Sunday, January 9, 2011

REMEMBERING THE "SCORPION"

I RODE ASTERN ON the motor tugboat, M/T Koala. The double-engined little tug crossed the Mactan Channel from Pier One, Port of Cebu, to the seas off Bagacay Point to rendezvous with another tug, the M/T Scorpion. It is May 23, 1986 and it is near dusk.

Going back, I applied for a slot of apprentice marine engineer with the National Stevedoring and Lighterage Corp.1 (NSLC) where they own a fleet of tugs and barges. A lot of my neighbors work at NSLC either as office staff, stevedores or bargemen. One of them, Godo Villaro, rode with me that afternoon and assured me that the M/T Scorpion is one of the biggest tugboats that NSLC own and operate.

I brought with me my embarkation paper for M/T Scorpion and I saw two small tugs and a barge in the distance but no large tugboat. I looked at Godo's way for confirmation and he gave a thumbs-up sign. I am quite confused by his story. Anyway, I hoped the bigger of the two tugs might at least be the Scorpion and, as we get closer, I saw that it is not!

Godo has taken me again for a ride and I could not remember how many times I succumbed to his sick jokes. Someday, man, someday I'll turn the tables against you but he was laughing out loud enjoying the late afternoon fun. Some of the tug crews and passengers within earshot of the joke joined the guffaw and I could only shake my head and give a sheepish smile.

My co-passengers were Alex Gultia and Marlon Flores who are destined to be part of the Scorpion's crew like me. Alex will be my second engineer while Marlon will be my second mate. The Koala nudged the Scorpion and we all transferred boats. From Scorpion, one crew went overboard and rode the Koala back to Pier One. I waved Godo goodbye and he waved back with a victorious smile.

The Scorpion's captain, Danny Monte de Ramos, welcomed us aboard and introduced us to the rest of the crew. They were Boy Gildore – the chief engineer, Rene Subingsubing – the chief mate, Roger Paulin and Vecoy Arcenal – quartermasters, cooks and able seamen. I was shown my quarters, a cavern-like cabin with a steep stairway which has six empty bunks.

The M/T Scorpion is a 25-year old motor tugboat that is made in Nagasaki, Japan and was known by its former name as the M/V Keejang. According to legend, it used to be a patrol boat of the South Vietnamese Navy and was used in patrolling the Mekong Delta. It is armed with two caliber .50 machine guns at the fore and aft. Aside that, it also has a toilet, a washing machine, a small refrigerator and a cooking gas range.

During the last days of the Vietnam War, it was abandoned in Cam Ranh Bay and was towed to Hong Kong by a certain Captain Marcial of the Luzon Stevedoring Company2 were it underwent repair and conversion into a tug boat. The UNION 6-cylinder main diesel engine and the LISTER-BLACKSTONE 2-cylinder auxiliary diesel engine are what is only left of the original equipment and accessory.

It is 13.5 meters long, 4.5 meters wide and 7 meters deep. It has a single pitch propeller and cruise at a stand-alone speed of 6-7 knots and a towing speed of 2-4 knots. There are two water tanks in the fore and aft with a total capacity of 5,000 liters and two fuel tanks in the port and starboard side with a total volume of 3,000 liters.

The pilot house has a huge old-school steering wheel, a gyro compass, speed sticks, sleeping bunks for two and a VHF and SSB base radios. Behind the captain's quarter is the kitchen and wash sink. Drinking water is pumped by hand which comes from the fore tank and a single gas burner cook our food. Everyone is assigned to cook the rice while Roger alternately cook the viand with Vecoy unless, of course, somebody has a delicious menu in mind.

Behind the smoke stack and above the engine room, someone long ago built a shelter made of light materials that became an extension of the cabin. Everyone loved to stay and sleep here instead of that stale cave below hold and became the official sleeping quarters for four or five people. It is an ugly structure but its necessity is given more importance and it stayed. Adjacent it is our dining table and it is our center of our social activities like eating, drinking, card games and mahjong.

Strictly speaking, there is no bathroom and there is no toilet. You take a bath or wash clothes at the aft from the well in full view of everyone. You can piss all you like anywhere beyond the gunwales or just sit on a hanging wood propped over the ocean fastened by two ropes and drop your “bomb”. Of course, you could not do this while moored in a quay. This is applicable only when nobody is watching like cruising on an open sea.

The main engine is started by pressurized air kept supplied by the auxiliary engine through a high-pressure tank. Although it is 6-cylindered, one cylinder is condemned leaving the 240-horsepower engine hobbling at 190 HP. The auxiliary is started by a hand crank and it takes a lot of persistence and muscle power to start it especially when it begins its vaunted tantrums.

When I alighted for the first time, Boy Gildore was working on the cylinder head of the Lister-Blackstone. Alex joined him, then me, and we work in the half-light when the day gave in to evening and a single 10-watt bulb is the only other illumination and, all the while, we were under the towing line of the M/T Rhodora with the empty barge behind us.

We adhere a gasket to the cylinder head and replace it back to the block. We leave the dark engine room and took dinner under the silvery light of a full quarter moon. After the meal, they give me the honors of starting first the small engine but no fire. Tried again and again and again but, still, the engine conked. Red-faced, I surrendered. Boy tried once and it emit just a whimper. Alex made it cough after a second try and never let go the crank wheel until it accelerated and roared to life.

Everyone on the deck shouted simultaneously after the dark ages is scuttled. The Rhodora towed us late that night to Isabel, Leyte and exchanged barges with M/T Marlin. The Marlin is a huge tug and a beauty. I stepped on its wide deck and awed at its opposed-piston main engine. Perhaps, one day, I said to myself, I will be a crew here. But it was not to be. Please continue reading.

