A Singaporean captain shares tales of life at sea and his most memorable voyages
It is May 29, a calm and sunny Monday morning at sea.
North Korea fires a ballistic missile over the sea between the country and Japan. The Japanese Coast Guard issues a warning to ships in the vicinity of the Sea of Japan.
One of the ships is Singapore- registered Parsifal. One of four ships that are the largest vehicle carriers in the world, it is helmed by Captain Nordin Rais, a Singaporean.
The ship's bridge receives a warning message on its computer printer at 6.04am: "There is information that flying object launched from North Korea. Vessels requested to pay attention to further information and to keep clear when recognising falling object. Vessels requested to report related information to Japan Coast Guard."
The Parsifal had left Masan, South Korea, about seven hours before the message. It is bound for Kobe, Japan.
Capt Nordin, 66, purses his lips, turns to this correspondent and says: "It's all right. We are not in danger."
The 1.69m-tall captain, who always wears a cap atop his grey hair, says: "We are near mainland Japan. The (North Korean) missile will be shot down by the Japanese and American missile defence systems if it comes this near."
The missile flew for six minutes before landing in Japanese waters, some 300km away from the nearest Japanese islands.
Just two days earlier, Capt Nordin had invited The Sunday Times to sail with him for a first-hand view of the life of a seafaring officer. The sector is finding it hard to attract Singaporeans who are put off by the long periods at sea.
The missile incident was the latest adventure for the captain, who has been sailing for more than 40 years.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore says it has tested and qualified 140 Singaporeans to helm commercial ships.
But Capt Nordin says the pool of experienced captains is dwindling. "I am in the 1968 batch of Singapore Polytechnic graduates with a marine studies certificate. I am the only one in the batch who is still sailing," he says. "Nothing can substitute experience when handling unexpected situations at sea."
'NOT MY FIRST CHOICE'
Ironically, seafaring was not his first career choice. "I wanted to join the air force after completing secondary school in 1967. But there was no air force to join."
The Singapore Air Defence Command, the predecessor of the Republic of Singapore Air Force, was set up only in 1968.
"So I signed up for the two-year sea cadet course at Singapore Polytechnic," he says, adding that, at 17, "I was earning $50 a month".
He completed the course in 1969 and became a third officer, the lowest grade for a seafaring officer, earning about $300 a month.
But one of his early voyages almost got him killed. He was aboard the Golden Spring, a Singapore-registered cargo ship owned by Guan Guan Shipping, when it sank near Shanghai on Nov 5, 1971, after hitting shallow reefs.
"I was taking a shower that night when I heard a loud bang and the ship started moving violently," he recalls. "From the porthole of my cabin, I saw salted eggs flying all over the place. The ship was carrying the eggs as cargo."
When he went on deck, he saw that the ship was sinking and a lifeboat had been lowered. "I jumped into the sea and swam towards the lifeboat."
When asked if he feared for his life, he says: "Yes and no - a part of me felt that it was an adventure."
He adds: "We were rescued by a fishing boat. The boat was very smelly, but I am thankful it saved the crew. I lost all my belongings."
The sinking of the Golden Spring, a rare event, was reported in The Straits Times on Nov 13, 1971.
All 47 crew survived.
The episode did not put him off sailing. He was promoted to second officer in 1972 and chief officer in 1976, raising his monthly pay to more than $2,000.
Four years later, he married Maimon Mokti and stopped sailing, working on land as a dock master for a shipping firm. His daughter, Nura Shereen Nordin, his only child, was born in 1982.
In 1985, when she was three, he felt the itch to sail again, so he studied to be a captain and passed the qualifying examination in 1987.
A year later, Capt Nordin joined Swedish shipping company Wallenius Lines. He is now the oldest among three senior Singaporean captains in the company.
Asked how many and what type of ships he has helmed, he says: "I have lost count. I have been in command of all types of ships, including oil rigs and livestock carriers.
"I have transported sheep from Australia to the Middle East. The only sounds they made were 'meh' and 'baah'. It is better to carry four-legged cargo because they don't complain as much as two- legged cargo."
Of his travels, he says: "I have sailed as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as New Zealand. I have passed through the Panama and Suez canals over 20 times."
STORMS AND STOWAWAYS
Capt Nordin recalls four memorable voyages. While he has weathered many storms, one in particular is etched in his memory.
In 1971, he was a third officer aboard a new ship being delivered from Japan to Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia.
The ship ran into a typhoon. He says: "The waves were more than five storeys high and the ship was pounding up and down for three days. We used ropes to tie ourselves to the beds at night but, even so, we couldn't sleep.
"After the typhoon passed, we saw that the ship's new coat of paint had been stripped away."
He adds: "I learnt early in my career not to fight the weather. If we can avoid storms, we avoid."
In 1996, he was captain of a ship sailing from Liverpool in Britain to Montreal in Canada, when he found stowaways on board. "Two days after we left the port, they came out of hiding. There were 12 of them," he recounts.
"They were from Eastern Europe. I gave them food, water and shelter and handed them to the Canadian authorities when we landed."
Besides storms and stowaways, he has also had close shaves with terrorists and pirates.
In 1998, his cargo ship was berthed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when Tamil Tiger guerillas slipped into the harbour in small boats under cover of darkness at night and launched an attack with rocket- propelled grenade launchers.
He says: "My ship was okay, but the one next to mine was damaged.
"I rang my wife the next morning and told her I was all right. She replied, 'Yes, I know about the attack. I read the news on air'."
His wife, now a senior editor at Mediacorp, was then a radio newscaster.
In 2004, he witnessed a pirate attack in the Gulf of Eden.
