Fiction

TAUT SHIP

"Just wait” the crew snarled, but not loud enough for the captain to hear. When the chance came they took a strange revenge

MORRIS BRAND HIGGINS February 1 1948
Fiction

TAUT SHIP

"Just wait” the crew snarled, but not loud enough for the captain to hear. When the chance came they took a strange revenge

MORRIS BRAND HIGGINS February 1 1948

TAUT SHIP

"Just wait” the crew snarled, but not loud enough for the captain to hear. When the chance came they took a strange revenge

MORRIS BRAND HIGGINS

CAPTAIN Donald Kenzie Maclver had been aboard the seagoing tug Fire Island less than two hours when we knew what manner of a man he was and what our voyage to the South Pacific would be like. This was made clear to Olegard, the chief mate, myself and Arvetti, the third mate, as we stood uncomfortably in the skipper’s cabin when he called for a conference with his deck officers.

Maclver was a small wiry man, and his fifty-odd years rode him easily. His hair was grizzled grey, his face bleak from salt and wind. In his voice there still stirred a Scottish burr. Removing hiR glasses, he looked up from the crew list on the desk before him.

“Olegard?” he snapped.

The mate unconsciously straightened himself. Up from long rough years of a hardier sea life, Olegard was a sailorman of the old school, a man who knew his business, and a mate whom any skipper should treasure.

“Yes, sir.”

“This ship’s dirty, mister!” Maclver said coldly. “Get those lines on the foredeck stowed. And square away aft. There’s debris all over the fantail. Get it cleaned up!”

Olegard’s big face reddened. He kept the Fire Island cleaner than any ship in the tug fleet. But shipyard workers had been crawling over her for days now, preparing her for a long trip out. Undeniably they had left trails of dirt behind. Olegard tried to explain. “The yard workers . . .” he began.

“I know all about yard workers, mister!” the captain interrupted. “And I know when a ship’s dirty. You may think this is a harbor tug, but I don’t. She’s a blue-water ship. And 1 want her clean. Understand that?”

Olegard, boiling, could only nod. The captain turned his attention to me.

“You’re Peters, the second mate?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve got a new set of charts coming aboard tomorrow. Know how to catalogue charts?”

I felt anger rising in me, but checked it. A second mate’s job is navigation and part of that is cataloguing charts. The easiest and simplest part.

“Yes, sir.”

Maclver surveyed me coldly. “I hope you do. I want it done properly. When I want a chart I want to be able to find it. That clear?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll start cataloguing as soon as they come aboard.”

The skipper turned his gaze to Arvetti and I could see the third mate shrink under it. Arvetti was only twenty-one, fresh from maritime school. This was his first trip as a mate. The captain inspected him for a long minute, critically, and I knew what was coming. Both Olegard and myself were dressed in khaki shirts and trousers, our conventional work uniforms, but Arvetti, accustomed to the informality of such ships as the Fire Island, was wearing only a skivvy shirt and trousers.

Captain Maclver inspected him from foot to haircut. Finally he spoke and his words were biting. “Who are you? A deck hand?”

“I’m the third mate, sir.”

Maclver’s stare was frosty. “You call yourself a mate, do you? Let me tell you something! If you ever report to the captain’s cabin without a shirt again, I’ll teach you what it means to be a mate! This is a ship, mister! I want officers who are officers on it. Don’t forget it!”

Arvetti seemed to shrink into the bulkhead.

“Now, gentlemen,” Maclver continued. “We’re headed out for a long trip. I’ll expect you men to run this ship like officers should run it. Any breach I can catch you on will mean your tickets. I run a

tout ship. Understand that and make no mistake about it ! That’s all !”

We tiled out. Olegard was glowering.

“Taut ship is it! It’ll be a happy one no longer, that’s clear as day! A fine trip ahead, for sure. A limey skipper who’ll dress for dinner!” He spat over the side.

Arvetti groaned. “He sure laced me, didn’t he?”

“Forget it, boy,” said Olegard. “And take a hitch in your pants. This’ll be only the beginning!”

r|'HIE mate was right. The next step in Captain I Maclver’s policy to make the Fire Island shipshape came that day at lunch. Seagoing tugs and the men who sail them have an air of informality, largely because the vessels are small. Handling heavy tows on long voyages is dirty and dangerous work, always well-laced with the monotony of slow motion, and the men of the tugs depend more on their work than their appearance to merit approval. So it was not unusual for Bernard, the second assistant engineer, to appear in the mess hall wearing a sweat shirt stained with grease.