From Isabel and Semirara Island, the Scorpion is left on its own power with its own barge to tend in the vast Visayan Sea. We came and went to Calagnaan Island and Sicogon Island, to the towns of Estancia, San Dionisio and Carles, all in Iloilo, even to faraway South Gigantes Island to occasionally seek food and water and safe anchorage away from bad weather.

Life as a crew of a tug boat has its own special privilege compared to a crew of a bigger passenger or cargo ships. Protocol is not much emphasized here and you could do as you please and live island life to the fullest like fishing, drinking rum and chasing girls. During work, a tug crew is serious and could adapt to all tasks easily – be it above and below deck.

My fellow crew members taught me how to splice ropes, plot a route, throw a mooring rope over a bollard, catch a squid, even becoming an alternate quartermaster when the regular excuse himself to answer the call of nature. Even so, my ears are piqued for the slightest change in the engine's rhythm and instantly my eyes zoom on the individual thermometers and mechanically release steam to achieve equilibrium.

One time, the Scorpion got stuck in the delta of the Himogaan River in Sagay, Negros Occidental after a day of racing to the sea against the low tide from a wharf 12 kilometers inland. The small tug stood on its toes and it looked eerily huge standing on the sand with its exposed sides.

Twenty meters away, tilting to its side, is the barge LC-500 loaded full of sugar. The instant the sun sat on the horizon it reflected a pleasant glow that created a certain effect which forever got etched in my mind as the most beautiful sunset I ever saw. The wide flat sands of of the tidal plain produced a desert-like effect that is strangely awesome.

After that, several ports of call were done in Port Danao, Escalante, Negros Occidental for loading of sugar; in Matlang, Isabel, Leyte for gypsum which we dragged to Tinaan, Naga, Cebu; in Bacong, Negros Oriental for chemicals; in Ayungon, Negros Oriental for lumber before returning to Cebu for minor repairs at the National Slipways in Lapulapu City.

The Scorpion's journey to Northern Mindanao took them to Kiwalan, Iligan City where she was exposed to engine trouble. She was under the mercy of the dreaded habagat3 winds and, fortunately, there was M/T Rhodora, M/T Knothead, M/T Bonehead and M/T Dolphin. These fleet of tugs took care of her and ensure her safety until we pooled our wits together in bringing to life the Lister-Blackstone and made the Scorpion able again.

For almost five months, the Scorpion made home in Kiwalan Cove. The Scorpion have endeared to the locals in Kiwalan so much after it tried to free a beached barge during the aftermath of habagat. The Scorpion's stern bollard flew away from the bulwark, unable to pull the heavy barge, and landed into the sea making us a staple story for months and a butt of jokes owing to that comic episode.

In Kiwalan, I saw my first Chemite battle tank running at full speed in the concrete highway making “clink-clank” sounds. The next week, I saw newly-freed Nur Misuari of the MNLF4 parading with a convoy of trucks full of heavily-armed supporters. The inactivity at sea led me to a romantic interlude with a local lass that made up for my yearning of home.

In February 1987, we finally leave Kiwalan for Cebu but a typhoon forced us to hide behind the safe waters of Bais Bay in Negros Oriental for three days. Once we reached Cebu, the Scorpion is dry-docked and that gaping hole left by a missing bollard is patched up and a new one is attached.

By March, the Scorpion were on to another adventure, this time to Calatrava, in Negros Occidental, to supply coal for a fertilizer plant in Toledo City, Cebu. For six months, the Scorpion crossed the Tañon Strait and her seamen displayed skills and charm that awed the local populace and rival ship crews alike. Life to a tug crew, as always, is the epitome of leisure while working.

The Tañon Strait were just as rough as any other sea. The wharf in Toledo is dangerous during amihan5 and much more so during typhoons. After the aftermath of a Signal No. 3 tempest, the M/T Dolphin came to retrieve a sunken ship but quite inadequate to do the task. Then the biggest tugboat I have ever seen, the M/T Mt. Samat, came and successfully salvaged the derelict ship.

Then the Scorpion was called to home in the last week of September 1987 and moored at the National Slipways. On October 26, 1987, I received my disembarkation order and pulled out from sea duty. Before I left, I detached the Scorpion's only identity board, which I carved with my own hands and kept this as a souvenir.

A year later, a Notice of Bidding is printed in SunStar Cebu Daily for the sale of M/T Scorpion and two barges beached below the Mactan-Cebu Bridge as scrap material. It saddened me that my ship is decommissioned for the rest of her short life and left to be chopped into pieces.

I reminisced at the many friendship I have forged while working as a crew of the Scorpion. I could not forget the places I have been to, knowing that I can never step on their shores once again. This episode passes only once in my life and I hang on to it and revel at its existence, the aura of its images slowly blurred through passing of time.

The newspaper ad came as a shock to me. I have expected of this cruel interruption and I never thought it would go out this way. I swore, at that time, that I will make a story out of my journey with M/T scorpion, maybe a book or something, but, that would come later. I have a blog. I thought, maybe, this is the right vehicle to let people know of the M/T Scorpion's existence.

Document done in OpenOffice 2.1 Writer
Sketches in ballpoint pen by PinoyApache
1Used to be known as the Cebu Stevedoring Company, it was nationalized during the Marcos regime and became a government-owned and controlled corporation. During the aftermath of the February 1986 Revolution, it was sequestered and placed under the umbrella of the National Development Company.
2Known also by its acronym - LUSTEVECO. A sister-company of CEBUSTEVECO based in Manila Harbor.
3Southwest monsoon.
4Moro National Liberation Front.
5Northeast monsoon.

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