Old Bill Rises From The Dead

Guest Post by 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.

ge lautokaFigure 1. Northeast of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu. The city of Lautoka is at the lower left, with the city docks sticking out into the deeper water at the bottom end of the yellow line. The city docks are where the barge sunk. The yellow line shows the final  voyage towing the barge to the mooring site in Vitogo Bay.

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.

WARNING: More South Pacific adventures follow. There is a button below marked “Continue Reading –>”. If you choose to push it, please do not complain that what you found thereafter was not science, but instead more of my curious global peregrinations … there’s plenty more science to be enjoyed on the site for those so inclined.

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.

Yasawa Princess

The Yasawa Princess

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:

raising ross's bargeFigure 2. The Brilliant Plan . Click to enlarge.

Figure 2(A) 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” …

stud link chainSo 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.

Safety briefing over, we set up the rig, re-read the operating instructions, and gave it a try.

So how does a welding rod melt steel underwater? I’d never known until that day. Turns out the welding rod is hollow down the middle. It’s made of “thermite”, a mixture of aluminum and steel that burns hotter than Hades.

The welding rod fits in a handpiece supplied with both electricity and oxygen. To light it is like underwater electric arc welding … a scary thought in itself. So Ross takes the first shift, while I’m the tender controlling the power to the arc welder, then Ross comes up to trade off.

First time I try it, I get in the water, clear my mask, adjust my buoyancy by letting the air out of my vest, and go down into the shadowy half light in-between the two barges, one above and one below. I see the electrical wire with a clamp that grounds the workpiece, the chain link we’re cutting through. Then just like with an arc welder, I turn on the juice, or actually yank on the rope once and Ross turns on the juice, and scratch the rod across the grounded workpiece to strike an arc. I look away, there’s a bright flash.

Underwater.

As I strike the arc I turn on the oxygen, which flows down the middle of the thermite rod to the tip, where it keeps the thermite burning once it’s been started, inside a protective bubble of oxygen. Then when it’s lit, I yank twice on the rope to tell Ross to turn off the electricity, and crazily, almost defying belief, there I am in the rippling underwater light, holding a burning stick in my hand … truly a bizarre sensation, to strike a cold stick like a match and see the spark and to be holding fire in my hand … underwater. Very, very strange.

From there the cutting is simple, but very slow—just put the end of the thermite rod against the workpiece and start slowly melting it, driblet by driblet molten metal falls hissing and bubbling to the concrete floor below until it suddenly cools below boiling with an odd zinging noise, until the rod is consumed and flames out.

Now, one thing the Broco book had said was, keep your head away from the rod when you strike an arc, because the strong current there will affect the fillings in your teeth … and so I took a new rod, and inserted it into the handpiece, but the second time I went to strike the arc I forgot about that little pearl of information. ZOWIE, when I struck that arc I though my teeth were going to shake out of my head. I don’t know if it was the fillings or not, but when I struck that arc I thought every single tooth was going to tap dance right on out of my jaw … a strange jangling shaking sensation that went directly to the bones of my head and jaw. It was both totally unexpected and extremely disconcerting, especially underwater. Ever after that I guarantee that I struck the arc just like they’d said, a long ways away from my head, and so I give it a second try, and this time it works fine, and once the second rod is alight, I give the double tug on the rope and start cutting again.

Then it’s the old story, repeat over … and over … rod after rod, then trade off, I come up and Ross goes down again, repeat over … and over … until finally the cut is all the way through the link. But I don’t mind the time, I truly do like working underwater, it’s so much more fun than just sightseeing down there.

Of course, it does no good to just cut one side of a chain link, you need to cut through both sides to free the link, so Ross and I alternate again until the second cut is done. We use the Coromel’s winch to haul the short length of cut-off chain up on deck, there’s two and a half links and it’s immensely heavy.

So at that point, we’d finally gotten the barge ready to move to its final resting place and sink it. The Lautoka city guys are happy, we won’t be cluttering up their wharf and the underwater obstruction will be gone. We rig the barge for towing, then we all hop on the Coromel, set up the towing bridle, and start the slow trip around the point to Vitogo Bay.

Old Bill is still with us, of course, Ross has said he’s there until the barge is sunk as a mooring in its final location. It’s a beautiful clear day. Old Bill’s staring at the radar, playing with the knobs to get a better picture. Suddenly he shouts “Hard right! Turn hard right!”. I look at Ross … he looks at me … we look out, clear water ahead, a bit of a wind chop in one section up ahead, nothing dangerous. Bill says No, look here at the radar, a reef dead ahead.

I go to the radar and look, check the settings of the knobs … turns out Bill was unsatisfied with the radar picture, I guess, not enough going on. So he’d cranked the gain up to the maximum. Well, when you do that you get what’s called “sea clutter”, reflections off of the waves … so all he was seeing was the wind chop up ahead of us.

