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60 miles off the Galveston coast
A SHIP THE SIZE of four football fields, stuffed to the gills with a couple million barrels of crude, was transferring that oil through giant hoses from one supertanker to another while on the high seas. Who would have ever thought anything could possibly go wrong?
The blinding glare from the midday sun caused the captain to squint as his eyes struggled to adjust to being back inside. He had just reentered the air conditioned comfort of the ship’s bridge moments before, having spent the previous hour down on deck.
The cool air felt luxurious against his skin and a few goose bumps even popped up on his leathery arms. He could still taste the salty sea air as he licked his lips every few seconds to keep them from chapping.
He was standing on the bridge of the VLCC Northern Lights, a Panamanian-registered supertanker that measured nearly a quarter of a mile from stem to stern. The bridge was the equivalent of twenty stories above the water’s surface. Even so, the glare from sun’s reflection off the water was blinding.
“Let’s hope that Homeland’s warnings are overblown,” Jack Holcomb said anxiously to his chief officer, a fellow by the name of Santos. “It’s already mid-August and I’ve only got four more months until retirement.”
Holcomb’s thinning white hair and weather-beaten face made him appear older than his sixty years. He had been the captain of the Northern Lights for the past decade and most of that time had passed uneventfully. He prayed the rest would, too.
“My wife already has a spot picked out for us,” the captain said. “It’s a nice little villa up in the hills overlooking a tiny fishing village on the Costa del Sol.”
He shook his head and smiled wryly, saying, “I think the entire village could probably fit into the bowels of this ship…and still leave room for future generations.”
The giant vessel was preparing to offload its cargo of more than two million barrels of crude oil onto several smaller tankers over the next few days. The whole idea may sound completely crazy to outsiders, but supertankers like the Northern Lights, with its enormous size and displacement, cannot navigate into the Port of Houston while fully loaded.
Instead, it must “trans-load” its cargo of crude—while on the open seas—onto smaller oil tankers which, in turn, deliver the oil to refineries located in or near the port complex. The process is commonly known as lightering.
Holcomb and Santos had spent the past couple of hours observing the Emerald Star, a smaller petroleum tanker located several miles off in the distance. It was being rigged up by the crew of a third ship, a lightering support vessel christened the Hoek van Holland. The Hoek was busily preparing the smaller tanker for the ship-to-ship transfer of several hundred thousand barrels of oil from the Northern Lights.
* * * * *
Several hours had now passed and the Emerald Star was carefully maneuvering into position alongside the Northern Lights. She would be the first of four “smaller” oil tankers scheduled to offload crude from the giant supertanker over the next several days. Of course, small is a relative term, since the Emerald Star, by herself, could carry nearly five hundred thousand barrels of crude.
Standing on the deck was a crusty old man named Van der Pol, who would serve as the “mooring master” during the lightering operation. His legs spread apart for better balance, he carefully watched as the two tankers edged ever closer for their eventual coupling. The Dutchman, as most people referred to him, was a short but powerfully built man in his late fifties. He had been engaged in lightering operations for more than forty years, ever since he was a teenager in Rotterdam.
He was also the owner of RGC Lightering and the Hoek van Holland was his ship.
Four massive floating fenders—each one measuring thirty-feet in length, ten-feet in diameter and shaped like huge oblong boilers—were secured along the waterline of the Emerald Star. Their purpose was to prevent the hulls of the two giant supertankers from damaging each other as they maneuvered into a side-by-side position, which they would maintain for at least the next twelve hours. Each fender was wrapped in a blanket of oversized vehicle tires that were fastened together using heavy chains to provide additional strength and cushioning.
Once the ships were side-by-side, the two crews methodically stretched thick steel mooring cables from one deck to the other to secure the two tankers into position. This would help prevent any independent movement by either of the vessels during the lightering operation.
Using the large, deck-mounted cranes to lift bulky equipment from one ship to the other, the four transfer hoses already attached to the Emerald Star were then connected to the larger ship. These ninety-foot hoses were roughly twelve inches in diameter. Through them, the crude would be transferred from the Northern Lights to the smaller tanker.
The crews of the two vessels worked methodically—not unlike NASCAR pit crews—to ensure that everything was done quickly and precisely according to established procedure. Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, the Hoek’s engineer radioed the Dutchman on his yellow walkie-talkie.
“Everything is ready to go, Dutch,” he said, giving the old man a thumbs-up gesture that he was probably too far away from to make out.
The engineer noticed his knuckles were covered in blood and his greasy right hand was slightly swollen, although, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember how or when that had happened. He just knew that his hand hurt like hell.
Van der Pol, who earlier had transferred over to the larger supertanker by grasping ahold of the boom of one of the giant cranes during the rigging process, was now standing next to Holcomb on the bridge of the Northern Lights. He turned slightly to face him and said, somewhat formally, “Captain, we’re ready to commence the transfer at your command.”
Holcomb nodded his head and signaled with his right hand for the transfer operation to begin.
The pumping of the crude from the giant supertanker began slowly, allowing the crews on both ships the time to ensure that the connections were secure and that there were no other problems. Ever so gradually, the rate of flow was increased, with the gauges being carefully monitored to make sure that everything was still in order.
The chief officer of each ship was stationed in his respective control room, closely monitoring fluid levels in the cargo and ballast tanks. They would remain there throughout the transfer operation. Likewise, both vessels would keep a bridge watch throughout the entire process to ensure safe navigation.
Eventually, they reached normal flow.
The two crews then settled in for the long process of transferring half a million barrels of crude oil. At a flow rate of twenty thousand barrels per hour per hose, using only two hoses at a time, the entire process would continue throughout the night, taking a little more than twelve hours to complete.
That is, if everything went according to plan.
Sometime just before four o’clock the next morning, the captain of the Northern Lights was awakened suddenly by a sharp pinging sound coming from his cellphone, indicating he had just received a text message.
Glancing at the brightly lit face of his mobile phone, he saw that the message simply read, “THE FUTURE IS NOW!”
Moments later, the deafening roar from an explosion shattered the predawn calm. It was immediately followed by the ear-piercing wail of the ship’s alarms that could be heard from miles away. Crew members on both tankers, most of whom had just been unexpectedly roused from a deep sleep, scrambled frantically out onto the decks, like cockroaches after someone suddenly flips on the lights in the galley during the dead of night.
All attention was now focused on the starboard side of the Northern Lights, where the smaller tanker, the Emerald Star, had been taking on crude.
Despite the darkness of the night sky, the ship’s bright spotlights now blanketed the deck area and made it almost seem like midday. Thousands of barrels of gooey black slime were now hemorrhaging from the cavernous holds of the Northern Lights and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The ultimate destination of the rapidly expanding swath of black carbon was the crowded summer beaches and rich fishing spots along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
The only question now was how much of the crude would make its way to the shoreline, with the high number being two million barrels…or more than the nation of either Great Britain or France consumes in an entire day.
* * * * *
Sneak Preview of the PROLOGUE of The Northern Lights
A supertanker is sabotaged sixty miles off the Texas cost, spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Moments before the explosion, the captain of the ship receives a cryptic text message that simply says, “THE FUTURE IS NOW!”
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