Offshore - the beginning
This is a story I first wrote in 1982 while working on supply boats very like the one pictured. I've dragged the original out of the cupboard and am rewriting it again. It's a little like entering a time machine to go back to what I wrote thirty years ago
The water around him was colder now. Forty minutes ago, it had felt almost warm, but now he could now feel it leaching the heat from his body. Probably the effect of shock, he thought. God alone knew what it was doing to his companion. The last flames were extinguished when the Sapphire Sea slid sternwards beneath the surface and the darkness was velvet and thick. He could no longer see the full horror of the burnt face opposite. He hoped the merciful unconsciousness would continue until they were rescued. All that he could do was keep their heads above water and clear of the oil leaking upwards from the vessel now ninety fathoms below them.
He'd swum away, moving across the wind and tide, as soon as he had smelt the oil breaking the surface. The life-jacket had made it awkward, but he had solved the problem by switching the jacket to his companion, who'd been conscious then and pathetically grateful.
He looked up at the stars wishing he remembered how to use them to tell the time in this hemisphere. It would be nice to know just how long it was till daylight. It would be better then. He could see if any others had made it clear of the first explosion. There might even be a life-raft, tripped free by the hydrostatic release as the Sapphire Sea sank. The breeze was not that strong and stabilizing bags underneath the raft would slow its drift. It would much better if he could get them both out of the sun. Until then, it was just a matter of waiting.
A sharp swirl in the water nearby startled him, sending a chill wave of fear down his body and into his legs. He scissored them frantically, propelling himself and his burden backwards for a dozen meters before realizing that it was a futile gesture. If it was a shark, or a school of barracuda, the threshing would only attract them and he had no chance of swimming away from them. He floated quietly in the water, his eyes swiveling across the visible surface. Waiting for the next swirl that would signal the approach of some sub-surface predator—the chill of the water forgotten in the greater coldness of his fear.
He'd not thought about sharks till that swirl in the water. Too much had happened too quickly and his mind hadn't caught up yet.
It was a homecoming of sorts. He'd not seen the Sapphire Sea in fifteen years and thought her long gone to the breaker's yard. She looked tired, unkempt and uncared for, sitting forlornly in the Singapore layup berth. The shore power was connected, so he unlocked the cabinet and threw the switch. At least he'd have light in the engine room as he began the job of resurrecting her.
They'd added external bolts and padlocks to the weather tight doors. He had to sort through the bundle of keys the Agent had given him before he found the right one. The Chief Engineer's cabin was open and the logbook lay open on the desk. He checked the fuel figures and read the final entry that listed the shutdown measures taken at the time. They'd been lazy and slipshod, but it made his job easier.
An hour later he returned to the cabin, one alternator was on line, the air conditioning and ventilation system was running and the shore power isolated. The dry stores were bare, but he'd brought instant coffee, milk and sugar on the way to the shipyard. The urn was boiling in the common mess room. He'd resurrected laid-up supply boats all too often in the last twelve years, responding to the fluctuating demand in the oil-rich seas in the Middle East, the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the rest. This one was simpler. He'd stood by the building of the Sapphire Sea and was returning to Australian waters for the first time since his marriage break-up.
Sitting in this familiar cabin was hard. He'd proposed to Sally while she sat in this chair and Melanie had been conceived in that bunk. She'd be twenty now, probably married. He'd not intended to let their correspondence lapse. Too many changes of companies, too many ships in remote areas where mail deliveries were infrequent and unreliable and their letters had dwindled with the years. He always remembered her birthday, but her replies had become shorter of late.
"Hello, you're Allan Shortland." The speaker was in his late fifties with the red veined nose of a drinker. "I'm Graham Perkins, the skipper."
Allan rose to his feet. "Yes, I'm Allan. Hello, Graham." They shook hands.
"What's she like?"
"The alternator's on the board, the AC's on and as soon as I check the refrigeration spaces I'll start cooling them down for stores. When are the rest joining?"
"They're in the pub now. I told them to relax tonight and come down first thing in the morning to start loading supplies."
"The agent said something about sailing tomorrow..." Allan left the implication open.
"Will you be ready?" Graham looked startled.
"If the others were here, we could probably sail tonight. Supplies are available twenty-four/seven here. My understanding is that the rig shift is due in six days time. The sooner we get there the better and the 'Sea is no race horse." Allan stifled his shrug.
"We flew up yesterday. Didn't get to the hotel till two in the morning. They're entitled to a rest day."
Allan forced himself to swallow the obvious comment, accepting that it was a waste of breath. "I'll stay onboard tonight. There's a shore-side canteen for meals. I didn't bother to book into the hotel because I slept on the flight from Dubai."
"They said you've been working overseas for a while. Things are a bit different in Australia."
"I doubt that they've changed much." Allan wasn't interested in Graham's justifications. He'd recognized the type. Graham had swapped unions when he got his Mate's certificate, but his loyalties remained unchanged.
"I'll see you in the morning then." Graham seemed anxious to leave.
"Yes." Allan resumed his seat. "In the morning."
He remained silent until the clatter of the gang plank told him Graham had gone ashore and then swore feelingly. He needed a Scalyback Skipper like he needed a hole in his head. Some who made the jump from seaman to mate and skipper were very good, but Graham gave no indication of being one of them.
