing the glass. Behind him, twin exhaust stacks running up the rear corners of the bridge, straddled five rectangular windows giving him a more confined view of the vessel’s long working deck. Ross ran the ship himself while seated in a comfortable black leather chair, all the controls at his fingertips.
King Edward VII Memorial Hospital had radioed Southern Tide with an update on his injured crewman. He’d be off his feet for six weeks and out of commission for six months. A full recovery was expected, and he wouldn’t even limp. Well in a few days the lad would be home eating his new bride’s cooking. Ross didn’t envy him that, he preferred Jimmy Wok’s meals any day.
Still, that didn’t solve the problem of his being shorthanded, and on a high seas salvage operation in a driving gale at that. Southern Tide’s bow dropped into a trough, sending a wall of white seawater cascading over the windows.
Chilling air swirled about the bridge as the port door opened letting in wind, rain and salt water. Ben Richardson, life-long friend and ship’s mate, stepped inside, dripping all over the floor. “Bloody wicked out, Ross. Why do these chaps always break down in the middle of a storm?”
“I do believe it is because the money is better.”
“Because, we’ll damn well break our necks, that’s why. I can’t say as I envy doing this short-handed.”
“Look at the bright side, Ben, we’ll have a lot more excitement here than Todd will in the sack with a cast on his leg.”
“I hope he falls out of bed.” Ben took off his hat and brushed back what should have been curly brown hair, but now looked more akin to a cat fished out of a millpond. With water dripping in his eyes, he grabbed a towel from the pile Jimmy Wok kept on the bridge.
Ross nodded toward the radio. “The old boy hasn’t called for fifteen minutes. Give him a shout.”
Ben dried his face, then, while towelling his hair with one hand, picked up the radio microphone. “Maria del Sol. Maria del Sol. This is Southern Tide. Do you read, over?”
“Si, señor. We still are here. Over.”
“Just checking, old boy. What’s your present position?”
“The radar, it says we are fourteen kilometres from Steeple Jason.”
Ben threw the wet towel in a hamper. “Your drift has increased then?”
“Si, my friend,” the Spanish voice said. “We are coming to shore much quickly.” The channel remained open, quiet but for the sound of static. “My captain, he wishes to confirm that his ship will very soon be close on the rocks of Jason West.”
Ben looked at Ross. “Jason West Cay?”
Ross nodded. “Only found out myself from his last call. I was waiting for confirmation.”
“He won’t miss it?”
“Doesn’t appear to be the case. I was hoping for a shift in the wind. We’d have him in tow easily before he came up on East Cay or Steeple Jason.”
Ben swept his arm around the bridge. “Whole bloody ocean around and he has to drift smack into that little rock. How much time do we have?”
“We could use three hours. It won’t be that.” Ross nodded to the mike. “Ask him.”
Ben looked at the clock, then called the stricken freighter.
The reply was not encouraging. “Señor, we will not miss the small island. We have only two hours.”
Ben turned to Ross, waiting for his reply.
“Tell them we’ll be there in one hour,” Ross said, pushing against throttle levers already set full ahead. “One hour, Ben. It’ll be closer to an hour and fifteen minutes, but don’t tell them that.”
Ben keyed the mike. “Maria del Sol, at present we are in the lee of Steeple Jason. Our ETA is sixty minutes. One hour, mate.”
“My captain, he says we wait only one hour for you. He does not want to abandon his ship so close to the shore when it is dark.”
“Tell him, that’s not an option. We’ll be there in one hour. Please have a crew ready to receive the heaving line.” Ben set the mike down, not at all pleased deceiving the endangered sailors. He was about to say something when Ross cut him off.
“They need hope more than anything else, Ben. We had to offer it.”
“Quite so.” He dropped the matter. “I’ll need help on the deck.”
“I know. Our only option is to get Karl out to assist you.” Ross hated to leave the engine room unattended under such dangerous conditions, but knew there was absolutely no way Ben could handle the connection alone.
