Tam Moc was a young and skilled farmer. He lived near a river, but he could not swim or row a boat; this was strange because his father was an experienced fisherman and first-class sailor with a rank similar to that of a ship’s captain. The old man had finally been forced to give up his career after his right foot was bitten off by a ferocious shark as he was trying to mend a rudder in the high sea near Nghe Cape before the boat was washed ashore. Now, leading the life of an invalid, he craved his old life on the sea. Again and again, with a walking stick in hand, he leaned against Tam Moc’s shoulder and hobbled along the bank of the Ba Ren River to contemplate where all boats might be going.
One day, his eyes brimming with tears, his father said to him: "My dear son, try your best to become a first-class sailor like me." So in his later teens, Tam Moc was sent off by his father to become an apprentice on Lai Bien’s boat. On his first day aboard, Tam Moc was in awe of the immense sea stretching as far as the eye could see, and was in high spirits when he saw all of the big boats with their towering sails that dotted the watery landscape. Bowing to Lai Bien, the boy asked him for a favour.
"Esteemed uncle, let me be a first-class sailor," he entreated.
Lai Bien burst out laughing and tousled the hair of the naive rural boy.
"Your work is going to be far from that of a first-class sailor! You must be the cook for the crew first. When you can prepare meals superbly, you’re entitled to stay on board as a second-class sailor. Later, you might become a first-class sailor, but only after you’ve proven to be a well-seasoned crewman," explained the old captain. "Also, bear in mind that as a first-class sailor, you must assume full responsibility for every voyage, no matter what may happen to your boat when you encounter hurricanes, high waves, rapids or ferocious fish. The possibility of risk will be suspended over your head like a sword of Damocles for each of your voyages," he warned the boy.
Tam Moc remained stubborn and insistent.
"I’ve learned what to do in the face of these hazardous incidents, sir," he said resolutely.
"Where did you get these lessons from?"
"In my native home in Ba Ren Village, sir. This is where my father made a model of a boat to teach me how to deal with the turbulent waves and its ravages. After that, he took me to the Ba Ren River nearby, and hired out a small sampan for me to practice the marine trade," Tam Moc explained.
"Hmm, so your father is Mr Tu Nghia, an ex-sailor of high reputation and my close friend, is he?" He was obviously embarrassed not to have known this already. "Regardless what your father taught you, what you’ve learned so far is merely theoretical; in reality it is not that easy," he explained to Tam Moc. "It’s a life and death struggle, critical and horrible, romantic and glorious," he added. His exaggerated words only made Tam Moc all the more excited.
"Uncle! Is it hard or easy to be the cook on board?" he asked the old sailor.
"It’s quite a difficult job, my boy; much more difficult and thankless than the job of an ordinary sailor," replied the old man. "When you’re a first-class sailor, your whole job is to cope with the high sea, and that’s it. When your boat returns to the wharf safe and sound, a ceremony is usually held where you’ll be awarded a pig’s head by the boat owner. If you’re still single and have achieved a great exploit, say preventing the boat from sinking or becoming shipwrecked in perilous conditions, your reward would be his pretty daughter!
"As for life as a boat cook, you’ll toil away in the kitchen below deck all day long. What’s more, you’ll be severely punished by others when the meal you’ve just cooked doesn’t meet their requirements. Worse still, you’ll be the first-class sailor’s slave – it falls to you to massage him and fan him, when he is weary and hot. If he’s not pleased with your performance, you’ll be thrown overboard out at sea, and he won’t be accused of any wrongdoing," Lai Bien concluded his lengthy speech intended to test Tam Moc’s reaction towards facing the risks of the open sea.
Tam Moc did not shy away from the challenges and knelt down in front of the old sailor and wrapped his arms tightly around the man’s legs. "If I must start out this way, please let me be the boat cook," Tam Moc entreated.
Lai Bien helped him stand up and looked him directly in the eyes.
"Ok, I’ll take you on as the cook," he agreed reluctantly. "However, I am warning you to be very vigilant around Chin Khu."
"But who’s Chin Khu, and what’s he like, uncle?" he asked softly.