And if we had turned hard right? Well, there was a reef not far off that way, waiting for its next victim … I doubt Old Bill knew that, any more than he knew how to operate a radar. Or scuba gear. Or much at all.

So finally, after all the underwater fun a man could possibly want, and a lovely afternoon cruise in which we didn’t hit the imaginary reef, we followed the yellow line in Figure 1 and we arrived in Vitogo Bay. We’d timed it for low tide, figuring we’d cut one chain loose and one end of the lower barge would settle on the bottom, then we’d cut the other chain. Ross volunteered for the cutting, and it sure was fun to watch from a distance. The cutting of the first chain didn’t do much, one end of the upper barge jumped up a bit. But the weight was still on the other end.

When Ross cut the second chain loose, though, the whole barge kicked up vertically about four feet (1.5m), tossing Ross straight in the air. He landed safely, laughed, the Fijian crew laughed, I laughed, the job was finally done, what’s not to like? We towed the upper barge back to the Lautoka Harbour (British spelling) in triumph, and anchored up just offshore, where we didn’t have to pay the dock fees. So much for the first part, the barge was once again sunk, but this time in the right place. And most importantly, Ross could get paid for the job, he’d been running on vapor for a while, so he collected the agreed-upon bid price for the job, and that was good.

Ross still had a big problem, though. Originally, one of the reasons for hiring Old Bill was that Ross had a job in Tonga for the Coromel after dropping the mooring for the Yasawa Princess, and then another job after that in Tokelau. Here’s the geometry:

GE fiji tonga tokelauRoss could navigate a bit, but he didn’t trust it, and Old Bill said he was one of the world’s premier navigators, at least to hear him tell it, finest in the world. But after the sinking of the barge, and his tall tales about knowing how to scuba dive, and the incident with the radar … well, Ross wasn’t feeling all that optimistic about Old Bill’s ability to navigate anything but the Yacht Club Bar …

So I said, what the heck? This was before GPS, of course, it was all sextant and chronometer. Using just those, I had already navigated my way across the Pacific and along the California coast, I’m a dab hand at star sights and sun sights, I know the use of the horizontal sextant and the three armed protractor. Ross had a sextant and a copy of the HO249 tables and an almanac, I had a wristwatch, boat had a shortwave radio to get the time signal from WWV, what more do you need? I could get us to Tonga. Ross figured by then he’d be up to speed navigating, or he could find someone in Tonga to take my place. So I added my name to the ships articles, signed on as a crewman once again, this time as the navigator on a trip to Tonga.

So Ross told Old Bill the bad news, or perhaps good news from Old Bills perspective—he was free to leave the ship. He gathered his things, and grumbling as always, we took him in the skiff and deposited him on the beach, and I’ve never to seen him again to this day.

The next step, of course, was to rig the Coromel for sea. I haven’t mentioned much about Marita, Ross’s wife. As women often do, she had quietly kept the scene together and done lots of work topside and handled the business while Ross and I were working underwater, cooked the meals for everyone, taken care of the feeding and home schooling of their two kids, washed the clothes, the usual.

So for the Tonga trip she was in charge of all of the planning, purchasing, and stowing of the food. They’d been living on board for a while, so it wasn’t a big stretch, she had that well in hand. Ross and I and the ships engineer, a Fijian, and another crewman Ross had hired worked on getting all of the mechanical systems working and greased and maintained, buying and stowing spares and filters and filling the water tanks and all of the dozens of tasks to get a ship ready to keep you alive in the middle of the ocean.

Well, everything was going very well … and then we got some bombshell news. Old Bill had gone to the courts, demanding something like five thousand Fijian dollars from Ross.

Here’s how the scheme was supposed to work. Among Old Bill’s passports he had one from Samoa, and one from England.

Now, there’s a curious part of maritime law that says that a vessel can’t just abandon a crew member in some country. The logical theory is, if you brought the crewman there, you can’t just dump him, you have to get him home again. Reasonable enough. So what Bill had done is claim that:

1. He’d been lawfully signed on to the Coromel.

2. Ross had booted him off the boat in Fiji.

3. Therefore, Ross had to pay for his ticket to his ancestral home, England. Never mind that when he’d signed on to the boat he’d used his Samoan passport, and said he’d get off in Samoa along the way. Now he was an Englishman, by god, British bulldog born and bred, and he wanted his well deserved ticket back to his Merrie Olde homeland. And it’s not cheap at all to fly from Fiji to England.

I mean, the raw gall of the man, I can only shake my head.