Ross turned to greet his cook. “Jimmy Wok, old chap.”
Dressed in white pants and t-shirt, the little North Vietnamese cook moved to set down two mugs of tea. “Very hot, Boss.”
Ben took his from Wok’s hand. Cold fingers stung against the steaming mug. “Ah, hot, hot.” He quickly set it on the chart table.
Ross waited for his to be placed in the right-hand holder by his seat. “Thank you, Jimmy.”
“Yes, thank you, Wok, my good man.” Ben returned to blowing on his fingers. Southern Tide rolled to starboard, sending Ben’s mug sliding across the Admiralty chart. “Oh, no you don’t.” Wok and Ross laughed as he burnt his fingers a second time.
Ross turned serious. “Wok, we’re going to be dreadfully busy in an hour or so. What can you whip up for us on short notice?”
“Beef barley soup, and sandwich.”
“What, no roast beef, gravy, and Yorkshire?” Ben asked in jest.
“This not Sunday.”
“Oh, very well.”
“Could you bring it up, Wok, please?” Ross turned the wheel, correcting Southern Tide as she dropped over an oncoming crest. “Don’t forget Karl.”
Quick as a cat, the cook was gone.
An hour later, pelting rain darkened as they began losing the daylight.
Ben looked at the clock. Ross made no move toward the radio.
Two minutes ticked by before the freighter called. “Southern Tide. Southern Tide. Over.”
Ben answered into the mike. “We’re here, Maria del Sol. How are things on your end?”
A new voice came on the radio. It spoke with more bass in a strange mixture of authority and fear. “Southern Tide. This is Captain Eduardo Díaz. Your hour is finished. You are not here.”
Ross took the mike. “I’m no more than fifteen minutes away.” Ross checked the radar for confirmation. It looked good. Two minutes later, he swung out from behind the rocky cay. “Will you stay with your ship?”
“Si, si. Your ship is on the radar now. We will be ready.”
Lightning flashed in the darkening clouds ahead revealing a scene before him that was enough to strike fear into the heart of even the Ancient Mariner. Laying broadside in the seas, the freighter was at its mercy. When each wave drove into the ship’s side, she shuddered momentarily before water rose skyward in an iridescent plume. Blown over her decks, sea spray driven horizontal, looked like slanting rain in an old black and white movie as it was carried across the shadows of her lighted superstructure. The helpless ship then heeled wickedly as the wave rolled underneath her.
Directly east lay their nemesis, Jason West Cay. An outcropping of rock, that even in this weather was home to hundreds of seals, appeared a cauldron of white, where twenty-foot seas spent their last moments in a witch’s brew of boiling water and sea foam. The only thing between the Maria del Sol and disaster was a thick bed of kelp. And Southern Tide.
The drama would have one act, there would be no time for a second go at it, and no margin for error. Approaching the freighter’s stern, Ross chanced a glance at the rocky shore, awestruck by its wild fury. He caressed the throttles as he came up on her windward side. Below decks, twin twelve-cylinder diesel engines responded to his commands. Keeping fifty yards between himself and the ship, Ross could see men in life-jackets mustered by the lifeboats. All looking to him for salvation. Some waved. Most appeared terrified. Ross could well understand why.
Lightning flashed in the sky as Ben stepped out into the storm, closing the bridge door behind. He heard no sound of thunder, only the wind’s howling fury driving at him as sea spray and pelting rain blew under his protective gear. Even while standing in a sheltered area where he could usually hear the diesel engines rumbling in the exhaust stacks, a constant moaning of the wind drowned out all other sound.
He made a last minute check of the heaving line he would send over to the stricken vessel. Karl stepped out of the aft door as Ben repositioned the line to keep it from fouling when the tug rolled. The engineer huddled by the winch as a wave of green water broke over the side, surging across the deck ankle deep. Using hand signals, both men worked together paying out the tow cable as the water spilled back into the sea.
