- 1 Introduction
- 2 NEW! See Souls Saved 346
- 3 NEW! See The Wellpark Story film
- 4 NEW! Join Wellpark Reunion site. Reunion in UK planned for 2013
- 5 Basic Information
- 6 Career Highlights
- 7 Service History
- 8 Life as a Denholm Cadet
- 9 The Vietnamese Boat People
- 10 The Wellpark rescue, 1st October 1978
- 11 Contemporary account of the rescue
- 12 Part 1: The Rescue - etched on my mind forever
- 13 Part 2: Safely onboard Wellpark: the first few days
- 14 Part 3: Wellpark arrives to an uncertain welcome in Taiwan
- 15 Part 4: Living in no man's land
- 16 Part 5: October 10th - a special day to remember
- 17 Part 6: Leaving Wellpark
- 18 A collection of photographs of the Vietnamese and ship's crew on Wellpark October 1978
- 19 2nd Officer Andrew Griffin
- 20 The Wellpark Story. An award winning student film
- 21 A "thank you" to SN
- 22 A new life for the Vietnamese
- 23 A Reunion with one of the Vietnamese families 2006
- 24 Wellpark Reunions; 2008 Los Angeles: 2013 London: 2018 Montreal: 2023 Los Angeles For families and friends of those rescued and Wellpark crew members
- 25 'Soul's Saved 346' - 30th Anniversary Commemoration in The Otago Daily Times
- 26 References
- 27 Contributors
MV Wellpark was built as a cadet training ship for Denholm Ship Management Limited. Her purpose was to train cadets in all aspects of operating ships including cargo handling, navigation and engine room operations. She was built as a bulk carrier with all the latest equipment and the addition of accommodation and training facilities for up to 24 cadets at a time.
Her life would be regarded as fairly mundane apart from her unexpected involvement in the rescue of so-called "Vietnamese Boat People" in October 1978 as described later in the Guide.
NEW! See Souls Saved 346
NEW! See The Wellpark Story film
NEW! Join Wellpark Reunion site. Reunion in UK planned for 2013
- Type: Geared Bulk Carrier
- Registered owners: Denholm Line Steamers Ltd.
- Operators: Denholm Ship Management Ltd.
- Builders: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd
- Yard: Hiroshima
- Country: Japan
- Yard number: 275
- Registry: GLASGOW
- Official number: 376997
- Signal letters: N/K
- Call sign: GVUE
- Gross tonnage: 18,621 grt
- Net tonnage: 11,233 grt
- Deadweight: 29,552
- Length: 171.00m
- Breadth: 27.20m
- Depth: 14.10m
- Draught: 10.21m
- Engines: Single Sulzer diesel engine type 6RND76
- Engine builders: Mitsubishi Heavy industry (built under licence)
- Works: Hiroshima
- Country: Japan
- Power: 12,000 bhp at 122 rev/min
- Speed: 15 knots
- Crew: 60
- Endurance: 57 days
- Launched: 17 March 1977
- Date of Completion: June 1977
- Name Change: 1984 to Ga Chau
- Name Change: 1994 to Nava Avra
- Name Change: 1999 to Avra D. Registered: Limassol. Owner: Passway Shipping Co.Ltd
- Name change: 2004 to Firstec. Owner: Shanghai Adani Shipping (Pictured below).
The following extracts from Denholm News ‘Ship News’ give a flavour of Wellpark’s service history as a new cadet training ship in her first five years or so. The log shows voyages to all parts of the world, crossing the five oceans, carrying a wide variety of cargoes. At times the record reads more like a holiday cruise with sightseeing trips ashore, and international incident. What finer way for a young man to see the world?
Winter 1977/78 : Wellpark
The latest addition to the Denholm Fleet was handed over by the builders, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hiroshima 30th June 1977 and was delivered on Time Charter on leaving the port the following day. She loaded steel coils at Kashima and Muroran in Japan for South America where she arrived first half of August. Discharge was effected at Buenos Aires and Ensenada and completion of discharge she returned to Buenos Aires where she loaded a cargo of grain for Peru. Part was discharged at Matarani with the balance at Callao. The vessel was redelivered from the Time Charterers and immediately thereafter she was delivered on a new Time Charter to a Peruvian Company. This fixture was for a voyage from Callao to Corpus Christi with nitrates. She sailed from Callao 9th October and arrived Corpus Christi via the Panama Canal 19th October. She was redelivered from this Time Charter some three days later and she sailed for New Orleans where she is scheduled to load soya bean meal for Australia. The vessel has been delayed at New Orleans due to congestion and she is now expected to commence loading 14th November. A relieving programme has now been commenced and some of the cadets who joined the vessel in Japan have been replaced by others.
Spring 1978 : Wellpark
Sailed from New Orleans 17th November and proceeded to the Panama Canal where she arrived 22nd. She sailed 23rd and arrived Newcastle, Australia 19th December. Discharge was rather protracted, this not being completed until 9th January. The vessel was then fixed to load a cargo of barley at Fremantle 17th January for the Continent. She arrived Fremantle 17th January, sailed 20th and was ordered by the charterers to discharge at Antwerp, where she duly arrived 26th February. The Wellpark ‘slowed down’ passing Cape Town where mail and fresh provisions were placed onboard. On completion of discharge at Antwerp Wellpark was fixed to load a cargo of cement in bags at Gdynia for the Persian Gulf. She is currently loading this cargo in Gdynia and is expected to sail from there towards the end of March.
Autumn 1978 : Wellpark
This vessel proceeded to the Persian Gulf via the Suez Canal and arrived Dammam, Saudi Arabia towards the end of April. She remained there discharging until 18th May and was then ordered to proceed towards Durban for orders. By the time she arrived off Durban no cargoes were available and it was decided the vessel should continue steaming and proceeded towards the River Plate. Just prior to arrival the vessel was fixed on a Voyage Charter with a cargo of grain for Taiwan. The Wellpark arrived at the River plate 18th June and is presently anchored off Rosario awaiting berthing instructions. Part cargo will be loaded there and she will then top off at Buenos Aires, Argentina before proceeding to Taiwan for discharge. It is intended that she will bunker en route at Durban.
Winter 1978 : Wellpark
The vessel finally shifted to the loading berth at Rosario 21st July and sailed the following day for Bahia Blanca where she completed loading millet. She arrived there 26th July but it was not until 19th August that she shifted to the loading berth. Loading was completed pM 22nd and she sailed the following day for Taiwan. The Wellpark called at Durban 11th September to replenish bunkers and stores and then continued on her passage to Taiwan. On 2nd October we received advice from Hector Connell that he had picked up 346 survivors from a small craft in the South China Seas. It transpired that they were refugees who had fled from Saigon. Full details of the rescue operation appears elsewhere in Denholm News. The Wellpark arrived Kaoshiung 4th October , commenced discharge 7th and completed 16th October. The refugees remained on board throughout the discharging period. It had been arranged that the Wellpark would dry-dock in Kaohsiung but due to the fact that we could not arrange delivery of anti-fouling paint in time the vessel dry-docked at Ulsan, Korea. This was the first docking since vessel was commissioned and during the repair period guarantee repairs were carried out including replacing buckled plates from hitting a sandbank off Rosario). The Wellpark was delivered on Time Charter on dropping the outward pilot at Ulsan and proceeded to Kunsan in Korea where she loaded part cargo for UK / Continent. She will also load at Pusan (wood), Kaohsiung and Hong Kong (containers and large pleasure boats) and should arrive on the continent in the second half of December.
Spring/Summer 1979 ; Wellpark
Vessel arrived with her Far Eastern cargo on the Continent in the middle of December (after putting in to Lisbon to re-stow containers dislodged in a storm as she entered the Atlantic). Her discharge ports were Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp and Nantes where discharge was completed mid-January. Vessel then proceeded to Dakar, West Africa, where a cargo of phosphates was loaded for discharge at Kwinana. The Kwinana discharge was completed in mid-February and the vessel was fortunate enough to be fixed to load a cargo of grain at the same port for discharge in Indonesia. After discharge of the Kwinana grain at Macassar and Surabaya at the beginning of March the vessel proceeded to Adelaide where she is presently waiting to load barley for discharge at Tartous, Syria.
Autumn 1979 : Wellpark
During the period, Wellpark has only completed one voyage. The barley cargo was loaded in Adelaide on Port Lincoln during the last 10 days of March. The vessel then proceeded to Tartous in Syria where the cargo was designated for discharge. Wellpark arrived Tartous at the end of April but it was not until the beginning of June the vessel berthed and discharge commenced. The discharge was also protracted and the vessel eventually completed discharge and sailed 4th July. During the discharge period thanks to the co-operation of the Syrian officials we were able to arrange two sight seeing tours for the cadets. The itinerary included a visit to the Crusader castle of Al Hussun, a convent, and to the local resort of Amrit where relaxing on the beach was much enjoyed. After leaving Tartous the vessel called off-limits Gibraltar for lub oil and stores prior to proceeding to Vitoria, Brazil where she is scheduled to load a cargo of pig iron for discharge Shanghai.
Winter/Spring 1980 : Wellpark
The pig iron loaded in Vitoria was discharged in Shanghai where vessel arrived 27th August.. En route from Vitoria vessel bunkered at Durban. Opportunity was also taken to deliver necessary stores and carry out some personnel changes. The Shanghai discharge was completed on 9th September and vessel proceeded to Newcastle, New South Wales, calling at Nagasaki for bunkers and personnel changes. Although vessel arrived Newcastle 25th September, because of port congestion and shortage of grain, loading was not commenced until 16th October and vessel finally completed and sailed on 19th October. She is presently on passage to Kuwait where scheduled to arrive early November. It has again been possible to arrange sightseeing trips for the cadets at both Shanghai and Newcastle. During the vessel’s call at Shanghai trips were arranged to the famous Huey Gardens and a Jade Temple. An attempt was made to obtain tickets to the highly acclaimed Chinese Gymnast Theatre but unfortunately this theatre was fully booked. At Newcastle the tour of the Hunter valley Vineyards was one of the best attended and from all reports the free samples of the famous Penfold products were much appreciated.
Summer 1980 : Wellpark
Since the last issue the voyages and cargoes have varied. The grain cargo loaded last October was discharged at Kuwait. Vessel then proceeded in ballast to Kwinana where a cargo of pig iron was loaded for discharge in Tsingtoa and Hsinkang Her next voyage was Groote Eylandt to load manganese ore for discharge at Bakar and Rijeka. From Yugoslavia Wellpark proceeded to the Mississippi where a cargo of corn was loaded at Destrehan for Hsinkang where she is presently discharging. The visit to Kwinana will be particularly remembered by the cadets who availed themselves of the offer by the British Sailor’s Society of Fremantle to acquire tickets for the Australian v England Test Match. In Rijeka two sightseeing trips were arranged and from reports received these trips were well attended and much appreciated.