Ross thought the court would just laugh it off, but we speeded up preparations to leave just in case. And sure enough, on Friday morning we got word that the courts had said Old Bill could put a lien on the Coromel, to stop it from sailing until the court ruled about his ticket, and he was coming to Lautoka that evening to serve the papers.

Well, that put us into overdrive. We had to leave now, right away, before he could serve the papers. The engineer was on shore, we couldn’t find him. The other Fijian crewman smelled a rat, said he’d seen the engineer drinking with Old Bill the day before, thought he was playing a delaying game so Old Bill could get there. We decided to leave the Engineer behind, so we grabbed his gear to put it on shore. When we emptied the drawers he’d been using, there was Ross’s good knife, and a shirt I’d been missing, and some other nice ships gear … damn engineer was not only a good pal of Old Bill, he was a sneak thief! We bundled up his gear, dumped it on the beach, and in the late afternoon, pulled up the anchor and left Lautoka. I’d love to say we saw Old Bill pull up to the beach cursing and shaking his fist as we were leaving … but no, in my autobiography I’m sworn not to exaggerate or make up tales but just to tell it like it happened. And what happened was, we just motored away from the small pile of the Engineer’s possessions on the beach, thankfully with nobody there to interfere with or even witness our departure.

Now that we were just motoring the Coromel and not towing a barge, boy, if she wasn’t a wallowing pig to steer. I asked Ross why. He said she’d had three rudders, but he cut off the outer two because the linkage was busted or for some other reason. I can assure you, the boat desperately needed those rudders. She’d start out on a true straight track for a while, nice and docile. Then she’d throw a shoulder fake one way, and when you went to correct that move to one side, she’d take the bit in her mouth, bolt for the opposite sidelines, and refuse to answer the reins. Ugliest boat I ever steered.

A couple hours after dark, we started out the passage through the reef by what used to be called “Sea Snake Island”. It’s now a world-class surfing resort and they call it “Tavarua”, but then it was sea snakes and not much more, it was an apt name. The night was lit only by the stars. Ross was at the wheel, I was up forward as lookout. I started calling back course corrections to Ross, but often he couldn’t hear me, and besides, he couldn’t steer Coromel much better than I could. So I’d go to the bow, see what was happening, run back to the wheelhouse and tell him, run back to the bow. At some point I race from the wheelhouse to the bow, and when the bow drops on a wave, I see the Coromel has taken a hard right turn and I’m looking straight over the bow at the navigation light on the reef, far, far too close, and I can see the waves gnashing on the coral, and my bowels turn to water … I levitate in terror to the wheelhouse, screaming Turn Left For Gods Sake, Left! and Ross does, and the ship slowly swings, she’s big and heavy with a small rudder, and finally I see we’ll clear the coral and the lighthouse start to slip by on the right side of the boat and somehow we slide out to the open sea at midnight, one step ahead of the process server and one step away from hitting the reef …

Other than the steering, the rest of that trip was magic. The Coromel always steered like a rabid sea cow, no change in that. But the sunlight on the waves, and the blue of the tropical ocean, what a world.

Plus the whole area from Fiji to Tonga is volcanic. At one point we saw a giant collection, miles square, of floating rocks, pumice from some underwater volcano. We steered clear, the pumice clogs up the engine cooling water intakes, it’s murder on ship’s engines. And at another point, we ran alongside a bubbling area of disturbed water, a sight I’d never witnessed before. The charts showed deep water there, but our depth sounder said much shallower. Another island in the making, a volcano pushing out lava somewhere below the surface … we didn’t drive over the top, just ran along in the clear water alongside.

But all good things must come to an end, and one lovely morning we crept slowly through the reefs and the coral heads to the harbour at Nuku’alofa, Tonga. I spent the morning transferring the plot from the radar to the chart, to monitor our progress through a narrow channel with coral heads on either side. Finally, we pulled up in the inner harbour, dropped anchor, hoisted the “Q” flag to signal we were awaiting customs and immigration.

Now, Ross had brought the boat to Tonga to do a job, and the Tongan authorities knew about that, so the boat was good. And there were no problems with Customs, we didn’t have booze or firearms or anything on board.

But when the Immigration man took a look at the crew list, his face darkened. “Is this man on board?” he demanded angrily, pointing at a name.

We looked to see what name he was pointing at, I’m always afraid at such moments, and I’d left Tonga only a couple of weeks before … was there something I’d forgotten? Or were the Fijian authorities looking for Ross because we’d left before the process servers? My mind was racing, which one of us was he talking about? Marita? The Fijian crew?

He turned the log book around, and he pointed to the line where Old Bill had signed on to the crew list back in Suva. “No, no, he’s not on the boat at all”, Ross said, “he’s not here. We kicked him off, Willis signed on in his place, ” and he pointed out the entries.