Another wave layed the tug over to starboard. Ben lost his footing as water washed him into the railing, the big cable slithering about loose. Struggling to get up, Ben fell again when the ship rolled the other way, sending him back across the slippery steel. He scrambled up next to Karl.
“Damn, this is impossible,” he yelled.
Karl hollered back, “We’ll connect it right off the winch.”
The ship rocked sideways as water shot skyward in a column of angry grey. Driven by force 9 winds, it lashed the two men, drowning out Karl’s inquiry about Ben having a better idea.
Ross slowed while approaching the freighter’s bow, swinging Southern Tide into the storm. Holding her motionless in the towering seas, he let her slip astern, easing to within yards of the steel hull, and aiming for a spot under the anchor where Ben would fire the line-throwing gun.
Chancing a quick glance to his right he saw Jason’s jagged crags, a line of black in churning white foam. Forward, the view was even more fear-inspiring, waves rising together, their crests curling over, only to be torn into streamers and carried into the darkness before the wave dropped tons of water on the bow. Locked in the ocean’s grip, both ships continued drifting toward the waiting rocks. Ross was sure he could hear the waves breaking above the shrieking storm, he was that close. The storm continually pushed Southern Tide toward the freighter. Ross feathered the throttles to compensate.
With the line-throwing gun in his right hand, Ben stood poised for his one chance to send the light nylon rope arcing over the freighter’s deck. Ross fought to keep Southern Tide’s bow straight, widening the gap. Raising the gun to his shoulder, Ben pulled the trigger. A loud pop was lost to the storm as the shot line curled upward and vanished in the glare of rain and lights. Ben willed it to fall over the freighter’s railing.
Fighting his drift toward the freighter, Ross eased away from the larger ship. Someone, out of sight on the deck above, began pulling in the rope. The tug rose viciously in the oncoming seas, and, defying Ross’ efforts to hold her off, the starboard bow angled into the oncoming sea. The messenger line started uncoiling. Ben watched it uncoil. The last thing he needed now was a snarled wire hanging halfway between the two ships.
A quartering wave broke over the port side. Water, surging across the heeling deck, spilled into Ben’s boots, breaking loose his footing, and once again piling up him against the starboard railing. Behind, the line sprung into a snarl of coils. Young Todd’s job, Ben thought. He should have been out here, soaking wet like the rest of us and watching the wire instead of lying about in a hospital bed, doted on by Fiona. Surely it couldn’t be as exciting as this.
With the line steadily being drawn toward the freighter now snarled in his hands, Ben grabbed the eye, cleared about nine feet of cable and headed for the winch. Karl stood holding the heavy mainline eye in both hands. Another wave broke over the rail, covering them in water. Knocked to his hands and knees, Ben held his breath until its force diminished. Salt water stung his eyes when he looked to find Karl still holding the eye for him.
When Ross noticed the men aboard Maria del Sol looking down, he glanced back to see his two men struggling in the water surging over the deck. Karl seemed to be yelling at Ben who was struggling to drag the messenger toward the winch.
“The pin’s in my pocket,” Karl yelled as Ben slipped the messenger eye into the shackle. Ben placed Karl’s hand on the line, then whipped off his right-hand glove and reached into Karl’s pocket. Another wave coming over the side caught the snarl of wire, threatening to pull it out of Karl’s hand. Ben shoved home the pin as the wire slipped out of Karl’s grip. Three turns and the pin was home. Karl moved back to the winch controls as tension came on the messenger, tightening the snarled coils into a ball of twisted steel wire.
Ross eased Southern Tide in front of the freighter, allowing the heavy two-inch cable, now suspended on the light wire, to line up with the freighter’s fairlead.
Despite his best efforts to hold the vessel steady, the distance between both ships continued to grow. The messenger vibrated and sang in the wind, a thin thread of salvation shining in the rain-swept night.
