Hunt's thoughts returned to the crack in the hull. He couldn't remember when the Princess Dou Wan had a proper marine inspection in dry dock. Strangely, the crew's uneasiness about leaks, badly rusted hull plates, and weakened and missing rivets was totally lacking. They appeared to ignore the corrosion and the constantly running bilge pumps that strained to carry off the heavy leakage during the voyage.
If the Princess had an Achilles' heel, it was her tired and worn hull. A ship that sails the oceans is considered old after twenty years. She had traveled hundreds of thousands of miles scathed by rough seas and typhoons during her thirty-five years since leaving the shipyards. It was little short of a miracle that she was still afloat.
Launched in 1913 as the Lanai by shipbuilders Harland and Wolff for Singapore Pacific Steamship Lines, her tonnage grossed out at 10,758. Her overall length was 497 feet from straight-up-and-down stem to champagne glass-shaped stern with a sixty-foot beam. Her triple-expansion steam engines put out five thousand horsepower and turned twin screws. In her prime she could cut the waves at a respectable seventeen knots. She went into service between Singapore and Honolulu until 1931, when she was sold to the Canton Lines and renamed Princess Dou Wan. After a refit, she was employed running passengers and cargo throughout Southeast Asian ports.
During World War II, she was taken over and fitted out by the Australian government as a troop transport. Heavily damaged after surviving attacks by Japanese aircraft during convoy duty, she was returned to the Canton Lines after the war and served briefly on short runs from Shanghai to Hong Kong, until the spring of 1948, when she was to be sold to the scrappers in Singapore.
Her accommodations were designed to carry fifty-five first-class passengers, eighty-five second-class, and 370 third-class. Normally she carried a crew of 190, but on what was to be her final voyage, she was manned by only thirty-eight.
Hunt thought of his ancient command as a tiny island on a turbulent sea engulfed in a drama without an audience. His attitude was fatalistic. He was ready for the beach and the Princess was ready for the scrap yard. Hunt felt compassion for his battle-scarred ship as she wrestled with the full brunt of the storm. She twisted and groaned when inundated by the titanic waves, but she always broke free and punched her bow into the next one. Hunt's only consolation was that her worn-out engines never missed a beat.
Down in the engine room the creaking and groaning of the hull were uncommonly clamorous. Rust danced and flaked off the bulkheads as water began to rise through the walkway gratings. Rivets holding the steel plates were sheering off. They popped out of the plates and shot through the air like missiles. Usually, the crew was apathetic. It was a common occurrence on ships built before the days of welding. But there was one man who was touched by the tentacles of fear.
Chief Engineer Ian "Hong Kong" Gallagher was an ox-shouldered, red-faced, hard-drinking, heavily mustached Irishman who knew a ship in the throes of breaking up when he saw and heard one. Yet fear was pushed from his mind as he calmly turned his thoughts to survival.
An orphan at the age of eleven, Ian Gallagher ran away from the slums of Belfast and went to sea as a cabin boy. Nurturing a natural talent for maintaining steam engines, he became a wiper and then a third assistant engineer. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had his papers as chief engineer and served on tramp freighters plying the waters between the islands of the South Pacific. The name Hong Kong was given to him after he fought an epic battle in one of the port city's saloons against eight Chinese dockworkers who tried to roll him. When he turned thirty, he signed on board the Princess Dou Wan in the summer of 1945.
Copyright© 1997 by Clive Cussler
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