End 93, I received a phone call from Marseille.
The big House offered me a Mooring Master Supervisor position in Cameroon to replace the old Raymond, who was retiring.
- MMS, this title looks good, I replied, but I do not even know of what it consists.
- BOF you'll see, my interlocutor says, is a super cool job which consists to go on oil tankers and then lead them to an offshore loading buoy (SPM) to refuel them with crude oil.
- To assist you with this job you will have a French and 4 national divers.
- As to help you for the first mooring you don't have to worry, Jean-René the actual supervisor that’s now on board will stay two weeks longer and he will brief you on this particular job.
- Yeah but what about diving l asked him?
- Don't panic, in addition to the tankers, you will also be in charge of the surface and underwater maintenance of the two loading buoys on the Kole terminal.
As there began to be quite a lot of changes within the company and at the same time diving projects seemed to decrease, it didn’t take me long to accept the offer, especially that once again this type of work would allow me to have regular rotations what suited better to my family life.
Result: A few days later I found myself once more in Douala.
Unlike other places in Africa, this town was pretty nice and with the exception of a few places where it was better not to walk alone, insecurity was not too high and during my various stays there I had undergone only a single aggression with theft attempt.
Being arrived at the airport in the early evening, I learned that my departure at sea was planned for the next morning and therefore a room at the IBIS hotel had be reserved for me which I had to recognize was much nicer than being immediately transferred to the barge via one or the other uncomfortable vessel on which we had sometimes to stay during several hours without even receiving any snack.
Here at least I could dine comfortably, take a nightcap at the bar before leaving civilization for the next 8 weeks and enjoy a last good sleep. OK, when I say a good sleep, I am exaggerating a bit because despite being very comfortable, the hotel was quite noisy.
Often during the night we could hear in the corridors a "Toc! Toc! Toc!" on one or the other door which was naturally followed from "what is it? ''
As for the reply it was always the same "it’s love that knocks at your door."
Obviously, the first time that this happened to me, I was somewhat surprised. But now, knowing this type of local custom, I was taking care to always bring with me, my box of … wax earplugs what allowed me to not be too disturbed by the comings and goings of these charming ladies.
The next morning, en route to the port where I embarked with other local workers on a speedboat that take us on the site.
A few hours later I am on the SEREPCA a buffer tanker on which I found JR the actual MMS, Bruno my second and my new African colleagues.
After the presentations with the boat commander and the various crew members, direction to my cabin.
- Hey! hey! Not bad at all, a spacious officer cabin with a desk and a small lounge for me alone, this changes me from the crappy cabins of some rotting barges I’ve be on.
Very quickly, JR walked me through a few points:
- Here, we are on a merchant ship and the rules on board are those of the Navy which means a little more discipline than on our diving barges.
- On board, he continued even for dinner, there is a ritual to respect.
- Nobody comes at the table before the Commander and above all, we respect the seats of each other.
At the beginning, I folded myself as everyone to this last rule, but a little later after having been well integrated within this community of sailors, I felt a perverse pleasure to change seats several times a month to the dismay of the concerned persons.
Over the following days, my buddy initiated me to my new mission who as mentioned earlier was among others to fill the tankers arriving lightship on the terminal.
As one might imagine, filling a tanker is not so easy than refueling a car. Our task when a new ship arrived was to first climb on board and while she was still sailing, mobilize all our rigging and towing gear.
We had about half an hour to prepare all this stuff, then when the tanker was approaching the buoy.
The role of the MMS, thus mine now was to stand at the bow of the boat and via the walky talky, give my instructions to the Commander to guide him very precisely during its final approach to allow him to stop his ship at a few meters from the loading buoy.
Then, once the vessel was moored on the buoy, two thick loading hoses had to be hoisted on board and be connected to the loading manifolds, which then permitted to refuel the several tanks in more or less twenty hours.
As expected, Jean René returned to France after two weeks and one might say that the first time that I was alone for this task, I sweated not from heat, but from fear because I should rather not miss the maneuver.
If so, two scenarios were possible.
First, the tanker passed next to the buoy and stopped a little too far, this then meant that a new approach had to be done with consequence of at least one hour lost
secondly and worse case, the tanker hits the buoy and tears it off her position which for me would mean that I would be fired.
Fortunately, during my stays, I rapidly learned how these huge mastodons of 150,000 to 200,000 tons behaved and I managed every time to lead them to good port. The frequencies of the loadings were pretty random, which in the meantime allowed us to work on the buoys of KLB1 and KLB2.
Each SPM buoy had a complete maintenance program that went both above and below water. Under water, among other things the main task of the divers was to verify the state and configuration of the Chinese lantern under buoy hoses which were connected between the SPM and the pipeline end manifold (PLEM) and the condition and configuration of the six huge chains that maintained the buoy in position.
The inspection dives on the bottom sometimes reserved a few surprises because the visibility was often very limited and therefore it was quite common to have our fingers nibbled by the few small morays that did not appreciate to be disturbed by our tactile inspections.
