Old Bill Rises From The Dead

Author: Willis Eschenbach

I've written about a South Pacific reprobate I called "Old Bill" before in my tale called Modern Piracy. He was a con man of the highest order. As a friend remarked, most con men tell a story so good you believe it without question. Bill's problem was that he told a story so artfully that even he believed it without question. I'd thought I was done with him after that, but nothing works like that in the islands.

Most good South Pacific stories start in some Yacht Club bar, and this was no exception. Back in the 1980s, I'd just finished up a two-country, four-week consulting job for the Peace Corps that had taken me to various adventures, first in PNG and then in Tonga. So I stopped off in Fiji to see my friends on the way back home, no direct flight Tonga-USA. At the Royal Suva Yacht Club, the guys who permanently prop up the seaward end of the bar told me that my friend Ross Brodie had sunk a barge in the Lautoka Harbour, and he was going to have to raise it again, it was a hazard to navigation.

So I set out to Lautoka to see if I might be of some use, Ross had done me favors before, and besides, raising sunken barges? I wasn't going to miss that, I called my ex-fiancee, told her that my trip home might take a little longer than I'd planned. She wished me luck.

Ross Brodie and his son Shane now run a business called SeaMech in Suva. They're good folks, honest, mechanically ingenious, and hardworking. Back then, Shane and his sister were small kids, and Ross and his wife Marita and the kids and a couple Fijian crewmen lived aboard an old island cargo ship called the Coromel. I think Ross might have got it off a reef somewhere, I don't know, but he'd fixed it up as a floating machine shop, with all his tools mounted in the main hold. And Ross could fix anything, he's one of those mechanical geniuses that can build you a working system to do whatever you might need, out of scrap metal and bits and pieces if necessary.

So I went across to the other side of Viti Levu, and got the story from Ross and Marita, which went like this:

The Yasawa Princess needed a cyclone mooring (a cyclone is a Southern Hemisphere hurricane). It has a fairly protected cyclone hole where it anchors, not much waves, but when there's a huge wind on that big superstructure it generates giant forces. The mooring site is in Vitogo Bay (pronounced "Vee-tong-go), at the upper right of Figure 1.. So they needed something really big to hold it in place.

Ross, ever inventive, decided to make a floating mooring out of a clapped out old steel barge, maybe 60 feet (18m) long and 26 feet (8m) wide, something like that. To convert it into a mooring, he welded some links of a giant anchor chain to the inside of the barge at the center of the bottom. He then held the loose end of the chain up vertically, tossed in a layer of scrap steel and wire mesh and rebar to tie it all together, and poured about three feet of concrete into the bottom of the barge. Weighted it down a long ways, it was heavy as hell, but it still floated. The last few links of chain stuck out of the center of the concrete pour, they'd be cut off once he got to Lautoka as part of the final preparation. The final visible link , half buried in the concrete, would be used to shackle up to the Yasawa Princess. There were leaks at various points, the barge was old, but it was seaworthy, you just had to pump it out every four hours or so to keep it from sinking, but he only had to go around the island, do a few last things to the barge, cut off the excess links, and sink the concrete filled hulk for the Yasawa Princess mooring.

Since it was just Ross and his wife and maybe a couple crew on board, they decided to hire someone to give them a hand... and they had the infernal bad luck to hire Old Bill as their assistant. He'd just flown into Fiji from Tonga, said he'd been fishing there, and he needed some work. He was to come along and help Ross with the barge, and keep it pumped out, and then go on with the Coromel from there for some out-of-the-country work.

The run around from Suva to the north end of the island went well. Bill and Ross alternated on the pumping job, every four hours without fail, and after a couple days slow towing they arrived and tied up at the dock in Lautoka. Ross took the first watch and pumped the barge at midnight, and then turned it over Old Bill to do the same at four AM.

Now, the barge was tied alongside the Coromel, with the Coromel's small shore boat tied up to the barge. First sign Ross had of trouble was when he was awakened by the Coromel leaning way, way over on the side. Ross jumped out of bed and ran outside barefoot. The barge was sinking fast. He jumped onto the ship's boat, and frantically cut it loose so it didn't go down with the barge. Just as he got it loose, the lines tying the barge to the Coromel snapped, and the barge went straight to the bottom.

Ross paddled over and tied up the shore boat to the Coromel. He'd barely managed to save it from sinking with the barge, and he went aboard in a white-hot rage. Old Bill was still asleep in a little nest on the Coromel, he hadn't awakened even with all of the commotion. I'm surprised Ross didn't kill him on the spot, but I'm sure he awakened him rather rudely, and told him what had happened and what Bill had done in... um... graphic terms.

Old Bill said he was sorry, he'd fallen asleep, and he'd get dressed and get his gear and leave... Like hell you will, Ross stated, you'll stay right here and help clean up this mess, you can leave when the barge is floating again.

So that's how it stood when I got there. Ross already had a plan how to salvage the barge. I said I'd be glad to give him a hand.

The next morning we got ready to dive down and assess the situation. Old Bill was supposed to go, he had always claimed that he was an expert diver. Said he'd been diving for years... but when Ross and I looked at what he was doing, he was trying to put his regulator on the tank backwards, with the screw going into and plugging up the air outlet. We both looked at each other and at Bill, who was continuing to mindlessly just screw it tighter. Ross made a rule right there, no underwater work for Old Bill, Ross and I would do whatever was necessary.