"My ship passed by a small cargo ship. Soon afterwards, it called for help," he recalls. "I saw two small boats speeding towards it.
"I could not turn around to help. A Dutch cargo ship behind us tried to block the small boats but failed. Then I saw pirates from the speedboats boarding the ship. I don't know what happened to it."
He does not have any favourite port in the world, but dislikes some of them. "The harbour pilots in Africa always ask for bribes. If we don't give them cigarettes or alcohol, they will find fault with the ship and fine us," he says, adding that his company has a strict policy against corruption.
Since 2012, he has been one of three captains rotated to helm two "floating carparks" - the Parsifal and Salome. The other two are a Malaysian and a Myanmar national.
Built in Nagasaki, Japan, in 2011 and 2012, the Parsifal and Salome - named after operas - are owned by Wallenius and operated by Swedish-Norwegian joint venture logistics company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics. The company registered the ships in Singapore and they fly the Singapore flag.
Each ship is 265m long. Each ship has a two-piece folding ramp about the size of four basketball courts using which cars, buses and trucks are driven onto the ship.
The ship has nine "carpark decks" that can transport about 6,000 cars, or about 2,800 cars and 680 trucks, at any one time.
Both ships ply a circular route from here to China, South Korea and Japan, picking up cars, trucks and construction vehicles such as cranes and bulldozers, and delivering them to the west coast of the United States.
It then sails through the Panama Canal to the east coast of the US for more deliveries, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
From Europe, it picks up cars and takes them to the east coast of the US, passing through the Panama Canal a second time, before heading south to New Zealand and Australia, and back to Singapore.
"The leg from Panama Canal to Auckland, New Zealand, is the longest, about 15 days at sea," Capt Nordin says. Each voyage takes four months.
Of his current job, he says: "I love car carriers. They are very clean. I have transported coal and the deck is full of coal dust that will turn your face black. I have transported ore and that will turn your face red."
Capt Nordin boarded the Parsifal from Singapore on May 17, taking over from Malaysian Captain Leong Kim Ming. He returns in September and takes a break before boarding the Salome in November, and returns next March. He then re-boards the Parsifal in May next year and the annual cycle repeats again.
"I work for eight months and rest for four months. Where do you find a job like that?" he says with a laugh.
His ship is so huge that it has a passenger lift and two pick-up trucks to ferry equipment within it.
The current voyage coincided with the start of the fasting month. Unlike in Singapore, where Capt Nordin fasts for about 12 hours, there are more than 14 hours of daylight in Korea and Japan, which means longer fasting hours.
"This is not the longest I have fasted," he says. He has sailed near the Arctic Circle between Norway and Newfoundland in Canada during Ramadan. "That was about 18 hours of daylight," he says.
He is one of two Muslims in the 27-strong crew of mostly Filipinos. The ship's cook prepares halal meals for them separately.
The captain admits that he misses his family. He tries to FaceTime his wife and daughter daily. "I also FaceTime the family cat," he jests.
He keeps to a strict routine, waking up at 3am, followed by prayers and exercise on the treadmill and weights machine. He checks on the various aspects of the ship's operation throughout the day. He has a simple lunch of fruit and vegetables on non-fasting days, followed by prayers and an afternoon nap.
By about 9pm, he retires to his cabin, where he reads online news, checks e-mails and prays before sleeping at about 11pm.
Some perks of the job keep him going. Being captain of a car carrier has allowed him to come close to exotic cars.
"I have picked up Lamborghinis and Bentleys from Europe and delivered them to the US, New Zealand and Australia," he says.
"I cannot afford to own these cars, but I can see them on the ship. I don't get to drive them though as they are driven by stevedores."
The company allows captains and first officers to take their family members onboard as passengers.
"My daughter sailed with me to Australia and Hong Kong before she was in Primary 1. My wife sailed once, but she got seasick," he says.
There is free Internet access on board and each crew member has his own cabin and toilet. Hot food is available round-the-clock.
He says: "The company looks after our welfare. That's why I have stayed with it for 29 years."
On the second night of the voyage from Korea to Japan, in the open sea near Japan, he held a barbecue dinner on the helipad deck. "We do this about once a month, depending on the weather," he says.
The job pays well too, Capt Nordin adds. He declines to reveal his salary for reasons of confidentiality, but says that his Yio Chu Kang condominium and BMW 5-Series sedan are fully paid for.
"I have not withdrawn my Central Provident Fund savings," he says.
According to the collective agreement between the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union and Wallenius Marine Singapore, a captain who has served more than six years is paid at least US$5,886 (S$8,100) a month. The union says that experienced captains can earn as much as $25,000 a month.
"I don't pay any income tax," Capt Nordin adds. Seafarers' salaries are considered income from foreign sources and are not subject to Singapore taxes.
But he laments that younger Singaporeans are not taking up the job because they find it tough to be outside their comfort zone.
"I took a Singaporean cadet onshore at Panama Canal two years ago and he wanted to look for McDonald's instead of trying local food," he says, shaking his head.
Sometimes, it is the parents who stop their children from sailing. "They see it as a tough life."
When asked what is the best way to attract Singaporeans to join the industry, he says: "It's very hard to answer the question. They must have a sense of adventure to begin with."
On how long he plans to keep sailing, he says: "For as long as I am healthy. More than 10 years ago, I met an Australian captain and a harbour pilot in Tokyo - both were 86 and still at sea. I may not be able to sail until I am as old as they were, but I hope to do what I love doing for maybe another 10 years.
"I do not get tired of watching sunrise and sunset at sea."
He adds: "After all these years, sea water has got under my skin and into my veins."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.