Tarakan Island, Indonesia, is an oil port and refuelling stop for ships, especially those trading between Australia and Japan. Its also an area well known to Australian troops during the Second World War. As ships left after refuelling, others quickly took their place, such was the need for the liquid black gold.
One ship in the queue to berth at the oil pier was an Australian bulk carrier, the Mount Keira. She was on her way back to Australia after discharging her cargo of iron ore for the steel furnaces of Japan. With little of interest ashore, the crew either slept or used the temporary makeshift pool onboard, which was made up of timber sections and a canvas interlining that was then filled with sea water from the ships hydrant.
It was hard to avoid the nauseous smell of fuel oil which pervaded every part of the ship whilst she was refuelling. Even the food tasted vile because of the oily atmosphere surrounding the berth. As it was only a short stop over, the regular watches maintained. This meant the cadets onboard had little time for themselves. The senior cadet, Steven Simpson, was on the 4-8 watch, and after completing the clerical work he had been assigned, he decided to remain on the bridge and lean over the rails. It was cooler there, much cooler than in the cadets cabin which he shared with two others.
With refuelling completed, the Customs and Immigration personnel had left the ship, with the local pilot onboard sailing was set for 5pm. Things always seemed to happen at meal times. After a rushed dinner, Steven was back on the bridge with the rough log book, recording all the engine movements as well as any other information of the departure. When the ship had cleared the wharf, a smaller vessel was already alongside and attaching her oil hoses.
Heading out into the Celebes Sea after dropping the pilot, the tropical night closed in. Land was only just visible on the radar, and with no shore lights the only illumination in the gloom, was the blaze of phosphorescence as the ships wash stirred up the plankton, and an occasional flash of distant lightning. The smell of oil fuel that had pervaded the ships accommodation had now thankfully been replaced by the scent of nearby Islands. By this time Steven was hot, tired, thirsty and looking forward to the end of his watch which was at 8pm.
Back in the cabin after being relieved, he moved quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping 12-4 shift cadet. He searched and eventually found one of the large bottles of Japanese beer, which he had deliberately hidden for such an occasion. The beer would have been better cold, however, thirst came first, it was wet and that’s all that mattered. Next on his agenda was a swim to cool off. The contents of the bottle disappeared quickly, then after changing into his swimsuit he made his way down to the pool, before it closed at 9pm. This closure time was so those who were sleeping before their watch could not be disturbed.
The water in the pool was luke warm after the hot day, nevertheless it was better than sweltering on his bunk in a stifling cabin. The beer that he had consumed in such a hurry was now causing a light headedness effect. It was now to time for him to get out of the pool and make a move towards his cabin, for sleep and blessed oblivion until his shift at 4am.
As Steven waded towards the pool side to climb out, his feet slipped on the canvas liner, at the same time striking his forehead on the wooden pool side, submerging him once more in the water. Now in a daze because of the fall, he made another attempt to exit the pool by hoisting himself up on the top support and rolling over the edge. He expected to land feet first on the steel deck outside the pool enclosure, Instead of the expected solid deck though, he felt himself falling headfirst through a black void, then crashing unexpectedly into cold water, ‘spread eagled’ which winded him.
The next sensation that Steven felt was his body being sucked downwards in a torment of inky darkness and loud roaring, fighting to find fresh air, and unsure of what had happened or where he was.
Emerging into the atmosphere at last, looking around he saw to his ultimate horror the stern light of his ship moving rapidly away from him. Panic now set in, his cries for help although loud to him, but seemingly not loud enough to reach the ship. In a moment of clarity through his panic, he reasoned that he must have climbed out on the wrong side of the pool and fallen overboard. The roaring that he heard whilst under water was the ships propeller, only just missing him. He had luckily just avoided being chopped to pieces, only to possibly now possibly drown alone in very dangerous waters.
In spite of the sheer enormity of what had just happened, his gut reaction was that he should try and stay as calm as possible, take stock and to work out what to do next. His first thoughts were to try and swim for land, but, in the gloomy darkness which direction was the land? How far away was it? This was difficult to calculate, because the ship had been at sea for over three hours. The other major concern was sharks. He knew that they inhabited these waters, because he had seen them near the surface when he was on watch. There were also a lot of other ‘nasties’ in these waters that he had heard about. There were sea snakes, poisonous jellyfish and many other varieties of dangerous sea creatures.
