Wednesday, 22 February 2017

An extract from Tales from the Sea by Eddie Gubbins

“ The sun, low down to the east, was shining from a clear blue sky that day,” he said in a quiet voice. “ Hardly a ripple disturbed the water of the bay. To the starboard of the San Fernando, lying at anchor off the small oil terminal on the island, were the golden sands of a beach. In Britain, on a day like this, such a beach would be crowded. That morning it was almost empty. Arcing around the bay, green jungle and forest climbed steeply from the sand towards the ridge of a line of hills.”
“ Directly shoreward from the ship, a jetty pushed incongruously out of the jungle into the clear blue water, the piles holding up the decking, grey and weather beaten. Forming a tee at the end of the jetty was a berth occupied by some brightly coloured but rust streaked fishing boats and three navy patrol vessels. Hanging from a metal structure on the jetty were a couple of black rubber pipes connected to two silver pipelines marching shore wards and disappearing into the jungle. In the distance, half shrouded by trees, the tops of several silver tanks shone dully in the sunshine.”
All this I took in at a glance as I came out of the accommodation dressed in a pair of shorts and flip flops,” he went on. “ In my hand, I carried a mug of coffee. Standing by the rail, I breathed deeply of the warm, fragrant air.  The almost empty golden beach invited me to spend a lazy day lying in the sun and doing nothing. Away towards one end of the beach, a few fishermen were tending their nets by their fishing canoes.
“ This is, I thought, a perfect morning.”
“ It was early and, as I stood looking out over the bay and the island, the ship’s crew were just stirring around me. The bosun, his shorts and tee shirt emphasising his wiry frame and tanned skin, waved as he hurried by on his way to the bridge to get his daily orders from the Chief Officer. The overweight chief steward staggered, with an armful of towels and boxes of soap, towards the mid ships accommodation where I stood. He stopped to wipe his sweaty face with a large white handkerchief, before disappearing through a door. The lookout sailor remarked what a beautiful day as he walked jauntily aft from the focastle to get his breakfast. Just a normal morning with the ship at anchor waiting for the berth to clear before docking and discharging its cargo.”
“ While I slowly drank my coffee, I was gazing out to sea through the mouth of the bay watching the small waves break on the rocks near the headland. Abstrusely, I noticed two black dots approaching low over the water. Then, born on the slight breeze, I heard the faint sound of aircraft engines. Before long, it possible to make out the outlines of two single engined planes. Curiously, I watched as the planes rushed towards the bay wondering what they were looking for. As far as I knew there wasn’t any oil under the sea near this island. Therefore I reasoned, they could not be surveying the seabed. Then they banked steeply left and climbed over the jungle clad hills ahead of the ship. Very soon, they disappeared from my view.”
“ Having finished my coffee, I was just about to return to my cabin to dress properly for breakfast, when I heard the planes approaching from the landward side of the ship. Inquisitively, I strolled across the deck to the other side of the ship to take a look at what the planes were doing.”
He paused and took a long drink of his beer. “ One behind the other, the two planes were diving down the slope just above the trees and heading straight for the tanker. It was just as I had seen in a dozen war movies as the Japanese planes attacked the American fleet. I wondered idly if they were filming a scene from a movie.”
“ When it was above the beach, the lead plane levelled out and headed straight for the ship across the blue water of the bay. I watched transfixed as a black object detached itself from the underside of the plane. It fell slowly in the direction of the after deck. Suddenly I realised it was going to hit the ship. In a panic, I dived for cover behind the bulwark.”
“ There was an almighty bang and the ship shuddered as though it had run full speed into a very big wave. The stays on the mast and the wireless arial twanged. Diesel oil spattered the accommodation from the geyser which exploded from the damaged deck. Pieces of metal splashed into the sea. Over everything was the sound of hissing as steam escaped from fractured pipes. All over the tanker, alarm bells were ringing and hooters wailing.”
I noticed he was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking such that he gripped his glass tightly “ Nervously, I lifted my head above the bulwark and risked a look. I was  in time to see the first plane wheel away, rushing out to sea and climbing into the cloudless sky with its engine screaming. “
“ Turning back, I saw a black object fall from the second plane. Once more I flung myself for cover behind the oil streaked bulwark There was another ear splitting bang. The shuddering and shaking of the ship was followed by the screaming of fractured steel. The second plane headed out to sea, rushing after the first.”
