10th December 2016
Much of the cli-fi out there focuses on dystopian futures. I am trying to ground my writing in the here and now, with the aim of educating people about the impacts of our activities, and what we can do to change.
The idea for the story below came about for several reasons. I wanted to show the danger of transporting fossil fuels. I wanted to highlight the fact that tar sands are the most polluting form of fossil fuels, which if we continue to extract them in line with projections, could mean “game over for the climate,” in the words of Dr James Hansen. It’s worth noting that the UK lobbied for tar sands to be allowed into the EU back in 2011 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/nov/27/canada-oil-sands-uk-backing). We also know that climate change will result in increased storminess and extreme weather. It is in these conditions, in which the story is set.
This is my first proper attempt at cli-fi. Thank you for your patience for this to be uploaded. Apologies about the formatting, WordPress did not like my original formatting at all…
Seafarer’s folklore states that every seventh wave is the largest of a set. These men knew from experience that some myths held true.
“Brace yourselves lads, here comes the seventh!” shouted Skip, straining to be heard above the roar of the gale force winds. Skip was a bear of a man with a dark bushy beard, whose large frame was constrained by the small cabin. The plucky RNLI Guardian rode up the enormous wave and at one point her bow was vertical, her spotlight shining into the driving rain that obscured the heavens, as if searching for respite. For the men, the sensation of cresting these monstrous waves was one of being airborne, followed by a gut-wrenching crash as the vessel succumbed to gravity and dived nose first back into the frothing cauldron of the North Sea. Showers of seawater broke over the wheelhouse, sending the automatic windscreen wipers into overdrive.
“Looks choppy out there,” mused Finny, the second-in-command. Finny was the opposite of Skip in many ways; shorter, more toned with only a hint of stubble around his square jaw.
“Aye, not the best day to go for a swim,” Skip replied as his seat swung from side to side on its shock absorbers. “Do we have visuals on the tanker yet?” Finny raised his binoculars, and took advantage of their elevated position at the peak of a wave to scan the horizon. A mile to the East, clouds of dark smoke rose above the enormous tanker and were being whipped away in gusts of wind and rain. The CC Andromeda was carrying the first batch of Canadian Crude’s refined tar sands oil; 180,000 tonnes of toxic and highly volatile black gold. Despite her heavy cargo, she was fighting against the waves to maintain an upright position.
“Affirmative Skip, she’s a mile to starboard, but she’s run ragged. Plumes of thick smoke above the wheelhouse and she is making a rough time of the weather.” Skip evaluated the information carefully. The distress signal had come from a tanker – common vessels in these waters, but there had been no mention of a fire onboard. He knew that the difficulty and danger of a rescue had increased immeasurably.
Skip negotiated the next wave and waited for the thunderclap of the vessel’s hull slamming back into the tumultuous sea to subside. He reached above his head for the VHF controller and spoke in a deep Scottish accent, “CC Andromeda, this is the RNLI Guardian. Do you copy? Over.” The static crackle of the receiver was drowned out by the howling wind and rain. “CC Andromeda, this is the coastguard aboard RNLI Guardian. We have you in sight. DO-YOU- COPY? Over.” Silence. Skip reasoned that it was implausible that the crew had abandoned ship. Yet the radio silence was an ominous sign.
One hour after the initial call out, they had their first close up sighting of the Andromeda. As they approached, their spotlight fell on small figures on the windswept deck of the tanker, distinguishable by their orange high visibility life jackets. One of the figures on the deck threw something overboard, which was lifted away on the wind, before it lashed the side of the vessel. Skip said a silent prayer of thanks; the crew onboard the Andromeda had had the good sense to rig up a rope ladder, which was now swaying violently in the wind. A break in the clouds gave them respite from the rain, but it wouldn’t last; in the distance angry purple clouds were thundering towards them.
The tiny RNLI Guardian paled in comparison to the monstrous Andromeda, which was doggedly following a course through the storm. Skip carefully manoeuvred the RNLI Guardian so that it was parallel to the Andromeda. The sides of the vessels thudded together, jarring the men onboard. Skip turned his thrusters on full to ensure the two vessels maintained contact. The men aboard the RNLI Guardian fished the rope ladder out of the gale and tied it fast to their railings. The fate of all crew aboard both ships was now bound. Finny led one of the rescue team members up the rope ladder; together they would be responsible for setting up a safety rope and harness for each crew member of the Andromeda.
