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in the days of the Titanic
The Adventures of Greeny,
an apprentice in tall ships 1908 to 1912
by Captain T. B. Greenhalgh


Sons of Gentlemen


Before Captain T. B. Greenhalgh, my grandfather, wrote "Sons of Gentlemen" he appears to have submitted articles to magazines and I am discovering them as I research his career after an apprenticeship in tall ships, writes Peter Greenhalgh.

This article from the July to December 1951 issue of Sea Breezes describes how he rescued a tug and her crew in stormy waters and towed the vessel nearly 300 miles to Singapore.

It was a slightly crazy escapade, as his ship was a fully-laden oil tanker and one false move would have seen them on fire and probably needing rescue themselves.

He did however pick up £4,000 salvage (about £350,000 in today's money based on average wages).


The Empire Tescombe (renamed Fossarina). Copyright unknown.

Towing a Tug

By Capt. T. B. Greenhalgh

In November 1946 the steamer Empire Tescombe, a small tanker of which I was in command, was bound from Singapore to Bangkok with a cargo of nearly 1,000 tons of motor spirit. The ship's company consisted of 27 hands, seven of whom (the master, two deck officers, three engineers, and a radio officer) were European, the rest being Chinese.

The north-east monsoon had just broken, and the ship was plunging into a rough head sea. At midnight on the 28th, near Pulo Tenggol, an island in the South China Sea close to the coast of the Malay Peninsula, the radio officer handed me a message received from an aircraft. It informed all ships in the vicinity that the tug Nankai was lying at anchor close to the coast, with engines broken down. She was leaking and had taken a heavy list to starboard.

Strictly speaking, it was not a distress signal, but since it meant a deviation from my course of only 24 miles, I decided to investigate and gave orders to slow down and steer towards the position given, in order to reach it by daybreak. At about 3 a.m. a light was sighted ahead. The officer of the watch and I thought it might be the riding light of the tug, and I decided to lie on and off until daylight. Before it was properly light we could see that it was the tug, and one glance as we drew near was enough to show us the danger of her situation.

The sea was breaking over her starboard rail, which was nearly at water-level, while the extent of her list was shown by the great expanse of underwater body visible on the port side. A mile astern of her the beach was marked by a line of surf where great rollers were breaking. The tug, lying head to wind and sea, was jerking viciously at her anchor chain.

My chief officer was on watch, and the second officer, nominally below, but eager not to miss anything of interest, was also on the bridge. "Hoist 'Do you need assistance?'" I ordered, and in a minute the flags were blowing out from the yardarm. Somebody appeared on the bridge of the tug, and through the glasses I could see him handling a dark flag.

"There's our answer," I said to the two mates, both young men eager for excitement. "Negative!" and hardly had I spoken when code flag "N" fluttered on the way to the tug's masthead. "Hard-a-star-board; full ahead," I called. We had scented salvage, and the faces of my officers were a study in disappointment as our ship turned away to resume her course for Bangkok.

Suddenly the mate exclaimed "Why, she's hauling it down!" I turned to look. Sure enough, the flag had been hauled down, and a couple of figures on the tug's bridge could be seen looking through glasses in our direction. They might, of course, have pulled down the flag to mark the end of the conversation, but if so, it seemed rather premature. I decided to try again.

"Hard-a-port," I called from the wing of the bridge. "Slow." Rolling heavily in the swell, the ship bore down on the tug. As soon as we were near enough for me to be heard, I took up the megaphone. "Nankai, ahoy! Do you want assistance or not?" Faintly above the sound of the wind came the answer "Yes." "I will come on board" I called back.

Instantly all was activity on board the Empire Tescombe. The mate was standing-by forward, ready to let go the anchor; the second mate, having passed the information to the chief engineer, was on the way aft to get one of the motor lifeboats ready for launching; I was conning the ship to bring her to an anchorage ahead of the tug and as close as I dared. When anchored and brought up with 60 fathoms of cable out, our stem was no more than 50 yards from the bow of the tug.

Launching our lifeboat was a tricky business in the rough sea, but it was only a matter of a hectic minute or two before we were clear of the ship and, with the third engineer in charge of the engine, speeding for the tug. Rounding-to under the stern, I brought the boat alongside on the port side and, leaving the second mate in charge with orders to hang astern on the painter, took a flying leap on to the Nankai's rail as a sea lifted the boat almost to its level.

