Seawitch, p.1Alistair MacLean
Table of Contents
About the Author
By Alistair MacLean
About the Publisher
Normally there are only two types of marine machines concerned with the discovery and recovery of oil from under the ocean floor. The first one, which is mainly engaged in the discovery of oil, is a self-propelled vessel, sometimes of very considerable size. Apart from its towering drilling derrick, it is indistinguishable from any ocean-going cargo vessel; its purpose is to drill bore-holes in areas where seismological and geological studies suggest oil may exist. The technical operation of this activity is highly complex, yet these vessels have achieved a remarkable level of success. However, they suffer from two major drawbacks. Although they are equipped with the most advanced and sophisticated navigational equipment, including bow-thrust propellers, for them to maintain position in running seas, strong tides and winds when boring can be extremely difficult; and in really heavy weather operations have to be suspended.
For the actual drilling of oil and its recovery – principally its recovery – the so-called ‘jack-up system’ is in almost universal use. A rig of this type has to be towed into position, and consists of a platform which carries the drilling rig, cranes, helipads and all essential services, including living accommodation, and is attached to the seabed by firmly anchored legs. In normal conditions it is extremely effective, but like the discovery ships it has drawbacks. It is not mobile. It has to suspend operations in even moderately heavy weather. And it can be used only in comparatively shallow water: the deepest is in the North Sea, where most of those rigs are to be found. This North Sea rig stands in about four hundred and fifty feet of water and the cost of increasing the length of those legs would be so prohibitive as to make oil recovery quite uneconomical, even although there are plans for the Americans to construct a rig with eight-hundred-feet legs off the Californian coast. There is also the unknown safety factor. Two such rigs have already been lost in the North Sea. The cause of those disasters has not been clearly evaluated, although it is suspected, obviously not without cause, that there may have been design, structural or metallic faults in one or more of the legs.
And then there is the third type of oil rig – the TLP – technically, the tension leg drilling/production platform. At the time of this story there was only one of its type in the world. The platform – the working area – was about the size of a football field – if, that is, one can imagine a triangular football field, for the platform was, in fact, an equilateral triangle. The deck was not made of steel but of a uniquely designed ferro-concrete, specially developed by a Dutch oil ship-building company. The supports for this massive platform had been designed and built in England and consisted of three enormous steel legs, each at one corner of the structure, all three being joined together by a variety of horizontal and diagonal hollow cylinders, the total combination offering so tremendous a degree of buoyancy that the working platform they supported was out of the reach of even the highest waves.
From each of the bases of the three legs, three massive steel cables extended to the base of the ocean floor, where each triple set was attached to large sea-floor anchors. Powerful motors could raise or lower it to a depth two or three times that of most modern fixed oil derricks, which meant that it could operate at depths far out on the continental shelf.
The TLP had other very considerable advantages.
Its great buoyancy put the anchor cables under constant tension, and this tension practically eliminated the heaving, pitching and rolling of the platform. Thus the rig could continue operating in very severe storms, storms that would automatically stop production on any other type of derrick.
It was also virtually immune to the effects of an under-sea earthquake.
It was also mobile. It had only to up anchors to move to potentially more productive areas.
And compared to standard oil rigs its cost of establishing position in any given spot was so negligible as to be worth no more than a passing mention.
The name of the TLP was the Seawitch.
In certain places and among certain people, the Seawitch was a very bad name indeed. But, overwhelmingly, their venom was reserved for a certain Lord Worth, a multi–some said bulti–millionaire, chairman and sole owner of Worth Hudson Oil Company and, incidentally, owner of the Seawitch. When his name was mentioned by any of the ten men present at that shoreside house on Lake Tahoe, it was in tones of less than hushed reverence.
Their meeting was announced in neither the national nor local press. This was due to two factors. The delegates arrived and departed either singly or in couples and among the heterogeneous summer population of Lake Tahoe such comings and goings went unremarked or were ignored. More importantly, the delegates to the meeting were understandably reluctant that their assembly become common knowledge. The day was Friday 13th, a date that boded no good for someone.
There were nine delegates present, plus their host. Four of them were American, but only two of these mattered–Corral, who represented the oil and mineral leases in the Florida area, and Benson, who represented the rigs off Southern California.
Of the other six, again only two mattered. One was Patinos of Venezuela; the other was Borosoff of Russia: his interest in American oil supplies could only be regarded as minimal. It was widely assumed amongst the others that his main interest in attending the meeting was to stir up as much trouble as possible, an assumption that was probably correct.
All ten were, in various degrees, suppliers of oil to the United States and had the one common interest: to see that the price of those supplies did not drop. The last thing they all wanted to see was an oil value depreciation.
Benson, whose holiday home this was and who was nominally hosting the meeting, opened the discussion.
‘Gentlemen, does anyone have any strong objections if I bring a third party–that is, a man who represents neither ourselves nor Lord Worth–into this meeting?’