Finny shouted to be heard, “Alright lads, we are going to send you down one at a time. You will each be strapped into a safety harness, but make sure you hold onto the rope ladder at all times.”
The first crew member of the Andromeda made his way down the ladder and was judging the swell of the waves which lifted the smaller RNLI vessel up and down, making the final disembarkation onto the smaller vessel a particularly hazardous undertaking. Two rescue members were standing by to assist him onboard, and unstrap him from the safety harness, which was then pulled up by Finny.
Finny felt the first drops of rain against his face, before the heavens opened in earnest once more. “Skip, the weather is turning foul again. How much longer do you think you can hold the Guardian against the side of the tanker, without being thrown off?”
“This beauty seems to be holding her ground, don’t worry about us Finny! You just get the rest of them off the vessel Matey!” replied Skip.
Skip’s positivity and cheerfulness always had a calming effect on Finny and the other crew members. However, the North Sea was in a foul mood and had other ideas. Behind the vessels, a monster twelve meter wave had reared up. Something inside Skip warned him of approaching danger, but the wave was upon them before he could act.
The RNLI Guardian was lifted high on the wave, crushing a descending crewman’s leg against the reinforced hull of the Andromeda. The RNLI Guardian was dumped on her side and the rope ladder tied to her railings snapped with a loud thwack, catapulting the crewman into the abyss with only his safety harness saving him from certain death below. His right leg hung at an angle as he clung to the rope with all the strength he had. The howling wind drowned out his agonised screams.
The RNLI Guardian’s self-righting mechanism kicked in, giving her the buoyancy she needed to regain an upright position.
“Christ Skip! Are you all okay down there?”
“We took a bit of a tumble Laddie, but we are still in one piece.” Skip replied.
“Skip, we have a casualty on the safety line. Looks like a broken leg from up here. We lost the ladder, so we’ll use the safety harness to lower him down.”
Finny carefully lowered the crewman with the broken leg onboard. With no rope ladder to climb down, the remaining crewman aboard the Andromeda had to be lowered down using the safety harness.
Finny worked methodically and one by one the remaining men were lowered down. “Skip, all men are off the Andromeda. The fire onboard is ferocious. There is no way we are getting anywhere near it without heavy duty firefighting equipment,” said Finny.
Abandoning a stricken vessel carrying a large volume of oil in horrific weather conditions did not sit easily with Skip. Yet he knew they had very few options given that they were not equipped to deal with runaway tanker fires. He was conscious that every second he delayed pushing off the tanker, he was jeopardising all of their lives.
“Aye Finny, let’s make haste and get away from this burning beastie.” As they pulled away from the Andromeda, the rain hitting the windscreen sounded like rapid machine gun fire and the automatic windscreen wipers responded frenetically. After seeing to the injured crewman, Finny returned to his position beside Skip, accompanied by a tall man with a Mediterranean complexion and dark slicked back hair. He was clearly accustomed to larger vessels which made easier work of large waves, and was clinging to the railing beside Finny’s chair for balance.
“Skip, this is Captain Alfonso Curano from the Andromeda and he wants to speak with you urgently,” said Finny.
“Señor, my men and I would like to thank you for saving our lives,” Skip nodded acknowledgement at Curano’s words. “We were travelling south down the coast of Scotland, when a fires broke out in engine room and spread quickly to the wheelhouse. The fire spread faster than we can contain. We send a distress signal and were forced to seek refuge on deck, preparing our liferafts as final precaution,” Curano explained.
Curano’s eyes fell to his feet, as if he wanted a hole to open up and swallow him down into the seething waters below, “Unfortunately Señor, the ship’s autopilot system was programmed for the final destination and in the rush of the evacuation, I have no opportunity to override this.”
