The tapping stopped, leaving an eerie silence.
It had been banging at first but had grown weaker, very quickly.
The automatic emergency lamps cast a pallid glow over the pinched, shocked faces of the shivering men scattered about the cramped compartment. Ian Gardener, the Navigating Officer, surveyed this scene and realised with a jolt that he was the only officer there – The Senior Survivor.
Forcing himself upright, he willed his legs to stop shaking, looking around as he did so to take stock.
Voices called out, penetrating the palpable silence.
“What the hell was that? “Have we been hit?
“Wrecker, take a look around and check the compartments. See if we’re safe for the moment. Ian ordered.
The tall wiry Chief Petty Officer, the ships mechanical systems expert, unfurled from his position by the watertight door and, flicking on his torch, stepped over and around the other men as he made his way around the compartment.
“CHOPS, get a list together of everyone here and check to see if anyone’s injured. The chief sonar operator nodded his head tightly and reached into his shirt pocket for a notebook and pencil.
Ian looked up at the pale, shocked faces that peered down from the Escape Compartment and made his way up the ladder, his footsteps sounding very loud in the prevailing quiet. The depth gauge was behind him as he went up, around the side of the escape tower and he looked at the reading on it – 173 metres. ‘That’s lucky’, he thought, ‘at least we can escape unaided at this depth’, and then laughed bitterly, ‘that is if anyone finds us’. Lucky? That remained to be seen.
The other survivors were starting to stir now, emerging from the shock that had numbed them into immobility. Ian raised his voice so that they could hear him in the escape compartment and below in the junior rates’ bunkspace.
“Okay, listen up, I want you all to give your name to CHOPS then go around the bunkspace and gather up as much warm clothing as you can. Break open the lockers if you have to.
‘They won’t mind’ he added to himself.
“And get yourselves dressed. This last was to the men who were still in their underwear having been asleep when the tragedy struck.
That will give them something to do, to keep them active, and to stop them dwelling on the events that had caused them to be trapped in a submarine on the ocean floor with God knows how many of its compartments flooded.
His mind reeled at the speed at which things had happened; images of faces and actions moving in slow motion…….
He had been talking with the Wrecker about the main hydraulic system on the forward escape platform when the main broadcast had burst into life,
“FULL AHEAD RECEIVED IN MANOUEVERING.
Fully aware of an impending emergency both men had sprung into action as the next broadcast arrived.
“SHUT BULKHEAD DOORS.
The harsh General Alarm sounded and then “EMERGENCY STATIONS, EMERGENCY STATIONS. STAND BY COLLISION PORT AFT. SHUT BULKHE….
Just then the boat had lurched violently, throwing everyone off of their feet, and the roar of compressed air forcing its way into the ballast tanks had overridden the broadcast.
The warbling of the Flood Alarm filled the background as the next broadcast came,
“EMERGENCY STATIONS, EMERGENCY STATIONS. FLOODING IN THE ENGINE ROOM AND MANOEUVRING. SHUT…….
There had been no more.
The Leading Chef, Dave Williams, had been the last man through the watertight door that led to the forward escape compartment as it shut. As the door lugs were engaged to seal it, a wall of water had roared down Two-deck passageway, battering everything in its path. The Wrecker, Clive Wallace, had looked through the portal in the watertight door and, turning white, had covered it so none of the younger men could see.
That’s when the panicked banging had started.
Frantic scrabbling and scratching that had quickly grown weaker until it was just tapping.
Ian realised that he hadn’t even felt the bump as the boat had hit the bottom, but it must have as the depth gauge was steady. Looking back it was obvious that the poor buggers in the Control Room hadn’t managed to shut the tunnel doors in time to stop the spread of the flood, overwhelmed by the severity and speed of it.
Whatever had hit them had been big.
Clive Wallace stuck his head up from the bunkspace and said “We’re okay for now, Sir. I’ve been round the bunkspace and Air Ram Space and there’s no water coming in or obvious structural damage.
The CHOPS, Harry Grimes appeared.
“That’s twenty-one survivors including yourself, Sir, and apart from minor cuts and bruises, from the collision, there are no injuries. We’ve been lucky.
Lucky. That word again. It’s funny how people in the most dire of circumstances can still count themselves as lucky.
“Right CHOPS, open the Red Cross submarine escape locker and get the guardbook out so that we can work out what our options for escape are and how best to manage our air. Wrecker, release the indicator buoy. Ian looked around him,
“Leader Davis get on the underwater telephone. Try and raise the aft escape for five minutes. If nothing switch it off again to save batteries.