He'd not missed the powerful Australian unions. His qualifications and experience had been his protection against the usual rorts and he'd avoided the fly-by-night operators who'd flocked into the industry after the oil crisis. Others were not so fortunate, but that was their problem.
He'd been fortunate in other ways too. Sally had accepted the house and his superannuation when they parted. The first was free of debt and the second provided enough money to support her and Melanie through the difficult years before she could rejoin the work force. His only on-going expense had been the education policy they'd taken out for Melanie and that had matured now. His bank account in the Channel Islands was healthy and his investment broker zealous, so he could pick and choose where he worked.
Retirement was years away, for he still enjoyed what he did.
* * * *
Sally Shortland had retained her married name because it was the name on Melanie's birth certificate and it saved explanations at schools. She rarely thought of Allan these days. Their break-up had been amicable in spite of the circumstances and she'd sometimes wondered if Allan had ever really cared.
He'd never been easy to read and her infidelity had sent him into himself completely. He'd been distant, almost detached, during the face-to-face meetings of their settlement but his generosity had made it easy, her lawyer urging acceptance of his terms.
A small part of her still wished he'd been different, that he'd reacted angrily to her justifications. Instead, he'd listened quietly to all she had to say. Her closing ultimatum had produced nothing more than an admission that she was right. Their marriage was over.
Larry had run a mile when he realized she was free, not that she would have accepted him if he hadn't. He'd been nothing more than a distraction from her loneliness, accepted in a moment when she felt low and alone. There'd been others since, but none of them had lasted. She was resigned to the virtual widowhood many of her more recent acquaintances assumed.
None of this made her current situation any easier. Melanie wanted her father at the wedding and there'd been no answer to the letter posted two months previously to the Channel Islands. Time was running out, the wedding was eight weeks away, and Sally had run out of ideas to contact Allan.
"Any word, Mum?" Melanie had her own key and had come in unannounced.
Sally shook her head. "I've sent a courier envelope marked urgent as a follow-up. He could be anywhere."
It's said that daughters take after their fathers more than their mothers, but Melanie had not seen hers since she was eight, yet she had Allan's quietness. She made decisions and never doubted them. This was no different.
"Where was his birthday letter posted?"
Melanie reached into her bag and retrieved an envelope to examine the postmark. "I think it says Accra," she said. "That's in Ghana. He was waiting to tow a floating oil rig to an offshore field somewhere."
"Did you reply?"
"I was waiting for Greg to propose so I could tell him officially, but I got busy after that." Melanie shrugged. "Dad will understand. He knows I'm not much of a letter writer these days. I apologized once and he told me to get on with my life and write only when I had something to tell him. That he'd do the same."
Melanie had shared Allan's early letters until teenage angst had intervened and she'd kept the others private, but Sally had her own memories of his correspondence and knew he'd read between the lines of whatever Melanie had written. It had been one of his most frustrating traits.
She'd never been able to keep a secret from him. He'd sensed her fling with Larry almost as soon as it happened. There'd been no accusations, just a sense of being observed until it had driven Sally to blurt out the truth in the midst of some cross words about a trivial matter she no longer remembered.
"What about his friend?" Melanie had been thinking. "The one who works for the shipping company."
"That's the one. He's nice."
"I'll give him a call. He may know something." Sally reached for the telephone.
She'd thought of ringing Bill much earlier, but embarrassment had stayed her hand. Bill and his wife, Glenys, had been their friends until the break-up. They'd remained friendly afterwards, but Sally had felt uncomfortable with them and eased back their contacts until it had become only an exchange of Christmas cards.
Bill had risen in the shipping company hierarchy to the point where his secretary fielded all outside calls and Sally had to give her name to be put through.
There was a pause that suggested some unheard communication, and then Bill answered. "Hi, Sally. It's great to hear from you. Can I call you back in ten minutes, or is it urgent?"
"Ten minutes will be fine, Bill. I'm trying to contact Allan about Melanie's wedding."
"I'll call back in ten minutes." He ended the call.
Sally replaced the handset thoughtfully. The pleasure in Bill's voice felt genuine. He'd always been that direct, shrugging off her infidelity as an irrelevance, just part of the pattern of sea-going life. Glenys had seemed to understand as well; too much for Sally's comfort. She regretted the underlying guilt that had separated the two families. At one point, a six year-old Melanie had declared she was going to marry Bill's son, a relatively ancient ten-year-old who'd dreamed of becoming a soldier and wasn't interested in girls.
Bill was punctual, calling back ten minutes later. "Sorry, Sally. I was on a call to Singapore. Allan's picking up a supply boat for us. I've told our agent there to let him know you want to contact him. I can't believe little Melanie has grown up enough to become a bride. Glenys will be ecstatic."
"What's Steve doing now?"
"Still married to the Army. He's just joined the Special Air Service Regiment as a troop commander. We get to see less of him now that he's based in Western Australia."
They chatted for another ten minutes before Bill was called away to respond to another call. Allan would be operating out of Darwin for the period of the contract and taking the Sapphire Sea back to Singapore at its end.
"Your Dad will probably ring tonight," she told Melanie. "He's in Singapore and Bill has left a message for him."