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. It is one of four ships that are the largest vehicle carriers in the world, and it is helmed by Captain Nordin Rais, a Singaporean.
The ship’s bridge receives a warning message on its computer printer at 6.04am. The Parsifal had left Masan, South Korea, about seven hours before the message. It is bound for Kobe, Japan.
Nordin, 66, purses his lips and says: “It’s all right. We are not in danger.”
The missile flew for six minutes before landing in Japanese waters, some 300km away from the nearest Japanese islands.
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 Nordin, who is 1.69m-tall and always wears a cap atop his grey hair, 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.”
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.”
“So I signed up for the two-year sea cadet course at Singapore Polytechnic,” he says. He completed the course in 1969 and became a third officer, the lowest grade for a seafaring officer.
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.” 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. 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, 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.”
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, Sabah.
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.”
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 meal of fruit and vegetables, followed by prayers and an afternoon nap.
By 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 United States, 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. My wife sailed once, but she got seasick,” he says.
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.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Toh Yong Chuan