My Asian Feeder at Work

By Geoff Walker

I was sitting alone in my cabin with my coffee mug, pondering how the demise of the multi-purpose general cargo ship had come about so quickly because of the unprecedented pace the shipping industry changed in favor of containerization during the 1970s.

Change within the shipping sector had hitherto been somewhat slower and more measured, so perhaps a degree of empathy was due to those unfortunate owners that were unable to remain competitive due to their existing tonnage becoming uneconomical and unviable due to their conventional life expectancy being optimistically over estimated. Of course this was not helped by the Fuel Crisis of the 1970s.

Hence was born the “Container Feeder” designed specifically to carry up to about 500 TEUs between the major container hubs and secondary ports. Many secondary ports did not possess the infrastructure suitable for handling the mammoth container ships used in the world’s main trade routes. In most cases it was not a case of the feeder ports not being container savvy, but rather a simple matter of economies of scale needed to make enlarged port developments financially worthwhile. So there became a “niche” for what we now call a “Container 


Although my residential origins were in Asia, I had been recalled from semi-seagoing retirement for a 2 year contract, to which I had agreed, provided the vessel remained trading within Asia. I did not wish to go further afield because my wife, being Asian, was reluctant that I return to sea. Anyway, this was a workable compromise. She could sail with me from time to time and never really be more that 4 hours flying time away from home.

I had been seconded as Master of a relatively modern container ship servicing a regular regional container feeder service. Japanese built, meant the ship was somewhat basic in terms of crew comfort but she never let me down and performed very well during my tenure on board.  The vessel was operated by Singapore interests and she was like a yacht, Gross Tonnage: 6100, Deadweight: 8530, LOA: 114m, BHP: 6000, 16.5 knots but when I was on her we maintained an economic service speed of about 14 knots. We carried a crew of 18 plus a Radio Officer even though we had an early version of GMDSS. This was because of the quick succession of ports and associated high work load of radio traffic and administrative duties, much of which was handled by the R/O on behalf of the Captain.

She was fully cellular with a TEU capacity of 480 units. Containers could be stacked 4 high on deck, depending on their weights. An ideal ship for working the Far East feeder trades, especially due to her 2 x 36 ton SWL container cranes which made her fully self sustaining at secondary Ports. In fact, ship’s cranes were used at most of the ports of call in the Far East feeder service in which we were engaged.

We had been laying idle at Singapore Eastern Anchorage for several days before we commencing to load containers  from the Container Terminal, due to the ship earlier experiencing main engine Turbo Charger problems, the owners did not wish to resume our liner service until they were certain the engine defect was well and truly resolved. So with a delayed introduction, we set off.

This ship was considered quite a large container feeder for that period, during which many regional ports were still engaged in developing fully fledged Container facilities. At this time many, so called, container terminals were limited to open wharfs with good sealed lay down areas at which loaded and empty containers were stacked. Much of the consolidation and deconsolidation was done in adjoining warehouses. Very few had weighbridges whereby accurate  container weights could be ascertained, so at many of the secondary ports TEU’s were categorized as “Heavy”, “Medium”, “Light” purely calculated or as a best guess, on weights of what was loaded within.  As a rule of thumb, Heavy meant 12-18 tones, Medium 6-12 tones and light under 6 tones. 

The liner service, incorporating Port Klang, Singapore, Pasir Gudang, Maura, Labuan, Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sandakan and Tawau (with occasional calls at ports further afield subject to cargo inducement) and was idyllic as far as I was concerned. In reality it was very hard work because port stays were limited to hours in some ports. The Master was up and about constantly and experienced long periods on the bridge, especially when transiting the Singapore Straits and similar areas which called for precise navigation in regions of dense traffic. GPS was not very accurate when transiting the Singapore Straits, unless differentials we available for the ship’s system. This was mainly due to the extremely narrow separation lanes in certain sections of the VTSS and precise reporting needs.

Nevertheless, we soon discovered we spent very little time in Port except at  Tawau, Sandakan, Kota Kinabalu and occasionally Labuan which of course stemmed mainly from wharf congestion and lacking Port infrastructure during that period. Other Ports were generally a one day affair (or often less). 

