Third Officer Koo Wei Loon with Pacific International Line (PIL) could have easily served his Stay Home Notice and gone home after completing his vessel assignment. Instead, he chose to extend his service, voluntarily, so that he could help his fellow crew members sign-off in Singapore and be repatriated home.
“It just did not feel right for me to leave the crew behind,” he told SeaVoices.
Like many seafarers affected by the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, crews who sailed along with Wei Loon faced difficulties surrounding the issue of signing off at the various ports due to pandemic restrictions. They have no choice but to extend their service onboard ships after many months at sea while their company find alternatives to arrange for repatriation.
“The treatment towards the seafarers during the pandemic was weighted and insensitive. Many were left out as the world dealt with the pandemic with focus put on the people ashore. . Has the world forgotten that seafarers carried medication, food and lots of masks during the pandemic?” the aggrieved Wei Loon spoke out.
The safety and well-being of his fellow crew was at the top of the mind of this 30-year-old. One of his team mates was a newly married seafarer who had displayed worrying signs of distress when he could not be repatriated after being at sea for more than 11 months.
“It was scary to see him in that mental state of total despair as his wife threatened to divorce him,” Wei Loon recalled. Onboard too was a bosun who had been at sea for more than a year due to the pandemic.
“I feel that privileges come with responsibilities,” Wei Loon said philosophically. Privileges include being a Singaporean, an SMOU member and having the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore supporting crew change.
He also counted it a privilege to have the language proficiency to submit the required detailed documentation which takes some 30 minutes to an hour to complete. That was what he did for the ratings onboard, painstakingly, as he carefully assisted them to fill up the consultation form one at a time, so as to ensure that the crew could disembark.
Wei Loon also arranged for tele-medicine consultation via Dr Anywhere, for a doctor to assess if the sign-off crew is fit-to-travel. The certificate is valid for 24 hours. If the launch boat does not arrive in time to ferry the crew from the vessel to the port, the whole process of getting the fit-to-travel certificate, which cost S$20 each time, has to be repeated.
Imagine the joy of the crew when they could finally leave the vessel and be repatriated to their home country. As a final parting gift of sorts, Wei Loon gave each of them some Singapore dollars “just in case” there was a need for local currency.
In moments of crisis, Wei Loon made a difference.
The grateful crew members piled Wei Loon with snacks and hearty bear hugs to show their appreciation. In their eyes, this unassuming fine young man was their benefactor. “I will never forget you,” a few of them said before they left the vessel. Many still keep in touch with Wei Loon on social media.
After going the extra mile for more than six months, when Wei Loon finally ended his extended service, an entirely new batch of ratings was onboard.
Interestingly, Wei Loon almost could not fulfil his teenage dream of travelling the world by sea. His boy-next-door look nearly cost him a place in Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI). The former hospitality student, who interned as a front desk officer, was deemed “too soft” for the rough maritime world.
Wei Loon’s gentle demeanour belies his tough inner strength and veteran Capt SK Menon’s keen eyes spotted that. It was he who offered Wei Loon the last placement available for WMI’s Tripartite Nautical Training Award cohort 12 in September 2016.
Recalling an amusing anecdote, Wei Loon shared with SeaVoices that his family of seven thought he was just hovering around Pasir Panjang or Jurong port on a ship when he first told them he was going to sea. Two months later, he received a text from his mother asking where he was.
Little did his mother know that her son was thousands of miles away from home and was about to encounter the terrifying experience of being chased by pirates in the West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
“For a good 20 minutes, we were covered in extreme fear and beads of perspiration,” Wei Loon remembered the incident. The pirates had already positioned their ladders on the vessel when they suddenly retreated and targeted a tanker sailing behind. It was a close shave.
This harrowing experience in his first voyage happened right after Wei Loon’s mesmerizing adventure of beholding the magnificent beauty of the Table Mountain in South Africa.
“After 21 days at sea, I saw the most beautiful sight which looked like clouds pouring down and meeting the mountains mid-air,” he added.
In his second voyage, Wei Loon’s sturdy performance onboard so impressed the Captain such that he was put up for immediate promotion – from 4th to 3rd Officer. Wei Loon had since moved up the ranks and set his eyes on completing his COC2 by 2022 and eventually, reaching class 1.
“That is my objective,” he said with full conviction.
And on his path towards fulfilling that goal, Wei Loon will continue to sail with empathy, grit with a heart of gold and many cups of coffee in-between.