Ross feathered the throttles, knowing the line could break from the strain placed on it by the heavy tow wire, whipping back and possibly fouling the propellers, not to mention losing the freighter on the rocks. Feeling his ship rise and fall with the waves, he watched Karl expertly hold just enough tension on the main winch to keep the cable clear of the stern.
Before the main towline eye disappeared through the freighter’s fairlead, Ben hooked up the gob wire. Karl waited, his back to the storm. High above in the bridge, Southern Tide’s radio came to life.
“Senor Sterling, the heavy wire is aboard. My men are connecting it at this moment. Please stand by.”
“Roger that, Maria S,” Ross said, then waited.
Seconds dragged by. “Captain, the line is secure. You may begin the tow.”
“Roger, roger, roger.” Ross fed power to the big diesels, their propellers biting into the raging sea, and Southern Tide moved away from the freighter’s bow. Karl, feathered the big winch brake, allowing the mainline to run out.
The intercom buzzed. Ross picked it up and listened to Ben’s voice. “It’s a bloody miserable night to be about, governor.”
“Do up the top button on your slicker or you’ll end up with wet boxers.”
“They’re already draining into my boots.”
“We’ll string two-hundred yards of cable, Ben.”
“Right.” The phone went dead.
When Karl wound off the requested length and set the brake, Ross saw the line tighten, adjusted the throttles, and began the business of building forward momentum with the freighter on a short tow. There was plenty of time to pull the vessel across the face of West Jason and into the open sea.
Ben came up the interior companionway, rubbing his wet hair with a towel. “Well there, that should keep the bitch off the rocks.” Ben pointed to the freighter falling astern. “I see you’re not pulling straight out.”
“I don’t think we have the sea room to arrest her drift.”
“So you plan on towing parallel to shore?”
“Well, I’ll place a little angle on it, but I want to get her north of the island and out to sea.”
Ben walked over to the radar and set it for five miles then walked over and laid out Admiralty chart number 2514. What he saw sent shivers up his spine. “You know where we are?”
“West of Jason Cay.”
“Correct. Have you consulted the chart?”
Ross thought a moment. “I’m familiar with it, but haven’t studied it tonight.”
Ben stared at the chart.
Ross looked at his good friend. “What am I missing, Ben?”
“Jason West is just barely on the northwest corner of the chart.”
Ross pictured the Jason Islands in his mind. “Jason West, Jason East, Steeple and Grand Jason. Correct?”
“Ross, it’s not what is east of the Cay that is important. Outside the border someone has pencilled in the words, reef reported to extend northwest by west.”
Ross didn’t need to consult a chart to visualize where the line of submerged rocks ran. It was dead ahead.
If he didn’t turn the tow seaward soon, and the reef was there, he’d tear the freighter’s bottom out. Even Southern Tide might not clear the rocks in these seas. Ross nudged the throttle open, and with his right hand turned the wheel slightly to port.
Ben touched Ross’ hand briefly. “Easy, a parted wire is of no use.”
Ross returned the throttles to their original position. “Read me some depths, Ben.”
Ben adjusted the echo sounder and watched it for a moment. “Twenty-one metres.”
Looking ahead, all Ross could see through the driving torrent, was blackness. “How far are we from Jason West?”
Ben found it as the radar finished another sweep. “Fourteen-hundred yards, fine to starboard.” That told Ross all he needed to know. He turned the wheel a bit more, knowing the tug, tethered to the freighter, would angle seaward. Somewhere directly ahead, a phantom row of submerged rocks quite possibly barred his path. He was quite prepared to believe Southern Tide would clear them. As for the freighter, that was a different matter. Probably not, otherwise why the notation pencilled on the chart. He had to assume the reef was there. Sailing straight ahead was out of the question. It remained to be seen whether they could bring the dead ship about in time.
“Radar says we’re moving at a knot, possibly more.”