On deck, one glance was enough to show still more clearly the dangerous condition of the tug. She was listing so heavily to starboard that I could not stand without holding on to something. The deck was not only awash on the starboard side, but green water was breaking over the port rail at intervals and sweeping in a torrent across the deck. I felt in my pocket to make sure that Lloyd's Salvage Agreement was still there!

In the combined cabin and chart-room I found the master, a young Englishman. We shook hands, and he told me that the cargo consisted of 200 tons of sugar for Bangkok, that the main engine was broken down beyond repair at sea, that the ship was leaking, and that the engine-room pump was falling to suck, while steam on the boiler was being kept up only with difficulty. Besides the general-service pump, the only one on board was a small petrol pump, with which they were trying to control the leak. They had been in that condition for four days and were beginning to run short of food and water. The tug was Japanese-built, a war prize, and owned by a Chinese firm in Singapore.

While we were talking the tug's chief engineer appeared. He was the only other Englishman on board, the crew being Chinese. He said that they had done all they could to stop the leak, but without success, and agreed with me that when the petrol ran out the tug would sink. I promised him sufficient petrol to keep her afloat so long as the pump would go on working.

Mention of petrol reminded me that I must decide whether or not the circumstances would justify me in taking a serious risk. The tug was not much smaller than my own ship and with her list would make an awkward tow. It would be necessary to eliminate as far as possible any risk of collision, since, with my ship's cargo of volatile spirit, it would result almost certainly in fire. It was clear that if the tug should sink, her crew would never be able to land in their one small boat through the surf on that beach, if she should drag her anchors or snap the chains and drift ashore, they would hardly escape with their lives.

The north-east monsoon was only just beginning. Soon it would be a mighty, roaring wind, and the full weight of the South China Sea would be breaking in furious surf along every mile of that beach. Yet to offer to take the tug's master and crew off at that stage would be futile, for he would never abandon his ship while she remained afloat. Towage was the only answer.

"What do you want me to do?" I enquired. "Send some food and water, and take me in tow," he replied. I brought out the salvage agreement "I'll tow you to the nearest port if you'll sign this" I offered.

Looking over the chart together, we decided on Singapore as the only I practicable port. It was 294 miles away. He signed the agreement. I put it in my pocket and, before calling the lifeboat alongside, cast I another glance about the tug's deck. "What makes you do this sort of thing instead of sailing in well-found ships?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know. I rather like the life," he answered with a smile.

On the way back to our ship I could feel the curiosity of the second mate and the third engineer. At last the former asked "What are you I going to do, sir?" " Give them some food and water and then carry on to
Bangkok," I replied with a grin. His face showed his disappointment, and I relented. " I've got Lloyd's Salvage Agreement signed and in my pocket. We're going to tow her to Singapore." At once my officers' faces lighted up.

For towing I decided to use a 3 and a half inch wire. To humour it in handling, it was coiled down on the after deck in as wide a coil as possible in the space available. The underneath
end was made fast to two pairs of bitts on the starboard quarter and secured from springing off by lashings of small rope. Then a guy was made with five fathoms of 3 and a half inch rope, one end of which was made fast to a stanchion. The free end was passed under the top coil of wire and led back to another stanchion, to be held there by a round turn when the time should come to run out the wire.

At the towing end a forelock shackle was connected to the eye, and also a sufficient length of new 2 and a half inch rope, to the end of which was bent a heaving line. The second mate, a very competent hand in a boat in rough weather, was put in charge of the lifeboat. Passing the tug's bow closely, he flung the heaving line on to her forecastle-head, and carried on to deliver the food, water and petrol.

As soon as all was ready, the end of the towing-wire was allowed to run overboard, with one hand tending the guy-rope. It ran out without kinking, each coil passing docilely through the bight of the guy, by means of which the speed at which it ran could be checked. The water was not deep, and the wire was allowed to run out on to the bottom.

On board the tug, the heaving line having been pulled in, the stronger line was taken to the winch-end and hove in until the eye of the towing-wire came on deck. The starboard anchor-chain having been unshackled in readiness, the wire was shackled to the end of it. It was then run out to something over 15 fathoms to form a spring, and the weight kept off the windlass by means of a backing of manila mooring-rope shackled to the chain and taken to bitts abaft the windlass.

