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|Irish Trampship mis-adventures: Chapter Three|
|Monday, 30 July 2012 17:57|
Chapter Three: Hualien and horrible typhoon 'Ophelia'
By Gordon O'Rourke
Hualien was reached about 23 days after leaving Bangkok via Maraveles and Bataan.
We berthed at berth 20 or 21, on the western quayside and discharged the logs with our own Derricks in just under two days. Then we were shifted by the harbour tugs to berth 15 in the inner harbour with our bow facing south. We then commenced the discharge of the 4,000 tons of granite blocks using our 80 tonne SWL and 15 tonne swinging derricks.
We only had about 1,000 tons of granite left to discharge when we received a summons from the Harbour Master (HM) to attend his offices for a meeting. We were invited by the HM to leave port, as a strong typhoon, ‘Ophelia’, was approaching
Hualien and was predicted to pass directly though at about 1400 hrs the next day.
Perceived wisdom regarding tropical revolving storms (TRS) anywhere in the world is for big ships to leave port and put distance between themselves and the TRS as quickly as possible to ride out the storm and for smaller vessels to seek shelter in port.
We were, quite naturally, in the big ship category.
I explained to the HM that we would not be able to put to sea immediately, as we would have to re-secure our heavy lift derricks and the other 16 derricks. Normally this was an operation that would take best part of a day to complete, but it was further complicated by the fact that we would also have to re-secure all the sea fastenings on the granite blocks to prevent them from moving in heavy seas and punching a hole in the ship’s side or cause a heavy list.
We suggested putting out extra moorings to hold us in position and to ballast the ship down with water ballast to reduce her windage profile. The HM and his staff agreed with our suggestion.
Upon returning to the vessel, we hastily set about implementing the plan. Although I personally had some misgivings, we had no choice but to pursue this course of action. We could not be put to sea in our present condition. There was a strong wind blowing, and a big swell already showing outside the harbour.
Our decision to remain was vindicated later that day, when heavy swell was causing a heavy strain on our moorings. We had 22 parts of large insurance wires, anchor chain and rope moorings out, holding us in position. Several times throughout the night the rope moorings were breaking and having to be reused.
There was a surge of swell coming into the inner harbour, which was now filling up with small fishing boats. The swell was hitting the quay wall further in and the reflected wave was hitting us on its return to the outer harbour. We were bumping and banging and rolling at times against the quay wall.
0700 hours: That morning, the forecast gave the typhoons position as 161 kilometres south of us, with a barometric pressure at its centre of 985 milllibars, estimating that the eye of the storm would still pass over us by about 1400 hours.
0900 hours: Two tugs arrived and were holding us alongside whilst our crew retensioned all the moorings.
1030 hours: The pilot came on board with orders for us to single up and move with tug assistance to anchor in the swinging basin of the inner harbour. We later learned that the HM was concerned that we would break adrift at our present berth and smash all the smaller local fishing boats. With the wisdom of hindsight, this was a very sensible move on his part.
1100 hours: We arrived at the designated anchorage and dropped both anchors. The typhoon was definitely approaching. The weather conditions had deteriorated to Force 11 on the Beaufort scale (‘Violent storm’), gusting to Force 12 (‘Hurricane force’). There were winds up to 100 kilometres per hour. There was very heavy rain. There were very tall waves, about 10 metres in height and breaking over the top of the eastern breakwater. The high swell conditions were causing us to pitch up and down and to roll to about 15 degrees either side. Our stability condition was probably “very stiff,” as we had a lot of bottom weight, about 6,680 tonnes in total, thanks to the granite in the lower holds, the water ballast in the double bottoms, the freshwater and the bunker fuel and lube.
Our anchorage position was about 0.3 nautical miles from the western quay (about four ships lengths) and about 0.4 nautical miles from the Eastern breakwater (about five ships lengths). Constantly monitoring our position by our two radars as visibility was now almost zero, and the rain driving horizontally.
1220 hours: The very strong wind gusts were now causing us to drift westward, with main engine running at half ahead and sometimes full ahead to ease the strain on the Anchors. It was apparent they were dragging, and we were proceeding at a very fast rate astern.
1245 hours: The ship’s stern touched the quay (or the bottom) with the wind at full typhoon force. The swell was very high, and the ship had turned and lay alongside the quay due to very strong wind pressure. We were now pitching and rolling very violently. It was bloody scary. The ship’s port side was receiving a massive battering against the permanent fender units on the quayside.
We took a quick check with the engine room staff on what internal damage was evident due to the battering we were receiving. They reported that on the air compressor cylinder deck, the horizontal deck plating was showing signs of buckling, and the side shell frames – vertical with horizontal stringers – were also showing signs of distortion.
