The water was starting to catch the color of dusk. The captain was taking his dinner in the mess hall. His crew called him from the bridge, and his duty officer came for him and told him that they picked up a distress signal.
“It was very close to us, about 20 miles,” the captain recalls.
Ceferino Marzo, a Filipino, was at the helm of M/V Cape Orchid that day on July 8, 2001. He remembers they were about to enter the Malacca Strait on their way to Singapore and eventually to Japan, but instead steered their way to the signal. As they were coming closer to it, they saw some people afloat on something not a vessel.
“They didn’t have a vessel,” Marzo says, speaking in Filipino. Or that there was none they cited.
“Do you know the fishing net? They coiled it together,” he demonstrates via this Skype video interview with NewsNarratives, “the fishing net has floaters,” he continues. “They were on it, in the middle of that coiled net.”
Marzo remembers there were 12 people, later learning that their vessel capsized off the Indian Ocean. They had been drifting at sea for over 24 hours.
He and his crew rescued them—eight Filipinos, three Indonesians, one Taiwanese. They were all fishermen.
“We took them on board. We continued our voyage toward Japan, however, on the way to Japan, we always stopped over at Singapore to pick up fuel and some fresh provisions.
Captain Marzo and his crew took care of them during the two-day sail to Singapore. “They also took on some tasks in the kitchen.”
“In Singapore, we discharged the Indonesian fishermen at the Embassy of Indonesia because they didn’t have passports. The Taiwanese had a passport as well as the Filipinos, and they disembarked here,” he narrates.
Two months later in September, Captain Marzo and his crew were honored for their valor by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo with the Outstanding Seafarers of the Year Award (OSYA) 2001 “following their exemplary deeds in the seafaring professions and their outstanding contribution to the maritime industry.”
He was at sea when the honor was presented, he says, and so his wife received the award for him. They shared the OSYA honor with six other awardees that year.
Piracy at High Seas is Real
“Of course! But not those they call the Pirates of the Caribbean,” the captain says in jest, citing some have powerful guns and whose boats are faster than the vessels he steers.
“Which is why they are able to come aboard via grappling hooks. And once they are on board, the crew cannot do anything because they are not armed; they are trained only to work on board the ship and not to fight pirates.
“So, the only way we can do is to surrender, give them what they want, that’s all.”
In fact, he had his own brush with pirates more than 30 years ago.
“I was coming again from Brazil, fully loaded, and the draft—that part of the ship that’s immersed in the sea water—was 17.5 meters,” he recalls a day in the late 1980s.
He says 17.5 meters is deep for a draft, and so he had to choose his navigational path. “I needed to go where the water was deep, but I also needed to look at narrow straits that offered shorter routes, so I could save on miles. When you save on miles you save on fuel, and when you save on fuel, you save money.”
Marzo was focused on taking a shorter route in this regard. “The shortest way going to China that time was via the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. But there is rather a shallow part here, so shallow that you have to slow down.”
“In any event that another ship crosses your path,” he says, “there is no way you can change the course of your ship, and the only way for you to go is to slow down and let that ship pass you by before you can go back to your navigational speed.”
Two hours past midnight, on that strait, under the watch of his second mate, but in his presence and under his guidance—he could not leave the bridge in this situation where the path was narrow, and the water was shallow—a big ‘echo’ suddenly came on in the radar.
“That means it was a big ship that was in front of us, about 5 miles away,” Marzo explains. He honked but the ‘target’ (vessel) would not leave. He slowed down to a halt, but to achieve a full stop takes time, he explains. As they were coming to a halt, the target disappeared from the radar.
“So, we resumed full speed ahead,” he says, explaining that before a big vessel can gain speed, it takes time. “That time, between full stop and gaining navigational speed gave the target the window to get on board our ship.”
Marzo could not explain why they lost them in the radar signal, and suddenly the target—who were pirates as he would later discover—was on his bridge.
On their way up, they got one crew member and held him at knife point, as they made their way to the bridge.
As swiftly as they appeared and disappeared from Marzo’s radar, 10 people were on his bridge who had no guns but were brandishing long knives. He noticed a white life boat in the area, which he said they could have disembarked from.
“Their leader told me not to worry,” he recalls. He was told “don’t worry, we will not hurt anyone, we only need the money.” Marzo calls to mind that at this time, one of the alleged pirates stood behind his helmsman and directed the ship. “They knew how to direct the ship because we did not hit the sea floor nor suffer any blockage.”
Luck was with him, he says, because he had just distributed the pay of the crew. “So, what was left in the safe was 6,000 dollars. The leader even told me not to worry because they knew that the safe was insured. He told me: We take the money and the ship owners will claim the money from their insurance.”