Winter/Spring 1981 : Wellpark
Since the last issue of Denholm News this vessel has had a varied itinerary. The Mississippi grain cargo was discharged at Hsinkang at the end of May. From China Wellpark proceeded to South Australia where she loaded a cargo of grain at Port Adelaide and Port Lincoln for discharge in Saleef. This was followed by a cargo of maize from Durban to Kaohsiung and at time of writing the vessel is presently loading raw bulk sugar in Queensland for discharge on the US East Coast. Although it was not possible to arrange any sightseeing expeditions during the protracted period in Saleef, the sailing dingy Dymandee was fully utilised for both training and pleasure. During the loading period at Durban a visit to ta safari park was arranged and from all reports was greatly enjoyed. Another event that took place in Durban was a soccer match between cadets and Durban customs officials. From news filtering back at this office it would diplomatically be described as a ‘lively’ game.
Summer/Autumn 1981 : Wellpark
The sugar cargo loaded in Mourilyan in October was discharged at Baltimore during December. The vessel arrived 3rd December but a combination of shortage of storage, severe weather conditions and seasonal holidays resulted in a protracted discharge and Wellpark did not complete discharge until 27th December. This was followed by a cargo of grain loaded at Baltimore and discharged at Whampoa mid-March. On completion Whampoa, Wellpark bunkered at Hong Kong prior to proceeding Queensland where she loaded another cargo of sugar at Mourilyan and Cairns, discharging of this at Philadelphia. On completion at Philadelphia the vessel ballasted to the Mississippi where a cargo of phosphate was loaded at Taft for India, the anticipated discharge port being Bombay.
Summer 82 "Wellpark"
The phosphate cargo loaded at Taft was discharged Navlakhi from 7th July10 10th August. From Navlakhi vessel proceeded to Durban where she drydocked for seven days and then loaded a cargo maize in Durban for discharge Kaohsiung. From Kaohsiung the vessel proceeded to Christmas Island to load a cargo of phosphate for New Zealand discharging at Lyttleton, Bluff and Nelson. Her next employment was a cargo of coal loaded at Brisbane for discharge at Kanda. Wellpark arrived Kanda on New Year’s Day and sailed 9th January for Nauru to load phosphates for discharge at four ports in New Zealand, namely Lyttleton, Timaru, Bluff and Dunedin. Vessel then proceeded to Brisbane where a cargo of grain was loaded for discharge Singapore in the middle of March. Senior personnel at present on board are Captain Blackie and Chief Engineer Bissett.
Summer 83 "Wellpark"
Completed discharge of her cargo of urea at Shanghai and sailed on 16th November. After a short period at anchor awaiting orders the vessel was fixed on time-charter to Ben Line for a voyage from the Far East to the U.K. and Continent. A very intensive loading schedule was followed at ports in Sabah, the Philippines, Sarawak, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, completing at Port Kelang on 18th January. The relatively small complement of the vessel is to be congratulated on their attention to duty during this very exacting loading period. While steaming off Crete the vessel was struck by a freak sea which carried away some of the chain lashing securing the deck cargo of timber in way of number 1 hatch, necessitating that she diverted into Valetta on 8th February to re-stow and re-secure the cargo. She left Valetta on 12th February for Liverpool where she arrived on 20th February to commence part discharge, later sailing on 9th March for Rotterdam to discharge the balance of the cargo.
Awaiting further contributions.
- No useful information discovered using Google for either Ga Chau or Nava Avra.
- In 2000, Avra D was shown on the Baltic Maritime Job Exchange as registered in Cyprus.
STOP PRESS! March 9th 2000: Avra D surfaces and hits the headlines with 7 stowaways, see Stowaways cannot stay in Canada
Life as a Denholm Cadet
See the brochures that lured young men towards a life at sea and the magazine feature describing why Denholm Ship Management built a 'modern' cadet training ship, The Denholm Cadet brochures
If you are think of going to sea as a career, you may wish to consider these questions Going to Sea
The Vietnamese Boat People
The Boat People - suffering the greatest loss at sea
After the Americans pulled out of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam war, there were many who did not wish to remain in the country. Those with influence were airlifted out by the Americans, but many had to make do with crowding onto leaky boats and making the journey from Vietnam to the gulf of Thailand. Years after the fall in Saigon in 1975, they continued to leave. According to the report of the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) around half of the 1.5 million 'boat people' died at sea at the hands of murderous pirates, drowning as unseaworthy boats sank, storms, illness and food shortage. The plight of the boat people became an international humanitarian crisis. The UNHCR, under the auspices of the United Nations, set up refugee camps in neighbouring countries to process the "boat people" and was awarded the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize for its work. About 1.6m boat people are now spread across the world in the US, Canada, France, England, Germany, Hong Kong, South Korea and the Philippines.
From the archives of CBC Radio you can hear the harrowing story that was the typical situation experienced by so many "boat people" Find audio clip here Click on "Click to play" when new screen opens. This story from November 1978, just after Wellpark's rescue..............
The Wellpark rescue, 1st October 1978
Wellpark made world headlines when 346 men, women and children were rescued from their vessel. In a tricky operation lasting several hours, Andrew Griffin took command of a lifeboat to transfer the refugees, aged from four months to 83 years, to his cargo ship.
In an open letter to Mr Griffin and his fellow officers, the survivors wrote:
"In the most dangerous circumstances, facing unfriendly elements and risking your own security, you came to save our lives at a moment when we had lost all hopes of survival and were inevitably to meet tragic fate."
Drew, as he liked to be known, was the second mate aboard the Wellpark, in October 1978, when he spotted the distress flare of a boat carrying Vietnamese fleeing Ho Chi Minh City.They had fled in three patch-up boats, two of which had sunk, and all were crammed on the third. A number of ships had passed them by without stopping and many people had drowned.
His widow Mrs Griffin said: "The master of the ship went to their aid and ordered a ship's lifeboat to be launched, which Drew swiftly volunteered to command. "He was always one of those people who volunteered for everything. He said as they got alongside the vessel, bundles of cloth were thrown at them. They soon realised they were babies and children they were catching. "People were panicking. They were really rough seas and there were flames on the deck of the ship." A training officer saw a man fall between the lifeboat and distressed craft. A contemporary account noted: "He felt sure this person could not survive. However, the prompt action by the Second Officer (Drew) resulted in him pulling the man to safety in the boat. "No one in the lifeboat is sure how he managed to accomplish this."Mrs Griffin said her husband had told her he had leaned out the boat and pushed with his head against the sinking boat to keep the two vessels apart, as he pulled the man out. At one point, so many people were jumping into the lifeboat that it was impossible to get to the engine controls and water was being shipped over the gunwhales. Mrs Griffin said: "There were doctors and professional people on board. Drew was able to reunite a mother with her child, whom he let use his cabin."
After the fall of Saigon in April 1975 my father was taken from our family on June 1975 to a re-education camp located the remote jungle of Northern Vietnam. He was a Captain in the Military Signal Corp for the South Vietnamese government. Our life was forever altered along with other millions of Vietnamese in the South. I was 11 years old at the time, the oldest of three girls. My sisters were 8 and 7 years old. Mom was playing the role of mother and father to us so she was very strict and protective of us. But she did such a good job that we didn't feel like our Dad was missing. Partly because we moved from Vung Tau (sometimes referred to its colonial name of Cap Saint Jacques, a beach city, 78 miles North of Saigon) to live with our maternal grand parents and aunts when Vung Tau was taken over by the communist a few months before Saigon. We received much love from grandma, grandpa and our aunts.
We missed our Dad when looking at family pictures or seeing other kids playing with their Dads but at that time so many families were separated from their loved ones that your loss was nothing compared to others who had lost their Dads forever to the war.
In October 1975, the communists started the "Communism Reform" throughout the country. Rich and middle income residents in Saigon and the urban cities were forced to migrate to forest or mountain areas that were collectively known as the "New Economic Development" zone. The intention was to force people with money to leave and forfeit all of their property without mercy. We were lucky to have the right connections to delay the process of going to the New Economic Development zone. Meanwhile, outside of the city the regime's policy of complete agricultural collectivization deprived peasants of their landholdings, except for tiny personal plots, and required them to work on collective farms.
The whole education system was reorganized to reflect communist ideology. I remembered every morning all the children from the age 6 to 18 years old were forced to be at the park at 6 am prior to school time to exercise in group and attended meeting after school learning about the life of uncle Ho or “Ho Chi Minh” and singing communist’s songs. We were trained to report our parent, relatives and neighbors to the authority if we hear them talked badly about the government or any plan of leaving the country or where the money were hired in the house because under the communist’s rule everyone is equal. They abolished all ranks and privileges based on heredity, position, wealth, or cultural standing.
By July 1976, the new communist regime banned opposition political activity and imprisoned opponents. The campaigns against private businesses in the South by forcing through our home anytime of the day to look for any suspicious activities, money or gold hidden in the house along with constant changing money to smaller denominator so our money became less value induced the flight of about 1 million Chinese and middle-class Vietnamese from their country between 1978–79 often by sea.
After three years living under the communist rules, life became more intolerable. We had no religious freedoms and no freedom to live as we had. Constantly being watched by neighbors we worried that we might be turned in to the local authorities for saying or doing the wrong thing. Our future was uncertain. We lived day by day not knowing what was going to happen to us next. Mom then decided that it was time to leave our country to find the freedom that we once had. Grandma and aunt Nghiem tried to escape a few times prior with no success. They got tricked and lost a lot of money. They were put away for months when they got caught just a few months earlier. Still they were luckier than many others. Some people were put away for years. Some died at sea because pirates killed them or they didn’t make it through stormy weather. Some didn't even make it to sea because their boat was sunk by shooting soldiers. Three of my cousins died from that a few months earlier. Knowing the risk that we may not ever return, mom was still determined to let three of her daughters escape the country with her mom and her two sisters. She took out all her savings and paid for the escape. She couldn't go with us because she wanted to stay back and wait for our father’s return someday.
Escape was very difficult, dangerous and the odds of failure were enormous. Despite the risk of ending up in prison or dying at sea, we did not give up or get weary. We kept trying until all means were exhausted. Freedom is priceless; people were ready to trade their life for it.
This time a trustworthy brother-in-law of aunt Nghiem’s good friend, who was one of the organizers, planned the escape for his entire family and friends. The process of planning the escape was very time consuming and it took years of planning. They had to sell all their valuables and raise money among the people wanting to escape in order to buy equipment. The boats would normally be only 3 by 10 meters and make out of wood. Our boat was much bigger it was double in size due to the number of people.
I remember the evening of Wednesday September 27, 1978, a day before our journey, when we left Saigon. It was raining. I tried not to think that it may be a bad sign for our trip even though our people are very superstitious. We arrived at one of the Trinhs family and spent the night there along with a few other families so we could all leave together the next day. But that night nobody could sleep; we were worried that we may get caught at any moment. The next morning we left early on a bus to go to My Tho, a small country town about two hours away southwest of Saigon located on the banks of the Upper Mekong River. The drive was a scenic drive along the National Highway, bordered by green rice fields. A beautiful river, the Mekong was bordered by dense mangroves and palms but everyone were so nervous and anxious that no one could enjoy the beautiful view. Everyone looked very sad thinking that this was probably the last time they would see their dear country.
