The news came to us early Thursday morning, the way news often does here on the bay — as scuttlebutt. But the news didn’t persist as rumor for long, and soon we knew the horrible truth: A tourist boat moored off Titov Island had sunk, drowning 12 passengers.
It’ll be some time before we know how this could have happened. News reports suggest the boat was listing in the evening, and that a plank ripped loose at five o’clock in the morning, flooding the hold and sinking the boat.
My thoughts, when I first heard the news, went immediately out to the families of these passengers. I thought of the calls they would be receiving from our corner of the world, communicating this dreadful news, and how their lives would never be the same.
My thoughts then turned to the welfare of my own passengers. I frequently ask myself the same question: Have we on the Emeraude done everything possible to ensure that our passengers are as safe as possible on their Halong Bay cruise?
To ensure safety, we follow a strict regimen. Every year, usually in July, we haul the Emeraude out of Halong Bay for maintenance in a shipyard we trust. We’re giving up almost a month of business to make this inspection, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
For four weeks, we inspect every seam on this steel-hulled vessel. We check every rivet. And when we find anything – and I mean anything – that doesn’t stand up to the strictest international maritime standards, we fix it.
Beyond the rigors of this four-week inspection, we employ divers twice a year to inspect the hull. In dry-dock, we can be sure that our hull is sound. But that’s not enough. We want to be sure, as well, that when our vessel is floating on the jade waters of Halong Bay that our hull is as sound as it was when we inspected it at the shipyard. We’re the only steel-hulled vessel on the Halong Bay, and we derive a fair degree of security from that fact alone.
Checks and balances: They have to happen, at every level. On a weekly basis, the group general manager of Apple Tree Hospitality Group, Kurt Walter, drives from Hanoi to Halong Bay to spend a night on the Emeraude. Kurt is Swiss, and he believes this ship should run as dependably as a Swiss watch. “Blancpain, Jacques,” he says to me. “Blancpain.” On the Emeraude, we strive for Blancpain.
Monthly, we inspect all of our life-saving equipment. We conduct regular fire and emergency drills with the entire crew. This is very important. If something were ever to happen, the difference between a well-drilled crew and an untrained crew can be fatal. We don’t want to tempt fate. Before every cruise, our purser makes sure that our passengers know what to do in case of an emergency. In the event of an emergency, a ship-wide general alarm sounds, and then a public address system provides additional information. We have muster lists for all of the crew. In other words, if there is a general alarm, every member of our crew has a place to be and a role to play.
If the emergency is medical, and particular to an individual passenger, we take care of those needs in an on board ‘hospital room.’ Should a patient need more sophisticated medical assistance, we have access to an international clinic in Hanoi, where the doctors are available around the clock.
Our crew is, hands down, best on the bay. That’s my personal opinion, of course, but if you consider their training and certification, you’d be hard pressed to find a more able crew. They’re all certified in fire-fighting and swimming. My right hand man on the Emeraude, Capt. La Khac Binh, received his first class captain’s certificate in 2009, as well as fire-fighting and swimming certificates.
As for myself, I’ve been sailing Vietnam’s waters since before 1975. I’m French, but my heart is here in Vietnam. Occasionally, passengers ask for my qualifications, and I’m happy to oblige. I know they’ll feel safer knowing that I’ve captained boats around the world for nearly 40 years, that I have advanced certifications in fire fighting, in safety training, in rescue boat survival, crisis management, medical training and radio operations that have to do with global maritime distress.
We handle safety on the Emeraude the way cruise ships handle safety across the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Recently, for example, we upgraded our GPS technology to better navigate in fog. We’re committed to doing all we can to make sure our passengers are as safe in their cabins as possible. This is costly, but these costs are trivial when held up against the possible consequences of not doing all we can.