“Okay, Sir The young man was visibly shaking as he made his way to the battery powered equipment that used sonar to achieve communications in an emergency. Using the underwater telephone they could assess whether there was anyone alive in the submarines aft escape compartment.
Ian steeled himself as he started to shake again.
‘Come on’ he told himself ‘Its’ just reaction setting in. Keep busy’. He had to put on a good show so that the lads wouldn’t know just how scared he was.
He looked up at the faces surrounding him.
“Let’s get organised.
* * *
On the bridge of the Supoil Princess the Second Mate frowned as he returned to the bridge from the small galley tucked in behind it, cupping his hands round a mug of oxtail soup. Across from him alarm lights were lit on the hull stress sensor panel. He crossed to the panel and silenced the buzzer that had caused his frown. It looked as if they had hit something on the starboard bow but the radar was clear. It was probably a container that had fallen off a cargo vessel and was lurking just below the surface. He logged the time and position so as to alert the coastguard and then buzzed the cabin of the Chief Engineer.
“Yeah? Hello what’s up?, came the sleepy enquiry from the speaker.
“Hi, Jock. It’s me John on the bridge. Look we’ve just hit something on the starboard bow. I don’t think it was anything big, ’cause I didn’t feel anything, and anyway there’s bugger all close on the radar apart from normal traffic. It must have been a container or something. Anyway the Stress Monitor is indicating some damage and it needs checking out.
Jock McGuire stared at his comms unit as he came fully awake and looked at his clock. 01: 24.
“I’ll get right on it, he said. Get Johns and Baker up as well and tell them to meet me in the workshop in , oh I don’t know, say, fifteen minutes.
“Okay-Dokay. I’ll do that and then tell the boss.
John broke the connection and then buzzed the Captain to brief him on what had just happened. Afterwards he contacted the Coastguard who duly logged the call and issued a warning to shipping to look out for an adrift cargo container.
* * *
Unnoticed, a small round buoy bobbed to the surface half a mile astern activating its flashing light and preparing to transmit its cry for help as its antenna raised.
It also went unnoticed by the next vessel, a Liberian registered bulk carrier, which ran over the buoy and snapped off its aerial at the base, thus rendering its vital emergency signal useless.
* * *
Jock and his team made their way out of the workshop onto the weather deck and climbed on to their quad bikes and sped off towards the distant bows. On arrival they secured the bikes into their special pens and opened the access hatch down into the maintenance space just aft of the bows. As they made their way down deck by deck Jock could hear the sound of water rushing around getting louder. At deck seven he noticed water seeping in around the hatch that led down to deck eight and upon cracking open the compartment vent, a small valve that equalised pressure across bulkheads, found a full bore of water coming through.
“Jesus Christ, he thought. ” It must have been a bloody big container we hit.
“Get that hatch dogged down tight. We’ve got a bloody flood down there! Jock barked to his team.
He buzzed the bridge. “John, we’ve got a flooded section down here. You’d better start phoning the world and let them know.
Jock wasn’t worried for the overall safety of the ship. It was after all one of the newest supertankers especially designed to contain damage and minimise risk after the disastrous tanker accidents of the Eighties and early Nineties. No it was just going to cause a headache for him with the repair and long hours to get the vessel sea worthy again. Not to mention the lack of bonus payments for the crew whilst it was not carrying oil.
* * *
Ian looked around at the faces of the men sat wrapped up in the spare clothing they’d gathered; quiet now with little movement to conserve oxygen and minimise the amount of carbon dioxide they were breathing out. He hoped that the signal from the indicator buoy would be picked up soon. They could last out for a while barring further disaster thanks to the oxygen candles and emergency atmosphere cleaning equipment carried by all modern submarines. The biggest problem was time and the tricks it would play on the minds and souls of the men trapped in this steel coffin.
* * *
On the surface the buoy bobbed in the light swell, its’ light flashing brightly to try and attract attention but its’ broken aerial trailing forlornly in the sea alongside meant that help was far from guaranteed.
* * *
“Skipper Barnes grinned and leant hard into the wheel as the wind caught the Spinnaker of his Nicholson 33 yacht and heeled her over to port. “This was what its all about ” he thought. Far better than the grim reality he now had to put far behind him. Life was just beginning to look up after the tragic accident that had cost him his wife and his career in one foul swoop. At 33 he was every inch the career Naval Officer and had been one of the leading contenders for completing ‘Perisher’ – the Submarine Command course that was designed to test the mettle of prospective submarine captains. Until the accident of course. Now after fourteen months of hospital and rehab he had to make do with only one lung and a career in tatters. And he had to do it alone.