We generally timed our arrival for daylight and first Pilot in Ports where Pilots were compulsory for foreign flag ships. Of course many ships tried to do the same thing so the anchorages of the Pilot Boarding Grounds were frequently inflicted with wide spread congestion. To overcome the congestion at the Port Klang outer anchorage (always congested early morning), following 4 consecutive trips, I underwent examination for Pilot exemption 

The exam for a Pilot Exemption at Port Klang was conducted by the Port Manager and was relatively thorough, mostly focusing on Tides, Buoyage and Port Regulations. Once obtained it meant I was permitted to proceed upstream without a Pilot and go to enter the inner anchorage, which in reality was only a short boat ride to the main wharf. This arrangement turned out to be good because rather than wait overnight outside the Port limits we could go in and the crew would enjoy the benefit of a bit extra shore leave or rest. However, no matter what the circumstances, a Pilot remained compulsory from inner anchorage to wharf. When sailing, there was no benefit to the ship so I engaged a Pilot from wharf side the full distance to outer Boarding Ground. This kept the local Pilots contented because they were not losing all their bread and butter to an outsider, only a tad.

When the Port of Singapore was busy or suffering Pilot shortages, as it frequently was, permission would be granted to Masters to depart from the working anchorages without using a Pilot.

Of all our Ports of call the best organized was Singapore, Pasir Gudang and to a slightly lesser extent, Port Klang (which used to be named Port Swettenham). These three were making the fastest transition to more or less full containerization, hence they evolved as the main regional hubs for container traffic, transshipment usually to Europe, Americas or largest Asian Seaports, via one or a combination of these Ports. It stood to reason therefore that these destinations became our principal ports of call. Singapore Port became so well organized the inward Pilot would often tell us what time the outward Pilot had been booked to depart, before we had even fully arrived. This timing was very accurate and seldom differed by more than 15-20 minutes.

The Malaysian Port of Pasir Gudang (PG) in the Johor Straits was also undergoing a more measured degree of expansion. Seldom did we spend more than 12 hours alongside. PG was not one of my favorite Ports because it necessitated crossing very dense conflicting traffic in the Singapore Straits, which could be quite chaotic and even hazardous because some ships still failed to obey International rules of navigation. The Traffic Separation Scheme (VTSS) for East and Westbound traffic in the Singapore Straits (first established in 1981) became progressively more regulated, resulting in today’s VTSS (Vessel Traffic Separation Scheme) in the Singapore Straits, where there are now crossing zones. Once established, this did much to enhance vessel control and safety of navigation and has since been extended into the Malacca Straits. This contributed considerably to the earlier disorganized rabble of traffic and eliminated the “Cowboy” element that unfortunately prevailed at times. 

“Rogue” ships could be a problem, which came about due to the significant growth in global shipping, rapid expansion in numbers of vessels under Flags of Convenience and the serious shortage of experienced and qualified seafarers. This was enhanced by the low standards of training and certification accepted by some maritime administrations, fledgling ship-owners (who generally engaged the cheapest of the cheap crews), not to mention corruption and reported availability of “dubious Certificates” being issued in return for payment. This was rampant amongst some Third World administrations in the Asian area. All this reflected on the quality, safety and reliability of crews. Consequently, this situation in turn lead to the introduction in the mid 1970s by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the STCW (Standards for Certification and Watch keeping) regulations, which, has developed into the mainstay of worldwide Maritime code of practice for qualification and certification. As a consequence of STCW much improvement has been made regarding crew standards.

It was long hours and hard work on board – not so much in terms of manual labor but rather in the constant need for officers and crew to maintain sea watches. With Port time being so limited one never got a break from the daily routine, day in – day out. If anyone went down sick it placed a definite burden on others and everyone became affected having to share the extra workload. Rapid port transits also caused engineering staff concern with routine shipboard maintenance, time became of the essence in so many different ways. 

