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Publication Date : 31-07-2013
Mechanic says his life has always been a simple one, tied to the sea, islands and fishing grounds
When their ships suffer damage during a voyage, the Vietnamese fishermen of Da Tay Island go looking for one man.
Mai Kha Duc, the mechanic they call "doctor", has built up a reputation as a dedicated supporter of the local seafarers who has bravely saved lives and livelihoods through his work time and time again.
Mai works for the Bien Dong (East Sea) Seafood Services Company, which operates in the waters around Da Tay Island in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago of Khanh Hoa Province, in the south central coast of Vietnam.
Instantly recognisable for his dirty, oil-covered face, greying hair and calloused hands, Mai is 42 but he looks closer to 60. His dishevelled appearance is the result of hours on end spent repairing engines and other malfunctioning machinery in dark and damp vessels.
Mai was born in a poor village in the central province of Thanh Hoa. In 1989 he joined the navy and completed his training at Phu Quoc Island (Kien Giang Province), before attending the School of Naval Engineering in Ho Chi Minh City.
In 1991 he was first sent to the Truong Sa islands to serve at a transportation unit. During his time in the archipelago, Mai and his colleagues repaired many fishing boats, getting to grips with their labour-intensive work.
"The life of the engine repairman is always spent in the dark hold, sometimes for a whole day. The repairman does not care about space and time, only about completing his task," he says.
With rapidly growing experience in the field, Mai was quick to seize the opportunity when the East Sea Seafood Services Company came calling.
"It is important work. When our fishermen's boats get damage or the engines break down, we are called in for immediate help. We cannot afford to hesitate, because it costs hundreds of million dong in lost revenue for the fishermen if their boat is idle for a day. The job is very hard, but after finishing a successful repair, the pleasure is immense."
The life of a ship mechanic is certainly not easy. In order to earn a decent salary of about 8 million dong (US$380) a month, Mai has to work in a very harsh environment, surrounded by the smell of gasoline and oil.
In the dark depths of the ship, he holds a torch in his mouth, fumbles to turn each screw, and assembles parts all while the boat staggers on the waves.
He faces the greatest danger when the engine block of the boat sinks down in the water. In those situations he has to dive in to retrieve it and bring it back on board for repairs.
He can recall a number more than one near-death experience in his many years of service. Working in such conditions would put off some, but Mai lives for the work, his satisfaction culminating when the engine fires up once more after several hours of downtime.
In 2012 Mai saved 22 fishing boats and he rescued 18 others the year before, making him a very popular man in the community.
Of all the boats he has repaired, there is one in particular that stays vividly in his memory. It was the night of December 22, 2011.
That evening, he and his colleagues celebrated the Anniversary of the Vietnam People's Army until midnight. At 1am, he became restless, missing his far-away family. An SOS soon arrived from a fishing boat in northern waters of Da Tay Island, compounding his unease.
In the middle of the dark night, he led his ship through enormous waves towards the position of the stricken fishing boat.
That boat's engine block was broken and water was overflowing quickly into the middle compartment, increasing the risk of the vessel sinking. Without hesitation, Mai retrieved his trusty torch and entered the hold to retrieve and repair the engine. After six hours of intensive work in the near pitch-black, the engine sound roared triumphantly into the night sky, triggering an outpouring of joy and relief.
That night, Mai and his team could not sleep. The excitement from saving the ship filled their hearts.
Tran Van Tu, a fisherman from Vung Tau who was helped by Mai during one of his expeditions near Da Lat Island, says: "At the sea, if the ship engine breaks down, without the help of mechanics like Mai, we would have to ask other ships to pull us back to shore. The cost of a failed voyage would be at least 200 million dong, not including hundreds of millions of dong spent buying ice (to preserve fish) and other items before the ship set sail, and the waste of labour on board."
Chu Minh Son, head of the Management Board for Da Tay Island Fishing Logistics Service Centre, describes Mai as a man of few words.
"He loves his job and takes great pains to study engines so he can fix different kinds of breakdown. Many fishermen have offered him extra money, but he always refuses. He is just happy to enjoy some drinks with them afterwards."
Mai says his life has always been a simple one, tied to the sea, islands and fishing grounds.
"My wife and children live far away at home. I visit them for half the month and then I come back to the sea. My wife says that I miss the sea more than I miss my family. Seafarers have many joys, and mine is the growling of an engine after many hours of silence."
When the East Sea Seafood Services Company was established, Mai was one of the first men hired. After joining the company, he was sent abroad on a 5,000-tonne fishing ship operated by a South Korea firm in the South American sea, where he worked for six years.
"Those times were very hard, but I had a chance to "discover" different kinds of engines, from Hyundai and Daewoo of South Korea to Japan's Yamaha, Mitsubishi and Nissan," he remembers.
Although he was well-paid and could send money back to his family, he eventually decided to return to the Truong Sa islands and make it his home.
"Now I have decided to remain here with the fishermen until the end of my life," he says.
It seems that the "doctor" is here to stay.