He had seated himself at the engineer’s end of the mess table and was looking at the penciled menu when Captain Maclver came in.

The skipper moved toward his seat, at the head of the table and was about to settle his wiry frame into it when Bernard caught his eye.

“You!” he snapped. “You there! Engineer, aren’t you?”

Bernard looked up in surprise. “That’s right, captain. Second assistant.”

“Then I’ll thank you not to bring it into my mess hall, mister! Take if out of here!”

“Uh . . . pardon me, sir?” Bernard gulped, confused.

“Are you deaf, mister? I said don’t bring your engine room into my mess hall. When you come here be dressed like an officer. If you can’t do that, take your meals in the galley. We’ll wear clean shirts for meals here. Now get out !”

Bernard, pale with anger, rose silently and left the mess.

He went straight to the chief engineer’s cabin and violent voices were heard. Bernard was demanding that he be relieved, swearing he’d not sail with a limey Captain Bligh. The chief apparently promised him a relief, for Bernard’s voice quieted and he went, foodless to his cabin.

But Bernard wasn’t, permitted to leave the lire Island, for shortly after lunch that day a coast guard officer came aboard with urgent sailing orders. Within an hour we were through the breakwater and in open sea, headed for a rendezvous some seven miles out,. We were scheduled to pick up a section of navy dry dock, join a convoy of seven other tugs and their tows, and take the giant, section to a little island off the coast, of New Guinea. The tug scheduled for the job had developed engine trouble and since we were ready we got. the assignment.

It was not a pleasant prospect, for the trip was long and weary, and the tow an unwieldly one. This, and the fact that news of the skipper’s disposition had travelled the grapevine, made officers and crew a grousing lot. The start of the Fire Island’s South Pacific voyage was hardly auspicious.

Possibly because of this feeling, or perhaps only because part of the crew was green, we had trouble picking up our tow. The disabled tug cast off from the dry-dock section at our signal and we moved in closer to take a line from the dock so that our towing cable could be hauled aboard it and made fast. The dry dock, sitting high in the water, was drifting fast under the push of

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a brisk wind, but Captain Maclver brought the tug in close to take the line. The dock’s navy crew, using line guns, sent us a messenger. Olegard, handling his crew aft, bent it to a Manila line, which would build up the strength necessary for them to take our heavy cable aboard.

First one thing, then another, went wrong. The first messenger broke and the Fire Island’s crew, spurred by the cursing Olegard, hauled in the Manila line which had nearly reached the drydock section. Captain Maclver again brought the tug in close enough to receive another messenger line. The skipper handled the tug well and I could see that Olegard realized it.

But the wind was strong and the rapid drift of the dry-dock section put undue strain on the messenger line. Twice more the connection parted and it was nearly two hours before the Fire Island’s towing cable was made fast to the dry-dock section. The tug plowed forward then and the towing cable, made of plow steel and as thick as a man’s forearm, whipped viciously out of the water once, then settled into the deep curve of steady towing.

Olegard, sweat-stained and dirty, grinned at the bosun and headed for a cup of coffee before taking over his trick on the bridge. He got his coffee from the urn in the crew’s mess hall, drank it standing in the companionway, and then made for the bridge where I had l>een standing by until he was free. The skipper had gone below when the tow was secured.

Early that evening I was in the chartroom squaring away some gear. Olegard, in charge of the bridge, was standing near the wheel looking forward through the bridge windows. It was a clear night, just turning dark now. The quartermaster at the wheel said, “Tough job, taking that tow, mister mate.”

“Sure was,” Olegard replied. “Hope we don’t have more trouble with it.”

“Yeah, me too,” the quartermaster spoke ruefully.

Steps sour.ded in the companicnway

and I saw Captain Maclver pass the chartroom on his way to the wheelhouse. I heard his voice, icily brisk.

“Are we on course, Mr. Olegard?”

“Yes, sir. Two seventy-two compass, sir.”

The captain turned to the quartermaster. “How is she headed now?”

The quartermaster stared down intently at the compass before him, then nervously shifted the wheel a spoke. “Two seventy-five, sir,” he said hesitantly.