We arrived at our destination and waited until it got dark, about 8 pm. Each family quickly jumped into a kayak to go to our boat which was waiting about 500 yards from land. Our boat was a small wooden boat about 20 meters in length and 3 meters wide. We managed to pack 346 people comprised of Vietnamese and Vietnamese/Chinese of all ages. Everyone was taken down to the bottom of the boat. It was very dark and very hot. There was no room to move your elbows. We were packed like sardines in a can.
After two hours we couldn’t breathe anymore. It was humid and hot as people breathing on each other. We didn’t feel good. We looked at aunt Nghiem helplessly. Luckily because my aunt is a friend of a family that was one of the organizers of this escape, she asked for our family to be seated with them up in the main deck. So we moved out of the lower deck to the main deck.
On the main deck, the ceiling was packed with hanging “Bánh Tét” (a traditional rice cake most popular in South Vietnam, made primarily from glutinous rice, which is rolled in a banana leaf into a thick, log-like cylindrical shape, with a meat or mung bean filling, then steamed). There were only places to sit as we couldn’t stand because of the hundreds of rice cakes hanging over our heads to be eaten when needed. This was our food supply.
As the night got darker, about 11 pm on Thursday September 28, 1978, the boat quietly departed. In the ghostly darkness of the late September night, hoping to reach Malaysia in three nights and two days, we set off for freedom. We chose a longer route to avoid pirates from Thailand where they troll the seas in search of easy prey, and often find it. Many Vietnamese were robbed, raped and killed. After three hours of slow progress, our boat suddenly came to a complete stop. It was about 11 pm. Everybody was scared to death and didn’t know what just happened. All we heard were the adults talking loudly. Shortly later we found out that we had a low tide and our boat got stuck. Because of a previous arrangement with the local people, they helped us pull out and continue our journey with a broken steering wheel.
The next morning Friday September 29, 1978 when the sun was rising, our boat reached the open sea. We couldn’t see land anywhere. We knew that there was no going back. The morning came to begin a beautiful day. The sky was clear and sunny. The ocean was beautiful with a deep blue color. The boat rocked slightly by the waves and continued to run at full speed. I remembered it was hot, humid and it stank inside the boat. The smell of urine and vomit was everywhere. When people got sea sick, they vomited. There were no toilets so when people had to go; they went right where they were. I was sea sick too on the first day. I couldn't eat anything. I was always sick to my stomach when I traveled on the river. The open sea was ten times worse.
I went outside to the deck with others to look at the fish; I believe they were dolphins jumping up and down along our boat. The breeze was gently blowing on my face. All of the sudden, I forgot that I may die on this trip in the immense and unforgiving sea. I lost all fear of the uncertain and forgot about the lingering doubts the night before. Were we heading in the right direction? Would we survive? Would we be capsized by a big storm? Would we face the cruel and savage Thai pirates and have them steal all our supplies, or be kidnapped or raped, or left on a deserted island to die? At that moment, I thought I was on little a trip with my grandma, aunts, sisters and my little cousin Luan we used to take to “Cao Dai Temple”.
Saturday September 30, 1978. The first half of the day the trip went smoothly. We though very soon we would arrive in Malaysia not knowing that without the steering wheel we just went straight in the open sea. But that evening dark clouds came rolling in and hovered over our heads and strong winds started to blow heavily against our tiny wooden boat. The calm ocean became increasingly violent with ferocious waves drove our boat far off course. It threw our little boat up and down like a roller coaster. We could see waves 15 feet high coming down wanting to drown our boat. We didn’t know that we were in the middle of the Typhoon Lola, with winds reaching 74mph. If you saw the movie “Perfect Storm” with George Clooney you could picture what is was like except our boat was much smaller and much simpler with 346 people in it.
There was no sight of land, nothing except the rumbling sky, the quivering winds, and our fast trembling heartbeats; the people were crying for help. Our engine had broken down along with our compass and the water pump. We did not have any sails or paddles to keep the boat going, so the boat kept moving without any control or guidance. It was raining heavily and the boat started to flood. Then I heard people screaming: “Oh no! The boat is going to sink; water is inside, we are too heavy”. All the young men took turns scooping out the water as fast as they could. I remember seeing some people in panic quickly throwing some of their belongings overboard including food and water.
TO BE CONTINUED...
As a young girl at the time, Christine Vu’s account of the journey follows:
Once we set foot on the boat to leave Vietnam, we were exasperated from the seemingly endless and strenuous journey. …
We were packed like a can of sardines at the bottom of the boat. … There was no room to move or breathe. We were forced to lie on a damp floor, and the stench of the dripping sweat from the person next to you was wildly nauseating. We had to endure noxious living situations along with the smell of diesel gas and sea water, all mixed with vomit. … We were exposed to the foul odors for days as the boat rocked back and forth relentlessly.
As the sun was setting, we became frightened as the blackness of the night consumed the horizon. The only sounds that could be heard were the waves crashing against our boat. Darkness did not come alone; it was accompanied by other unfortunate challenges. The compass began to malfunction, and the steering wheel was damaged. The sea water was slowly leaking into our boat. The water pumper was useless and, as a result, we had to manually dump it out.
We were no longer in control of this vessel. We stood helplessly as the ocean determined our fate.
On the fourth evening, underneath the heavens, a storm was quickly making its way toward us. The atmosphere and attitudes dramatically changed. Not only was the ship damaged, our resolve and morale were damaged as well. Our worst fears were becoming reality. The only thing that awaited us was death.
Just as misfortune seemed apparent, a small bird resembling a sparrow appeared out of nowhere and planted itself on top of the sail.
It perched itself without a care in the world. Even with a raging storm stalking us, the bird was there to assure we saw the light through this dimly lit tunnel. All it took was a bird to calm everyone down and give them hope. Everyone believed that the bird was a sign of a predestined fate because as soon as it appeared, a miracle happened. The Wellpark was our savior, and came just in the nick of time. Four hundred lives were saved and the reality of how fragile life was was on full display that fateful day.
After we were rescued, the Wellpark continued its course with 346 new and relieved passengers on board.
Thirty years have passed, and every time I reminisce about my life, I … remember my journey to Wellpark; the captain, crew members. … Thank you for giving all of us a future.
Contemporary account of the rescue
Painting by A.Cumming of Lenzie, Scotland, incredibly faithfully captures the scene of that night's events.
SN member Pentlandpirate was a "second trip deck cadet" on MV Wellpark at the time of the rescue and his mother fortuitously saved his correspondence to her. It is reproduced here, click: Correspondence from Wellpark
Part 1: The Rescue - etched on my mind forever
Here I start to try and describe the rescue and the two weeks the Vietnamese were on Wellpark. As a lowly second trip cadet I was not party to everything that happened so the following is my own experience, complemented by detail and my impressions of what happened else where. I apologise if in any way part of my description is not completely correct as a result.
My mind drifted for a moment, drawn to the glass of ice cold water sat on my desk. The water tilted within the glass and then shuddered as the ship around it rolled on the wave and vibrated to the cavitation of the propeller. I glanced towards the black porthole. I had tightened the dogs on it earlier when the roll of the ship coincided with a high wave and momentarily our cabin view looked underwater, down into the ocean. I was a little weary. With the warm air and physical nature of our work I knew I should get some sleep before my duty watch started on the ship’s navigation bridge at midnight.
But I had to finish my Correspondence course. As only a second trip deck cadet, training as a Navigation Officer, I was almost the lowest of the low, and it was important my study at sea was completed on time. “Wellpark” was only three days from arrival in Kaohsiung and my work would have to be posted back to Nautical College in Glasgow on the other side of the world for marking. As luck would have it, we had speeded up a few days earlier from our normal cruising speed to our maximum of 15 knots, so that the ship could meet its dry-dock slot in Korea and still connect into a lucrative string of cargo charters thereafter. Dammit: I had even less time to finish my studies!
I could have excused myself. As I had just written in a letter to my mother it had already been a very eventful trip, a real experience for a young man keen to see the world. The journey itself from my home in the extreme north of Scotland to the south of Argentina had involved no less than seven separate flights over three days. And the weeks at sea crossing the lower latitudes of the South Atlantic, watching the albatross glide for days, before we moved into the warmer Indian Ocean and relaxed in its sunshine, had made it seem more like a cruise. After the enormous waves we endured around South Africa we had time for fun after work, playing games on deck and organising our Crossing the Line Ceremony. Later we had passed through the Sunda Straits, passing tropical islands on both sides. Here we watched brightly coloured sailing boats dart between the islands, flying fish, and plumes of smoke erupt from a huge volcano. We were a happy ship and we were on a journey that had now taken us into the South China Sea.
It was 7.53 pm on Sunday 1st October when I had just focussed my mind back on my Correspondence course that suddenly the ship’s emergency alarms rang, and my life changed forever.
Immediately the tannoy blared, “This is not a drill!”. Still wearing my jeans and T-shirt, I scooped up my helmet and lifejacket and headed from my cabin, out through the water-tight door on to the main deck and up the two steel staircases to my emergency station on the poop deck next to the port lifeboat. All over the ship, cadets and men rose from what they were doing. Some were in the shower, some in the laundry, some eating, some relaxing and some fast asleep. All rose as one and ran to take up their posts at the three main emergency stations: by the port and starboard lifeboats and on the ship’s bridge.
As we gathered at our post, of course we were intrigued. What was happening? It was pitch dark outside and we could see nothing. Were we in danger of sinking and in trouble ourselves? Was there a fire on board? We relaxed as word filtered round it was a fishing boat that had fired off a distress flare, and we had time to laugh at the first-trip cadet who arrived at the emergency station in slippers and pyjamas.
And then we saw it…well, our keen eyes saw a flame, just a brief glimpse, distant in the black of the night out on the starboard (right) side of the ship. A roll was called and the senior cadets were selected to climb up into the port lifeboat with three officers, as we attended to removing the covers off the launching equipment and unshackling the boat for lowering.
40 minutes had elapsed from the sighting of the flare and the call to emergency stations, when we were ordered to lower the lifeboat to the water. Wellpark had closed in on the boat in distress but from where we were we could no longer see it. At 171 metres long, and a laden weight of over 40,000 tonnes, Wellpark had slowed but was still pushing into the waves at around 7 knots. In the wake of tropical storm ‘Lola’ the sea’s swell was high, there being roughly 15 feet (4.5 metres) between the peaks and troughs of the waves. Quickly the lifeboat was lowered until the tops of the passing waves ran below its hull. On a given signal the fore and aft quick release buckles were pressed to drop the boat onto the top of a wave. But disaster! The release buckle holding the front of the boat did not release, and the falling wave threatened to leave the rescue craft hanging vertically, and hurl its crew into the dark waters.
