Friday, July 17, 2015

The Brawl Onboard

It was a party thrown to the officers and crew onboard Renaissance One  We were still trading in Sabah water then and that year was 1994.  It was our first party celebration in appreciation to the Master, officers and crew for their support.

Though I don't drink, I did drink a little so as not to disappoint the rest.  Everyone was in a party mood.  We played games, had a lot of fun and plenty of booze (non-stop, unfortunately).  The party just went on and on.  Some were highly intoxicated.  When the party was at its climax, someone reported a fight.  Dropping everything, I rushed off to the scene with a few of us.  One gaming crew was quite badly beaten up by a stronger deck & engine crew.  Before, we could even settle down, another fight broke out somewhere again.  We rushed over to check out.  Pandemonium was everywhere and it was akin to a riot onboard.  Again, another fight happened.  It was never ending.  Basically it was between few camps, the gaming department, the hotel department and the deck & engine department I later learnt.  Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured as it was just physical fight using fists and not any weapon of sorts.  Finally, I can heave a sigh of relief when the situation was kept under control.  But at a price, there were few injuries.

The next morning, we had our own inquiry.  Firstly, we realised we made a big mistake by allowing non-stop supply of alcohol for a party celebration.  We should have put a cap on alcohol consumption.  Too late, damage had been done.  Secondly, it was a pent-up mood waiting for an eruption.  The deck and engine crew were never happy with the gaming and hotel crew.  The guys at the deck and engine did the physical works but they did not get tips unlike those from the hotel and gaming crew.  Also, some were related to 'boy-girl' relationships which is common onboard cruise vessel.  When the investigation was finally concluded, the identified ring leader of each department was fired.  One from the gaming department, one from the deck & engine and one from the hotel department.  When they were sober,  they regretted their violent actions in the stage of intoxication.  Some really needed the job.  However, we were determined to send a strong message to all and to be fair too, we decided to release the ring leaders from the various departments.  This is a big lesson learnt by us.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Wondering Spirits

It was on board one of our vessels, "Renaissance I" when a passenger complained that he felt something unnatural in the room.  Not long later, another one complained sighting familiar encounter.  Then, the Filipino crew claimed they saw something they were not supposed to see.  Soon, words went around that the ship was haunted.  Our boss was concerned it will affect our load and therefore, decided to engage a taoist priest (sifu) to exorcise the spirits.

Through a recommendation, this particular 'sifu' was introduced to us.  My colleague and I brought him to the ship to conduct an inspection.  He had with him a small coffin which he carried in his hand.  When we were showing him around the ship, he will sometimes make a stop and then, placed the small coffin on the floor.  He will then open the coffin cover and then shut it, sensed around the place and then, continued on.  He repeated this few times.  After the inspection, he told us our ship was not 'clean' and he had to conduct a thorough 'overhaul'.  It was so urgent for us to restore our passengers' confidence, it was to be conducted on the same evening when the ship sailed out on a one night cruise voyage.  The 'sifu' had to quickly mobilise his team of disciples.  I counted at least 10 of them when they came on board.

First they had to find a lowest point in the vessel.  We found a small room in the engine room for them.  They then set up an altar.  The 'sifu' will start by combing from the top and lead the spirits to the room while his disciples will do chanting in the room.  I was curious and so too for my more superstitious colleague, we decided to follow the 'sifu'.  He started to pray starting from the highest deck followed by some of his disciples and two of us.  We had to sweep from the top to the lowest end.  We went to the bridge, we went to the open deck, we covered all the public corridors, we went to the casino while the game was still on going and I think we covered all the rooms too (moving from room to room).  'Sifu' was chanting some prayer as we moved along.  Prior to that, we had informed our customers that we will be conducting some prayer in order not to alarm them.  Our captain and officers hailed from Italy and they were also very co-operative throughout.

Finally we reached the lowest deck where our prayer room was.  'Sifu' then sat down facing all his disciples and they were deep in their chanting.  It went on and on.  My colleague and I stood by the side and watched the whole proceeding.  Suddenly, two disciples started to shake vigorously (a sign that a spirit was trying to get into that person) and 'sifu' sensed that.  He immediately held on to them and do a prayer.  He continued to chant and a short while later, they started to calm down.  It was already in the wee hour of the morning.  The whole proceeding took few hours.  At some point when the prayer was so intense, I tapped on my colleague's hand to get his attention.  He was a joker by nature but he was so serious and totally immense in watching the whole proceeding.  I then turned around and asked him, "did you see anything passing by?".  He gave me a serious look as if telling me this was not the time for any joke.  I returned back with a wicked smile.