He looked out ahead of the yacht and judged the distance between himself and the nearest tankers. It was sometimes a tricky task to cross these busy lanes off the Hampshire coast but once he was across free he would have clear water down to the Channel Islands. Yachts are far less able to manoeuvre than powered vessels but it was common courtesy and prudent to keep clear of the big tankers and cargo vessels that headed in and out of Southampton.
As he cleared the first Lane of traffic his cautious eye caught the gleam of colour from a few hundred yards off to his left. He stared out but it was gone.
“Probably just debris he thought and was just about to tack when it caught his eye again. He couldn’t put his finger on it but there was something about the colours that triggered a sense of unease in his stomach. Always trusting such instincts he tacked over and brought the yacht onto a bearing to pass close to where the colours were flashing in the swell.
The yacht sliced through the grey waters and closed the distance with the mystery object. As he neared it he noticed the flashing light on top and as it became more constant in his vision and Skipper saw that it was a buoy of some kind. By now alarm bells were ringing in his head and as he drew near he realised what he was looking at with its broken aerial and his hand reached for the radio.
* * *
“Sir, the Duty Operations Officer at Whitehall spoke softly into his mike. The whole atmosphere of the Ops Room was like that. As if it was a rule that everything was done as quietly as possible.
Commodore Johnson looked down from his office through the plate glass wall separating him from the Ops Room at the Lieutenant Commander who was calling him. He hoped today was going to be a smooth easy ride. He had to be home on time tonight as his wife was doing one of her “special evenings, inviting one of her important clients from work, to impress them. He loathed the tedium of these nights, could not get his head round how these nameless suits from the Accounts profession thought. But he’d do it for Jean. She had after all supported him with his career, waiting patiently at home for months on end whilst he was away. He sighed resignedly and thumbed his desk comm.
“Yes Ops, what can I do for you?
” It’s Supreme Sir, She’s half hour overdue for her check in signal. We’ve tried raising her on HF and Satcom but no response. We’ve also sent a signal on VLF for her to contact us.
“Where is she at the moment? Johnson asked. He knew already but asked all the same to enable himself to gather his thoughts.
“Approximately forty five miles due south of Brighton by her passage plan.
” Keep trying for another ten minutes. Then call me again..
Johnson walked from the glass wall over to the back of his office to where his safes were and pulled from one of the shelves a file marked SUBSUNK -Rules and Procedures for conduct of operations.
“It pays to think ahead, God Forbid, he thought as he took the file over to his desk.
He had just read through the introductory passages when his intercom lit up again.
“Sir, Duty Ops here. The clock had only moved six minutes.
“Yes Ops, have you got her?
” I’m afraid not sir. We’ve just received a FLASH telephone call from Brighton Coastguard. A Yacht has discovered an indicator buoy on the surface thirty seven miles south and ten miles west of Brighton. The number on the buoy matches up with the fwd buoy on Supreme.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions here. How come its’ distress signal wasn’t picked up. If it is that close to Brighton then it should have been coming through loud and clear. It could be just that it has come adrift, it’s had happened before.
“I’d thought of that Sir. The yachty is an ex-submariner and the reason that the signal wasn’t received was that the buoy appears to be damaged and the aerial snapped.
“Right, better safe than sorry. Have we got any assets in the area? If so get them moving and raise a SUBSUNK signal. Get the SPAG team rolling.
Johnson paused for a second to spare a thought for whatever had happened and then reached for the telephone. It was going to be a very long and busy day. Jean was just going to have to cope on her own. Again.
* * *
Ian Gardiner looked at his watch. With a bit of luck the search for them should be under way by now. The signal that kept Whitehall informed of their safe existence was nearly an hour overdue. All he could hope for now is that the indicator buoy had been discovered or would be shortly.
He looked out at the miserable faces of the men huddled together as much for company as for warmth. The battery lamps should last for another six hours or so but it would wise to prepare for when they did fail.
” Wrecker what’s’ the CO2 level like now?
“It’s crept up a bit, Sir. As has the pressure. but we’re still OK for now.
“Good. Right everyone listen up. The Subcheck signal expired nearly an hour ago now so they should be looking for us. The ship that hit us should have reported in by now and hopefully they’ve put two and two together and decided we’re in trouble. What we have to do is stay calm and collected and wait for rescue.
All turned to him as hope flared in the eyes of no-longer young looking faces.
“Are we going to make it, Sir
“Will it take them long to find us?
Wilson, an old and bold mechanic, looked around. “Listen to yourselves, he said sarcastically “We’ve got bugger all chance of being rescued. The chances are that the buoy will not be found and neither will we.
The faces swept back to Ian “Look , Tug. We’ve got a fair chance of being found th
The tapping stopped, leaving an eerie silence.