Another problem of visibility that we met sometimes on the field, but on the surface this time was due to the harmattan. It was a hot and dusty wind that came from the Sahara and which could darken the atmosphere for several consecutive days.
It was such a situation that we encountered on the 2 February 94. That day we left the SEREPCA in the early morning with our zodiac to do some maintenance on the KLB2 buoy which was at about 20 minutes travel from our storage tanker.
The visibility was not terrible, but was still largely sufficient to localize the buoy at halfway. The morning had passed relatively quickly and as noon approached, I decided to stop work and return to the boat for dinner.
Very quickly however, we realized that the atmosphere was charged with sand dust and visibility was reduced to 50 meters. Never mind, the SEREPCA was large enough and could not be missed.
Thus, full speed and heading to the North.
About 20 minutes later, everybody was on watch to scrutinize the horizon to detect the mass of the tanker, but nothing was in sight, just this kind of fog that prevented us from seeing anything. Normally, we couldn't be far from her because we had sailed roughly at the same speed and during the same time than the outward journey.
So I asked the diver driver to now slowly head NNE for a minute. Nothing, not any boat.
Same thing for two minutes to the NNW, shit, still nothing.
- Ok guys let us stop here it’s not worth risking to get away more.
- I'm going to call the ship and ask them to operate the fog horn so we will be able to direct us to the sound.
So said, so done:
- SEREPCA, SEREPCA, SEREPCA: Diver’s zodiac!
- SEREPCA, SEREPCA, SEREPCA: Diver’s zodiac!
- SEREPCA, SEREPCA, SEREPCA: Diver’s zodiac!
Nothing! No response from the tanker. I looked my watch. 12 h 10, no point of insisting, they were probably all at table. What could I do? Certainly not wait that they had finished their nap.
I knew that our tender boat the Cristal fish had to be somewhere on the field, and therefore, I decided to call her.
A single call sufficed to get a sailor online.
Immediately, I asked him to call for his Superior and two minutes later he was there on the radio.
- Hello Captain Francis here.
- Say, we have a small problem: We are lost.
- Is your ship close to the SEREPCA?
- No Francis we are next to the BOS.
Ah shit, so it was not necessary to ask her to blow the horn, because even if it was heard, the sound would not lead us in the right direction.
Immediately I asked him:
- Can you try to find us on your radar?
- OK one minute, I’m watching.
- No I see nothing on the screen; do a 360 ° at low speed to see.
- Sorry still nothing.
The situation became annoying, ok we had enough fuel to reach the coast which was at about two-hours sail from where we were but we could land anywhere with all the risks that it carried. While I was thinking how to extricate ourselves from this muck-up an idea came to me.
During my stay at the Clearance Divers Group a few decades earlier, we had on our rubber dive boats a reflector which allowed the radar operator to lead us on the suspicious contacts. Therefore, why not do the same thing here. The problem was that we had no reflector in our canoe.
Ok, but we could perhaps make one?
We already had two paddles that could serve as mast, remained to find what to use for the reflector.
- Do we have smokers on board?
Yes, Hervé and Eke are.
- Well sorry guys, can you empty your packets of cigarettes and give me the packaging.
They complied but looked at me oddly when I took the packages and returned them so as to have the aluminum on the outside.
I now had the reflective material. Remained only to find a support and what better than my small backpack. Very quickly the aluminum was stuck on my bag and then latter mounted on the top of the paddles.
Here it was, we had a semblance of reflector. I recalled the Crystal Fish.
- Captain, we have manufactured a reflector, can you watch if you have a contact?
- Go ahead slowly zodiac.
Slowly, our boat setted out.
- Let’s hope it works.
A few seconds later, new call from the supply:
- Zodiac: Crystal fish.
- I get you! You are half a mile from your destination.
- Follow the 105 heading I will remain in contact and guide you.
10 minutes later, our tanker was in sight.
- Cristal Fish : Zodiac
- Go ahead zodiac.
- OK Captain: Ship in sight thanks’ for your help.
- Ok Francis, see you in a few days
Once on board, I saw that the Commander was moody. He said coldly:
- Gentlemen, next time have the politeness to arrive on time at the table.
Well, that’s very rich coming from him I thought without comment.
During the rest of stays if we except this little incident, nothing special arrived during the four rotations I did on this ship.
Work was interesting but there were not enough dives.
In addition to this, my 'little boy' that I had not seen growing was now 24 years old and had left the family nest. As for my loved one, she was bored of this life and begged me to stop.
Result; on the sad day of the 19 August 94, I decided to give my resignation to this company which had given me the opportunity to live an extraordinary adventure for about 16 years.
The remainder of my career was a bit less exciting but still interesting. It consisted in accordance with the predictions made to me by an Indian sailor in 1983, to spend a part of my time on civil engineering diving projects and for the other part, work at the office preparing these jobs while being nicely pampered by the fairer sex who work there.