Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Fateful Inaugural Cruise

It was her maiden voyage from the state-of-the-art Singapore Cruise Centre; the talk of the town then. The 13,000-tonner Royal Pacific, a luxurious passenger vessel was scheduled for 2 nights cruise to high sea voyage along the Straits of Malacca on 21 August 1992.

Port clearance was finally granted at about 2000 hrs and she was ready to leave port. As the company’s operation manager, I was among the 535 passengers and crew onboard and many including some hotel crew were cruising for the first time; excitement of sorts can be felt all over.

It had been a long hard day for me and I decided to make my way to the restaurant for dinner. As I walked in, a long queue was already snaking around the buffet table. Food was not replenished fast, used cutlery was still left on empty tables and I can see the sullen face of restaurant manager, Amba who apparently, was not happy with the pandemonium of sorts.

After dinner at the Starlite Showroom, cruise director, Dick Carpentier and his cruise team more than made up for the earlier disappointment, they were wowing the audience with their array of performance which I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was already past midnight, I then decided to retire to my cabin; it was a peaceful first night.

It was a different scenario that greeted me in the restaurant the following morning. Service had vastly improved; empty food tray was quickly replenished, used cutlery was cleared promptly and this time around, Amba was seen grinning away.

A host of full-filled day activities were awaiting passengers and very soon, the day passed on. It was our last evening before reaching port the following morning and during supper, I was chatting with some old friends at the restaurant. Our conversation went on past midnight. Without any warning, we heard a loud bang and felt a violent jerk. In one fell swoop, the plates and glasses on the table were sent tumbling down. I saw a flash of light on the port side but it disappeared quickly. I rushed out to the open deck; I could not see anything in the darkness but my instinct told me we were hit by a big vessel. I then strained my neck out of the railing and peered down; lo and behold there was a big gap on the port side. Looking at my watch, it was around 2 am.

Back at the reception, I heard an announcement made in Greek by our captain. Moment later, I saw our safety officer and few others were rushing down to the lower deck. He came back up, saw me and told me to get ready for evacuation. I cannot believe my own eyes that our ship was going down but it was for real.

The jerk and commotion sent many passengers and crew rushing out with life jackets donned and everyone was heading to the nearest lifeboat stations.

I rushed back to my cabin which I shared with provision master, Gerard to retrieve my life-jacket. Gerard was already soundly asleep but he was rudely woken up by my loud banging on the door. His sleepy eyes were prised wide when I told him the sinking news.

With my life-jacket donned, I positioned near the reception to give directions to people. Water was gushing in fast and I can feel the ship was listing on her port side. I saw purser staff, Judy who stayed in one of the lower deck cabins and she had to rush out fast because her cabin was already flooded. She then helped to take some of the passports from the purser office and headed to the exit.

When the jackpot machines started to tumble down like dominos and I could not stand steady, I told myself that I should leave now before it was too late. I then made my way to the nearest exit and once out, I saw Staff Captain who was about to lower a lifeboat filled with people. He signalled to me to hop in and I heaved a big relief thinking most people had been evacuated but I was very wrong.

We were fortunate that the sea was calm. I was shocked when I realized that there were still many people stuck at the stern. While our rescue boat was maneuvering away, I saw the ship almost submerged in water. The lights suddenly went off and a while later, the ship sank with a loud bang. We heard crying from afar. There were still many people onboard and I feared the worst. It took just under one hour for the ship to be brought down.

We were quickly rescued by a passing cargo vessel and brought back to Singapore. Despite the ill preparation and lack of proper announcements onboard, the casualty count was low – 3 dead and 6 missing. The incident did cause a big damper to the cruise industry in our region then but very soon, not many will remember it and cruising remains one of favoured vacations today.

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