Desperately they hung on, until the waters rose once more under the boat. Then it thrust the rear of the boat upwards, slamming a cadet’s head against 100 kilos of lifeboat pulley blocks dangling from the ship. Only his helmet saved him from serious injury. In an instant the Second Officer grabbed an axe and swung at the jammed release catch. The steel rings parted and the boat dropped onto the wave. Quickly the Lister engine was put into gear and the Training Officer swung the tiller, accelerating the boat away from the ship, out onto the waves and into the surrounding darkness.
Up above, there had been excited activity since the Chief Officer spotted the red flare, four points on the port bow. Immediately Captain,Hector Connell, had been called to the ship’s command point on the bridge and all other staff had been called to Emergency Stations by alarm and tannoy. The Wellpark swung her bows towards the point of light in the darkness as the Radio Officer began to relay the distress signal. Hearing the distress call, “Manhattan Viscount”, 40 miles to the south advised she would come to assist. But the Russian cargo ship, “Zoia Kosmodiemanskaia”, and the British gas tanker, “Norman Lady” were much closer and they were going to arrive on the emergency scene much sooner.
Out on the sea, the lifeboat battled its way towards the boat in distress. Although accustomed to a life at sea, many of its crew began to suffer from sea-sickness as the small boat rose and fell on the large waves. Swallowed amongst them they often lost sight of the boat they had been sent to investigate, but the powerful beam of the Aldis signalling light shone from the Wellpark’s bridge wing to guide them. With radio instructions too, it helped show them the way. It was 20 minutes before they got close, and then out of the darkness they saw what appeared to be a grossly overcrowded wooden craft. The lifeboat manoeuvred in close, but had to hold off slightly to prevent being thrown against the larger craft by the waves. Although the crew reached out, the desperate people on the boat held back from jumping into the lifeboat, fearful that their rescuers could not be trusted. There were shouts and cries in the confusion, but amongst it someone demanded of the lifeboat crew what nation they were from. When the reply was given that they were British, Scottish at that, the word rapidly spread and without hesitation the first man jumped across the dark waters to the lifeboat. Quickly, in two more passes, about 15 men leapt from all angles for the boat, many landing heavily on the hard thwarts of the lifeboat as it bucked on the waves. Now the boat in distress was heeling over with the shift of humanity wanting to escape the deathtrap their boat had become. But with shouts of, “We’ll come back” the lifeboat withdrew and headed back to Wellpark. Huddled low in the center of the lifeboat one man told his saviours that there were over 300 refugees from South Vietnam crammed on the distress craft.
Looking down from the poop deck to the returning lifeboat I saw a large number of men and one boy. Having not yet seen the distress craft, I thought, what sort of small fishing boat carried such a number? We had rigged a rope pilot ladder down the vertical side of the ship. The lifeboat nosed in under the ship’s side, which had now been turned to provide some shelter. But still the lifeboat rose and fell on the ship’s swell so that when one man started up the ladder the lifeboat lifted suddenly on the next wave and chased him up the ladder. A man started to climb but only got half way before fear or exhaustion took over. Grimly he hung on before eventually carrying on to the top. We watched, helpless to do more, as one at a time they struggled up towards the ship, terrified one would drop down to the lifeboat or disappear into the blackness of the waves. Exhausted they collapsed to the deck where we sat them against the hatch coaming. The ship's cook and his staff dashed to the ship’s stores to gather blankets and to provide drinks for the rescued. Empty of its cargo, the lifeboat twisted and tossed on the waves and we saw many cadets heaving with sea-sickness. But sick as they were, none requested to leave his post.
Again the lifeboat left the ship’s side and headed off into to the dark. I crossed to the starboard side of the vessel and was on the maindeck as Wellpark tried to move closer to protect the refugee boat. Now the refugee boat moved in to the arc of light provided by the ship’s lights mounted high on her deck cranes. For the first time I saw the boat close up. And my eyes failed to comprehend what I was seeing. Here was this wooden boat 60 –70 feet (20 metres) long, packed from stem to stern with people stood shoulder to shoulder on its deck. Here they were riding out the aftermath of a tropical storm some 148 miles from the nearest land. There was a strong, farmyard type smell and I could hear the roaring of the boats engine. The craft was pointing towards the side of Wellpark, and I could tell its commander was frantically trying to get it to reverse away. Suddenly the boat crested a huge swell and was swept towards Wellpark. It’s pointed bow rose high above the Wellpark’s railings immediately above me. I was entranced, fixed to the spot, knowing I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no escape and any second that boat would crash down on the very spot I occupied. But at the exact moment I thought death would come to me, somehow, the giant mouth of the sea sucked the refugee boat back over the Wellpark’s rails and back into the ocean. With relief I saw the boat pass down the side of the ship and back into the dark behind Wellpark. It was 9.00pm
As Wellpark was turned and moved to offer shelter for the rescue operation, the Russian ship “Zoia Kosmodiemanskaia” moved in perilously close. Her lights were so close, to us it seemed like she was trying to interfere, putting her bow between Wellpark and the refugee boat. Now we were beginning to understand what was happening and who we were trying to help. A Russian ship, from a Communist state might try to‘steal’ the refugees and take them back to Vietnam. If it had seemed like just one more interesting high point on our voyage, now we realized it really was a matter of life and death. Wellpark’s Captain ordered the Russian ship to keep her distance.
Tiny against the ocean, Wellpark’s 25 foot long lifeboat closed on the distress craft once more. This time about 20 men, women and children leapt into the boat. Some clasped the hands of its crew thanking them for what they were doing, kissing their hands in gratitude. This time the ship was closer and we found the lifeboat back on the port side at the bottom of the ladder after barely ten minutes. But now we realized we had to help these people reach the deck. We lowered ropes. Some had the strength to pull themselves up the vertical ladder some of the way; others we had to lift completely as they simply were too weak to climb. Focused on the job in hand I barely noticed the small crowd that was forming on the steel deck behind us. As the last was brought on deck we lowered more fuel to the lifeboat. Some cadets looked up at their colleagues on deck. They were physically weak from sea-sickness, but again they set off once more in to the night.
Up on the bridge the ships engine was stopped, started, slowed and speeded up on over 120 separate occasions as her Captain sought to provide shelter to the refugee boat. Constantly turning, and working to adjust to the erratic manoeuvres of the distress craft, and the ‘assisting’ ships, Hector Connell would later be praised for his masterly seamanship.
Now he commanded Wellpark to follow the lifeboat. As the clock passed 10pm, on the deck we were ordered to get all available ropes from the rope store. This included the large floating polypropylene mooring ropes as well as smaller throwing ropes. We tied the bigger ropes together and passed them down to the lifeboat which took them in tow. It struggled to drag them over the waves and made slow progress to the distress vessel. They signalled that the refugees should tie their boat to the ropes, but the British crew could not make themselves understood. Part by luck and part intentionally, the lifeboat was steered so that the ropes fouled the distress craft’s propeller. Quickly we spun the ropes onto the winches and pulled the boat towards the Wellpark’s side. Passing down ropes we wanted the refugees to fix our ropes to the bitts on their boats deck. But the boat was relatively small compared to Wellpark and as it lifted and fell on the waves the ropes kept breaking or pulling off the fixings on the vessel. In all, working hard as a group of cadets, it took us an hour to get the distress craft tied securely to Wellpark so that the rest of the deck crew could start to haul the huge numbers of men, women and children up from the boat below.
Now I could see the mass of humanity covering every part of the simple wooden boat. So disciplined and trained were we that we acted naturally even though none of us had ever experienced, or trained for, such an event. As we organized ourselves into lifting teams to get the Vietnamese on deck I was tasked with searching everyone as they came on board. Of course I had no training for this. We told the poor people we had to search them, but the refugees did not seem to understand our English, and we resorted to comical sign language in a poor version of charades to eventually convey what we meant. But I was shocked at the reaction I got. The women and children in front of me put their hands in the air, in the way I had only seen soldiers in war films surrender. I was embarrassed and horrified to realize these people were frightened of me. Frantically I urged them to put their arms down, and cautiously they did so.
I was lost to time. But on we went, working under the ship’s floodlights, pulling on the ropes, hauling babies in baskets, children on ropes and helping the adults up the scrambling nets and ladders. I was unaware of what everyone else was doing, we were all doing our bit hidden within the crowd at the ship’s railings as the ship’s catering staff led the Vietnamese down towards the ship’s accommodation. Many just collapsed on to the steel deck where they were, just too weak to go on. Realising how dehydrated and starved these people were, the ships cooks and stewards quickly set about making gallons of soup and coffee and handed out all the bedding material they could. But this was a ship equipped and stored for 50 crew, not a population of 400. So starved and thirsty were the refugees that civilities like handing out portions of food gave way to handing out whole packets of cereals and any other foods that came immediately to hand.
It was ten minutes past midnight when the last refugee was pulled from the decrepit craft below. Now Wellpark slowly made way forwards. A large mooring rope was passed down to the lifeboat who landed two crew onto the craft. Unable to find a suitably strong fixing point they moved down in to its stinking hull and found a large beam to secure the tow rope to. As the lifeboat returned to the Wellpark’s port quarter, we cut the refugee craft free of the ropes binding it to the side of Wellpark so it would drift astern and take up its position on tow. But now the lifeboat struggled against the swell to pick up the falls so it could be lifted on board. Time and again the lifeboat approached but could not safely reach the ship for fear of being lifted by a wave to crash against the dangling pulleys. The sea seemed to have become rougher and it took until almost 2.00 a.m to hook up the lifeboat. Up it came, with its tired crew, but one of the davits jammed leaving the boat slewed on its mountings. We secured it there, allowing the crew to dismount awkwardly. There was a sober quietness, everyone was so exhausted. As Wellpark started to get back on course and up to speed. we started to gather our ropes and equipment back up. All around us the Vietnamese were quiet, lying on the ships deck in darkness, now the ship’s deck lights had been switched off for navigation.
I got changed into my uniform and climbed up to the ship’s bridge to start my watch at 4.00am. I took up position as lookout on the starboard bridge wing, looking down on the sleeping refugees curled up on top of No.5 hatch. Although our games nets enclosed the area, there was no protection from the elements, but the night was warm and humid. Some large waves started to come on board, rolling down the deck on the port side, as the ship rolled. The Captain ordered the ship to slow a little to protect the exposed people. From my high view point, I looked down and marvelled at the numbers of people, so quiet and peaceful. Were they dreaming sweetly, enjoying the luxury and safety of Wellpark’s steel decks? Or were they unconscious, utterly drained by their experience? I was tired too and I had to keep active to stay awake. Occasionally I looked back into the darkness behind the ship where the refugee boat snaked from side to side across Wellpark’s wake.
Suddenly there was a loud cracking noise, and I saw the black bulk of the refugee boat suddenly fall apart and disappear in to the dark. Just the stem post and a few beams remained attached to the rope, and they danced on the waters churned white by Wellpark’s propellor. The refugee boat had been lost at sea forever.