A quick check with the Captain and the Chief Engineer showed that it could turn very nasty, very quickly, if a massive hole was punched in her side. Especially in the engine room, which did not have so many athwartship sub divisions. Of course, the risk of the granite blocks in the cargo holds breaking adrift and going through the ship’s side or causing a heavy list to port remained very real and frightening.
It was not prudent to use the ship’s engines any more, as it was highly likely that we had a damaged rudder, and possibly a bent propeller as a result of the heavy blow to the stern area.
We decided to evacuate the engine room immediately. We could not use the engines for the time being without risking possible irreparable harm to the engines, rudder and propeller.
Everybody was getting very nervous as the punishment to the ships side shell plating became increasingly excessive. We didn't wish to drown the crew and ourselves with the ship if she sank at the berth.
A vote was taken to abandon ship. We couldn’t launch a lifeboat or a liferaft in these conditions. There was only one route of escape: by using the accommodation ladder in its horizontal stowed position on the port side of the ship, lay down on it, and to leap onto the quay when the ship rolled over heavily to port in a split second move.
The accommodation ladder itself was also getting heavily battered, and was breaking up at its bottom end. This route of escape would not be there for very long.
It was of course, with the wisdom of hindsight, a very risky thing to do. If any one of us mistimed it or misjudged the distance when leaping across the short gap, we would have fallen down between the ship and concrete quay face and been smashed to pieces between the ships hull plating and the concrete jetty's wooden and steel fender units.
To get 28 men, including ourselves, off using this escape method was very tricky, but we managed it without loss of life or any serious injury. Just a few scraped knees and hands. Unfortunately for me, I had to be the last off the ship and then walk along the submerged concrete deck of the quay. Rainwater and the waves had flooded the quay. I fell into a hole, and banged my head very badly.
It was now about 1330 hours, and we had all gathered together on the quayside that was almost knee deep in water, when we spotted an empty container just behind the wharf apron. We all piled inside it, oblivious to the fact that it could get blown over or whatever. We were thoroughly soaked to the skin and cold.
Suddenly, the skies cleared, the wind dropped and we saw sunshine. But our ship was still rolling violently on the swell, large waves coming in the harbour entrance. This lasted for about 20 minutes. Then the skies started to cloud up again and the wind to blow as strongly as before, but from the opposite direction (from ENE to WSW). There were no other signs of life as we trudged wearily up the hill to the HM’s office, only to find them also sheltering and recovering from a multitude of water leaks and heavily waterlogged offices and corridors. They welcomed us in, telling us to sit down wherever we could find a dry place. Meanwhile, they phoned our port agent to come and collect us and take all 28 of us to a hotel.
The HM informed us that there was another ship in distress near the harbour entrance. Details were sketchy, but she was a ‘logger’ and had lost all her deck cargo of logs. These logs were washing up ashore and into the harbour.
Our agent arrived with four minibuses and transported us all (still soaking wet and disheveled and in a state of shock) to the hotel.
The next crisis came with a knock on our door. It was the crew. They were all lined up outside, with only orange hotel towels wrapped around them.
Declan had to do some quick thinking. He grabbed his credit cards and went out to the street market nearby, buying up their stocks of shorts, tee shirts and sandals, rushing back to the hotel to distribute them.
I was nursing a big ice pack from the fridge on the back of my head and forehead, trying to conduct a sensible telephone conversation with John to inform him and our Insurance underwriters of the suspected damage to the ship. At first he just laughed and thought we were pulling his leg, until Declan told him the same news. He then became gravely concerned, and was overreacting.
The phone never stopped ringing for several hours afterwards. It was impossible to get any sleep or rest for my suspected concussion.
Eventually, we managed to get a few hours sleep, as did most of the crew. There were no local counselling services for the trauma that we had just been through. We just had to grin and bear it.
The next morning, the local newspapers spelt it all out. There had been winds of 140 to 160 kilometres per hour at its worst. It was the strongest typhoon in the last four years. I would check all that out with the official figures from the local weather bureau later.
‘Helena’ was still afloat, but she was not in good shape. After we all came ashore during the passage of the eye of the typhoon, she had surged along the quayside with no moorings to restrain her, except two very slack anchor chains. With the change in wind direction, her bow or foremast had collided with the boom of a Container Crane, which had been deliberately left out over the quayside by its owners to dry its paintwork after repainting.
We hurried down to the quayside with some crewmembers and managed to climb aboard via the (now very badly damaged) accommodation ladder. We put out some mooring lines to hold her in position. We then had to go around and do a damage survey before the insurance underwriters surveyor from the Salvage Association arrived from Hong Kong.
We tested the rudder hard over several times, and tried to turn the main engine shaft slowly, to check for damage to the propeller. We sighted one bent blade tip.