“Too bad,” said the Tongan Immigration man. We asked him why.

“We’ve been looking for him.” he growled. “You know those old Japanese longline boats with the high bows?” We said we did, they’re common in the South Pacific.

“Well,”, the Immigration Man grumbled, “a couple of months ago, Old Bill was out fishing, and coming back in he wasn’t paying attention, or maybe it was an insurance scam, and he sank one of those old Japanese fishing vessels right in the middle of the shipping channel here in the harbour, blocked it right up. No one was hurt, everyone got off in the skiff … but when Old Bill got to shore, he went straight to the airport and flew off to Fiji before anyone knew anything. We’ve been looking for him ever since, he’s gotta pay for removing that boat, it’s a hazard to navigation.”

Ross and Marita and the kids and the crew and I all just looked at each other when he said that, and we dissolved in laughter, it took really a long time to explain to the nice Tongan Immigration Man just what was so funny about a sunken ship clogging up the channels in the Nuku’alofa Harbour …

My best to all, the world is full of adventures, you simply have to go looking for them and not just sit in whatever has the place of the Royal Suva Yacht Club bar in your life …

w.

PS—As a final thought, you have to credit the infernal luck of the man. If Old Bill hadn’t sunk Ross’s barge, he’d have been on the Coromel when the perhaps this time not-so-nice Tongan Immigration Man came aboard …

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tobias

Thanks again , write the books because the royalties would blow AG out of the water in a truly honest way!

Martin A

“If you choose to push it, please do not complain that what you found thereafter was not science, but instead more of my curious global peregrinations … ”
I’ll complain if I want to.
I don’t come to WUWT to read this sort of stuff – it’s a waste of good bandwidth.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

He was to come along and help Ross with the barge, and keep it pumped out, and then go on with the Coromel from their for some out-of-the-country work.
Misspelling.
[Fixed, thanks, KD. -w.]

redc1c4

this is ridiculous…. i clicked through to get a hefty dose of “curious global peregrinations” and what do i find instead?
science… lots and lots of science. i demand a refund!

Thumbs up for the charming story. To put a climate spin on it, imagine the ships you could lift off the bottom with chains and barges if you had the patience to wait for global warming to raise the oceans!

Geoff Sherrington

Martin A, That’s a rude comment to a lovely person. You were invited to cease reading. You chose to continue. It’s really bad form to stamp your petulant foot and say you’ll complain if you want to. Trouble is, it’s not your blog and your complaint has no standing. So apologise. Like John Cleese did in “A Fish Called Wanda”, if needed.
But you would have complained about that movie too.
…………………………………………..
Willis, this is no competition, but like you I have a stock of stories from the tropics that are too good not to tell. Like the old driller at the camp we had in the Top End who had lost his left big toe from a metal drop, memories of your thumb that could have been fish bait. His Christmas present from the social club, after deep thought, was a pair of thongs.
There is a style of humour in the regions we are discussing that the world needs to hear. One gets pretty tired of stories from people who have to work all day in an office and never leave town for a holiday. Life seen through the narrow lens of a desk job in climatology makes a lot of climate work dismally boring to read.
Positive feedback exists in the writing world.

Jason Calley

Hey, Willis! Great story! I suspect that too many of us have crossed paths with people like Old Bill. It’s a shame there is not some way to tattoo a warning sign on their foreheads. 🙂

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

Ever after that I guarantee that Istruck the arc just like they’d said, a long ways away from my head, and so I give it a second try, and this time it works fine, and once the second rod is alight, I give the double tug on the rope and start cutting again.
Missing space.
[Again, fixed, and thanks again, KD. My motto is, “Perfect is good enough”… w.]
And that was the second and only other noticeable bump in the otherwise smooth flow of an enjoyable tale. Thanks for sharing.
They also have those exothermic cutting rods for above-water use, Broco makes them, as do other companies. They make cutting practically anything anywhere possible. They need some intense heat to start them off, and something to hold them. For underwater presumably they need additional oxygen.
But up here, some people hold them with a jumper cable clamp, and set them off with a spark from a car battery.
Only problem is, up here you can’t stop the reaction. Set one off, figure it’ll burn until consumed. Have a deep bucket of sand handy, to throw the butt ends into before they burn your rod holder, or to “park” a burning rod.
Supposed to be real fun too, they cut metal, concrete block, whatever.
Don’t forget your dark shade eye protection, same as you’d wear for arc welding of course. Burning permanent spots on your retinas is not recommended.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

…my curious global peregrinations…
Dang, not only didn’t I find any peregrinations, I didn’t find any peregrines, the adults, either. Where were you hiding your little ones?

JP

What is the relevance of these “grandpa remembers” stories? I thought this website was about weather & climate.