As soon as that had been done the tug weighed anchor and, falling astern with wind and sea, brought up to the towing-wire. Her master, after making a final inspection of the gear, waved his hand to indicate readiness, and I gave the order to heave away forward. With the anchor aweigh. I rang the engines slow ahead. In a minute or two the second mate, posted aft to watch the gear, waved to me to say that the weight had been taken, and I rang for full speed.

It was about 11 a.m. when we started to draw away from the coast. After again passing Pulo Tenggol, in the early afternoon, I was able to set a course direct for Pulo Aour, from where it would be a straight run for the eastern entrance to Singapore Strait. The monsoon was already increasing in force, but we and our tow were going along more steadily and faster than we had expected considering the size of the tug and her list.
At about midnight the mate and I were congratulating ourselves on the comparative ease with which the job was being done, when the tug suddenly took a sheer and, ranging forward, came parallel to and almost neck-and-neck with the ship. I rushed to stand by the helm and engine-room telegraph. The clanger of the two vessels coming together with a crash was becoming imminent when we heard a dull report from aft, at which I stopped the engines. "The wire's parted." I told the mate. "Get the hands out and heave it in."

The moment he had gone, a flashing light from the tug informed me that her steam steering gear had broken down. Aft, they seemed a long time heaving in the wire, but at last the mate appeared on the bridge to report. It was the tug's chain that had parted, not the wire, and they could not get the chain inboard on account of its weight. Unwilling to spend time and effort in trying to save a short length of rusty chain cable, I gave the order to unshackle and slip it and have the wire got ready for running out again.

By the time It was ready the monsoon had increased to a moderate gale and a high sea was running. Boat work was too risky, and to manoeuvre near the tow in the darkness was far too dangerous with our cargo of petrol. Although I was impatient to get along, there was nothing for it but to wait far daylight.

It came with the hard northeasterly wind increasing in force and a short, steep sea combined with a heavy swell. Boat work remained out of the question. The tugmaster, in anticipation of what would be attempted, had caused a barrel to be floated to windward on a long line. It looked the easiest thing in the world to pick up, but it turned out to be the opposite. At last, reluctantly, I gave up the attempt. The quickest way was to manoeuvre as close as possible to the tug and throw a heaving-line on board.

The Empire Tescombe was no easy ship to handle in that weather. Deeply loaded, she had a tendency at slow speed to gripe to windward against the helm — a dangerous thing at close quarters. But she was still a new ship at that time, and I could be reasonably confident that her gear would stand any stress to which it might be subjected. Also, my deck officers were not only young and active, but they were good sailors, and if one of them could not throw a rope on board the tug nobody could.

They stationed themselves aft, each with a line coiled in his hand. I brought the ship to leeward of the tug, which was lying broadside-on to the sea, with her high side away from the wind, and edged towards her. As soon as I dared go no closer I put the helm hard-a-port and the engines full speed ahead. The ship answered at once, her sternl swinging close to the stem of the tug, the high side of which was providing a lee for throwing the line.

Taking advantage of the lee, the second mate flung the heaving-line in one low swing. It fell across the tug's deck and was picked up. The Empire Tescombe had run clear of the tug's bow, and I put the engines full astern to take off the way. On board the tug the heaving-line was pulled in, the stronger rope was taken to the winch, and in two minutes from the heaving-line having been flung on board the wire was connected. It had all taken three hours from daybreak.

Able to steer by hand only, and with her steering made all the wilder by the following sea, the tug gave us an anxious time by sheering from one side to the other. However, there were no more incidents, and we reached Singapore 29 hours later. Entering the harbour in the afternoon, we crept past the outlying tiers of ships at anchor with the greatest of caution in order not to spoil the job at the last moment, selected a position by bearings, and anchored. When the salvage award, for distribution between the owners and the ship's company was made eventually, it amounted to £4,000.


In 1946, £4,000 was worth between £350,000 (using average earnings) and £130,000 (using the retail price index). The average cost of a house in the UK was about £1,400.

The Empire Tescombe was a 975-ton coastal tanker built by Harland & Wolff in Glasgow for the British Government. She was completed in December 1945, sold to the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co Ltd in 1952 and renamed Fossarina. The vessel was scrapped in 1965 in Hong Kong.