Ross stole a glance out back. Six-hundred feet astern, her deck lights a dim glow in the storm, followed the Argentine freighter. All those lives hanging upon his decisions. Well, his and Ben’s, for he knew from years together that these decisions were made as a team.
“I do believe we’re making a knot and a half,” Ben said.
“How much sea room?”
“With the wind still pushing her, I’d say he’s down to a kilometre.”
“Five-eights of a mile,” Ross said, holding everything steady. Scanning the sea, he could find no evidence of the reef. “I don’t suppose there were any depths marked on the chart?”
“None, but it has to show up soon.”
Thirty seconds later Ben began reading off the decreasing depth. “Thirteen metres... six and a half. This is it!” Ross sailed on as the ocean floor shallowed. “Six metres. Drop into a deep trough and we’ll bang bottom.”
“Barely over a knot and a half.”
“Not enough.” Ross held steady.
“Less than six metres, Ross. God, you’re right on top of it.”
Ross waved his concern aside. Southern Tide continued over the reef.
“Six again. Needn’t remind you, old boy, that freighter draws eight metres. Pull her over these rocks and she’ll draw two less.”
Ross held Southern Tide straight for another minute.
“Ross, you’re cutting this awfully fine.” Ben said, his voice edged with concern. Rubbing the back of his neck, he stared astern, waiting for Ross to turn seaward. When he did, Ben breathed a sign of relief.
Using a combination of Southern Tide’s pull and the freighter’s momentum, Ross tried to swing both ships clear of the reef.
The bow came around, placing the gob wire under increasing strain. Farther astern, the freighter was slow to respond.
“Southern Tide. Southern Tide. Answer, por favor.” The Spanish voice was clearly agitated.
Ben took the call. “Southern Tide here, over.”
“Is Captain Sterling there?”
“Captain, we are in very shallow water. I have only seventeen metres of water.”
Ben held the mike for Ross to speak into. “We’re working you offshore now, but I’m afraid we’re very close to a reef. Come hard to port.” Ross spoke again to the freighter’s master. “You’ll not ground.” He hoped his words would prove true . “What’s your present heading?”
“Three, four, six degrees and slowly bearing west.”
Ross glanced at his compass. Southern Tide was on three, one, zero, and still coming around. Ross eased out of the turn, if the gob wire were to let go they’d capsize. “We’re pulling your bow west at this moment, keep your rudder hard over.” He glanced at the tow wire disappearing aft through rain and sea spray to the invisible ship. A little voice kept telling him he’d cut it too fine. “You’ll have plenty of ocean beneath you as we come about.”
Ben looked at Ross. “Bloody lie.”
“Señor, we are down to eleven metres. In these seas we could hit the ocean floor.”
Ross snatched up the mike. “Give me your bearing.”
“Three, four, one.”
Ross reached for the throttle.
“Eleven metres.” The master of Maria del Sol was near hysterical. “I will ground at nine metres.”
Before he could move a throttle, Ben touched Ross’ hand. “Let me.”
Ross withdrew it, not too proud to acknowledge his mate had a finer touch. Never interfering unless he doubted his boss, Ben adjusted the engine speed, both men watched the wire. Motioning Ross aside Ben took the wheel, then slipped into the captain’s chair. Ben worked the throttles, sensing the invisible strain on the mainline, then eased off slightly, willing the cable to hold.
“Twelve metres,” the radio voice said. Neither Ross nor Ben responded. “Thirteen.” A pause. “Fourteen.”
Ross slapped his first mate on the back. “We did it.”
Ben let out a holler.
“Twenty metres, señors. We are in deep water again. My bearing is two, nine, one degrees.”
Ben steered starboard to line up both ships. Having lost all forward momentum in the turn, Southern Tide fought the storm , barely holding the freighter from drifting backwards onto Jason West Cay. Two and a half hours into the long night, Ben finally eased the ship to safety, then they lengthened the towline and, as a morning sun illuminated clear skies in the west, settled on a heading for Buenos Aires.