The metal ladder in the ferry beckoned, and for a moment I was a young boy again, wondering what treasures were hidden up there. I felt a childlike giddiness as I took the first few steps up the ladder, knowing that, 20 years later, I was finally about to find out.
As I eased myself out of the narrow confinements of the ladder shaft , I was met by the sparsely furnished interior of the control room. It spoke of years of use and a lot of wear and tear, and I was taken aback by how spare and outdated it was.
"Don't be surprised," said Captain Elias Rahim, a soft-spoken man with a weather beaten face. "It still works."
I was aboard the Pulau Rawa, one of the ferries in operation in Penang's iconic ferry service fleet. Today, I got to speak with the captain who pilots one of Penang's icons.
Elias is very much aware of the ferry's status. "I am proud of our ferries because every Malaysian knows of the Penang ferry service. It gives me great joy to see visitors to Penang snapping pictures and recording moments on board our ferries. I especially love seeing the children happy and enjoying the ferry journey during the school holidays."
The ferries have long been synonymous with Penang and have been featured in many travelogues and brochures the world over. Their ubiquitous yellow hue has only been recently replaced by a diverse body of colours, aimed at breathing new life and identity to the ferries that are named aft er the many islands of Malaysia. I was pleased to see that the Pulau Rawa is still a bright yellow, fitting since it is the oldest ferry in operation.
" The ferry service is Penang," the captain said.
The Penang Ferry Service is the oldest ferry service in Malaysia. It began its maiden voyage in 1920 and today, is jointly operated by the Penang Port Commission and Penang Port Sdn Bhd.
Captain Elias Rahim.
Elias was born and raised as a son of a fisherman in Kuala Muda, and the former seaman of the Royal Malaysian Navy had no difficulties in seeking employment. "It was easy for me to be in this line of work as I have a strong affinity with the sea," he said. "I have been working with the port authorities for 12 years. Prior to being promoted to captain five years ago, I was a boat and tug boat pilot. The sea has always been a big part on my life."
Though one may think that the life of a captain sailing back and forth along the channel is an easy breezy task, Elias has a rather arduous working schedule. "I work six days out of the week for eight hours per day. Also, for four days out of the month I have to work 16-hour shifts which would be included as my overtime."
Furthermore, the captain is responsibility for the safety of his passengers and crew if things go awry. His job is not always smooth sailing as the perils of the sea are never too far away to make the task more difficult.
"Along with my small crew, I ensure the safety and smooth passage of travel for passengers between Weld Quay and Butterworth. Ensuring their safety is my utmost responsibility and duty as a captain," Elias said. "I also have to ensure that the ferry is operating smoothly and that all safety equipment is inspected as part of my daily routine."
What about collisions? "Ferry so slow, how to have accidents?"
Having said that, safety concerns are heightened during stormy weather. "We do not want anything unfortunate to happen to our passengers, especially the elderly, expectant mothers and motorcyclists. If the waves become choppy it makes docking very challenging. And some big knocks have occurred while docking, causing motorcycles to fall."
He looked out the window. “We’re approaching Butterworth. Let's continue on the other side." I was ushered across the open top deck to the other control room at the opposite end of the ferry.
It was pleasantly breezy and the sun shone through blue skies bedecked with soft wispy clouds to give the channel an inviting turquoise sheen.
Elias waved a hand at all this. "This is why I love my job."
From the Raja Uda ferry terminal at Weld Quay, George Town, we were about three quarters of the way to docking at the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal in Butterworth. I asked him what he thought of the criticisms that have been levied against the ferry service.
"I feel that our ferry service is more than adequate," he countered. "Before the bridge was erected, there were 12 ferries in service. Now there are only five. A single ferry ride takes about 12 minutes. People do not have to wait long for the next ferry ride. It is usually only a six to eight-minute wait. The five ferries are in service from morning to evening, after which a single ferry is in service until 1am. We used to operate till the wee hours of the morning but the extremely low volume of passengers did not justify the cost."
However, when an accident occurs on the Penang Bridge, ferry ridership significantly increases.
"We usually add a sixth ferry if the traffic congestion on the bridge is bad. I think that the five ferries in operation now are more than adequate but there's always room for improvement. There's also a need to upgrade our existing ferries if we want to improve our service."
I nodded in acknowledgment, as some of the ferries are old. The Pulau Rawa itself came out from the shipyards of Hong Kong in 1975 and many of the navigational instruments are obsolete. Elias was quick to point out that they do have a new GPS device mounted in one of the control rooms.
"Though old, these ferries are still operational and inspected on a yearly basis," he reassured me. I looked across at the ferry that was heading in the opposite direction and saw that its passenger deck was sparsely occupied. The captain seemed to read my mind and sighed. "I believe that when the second bridge is ready, there will be an even lower volume of passengers, which will not be good for us."
In spite of his worries, Elias is optimistic about the future. "I believe we will not die out as we still have a part to play. George Town is a heritage city, and we are a part of that heritage too. We are closer than the bridges to George Town." To survive, the ferries' role may have to change from being a medium of public transportation to a tourist attraction.
"The ferry ride is always more enjoyable and relaxing for passengers who want to stretch their legs on the upper deck and enjoy the cool sea breeze," he said, more buoyantly. "It's all about the journey, not always the destination, and certainly not about how fast we can get there."
I mused over his statement and wondered if we too can do the same to enjoy our life's journey at a leisurely pace and reconnect with the things and people that we have dissociated ourselves from.
So what does the future hold for this unassuming ferry captain?
"I will remain as a captain for another 12 years or so before I retire. And then I'll be a self-employed shore fisherman." There was a broad smile as he said this, and a gleam in his eye, a man destined to live his entire life at sea.
As I disembarked from the Pulau Rawa, I recalled and rediscovered another childhood sentiment which has become more pronounced than ever before.
I would still very much want to be captain of my own ship. Maybe someday.
Daniel Lee is a research officer with SERI and a fulltime explorer and self-indulgent hobbyist.