Part 2: Safely onboard Wellpark: the first few days
We were already in to October 2nd, but I didn’t get to sleep that night. At 6am I headed downstairs to change into deck work clothes. We tended to wear a variety of boiler suits carried over from previous ships. Some cadets had orange or grey boiler-suits, but most had one that had started life as white when first made, or navy blue. Mine was navy blue, but I had torn off the sleeves for extra cooling. We were used to changes in routine and so were prepared for something new in the orders of the day that were being passed from cadet to cadet that morning. As in any survival situation the priority was to provide shelter and the cadets were instructed to raid the ship’s lockers, and anywhere else we could think of, and strip out every available, non-essential, bit of canvas, burlap and other weather proof sheeting we could find to make a shelter for the vulnerable people exposed on top of No.5 hatch.
That meant the white canvas screening, with plastic windows, that went around the swimming pool was lashed on top of the games net that enclosed No. 5 hatch. And there were spare winch covers, lifeboat covers, even the ship’s dinghy’s sail, tied haphazardly across the net too. It ended up as an untidy arrangement that gave puny protection from the elements. But fortunately the climate was warm and there was no rain. Even the tropical sun was weaker than usual letting us off with our miserable attempt to make a decent canopy.
Drinking water was made available in buckets, and extra drinking cups provided made out of cut down soft drink and beer cans. The ship simply didn't have enough eating and drinking utensils to go round. Most of the Vietnamese had lost their shoes in their escape and as the sun rose higher in the sky the steel deck began to heat up. Some fire hydrants on the deck were opened to allow salt water for washing, but also to cool the deck which was now painful for the Vietnamese to walk on in bare feet
Most of the Vietnamese lay, curled up under blankets on the bare steel hatch cover. Some were stirring, sitting up, looking about and a few made the short walk to and from the couple of toilets that were accessible from the deck. They seemed in a daze, exhausted and drained of life by their experience. And they were quiet, not even a noise from the children. Slowly they seemed to come to their senses as the ship’s catering staff came out with food. It was a strange mish-mash of food, our cooks prepared, unsure how to provide for so many of diverse cultures and different ages. Here was a ship equipped and provisioned to feed less than 50, but now had almost 400 mouths to feed. So at breakfast the cadets were surprised to find that the customary choice had gone, and in its place was one ‘hot’ course. Peering at the plate we could see potatoes, beans of various types, meat balls, rice, peas, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms all boiled into a red-brown stew. It was an unrecognisable meal that I’m sure has no name in a cookery book. As the stewards put the food on our plates, our reactions must have given our thoughts away! What’s this?! But actually to our energy sapped bodies it was good wholesome food and tasted better than it looked, and as the cook explained, it was the same as everyone got……….Vietnamese refugees and Wellpark crew alike.
That breakfast was the big one. It was the first proper meal the Vietnamese had had for at least four days. Already the ship’s whole supply of baked beans and oranges had disappeared at the first meal.
Outside the sun shone down on the ship. Now it rhythmically rolled gently on the swell as its bow cut through the sparkling waters at full speed. Out of sight of land, our heading was northerly towards Taiwan, but the crew were told that fact must remain secret and could not be divulged to the Vietnamese. There was the risk they might fear being repatriated to Vietnam or held in detention camps and trapped into a life worse than that they had fought to escape from. The Vietnamese were not known to us, and they outnumbered us seven to one. We could not discount the possibility they might wish to over-power us and take control of the ship.
That morning we set up a one-way system. The Vietnamese lined up the stairs on the starboard side of the ship and filed, one at a time, into a cabin set aside for medical checks. It had been discovered two of the Vietnamese were professional doctors and it was a priority to check everyone over after the trauma of their escape. Basic personal details such as name, sex, date of birth were recorded, before they were asked to carry on back down to the deck via the staircases on the port side of the ship. There were a few cases of measles and they were confined to the ship’s hospital, and a family which included their grandmother were accommodated in a more private part on the rear of the ship’s accommodation.
We were amazed to discover we had 343 ‘passengers’ on board, and as dribs and drabs of their journey before being rescued came out, we were incredulous that so many could have survived such a journey on a boat we seen for ourselves the night before was less than 70 feet long. It was hard to comprehend how they had come to be on that boat. From one cadet I would hear they started on three boats, but two sank and the survivors clambered on the remaining one – hence why it was so cramped. Another would say that they were at sea for three days without food and water. We had found them more than 120 miles from the nearest land. I had been told the boat’s steering had failed. From somewhere else I would hear they had been in concentration camps and that lots of other ships had passed them by. Apparently the Wellpark had spotted what was their last remaining flare. They had had to pay large amounts of gold to corrupt officials to be ‘allowed to escape’. As the cadets passed each other as they worked around the ship they exchanged information, so that as the day went on we had a better picture of who these people were and the terrible experience they had endured.
As we organised and arranged we spoke to the people, but only a few spoke English. Communication was hard but gradually their trepidation and fear dissipated and we began to see some smiles. To us they were all Vietnamese and when we asked one ‘Vietnamese’ to tell another to do something we could not understand why they could not do it. It took some time to appreciate the mix of Vietnamese and Chinese peoples on our ship.
But things improved fast, particularly when in the afternoon we erected screens of burlap around the ship’s small swimming pool. It was a less than perfect arrangement but it allowed everyone to wash and feel a little bit better in themselves.
That evening, after it had gone dark I heard that some of the cadets were out sitting on No.5 hatch amongst the Vietnamese. There they were, some sitting talking, others playing with children. And one had got his guitar out and a few had gathered around for a bit of a sing-song. It was a holiday camp-fire atmosphere, but without the camp-fire. It was a happy time, and I thought at the time it did a huge amount to lift the Vietnamese souls, and engender their trust in us.
Elsewhere the Captain was having to do a lot more thinking. He brought together a committee of Vietnamese leaders, six of them, each one an English speaker. It was essential that he had their co-operation to ensure their safety and security on Wellpark. They agreed on what would be expected of the refugees during their stay on the ship with particular emphasis on hygiene, sanitation, fire-risks and discipline amongst their people. A strict control over cleanliness was kept by both the working Committee of Wellpark’s Officers and the Vietnamese. With limited provisions on the ship, fresh water for drinking purposes would only be provided at 0900, 1300 and 1700 hours daily. Meal times were arranged for 0700, 1200 and 1700 hours. And a doctor’s surgery was set up twice daily 0900-1000 hours and 1600–1700 hours.
I hurriedly updated my letter to my parents that night, telling them the whole story as it had unfolded. Having retired to my bunk late, after joining in the sing-song on deck I was desperate for a few hours sleep, the first rest in 39 hours.
Life was a little more normal for us on the 3rd October, the second full day the Vietnamese were on board. We were still at sea, closing in on Kaohsiung, our next port of call. The day started with the Vietnamese mainly restricted to life on the hatchcover, away from the side railings of the ship. But as time moved on new friendships were being formed. Inevitably the Committee were meeting with the Captain to gain a better idea of their future. Some were working with the Captain acting as interpreters, and administering the personnel records. Elsewhere we already had the doctors helping out with medical aid where it was required. And some of the Vietnamese volunteered to contribute by working in the galley, helping to prepare food. Some Vietnamese who had an engineering background put themselves forward to help down in the ship’s engine room. And out on deck they were just as keen to help. I had just headed down the deck with a couple of other cadets and some brushes and tins of white paint. Our orders were to re-paint the railings where the paintwork had been damaged and spoiled by the actions during the rescue. We had barely started when a few Vietnamese men approached ready armed with paintbrushes. They must have gone to the ship’s stores and requested them, for now they took our paint-tins and started painting with two brushes each, one in each hand. We were somewhat bemused, not knowing whether to accept their help or demand that they returned to the hatchcover. But then a small group of little boys cautiously approached, unsure if they would be shouted at, but their curiosity had the better of them. As I painted, they watched me, all the time inching forward. As I paused to turn round and see who was behind me their little faces would crack into big wide smiles. And then one stretched out his arm pointing to the railing. I looked. The cheeky mite was telling me where I had missed a bit!! And then they were all pointing, all over the place to bits I had missed with my paintbrush! That day they followed me everywhere, only being summoned back to the hatchcover later by their anxious parents.
And that evening more of the cadets and crew came to sit on the hatchcover to talk, play and sing. Tomorrow we would arrive in Taiwan, not knowing what would happen to these people we were already so deeply attached to. Rumour had it we could end up taking them from Taiwan to Hong Kong or the Philippines. And it might take some time before a country would take them in.
Part 3: Wellpark arrives to an uncertain welcome in Taiwan
It was decidedly hotter on Wednesday 4th October. The horizon was hazy and the coastline of Taiwan was veiled in mist as we got closer to land. Many of the teenage Vietnamese had been standing at the ship’s side, day-dreaming as they watched the water slide past Wellpark’s hull as she powered forward. Only two whole days after their rescue it seemed they were at home on the ship and enjoying the experience like some low cost cruise.
But arrival in Kaohsiung meant confrontation with reality, the reality that these people only had one rightful home, which was Vietnam. By all rights they should be returned to their homeland on arrival in Taiwan. As Wellpark entered the quarantine anchorage we could see enormous pylons, hundreds of feet high on which were mounted the biggest red flags I had ever seen. A number of jet fighters flew low across the ship. It all added to increase the air of tension.
A cutter came out to Wellpark with uniformed Port Health and Immigration authorities on board. We all wondered what would happen. We tried to pacify the Vietnamese. Perhaps naively we told them Wellpark was British property, an island of safety and security on the other side of the world. We were passionately protective of our refugees.
But the formalities seemed to be straightforward and were completed that afternoon. Perhaps things had been settled at Government level before we even arrived. But before we could berth to unload our cargo all the Vietnamese must be inoculated against Cholera and Smallpox. And a more comprehensive list of identities would have to be drawn up with left thumbprint, photograph, signature, occupation, Vietnam address, and relative addresses, where possible. Strangely it was discovered there were now 346 Vietnamese on Wellpark, three more than were counted before! The fact that the ship was now cleared ‘inward’ led us to assume the Vietnamese had been accepted by Taiwan. This was to be their new home. I was a little crestfallen. I couldn’t help feeling these kind, gentle, respectful and smiley people on board our ship deserved a better home than Taiwan, which was a country I always perceived as ‘unfriendly’.
As it turned out we were left in doubt a little longer, uncertain what would happen. The grain berth with its grain elevators was still busy unloading another ship and the ship was ordered to remain in the anchorage. Now that we were ‘in’ Taiwan it was hot and humid. Even though we were not going anywhere, we were still working hard. There was no navigating to be done, and no cargo could be unloaded, but in the heat we were worked hard to prepare the ship for a busy time in port.
