In his 1917 novel The Shadow-Line, Joseph Conrad’s young character, on leaving his ship in Singapore, shuns the grand hotel to stay at the Officers’ Sailors’ Home. He describes the building: “a large bungalow with a wide verandah and a curiously suburban-looking little garden of bushes and a few trees between it and the street. That institution partook somewhat of the character of a residential club, but with a slightly governmental flavour about it, because it was administered by the Harbour Office.”
The building described by Conrad is long since gone. Located at the corner of North Bridge Road and Stamford Road, the site was sold in 1924 and is now occupied by the Capitol Building.
The proceeds from this sale were combined with the funds left by a benefactor to purchase a site at One Anson Road where a new sailors’ home, called Connell House, was opened in 1925. Operated by a London-based charity, the Mission to Seafarers, Connell House continued to provide for sailors until 1971. The Mission to Seafarers now provides services to seafarers in Singapore from a from a drop-in centre at Jurong Port.
Accommodation for seafarers visiting Singapore is still provided by the Singapore Mariners Club, owned by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). An MPA spokesperson explained that the Singapore Mariners’ Club (SMC) was formed in 1974 under the then National Maritime Board. At that time it was located at South Quay. A decade later, in 1984, it was moved to its current location in Maritime House at 120 Cantonment Road.
Conrad’s Sailors’ Home traced its beginnings to about 1850 and probably only served English or European sailors. After 160 years, a lot has changed in Singapore and there have been great changes in the make-up of crews on the modern vessels that call there. What has not changed is that Singapore remains a major port for crew changes and mariners do not always arrive just as their ship is coming alongside.
In early March 2010, there was a range of mariners passing through the Mariners’ Club. A group of Thai sailors had flown in from Bangkok and were waiting for the container ship that they were to join to come alongside the pier. Another group of seamen were climbing into a van to go to join Swire Pacific’s 58-metre AHTS ‘Pacific Marlin’ that has also done work as a fisheries patrol boat in the British Indian Ocean Territories.
In a small library where books can be exchanged by mariners, Burmese electrical engineer San San Hlay waited for her father, Bo Hnin, to return from shopping. She had come to visit him while he was staying at the Seafarers Club to await the arrival of a Japanese ship on which he is the First Officer. San San was using the time to search the internet for work in her field.
The little library occupied a corner of the recreation room that has a pool table, TV, exercise equipment and leather lounge chairs along with the receptionist for the accommodation. Mariners can register for one of the 46 air-conditioned apartments by showing their seaman’s discharge book. In many cases shipping agents actually make the arrangements for mariners in transit. At least one retired Japanese captain continues to visit the club from time to time.
The club also has a restaurant and arranges regular sporting and cultural activities for visiting seamen. Seafarers that visit the Mariners’ Club come from over 40 countries, mostly from Asia and Europe. A spokesperson for the MPA explained that in the past two years, an average of 6,000 seafarers stayed at SMC’s apartments each year. This equals about a 90 percent occupancy rate.
As in Conrad’s day, Singapore remains a major maritime crossroad both as a shipping port but also as an operations base for shipping companies. Farstad Shipping a major player in offshore services maintains a personnel office in Singapore.
Gede Darmady, a cook on one of their OSVs, had flown in from Jakarta for a company medical on his way back from leave. The company covered his transportation, accommodation and food. Since his vessel was in Bali he would fly back out the next day to join it.
When Conrad came ashore in Singapore from his steamship at the beginning of the last century he didn’t find another ship in the port. But at the mariners lodgings he heard of a sailing ship up in Bangkok that needed a captain. And there, in the Singapore accommodations for mariners, began another great sea story.