Practically everyone had, and there were some moments of bedlamic confusion: they had not only objections but very strong ones at that.
Borosoff, the Russian, said: ‘No. It is too dangerous.’ He glanced around the group with calculated suspiciousness. ‘There are already too many of us privy to these discussions.’
Benson, who had not become head of one of Europe’s biggest oil companies, a British-based one, just because someone had handed him the job as a birthday present, could be disconcertingly blunt.
‘You, Borosoff, are the one with the slenderest claims to be present at this meeting. You might well bear that in mind. Name your suspect.’ Borosoff remained silent. ‘Bear in mind, gentlemen, the objective of this meeting–to maintain, at least, the present oil price levels. The OPEC is now actively considering hiking all oil prices. That doesn’t hurt us much here in the US–we’ll just hike our own prices and pass them on to the public.’
Patinos said: ‘You’re every bit as unscrupulous and ruthless as you claim us to be.’
’Realism is not the same as ruthlessness. Nobody’s going to hike anything while Worth Hudson is around. They are already undercutting us, the majors. A slight pinch, but we feel it. If we raise our prices more and theirs remain steady, the slight pinch is going to increase. And if they get some more TLPs into operation then the pinch will be beginning to hurt. It will also hurt the OP
’We all subscribe to the gentlemen’s agreement among major oil companies that they will not prospect for oil in international waters, that is to say outside their own legally and internationally recognized territorial limits. Without observance of this agreement, the possibilities of legal, diplomatic, political and international strife, ranging from scenes of political violence to outright armed confrontation, are only too real. Let us suppose that Nation A–as some countries have already done–claims all rights for all waters a hundred miles offshore from its coasts. Let us further suppose that Nation B comes along and starts drilling thirty miles outside those limits. Then, horror of horrors, let us suppose that Nation A makes a unilateral decision to extend its offshore limits to a hundred and fifty miles–and don’t forget that Peru has claimed two hundred miles as its limits: the subsequent possibilities are too awesome to contemplate.
’Alas, not all are gentlemen. The chairman of the Worth Hudson Oil Company, Lord Worth, and his entire pestiferous board of directors, would have been the first vehemently to deny any suggestion that they were gentlemen, a fact held in almost universal acceptance by their competitors in oil. They would also equally vehemently have denied that they were criminals, a fact that may or may not have been true, but most certainly is not true now.
’He has, in short, committed what should be two indictable offences. “Should,” I say. The first is unprovable, the second, although an offence in moral terms, is not, as yet, strictly illegal.
‘The facts of the first–and what I consider much the minor offence–concerns the building of Lord Worth’s TLP in Hudson. It is no secret in the industry that the plans for those were stolen–those for the platform from the Mobil Oil Company, those for the legs and anchoring systems from the Chevron Oilfield Research Company. But, as I say, unprovable. It is commonplace for new inventions and developments to occur at two or more places simultaneously, and he can always claim that his design team, working in secret, beat the others to the gun.’
In saying which Benson was perfectly correct. In the design of the Seawitch Lord Worth had adopted short-cuts which the narrow-minded could have regarded as unscrupulous if not illegal. Like all oil companies, Worth Hudson had its own design team. As they were all cronies of Lord Worth and were employed for purely tax-deductible purposes, their combined talents would have been incapable of designing a rowing boat.
This didn’t worry Lord Worth. He didn’t need a design team. He was a vastly wealthy man, had powerful friends–none of them, needless to say, among the oil companies–and was a master of industrial espionage. With the resources at his disposal he found little trouble in obtaining those two secret advance plans, which he passed on to a firm of highly competent marine designers, whose exorbitant fees were matched only by their extreme discretion. The designers found little difficulty in marrying the two sets of plans, adding just sufficient modifications and improvements to discourage those with a penchant for patent rights litigation.
Benson went on: ‘But what really worries me, and what should worry all you gentlemen here, is Lord Worth’s violation of the tacit agreement never to indulge in drilling in international waters.’ He paused, deliberately for effect, and looked slowly at each of the other nine in turn. ‘I say in all seriousness, gentlemen, that Lord Worth’s foolhardiness and greed may well prove to be the spark that triggers off the ignition of a third world war. Apart from protecting our own interests I maintain that for the good of mankind–and I speak from no motive of spurious self-justification–if the governments of the world do not intervene then the imperative is that we should. As the governments show no signs of intervention, then I suggest that the burden lies upon us. This madman must be stopped. I think you gentlemen would agree that only we realize the full implications of all of this and that only we have the technical expertise to stop him.’
There were murmurs of approval from around the room. A sincere and disinterested concern for the good of mankind was a much more morally justifiable reason for action than the protection of one’s own selfish interests. Patinos, the man from Venezuela, looked at Benson with a smile of mild cynicism on his face. The smile signified nothing. Patinos, a sincere and devout Catholic, wore the same expression when he passed through the doors of his church.