The survey was pretty encouraging. The barge was sitting on the bottom, fairly level. The ground was soft, which was good because we'd have to put huge chains under the boat. Here's my sketch of Ross's plan:

The picture above shows the initial setup. We'd get another barge, Ross knew of one available that was fully decked over. We'd moor it right over the barge, tie it up to the Coromel. Then we'd wrap big huge chains clear around both barges in two spots.

Then came the tricky part. The problem was that the tide in Fiji is small, generally less than two metres. We needed to raise the lower barge more than that to get clear of the bottom. So the plan was, we'd pump the upper barge half full of water to sink it down. Then at low tide, tighten up the chains...

Then as soon as the chains were re-tightened, start pumping like hell on the upper barge, and hope that it got light enough fast enough to lift the bottom barge (half full of concrete) up off the bottom... before the rising tide overtops the upper barge, pours into the open hatch we're pumping out of, and we have two barges to salvage.

So the first part of the problem was A, wrap the chains around. These chains had to be quite large, with the links made out of maybe 1-1/2? bar (4cm). It's heavy, even underwater, and cantankerous to handle, it'll bite you bad. We started by diving down, and working a long piece of rebar (the deformed steel rod used to reinforce concrete) under the barge from side to side near one end. We used that to pull a piece of light cable under the barge, and sawed it back and forth until it was where we wanted it. Then we used that light cable to pull heavy steel cable under the barge, and finally using the ships winch and the "Tirfor", a high-strength come-along, we pulled the lengths of chain under the bottom barge. We pulled them under and back up and over the top barge. That was Part A, it took maybe three or four days.

Then we pumped the upper barge half full of water. Up until then we weren't working to a deadline. But once we had the barge full of water, we had to pick a tide, and when we did, we had six hours to get the upper barge pumped out. We'd timed it when we pumped it in, so we thought we were OK, but it was going to be tight.

The problem with Part 2(B) was, it turned out to be a real bitch to tighten up the chains. They were still as heavy and clumsy and dangerous as when we first wrapped them, and it took much longer than we'd expected. At one point my thumb got caught in between the chains, and a wave lifted the barge... I felt the chain clamp down on my thumb... squeeze it... and then release it and I yanked it out, and I realized that if the wave had been an inch or two higher I'd be missing a thumb, smashed flat by the enormous forces. You can never relax your vigilance moving heavy metal at sea.

Finally we got both of the chains tightened up, and started pumping. But we were way late by that time, the tide had already started crawling up the side of the upper barge, and nothing was lifting. We pumped and pumped, but we could see the inexorable end approaching. The water started creeping across the deck towards the hatch.

Fortunately, Ross even had a plan for this. There was only one place for the water to come inside the barge, the two foot square (60 cm) deck hatch we were pumping out of. Ross had stockpiled some sandbags, and so we started stacking them all around the deck hatch. We widened the wall of sandbags on one side so we could set the pump up there to keep it out of the water. And we just kept pumping.

And so eventually, the entire upper barge went underwater. The only thing sticking out of the water was the wall of sandbags around the deck hatch... and as the tide kept rising, we just added another layer of sandbags all around the wall, lifted up the pump and put another sandbag underneath it, and kept pumping.

I've often wondered what we looked like to the passing boats when the barge was completely underwater... all you could see was a low wall of sandbags, with Ross and I and a pump precariously perched on top, and from a distance apparently attempting to pump out the very ocean itself...

Finally, with a great roiling of mud, the lower barge broke loose of the suction holding it on the bottom, and the whole lot surged to the top. You'd have been hard pressed to find two happier men than Ross and I at that minute.

And after solving many problems, that got us all the way to the situation in 2(C) ... and left us with one final challenge.

Remember that Ross had one last detail he had to do in Lautoka-he had to cut off the extra length of mooring chain that was cast into the concrete in the center of the barge. Only now, instead of cutting it up on the top of the ocean, we had to cut it off underwater. We couldn't leave it, because we needed to be able to shackle to the first link, and the next link prevented that.

And the link we had to cut through was made out of about 6? (15cm) rod, it was a section of huge ship's chain, each link weighing hundreds of pounds, of the style that's called "stud link"...

So Ross went off somewhere and found a "Broco" rig, which is an underwater cutting rig. It uses a thermite rod, which burns underwater if supplied with oxygen. An electric arc is used to light the rod, but is turned off after that and the rod burns by itself. Neither Ross nor I had ever used the Broco rig, so we started reading the instruction manual, and immediately started cracking up.

It started out by saying that the first thing to do was to make sure that your diving gear was of the best, no rips or tears, no open seams... we looked at each other, our wetsuits were more patches than original material.

Then it said, be sure that the intercom system between the diver below and the tender up topside was providing clear communication... our intercom system was a rope. One tug meant turn on the current so I can strike the arc, two tugs meant I've got it burning now, turn off the current. A bunch of tugs meant trouble, come get me.

Finally, the safety manual said, be sure that there's no place that the gas can collect up above where you are cutting underwater, because the gas is mostly oxygen, and can possibly still be explosive. That one was the funniest of all, because we'd be cutting the chain links in the middle of the concrete floor of the lower barge, which was still slung underneath the upper barge. So there was no place for the bubbles to go, they constantly collected overhead on the bottom of the upper barge, glistening and shining.

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