Through the day there was no escape from the heat. The ship was so low on fresh water that it was rationed even for the crew. That meant no shower after a hard days work, but as the sky darkened at night we could still go out on deck and sit on No.5 hatch and relax in the cooling night air, talking amongst the families, asking them about the lives they once lived in Vietnam, and discussing what their new lives might be. Slowly friendships grew to a point where we found ourselves ‘adopting’ families. They would ask us to write down our names and home addresses or might ask for an essential item; perhaps a needle and thread to mend clothes, or for a pen and paper to write with. The crew had lent some books, a few games and even a couple of guitars to help make their stay more pleasant. Earlier in the day, quite spontaneously, the crew donated every bit of clothing they could spare. It was a token gesture because we had no clothing suitable for women or children, but the smiles on the Vietnamese faces showed it was appreciated. We had all been working so hard that we had not previously had time to stop, but at that point I noted how the crew had been transformed. Only ten days earlier in a boisterous initiation ceremony, Crossing the Line, some cadets had some rather nasty things done to them. Some were given savage haircuts, chunks cut out of one or both sides of the head , and were daubed, dumped in and forced to swallow all sorts of revolting fluids. Presumably all the Vietnamese were too polite to ever ask why some of the cadets had such patchy haircuts! First trippers had the worst time of it, but now as one, the crew had grown into one ‘family’ with the Vietnamese, a family given to sharing and helping, caring and loving each other. In a corner of the hatch cover a group of three girls were singing. Slowly they lowered their voices as the parents tucked up the younger children under the blankets stretched on the steel deck. Gradually they too settled to sleep and we retired to our bunks with sprung mattresses, our hearts filled with a sense of fulfilment and peace.
Part 4: Living in no man's land
Day 5 started slowly. The ship lay, swinging lazily on its anchor, in the hot still air. Everything was quiet, and those Vietnamese not included in the various work parties spent the time pacing restlessly up and down the deck. For the adults this new day brought more uneasiness. What was happening? What were the powers-that-be in some far off land deciding? What would be their fate?
Nerves tightened when a cutter was seen leaving the shore and heading directly towards Wellpark. As it reached the gangway we heard our new visitor was no less than one of Denholm Ship Management’s senior Director’s flown out from the UK to assist our situation. Knowing that he was on board in meetings with the Captain and senior officer’s demonstrated the seriousness of our position, one that I and the younger members of the crew had so far thought of as a jolly adventure.
Fortunately the children, who made up half the ship’s population, could not be kept down. They were everywhere, unaware of the tension that enveloped the adults. They played, and laughed, tagging along behind the cadets as if they were older brothers. In return most of the cadets, not so long out of school themselves, could not resist the urge to have fun where it was possible. To the children the ship was a massive and exciting playground, but it could also be a very dangerous place. As potential officers we were thoroughly trained in safety matters, proficient in first aid, and as firefighters and lifeboatmen. So the children were always in safe hands, not least because the crew had a genuine affection for them. We couldn’t resist their sense of fun and their smiles. Smiles are infectious things and seeing and having happy children around, I’m sure helped divert their parents minds from more worrying matters.
Sometime during the day another cadet told me to go and look at the ship’s notice board. There were a few crew members already there, reading a letter pinned to the board. It was a letter of thanks from the Vietnamese. It read:
On behalf of all the refugees in the ship and of myself May I address to you, the General Manager of the Denholm Ship Management Limited, to the Dymandee’s commander, Officers and all the Crews members our profound and Grateful thanks for Saving us from the coming death on our boat. We believe that October the Second 1978 will be an unforgotten day among the coming remaining days of our life, and we think our relative, parents and children will hear from our mouth the Dymandee’s noble and humanitarians task very soon. Really, excepted a Small privileged part of us on the boat, we were in a Semi-consciousness caused by the days lack of food, by the high move of the sea, by the mechanical trouble of the boat. So far the desire to escape has nourished our hope and given us faith. We believe in God and happily our boat was lost on Dymandees road. And Dymandee with her mechanical and human forces managed by a handful of energetic humanitarian people has pulled three hundred and fifty human lives from the nightmare of coming death to the brightness of life, from the unimaginable lack of air in the last hole of the boat, to the bright and hopeful Dymandee’s deck. So Dymandee has saved us! Thanks to God! Thanks to Dymandee’s Managers Thanks to Dymandee’s Commander, Officers and all the members of the crew
Signed, Ny quy Bao
We understood what the name Dymandee was. It’s customary for ships to have the same name on their lifeboats too. But Wellpark was a training ship and she had one addition to the lifeboats in the shape of a small sailing dinghy stowed on the stern. This little boat had been named Dymandee, a name created from the Denholm Line crest, or logo, of a blue diamond shape with a white ‘D’ in the middle of it; hence, Dymandee. Seeing the dinghy with its name on it, it is understandable someone might believe the ship was called Dymandee.
But we overlooked the error of the name. The emotive phrasing of the letter in front of us at first seemed somewhat melodramatic. But slowly as each of us read on, realisation began to dawn on us. As a youthful and carefree ship’s crew, death always seemed a lifetime away. Here, for the first time we began to appreciate that the people we now shared life with really had believed death for them was only a matter of hours or a day away. Hope had slipped away with their last food, the last distress flare and the light of day. And then came the lights of Wellpark, turning towards them like an Angel out of the darkness of despair. That letter was a message of gratitude that sank deep into the psyche of all that read it.
All that day there was no new news for the refugees. All day long we kept glancing up towards the ship’s accommodation within which we knew the Captain and Denholm Director must be in conference calls with Head Office in Glasgow and various government departments discussing what would happen next. It seemed a long drawn out day and the nightly gathering after dark on the hatch lid had a more sombre air to it. It can’t have been easy for the Vietnamese to sleep on the steel hatch cover that night.
Over in the UK my mother hadn't the slightest idea what I was doing. It would be five days more before our families and the British public would be told what had happened on the night of 1st October.
It was the same routine the next day. The bodies stirred under the blankets at about 6.30am. By that time we were already on duty again, and some of the Vietnamese asked when we slept, for they noticed we were active about the ship when they went to sleep and ’still’ on duty when they awoke. Of course we were getting sleep but only for a few hours a day.
Word was passed round that Wellpark would dock later that day at the grain terminal a few miles away. Whilst the crew test opened the cargo hatch lids, the refugees did their best to keep themselves busy. Some washed or repaired clothes, whilst the younger children drew pictures or cut shapes out of card with scissors. Many spent time washing, cleaning or reorganising the few items that constituted their home on the hatchlid, straightening and folding the few blankets each family had. Many were off the hatchlid helping in the ship’s galleys with preparing food and others in various work parties helping out the crew where it was requested. Having been strictly ordered to stay on the hatchlid in the first day, the ‘barriers’ had been eased and now some felt free to roam the ships open deck, but the ship’s accommodation remained off-limits unless the individual was on ‘official duties’.
As the grain berth became vacant by mid-afternoon, Wellpark was ordered in. The crew were busy on the bow raising the 5 tonne anchor. On the bridge wing the Captain and the Pilot were occupied passing orders from bridge wing to the man at the wheel, steering the 30,000 tonne ship towards the berth. A couple of tugs came out to assist, and as the Vietnamese watched, the ship was nudged into her parking spot opposite the grain elevators. The cadets once again showed the skills they had used in securing the refugee boat six days earlier, as they tied Wellpark tight up against the quay.
The sun was setting as two of the giant hatchlids were opened on their hydraulic rams. Almost straightaway two grain elevators marched up, guided from their little wooden control huts mounted up high, and started to suck the grain out of the ship’s holds. And they kept going. Later the refugees settled off to sleep. But the constant hum of the machinery, and the bright lights they used to work by, must have been an ugly intruder of their dreams throughout the night.
Once again I was already on duty when the Vietnamese peeked out from under their blankets next morning. I had started work again at 4.00 am, my duties to control access to the ship on the Gangway watch. We had two Taiwanese Police on board and a total of seven cadets patrolling the ship at any time on a so-called Security watch. From time to time some Taiwanese dock workers would come on board. I didn’t like their attitude. They were nosey. Too often they wandered close to the area where the refugees were sleeping, dressing or sitting. I often had to confront them. But up close I saw they appeared to be bleeding in their mouths. There was red stuff around their teeth like blood. And every so often they would spit the 'blood' on the deck. It was disgusting. Even when I discovered the red stuff they were chewing was beetlejuice, I still found the habit disgusting, as they obscenely desecrated our ‘home’ with patches of spat ‘blood’ all over the place.
Now life for the Vietnamese was less pleasant. As the grain was lifted from the holds dust drifted on the light breeze across the ship’s deck. It got everywhere and the refugees were meticulous in cleaning it from their space on the hatchlid. But worse for them , the weather turned cooler. Used to a life in tropical Vietnam, Taiwan was unfavourably cool by their standards.
Fortunately news of their plight seems to have been broadcast in Taiwan, no doubt with some anti-communist twist to it. Looking down from the gangway we were initially mystified to see large bags being dropped on the quayside by dock workers. The pile grew, until eventually it was gathered up in a crane sling and hauled on board. In it were bags and bags of clothes and footwear. The bags were opened and the whole was made into a long pile some five or six feet wide and perhaps forty feet long down the port side of No.5 hatch. It was probably one to two feet deep in places, all of it clothing donated by the peoples of Kaohsiung. The Vietnamese rummaged amongst it lifting a shirt here, a jumper there, trying on trousers or shoes. In no time the Vietnamese were re-clothed and the pyjama style clothes so many of the women and girls wore, disappeared in favour of warmer and cleaner clothes.
In fact, so many bundles of clothes were donated that a sign was placed at the foot of the gangway explaining the situation and requesting specific items, which seemed to magically appear almost immediately. A huge television turned up from somewhere and this was placed on deck for the refugees, it’s original packing box being used to shade it from the sun. It always had an audience, eager for world news sitting cross-legged on the deck in front of it. Their future was completely unknown and they looked for some clue in the news programmes as to what would happen to them. Word had it that their new home would almost certainly be in the USA.
By 9th October, life on Wellpark had settled into a regular pattern. The ship continued to unload cargo 24 hours a day. To prevent stress to the ship’s hull they had to unload the cargo reasonably evenly so this meant moving the elevators from hold to hold. A time came when the cargo had to be emptied from Hatch No.5. The games nets were taken down, along with the assorted lifeboat and winchcovers, dinghy sail and swimming pool awning that had provided patchy cover. All 346 refugees were moved up the deck to make a new home on No.3 hatch cover. Later they were moved to No.2. Each time it meant building new cover from the weather that increasingly threatened rain. But unlike ten days earlier where we raided the ship for equipment and machinery covers, we now had huge rolls of tough, blue and white stripped plastic sheeting. It made sense to rig this into Arabian tent-like shapes along side the hatch covers.
With a supply of constant fresh water available from the shore by hose, the swimming pool area on the ship was made into a crude washing station where the Vietnamese could not only wash themselves but also use the freshwater to clean clothes. Still, only refugees who were on special duties were allowed in to the ship’s accommodation. There was no apparent resentment to this, and now the crew were surrounded by friendly smiles and respectful assistance wherever they went.