Paul Schnurr

Thought this was about an old piece of legislation being reconsidered until I saw Willis’ name. Will circle back and read it when time allows. Thanks, Willis.

Leg

I worked on a purse seiner (a fishing boat) in SE Alaska. Purse seiners use a blunt nosed, tubby, about 10′ -15′ skiff normally powered by a small diesel engine to help bring in the net. Now our skipper was a bit of a character who also raced super-stock class boats. So instead of the diesel, he installed a 427 hemi gas engine in the skiff. Being adventurous souls, we decided to see how fast we could get the skiff going. With our whole crew of six in the back of the boat to keep the boat from porpoising (earlier, slower tests showed this) we cranked her up. We know we set a skiff speed record but came this close (-) to nose diving into 46 degree water – and of course we had no lifejackets. Nobody said seamen/fishermen are the brightest in the world. For some reason we couldn’t get the Guinness Book of World Records to recognize the feat…. 😉
I cannot top Willis (nor do I wish to do so) but it is fun to share the sea stories. Thanks Willis.

> WARNING: More South Pacific adventures follow. There is a button below marked “Continue Reading –>”. If you choose to push it, please do not complain….
Oh no, I’m not going to click that button. Last time I did that some morning (the salmon fishing guide story) it complete destroyed my morning routine and made me late to work.
Well, maybe just an extra paragraph or two….

Martin A

Geoff Sherrington says:
March 1, 2013 at 1:52 am
“Martin A, That’s a rude comment to a lovely person. You were invited to cease reading. You chose to continue. It’s really bad form to stamp your petulant foot and say you’ll complain if you want to. Trouble is, it’s not your blog and your complaint has no standing. So apologise. Like John Cleese did in “A Fish Called Wanda”, if needed.
But you would have complained about that movie too.”
So are you an ex CIA spook too?
I am a WUWT customer. I pay to access it in time, network bandwidth, exposure to ads and in WUWT hit count.
What is the worst thing a dissatisfied customer can do to a restaurant/garage/…/blog that has failed to satisfy? If they really want to get their own back, then they DON’T complain and they don’t go back.

Neil McEvoy

“Bill’s problem was that he told a story so artfully that even he believed it without question.”
I knew a bloke called Tony like that once. Married to a gal called Cherie.

What a relief! When I first saw this title, I thought it was going to be about Waxman-Markey.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)

From Ric Werme on March 1, 2013 at 5:11 am:

Oh no, I’m not going to click that button. Last time I did that some morning (the salmon fishing guide story) it complete destroyed my morning routine and made me late to work.

Aren’t you a programmer or something, or can at least locate software as needed?
As there are already apps that can read your email to you while you are driving, hands-free, why not have an app that can read blog posts?
Or would you have to wait for “WUWT Radio”, where posts are available in audio format for the visually impaired? (And considering the age and weakening eyesight of most of the readership, that could really be a popular option!)

John Bell

Very interesting, thank you WIllis! You have led a very interesting and adventurous life, it is good to hear about it, we all enjoy reading your stories!

Andy Wehrle

BZ again. Buried in this tale is the unspoken truth that nature is MUCH stronger than mere mortals. Learning to harness it, rather than fighting it, is the key to survival.
Andy Wehrle

Bill_W

I love the stories Willis. Can’t wait to see them combined in a pdf.

Bob L.

Thank you thank you thank you Willis! Your stories always make my day; I can’t wait for the next installment. Now get back to work and write the next one!

Martin A says:
March 1, 2013 at 12:33 am
I don’t come to WUWT to read this sort of stuff – it’s a waste of good bandwidth.

Nobody said you had to read it.
After attempting to follow the convoluted argument of the ‘snowball Earth’ post (my hypothesis is that the CO2 built up underneath all that ice, and eventually blew it right off into space), it was a great relief to follow Willis on more South Sea adventures.
Editorial note: Willis, watch the run-on sentences. The semi-colon is your friend.
/Mr Lynn

tgmccoy

Great sea story Willis enjoy these much. I had a co-worker in my aviation days his name was Hank -much like Old Bill-in fact, retired to the south Seas Kwajalein Atoll I believe, to sponge off his Kid who was a Missile test Engineer . Like Bill, he had a knack of believing his own Bravo Sierra. Also he thought himself quite the rake with women. However,as from another co-worker’s point of view after one of his self induced close calls,”somebody down there likes him.” ..
Lots of things dovetail with aviation and seafaring…

a dood

One of your best, Willis. Reminds me a lot of Life on The Mississippi. Keep em coming!

If they really want to get their own back, then they DON’T complain and they don’t go back.

Hmmm… it seems that one win/win solution to your conflict with Willis and your interlocutors is actually within your power!

