An adventure on the “high seas”

13 06 2010

In today’s age of air travel, it would probably be difficult for many of us to want to embark on a journey between continents that might have taken weeks, or even a journey between cities in the region taking at least a few days, other than when one is perhaps considering going on a leisurely cruise. There was a time however, when such a journey would have had to be made out of necessity and not to indulge oneself in leisure as we would be inclined to these day. It was perhaps in the 1970s when air travel became accessible (and affordable) to many, and up to that point, travel between the regional ports would have probably been made aboard a cargo liner on which passengers were allowed to be carried on.

The M.V. Kimanis and several other cargo liners owned by the Straits Steamship Company plied the route between Borneo and the Malayan Peninsula (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

This was a time when just the thought of a voyage by sea might have evoked the romantic notion of travelling in style and luxury that is associated with the ocean liners of the North Atlantic. Indeed, for the well heeled, the leisurely journey might have been taken in lavishly decorated cabins, whilst being waited on by a steward dressed in all whites, in a setting, as I was told, could be compared to one in a Joseph Conrad novel. For the less well off, there would have been a choice of a more modest second class cabin which would have been comfortable enough for the journey; or, in a less than comfortable third class dormitory like cabin (if there were any – many of the ships coming from India had this), or perhaps as a deck passenger. A passage as a deck passenger would be unheard of these days, especially with the adoption of the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) Code – one of a slew of measures implemented in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Back then, it would have been a cheap and practical means of getting about, with deck passengers having to brave the elements during the passage on the open deck or perhaps, where the situation might have allowed it, in the cargo holds.

The M.V. Kimanis was a 90 metre long, 3189 ton, cargo liner built in Dundee in 1951 and was in the Straits Steamship fleet up to 1982.

One of the local shipping companies that ran a passenger service was the now defunct Straits Steamship Company. The Singapore based company was founded in 1890 and at its height, operated a fleet of 53 vessels, plying routes that connected ports in the Malayan peninsula, including Singapore with ports in the far flung corners of British Borneo. Many of the ports in Borneo would have had names steeped in the history of the rule of the British and the White Rajahs (in Sarawak), such as Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Many of the ships that the company operated had themselves been named after the ports which the company served.

A subsidiary of Straits Steamship Company started Malayan Airways, which later became MSA and was split into two entities, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airline System.

By the time the 1970s had arrived, air travel had taken root and demand for passenger travel by sea had diminished (incidentally, it was a subsidiary of the Straits Steamship Company, that started Malayan Airways, the predecessor to Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), from which both Malaysian Airline System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) were born). The Straits Steamship Company thus promoted passenger travel on the ships they operated for leisure (as a cheaper alternative to the one offered on the M.V. Rasa Sayang which was then offering cruises on the Malacca Straits and around the Indonesian Islands before being sold off a year or so after a tragic fire killed a few crew members in 1977), offering a window into a world of a forgotten age of sea travel. The cost of was a very affordable $80 for the three day return trip to Port Swettenham (or Port Klang as the port had just been renamed as), and it was on such a voyage, aboard one of the Straits Steamship’s vessels, the M.V. Kimanis, that I had an opportunity to have that experience, not once, but twice in 1975.

On the main deck of the Kimanis.

The first voyage that I had on the Kimanis would best be described as an adventure of a lifetime. It had been my very first experience on board a ship and one in which provided me with a view, not just into what life was on board, but also a first hand experience of the stories that I had heard of a voyage on what seemed to me, the “high seas”. It was a voyage that began one evening from Clifford Pier, and via a launch that took us out from the Inner Roads to the Outer Roads and the Eastern Anchorage, where the M.V. Kimanis was anchored. Arriving at the accommodation ladder of the davit rigged black vessel, which featured three white deckhouses, it was with some difficulty that we got onto the ladder having to contend with the violent rolling and heaving of the launch, needing the assistance of the receiving crew members of the Kimanis. I still remember being quite afraid of falling in – even as I was ascending the ladder to the main deck of the vessel.

Wandering around the main deck of the Kimanis was an adventure in itself.