Every day the Captain headed a party of senior officers and Refugee Committee members as they toured the ship, clipboard in hand checking every detail of the social arrangements for the 400 on board. With considerable organisation they considered sleeping arrangements, the shelters, food, washing facilities, and even what could be done to relieve boredom. But much of the time the Captain and Committee members were out of sight, discussing and liaising with government authorities on what would happen. If they had some idea, out on deck they gave no clue to what they knew.
Life for the crew was different. We were still only getting a few hours sleep a night, but at least we slept in mattressed bunks in air conditioned cabins, and now there was an adequate supply of freshwater, we could shower at will. We were also free to leave the ship when off-duty and most made at least one trip in to the city of Kaohsiung. Some were heading on appointments to dentists or doctors, but after browsing a few shops and markets, inevitably we sought out the bars for a cold beer and some ‘cultural education’. Normally after any long period at sea, and it had been two months since I had stepped ashore, we were eager to explore a new country, but this time, after just a brief walk, I knew I just wanted to get back to Wellpark. I bought a black leather bomber jacket thinking it was a wonderful bargain. I hadn’t heard of ‘imitation’ leather before, but that was the greatest thing about going to sea as a young man. You learnt so much in such a short time, sometimes by your mistakes!
Part 5: October 10th - a special day to remember
October 10th was a special day. Not only was it my father’s birthday, but it was also Taiwan’s Independence day. We tried to create a bit of a carnival effect and hung up every available flag on the ship. It added a bit of gaiety to the pattern of life which in the last few days had been a bit stagnant for the Vietnamese adults. With no news on their future and the uncomfortable and restricted living conditions we were all beginning to wonder how long we could be left in limbo.
As the cargo continued to be extracted from the ship’s holds, some detected more activity at ‘management level’. The development came later in the day. It hadn’t taken long after the rescue for Wellpark’s owners to contact Britain’s Foreign Office and Government with their own call for help. Wellpark was one of the first ships to encounter the new phenomena of ‘Vietnamese Boat People’. The world’s nations had no international policies on how to deal with large numbers of people either fleeing or being forced to leave a country who found refuge on a ship in neutral international waters. For the last eight days ministers and other civil servants in Britain’s government had been made aware of a British ship which had sailed into this new political problem. Unknown to us, already, at the highest Government level they had debated and cast aside Britain’s strict immigration policy. They had also allocated accommodation, located and chartered two airliners to take Wellpark’s refugees to London, and put in place all that was necessary to give 346 homeless people a new start in life. It must have been at about 10.00am in London that everything was sanctioned and the Home Secretary agreed to release the news.
There was an announcement over the tannoy. Everyone should assemble on the main deck. There was some nervousness and anticipation as the crowd gathered. The children were gathered in close to their parents and we stood to one side unsure of what the news might be. Nothing could be taken for granted, and just as much as there was positive hope, there was concern for the worst, which might mean indefinite internment with miserable living conditions, or worst of all, repatriation.
The Captain appeared, megaphone in his hands, with his Vietnamese Committee around him. As they stood up on the poop deck facing out over the crowd below, he passed the megaphone to one of the committee members and intimated for him to go ahead with the announcement.
He spoke in Vietnamese and only spoke briefly before there were gasps of delight. Some cheered and some clapped their hands. There was laughter and excited chatter. A few hugged each other. As English speakers only, we had no idea what the message was but it wasn’t hard to conclude it could only be good news. Eagerly we turned to the nearest Vietnamese asking them to explain: ‘England!’ was the reply, ‘We’re going to England!’. Our mouths must have hung open in amazement. In our eyes this was the best possible news, and we were immensely proud that our country had backed up our actions in this way.
We should have had some fireworks to celebrate with but that night, as we chatted with the Vietnamese on deck the sky was lit with the smiles on their faces. Whilst the Captain spent the night answering news reporters questions on the phone we sat talking with the refugees long in to the night. They asked so many questions about life in Britain, about the Queen and the Royal Family, about schools and work and in particular, what the weather and food was like! And they asked where we lived and what it was like there and whether they would be able to see us again. We were thrilled at the prospect.
Back in Britain for the first time, Denholm company management phoned every crew member’s next of kin to tell them what had happened in the South China Sea ten days earlier. They told them it would be in the news. And it was. Next day the Wellpark story was the leading front page story in all the national newspapers.
Part 6: Leaving Wellpark
That was it. For the last ten days we had shared our ship. Now we were going to share our country and heritage. And our home would become their home. Any last barriers that there might have been, came tumbling down. The refugee’s trust was complete. Any reason to keep a small division in case the situation became more complicated, evaporated and the crew relaxed the rules. It meant the adults came into the accommodation freely to use the crew showers and toilets. Whilst they respectfully allowed the cadets to wash in private, their inquisitive toddlers often tugged the shower curtains aside. Their older brothers and sisters roamed the ship’s accommodation, knocking politely on cadet’s cabin doors before peeking their heads round the corner with big grins across their faces. ‘Will you come out to play?’ they seemed to say, not realising that some crew members were trying to get some sleep after a night on duty. Whilst they waited for a favourite cadet to emerge from his cabin, a gang of them would make themselves busy, searching out some brushes so they could sweep the alleyways. It was not long before they found their way to the Officer’s smoke room. It became an overcrowded crèche. Off duty crew kept the children entertained, introducing them to games of darts and cards. But mostly they sat in front of the TV watching videos. They craved the cans of ice-cold Fanta freely served from the bar refrigerator savouring their first tastes of the sweet, fizzy drink.
A weight seemed to have been lifted off everyone’s shoulders and now the atmosphere was totally relaxed, with an air of expectation . They spent the day sitting patiently on deck as if waiting in a train station or airport, ready to leap up as their train or plane departure was announced. They chatted excitedly amongst themselves, flashing brilliant smiles at any of the crew that might pass. News that two chartered Boeing 707 aircraft were on their way from Britain to pick them up on the 12th had circulated the ship. They could hardly believe their luck!
A BBC News Correspondent and film crew arrived on the ship that afternoon. They filmed the refugees at ‘home’ under the awnings and the children playing darts in the smoke-room. They also filmed a little ceremony up on the ship’s bridge. It was led by Captain Vo, Captain of the refugee boat who presented his French made sextant to Captain Connell, watched by the members of the Vietnamese Committee. They also filmed me, and when I asked them where it would be shown, they said it would be beamed to the UK by satellite that night and shown on the BBC Nine O’Clock News. That night my mother, in Britain, saw me and discovered I hadn’t had my hair cut for two months!
The worsening weather should have put a dampener on things. It was getting cooler and the sky more overcast. On the 12th October the authorities warned a typhoon was about to hit western Taiwan. With 346 people living below a thin plastic awning on deck there was a frantic rush to prepare for the storm ahead. The crew worked quickly to ballast the ship down so it lay much deeper and heavier in the water, a smaller profile to be blown about. The mooring ropes tying the ship to the quay were doubled up, and all of the refugees were herded into the safe, steel casing of the ships accommodation. That night as the storm neared we were packed like sardines in Wellpark’s cabins. Designed for less than 50 souls there were now almost 400 sharing the same space.
I don’t know who slept in my bunk that night. All I know is that there were already six other people in the cabin when I returned to try and get a few hours sleep. I got a taste of the life the Vietnamese had endured on the hatchlid outside as I fell asleep on the carpeted steel deck of my cabin. I was dead to the world and never heard the cabin door open three hours later when another cadet came in to wake me to start my watch. He grabbed me by both ankles and pulled me across the floor to the door. The pain caused by the friction of my bare back burning on the carpeted floor tore me from my deep sleep rapidly even though it was only 4.00am in the morning. But 12 days of working an average of 18 hours or so, was beginning to test our stamina.
Everywhere there were bodies. The ship’s alleyways were narrow and we had to step across them, men, women and children as they slept on. It was impossible to be silent. Huddled up next to them were their only worldly possessions: often only empty 5 litre fruit tins, soft drink and beer cans, that they used to collect their meals from the ship’s galley in. And in the crush it was all too easy to kick a can, or stand on a hand..
It took two days for things to return to normal. The typhoon never did hit Taiwan, but sheered away to the south blowing itself out in the empty Pacific. But it rained constantly. The cargo hatches were closed up and no grain was unloaded.
News began to filter through to us from the UK. We got snippets of headlines, and an impression of the story being told back home. It quickly became our perception that the story was being twisted, and manipulated. Perhaps it wasn't helped by our company trying to gain maximum publicity from the event. Given that we knew the truth of every little detail, we fully appreciated why you often shouldn't believe what you read in the papers. We became angry that the media changed small details.
It was Saturday 14th October when the fire alarms went off suddenly. The bemused Vietnamese had a ring side seat to see how we reacted in an emergency, just as we had done when their distress flare was seen 12 days earlier. There was small fire in the ship’s engine room. Two of Wellpark’s engineers quickly extinguished it and the Taiwanese fire brigade were returned to base before they reached the ship. It was a last thrill in the happy adventure that had been life on Wellpark for the refugees, for that night they were supposed to leave the ship at midnight.
They didn’t go. There was an unexplained delay. Some of the Vietnamese started to get nervous. Was this a delaying tactic, a trick, before bad news would be forced on them? In fact it was nothing more than a technical problem with one of the airliners. One of the two aircraft had developed a hydraulic fault in Karachi. All day long they kicked their feet, waiting for the signal to go. They had said their farewell’s in the vacant hours of waiting, touring the ship to find crew members who had helped in some way, perhaps to lend a needle and thread, supply pen and paper, or card and scissors so the children could make things. It seemed that everyone wanted to shake my hand. As a parting gift I was given a gold cross pen, a shoe bag crafted out of second hand clothes with my name embroidered on it and a cleverly made pineapple out of blood transfusion. They were little things that meant so much and I swore I would keep them forever.
Most of them wore a baggage tag tied to their clothing. It bore their name and an official stamp, the only means of formal identification as they did not have passports. And the women wore make-up. Having searched each of them as they were rescued from the sea two weeks earlier and knowing they had nothing but the scanty, dirty clothes they stood in, I never understood where they got lipstick and eye-shadow from, especially as all the crew on Wellpark were men. Had one of them got a secret?
As crew we were resigned to them going. We had a job to do carrying cargo around the world, but each of us dreaded the emptiness we knew we would feel when they had gone. The delay of the aircraft only intensified the dread of the depression that would set in afterwards. The last night was not a joyous occasion, just an interminable extension of the waiting game.
It dragged in to the next day. The planes had finally arrived in Kaohsiung that morning. The refugees , we were told, would go at 3.30 pm . Then it was put back to 8pm. In fact it was almost 10pm by the time they left. 10 buses turned up to take them. There were final ‘Goodbyes’, promises to write, promises to meet., parting handshakes and hugs. And there were tears. Just a few wanted to stay on Wellpark, the only place they knew that was safe and secure. Carefully they walked down the long, steep gangway, past the press photographers and into the coaches. We stayed to wave, but in the dark, and from position high on the ship’s deck we only managed to see a few waving hands at the windows. The faces were out of sight.