Captain Maclver turned frosty eyes on the mate. “On my bridge, mister,” he grated, “officers keep a constant check on the course. And there is no conversation between the mate and the quartermaster except what is necessary to handle the ship. Is that clear to you, Mr. Olegard?”

The mate, his big hand clenched at his side, gave the only possible answer. “Yes, sir.”

Captain Maclver turned to leave the wheelhouse, but paused at the companionway. Olegard had returned to his scrutiny of the sea ahead, staring through the big plate windows of the bridge.

“Two other things, Mr. Olegard,” the captain snapped.

“Yes, sir.”

“Officers on my bridge stand their watch on the wings at night. I want no pilothouse lilies aboard.”

Olegard began moving toward the bridge wing where the brisk night wind swirled.

But the skipper was not finished. “The other thing, Mr. Olegard, is that my officers do not have coffee in the crew’s mess. The crew’s mess is for the crew, the officers’ mess is for the officers. If you want coffee, take it where you belong. Understand?”

Olegard’s answer was lost in the rush of wind on the bridge wing. Captain Maclver went below.

THE skipper never relaxed during the long sea days as we plowed through the rollers of the Pacific, nearing our destination slowly but steadily.

Tension was riding the Fire Island and it was near the blowoff point when we made our landfall, the tiny island where we were to drop our tows. The

trip had been exacting and weary and it was with a sigh of relief that we saw the leading vessels of the convoy pass into the harbor. The Fire Island was scheduled to be the fourth vessel in.

Captain Maclver was on the bridge studying a chart of the harbor and locating with a red pencil the anchorage ¡ where we were to drop our tow. A moderate to fresh breeze was blowing and waves near the harbor entrance j were high and choppy, rolling the Fire Island as we turned to make for the i channel. Back aft, Olegard and his j crew were shortening the towing cable j for our passage through the nets.

It was then, in the stress of the heavy ! work, that the blowoff came. It was \ between the bosun, nerve-weary and tired, and the electrician in charge of the towing winch. Somehow power on the winch failed while the cable was being shortened and the bosun cursed furiously. The electrician retorted and the two sprung upon each other.

Olegard leaped in to separate the two men. Sounds of the commotion floated to the bridge and Maclver strode to the wing. He grabbed a megaphone and roared into it. “Aft there! What’s going on?”

The skipper’s roaring hail and the confusion of the fight made a shambles of the working crew aft. The rolling of the tug in the channel made the matter worse. It was then that someone made a mistake. He was a seaman named Gilman who was stationed at tackle holding the towing cable in its cradle on the centre line of the fantail.

It was never clear exactly what happened, but a sudden roll of the tug broke the cable free of its cradle and with slow vicious slashes it slipped from one side of the tug’s fantail to the other, moving with steel-clad power and the snap of a great cat’s tail.

As the cable sliced across the deck, screaming against the steel of the bulwarks, the men in its path dropped fast, ducking the blow which might easily have torn off their heads. They looked at the cable with fright and helplessness each time it momentarily came to rest, then scrambled down as a ¡ surge of the ship or the tow sent the ¡ writhing steel sword back across the j deck. Olegard and the bosun shouted orders, calling for an attempt to pass a heavy line around the cable to secure it temporarily.

From the bridge, Captain Maclver, bedeviled now with the tricky business of getting the dry dock through the nets and also with the danger of an unmanageable tow, roared commands.

“Secure that cable, Mr. Olegard! Secure that cable!”

Olegard, scrambling with the rest of his crew to pass a line over the slashing cable, acknowledged the order with a frantic wave of his arm.

“Get it done, mister! Get it done!” Captain Maclver roared into his megaphone. Then to the wheelhouse, “Slow ahead.”

Within a few minutes the men aft were able to pass a line over the cable and had it partially secured when another surge sent the Fire Island in a wild roll to port. The cable swung again in a violent slice, parted the Manila and whistled gratingly across the steel. Men dropped prone and the cable nicked the cap from the bosun’s head. Meanwhile the big dry dock, out of control and drifting, was a constant threat at the rear.

Captain Maclver was explosive.

“Mr. Olegard! Get that cable secured ! Or do I have to come and do it myself?”

Olegard, sprawled on hands and knees after the cable’s passage, looked bridgeward with a black face. His lips moved and there could be little doubt that he cursed the cable, the Fire

Island and, most specifically, Captain Maclver. Doggedly he rose to his feet and called for a heavier line.