 “ Except for the ringing in my ears, all sound had gone. Then there was the grating of steel plates twisting apart, steam whistling from holes in the pipes and the splash of oil landing back onto the deck. What had happened was so fantastic, it was unbelievable. A tanker innocently anchored in a sun brushed bay being bombed in broad daylight in peacetime. It could not be true but I only had to look around the deck to understood that it had taken place.”
“ Cautiously, I climbed to my feet and looked over the bulwark. Oil was bubbling out of the holes in the deck but no longer shooting skyward. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks for it appeared the ship was bending in the middle. Yes, I told myself on closer inspection, the aft end is higher than the centre. The funnel looked as though it was slowly falling towards the main deck such was its angle to the vertical. At the same time, the ship was settling deeper into the water.”
“ Shaking my head to clear the ringing in my ears, I did not have time to think too much about that had happened. Looking up, I spotted Captain Ruddock on the boat deck above my head staring aft at the buckled deck and the funnel bending towards him. His face was white which matched the knuckles of his hands gripping the rail so tightly I thought he was going to snap it away from its anchor points. As though he could not believe what he was seeing, his eyes were staring in horror at the after deck and his mouth was hanging open. Incongruously, I noticed white shaving foam still clinging to his chin.”
“ Spotting me on the deck below, he demanded in a hoarse voice. ‘ What happened?’”
“ ‘Two planes came over and dropped bombs on us,’ I answered bluntly still too much in shock to be diplomatic.”
“ ‘Whatever for?’ he muttered more to himself than me. ‘ Those bloody rebels, I suppose.’ ”
“ Then pulling his shoulders straight, closing his mouth and wiping the shaving foam on the towel he held in his hand, he was the Captain of the San Fernando again.”
 “ ‘ Run up to the bridge and get the Chief Officer to sound boat stations. Remind him to get the radio officer to send out an SOS. After you have done that, meet me in my cabin.’ His order was crisp and firm.”
“ Other crew members were pouring out of the accommodation both amidships and aft calling out in alarm.  They were dressed in a variety of clothing, many having that minute risen from their bunks. Alarm bells started sounding the long pulses that told the crew to assemble near the lifeboats. Looking rather confused and scared, the crew started to make their way to the boat decks.”
“ As I raced up to the bridge, Captain Ruddock was already issuing orders to organise the crew. When I arrived breathless in the wheelhouse, I found the Chief Officer and the bosun staring aft and issuing orders over the emergency phone.”
“ ‘ The Old Man orders everybody to muster by the lifeboats,’ I shouted as I rushed through the bridge to the stairs leading to the Captain’s cabin. ‘ He says to make sure that the radio officer sends out a mayday or SOS.’ ”
“ ‘ Where are you off to?’ the Chief Officer demanded harshly. ‘ I need you here with me.’ ”
“ ‘ I have to help the Captain.’ I replied.”
“ ‘ Make sure the radio officer has sent out an SOS as you pass his office,’ he shouted after me.”
“ Stopping by the radio office, the radio officer assured me that he had sent out an SOS in answer to my question.”
“ Leaving the radio officer waiting for a reply to his SOS, I raced down the stairs to the Captain’s accommodation. Loudly above the sound of the alarms and the noise of creaking metal plates, I knocked on the door of the Captain’s cabin. When bidden to enter, I found Captain Ruddock on his knees, dressed in his uniform and stuffing papers from the ship’s safe into two brief cases.”
“ ‘ Everybody is mustering and getting into the lifeboats, sir,’ I said rather breathlessly. ‘ The radio officer has sent out an SOS and is waiting to see if there are any replies before going to his boat station. He has the emergency radio ready for use in the lifeboat.’ ”
“ Captain Ruddock smiled slightly. ‘ Good work. You are to take one of these brief cases up to the bridge. I will bring the other. Try to make sure it stays with you no matter what happens. It contains copies of all the ships papers and records. I have the originals. Between us we should be able to make sure that these are taken ashore and saved.’ ”
“ Taking the brief case from the Captain, I ran down the stairs to my cabin. On the way my shoulders banged painfully into a bulkhead as the ship took a lurch but I ignored the pain.  When I got to my cabin, I quickly dressed in my uniform ignoring the shuddering and bucking of the ship and the groaning of the plates. I shoved my personal effects, my discharge book, identity book, photos, letters and money into a bag I kept for this purpose. Some of the other cadets during my time at sea had scoffed at my caution but it was vindicated now. Slinging this over my shoulder, I raced back up the stairs to the bridge still clutching the briefcase with copies of the ship’s papers.”