With all these thoughts racing through his mind, he felt he should try and conserve his strength for what promised to be an eternally long night. Rolling on his back in an attempt to float however, he only succeeded in gulping mouthfuls of sea water. On the positive side, and there wasn’t much to be positive about, the water was very calm and not too cold. On the negative side the night was incredibly dark with only the occasional flash of distant lightning. He assumed that he hadn’t been missed on his ship as he should have been in his bunk asleep resting before the morning watch. These positives and negatives summed up his present situation, as being practically hopeless.
His thoughts began to wander back to his home in Sydney. How would his parents react to him being reported missing at sea, and very probably dead? He had given them enough worries already by going to sea as a cadet, when his other siblings had all taken university degrees. He was the odd member of the family (the black sheep) who was often left out. He had upset his mother on more than one occasion when he had started smoking in the house on leave and on arriving home on day leave from the ship, smelling of alcohol from drinking with other cadets, instead of being with the family. This in itself had incensed his father who didn’t drink or smoke and who took a very dim view of those who did.
Maybe they would be relieved that he wouldn’t be there to embarrass the family any more in front of friends. A moan of anguish was the sudden realisation that nobody could care that he was missing.
A few drops of rain fell on him as a small squall passed overhead. He licked the fresh water thirstily after all the salt water that he had swallowed. As the squall passed, Steven thought he could see swirls in the water nearby. Sharks? Had they found him at last? were they going to eat him? Splashing vigorously hoping to scare them away he then stopped abruptly thinking it would be better to get it over with, it was going to happen anyway and hopefully it would be a quick death. He tensed up and with his eyes tightly closed in the anticipation of an attack that he was sure would come without any warning. After waiting for what he felt was an eternity but in reality probably only a few minutes he looked about in the water all around him and seeing nothing suspicious he decided to rest his legs by attempting to float again.
To keep his mind away from thinking about the local marine creatures and their feeding habits, he tried to focus on his on and off girlfriend in Australia. Their last contact was when he had broken their date, choosing instead to go drinking with his mates from other company ships that were in port at the time. If he managed to survive the mess he was in, he firmly resolved to be more considerate towards her and to take his relationship much more seriously in the future, that is if he had a future.
By letting his mind wander, he started to drift off to sleep which would be expected as normally he was off watch and asleep. He awoke suddenly after swallowing a quantity of sea water, spluttering and coughing. He was now back to full consciousness with the realisation, that he was very much alone in the middle of the open sea. Nothing had changed, he was still in deep trouble.
Another rain squall engulfed the area, stronger than the last one, kicking up the surface of the water, so that it started to wash over him. Heavier rain fell and again he managed to catch some of it in his mouth. To balance in the rougher conditions he returned to treading water.
The squall passed as quickly as it appeared, the wind died down and the sea surface returned to almost a flat calm that he was able to cope with. Trying to keep his mind active he tried calculating how long it was since he fell off the ship. However he had lost all sense of time and all this did was make him more aware of his predicament. If only he could survive until daylight, when ever that would be, there may be a better chance of being seen by a local fishing boat or another ship using the port.
However a counter to that hope, was that he was starting to lose feeling in his feet, the colder water was now impacting his circulation. Trying to picture the result of this latest development, first his feet, next his legs and so on would all lose feeling, until he would just lapse into unconsciousness, then eventually death. Hoping that it wouldn’t take long for this to happen, he had resigned himself to being lost and perhaps never to be seen again. The tears that came were not through fear of the unknown, but rather the frustration of having no control over his fate, and of course of the things not done or said when he had the opportunity to do so. He tried to say a prayer, his family would like that, because they were frequently upset by his free thinking towards religion. With his eyes closed again to shut out the distant lightning and to also try and stop more tears from flowing Steven’s mind began to wander again over his past life.
A distant noise similar to a truck engine brought him back to the present. He was afraid that he was hallucinating and it was just one more stage before the end. Raising his head above the water, he thought he could see a ship’s masthead and side lights. He rubbed his eyes in case it was part of his dreams. He looked again and now he was sure, it was a ship and the noise that he had heard was its engines. Apathy now turned to desperation, here was a chance, a small one perhaps, but a small chance was better than no chance at all. He started treading water again, shouting HELP as loud as he could, all the while ignoring the salt water that poured into his open mouth.
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