When it was finally over, it was already in the morning and the ship was about to come alongside at Singapore Cruise Centre.  'Sifu' told us that there were more than one spirit.  He told us that the first wondering spirit found the ship and decided to make the ship its home.  It then welcomed rest of the wondering spirits to its new 'home' and eventually, we formed a group.  He further told us that he did not engage in any 'fierce battle' with these spirits but sought their consensus to leave the ship on promise to find a better place for them in the netherworld.  The few lights were said to contain their souls and the lights cannot go off or it will spell trouble.  We had to send these wondering spirits to Chua Chu Kang cemetery but before we could do so, we had to clear immigration and customs.  I walked in front to clear all the formalities while the rest followed behind.  As it was already daylight, we had to use an umbrella to shed the lights another person was carrying.  As I approached one of the customs officers and he happened to be a Malay, I told him that it was the spirits from the ship that we were carrying.  The officer must be puzzled to see someone holding an umbrella and another holding lights walking slowly inside the arrival hall.  After my explanation, he understood the culture (likely giving respect to the Chinese custom), he gave us the clearance to pass through without stopping us.  The spirits were finally sent to proper burial ground in Chua Chu Kang.  For the longest time, we did not receive any complaint on unnatural sighing on board.  Not very long later, I left the company.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Dust, Powder Can Be Fire Hazards

My note:  This is written by a former colleague in the cruising industry who is a retired master mariner and it appeared in the ST forum recently.  Given his training and profession, he has always stressed on maritime safety.  The recent Taiwan party incident which took 2 lives so far and sadly, more might follow has triggered him to pen his thought.

It is my pleasure to append his article on my blog for the better guidance of the readers.    


At least two died and hundreds were injured in Taiwan when clouds of multi-coloured corn starch sprayed on the crowds exploded and engulfed the young revellers in flames ("S'porean among 500 injured in Taiwan festival fire". Monday, and "Colour Run to continue in Singapore", Thursday).

The cause is likely to be cigarette lighters or heat from stage lights.  The manufacturer had marked the powder as "flammable" , but the organisers ignored the warning.  They said they had never heard that such an activity could be dangerous.

Likewise, housewives cannot imagine that a bag of corn flour in the kitchen can explode, the way it did in Taiwan.

Last August, the metallic dust suspended in factory air exploded in China, killing at least 75 and injuring many more ("Safety breaches at auto factory led to deadly dust blast, says Xinhua"; Aug 5, 2014).  The factory polishes hubcaps.  Perhaps the heat source was also a cigarette lighter.

Experts have said that dust can be highly explosive when it is suspended in air, in the right concentrations, and this is true even of materials such as aluminium and iron that typically do not burn.

We need to learn from these incidents.  We must bear in mind that a heat source need not be external; dust particles rubbing against one another at high speeds can also result in a spark of explosion.

By Capt Kevin Ho ( Master Mariner)

p.s.  this article of mine above was published in the forum page of the Straits Times on 4 July 2015. Owners and operators of buildings and ships, especially those that are very old, should note that fine dust may form in ventilation or air-condition ducting, with time.  The ducting is like blood vessels, enveloping the human body.  A careless spark or heat source, may cause the whole building or ship to end up in a ball of fire.  Hence, regular cleaning of said ducting is absolutely necessary, not only for safety, but also for health and hygiene purposes.  Learning from the factory fire in China in Aug 2014, the air-condition ductings of 2 very old cruise ships, under our management, were opened up for inspection.  Dust of about one inch was found at its base.          


Thursday, July 02, 2015

My Cruise Journal

I started working for a ground handling agent at Changi International Airport after completing my national service and not long later, I landed a decent job with an airline company which I worked for 5 years.  I was last with a travel company before I landed my first job in the cruise industry and it was by default too.  That year was 1991 where cruising to many then was only meant for the rich and discerning travellers.        
Then it was a friend who called me one day to ask me to join him urgently but he didn’t elaborate much except saying it was a travel job which was related to cruising.  I was excited about the prospect of working for a cruise vessel.  When I dropped by his office, I was surprised to see him so immaculately dressed up like a high flier executive.  Yep, I was so used to seeing him in his tee and Bermuda shorts but what a transformation he had turned up to be.  Even the office personnel addressed him as “Mr Lim” and after I joined his company, I had to follow the rest in addressing him the same way too – much to my reluctance though.  He was the executive director of the company that chartered a cruise vessel for operation in Singapore and Jakarta.  It was a quick chat and soon, I was given a job by him.  He wanted me to help set up the travel arm for the company.  But before I could even sit down to map the travel plan, I was asked to take a cruise on board their vessel to render any help.  Gosh, I had never been on board a cruise vessel in my life but it certainly sounded exciting for me as a greenhorn.  The Singapore Cruise Centre at the then World Trade Centre (the present HarbourFront) was not fully operational yet and therefore, the vessel had to berth at Keppel Container Port.  My first association with any cruise vessel was called “Orient Sun”, an ageing vessel which was the company’s first chartered vessel that plied between Singapore and Jakarta.         

