In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, approximately two million refugees fled from Vietnam in small boats and ships. This is the story of a rescue in the South China Sea and the CLARA MÆRSK, one of 23 modern-day ship models on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
The model of the CLARA MÆRSK, a refrigerated cargo ship built in 1968, was donated to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum in 2005 when it opened at Murray House in Stanley. Every ship and those who sail have stories to tell, however, the story of the CLARA MÆRSK is unique: she was part of the world’s largest rescue operation at sea. In 1975, CLARA MÆRSK rescued 3,628 Vietnamese shipwrecked refugees in the South China Sea.
Historical Rescue Operation
On 2 May 1975 07.18 local time CLARA MÆRSK received a distress signal from a Vietnamese vessel, TRUONG XUAN:
“From Master TRUONGXUAN/XVLX have about 3,000 refugees from Saigon onboard they are hungry and thirsty stop engine broken down and leaking stop our position estimated 8.35 north 107 east at 21.00 GMT request assistance immediately Master.”
CLARA MÆRSK changed her course at 07.25. The next four hours were used to prepare the arrival of the refugees: shipside net slings and the pilot ladder were made ready, the galley started working on preparing food, lifeboats were checked and made ready, empty barrels were cleaned for fresh water use and the complement of 32 plus 3 officer’s wives had an early lunch to prepare themselves.
Just after 12.00 a visual was made with TRUONG XUAN and at 12.25 CLARA MÆRSK stopped alongside the vessel and the rescue operation commenced at the position of 8º54’ North and 107º02’ East, which is about 80 miles south of the Mekong Delta and 50 miles from the Vietnamese coast. The weather was clear and the sea was calm.
At a brief conference, the captains of the two vessels arranged the rescue operations, which went without the loss of lives. The refugees; children and women first, went on to CLARA MÆRSK via pilot ladders, gangway, net slings and the disabled ship’s bridge wing. All refugees were safely on board at 16.30.
The refugees took shelter in empty containers on deck, in all hatches where the vessel’s air conditioning kept a comfortable temperature and all over in the accommodation of CLARA MÆRSK. Fortunately, the vessel had only about 1,000 tons cargo on board giving extra space in the holds to the refugees.
Committees were established to overlook health care, food and water distribution, sanitary matters and communication. Special precautions were taken to protect the safety of the ship, including establishment of a special watch team. The general health condition was good, and doctors among the refugees organised help for the needed, among these a wounded soldier and several newborns.
The Maersk Line organisation in Hong Kong informed the Hong Kong authorities of the situation following which the authorities stated that they would assist in every possible way.
CLARA MÆRSK arrived in Hong Kong Sunday 4 May 1975 at 7.40 p.m. at the newly established Kwai Chung (berth three) container terminal. Disembarkation began immediately and lasted for seven hours. Upon disembarkation the number of refugees was confirmed at 3,628. The crew of CLARA MÆRSK counted 33 persons.
Facts about CLARA MÆRSK
Vessel type: Cargo Liner
Entered fleet: 28 May 1968
Ship yard: Kockums mekaniska Verkstads A/B, Malmoe, Sweden
Ship yard no./New building no.: 507
Built year: 1968
Original International GT: 11000
Original Length Overall LOA (m): 170.7
Original Beam MLD (m): 24.4
Original Depth MLD (m): 16
Original Summer DW (metric t): 13940
Original Speed (knots): 22.6
Original Main Engine (Type / Make): Eriksberg Burmeister & Wain 984VT2 BF180
Original Horsepower: 22800
In 1967 A.P. Møller received the first liner of the series which later would be known as the Seven C-Sisters. CLARA MÆRSK was named on 19 December 1967, a snowy day in southern Sweden, and delivered to the owner on 28 May 1968.
CLARA MÆRSK is named after Clara Wallace, a cousin to Mrs. Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller, ship owner and founder A.P. Møller’s wife.
Ten days after delivery from the shipyard, CLARA MÆRSK entered Maersk Line’s Far East Service departing from Montreal on 7 June 1968. On her first voyage, CLARA MÆRSK called ports on the United States East Coast, passed through the Panama Canal and called ports on the United States West Coast before crossing the Pacific. After calling the Philippines CLARA MÆRSK called Hong Kong on 30 July 1968 and returned via Singapore to the United States.
In 1981 CLARA MÆRSK was extended and rebuilt into a cell-containership at Hitachi Zosen; the capacity was 1,222 TEU. The ship was sold in 1988.
Beyond the Rescue
Three of the persons saved on CLARA MÆRSK later worked for A.P. Moller – Maersk. Linh Nguyen wrote a book about her life, her family being one of thousands of other Vietnamese that successfully settled in outside their home country and Captain Ngoc Nguyen, who in 2014 saw his dream come true when he became a captain. On his maiden voyage in such capacity he met the very captain on duty when he was rescued at the age of 13 (see related story in the April 2014 issue of Maersk Post, below).
In October 2013 a memorial plaque was unveiled at Esplanaden by Ane M.M. Uggla. Following the passing in 2012 of His Excellency Maersk Mc-Kinney Møller, the Vietnamese community in Denmark, and those rescued on Maersk ships but living abroad, wanted to express their gratitude and donated a memorial that reads “With deepest gratitude to all the ships’ crews and to Denmark for rescuing us on our journey to freedom. Vietnamese Boat Refugees”. In her speech, Ane Uggla talked about good seamanship and about the natural step to help others when in need at sea.
Throughout the years, Maersk vessels have participated in rescue operations all over the world. In total, 36 Maersk Line ships participated in 61 rescue operations during 1975-1989 saving a total of 6,954 persons. In 1990 Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller received on behalf of Maersk Line a recognition from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of the rescue of 6,954 boat people during the period 1975-1989.
The Hong Kong Maritime Museum credits Mr. Henning Morgen, General Manager, Group History Documentation of A.P. Moller – Maersk, for providing this background information.