‘You seem very sure of this, Mr Benson?’
‘I’ve given quite some thought to it.’
Borosoff said: ‘And quite how do you propose to stop this madman, Mr Benson?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’ One of the others at the table lifted his eyebrows about a millimeter–which, for him, was a sign of complete disapproval. ‘Then why did you summon us all this distance?’
‘I didn’t summon you. I asked you. I asked you to approve whatever course of action we might take.’
‘This course of action being?–’
‘Again, I don’t know.’
The eyebrows returned to normal. A twitch of the man’s lip showed that he was contemplating smiling.
‘He has a name?’
‘Cronkite. John Cronkite.’
A hush descended upon the company. The open objections had turned into pensive hesitation which in turn gave way to nodding acceptance. Benson apart, no one there had ever met Cronkite, but his name was a household word to all of them. In the oil business his name had in his own lifetime long become a legend, although at times a far from savoury one. They all knew that any of them might require his incomparable services at any time, while at the same time hoping that that day would never come.
When it came to the capping of blazing gushers, Cronkite was without peer. Wherever in the world a gusher blew fire no one even considered putting it out themselves, they just sent for Cronkite. To wincing observers his modus operandi seemed nothing short of Draconian, but Cronkite would blasphemously brook no interference. Despite the extortionate fees he charged it was more common than not for a four-engined jet to be put at his disposal to get him to the scene of the disaster as quickly as possible. Cronkite always delivered. He also knew all there was to know about the oil business. And he was, hardly surprisingly, extremely tough and ruthless.
Henderson, who represented oil interests in Honduras, said: ‘Why should a man with his extraordinary qualifications, the world’s number one, as we all know, choose to engage himself in–ah–an enterprise of this nature? From his reputation I would hardly have thought that he was one to be concerned about the woes of suffering mankind.’
‘He isn’t. Money. Cronkite comes very high. A fresh challenge–the man’s a born adventurer. But, basically, it’s because he hates Lord Worth’s guts.’
Henderson said: ‘Not an uncommon sentiment, it seems. Why?’
‘Lord Worth sent his own private Boeing for him to come cap a blazing gusher in the Middle East. By the time Cronkite arrived Lord Worth’s own men had capped it. This, alone, Cronkite regarded as a mortal insult. He then made the mistake of demanding the full fee for his services. Lord Worth has a reputation for notorious Scottish meanness, which, while an insult to the Scots, is more than justified in his case. He refused, and said that he would pay him for his time, no more. Cronkite then compounded his error by taking him to court. With the kind of lawyers Lord Worth can afford, Cronkite never had a chance. Not only did he lose but he had to pay the costs.’
‘Which wouldn’t be low?’ Henderson said.
‘Medium-high to massive. I don’t know. All I know is that Cronkite has done quite a bit of brooding about it ever since.’
‘Such a man would not have to be sworn to secrecy?’
‘A man can swear a hundred different oaths and break them all. Besides, because of the exorbitant fees Cronkite charges, his feeling towards Lord Worth and the fact that he might just have to step outside the law, his silence is ensured.’
It was the turn of another of
‘“Might,” I said. For us, the element of risk does not exist.’
‘May we see this man?’
Benson nodded, rose, went to a door and admitted Cronkite.
Cronkite was a Texan. In height, build and cragginess of features he bore a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne. Unlike Wayne he never smiled. His face was of a peculiarly yellow complexion, typical of those who have had an overdose of anti-malarial tablets, which was just what had happened to Cronkite. Mepacrine does not make for a peaches and cream complexion–not that Cronkite had ever had anything even remotely resembling that. He was newly returned from Indonesia, where he had inevitably maintained his hundred percent record.
‘Mr Cronkite,’ Benson said. ‘Mr Cronkite, this is–’
Cronkite was brusque. In a gravelly voice he said: ‘I do not wish to know their names.’
In spite of the abruptness of his tone, several of the oilmen round the table almost beamed. Here was a man of discretion, a man after their own hearts.
Cronkite went on: ‘All I understand from Mr Benson is that I am required to attend to a matter involving Lord Worth and the Seawitch. Mr Benson has given me a pretty full briefing. I know the background. I would like, first of all, to hear any suggestions you gentlemen may have to offer.’ Cronkite sat down, lit what proved to be a very foul-smelling cigar, and waited expectantly.
He kept silent during the following half-hour discussion. For ten of the world’s top businessmen they proved to be an extraordinary inept, not to say inane lot. They talked in an ever-narrowing series of concentric circles.
Henderson said: ‘First of all it must be agreed that there is no violence to be used. Is it so agreed?’
Everybody nodded their agreement. Each and every one of them was a pillar of business respectability who could not afford to have his reputation besmirched in any way. No one appeared to notice that Cronkite sat motionless as a graven image. Except for lifting a hand to puff out increasingly vile clouds of smoke, Cronkite did not move throughout the discussion. He also remained totally silent.
Seawitch by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes