Episode 454: I Believe That's Our Freighter
Refloating the Viking Girl wasn't quite as straightforward as Aunt
Prodigia had suggested. The sand on which the freighter had gone aground
might have protected her hull from damage, but it had also silted in around
her, holding her in place as firmly as if she'd been entrenched. It would
have to be cleared away if they were ever get the vessel out to sea.
Like any sensible woman, Aunt Prodigia had brought along pumps, a water jet,
and a three hundred horsepower suction dredge -- a body never knows when
these things might come in handy. Clarice and Emily watched with delight as
she ordered these brought up from the holds and swiung aboard the
Stalking Herring's barge.
"Can we run the machinery?" asked Clarice, remembering happy days she and
Emily had spent as children blasting channels through the estuaries of
Darwin. "Oh do say we can!"
"Dinki di!" the matron assured them. "Give it a burl!"
"Bewdie!" said Clarice. Salvage was fun!
After her crew had warped the dredge into position, Aunt Prodigia piut them
to work on the freighter itself. The carpenter drew on the tug's supply of
timber to jury-rig a set of hold covers, which the sailmaker covered with
canvas to keep out rain and seas. The engineer checked the rudder and
overhauled the rudder fittings and auxiliary steering gear to make sure
the vessel would be controllable once she was under tow. Divers inspected
the hull, foot by foot, to find and stop any leaks while deckhands sweated
a pair of salvage pumps aboard to pump the bilges dry.
For the next few days, the decks resounded to the sound of hammers,
saws, donkey engines, pistons, and compressors. The work went swiftly, and
soon the Viking Girl floated in a freshly-dug lagoon, held in
place by kedge anchors. From this, a channel ran out to sea, marked by a
set of bright pink floats decorated with floral patterns. Aunt Prodigia
made her way through the vessel, inspecting her crew's efforts.
"You made a good fist of it!" she told them after she'd finished. "She'll be
"When will we try to pull her off?" asked Emily.
The matron rummaged through her handbag to extract a tide chart. "It's
close to the neap, but this tub should be riding higher than when she
grounded. We'll give it a go tomorrow morning. If we can't win her free
then, we'll wait for the first spring tides of November."
"What about this weather?" asked Clarice, gesturing toward the clouds that
had been building to the south.
Aunt Prodigia glanced at the overcast with disdain. "What weather?" she
asked. "I don't reckon this'll come to much. I'll take the
Herring offshore to ride it while you two ladies stay here to
man the pumps."
Clarice and Emily chuckled at the misleading choice of verb. "Dinki di!"
The squall arrived at nightfall in a flurry of rain. After they'd
checked to make sure the anchors were holding, Clarice and Emily retired
to the captain's cabin to brew up some tea. Pumps thrummed below deck in a
soothing counterpoint to the sound of the storm. It might have seemed a
cozy retreat were it not for some of the cabin's contents.
"I never knew you could make these out of chain mail," Emily remarked,
holding up something she'd found in one of the drawers.
Clarice rubbed her chin. "Perhaps it's some Swedish tradition," she
Emily stifled a giggle. "We'll have to ask the captain if we meet her."
"Do you think we ever will?" Clarice asked.
Emily set down her discovery with a rustle of steel links. "She might
show up to make a bid on some of this swag after we get this freighter back
to Darwin," she said optimistically.
Clarice nodded. "Let's see how the tow goes tomorrow."
The two young women rose with the first light of dawn, dressed quickly, and
rushed on deck to gaze into the gloom. High tide was still some time away,
but they wanted to be ready when their aunt arrived. Soon they spotted a
bluff two-stacked workboat to the west.
"There's the tug!" Emily announced. "They're early."
Clarice chuckled. "So are we! Let's hide in the deckhouse and surprise
The tug turned parallel to the beach and backed down to a stop. On her deck,
the crew were manning one of the davits. As she watched them swing out a boat,
Clarice felt a twinge of concern. "That doesn't look like the
Stalking Herring," she observed. "Her bows are too tall, she's too
long in the run, and she has too much sheer."
Emily nodded. "The deckhouse looks different too."
"And then there's that gun turret."
"Yes, that is something of a giveaway."
By now the strangers had manned the oars and begun pulling for the freighter.
Morning sunlight gleamed on their neat blue jerseys and the barrels of several
rifles. They were towing a messenger line, as if they meant to bring across a
cable and rig up a pulley system to move cargo. Clarice noted this and scowled.
"Who are these people?" she demanded.
"These must be salvage pirates, here to steal our equipment," marveled Emily.
"I didn't know there was such a thing."
"Neither did I," the blonde admitted. "What should we do?"
Clarice glanced over her shoulder toward the beach. If they swam for it, could
they make it to shore before the boat arrived? This seemed unlikely. Using the
pumps to wash a party of heavily armed pirates away seemed equally impractical.
"We'll have to find a place to hide until they've taken what they want," she
decided. "This will have to be some place they aren't likely to plunder, but
where we can watch what's going on."
"That lets out the chain locker, steerage, bridge, staterooms, galley, and engine
room -- pretty much every place on the ship," Emily observed.
Clarice thought this over, then brightened. "What about the lifeboats?" she
suggested. "That always works in the radio dramas."
"Bonzer!" said Emily. "Grab some water, food, and a bucket."
"Why do we need a... Oh. Yes. Right."
It took the women but a moment to duck into the deckhouse, collect these
necessities, and slip out to hide. They peered from beneath the boat cover
as the strangers came aboard. These were quite obviously Asians, with neatly
cropped hair and stern uncompromising features. They worked with swift
efficiency, bringing across a hawser and rigging it to a towing bridle.
Once this was in place, they cast off the anchor lines and the bosun waved a
signal flag. The tug's engines surged, the line came tight, and the
freighter began to move out to sea.
"I'll be stuffed!" Emily said in disbelief. "These drongos mean to nick
"Strewth," Clarice said glumly. "We might be stuck in this boat some time."
Emily glanced at her companion's expression and smiled. "Aren't you glad we
brought that bucket?"
Next week: Surely You Don't Suggest It Was Our Fault...
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