Skip’s confusion was apparent, so Finny interjected loudly to be heard above the din that was taking place all around them, “What Captain Curano is saying Skip, is that the tanker has a satnav system, which it’s programmed to follow. It works the same way as a plane’s autopilot system.”
Skip hesitated; he had a sinking feeling in his stomach, “Where was the ship destined for Captain?”
“The Andromeda”, Curano began, “is bound for Grangie-mouth.” Skip inhaled deeply as the enormity of the words struck home.
Grangemouth was the largest oil refinery port in the UK. Skip went over the route the abandoned vessel would follow in his mind. The conflagrant Andromeda carrying her combustible load would enter the Firth of Forth Estuary close to Edinburgh, before being funnelled along a narrowing channel to the port of Grangemouth. The port would be full of oil and gas tankers waiting out the storm before continuing their journeys. He guessed that half a million people would be in danger in Edinburgh alone from any explosion that occurred. He closed his eyes and tried to expel the sombre thoughts. Outside the cabin a lightning strike lit up the purple sky, accompanied by deep booming thunder which filled the small confines of the cabin. Was this nature’s way of showing what was to come?
Skip’s large paw of a hand tightly gripped the VHF controller. “Grangemouth Port, this is the RNLI Guardian requesting immediate assistance.” Before Skip could replace the controller, an unmistakable voice came blaring out of the receiver.
“Skip, we copy you loud and clear! What is your emergency?” asked John ‘Mac’ Macintyre. Mac had been enjoying a marmite and cheese sandwich, which now lay abandoned on his desk. Mac had met Skip shortly after leaving the Royal Navy half a lifetime ago. He was born in the Cairngorms and his chiselled physique was often compared to a slab of granite from those mountains which he called home.
“It’s good to hear ya voice matey,” replied Skip. “We have a right piece of trouble heading your way…you may want to sit down for this. We have rescued crew from the tanker, C-C-Andromeda.” Skip emphasised the vessel’s name to be sure that Mac could understand.
“The Andromeda!” Mac exclaimed, “What happened to her?”
“They had a fire onboard, which spread to their wheelhouse and they were forced to abandon controls.” There was radio silence from Mac. “Unfortunately that’s only half the bad news. The Andromeda has a built in auto-pilot system, which is programmed with the co-ordinates of your port. She is heading towards you Mac, and she is primed with over 180,000 tonnes of crude oil, ready to blow at any minute.”
The words felt like a physical punch in the chest and Mac’s heart stopped beating.
“God in heaven,” he finally responded. “Skip, we have a dozen other tankers in port waiting out the weather. If that tanker comes anywhere near here…” Mac couldn’t bring himself to say those fateful words.
“Aye Pal, I know. Extinguishing the fire wasn’t an option; it’s spread to the wheelhouse and we don’t have the equipment to deal with that.” said Skip.
“Copy that. By your reckoning, how much time do we have to prepare before she is on us?”
Skip considered the question carefully, “At my reckoning, based on her current speed in this weather, she should be with you in three hours.”
Once the initial panic subsided, Mac’s years of experience in the Navy came into full swing. “Understood. You get those men home Skip and be careful out there.” After Mac replaced the VHF receiver, he picked up the landline and dialled the emergency number that took him through to the office of the First Minister of Scotland. He was answered by a polite female receptionist, “Office of the First Minister, Rozanne speaking, how may I help you?”
“Rozanne – this is John Macintyre, Grangemouth Harbourmaster. I urgently need to speak to the First Minister.”
“Sir, it’s a Sunday and the First Minister prefers not to take calls on the weekend. Could you call back tomo…”
Mac cut in before the receptionist could finish, “Look young lady! This is a dire emergency, there is a burning oil tanker headed for Grangemouth. If there is an explosion, people in cities like Edinburgh could be in danger! We need to order an immediate evacuation of every town and city along the Firth of Forth Estuary.”
There was silence at the end of the line. Finally the receptionist replied, “Please hold Mr Macintyre, I am transferring you through to the First Minister.”
The First Minister of Scotland had travelled to her crisis room in Edinburgh, which was sparsely furnished apart from a mahogany desk that she was now sat behind. At the opposite end of the country, the Prime Minister was in her lavish office in No.10 Downing Street.
