There seemed nothing to do except to have breakfast. We went back to the house, and Mrs Dignam, whom everyone called ‘Auntie’, produced a delicious feast of salmon and kumeras (sweet potatoes).
‘How is the seaplane, Captin?’ she asked. ‘Done for?’ ‘Completely, except for the floats,’ I said, unable to decide which tasted better, the fish or the kumeras.
‘Oh, dear, dear, dear! What a shame! And I did so want to see it rise from the water. Have some more fish, Captin?’ After breakfast young Dignam rallied a salvage party. I coaxed myself to turn out only by promising myself a week’s sleep afterwards. Everyone else seemed keen, though, and three launches put off to the wreck. For the next hour or two I balanced precariously on the bottom of the fuselage, fixing rope to various bits of it. Sometimes I was waist-deep in the water, while gusts of wind spat rain and spray into my face. The seaplane was now bumping upside down on the bottom, and I wanted to right it by pulling the tail over the nose.
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This seemed a simple thing to do, and I crawled up the bottom of the fuselage on hands and knees to secure a rope to the tail. But every time a pair of launches took the strain of the rope, the tail slewed round to one side or the other, and refused to come up. We paid out a long warp to the side of the hill to get a steadier pull on the tail, but still it refused to come up, and swivelled round in an exasperating way. In the end, a stout rope broke with the pull; it was a mystery how the seaplane could stand such a strain without breaking in half: the fuselage was only a three-ply skin, covering a slender frame of which the thickest piece was only a square inch of spruce. It was a miracle of engineering design.
We changed our tactics, and towed the seaplane by the tail, bumping and dragging it along the bottom, as far inshore as we could. We left it there, until we could get at it at low water. When we returned, it lay on greenish, slippery mud. The wings looked crushed and mangled. About thirty people, a quarter of the island’s total population, were splashing through the shallow water round the seaplane. They included three handsomely-built girls in shorts, and all together formed the most amazingly efficient and enthusiastic salvage team. I had expected men who had never seen an aeroplane before to be bamboozled when asked to unscrew rigging-wire turn-buckles, or wing-root bolts, or to slack off control-cables, or airspeed indicator tubes. But it was the quickest and slickest salvage job I have ever conducted. One stream of people carried pieces to the shore, while another came back for more. The seaplane was dismantled in twenty minutes, and I was the only person who lost anything – some shacklepins that I pocketed before realising that there was a hole in my borrowed pair of shorts. We rolled the fuselage, stripped of its wings, on to its side, and then righted it, with the floats sitting on the mud. One party led this round the shore to the jetty, while the rest of us dumped all the bits and pieces in an old boat shed under a great old banyan tree. I went round to the jetty to dismantle the motor, thinking that parts of it ought to fetch something, if salvaged quickly before the salt water ate into the aluminium.
That night Phil Dignam asked me, ‘What are you going to do about the plane, Skipper?’
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