It could also be stressful on the Master in attempting to maintain the shipping schedule. If the ship missed a specific berth allocation time at a Port for whatever reason, the ramifications could cause costly delays. Obviously many delays were entirely beyond the control of the ships, for example, adverse weather, fog, and the like. Nevertheless, delays frequently amalgamated and compounded creating and provoking ongoing hold-ups through the entire schedule cycle. One of the biggest features of containerization was the speeding up and rapid handling of the cargo transit process – obviously any delays encountered went against the scheme of things.

The feeder service soon became second nature to us and we accepted that to a degree we were becoming somewhat robotic in various ways. It was like running on “Tram Tracks”. Over many consecutive trips we became quite familiar with the Ports of call, their quirks and benefits alike. Our crew achieved “squatter’s rights” in many of the Pubs, our arrival being anticipated to the day from the shipping List in local newspapers or from shipping agents. 

Kota Kinabalu and Labuan were the only two Ports where we could always expect at least one night in Port (sometimes longer). This was entirely due to lacking Port infrastructure at the time and the need (in many cases) to deconsolidate and then consolidate the same containers ready for back loading aboard. The congestion was not helped due to the severe lack of container vehicles to cart the containers down the finger wharfs being utilized at the time.

When bound for Sandakan or Tawau I would calculate my arrival for first light at the entrance to the narrow navigable passage, which separated the South China and Sulu Seas, just at the northern most tip of Sabah. This was a restricted navigable channel that could only be safely transited during daylight hours with good visibility. The water depth was good but it was demanding and required accurate coastal navigation, because many of the important beacons and leading markers were hard to detect by radar. It took about 6 hours to transit this passage and it was a tropical delight weaving between the various tropical islands, atolls and reefs.

Tawau and Sandakan were notorious Pirate prone areas, and it was always wise to limit time spent at the respective anchorages, to an absolute minimum. Between 1960 – 2000s the entire region of what was previously British North Borneo Island including Kuching (Sarawak), Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), Miri, Bintulu, Tawau, Sandakan, down as far as the Indonesian Port of Samarinda, was a haven for Pirates, especially on the East coast where Filipino Pirates based in Jolo Island (Tawi Tawi Group) which was very close to hand, joined ranks and roved about plundering the coastal waters more or less at will and unhindered. One always needed to be on guard when navigating in these waters. During the migratory season the East coast of North Borneo (Kalimantan), close to the Sibutu Passage and Reef in the Celebes Sea is a great place for Whale watching. This is also a world class Scuba Diving venue but fraught with danger, with participants running a high risk of kidnapping by Pirates, always cruising around the Tawi Tawi Group of Islands seeking easy prey.

I remained as Master on the “Kris Madura”, engaged in the same service for another two years. Life was becoming somewhat boring to say the least, only disrupted on one occasion when we were hit by a huge freak wave in the South China Sea. The wave damaged about 5 containers on the starboard side which were stowed on deck. Fortunately they remained secure and we were able to reach our next port and have them discharged safely. No damage was sustained to the ship but the containers were badly stove in and dented. Still, I considered us as being fortunate since this was the only incident during my tenure on board. Constantly working in waters with high density traffic, pressure to maintain schedule and with very restricted port time it was not uncommon for statistics to be higher in terms of mishaps, near misses or incidents.

 Image of the MV Kris Madura under new ownership. Gone is her silver grey hull.

At the conclusion of my contract, which coincided with the vessel being sold to other Asian interests and although I was invited to stay on, I declined and was happy to leave and try returning to retirement once again. However, it did not pan out as planned and I soon became involved, yet again, in the “maritime pie”.

Credit: submitted by: mbbmikepsss

Photo of my feeder after being sold to others, captured in the Philippines

                                                MV Kris Madura – My Asian Feeder


Image taken by the Author, at Port Klang


Image taken by the Author at Pasir Gudang


Image taken by the Author, approaching Port Klang Fairway Buoy.


Image of ex “Kris Madura” taken at Shanghai, some years after being sold, when operated by Indian Owners. Definitely no longer the “spick and span” vessel she was when I served on her.

Geoff Walker started his seagoing career serving an apprenticeship in the Bank Line.


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