Life at sea
A 74-year-old Eurasian father of two shares his adventures at sea, and even had to postpone his wedding in London.
BY: Ron Pereira
I can say I was initially influenced by my mother and grandmother who told me stories about my grandfather Peter who was the chief engineer of a steam yacht called Seabell in the early 1900s. This vessel conveyed the British Governor from Singapore to Malacca, Port Swettenham (now called Port Klang), Penang, Sarawak and what was then called British North Borneo.
I was thrilled by all the travel stories and how my grandfather managed to purchase three acres of land in Serangoon and built (all by himself with some labour) a two-storey bungalow with 10 bedrooms and a huge L-shaped dining and sitting room, where we could have big parties and even wedding receptions.
Although my grandfather died in 1936, five years before I was born, I was intrigued by stories of life at sea. This was later supplemented by stories from my father Noel, who also did a three-month trip from Singapore to London as a junior engineer on board a British cargo ship. Unfortunately, because of the Great Depression in the 1930s, he had to sign off when he reached London and could not get another ship to continue a career at sea. He returned to Singapore as a passenger and was compelled to take a job in the Singapore Municipality Water Department.
Nonetheless, it was pretty much in my blood and all the stories sparked my interest to become a marine engineer. It further grew when my cousin Robin, who was nine years older joined the Singapore Harbour Board Dockyard and served a five-year apprenticeship before going to sea as a junior engineer.
In the blood
I was 14 years old when I made up my mind to follow the same career path. So as soon as I finished the Senior Cambridge Examinations, I joined the Singapore Harbour Board Dockyard as an apprentice engineer in January 1958 and earned S$14.96 a week. (There is a club called 1496 for apprentices and there are 70 to 80 people in the club who are ex-Singapore Harbour Board apprentices. We meet twice a year). I decided not to go university as my father could barely afford it and it would have meant that my four siblings (I am the oldest) would suffer.
I spent the next four years learning engine fitting and machining work in the machine shop, and ship repair on board tankers and cargo ships lying in drydock or berthed alongside the repair wharves. After passing the part A of the second-class certificate of competency, I joined Straits Steamship in March 1962 as a third engineer and spent the next 28 months sailing around Southeast Asia. By August 1964, I had not taken a holiday and had saved enough money to buy myself a one-way airline ticket to Glasgow, Scotland, to fund a seven-month course at the Marine Engineering College there. After paying S$1,500 for the ticket, I had S$2,500 to last me for those months as I knew once I got a job in the UK, I was going to be okay.
I managed to get my second-class certificate early after two-and-a-half months and since I still had some money, in January 1965 I went to Poplar Technical College in London to do the part A of the first-class certificate. After three months, I managed to pass and got a job with Blue Star Line, which operated refrigerated cargo vessels between the UK and the eastern seaboard of South America. In the meantime, in early-January 1965, I was introduced to my future wife Rita (a nurse from Malaysia) by my aunt who I had been staying with during the 1964 Christmas holidays. When I got the Blue Star job, I proposed to her and we were supposed to get married in mid-September 1965 when I would be back in the UK.
Saga of the Napier Star
However, that didn’t happen. I was appointed second engineer on board the Napier Star in May 1965. The vessel had been built for the war effort in 1942 and only operated six months every year. It was a challenge getting her ready for the ballast trip to Patagonia to load a 4,000-tonne cargo of frozen mutton destined for London. That turned out to be the highlight of my sea career and made a 24-year-old youngster into a 25-year-old experienced man!
During the six months on board Napier Star, I was in charge of eight engineers and 12 engine room crew (all Caucasians except for the third engineer who was a Singaporean Chinese). I experienced working under bitterly cold conditions such as -20 F, being aground in fully loaded condition in mid-July 1965 with a list of 25-degrees to starboard, and continuing the operational status of the damaged vessel for 30 days before she was refloated and able to discharge the cargo of mutton intact. The vessel finally entered drydock but it was discovered that the 23-year-old Napier Star was a total constructional loss. That same day, we experienced a fire in the starboard boiler room while in drydock. It could have been life-threatening had it not been for the calm and efficient leadership of the Scottish chief engineer.
I eventually got back to London only in late November 1965 and married Rita in December. (She sewed her own wedding dress, which was meant for autumn.) Although I went on two more trips to sea with the Santos Star and Eastern Ranger (operating between Japan and India) and thereafter obtained my first-class (motor) certificate in late June 1967, after a short deliberation I decided to hang up my sea-boots. I took up a position ashore in Singapore as a marine surveyor. In 2010 after 53 years in the maritime industry, I retired; five months before my 70th birthday.
I now devote my time during weekdays doing social work with RSVP Singapore (organising monthly health talks for the elderly and doing weekly visits to the elderly sick as part of the Khoo Teck Puat ageing-in-place programme), organising projects for the Youth and Community with the Rotary Club and serving on the Family Support Services Committee of the Eurasian Association. Weekends and holidays are reserved for our two grandchildren.
Ron Pereira, 74, is a volunteer at RSVP Singapore and on the Family Support Services Committee of the Eurasian Association. He relayed this story (in more detail) in a book through RSVP’s Leaving a Legacy writing project.