From our Point of View series.
Thomas Yeung has spent over 40 years as a mariner, from taking his first job as a cadet at the age of 23 to recently retiring four years ago. Over the course of his career, he’s joined crews on journeys to the far-flung corners of the globe and been responsible for the delicate task of navigating massive ships from the open water into Hong Kong’s busy harbors. We spoke to him about his adventures, and about how Hong Kong shipping has changed over the years.
When I was a young boy, I lived on Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the early 1950s, the waterfront where Harbour City is now was all wharfs and jetties. Big ships would arrive there and offload cargo. Stevedores hung around there — the people who would load and unload the cargo. My mom always said, “Don’t go there. There are bad people there.” She always forbade me from going there. But, you know, as a young kid, where your parents say not to go, you’ll want to go. One time I snuck there with some of my buddies. I saw the tall gates open and a big ship was there. The officers on the ship came down to check the cargo. They were in full uniform. I thought, “Wow, they look great. I wish I could be one of them.”
It was also because it was after the war. The war finished in 1945, and I was born in 1948. There were a lot of war movies about how heroic the seamen and captains were, going down with the ship, those kinds of stories. I was attracted by that.
When I graduated from high school, I told my parents that I wanted to go and be a seaman, but they said no. I was 17 or 18, so I couldn’t make my decision without their approval. So I got a job as a teacher for six months. I had just graduated high school, and I was teaching high school! In those days, it was so easy.
Caritas community service had just started then, and there was a social center where I was teaching in Aberdeen. I was transferred there to organize activities for youth in that area. When I was 23, I decided that there was no future for me there. I said to my parents again, I’ve decided to go and be a sailor. And since I was over 21, I didn’t need their approval. I got into what was then the Hong Kong Technical College, which later became Polytechnic University. I studied pre-sea there for one year, and then I joined the China Navigation Company, owned by Swire. I stayed there for about 10 years, working my way up from cadet to chief officer.
I got my captain’s license, but then decided to stay ashore because my son started growing up. He was about six or seven years old. When I was on the ship, every trip would take six to eight months, and then we could come home for a holiday for four months. Anyway, I got a job as a Jetfoil pilot going between Hong Kong and Macau for 10 years. After that, I was admitted as a harbor pilot and stayed there for 22 years.
When big ships come into Hong Kong — passenger ships, navy ships, tankers, container ships, bulk carriers, the biggest ones can be over 400m long — the captain can navigate close to the shore, but once they arrive into the harbor, they need guidance. Even the most experienced captains can’t navigate into the small corners of the world. They need a harbor pilot. And because Hong Kong is one of the biggest sea ports, we can’t afford to have any accidents, so it’s compulsory to use harbor pilots. It’s compulsory for most big sea ports in the world. So the big ships come in, slow down, and the harbor pilot travels out from the harbor on a small boat to the ship, boards the vessel, and guides her in.
Harbor pilots are responsible for the safe navigation of the ship, so we give recommendations and advice to the captain. We virtually take charge of the navigation of the ship, with the captain monitoring to make sure the instructions are safe for their specific ship. You get a kind of job satisfaction when even the commanding officer of a naval ship says, “yes, sir! No, sir!” to you. You feel so proud. Of course, accidents can still happen. Sometimes a ship might hit the wharf, which can cause billions of dollars worth of damage.
There were three occasions where I thought I was going to die. The first time, I was with my family. As an officer, you can take your family on board for trips, so I took my wife and 11-month old son on a trip from New Zealand to Hong Kong, with quite a few stopovers in the South Pacific. We were on an old semi-passenger ship and there was a T10 typhoon near Keelung, Taiwan. It was really bad, and the port was closed. We were facing the wind, steering into it, and using our engine to heave to. That’s the safest way of bringing a ship against the wind. But suddenly the engine broke down, so we were left to fate. The ship was rolling heavily, and these big pieces of furniture in the lounge were rolling from one side to the other. My wife was in the cabin, sitting braced against the wall with the baby. She was very brave. I asked if she was okay, and she told me to go back to my duty in the wheelhouse. Eventually, the engineers fixed the engine after two or three hours, and we were saved. That was the worst time at sea I ever had. But, looking back, I don’t regret it. If I knew I had to go through that, I would still do it.
There have definitely been changes, especially with passenger ships. We used to just have Ocean Terminal to bring in passenger ships, but as they grew bigger and bigger, Ocean Terminal wasn’t enough. Because China is open and people are getting richer, there are more people coming to travel on cruise ships. Now, we have this new one at the old Kai Tak Airport [the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal]. But, in between, we had to dock the ships that were too big for Ocean Terminal at Kwai Chung Terminal, a container terminal. They had to clean up the wharf and put out red carpets. But the passengers weren’t very amused, because they woke up expecting to see the harbor, but instead they just saw containers and an old Chinese cemetery.
When I first started as a cadet, we had 50 crew members. Now, on a container ship, you might have 15 people, and that’s thought to be a big crew already. It’s very different from the old days. Shipping companies used to be managed by ship people. Experienced captains and engineers. But now the management tries to cut down costs as much as possible because of competition. I don’t blame them. But going to sea isn’t as good as before.