But Captain Maclver had different ideas. Turning to me he snapped, “Take over. Keep her dead slow ahead. I’m going aft. Keep your eyes on me for orders.” And he sprang down the companionway.

On the fantail he took over with cold, biting orders.

“Get on the winch, Mr. Olegard! Pay out the cable easy. Bosun, get a line ready! When she starts paying out, move in and take a turn over it. Step lively now!”

TI THE cable lay over the port side X now, still with silent power. Olegard prepared the winch to begin paying out. The bosun and two hands were moving toward the cable with the end of a secured line, approaching cautiously but speedily to throw a turn over it. Captain Maclver was standing on the starboard side near the winch, clear if the cable should swing. Near him were grouped several seamen, among them a lad named Willoughby, a kid of nineteen on his first trip. He wasn’t sea wise to the ways of tugs and steel towing cables.

Just as Captain Maclver shouted to Olegard to begin paying out, the Fire Island lurched and the big cable, starting slowly, groaned with speed as it moved toward the starboard side.

The bosun and his men dropped flat; the other seamen on the starboard side leaped back to the shelter of the winch. All except Willoughby who, either from stupidity or fear, stood transfixed in the cable’s path.

Hoarse shouts from several men warned him, but there he stood, watching the heavy steel cable whip toward him.

It was Captain Maclver who acted. Leaping from his stand by the winch, he hit Willoughby in a flying tackle just above the waist, knocking the boy sprawling to the safety of the deck. But the skipper was an instant too late to save himself. The cable caught him across the left arm and chest.

Willoughby crawled to safety, but Captain Maclver, after an effort which screwed his face with lines of pain, lay sprawled on the deck. The cable was quiet again over the starboard side. Olegard and a seaman, bending low, brought Captain Maclver back to the safety of the winch and the mate prepared to carry him to his cabin. He was stopped by the captain’s voice, still chill:

“I^eave me here, mister. And get that cable secured!”

Olegard hesitated, eyeing the captain’s left side. Maclver’s arm and several of his ribs undoubtedly were broken. His voice was not.

“Did you hear me, mister? Secure that cable!”

And they did it. Within a very few minutes it was secured in its cradle, then shortened for the trip in. It was Olegard, with a different gleam in his eye, who picked up the skipper and carried him to his cabin. The purser, who served as the ship’s doctor, was waiting.

But Captain Maclver waved him aside, then looked coldly at Olegard.

“Take her in, mister. I won’t be able.”

“Yes, sir.” There was a new snap in Olegard’s voice.

It was a tricky job, taking the big dry-dock section to her assigned anchorage in the vessel-illled harbor. No pilots were available and manoeuvring of the tug and her tow required constant attention to both chart and ship handling.

The Fire Island’s tow was to be anchored just aft of a navy tanker

and I had no envy for Olegard’s job in taking her there.

He handled her superbly, though, coming up smartly aft of the tanker and turning slightly to starboard to swing the dry-dock section into a proper position. When the section was in line with her already anchored sisters, Olegard stepped to the bridge wing and shouted aft to the crew men on the dry dock.

“Let go!”

Men on the dry dock cast off the Fire Island’s towing cable and a few seconds later the rumble of the dock’s anchor chain drifted over the water.

Freed of her drag, the Fire Island surged ahead slowly and Olegard, with a quick measuring glance at the stern of the tanker ahead, snapped the order, “Slow astern.”

From the wheelhouse came the echo from Arvetti, who was handling the engine telegraph. “Slow astern, sir!” Then came the jingle of the telegraph.

But the tug didn’t sit down on her tail as she normally did when her big wheel was reversed. Instead she surged forward, closing the distance between her and the tanker. Olegard’s shout was hoarse.

“Full astern!”

Arvetti, whose mistake it was the first time, was right on the second order and he slapped the telegraph back hard against its stops.

But it was too late. Before the boil of full astern had started under the fantail, the Fire Island’s bow plowed slowly but with force into the stern of the tanker. The tanker’s stern rail and bulwark buckled inward and there wa*^he grinding rasp of metal on metal. Two hands standing on the tug’s foredeck went to their knees with the impact. Then the Fire Island pulled slowly back and away as her screw reversed.