I was waiting at the container port for the ship to come alongside where I got to see all the actions for the first time in my life.  Everyone seemed busy with their own chores except for me.  Someone briefly introduced me to some of the key people on board and thereafter, I was left alone.  I really had no inkling what was I supposed to do while on board as there was no specific instruction given by my new boss.  He just threw me in the deep sea.  Like any “true warrior”, I just went along and did what was deemed fit to do.  I went to the purser office and started to help them in the manifestation work; helped to man the reception even duplicating keys for passengers; helped at the restaurant when it was busy and even went to the supermarket to make urgent purchases for ship when the ship supplier did not turn up with fresh supplies.  It was the chef who frantically ran up to me to ask for help in getting urgent supplies.  I didn’t know who to approach but somehow I managed to get a passenger van driver to send me to the nearest supermarket to clean up the shelves.  Come to think of it, it was quite comical then.  I came from an established European airline company where everything was so structured and orderly.  Over here, it was like everyone to themselves and one had to learn to find one’s own way to get things done.  It was really a culture shock for me but a great learning curve I must say.  There is no textbook to follow.       

While waiting at the wharf-side for the vessel to come alongside at the container port for the first time in my life, it was surreal to see a fleet of sleek white Mercedes Benz lining up nicely in one row.  One would have thought the cars were meant for export out but no, these cars were on standby to pick up the VVIPs on board.  When the VVIPs finally strolled down the gangway in high fashion accompanied by gleeful customer service staff (generous tips were expected from these high rollers) who then whiskered them to the waiting vehicles.  It was like a HK triad movie to me.  I then realised ours was a ‘high octane’ gaming vessel that just got back from an overnight high sea cruise packed with high rollers from Indonesia, HK, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.  Stakes were high which ran into millions of dollars.  This charted my inroad to the booming local cruising industry.    

In the beginning of the 90s, local cruising landscape started to transform rapidly.  Our company quickly chartered another passenger vessel, “Royal Pacific”.  She was a newly refurbished vessel, converted from a car ferry.  During that period, she was considered one of the better passenger vessels that plied in our region waters.  I didn’t stay very long with the company and I later joined the ship owner of “Royal Pacific” as its operations manager when the charterer (my former company) decided to off-hire the vessel.  The ship owner company was known as Starlite Cruises took back the vessel.  In our new business plan, we had planned to run a leisure cruise voyage with lesser emphasis on gaming.  Our ambitious routes had included Port Klang, Penang and Phuket.  We roped in experienced personnel from our Miami-based company to help us.  However, fate did deal us a cruel blow when our vessel, “Royal Pacific” sank in the Straits of Malacca during our maiden voyage.  She collided with a fishing trawler in the Straits of Malacca.  I am one of the survivors of the sunken vessel and the rest is history.  Fortunately, fatality rate was low though we were ill-prepared for such a crisis.  That year was August 1992 when the ship sank and the local cruise industry did take a tumble but quickly recovered.  Not many people can still remember about the sinking vessel now which was then a major shipwreck incident.        

Few months later, our ship owner re-positioned another of its Miami based vessels, “Regent Spirit” to Singapore.  We had renamed our company to Regency Cruises.  Finally, I left the company to join another upstart local based cruise company called Renaissance Cruises.  That year was 1994.  My new company chartered two Italian built vessels, “Renaissance I” and “Renaissance II” which they later bought over from the owner.  It was another high sea cruise where gaming operation is the key to survival.  I was managing these two vessels for the company.  Personally, I like “Renaissance I” as it was this vessel that went through turbulent period with me.  The vessel was like a second home to me and during my stay on board, I was always well taken care by the crew too.  It was not a big vessel and we were quite closely knitted.  I was practically left to fend on my own when “Renaissance I” was re-positioned in Kota Kinbabalu.  I followed the ship to Kota Kinabalu and helped in the setting up of operation.  The vessel faced harassment of sorts from the authorities and even threats from gangsters.  One day the vessel was arrested while on high sea cruise in South China Sea.  We were actually sabotaged by a local influential figure who initiated the police to arrest the ship.  We were hauled back to port and we had to stop operation temporary.  We then fought a bitter court battle with the authority for a good one year and fortunately, we won the case - much thanks to our Sabah legal counsel who is now my good friend too.  

In 1995, I joined another locally based vessel, “Leisure World” as its owner’s representative and subsequently, went on to manage the company’s travel division on shore.  This was to be my longest stint.  I stayed more than a decade with the company before venturing out to set up my own travel and aviation companies in year 2001.  I re-joined the company in 2005 when my own businesses went topsy turvy during the SARS outbreak.  My time with Leisure World and the company was largely peaceful.  I finally left the organisation in 2012 to pursue my other passion in life.   

Admittedly I have never been not trained in the maritime industry before as I started my career in the airport and airline.  Everything I learnt was purely based on trial-and-error.  Even when our ship was struck with an ill-fated tragedy and many a time, I had to apply some common sense to the things I had to do and follow up.  At time, it was really high tension and looking back, I do not know how I managed to survive through the aftermath.  I am glad I did, somehow.  Despite all the knocks in the volatile cruising industry, I have had enjoyed the many opportunities given to me and at the same time, the adversities I had to face and overcome.  The early years in the cruising industry was exciting for all.  At its height, there were easily 7 to 8 cruise vessels plying the lucrative high sea route.  In the last 2 decades, many players appeared and many left too.  The local cruising industry can now witness just a handful of players.  To have survived this long tumultuous period, this says something special about these handful few.