'Even a black dot is hope'

Every other day for more than a fortnight, Mr Tee Eng Kui woke up ready for his gruesome morning rites.

A friend and fellow sailor, thoroughly soaked, would have died of hunger or hypothermia. Mr Tee, the makeshift undertaker, would neaten their clothes, comb their hair and bid them farewell.

The corpses were slipped off the lifeboat, disappearing into the Indian Ocean.

"There were 39 of us, only 30 came back," he said in Mandarin.

He was 35 and drifting on the ocean in a lifeboat packed with his fellow seamen after his ship sank in June 1971, one of Singapore's worst shipwrecks.

For 16 days, he wondered if he would be the next to die, he recalled, sharing his story as Europe suffered its most deadly migrant shipwreck earlier this month, when as many as 500 migrants were believed to have died after human traffickers deliberately rammed their ship.

The trauma of such tragedies does not ease with the years, said Mr Tee, now 78, as he rattled off the names of the men who did not come back.

"I think of those days and those friends a lot," he said in an interview at an Upper Cross Street coffee shop.

He was in a cargo ship sailing from Singapore to Visakhapatnam in eastern India when it sprang a leak.

"It was a small leak at first. We got the carpenter to mend it, but the hole got bigger until it started sinking."

The crew then split into two lifeboats - 34 in one, which Mr Tee was on, and five in a smaller one. It was then that they lost their first sailor.

"We were lowering ourselves to the lifeboat and two fell into the sea. I threw out the rope and only one caught on. The other one didn't, and then the waves came," said Mr Tee.

"When the waves settled, he was gone. When you are thrown into the ocean like that, no one survives. Not even if you are a champion swimmer," he said.

While lifeboats should be well-stocked with supplies, he said the one they were in was old and had only a few packets of biscuits and a handful of sweets.

"The lifeboat was so small that we couldn't sit and had to squat. The water in the lifeboat was up to our belly buttons," he said.

There was no point scooping the water away, he added, for the next strong wave would fill the lifeboat up again.

When it rained, the men collected the water in a bucket and drank sips from it. Each person was given a few pieces of biscuits and two sweets each day.

"How can anyone possibly be full from that? But it was all we had. We even soaked the biscuits in water so they would expand."

The younger of two sons, he was then just four years into the job. He did not complete primary school and became a seaman to "see the world".

But he did not bargain for the near-death experience. As the seamen battled hunger, cold and fear, more started dying.

"In the morning, you would nudge the person next to you to pass him the biscuits, but he wouldn't move. Then you knew he had died."

Mr Tee believes it was by divine intervention that most of the crew survived. He recalled that they were down to their last packet of biscuits.

"We all knew that after we finished that packet, it was ting tian you ming," he said, using a Chinese saying that meant to resign oneself to fate.

But that morning, he noticed a small black dot in the vast ocean. "Every day it was just you, the sea and the sky. Even a black dot is hope," he said.

It was hope indeed, for the black dot turned out to be Burma. There, the crew reunited with the five sailors in the other lifeboat, and the Singaporeans were eventually flown back here.

He lost some 5kg from the ordeal, but it did not rob him of his love for adventure. By the next year, he was out at sea again, despite pleas from his brother to stop.

"He could not stop me. I still wanted to sail and go places," he said, sailing until he retired in his 50s.

Mr Tee, who remains unmarried, cheerfully said he has no family left now and nothing to his name. He lives in a three-room Housing Board flat belonging to his late brother, and gets by on social assistance.

But he speaks fondly of his sailing days, proudly listing the places he had been to.

"I've been around the world - Britain, the United States, China, Indonesia, South Africa.

"Most of the other survivors have died; others, I've lost contact with. Now, it's just me alone," he said.

This article was first published on Sep 29, 2014.
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