Two and a half hours later Wellpark was at sea, urgently trying to make up time and get to dry-dock in Korea. We had taken the ship out of port after midnight and filed back quietly into the ship’s accommodation. It was a miserable place. The Vietnamese had helped to tidy up before they left, but there was still a gulf of difference compared to the way the ship had been two weeks earlier. It had to be put back in shape. But the weather was grim. Outside the ship was battering into a stiff wind , occasional rain, and plumes of spray erupted over the bow to drench the main deck and accommodation. After a short sleep the ship's crew set to work cleaning every part, toilets, showers, cabins, alleyways – everything.
As recognition of the lack of sleep we had had in the last two weeks we worked only until lunchtime. we were exhausted, and desperately needed a chance to recharge our batteries. I was just about to get some sleep myself, when it struck me how unusually quiet the ship was. I took a quick look up the alleyway. Everyone who wasn’t on duty was already fast asleep. And it was only 6.00pm! Outside the wind borne spray hosed the ship from end to end. By morning there was nothing to show there had been 346 Vietnamese on Wellpark for 14 days: not one sign.
But in the minds of 49 crew of Wellpark there was a memory that would stay bright for a lifetime. And a wish that some day those memories could be relived – those happy days of the Wellpark family.
A collection of photographs of the Vietnamese and ship's crew on Wellpark October 1978
2nd Officer Andrew Griffin
Andrew Griffin lost his fight against cancer in 2006. Gavin Engelbrecht reported on his bravery in the Northern Echo on 4 August 2006:
Tributes have been paid to a hero who braved stormy seas to rescue hundreds of Vietnamese boat people from their stricken vessel. Retired merchant navy captain Andrew Griffin, who lost his fight against cancer at the age of 55. His wife, Pat, of Chester-le-Street, said last night: "He was a quiet, brave man with a brilliant sense of humour and a big heart. He was always modest about his role, describing it as 'one of those things'.
The article is here Drew Griffin
The Wellpark Story. An award winning student film
Film-maker Joanne Wall collects her award at the Imperial War Museum
The ShipsNostalgia website was approached by a student of Brunel University named Joanne Wall who was researching the story of the rescue. She had been working with a colleague who, one day told her the story of how he came to be living in the UK. He told her the story how as a young four year old boy he and his family escaped from Vietnam, and how they were rescued by a British ship, the Wellpark. Joanne needed a subject for a film and this seemed a great tale to tell. She turned to SN for help and a number of members were only too willing to contribute to this study which was a winner of The Imperial War Museum Student Film Festival and Competition in 2006. Details are here: 2006 Annie Dodds Award for the Best Documentary Now showing, BBC Inside Out (London Region) 1st October 2008, Wellpark Reunion edition! Watch the 10 minute feature here, The Wellpark Story
A "thank you" to SN
The site owner received the following email from one of those rescued who found his way to the site:
Thank-you for welcoming me to Ship Nostalgia forum.
My name is Phong Vo, I was doing personal research on my past when I discover your forum and the talk about the M.V Wellpark. I was 7 years old when on October 1st, 1978 Hector Connell and his crew bravely rescued us in the South China Sea. Up until now there wasn't much talk about the M.V Wellpark on the Net, but when I have found your forum I was able to learn a lots more about the ship and her crew who has save us some 29 years ago.
My dad is the Vietnamese captain of the boat peoples ship. According to maritime law he was also the first Vietnamese to talk to Captain Connell before we were all rescued.
Through your forum I was able to contact Joanne Wall and have learn a great deal about that event.
I wish to thank-you and your colleague by the mean of this forum in helping me learn about my past and what happen that evening.
A new life for the Vietnamese
When the Vietnamese first arrived in Britain it was a cold and strange land. They had little with them apart from hope for a future away from oppression. They were welcomed to the UK by many organisations, but a group in Sevenoaks stood out in their efforts to help these people. Christopher Long's family was involved and has been affectionately remembered by so many of those Vietnamese, who now, a generation on, have contacted him to find out more about how they came to live in a 'foreign' land. Christopher's reports from that time, and more recent updates, can be seen here http://www.christopherlong.co.uk/oth/vietnam.html]
A Reunion with one of the Vietnamese families 2006
When we were on Wellpark each cadet and crew member seemed to 'adopt' a family. It was just a natural process, totally unconscious at the time, but a result of the bond that quickly developed between the crew and the Vietnamese.
In 2006, more than 28 years on I met with my 'adopted' family, now living in Montreal, Canada. It was an incredible moment in my life to see them all again and wonderful to see how they had all made new lives for themselves. Photos of myself on Wellpark surrounded by young boys, were replaced in Montreal with myself and a group of young men, almost every one of them a doctor or a dentist. It was a story of real hard work and courage which had got them to where they are now. One that fills me with admiration for what they have achieved.
28 years ago I had no idea that when they planned their escapes from Vietnam they knew their chance of surviving the journey was just 50%. Of some 1.5 million boat people around 700,000 - 800,000 died at sea, brutally murdered by pirates, drowned when un-seaworthy boats sank, of illness and starvation. How brave do you have to be to undertake a journey knowing that? They knew the risks, the fact that failure might mean that a whole family could be wiped out. They described the Wellpark's crew as brave and courgeous but I have just ended up being humbled by what those Vietnamese have done for themselves
Indeed they were the lucky ones, just as the crew of the Wellpark consider they were lucky to be touched by this chance meeting with such wonderful people in the South China Sea in October 1978.
Wellpark Reunions; 2008 Los Angeles: 2013 London: 2018 Montreal: 2023 Los Angeles For families and friends of those rescued and Wellpark crew members
Families and friends of those involved in the rescue by "Wellpark" of 346 Vietnamese in October 1978, and crew are urged to get in contact through the following site, Wellpark re-union. See the site for stories and memories, photos of the 2008 reunion and register for the next one in London 2013.
Who’s idea was it to have a reunion?
What was the catalyst that brought a few like minded people together with a desire to rekindle the extraordinary bond originally forged in a chance meeting in the South China Sea almost 30 years before?
No one who had been part of that encounter could have forgotten the events of the first stormy night and the amazing two weeks that followed it. But since then, over the intervening decades, the 395 people who were on “Wellpark” in October 1978, carried their memories with them as they settled far and wide across the world’s surface. Inevitably there were little clusters, formed by the pattern of permitted migration into countries like the USA, Canada and UK. Within family groups, communities and friends, the word ‘reunion’ was probably raised in conversation a few times, but it took until 2007 before a close group, inspired by Chi Pham in California, decided they would make a reunion a reality.
Unknown to them, at around the same time and 6000 miles away in the UK, there was a chance conversation between a student film-maker and her colleague at London’s Brunel University. Joanne Wall was in her final year of film-making studies and needed a subject for a short film. That wasn’t even in the back of her mind when she just happened to ask her work colleague, Howie Luong, what had prompted him to come and study in the UK. It was a simple question which might have had a simple answer, offered in conversation rather than out of intrigue or interest. But to her surprise the answer was considerably more complicated and lengthy than she expected as Howie gushed out his story of how he, as a young boy, had escaped from Vietnam with his family, and at the point of death, was rescued by a British ship called “Wellpark”. Having posed the question, Joanne suddenly discovered she had opened the door on a wonderful, untold story. She was intrigued and wanted to know more. Slowly it dawned on her that this might be the perfect story for the film she had to make.
But Howie only had the faint memories of a four year old boy, and the passed down story from his parents: no photographs, documents or film reel from 30 years ago. Joanne knew that if she was going to make a film she would have to do her research. She just had one name to work with, the ship’s name, “Wellpark”, so she wrote to Denholm Ship Management who owned the vessel back in 1978. Fortuitously her letter found its way to The Chairman’s PA, Margaret Dalziel. She was aware of a website forum www.shipsnostalgia.com which many old seafarers were using to share stories of their experiences at sea and so in May 2007 she posted a note requesting anyone with information on the Wellpark rescue of the Vietnamese to contact Joanne Wall. It took until 30th July for Andrew Dryburgh, one of the ship’s lifeboat crew, to spot the entry. Joanne was able to interview him and get a first hand account of the rescue.
It was four weeks later that a bored Mike Newton, also one of Wellpark’s cadets, was playing at putting words in Google, to see what they would bring up, and just happened to put in ‘Wellpark’. In seconds the search engine came up with a list of articles featuring that name. Hitting the first link he was shocked to see that it was a newspaper article concerning the recent passing of Andy Griffin who he remembered was Wellpark’s Second Officer.
Having read this, and now rather unsettled, he clicked on the second link. This took him to a website he had never heard of before called ShipsNostalgia but straight away he found himself reading Margaret Dalziel’s posting. In it he recognised Andrew Dryburgh from his username. When Mike emailed Andy he mentioned he still had over a hundred photos of the time when the Vietnamese were on Wellpark, newspaper cuttings and letters he had written home about the event: ideal material for Joanne. Andy encouraged Mike to contact Joanne straight away.
The photos, magazine and newspaper articles, and letters had to be copied quickly. Joanne had a deadline to submit her film. Promptly every available slide, magazine and paper article, and letter was scanned and copied to disc and sent off to London.
But duplicating the pictures from 29 year old, dusty, 35mm colour slides into a digital format can be a slow process. Without professional equipment it can take a long time per copy, time in which you become very familiar with the detail of each picture. For Mike, this process only refreshed the memories, so that having copied them he didn’t want that to be the end of them. Stood on “Wellpark” back in October 1978 Captain Hector Connell had asked the young cadet to act as ship’s photographer and record the event, and he had taken as many photos as his limited film supply would allow. But it was more than two months before he returned to the UK, and by then the story had gone ‘quiet’. The photographs he had were duly processed and stored away.
29 years later they had now been copied to digital format. He can’t explain why, but he decided to post them on the photo sharing website, flickr . Out of the blue, first one, then a trickle of emails emerged from the ether, people who claimed they were in the photos. One of them was Chi Pham.
The rest, as they say, is history. The connections were made: a chance conversation in a film studio, a bored moment playing with Google, and someone spotting a 29 year old photograph of themselves on the internet. All came together as an extraordinary chain of unconnected events that led to a reunion 30 years on from a chance meeting between a British ship and 346 refugees escaping from Vietnam in 1978.
'Soul's Saved 346' - 30th Anniversary Commemoration in The Otago Daily Times
There is a moving article by Quentin Fogarty published on 20 September 2008 shortly after Cadet Craig Holmes (now pilot) returned from the reunion to his home in New Zealand.The emotional story is described in the Otago Times
And one young Vietnamese girl's description of the harrowing journey is described in the Orange County Register . Follow the link to the additional pictures.
- Shipping World and Shipbuilder - June 1978
- Miramar Ship Index
- The Northern Echo: Aug 4 2006 (background information about the Vietnamese Boat People and Andrew Griffin
- Photo collection by Pentlandpirate is here:
- Souls Saved 346
2. SN member Benjidog (organisation and formatting of Guide entry)