The agent picked us up, with lots of faxes from John to be answered. The agent took us to a spot just along the seafront, about a kilometre outside the harbour and south from our position.
It was a most incredible sight.
It was the other ship that had been in distress. She was a logger, just slightly smaller than us. She had not survived the storm. She had broken into three pieces.
Her crew of about 24 men were all hospitalised. Some had serious injuries. Some had their faces smashed in, due to the action of the derricks breaking loose and the cargo gear (steel blocks, cargo hooks and wire ropes and the like) all swinging around in the violent seas. Boy, it was frightening to see. That could have been us too. Crowds of local people were taking photographs. Her name was the ‘Cahaya’.
‘Helena’ was also an object of attraction, with lots of local sightseers walking the quayside.
The agent had arranged for myself and our injured crewmembers to go to the local hospital for checkups, seven of us in total. When we arrived at the hospital, there was a pyramid of lifejackets belonging to the ‘Cahaya’s crew outside the hospital main door. All were soaking wet. It was a grim testament to the power of the elements.
We managed to speak to a couple of the ‘Cahaya’s crew and empathise with them. They told us their grim story. We were then patched up and x-rayed and transported back to the hotel. I was certainly glad that we had a strongly built ship. In the 1950s and 1960s, shipowners still deliberately built over specification.
Meanwhile, John was obtaining written reports, salvage tug quotes and photographs, as well as making phone calls to the shipyard in Keelung about drydocking space.
We gathered all the crew together to get as many statements as we could and discussed with them the fact that we would have to tow the ship to Keelung shortly for drydocking inspection and possible repairs. We could not use the main engines to go under our own power.
I asked for a volunteer crew to ride the dead ship, with promises of a bonus payment.
To our surprise there were no takers. They were all sh-t scared. So were we. What would happen if the tug’s towing-wire broke, leaving ‘Helena’ to the mercy of another typhoon? Six months of every year, from March to September, this area of Asia was typhoon alley for six months of every year, and the crew didn't mind reminding us of that fact.
We couldn’t subject them to another ordeal so soon, so we had to go back to the salvage tug contractor and request for a revised quote for a dead ship tow with no riding crew, all the while awaiting the arrival of the Salvage Association surveyor from Hong Kong to inspect ‘Helena’ and give towage approval for the salvage tug. The agent, meanwhile, was instructed to buy train tickets for all of us to get from Hualien to Keelung after the ‘Helena’ and her tug left for Keelung, with an estimated towing time of two days.
A tug and tow of a dead ship with a riding crew is easier to control, as the ship’s crew are steering her and the course is being kept better. In the event the tow wire breaks, the two crews (tug and ship) can soon pass another wire between the vessels and the tow continues.
If the tug and tow has no riding crew, that means the course keeping of the tug and tow is not so good. The ship swings wildly around, as it is not being steered and thus is not following the tug’s course. If the tow wire breaks, the tug has to wait for the weather to improve before it can get another wire across to the ship and have it secured by the tug’s own crew, who must go onboard.
All this adds extra time to the total towing time. That's why the tug owners ask for an increase in price for the towage of a dead ship with no riding crew.
We also had to rig some of the derricks again, and take what lashings we had managed to put on the granite blocks off, as the cargo receiver was nagging us for the delayed discharge of the 1,000 tonnes of granite blocks.
Once the approvals were granted and issued by the SA surveyor, the balance of cargo was discharged and the derricks and ship were all re-secured for towing by the tug, we all left for Keelung.
Fast forwarding to almost nine months later, I attended the court of inquiry in Hualien on my own regarding the incident. The Greek Captain didn't dare risk returning to Taiwan, due to an arrest warrant out for him by the owners of the damaged container crane, which still had not been repaired. Apparently, the opposing lawyers also wanted to arrest John, if he ever came to Taiwan, as he was the owner of the shipowning company assets, i.e. the ‘Helena’ herself. They were not concerned with Declan, or myself as we were third parties. We were the ship managers, and didn't own the assets.
So now I knew why John was not a director or managing director of the shipowning company. Smart one, John. Very crafty. The lawyers on both sides had been enjoying slinging writs around.
The upshot of the inquiry was that both parties were held to blame. We for not putting out to sea early enough to avoid the TRS, and them for failing to hoist their container crane boom up “out of harm’s way” after the berth was emptied by a ship, as is the practice in ports worldwide.
It is worth noting that ‘Helena’ only experienced another three typhoons throughout the rest of her life.
This story is a work of non-fiction. Unless otherwise noted, the
author and the publisher make no explicit guarantees as to the accuracy
of the information contained in this story and in some cases, names of
people and places have been altered to protect their privacy.
The Irish Trampship mis-adventures
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