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.  

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