LETTER

A Tioman disaster waiting to happen

Alicia Au

Published
Modified 29 Jan 2008, 10:21 am

On Saturday June 3, we boarded a ferry service at Mersing for the trip to Tioman island for our holiday.

Once the boat is fully packed; yes, you did read correctly, it is packed not loaded; because as always with Bluewater (the ferry operator), the boats are grossly overloaded, in this instance with 10 persons, including one baby in arms, standing in the aisle or precariously in the rear deck well of this small boat where they are at liberty to breath in the aromatic scent of engine exhaust fumes.

Off we go, finally leaving the jetty at around 7.10am, down the river we go to come to a grinding halt on the sandbank. After an hour, a smaller boat came along side and 75 percent of the passengers were asked to cross deck to the smaller boat, which then takes us clear of the sand bar, out to the open sea.

One point to note concerning cross-decking, according to Mersing Maritime police, is that whenever the ferry operators need to cross deck passengers, they are required to inform the police in advance, and a maritime police vessel must be in attendance. No sight of such here, or as you will see, on the next occasion.

The boats finally arrive in Tioman where for the next day or so, the fruits of the island are enjoyed by all, wonderful diving opportunities, very good food and accommodation, until finally it is time to depart on the 3pm boat to Mersing, once again with Bluewater services.

To start with, we arrive at the jetty in good time, generally for a 3pm boat, and with this particular operator, the boats are always a good 30 to 45 minutes late in arriving, however as always, we are on the jetty in good time, 15 minutes before the scheduled 3pm arrival.

At 5pm, there is no sign of the boat and after calls to Mersing and the Bluewater office, we are finally told that the delays and missing boat are because the Maritime police are stopping the Bluewater boats as they depart Mersing and issuing summons for being overloaded, having defective equipment, etc.

Finally at 6.15pm, a large Bluewater ferry, numbered 9, arrives and collects us from the jetty. We were accompanied by another Bluewater ferry, numbered 8. On ferry 9 there is a wide cross section of people, ranging from very young children, through to parents and elderly grandparents, and including one gentleman in a wheelchair. As we sit gazing out at the sunset, at around 7.10pm, ferry 9 suddenly slows down and pulls alongside ferry 8.

In this fading light, the doors are opened and without any warning, or even a polite request, the crew demands that passengers from ferry 9 cross deck to ferry 8.

Now consider this when the boats are in mid-water, at dusk with land was out of sight. The crew forced people across from one boat to another, despite protests being made that this was dangerous, illegal, and downright stupid. Women, children, the elderly and the wheelchair passenger were all forced across the widely moving gap between the two boats.

Protests to the captain of ferry 9 fell upon deaf ears. It was quite obvious, from the nature of this action, that this dangerous transfer at sea was premeditated for at any time during the early parts of the voyage, this transfer could have been effected in total safety whilst the boats were located at the same jetty.

Ferry 8 was by now grossly overcrowded, the forward emergency exit was blocked by the passenger in the wheelchair, the port and starboard exits were blocked by mountains of baggage and by people crammed into the small available space. People were standing in the rear deck well, sitting on the stairway to the upper deck, with even people squatting in the toilet because the boat was so overloaded, blocked the aft exit.

As the boat approaches Mersing, it again stops and it is the same old story - we are asked to cross deck into smaller boats for the journey to Mersing jetty. Again women, children, the elderly are forced to jump down from a high ferry to a much lower-lying speed boat, the jump was some four feet. No assistance from crew members as they are to busy holding onto the ropes. So everyone was forced to look after themselves in making this leap, literally into the dark.

We hear a mumble from a crew person that this is necessary because the tide is too low for the ferry. However, 15 minutes after disembarking at the jetty, the large ferry comes up river and also moors.

When making a police report, we were advised that Bluewater had been receiving a large number of summonses during the day mainly for this practice of overloading and we were further advised that cross-decking of passengers is only allowed under the direct supervision of the maritime authorities. This operator shows a blatant disregard for passenger safety, their arrogance and the high-handed manner they deal with their clients has to be experienced to be believed.

At the very least, the captains of Bluewater ferries 8 and 9 should have their certification revoked, their comments and attitudes show them to be quite unfit to hold a position of any responsibility. One can only surmise, as on this occasion they were lucky. Should an accident have occurred, they would no doubt be running for cover and pointing the finger of blame everywhere except at the people it should be pointed at, themselves.

Issuing summonses against the operator is a joke. Any paltry fine likely as the outcome of this weekend's shenanigans will be far outweighed by the collections from fare-paying clients they regard as so much cattle. Again at the very least, this company's licence to operate should be revoked with immediate effect, and thus send a message to all ferry services that such downright dangerous practice and poor service attitudes will no longer be tolerated.

The real losers here are the Tourism Board of Malaysia, and the resorts and diving operators on Tioman, whose hard work has been wasted. We as a group will not return to this location, you can be certain that word-of-mouth from such a large group of people will dissuade even larger numbers of people to change their vacation locations to elsewhere.

How long can such poor service be tolerated? Or are the authorities simply waiting to react to a large-scale disaster involving one of these cowboy operators before wringing their hands and saying they were not aware of the situation?