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The rescue of MV Island Gas

EDITOR : Our feature stories are usually set in the past but this one by Jim Hyslop from Queensland is set in the time of living memory. Jim tells a fascinating true story that highlights the dangers faced by these courageous men.

Ship towing in Australia has always been a hazardous business as it is anywhere but made more dangerous as shipowners are reluctant to keep a tug on station dedicated solely to salvage work. This means that the tugs available for salvage work are also used for harbour work. They do not carry the specialised equipment needed nor do they carry enough fuel, stores and crew. However when a ship is in distress and calls for aid then it is sometimes necessary to use these tugs to go to its aid.

Some years ago now, in the early eighties, I was a tugmaster at Gladstone in Queensland. The weather was bad and getting worse. There was a cyclone somewhere off the coast to which the weather office had given the name Chloe. A message came through to our agent that a small coastal gas tanker had broken down and was sheltering behind Saumarez Reef and calling for a tug to help her get into a sheltered port. Saumarez is one of the outer reefs and is about 150 miles from Gladstone. I was ordered to go to the aid of the stricken ship and to bring her back to Gladstone if possible.

I hastily made arrangements to pick up extra crew, stores and fuel and this being done, set out for the outer reef a few hours after receiving the distress call. As soon as we cleared Gladstone harbour we knew we were in for a very uncomfortable time. The weather was horrific and continued to get worse as we ploughed towards the stricken vessel. The normal procedure in bad weather is to slow down to allow the ship ride the seas easier but in this case time was of the essence. I had to keep the tug going at full speed, as the situation of the distressed ship was becoming desperate due to worsening weather and her proximity to the dangerous coral reef.

On the morning of the day after we left port the huge seas were breaking over the tug and about eleven in the morning a particularly large wave smashed up over the bow. The noise as it struck the front of the bridge was like a great clap of thunder and the 500 ton tug stopped in its tracks as if a giant hand was pushing against it. For a few seconds it was as if time was standing still and then the powerful tug engine overcame the elements and the tug tore down into the trough of the next big wave. It has always intrigued me to see the damage that can be caused by water on the move. In this case the bridge front which was constructed of 1⁄2 inch steel plates had assumed a concave shape instead its usual convex appearance.

Reports from the ship by radio indicated their anxiety so I pushed on as hard as the weather would allow and about dusk I made out through the gloom of the foul night the stark shape of a ship high and dry on the reef. This was an American Liberty ship which had been wrecked on this reef many years before and which provided a good landmark. I cautiously skirted the reef and found the entrance using radar and soon came up on the tanker – it was fully loaded and deep in the water, with an anchor down and perilously close to the dangerous coral. Even inside the reef the seas were frighteningly high and the noise from the waves crashing on the coral close by did nothing for our peace of mind. The cyclone was by now very close and we were receiving its full effect. MORE>>