HONG KONG -- Almost everyone loves a good party and great books! Some people adore big boats too. Earlier this week, such attractions merged in an opening ceremony as the MV Doulos, carrying a big shipload of books, began a month-long stop here.
Readers, students and curious folks are invited to pay a HK$10 admission fee and visit this floating bookstore to browse among 6,000-plus titles (mainly English) about sports, hobbies, cooking, art, educational topics and more. The children’s tales sell best.
In well-to-do ports, the ship’s volunteer crew seeks revenue and donations for charitable work in places like East Timor or Cambodia. “We try to go around the world to serve people who are in great need,” said Doulos director Dr Daniel Chae. “When our ship leaves in a few weeks, we want to leave a different ship behind, and that’s friendship.”
Doulos captain Harry Nikon, age 49 and from the Netherlands, will keep the ship berthed at the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor on most days until July 4. Then it sails for Cambodia, the next stop.
“In all my years of sailing, I’ve never seen another skyline like Hong Kong’s, especially at night,” said Captain Nikon. “Our voyage from Taiwan was a bit rough. I came across several seasick people on the ship. They were green and not feeling well. But now they say it was worth it to arrive in Hong Kong.”
Ninety-five years old, the Doulos, named with a Greek word for “servant”, is an old-lady-of-the-sea, nearly twice the age of its captain. Despite being the world’s oldest ocean-going passenger ship, it remains seaworthy. It was built in 1914, just two years after the famous, long-gone Titanic.
“We have a very special goal to extend the ship’s life beyond 100 years,” said Captain Nikon. But how can any ship last so long? “I doubt if there’s a real secret to it.” Nearly a century ago, shipbuilders “couldn’t do such good strength measurements. So they added extra steel to the steel plates. Nowadays, steel plates stay as thin as possible because they cost money.”
Captain Nikon expresses confidence in the old ship’s future: “We’re under scrutiny very regularly. Each year we must update our passenger-ship safety-certificate. That’s a big, big checkup. Every year, we go into dry dock for a week or two. Younger ships don’t.”
Owned by GBA (Gute Bücher für Alle), a German-based charity, the Doulos pursues a mission to spread knowledge, help and hope. Since 1978, it has visited 100-plus nations in Latin America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. Earlier, the ship served as a freighter, migrant carrier and cruise liner. The largest room onboard used to be a casino. Much of the bookstore space once held a swimming pool.
The crew of 330 Christian volunteers comes from 43 countries. For this week’s opening ceremony, many crew members wore national costumes. Some performed a colorful Korean fan dance.
“The most fascinating things are our unity and diversity,” said onboard photographer Andrea Choi from South Korea. “Cultural exchanges come naturally. From my time onboard, I know that anyone can be great because anyone can serve.”
Surprisingly, about two dozen children live onboard with volunteer parents. For them, the ship has a school program based on the British curriculum. “Our ship represents a complete cross-section of society with everyone from babies to older people,” said the captain.
Anyone lucky enough to have a guided tour will see the ship’s big kitchen and dining room, tiny cabins (each with up to four bunk beds), a laundry, firefighters’ station, a barber shop, the engine room and book-storage holds.
At the laundry, clothing is sorted by color. Every garment needs an owner’s nametag.
In rough seas, books stashed in the storage holds tumble off shelves. Then sorting and re-shelving them takes lots of time.
Some visitors may meet Delilah, a life-jacketed “dummy” routinely thrown overboard and then retrieved as rescue practice. “But we’ve lost several dummies – not reassuring,” a crew member confided.
The Doulos has come to Hong Kong eight times. In 2007, the last visit attracted 100,000 book-lovers. Why return so soon? “You can blame me,” said Chae. “My only excuse is that we love Hong Kong so much.”
The ship’s one-day record for visitors exceeds 24,000 (in Taiwan). “That day, the ship nearly sank under the weight of so many people,” said another crew member.
For more information: www.doulos.org
Although Captain Harry Nikon has lots
of experience, his ship has much more.
Onboard the Doulos, hospitality appears plentiful.
Hardly typical sailors, some crew
members do a Korean fan dance.
Andrea Choi checks progress in the engine room.
A massive kitchen prepares 1,000 meals per day.
Proof of the crew's diverse
origins appears everywhere.