On the bridge of the MV Rainforest, the newest vessel added to the fleet of ships operated by Morobe Coast Shipping Services, Zeriga Oida, seafarer issues a set of short and precise orders.
“Port to starboard…” he says with his eyes to the front. The order is echoed on the bridge as the vessel inches several degrees to the right. He barks several more orders and each is repeated and followed with precision.
It is one o’clock in the morning as the vessel comes to dock at the Vocopoint wharf in Lae. For the crew, this is standard procedure repeated every day. But for everyone else on board, it was an eye-opener watching the coordination between captain and crew as they navigated the open sea in heavy rain at night hours prior without any visibility.
Hours earlier, the 54-year-old, veteran seafarer laughed at my sense of almost childlike wonderment and curiosity.
“So… what’s the blue patch on the screen?”
I was told that the blue patches are sandbanks showing on the screen. He points to another screen, which shows satellite imagery of cloud cover and the shoreline.
“This is how ships operate these days,” he says. Of course, you can’t expect the captain to look outside in the dark and see where the shoreline is in bad weather and darkness.”
For many in Morobe coastal shipping fraternity, Zeriga Oida is a household name. He is captain of the MV Gejamsao, formerly owned by the now liquidated Lutheran Shipping Company. Today he stood in for a colleague who was sick and took the MV Rainforest to the Morobe Patrol Post for the 14 hour round trip.
Not many know where Zeriga Oida came from.
In 1992, he quit his former job as a primary school teacher and went to the Madang Maritime College to gain formal qualifications as a seafarer.
“I got posted to very remote schools,” he said. “I requested a different posting and the education department wouldn’t listen so I got angry and I quit.”
In 1992, he joined a class of young intending seafarers. Already in his early 30s he was one of the oldest in the class.
Zeriga Oida is from the Jia language group of the Morobe Patrol Post. His ancestors were proud warriors and seafarers. In the period of recorded history, he is a third generation seafarer drawing on the skills and the love for the sea from the generations before.
“My grandfathers bought ships that travelled the Morobe coast carrying passengers, cocoa and copra. My father was also a seafarer and I followed in their footsteps.”
The job has taken him around the entire country and around every island province.
“I’ve travelled from the PNG Indonesian border in the Western Province to Amino. I’ve circled Bougainville, New Ireland, New Britain and Manus.”
Zeriga Oida has been in the business for over 20 years and watched the demise of the iconic Lutheran shipping more than two years ago.
“When Lutheran shipping shut down its operations, a lot of people suffered. It was bad management. While we are trying to revive the shipping service, we still have a long way to go.”