Willis Eschenbach

Martin A says:
March 1, 2013 at 12:33 am

I don’t come to WUWT to read this sort of stuff – it’s a waste of good bandwidth.

Martin, I fear that (perhaps unbeknownst to you) you DO come to WUWT to read this stuff, otherwise you would have heeded the clear warning and never, ever pushed the button that says:

Continue reading →

When you read that warning and pushed that button, Martin, you proved beyond doubt that either:
a) you came here to read this sort of stuff, even if only for a chance to complain about it, or
b) you are stupid beyond belief.
I’m going with choice a), but of course you’re free to argue for choice b) …
Also, perhaps you didn’t notice, but we’ve got an extra special web site here at WUWT. We pay good money to insure that the internet elves give us essentially infinite bandwidth, so that WUWT can contain my good story and your ridiculous whining and a bunch of good science, all at the same time. Who knew? But in any case we don’t have to worry about wasting bandwidth, we have all we need.
For example, Martin, despite my giving you a very clear warning, you have conclusively proven that the bandwidth of this website is always large enough to accept one more bitchy prima donna who knows everything … much as I wish it weren’t.
w.
PS—Seriously, my friend, you’re looking like an upset six-year-old here, and it’s not helping your public perception at all. Just go on to the next science article, there’s plenty of good ones to keep you occupied. How tough can that be?

Mickey Reno

Awesome story, Willis (as usual). Old Bill was quite the liar and braggart and con man. Yet, he seems strangely blessed at times, insofar as he seems to have escaped the direst consequences of his lying and his incompetence. Of course, we don’t know how his story ends, and maybe you don’t know either. Perhaps it’s, as some believe, a case of not being punished FOR our sins, but BY them. 😉

Nolo Contendere

Keep up the good work, “customer” MartinA. A few more comments and I think you’re firmly in the running for this year’s Pompous Internet Dumbassery Cup! And carry, on Willis. Many of us enjoy your tales.

Willis Eschenbach

Mr Lynn says:
March 1, 2013 at 7:45 am

Editorial note: Willis, watch the run-on sentences. The semi-colon is your friend.

I know … but I figure if Faulkner can go on for a long, long paragraph with one sentence, I can do a short paragraph.
Picking the punctuation to divide and unite the thoughts is a puzzle, and I continue to experiment with a wide range of means to get my ideas across.
In any case, I’m always glad to hear about what might not work for folks … but I fear that in some cases (not this one, but some) I may not reply to or I may not pay much mind to such suggestions. The problem is that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, and one man likes long sentences while another prefers short … so any comment can only be a guideline.
My best to you, thanks for the support.
w.

Willis Eschenbach

Martin A says:
March 1, 2013 at 5:21 am

… What is the worst thing a dissatisfied customer can do to a restaurant/garage/…/blog that has failed to satisfy? If they really want to get their own back, then they DON’T complain and they don’t go back.

Actually, Martin, from the nasty bitterness in your tone, that sounds like it would be the best thing you could do, let me beg you to do it in fact:

Please, Martin, don’t complain … and don’t come back either.

Many thanks for the suggestion,
w.
PS—I’m giving odds that it’s just an empty threat, and he’ll be back …

Willis Eschenbach

Let me compare and contrast these two comments, that appear next to each other above:
JP says:
March 1, 2013 at 3:03 am

What is the relevance of these “grandpa remembers” stories? I thought this website was about weather & climate.

omegaman66 says:
March 1, 2013 at 4:26 am

Awesome story! One of the best I have ever read that is for sure! I know it isn’t what I came here for but was happy to read it from start to finish. Loved it!

JP, this is why I put the warning up at the top. You remember it? The warning that when you pushed that button, please don’t be an infant, please don’t complain about the story that YOU JUST CHOSE TO READ.
Lots of people love my stories, people plead with me to write more of them, which is why I’m telling my autobiography as a serial. Your claim that you want to read something else is totally without interest to me. Fine, go read something else, elsewhere, and stop being such a wimp.
The fact that you want to bitch and whine like a spoiled child about the content of the post, after you’ve gotten a clear warning about the content, makes you look like an uncaring jerkwagon, JP. Let me be clear here:
After giving the warning, I don’t give a fart in a whirlwind about your childish whining, nor does anyone else. The rest of us are all smart enough to read and understand the warning … well, except Martin A. If you want to read something else, then please go do so, and stop bothering people with your puerile “ME, ME, LOOK AT ME, I’M THE FAMOUS JP AND I DON’T LIKE WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING”.
OK, you don’t like it. We got it your stupid worthless opinion, even though we didn’t want it, and I asked you not to give it.
Now go and not like it somewhere else.
w.

jlawson

Good lord, Willis…
Why haven’t you published these things yet? I’ve got Christmas presents to give, and I can’t think of a better choice for my bibliophile friends than volumes of your stories. (And that it’d put money in your pocket too – that’s just icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned!)