“They knew,” Marzo says. “I opened the safe while one of them was behind me with his bolo pointed at my back. Perhaps they thought there was a gun inside the safe.”
“I thought to myself, this is bolo, this is going to be painful,” he says.
“That’s all they got (6,000 dollars). And they took from me my necklace, and from my second mate his necklace, ring, and watch. They also took my computer and TV from my stateroom.
“They were really just after the money,” Marzo thinks so.
After taking the cash, they went down but took Marzo with them, now hands tied, until they boarded their boat and left.
“I reported the incident to our company.”
Captain Marzo did not believe there were real pirates until he and his crew had a real encounter with them. It was his first and last. “By the grace of God,” he says.
The Filipino Seafarer as a Beginner
After graduating in high school from the La Union School of Arts and Trade in 1963, he enrolled with the Philippine Maritime Institute for the two-year Associate in Nautical Science course. At age 18, he was expected to finish and work as a seafarer.
However, for some reason, he was not given his diploma. He discovered later that the curriculum he took lacked some English and Grammar units, a prerequisite subject in his chosen course.
Marzo explains why he could not readily go back and take up those missing units. The requirement then was for an aspiring seafarer to attend school for two years, and then be on board for another two years, he recalls: “But then I was working at shipside at Poro Point during the Vietnam War, and I worked two years as a checker at the pier.”
And so, barely 20 years old, Marzo, in all his ignorance, he says, worked on board the Philippine Admiral. “I recall my first port of call was Danang Bay in Vietnam at the height of the war. I was so ignorant, young, and that was my first time to work on the ship.
“That was the first time when I saw some planes, military planes escorting us, with four amphibians. I stayed outside and watched them, while my officers scolded me.”
He finally took the examination after working two years to become a third mate, a second mate, a chief mate, and took yet another examination for his license as a captain, passed it, and got his license in 1979.
He had been at sea as a captain for about 30 years, and 20 years more before that.
A captain, Marzo says, is responsible for the safety of his ship, of his people, and of his cargo.
Jokingly he says, “The captain is being paid by the company to make people work, scold them to make them work.” But kidding aside, he says, “Nobody is there for us. We must fend for our own selves. And the ship property alone, the value is equal to millions, say 60 to 100 million dollars. I have to take care of the ship, the safety of the ship.”
Add to that the value of 170,000 to 200,000 metric tons of cargo that a captain of a bulk carrier must ensure the safety of, Marzo explains.
As a captain, he says, the people on board are his responsibility. “That’s why I have to be, or a captain has to be strict to make the people in line to do their work safely because once you have an accident on board, it will be very expensive.”
A mere phone call to the ship’s headquarters costs, he says. “And then you have to divert the ship to another port (if needed), and that would be a delay to the ship. Do you know how much it would cost? It runs in thousands of dollars per minute of delay.
“The captain needs to see that the ship is not delayed.”
Marzo’s latest stint was in July this year for a month’s assignment. “I boarded the ship in Japan, and then I went to Indonesia to load the cargo. I went to Malaysia to discharge the cargo, and after discharging the cargo, we went to South Africa where I disembarked.
“I don’t like to stay long [at sea] anymore at my age. You have to comply with regulations. There are too many. At least you have to know about those, such as the Safety Management System. And that is apart from the rules of the ship,” he relates.
“You have to comply with the rules of other countries also,” he adds, also saying that he would turn crazy just putting them all in his head.
He admits being challenged by technology and tons of safety regulations in seafaring.
“You cannot pollute the sea, the marine environment. Even a single sheen of oil in water seen by authorities, the ship engineer and the ship captain will go to jail, and the ship will be fined by the billions,” he reveals.
While running a ship nowadays has become easier because of all the technological gadgets, navigating the sea has become more difficult because of the traffic getting heavier.
“The fishing boats have become aplenty. The sea is teeming with them, especially in the Yellow Sea,” Marzo says, adding that they could become hazards at sea. You might hit them, and it would be a big issue, he says.
With 50 years of experience behind him, Marzo may have some advice to young Filipino seamen today.
“To be safe always because nobody will help you on board except your own self,” he advises. “And do your assigned job on board.
“I used to tell my crew before to spend only for their basic need while on the voyage. To keep their money and not spend them on things that can be bought home. This way they don’t have luggage going home,” Marzo says.
Marzo retired in 2008. Today at 70, he enjoys the company of his wife, six children, and seven grandchildren, in their home in La Union, in northern Philippines.
(Ed’s Note: We updated the photos.)