The semi-submersible rig is under tow but hove-to. My ship is deliberately getting in the way because we’re protesting about oil exploration in this area. It’s summer, we’re a long way north and it’s light most of the time – but not at midnight when I come on watch for a twelve-hour stint. It’s dark then and the fog that’s been hanging low over the shiny-smooth sea is blurring the lights from the rig.
‘The tug is going to keep the rig head to wind, like she is now,’ our captain, Jon, tells me as I rub the last of my too-short sleep from my eyes. The residual warmth of my bunk is fading fast and the chilly, clammy fog is creeping in the open bridge doors to wrap me in a damp embrace. ‘If she changes direction and starts moving towards her location, call me.’ He means if the tug and her tow make a run for it, we have to mobilise my half of the crew, who are on standby, and launch the RIBs and put people in the water as a human barricade. I truly hope this doesn’t happen, I’m tired, I could do with a quiet watch. On the other hand, twelve hours of staring out at the red, rusty ballast tanks of the rig could become ultra tedious.
Jon goes to bed and my watchkeeper and I settle into our watch. Half an hour passes then I must rouse myself and go into the chart room for the shipping forecast. The sugary notes of Sailing By trickle through the crackly speaker and fade into a moment’s silence before the posh voiced announcer informs me that there are warnings of gales in Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire …
‘Lorraine.’ My watchkeeper, who is on lookout in the bridge, cuts across the gale warnings.
‘Mm?’ I’m busy assembling pen and paper and writing down anything relevent to our location.
‘Lorraine, you’d better come and look at this.’ She sounds worried. This is not good timing but I must go and look and Oh my God! The bloody rig is no longer head to wind but is moving TOWARDS US! And she is very bloody close. Are they coming aboard for a cup of tea or what? Quick appraisal – there is no sea room to starboard as the rig is close by the starboard bow. Is there enough room to port to swing the ship away and head into clearer water? Maybe but it’s a risk. I don’t want the arse-end of the ship to smack into the rig’s leg. Praise the lucky star that was watching over us that night because at that moment, the second engineer came up to get a breath of fresh air.
‘I don’t know if it helps,’ he said. ‘But the astern engine is still running.’ Oh thank Christ for that! And before you ask, no, I couldn’t simply go astern to get away unless one of the two engines is set to go astern. As we generally dodged about on one engine, going astern wasn’t usually an option. Bless the decision to keep that engine running and bless that engineer for letting me know. I rang slow astern on the telegraph and waited eons for the engineer on watch below to respond. The needle on the rev counter vibrated and slowly we backed away from the marauders. I’m watching the rig, I’m watching the variable range marker on the radar, I’m willing our old tub to pick up a bit more speed and contemplating ringing half astern. I’m under orders not to get more than a mile from the rig but I’d like to get to get to a point where I can no longer reach over the bow and touch the damn thing. The gap grew, the rig became hazier as fog filled the space where we’d been. I almost breathed a sigh of relief. Almost. But then I remembered the RIBs weren’t back on board in their cradles. Due to the need to launch them four or five times a night, the previous watch had left them tied alongside.
‘Check the boats!’ I shouted at my watchkeeper. She ran out on deck. Seconds later, she was at the door. ‘Blossom’s sunk!’ she said. I hot-footed it out to look over the side. Yes, Blossom, our only non-Rigid Inflatable Boat was submerged.Only her painter lines had prevented her from sinking completely. Her aluminium hull had no transom and being tethered for and aft, instead of swinging around when we’d come astern, she had simply scooped up gallons of Atlantic seawater and been overwhelmed. Back in the bridge, the VHF radio had come to life. Ships all over the area were informing each other that the Greenpeace ship had turned on of her small boats into a submarine. Ha ha.
‘Get the Bosun up,’ I told the watchkeeper. ‘Get everyone up and get that boat inboard.’ She ran off down the deck, her boots thump-thump-thumping down the ladder to the lower deck where the watch was sleeping in the messroom. I stopped the engine. We were far enough away from the rig now and I didn’t want to put any more pressure on Blossom’s painters. Then I had to answer the first of ever so many VHF calls.