“Prime Minister, this is an unprecedented emergency. We would be incredibly grateful for all the help you can provide,” said the First Minister.
“Let me be absolutely clear that we wholeheartedly stand by you at this difficult time. We will assist as best we can.”
“Thank you Prime Minister, we really appreciate that. Whilst we have some contacts to go too, we could use your links with all the public broadcasters and media outlets to help spread the urgent evacuation orders.”
“I understand your position First Minister, but you have to appreciate that this is a delicate situation for us. We fought hard against the EU to allow oil from the Canadian tar sands to be allowed into Europe. We need to manage the flow of information carefully, to keep the press off our backs. Can you imagine the backlash in public opinion if they hear about this?”
“I’m sorry Prime Minister, I don’t quite follow. What are you suggesting?”
“As you know we have developed a close relationship with Canada, following the agreement of our new post-Brexit trade deal. Canadian Crude is the first company to take advantage of this deal. To publicly broadcast this incident in anyway could irreparably damage this new agreement.” The Prime Minister replied.
The First Minister of Scotland was lost for words. Was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom really suggesting that a trade deal was more important than the lives of her people?
“Prime Minister! There are lives at stake! Lives mean more than some agreement with an oil company! We must act now and order immediate evacuation orders to save as many lives as we can.” The anger in the First Minister’s voice gave way to exasperation.
“No First Minister, I am afraid that simply can’t be allowed to happen. You see there is an unspoken understanding between politicians and corporations. We are co-dependent on each other. One finds it easier to get elected when there is sufficient financial backing from generous companies, and in return they receive favourable policies,” the Prime Minister explained. “No. There certainly won’t be any public broadcasting of any kind and no communication with the press. We will resolve this by tackling the fire onboard the tanker. When this has been done, we will guide her into port where she will unload the first batch of oil and no member of the public will be any wiser about the whole incident.”
“I don’t believe what I’m hearing! Have you gone stark raving made Prime Minister? If we don’t evacuate and are unable to prevent the tanker from reaching Grangemouth, we will have a disaster on our hands like this country has never seen before.” The First Minister could no longer keep her frustration in check.
“I assure you First Minister, should the worst case scenario occur, a joint fund will be put together by Canadian Crude and the British Government to cover any damage that…”
“Damage?!” The First Minister interjected, “Who gives a wee shite about damage! There are lives at stake Prime Minister! Hundreds of thousands of lives! Excuse my curt language Prime Minister, but you are a heartless coward and you represent everything the electorate hates about politics, with your sycophantic pandering to big money. I can assure you Prime Minister, if any lives are lost, the blood of the victims will be on your foul hands!” The First Minister slammed the phone down, and summoned her Chief of Staff into her office.
“Is everything alright First Min…”
“Don’t even go there Hamish,” the First Minister replied, “We have no help coming from England, so we will have to manage this ourselves. I want you to issue an urgent evacuation order for all towns and cities that could be affected. Use whatever means you can to get the word out. Commandeer every form of public transport available and get as many people out as we can. It may already be too late, but we have to try.”
“Right away First Minister!” The chief of Staff turned for the door.
“One final thing – please get John Macintyre, the Skipper of the rescue ship and the Captain of the Andromeda on a conference call,” said the First Minister.
Within one hour, Scottish television and radio stations broadcast the evacuation orders. The police and emergency services were sent to every housing estate with loudhailers, warning people to leave. Every bus and train had been commandeered by the state and all were being used to evacuate the elderly and the vulnerable from Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy, Livingston and North Berwick.
Skip had negotiated his way back through the storm and was now moored up safely in Aberdeen harbour. Finny and a member of the rescue team carried the injured crewman to a waiting ambulance. As the rest of the Andromeda’s crew were escorted off the boat, Skip pulled Captain Curano to one side and headed for his office. Skip had an idea on their return journey about how the Andromeda might be stopped, and he would need to draw on Curano’s knowledge of the vessel for confirmation.
The two men had just taken their seats, when Skip’s phone rang. “Skip speaking,” he answered gruffly.