Once onboard, we were greeted by the Chief Steward, a Hainanese man with a greying head of hair, decked in a starched white shirt with epaulettes that seemed to extend up from his shoulders, and brought to our cabins by a steward. The second class cabins we were to stay in were on the next deck above, located along the ship’s side, and had tiny portholes from which we could have a view of the numerous ships that lay at anchor. The cabins were modestly furnished, two single bunks, a rattan chair and dresser, a wardrobe and a wash basin. Showers were to be taken and visits to the toilet were to be made in the communal washrooms arranged on the centreline at the aft end of the alleyway. A door at this end on the aft bulkhead opened to an open deck which also provided access to the main deck below and the deck above. Right at the after end of the next deck was an open deck with an awning that offered partial shelter from the elements on which a bar counter was located, with tables and chairs that formed an open air lounge area. That was where passengers would sit and exchange stories and I remember a man who had started his journey in Tawau with quite a few interesting stories to tell. I can’t remember any of them, but what I do remember very vividly was how he looked – he wore the scars of burns to his face very prominently. We had also on that voyage, met a very friendly and talkative Australian man, from whom I had first heard of what we call the papaya being referred to as a “paw-paw”. He also introduced to a gourd to us which he said was delicious, which he referred to as a choko – which we would later discover was also planted in the Cameron Highlands.

The bar area where passengers exchanged stories.

Besides lounging around at the bar, the day long voyage to Port Klang provided an opportunity for my sister and me to roam the main deck – I was fascinated by the vents that seemed to rise like trumpets out onto the main deck. Somehow, I had imagined them to be sound pipes through which the men working below decks could communicate with crew on the main deck. Meal times were particularly interesting and a steward would alert passengers to meal times by walking through the accommodation area ringing a bell, which would trigger a procession of children following the steward around as if he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Meals were served very formally and besides having to dress appropriately for meals, we had to pay careful attention to table etiquette. That was also the first occasion in which I was to be confronted by the intimidating array of cutlery on the table. I quickly learnt the trick for navigating through the cutlery, starting from the outside in as each course was served.

Meal times were particularly interesting on board the Kimanis. A typical menu (Source: W.A. Laxon, The Straits Steamship Fleets).

Arriving at Port Klang, we were greeted by the sight of the wharf side container cranes, which I imagined to be chairs of giants, half expecting to meet a giant on the passage into port. Tugs boats appeared as the ship was guided into port, and went alongside, as I looked forward in anticipation of being able to go ashore. It was on this particular trip that we first visited Genting Highlands, taking a bus into Kuala Lumpur where we could catch a taxi to Genting. I remembered the journey down quite well for the way the taxi driver negotiated the hairpin bends at a seemingly high speed, and as a result, my mother swore never to take a taxi to Genting again! The stay in Port Klang which had been scheduled for one day, spilled over into a second day. We were told that there was always a slowdown for one reason or another at the port – and so we were to have a four day stay on board for the price of three days!

Up on the Bridge - the children on board were given a treat by the Scottish Captain who allowed each of us to handle the helm for about a minute or so.

Little did I know it then, it was on the return voyage to Singapore that the children on board were in for a treat. The ship’s Captain, a Scotsman, invited us children up to view the Bridge, and provided each of us with the chance to be at the helm where we could have a hand in steering the ship. While this experience lasted maybe only for a minute or so, it was certainly a big treat leaving a big impression on me, and at that moment, I decided that I did not want to be a pilot that I seemed to always have wanted to be, and instead thought that it would be more my cup of tea to sail the seven seas and see the world at the same time. I was to have a second experience on the Kimanis later that same year, one which perhaps, I would devote another post to. However, it was this first experience that was to be the one that I would most remember.



13 responses

25 11 2010
Looking for Gopher but finding a Legend: The Legend of the Seas « The Long and Winding Road

[…] passengers onboard an old fashioned davit adorned cargo cum passenger ship of a 1950s vintage, the M.V. Kimanis. While that offered the relative comforts of a clean and what would have been a luxuriously […]

26 11 2010
Looking for Gopher but finding a Legend: The Legend of the Seas « Trains and Boats and Planes

[…] passengers onboard an old fashioned davit adorned cargo cum passenger ship of a 1950s vintage, the M.V. Kimanis. While that offered the relative comforts of a clean and what would have been a luxuriously […]

30 11 2010
My Royal Caribbean Cruise Adventure

[…] passengers onboard an old fashioned davit adorned cargo cum passenger ship of a 1950s vintage, the M.V. Kimanis. While that offered the relative comforts of a clean and what would have been a luxuriously […]

10 05 2011

I took a wonderful trip in the MV Kimanis in 1973 – from Singapore to Sabah.Thank you for your photos and commentry on this post – it brought back some great memories!