‘We know that you dispute our 500 metre exclusion zone because we’re not in position yet, but it is still an exclusion zone and you breached it at 0115 this morning,’ Said a man on the rig. ‘I am just letting you know that we will be filing a report.’
‘Thank you very much, I copy that. Standing by on this channel,’ I responded to the rig. ‘How are the boats looking?’ I called over my shoulder to the engineer.
‘The crew are out on deck. Some are in another boat. They’re getting it sorted.’ he reassured me. The VHF got busy again, this time with a smug sounding Geordie on one of the big supply ships who made no attempt to hide his glee at my misfortune.
‘I see you’ve got a problem with one of your boats there. Unfortunately your pyrotechnics have floated away,’ he said, referring to the watertight plastic canister of flares carried in the boat for emergencies. ‘We can’t have pyrotechnics floating around an oilfield now can we?’
‘No, absolutely. We will pick them up as soon as we are able,’ I told him.
‘Righto. Well I’ll leave you to it. You look very busy over there.’
‘Thank you very much for the information, standing by on this channel.’ He was a liar, that Geordie. He didn’t leave me alone. The rig’s still charging towards us and they want to know if I intend re-entering their exclusion zone. You know, just asking, so they can make another report. Funnily enough, I have no wish to take this ancient tug within 500 metres of a very large lump of metal but in case no one’s noticed, the crew have Blossom attached to the crane but she’s still half-submerged. I cannot go move the ship right at this minute and, after all, you are coming at me… I didn’t say any of this over the radio though, I just assured them that I wasn’t intending on breaching their zone.
Then Geordie’s back on the blower. ‘We can see your pyrotechnics so we will go and stand by them until you’re ready to come and pick them up.’
‘Thank you very much, I will send a boat over as soon as one becomes available.’ I run out on deck to check on the rescue operation. Blossom is slowly being lifted clear of the water. One of the other RIBs has attached taglines to her stern and are guiding her and keeping her steady so that she doesn’t swing and smash into the ship’s side as she ship rolls.
Geordie boy’s on again. He has his big orange ship next to our tiny flare canister. ‘I see you have a boat crewed up, is it possible you could come and collect your pyrotechnics now?’ he wants to know.
Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck OFF! I am busy right now checking on Blossom’s rescue and watching a God damned rig who is hell-bent on playing dodgems with us. Now fuck off you tosser!
‘Yes we do have a boat in the water but, as you can see, she is assisting in the recovery. As soon as she becomes available I will send her over to you.’
‘OK then, if you could send her to collect your pyrotechnics as soon as possible. We are still standing by them.’
‘Yes that’s all copied, thank you.’
‘OK, well if you could send your boat over.’
I said I would didn’t I? Now shut the fuck up. ‘Simon,’ I call down to the bosun on the lower deck where he is in charge of bringing Blossom aboard. ‘As soon as you can, release that boat so it can go over to that big orange thing and get our flares back.
‘Aye, aye, will do.’
Back in the bridge, the rig’s still coming.
‘You are now on the edge of our 500 metre zone, if you do not move, we will have to report you again.’
Leaning over the bridge wing, I check on Blossom. She’s out of the water. She back in her cradle. Quick, back inside. Whack the ship astern. The old lady shudders and picks up speed, backing away from the rusty-red wall of steel that’s steaming towards her. Blossom’s safe, though her outboard is full of seawater. The RIB’s speeding away to collect our flares, the rig is now a mile distant but what is Jon going to say. How come the noise hasn’t woken him. He will kill me. My first trip away with Greenpeace is going to be my last. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. I think I may spontaneously combust. All anyone will ever find is a pair of singed safety boots.
‘What’s going on?’ Jon’s behind me.
My heart drops into my, so far, unsinged boots. ‘I er, I sort of sank Blossom,’ I tell him.
‘Oh,’ Jon pauses, looks out at the rig and then says, ‘Don’t worry about it, I do that sort of thing all the time.’ He turns away and strolls out on deck. Behind him, in the bridge, leaning heavily on the engine room telegraph the mate on watch is drowning in her own adrenaline.