“Good Afternoon, I am the Chief of Staff for the First Minister of Scotland. You are on a conference call with one other attendee; John Macintyre. Please confirm the whereabouts of the Captain of the Andromeda?”
“Captain Curano is seated beside me,” replied Skip.
“Thank you. Please hold the line, the First Minister will join you shortly,” came the reply.
“Chaps – Nicola here. As you know we have a potential disaster approaching the heart of Scotland and we have limited resources to deal with the issue. As men, who have worked with ships all their lives, I would like to know if you have any solutions in mind for dealing with this issue.”
“Pardon me for asking First Minister, but isn’t this something a special government response team should be looking at? Isn’t this the exact reason that COBRA was set up – to deal with national emergencies?” Mac enquired.
“Unfortunately Mr Macintyre, politics has prevailed in place of common sense. Right now, we are the special response team.”
The feeling that they had been abandoned, was a hard one to swallow.
“First Minister, this is Skip from the RNLI Guardian speaking. I have a wee idea, but I can’t be certain of its feasibility. I was hoping to run it by Captain Curano, however, your call beat me to it.”
“Let’s hear it Skip! You have everyone’s attention now,” she replied.
“My idea involves two tugboats and a small speedboat,” Skip explained. “Tugboats are hardy little beggars which can tow a vessel as large as the Andromeda. I propose we send two tugboats out into the mouth of the estuary with anchors onboard each. When the tugboats are in position behind the Andromeda, they will hook the anchors onto the tanker and put their thrusters in reverse. I’ll be damn near surprised if that doesn’t slow the Andromeda down! The zippy speedboat will then get up close and personal with the tanker’s single propeller, releasing a heffing great big steel chain into its path. The steel chain will wrap itself round the propeller, forcing it to stop rotating and putting an end to the tanker’s forward momentum. The plucky tugs can then tow the Andromeda away from the estuary and the populated areas.”
“Well it’s certainly innovative Skip. Captain Curano and Mr Macintyre, what do you think?”
“This idea to me, it sounds good,” replied Curano.
“I hate to admit it, but I think it’s the best chance we’ve got,” agreed Mac.
“Right that’s settled then. I will ensure that the required boats are made available for use. We just need to identify suitable captains for the vessels.”
“First Minister, if I may? I have decades of experience on a wide range of vessels that have graced God’s blue earth. I would be honoured to be given the opportunity to perform this deed on behalf of wee bonnie Scotland,” replied Skip.
“If that old sea dog is going, you can count me in too,” said Mac.
“I too can go!” chimed in Captain Curano.
“Well gentlemen, I am truly humbled. On behalf of Scotland, I thank you for your courage and bravery. Hundreds of thousands of lives now rest on your shoulders. God speed and please don’t let us down.”
After the conference call ended, the Chief of Staff reappeared with a flustered look on his face. “First Minister, there is an urgent call for you on line two.”
“Who is it?”
“The Prime Minister,” Hamish replied, “and she sounds furious.”
“You didn’t think you were going without me did you?”
“Finny, I couldn’t possibly demand this of you. There is every chance the oil tanker could blow, and we would be the first line of casualties…”
“Skip, if there is the remotest chance we can prevent a catastrophe, then I’m in. Besides which, who else is going to skipper the speedboat?”
Tears were building up in Skip’s eyes, “You’re a brave one Finny,” he said, wrapping a plate sized hand around Finny’s shoulder.
A police unit had been given the order to get the men to Grangemouth Harbour as a matter of utmost priority. When Skip and Finny arrived, they found two identical tugboats lined up, next to a smaller speedboat. Skip and Captain Curano made their way into one of the lifeboats, whilst Mac boarded the other on his own. Finny and another volunteer took their seats in the speedboat.
“You know, if we had an economy that ran on clean energy, we wouldn’t be in a situation like this,” Finny suggested over the walkie talkie system.
“Too right Pal,” agreed Skip.
“More wind turbines I say!” replied Mac.
As the men started up their boats, a small crowd had assembled in port to wish them a safe and successful mission. The men took a minute to appreciate the warm wishes that accompanied the applause. Seeing the faces of the men, women and children whose lives rested solely in their hands, brought into stark relief what was at stake.