IT WAS not a major aisaster as far as damage was concerned, but it was a major disaster to the two-striper who ran boiling to the tanker’s stern, waving a megaphone and his arms.

He bawled, “Who’s in command there, anyway?”

The mate, his face flushed, stepped to the bridge wing. “Olegard, chief

mate,” he said. And you could tell by his voice that he knew where the fault lay.

“Mate, eh!” the officer continued to shout. “Your engines were ahead when you rammed us. What kind of a mate are you? I’ll prefer charges on this and I’ll have your ticket or know the reason why. I’m coming aboard you and find out what’s going on there.” He turned his megaphone to his boat gangway.

“You! On the tanker!” Captain Maclver’s whiplike shout was the first notice we had that he was on the pire Island’s bridge. He was leaning against the rail, his chest bare and one arm taped to his side. His face was white but his voice roared out of the megaphone.

“You!” he bawled. “You’ll come aboard this ship with my permission, or not at all, mister! I’m master of this vessel and don’t forget it!”

Inarticulate sounds came from the tanker officer. “Your mate rammed me!” He cursed. “I’ll have his ticket!” Maclver’s voice was cold now. “You’ll deal with me, mister, and I’ll deal with the port captain. And get this, too, mister! My officers are my officers and I’m responsible for their commands on this ship! If you’ve got further words, say them to me at the port captain’s office. I’ll be there in an hour.”

Captain Maclver lowered hls mega-i phone and was silent a moment; looking at Olegard. His voice was calnit

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“Drop the hook, Mr. Olegard, and lower me a boat. You’re in command until 1 return.” And he went below, holding the rail for support.

It was two days before Captain Maclver returned to the Fire Island and they were busy days, both on and off watch. The off-watch activity was centred in the machine shop and was concerned with two gold watch cases donated by the crew and some thin gold chains salvaged from crucifixes worn by Arvetti and O’Connor, an oiler. On deck the days were busy, too. Olegard saw to that. The Sea Island was painted, cleaned inside and out, and her rigging slushed down. It was a trim ship which greeted Captain Maclver when he returned from the hospital ashore. He eyed her appreciatively as he stepped aboard.

“Just in time for lunch, captain,” Olegard said, as he helped the skipper aboard.

It was also a trim mess hall the captain entered. The Fire Island’s officers were dressed in well-scrubbed khaki and Bernard, the second assistant engineer, even wore a tie for the occasion.

Captain Maclver swept the group with his eyes and there was only a trace of a smile on his face. “Morning, gentlemen.”

The meal was the best the galley could produce and at its end the steward himself brought out a cake and placed it before the captain’s place.

“Glad you’re back, captain.”

Captain Maclver looked up in surprise; “I’m glad to be back, steward.”

Olegard rose then, fumblingly reached into his trousers pocket and drew out a small package. He handed it to the captain. “We all wanted to give you this, captain,” he stumbled. “As sort . . . sort of a getting-out-ofthe-hospital gift.”

Maclver’s face was expressionless and he only nodded as he took the package from Olegard and opened it. Slowly he drew out a golden mass of chain and stretched it between his fingers.

At either end of the piece were blocks, pulleylike devices through which sections of golden chain ran, connecting one with the other. It was a finely done miniature of what the seaman knows as a handy-billy, a block-and-tackle device used to place tension upon two divergent points. The miniature’s purpose obviously was that of a watch chain, the kind which runs from one vest pocket to another.

Captain Maclver ran his fingers over the chain, looking closely at the fine workmanship of the blocks. When he spoke the burr of his voice was deeper and rolled with a softer note.

“It’s a fine gift, gentlemen. A fine masterpiece of workmanship. I’ll treasure it.”

Olegard found difficulty with his voice, too. “It’s from the crew, too, sir. We all had a hand in it.”

Maclver’s fingers continued to fondle ti e chain. “A handy-billy . . .” his voice trailed off. “Why?”

A grin creased Olegard’s face and it was reflected on the countenances of the others about, the table. The mate’s voice was a chuckle.

“We thought you’d know about that, captain. It’s ... it’s just a little reminder that you run a taut ship!”

Captain Maclver rose to his feet and his eyes moved around the mess table. Their clearness seemed dim now and he swallowed as though his throat were tight.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” he said. And the captain of the blue-water tug Fire Island retired to his cabin, y