Thirty-five years ago this past April 14, Maersk Line’s Capt. Ngoc Nguyen was a frightened 13-year-old crammed aboard a 35-foot fishing boat with his mother, three younger siblings and 60 other refugees fleeing their Vietnamese homeland six years after Saigon’s fall.
The refugees had gathered aboard the fishing boat in the evening, but the Vietnamese coast guard found out about their plan, forcing a premature escape with just enough food, water and fuel for two days. They made a desperate nighttime sprint from Cam Ranh Bay into the South China Sea with a gunboat in hot pursuit.
“We had to leave in a hurry,” says Nguyen, 49, recounting the ordeal from Denmark, where he lives with his wife, Kim Anh, and two sons, Jimmy, 18, and Kevin, 13. “We didn’t have any choice. We had to go as fast as we could to outrun the patrol boat.”
Praying for deliverance, the refugees pooled their jewelry in the hope that they could bribe their pursuers to let them go free if the patrol boat caught up with them. “They were two hours chasing us,” Nguyen says. “Finally they turned around. We felt very, very lucky that we had escaped from them.”
Nguyen’s father, a paratrooper in the South Vietnamese army, died on the battlefield when Nguyen was 5 years old, leaving his mother a 24-year-old widow with four young children. Relatives pulled together to care for the family while his mother went to work as a nurse, but after the South’s defeat she began looking for an avenue of escape. “She wanted freedom for us — and a brighter future for her children,” he says.
With relatives and others, his mother found a boat captain willing to ferry them to the Philippines. His family was among an estimated 2 million refugees who fled South Vietnam in small boats after the war. Some 300,000 of them died — lost in storms, killed by pirates, wasted away from thirst or hunger. “It was very dangerous,” Nguyen says.
The night they fled, the captain pressed on toward the sanctuary of international waters with no charts and only a magnetic compass to navigate. Once safely outside Vietnam’s territorial jurisdiction, he stopped the boat and gathered the adults to discuss their plight. “The situation looked very, very bad,” Nguyen says. The Philippines were 1,000 miles to the east — a 10-day voyage, at least. “He knew we were not going to make the whole journey to the Philippines.”
The South China Sea’s shipping lanes are among the busiest in the world. “They decided to stop the boat and wait and hope for a miracle,” Nguyen says. “Maybe a ship would stop and give us food, water and fuel, or even rescue us.”
April 16, their third day at sea, was a scorcher, Nguyen says. The air was dead, the seas glassy. Nguyen, his uncle and younger brother jumped into the water and swam around the boat to cool off, oblivious to the sizable shark population in those waters.
“We heard screaming [from the boat],” he says. “There was a ship coming toward us in the distance.” They climbed back aboard, their eyes riveted for the next 40 minutes on the pale-blue hull as it approached. It was a Maersk Line ship, the Arnold Maersk.
As the ship passed a half-mile away, the refugees gathered on deck, crying out for help and waving pieces of fabric they had brought with them, but the ship didn’t stop. “We thought they didn’t see us,” he says.
Deflated and worried, they watched the ship steam on for 30 minutes. Then it turned around. “I was lying on deck with the other kids.” The children looked on in awe as the ship pulled alongside the wooden fishing boat. “It was huge, unbelievable, like an iceberg,” he says.
The captain, Jorgen Orla Hansen, was standing on the bridge wing. “We could hear people talking to him in English,” Nguyen says. Hansen told the leaders assembled on the fishing boat’s deck that the weather was going to take a nasty turn that afternoon, and a small boat carrying so many people would be in jeopardy. “He decided to rescue us,” Nguyen says. Had he not, they might well have died.
The ship’s crew extended the gangway to the refugees’ boat, where Nguyen and the others waited to board the ship, one at a time. “It was like a dream for me, like walking up the steps to paradise,” Nguyen says.
As he ascended, he looked up and saw the captain standing on the wing bridge in his starched white uniform with epaulets. “It was very cool,” Nguyen remembers. “I decided then if I have the chance, I’ll be like him — a captain on a ship. That was a dream for a young boy like me.”
Before the Arnold Maersk moved on, its second engineer boarded the fishing boat and holed the bottom to scuttle her so she wouldn’t be a hazard to navigation. The ship carried the refugees to Hong Kong, where they were interned in a camp with 5,000 other displaced persons.
Before debarking, the ragtag band of grateful passengers gave Hansen their compass. “It was very sad to say goodbye to our savior,” Nguyen says. “I never imagined one day I would see him again.”
The family sought asylum in the United States, where Nguyen’s mother’s aunt lived, but their application was denied, and after six months — in September 1981 — Denmark offered them a home. “For us, Denmark was a completely strange country,” Nguyen says. “It was very exciting, very frightening — and very cold.
“Denmark took very good care of us,” he says. They stayed in Copenhagen for a while, then moved to a small city of about 20,000 in northern Denmark. “They gave us everything we needed — food, a place to stay, the opportunity to go to school.”
The family’s goal was to start a new life in a free country. Learn the language. Learn the culture. Get an education. Get jobs. Become self-sufficient. “No matter how hard it was to start over, we had to do it,” he says. “It was a great opportunity.”
Their welcome in this small community was warm, Nguyen says, but their first winter in Scandinavia was one of the coldest in Denmark’s history. “We had to learn to put plenty of clothes on,” he says. “In the end you look like Santa Claus.”
Nguyen’s dream endured. By 1989, the family had moved to Svendborg in southern Denmark, where Nguyen attended a maritime college and became a cadet for Denmark’s Maersk Line, the world’s largest container shipping company. His first assignment was aboard the Arnold Maersk, the ship that rescued his family from the South China Sea, though Hansen was no longer its captain.
After serving two years as a Maersk cadet, he returned to the maritime college to finish the requirements for his master examination. In 1995 he was awarded his master license and went on to complete two years of mandatory military service as a lieutenant in the Royal Danish Navy. Nguyen returned to Maersk after his naval service as a third mate aboard the Mathilde Maersk. As he pored over the crew list, he recognized a name — Capt. Jorgen Orla Hansen. “It was destiny that I should be sailing on that ship with him,” Nguyen says.
He sought out Hansen and reminded him of the refugees he had rescued from the South China Sea 16 years earlier. “He was touched — very touched — by the story of those he had rescued,” Nguyen says.
The frightened 13-year-old boy who had walked up that gangway to find refuge on the Arnold Maersk had gone on to become a Maersk ship’s officer, fall in love and start a family of his own. His brother and sisters had done well, too, getting a good education and jobs in Denmark. “They are managing very well, have happy lives,” he says.
After their first 2½-month voyage together on Mathilde Maersk, Hansen returned to Nguyen the compass that the refugees had given him after saving their lives. “It’s still working very, very well,” Nguyen says. Seven years later, Maersk named Nguyen captain of the Thomas Maersk, a 625-foot container ship that runs between Europe and West Africa. It is everything he hoped it would be.
Nguyen says he had a goal, the will and determination to keep pursuing it, and a dollop of good luck to help him achieve it. “It was a dream come true when I became captain,” he says. “I had a dream as a boy. Today my dream is a reality.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.