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Your friendly neighbourhood boatman – Mr Loh 1 Nov 2006

Posted by cat64fish in Land-lubber stories.
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Yesterday, my favorite boatman of 20 years, Mr Loh, informed me that he’d sold off his boat and that he was retiring. A sad day for us, as we bid goodbye to a character that has been one of the mainstays in the Singapore diving scene. There are more stories on our intrepid boatman here.

Mr Loh at the helm
Mr Loh at the helm of SC2660G

Riding in a bumboat to the southern islands could be called a “Singapore” experience. These bumboats were the workhorses in Singapore’s success as a trading port, and were used to transport trade goods to and from the larger cargo ships anchored offshore. With their 2 stroke engines, the thump from the pistons produces a sound (and vibration) that is almost as distinctive as the roar of a Harley-D.

The deep, scalloped boat, with its raised front was ideal (or maybe we were just used to it) for loading gear, and could hold quite a large quantity of gear and divers. The slow chug out and back was a good time to get to catch up with friends, take in the sea breeze or just catch up on some sleep.

Some of the things we have loaded onto Mr Loh's boat
Some of the things we have loaded onto Mr Loh’s boat, besides the normal stuff like dive gear

During his 20 years at sea, he, along with different members of the NUS team, must have been to almost all the islands and patch reefs in the southern islands. His wealth of experience about the islands and their currents has been one of the factors that ensured a safe diving trip. He’d always know when diving was possible at which sites, or what possible problems might occur, so that we’d prepare for them.

He and his boat, have participated in coral surveys, coral photo-physiology studies (usually 2-week long trips), sponge collection (by visiting researchers), artificial reef studies – all to sites that a majority of Singaporeans don’t even know exist.

Reef Friends survey at Pulau Jong
Reef Friends survey at Pulau Jong in 2005

Setting anchor at Pulau Satumu
Mr Loh setting anchor at Pulau Satumu

He was always cheerful and helpful, even that time at Kusu Island when he had to endure a bumpy topside while we were all underwater surveying the reef. He loved “tech”, and would discuss the merits of this and that hand phone (he had three, at last count), and the hi-fi system he rigged up on his boat. There was no shortage of, depending on his mood and what he brought from home, oldies, techno-music or Hokkien songs to accompany our surface interval.

Many of his family members were also boatmen – his dad, his cousin, and an uncle, all used to operate bumboats off Jardine Steps at what is now Harbourfront. It was a sad day when the powers-that-be decided it was time for Jardine Steps to close. Considered “unsightly” by the powers-that-be used to the sleek lines of passenger liners and fiberglass speedboats, and unable to compete in terms of speed (compared to the super-fast high power passenger ferries), they were basically put out to pasture, to irk out their remaining days as best they could. Many decided to call it quits, so from about 20 operating bumboats, only a handful survived the transition to West Coast Jetty.

The decline in the bumboat business coincided with the decline of interest in diving in Singapore (Malaysia is NOT part of Singapore, last time I looked). The usual crowd of 10 or more bumboats heading out to the southern islands was normal for a weekend; however, while perception that Singapore waters had “nothing to see” are largely unfounded, divers not used to training in Singapore waters found it difficult to cope, perpetuating this erroneous perception.

With his retirement, a chapter in Singapore’s history closes – one that sadly, will not go into any of the history books. Singapore may have started as a port town, but like many cultures before it, most Singaporeans have lost touch with their heritage – in this case, a link with the sea. Our world has gotten bigger, what with the internet, international trade and supersonic travel can offer; but also smaller, as we increasingly focus on what is within the “walls” and comfort zones of our own devising that surround us.

More stories and info about diving in Singapore can also be found on the links provided on this blog.

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