Dodgy Geezer

You might think of putting the cement in only after you had reached the final sinking spot – especially with a leaky barge. The leaks would get worse as the weight went in. Was there a reason why that was not possible?

Willis Eschenbach says:
March 1, 2013 at 8:47 am
. . . I figure if Faulkner can go on for a long, long paragraph with one sentence, I can do a short paragraph.
Picking the punctuation to divide and unite the thoughts is a puzzle, and I continue to experiment with a wide range of means to get my ideas across. . .

Long, long sentences are not necessarily, and certainly not correctly, run-on sentences. There’s a succinct discussion of the differences in Strunk and White’s seminal “little book,” The Elements of Style. I can’t find my copy, but it’s here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Style-Fourth-Edition/dp/020530902X
Besides the period, I recommend the semi-colon, and the em dash—both of them are good at preserving sense while not offending grammar.
/Mr Lynn

Duster

Martin A says:
March 1, 2013 at 12:33 am
“If you choose to push it, please do not complain that what you found thereafter was not science, but instead more of my curious global peregrinations … ”
I’ll complain if I want to.
I don’t come to WUWT to read this sort of stuff – it’s a waste of good bandwidth.

Utter humbug. You apparently haven’t read WUWT’s mission statement up above, which says that the site is for “Commentary on puzzling things in life, nature, science, weather, climate change and recent news …” Old Bill clearly qualifies as a “puzzling thing in life” – possibly Willis is too – while how the barge was lifted is quite clearly a matter of understanding practical physics, as is is the steerage problem presented by hacking two rudders off a three-ruddered ship. Uses of thermite and where and how it can be ignited is obviously a matter of chemistry – ergo science as well. You need to reread the story when you’re awake.

Skiphil

Thanks for another great tale, Willis!
p.s. If only Old Bill had taken a turn toward science in time he could have become known as a distinguished climatologist. Give him a digital hockey stick so that Michael Mann has another teammate….

Willis Eschenbach

Mr Lynn says:
March 1, 2013 at 10:01 am

… Long, long sentences are not necessarily, and certainly not correctly, run-on sentences. There’s a succinct discussion of the differences in Strunk and White’s seminal “little book,” The Elements of Style. I can’t find my copy, but it’s here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Elements-Style-Fourth-Edition/dp/020530902X
Besides the period, I recommend the semi-colon, and the em dash—both of them are good at preserving sense while not offending grammar.

Mr Lynn, as always thanks for your constructive comments. I have to confess, I write my stories in a strange sort of half-trance, half-remembering state. My intention is to bring people along with me, to have them right beside me underwater watching as I strike the thermite rod.
What I’ve learned in the doing of that is that there are no rules, in the English language or elsewhere, on how to best do that. Sometimes, to do it I break every rule in Strunk & White’s most noble and useful book, and other times the purpose demands that I follow every one of their rules to the letter.
What I take from your comment is that I need to find new (or perhaps old) and different ways to achieve the magic. Because I am under no illusion that I am engaged in a mundane task. It takes magic to lift someone out of their daily life, and take them on a trip to see underwater marvels half-way around the world—in fact, I’d say it can’t be done by following all the rules, or even by following any rules. It is at its heart a rule-breaking, magical exercise.
So I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what might be correct. I’m much more interested in what might be effective … which may also be correct, but not necessarily. And as you point out, that may be something other than the various tools and styles and methods that I currently use …
Finally, I am at heart a troubadour, I made my living singing many times over many years. In music, the key is packing the most meaning into the least words. How can you not love a country song called “I miss you so badly, it’s almost like you are here”, whether “you are here” should be “you were here” or not? I want punch in my words, not propriety. For example, I put in the pauses ( … ) for musical reasons, not for grammar reasons. I also think of my words as spoken/sung rather than written, and that involves a whole different set of rules.
And having said that, thanks for pushing me to expand my horizons and look at new ways, always valuable.
Regards,
w.

Willis Eschenbach

Dodgy Geezer says:
March 1, 2013 at 9:18 am

You might think of putting the cement in only after you had reached the final sinking spot – especially with a leaky barge. The leaks would get worse as the weight went in. Was there a reason why that was not possible?

Thanks, Dodgy. The barge was old and had holes in it everywhere, so the concrete plugged up lots of holes all across the bottom, leaving only holes on the sides, and was a net benefit.
w.

Willis Eschenbach

Dear friends, the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I will be in and out of touch for a couple of days, so if I’m slow answering, that may be the problem.
Or I may just be slow, who knows …
Best to all,
w.