“ On reaching the wheelhouse, panting from running on a heaving and vibrating deck, I saw Captain Ruddock standing on the bridge wing looking aft. By the time I joined him, the water was lapping over the main deck  and when I looked forward all I could see was the focastle. Looking back aft, it was as though the engine room and the accommodation in the stern were completely cut off from the amidships. The decks were at crazy angles and the funnel looked as though it might fall into the water. The four lifeboats were now being filled with crew under the supervision of the other officers. Air and oil were bubbling up from the holes in the tanks spreading a black sheen over the waters surrounding the ship.”
“ Out of the corner of my eyes, I looked at the captain not wanting him to feel I was staring. His face was lined and drawn. To me, he had that broken look of somebody who had come to accept defeat. Where they gripped the rail, his hands were shaking. His shoulders slumped as though he had aged considerably in a short time.”
“ Seeing me for the first time since I arrived on the bridge as ordered, he nodded. ‘ You had better get down to your lifeboat.’ ”
“ ‘ What about you?’ I asked even though I knew the answer.”
“ ‘ There is a life raft at the end of the bridge. I intend to stay here until just before the bridge goes under.’ He laughed sadly. ‘ Actually, unless the ship capsizes, I think she will ground before the water reaches the bridge. There was only twenty feet below the keel when we anchored, so when it settles on the bottom, the top of the accommodation should remain above the water. Go on. Go for your lifeboat. I can see the third mate is waiting for you.’ ”
“ ‘ If it is all right with you, I would like to stay.’ I never understood what made me say that but it appeared to help the Captain.”
“ Captain Ruddock put his arm round my shoulder and squeezed. ‘ Thank you. You have to have some sympathy with the ones who ordered this. Up in those hills some men are fighting the central government for some measure of autonomy.’ ”
“ ‘ Why bomb us?’ I was curious.”
“ ‘ They see this ship as a part of the government machine. Again I suppose they are partly right. Some of the oil we are delivering will be used in the army’s trucks and equipment. Therefore, to them, we are helping the government suppress the rebels. In these situations, young man, there are no grey areas. To the rebels, those not helping them are their enemies and fair game for assault. I am afraid we have been caught in the middle. I must say that was some precision bombing from a small plane. The pilots must have been skilled. As far as all the reports to me have indicated, nobody on the ship was really hurt.’ ”
“ He waved the last lifeboat away commanded by the Third Mate. I have to admit as the lifeboat moved away from the ship and deck under our feet bucked and shuddered, I was more frightened than I would ever admit to anybody. Despite my fear, there was no way in which I could have left this vulnerable man on his own.”
“ The Captain and I stood and watched as the lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship. Two patrol boats had left the jetty and were racing in our direction. Once again my heart stopped as we felt the grinding of broken plates beneath our feet. At one time, we had to cling to the bridge rail as the ship lurched and heeled over to starboard.”
“ The water was steadily climbing up the structure, level now with the main accommodation deck. There was a groan and a long hiss as though an old lady had lowered herself painfully into a chair. The bridge rocked and swayed. The Captain and I saw the stern twist and then settle. The tanker heeled over to port. With a whoosh, the remaining air bubbled from the superstructure in a rush. Then there was silence. Even the hiss of escaping steam had ceased. With a lurch, the ship was still.”
“ The water was now level with the boat deck and the oil sheen spreading out from the ship into the clear waters of the bay look thick and ugly.”
Captain Ruddock turned to me and said, ‘ Thank you for staying with me.’ ”
“ We walked down the twisted stairs together to the boat deck below the bridge carrying the ships papers, my personal belongings and the Captain's bag. By the time we arrived, a patrol boat was alongside the boat deck waiting. I stepped aboard, helped by the crew. The Captain took one last look round his command and stepped aboard after me, leaving his ship to the mercy of the elements.”

“ So you see Eddie every time a plane flies over a ship I am on it brings back memories of that day when the Fernando was bombed.’ The second mate smiled ruefully.

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