26 05 2011

Ahoy there,

I really enjoyed several of your blogs, especially this one. I think we have the same interest in ships and trains and things like that. Perhaps one day we should meet up for a shipspotting expedition. I live in SG too.


2 06 2011
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi Jonathan, thanks for reading! Nice to know we have similar interests – we should certainly meet up for a shipspotting expedition! Let me know if any opportunity comes by! 🙂

6 07 2011

Your Kimanis ship photo bring back fond memories of my childhood days in Kudat, North Borneo(Sabah), when we look forward to ship & others like MV Kunak which regularly sailed into the town’s wharf and was then the only link to outside world like S’pore. This nolstagic image will remain in my memory even though I now live in S’pore.


31 08 2011
vincent ferroa

hi jeremy.
MV kimanis was familiar to my family and I as we took it occasionally to travel from Brunei to spore between 1954 and 1960. very unfortable. we were so poor that we slept on the deck and ate food purchased from the canteen.
my name is vincent.

20 02 2014
Alan Webber

The Kimanis and Keningau were ships that I used to travel on from Sandakan in Sabah to Singapore between 1963 – 1967. Brings back wonderful memories of the time when afternoon tea was served in the cabin, and lunch/dinner was announced by a waiter walking the aisles with some sort of bell/gong. Took 5 days to arrive Singapore then with stops in Kudat, Kota Kinabalu (Jesselton) and Miri. Thanks for letting us relive the good old days.

22 04 2015

I was in kudat last week. I went to see the harbour which was our port of call on the way back to sandakan for the dec school holidays. Until the advant of air travel in the late 70s, mv kunak, mv kimanis, mv keningau, mv rajah brooke were our only way back to kudat, sandakan, lahad datu and tawau. Memories of yester years came flooding back when I was in kudat. Tq for the posting. Tq for the memory.

3 09 2015
Michael Bass

I was privileged to live in what was then North Borneo for 7 1/2 years between 1957 and 1966. During that period my family and I travelled several times on most of the ships mentioned above. What wonderful memories I have of the time spent on the ships (except for the sea sickness travelling between Singapore and Kuching). I particularly remember being fascinated when in port with the loading and unloading of cargo using the ships cranes and would sit and watch for hours. Modern ships are so boring! The photo of the bar on Kimanis also brings back memories of waiting until it opened when Dad would buy us 3 kids a sparkling orange drink, a real treat in those days. Thank you for bringing back such wonderful memories of the ships and our time in “The Land Below The Wind”

1 05 2017
Valerie Parry

Thank you for bringing back nice memories. The Kimamis was one of the nicest ship that did the run frm Singapore to North Borneo and also interstate.
It was so exciting to board the ship and taken to your cabin. And to buy Butterscotch sweets frm the bar. In those days no duty free I believe but drinks were cheap, and friends were allowed up in the bar for a few drinks to wish you bon voyage before the ship sailed.
I enjoyed seeing the menu which to young eyes spoke of gastronomical delights and the little xylaphone the waiter would play when it was meal times and to wake up to coffee/tea/bisciits which was brought to the cabin. Oh, those were the days. I can just about smell the ship and the cargo of cutch, rubber etc it carried.
Yes and five days from Jesselton to S’pore with a stop at Labuan Miri etc. and two to three days to travel internally depending where your destination was.
Thank you so much for your blog.
I enjoyed reading it.

16 08 2017
Eugenie Norma Bracken Smith

The memories came flooding back! Our trips on the Kimanis going between Miri and Singapore were the best. But our last trip out of Miri on the Kunak was sad as we were leaving Miri for good on our way to England. But the Crew on that ship made it so much fun. This was in 1964 when we made our last trip to Singapore to board the P&0 Chusan for our trip to England. My first trip on the Kimanis to Miri was when I was 2 yrs old. ( Dont remember a thing ) but we would go to Singapore for visits with our relatives there. I always cried when I had to leave the Kimanis, such wonderful memories . I am now living in the States, I am 67 yrs old and I still remember the rough seas and everyone of my family sea sick but me . Thank U for this wonderful memory, its forever etched in my Soul. Norma Bracken Smith.

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