Gary Hladik

Willis Eschenbach says (March 1, 2013 at 8:42 am): “When you read that warning and pushed that button, Martin, you proved beyond doubt that either:
a) you came here to read this sort of stuff, even if only for a chance to complain about it, or
b) you are stupid beyond belief.”
Or c) Martin A is really Old Bill, still up to his old tricks. If he takes you to Internet Court for wasting bandwidth, Willis, we’ll know it’s him. 🙂
Though I’ve never been to sea, I love stories of marine salvage, whether they be of the Monitor, the Kursk, the Costa Concordia, or a nameless barge. Thanks for another great story, Willis.

jorgekafkazar

JP says: “What is the relevance of these “grandpa remembers” stories? I thought this website was about weather & climate.”
Willis can at least claim to be in his ‘anecdotage.’ What’s YOUR excuse for “wasting” more of your precious time kvetching about his stories? You didn’t used to be known as “Bill,” did you, JP?
Keep ’em coming, Willis. I love every minute of them. They’re a lot more fun than reading another pseudoscientific Warmist propaganda paper published by grant-sucking Lysenkoist academics.

Ken Harvey

Many thanks Willis. Your tales are a delight and help to give breadth to Antony’s site.
From my long passed schooldays when a couple of mates and I were homemade fireworks mad (before Jaques Costeau came on the scene and we switched to being scuba diving mad) we made our own thermite, just to prove to ourselves that we could. I think that you will find that iron oxide (rust) is what is added to aluminium powder to produce the stuff. Needed a lot of heat to start it -, we used a sparkler (magnesium).
Readers should not try this at home! We were too young to know any better.

Martin A

“PS—I’m giving odds that it’s just an empty threat, and he’ll be back …”
Well, I don’t know what gave you the impression I made any “threat” not to be back.
When I posted my original comment, I expected either no response or, perhaps at most, “comment noted.”
When I read the responses I was surprised to see stuff like “one more bitchy prima donna who knows everything”, ” you’re looking like an upset six-year-old.”
I must have touched some exposed nerve to have provoked such reaction.
Would you dispute that this could be characterized as “thin-skinned hypersensitivity”?
What *did* they do to you?

Jenn Oates

Well, I enjoyed it. 🙂

Willis Eschenbach says:
March 1, 2013 at 10:51 am
. . . I have to confess, I write my stories in a strange sort of half-trance, half-remembering state. My intention is to bring people along with me, to have them right beside me underwater watching as I strike the thermite rod. . .

No need to make excuses for “the heat of composition” (an E. B. White phrase, I think); that’s the source of your ebullience and truth. Pruning and tidying are for editors, whether yourself in an objective mood, or another. It’s that side that I was addressing.
Thanks for the response. I’m not a troubadour, but I do appreciate good songwriting (under another hat I’m a country DJ), which at its best is poetry; my songwriter friends tell me how challenging it can be to construct a good one.
/Mr Lynn

Videodrone

Willis,
Thank you!
Anthony, even more thanks for allowing Willis this forum

john robertson

Thanks Willis, another fine yarn.
Old Bill is lose amongst us in many forms.
I have worked with a few, the only true expert, best tradesman uncrowned and always your new best friend.
Course the span of their tales, most oft exceeds the span of their lives by a factor of 3 or more.
And their expertise is always in a field, unknown to the task at hand.
Up here they mostly become union reps until they can become officially disabled.
You write beautifully, whens the book ?

The birds on my birdfeeder have stationed a sentinel to warn the flock when one of your stories is published so they can gather on their special perch and read over my shoulder. [Almost a run on sentence.] Keep them coming Willis. Book please!!!!!!!!

I’d advise ignoring comments about the writing style. And anytime someone sets up a 4-hour watch for a situation where a single slip causes a disaster they need to be told that an engineer always arranges for disasters to happen only after two screw-ups. So if it takes 4.5 hours to sink your boat, you pump it out every 2 hours.
A famous barge sinking problem happened up here in the State of Washington in 1990. Some of the sections were caught sinking on TV. The cost was many millions of dollars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm0YQ3vuyyY

Michael Larkin

“I am a WUWT customer. I pay to access it in time, network bandwidth, exposure to ads and in WUWT hit count.”
What an ungrateful tosspot!
Willis, I love your stories and always look forward to them, but do please pay heed to comments about the punctuation. In places, it makes things ungrammatical and causes one to do a double-take. This applies especially where you use a comma where there should be a full stop. You hardly ever need to change a word: just the punctuation. If you ever get round to publishing, I feel sure an editor will draw your attention to this. It’s such a small thing: everything else is wonderful. Please keep ’em coming! 🙂