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.
"He’s a devil towards the cook in the boat," replied the old man.
In his heart of hearts, Lai Bien hated Chin Khu bitterly. In fact, he wanted to say more about this cruel first-class sailor, but he did not want to make Tam Moc too afraid of the man. In his opinion, Chin Khu was stupid, boastful and ignorant. Usually, he walked around in his light yellow pyjamas with a paper fan in his hand with a big turban on his head. He was a heavy drinker and liked chili peppers very much. Whenever his boat was in danger, he ate a lot of chili peppers and drank cup after cup of hard liquor. His only redeeming quality was that he was fearless in the face of death and would do anything to save the boat and its crew.
Lai Bien would much prefer to have a brave, intelligent and alert first-class sailor like Tam Moc’s father, however. It was Chin Khu who had replaced Tam Moc’s father after that fateful accident. Sadly, under Chin Khu’s leadership, his boat was often in trouble unnecessarily.
"My dear Tam Moc," Lai Bien said to him in a soft voice. "Chin Khu is the first-class sailor of our boat. You must provide him with lots of chili peppers and spirits when needed," he said.
"Yes, sir," replied Tam Moc politely.
The two years Tam Moc spent as the cook and apprentice on Lai Bien’s boat were filled with many trials and much training. Slowly he changed from a soft-voiced, pale and naive boy into a suntanned, sturdy and assertive young man. Despite the transformation, Lai Bien was still of two minds as to what to do with him. "The boy should be further trained and suffer more, so that he can quickly become a real first-class seaman," he said to himself.
"Hey, boy," he called Tam Moc.
"Fetch me a few cups and a bottle of spirits."
It was the first time that Lai Bien had permitted Tam Moc to sit down and relax on deck. As usual, at five in the afternoon, Lai Bien drank a few cups of spirits and recited a poem for some relief from the day.
"What have I gained during my whole life as an assistant to my oarsman?" he asked himself. Besides his wages, which were four times as much as a cook’s income, three times as much as a second-class sailor’s and twice as much as a first-class sailor’s, he had nothing else besides the love of his faithful wife, who continually waited for his homecoming at their country home.
Meanwhile, storms and rain, thunder and lightning, undertows and whirlpools threatened his life again and again.
Late at night, he usually sat alone on board and rowed the boat rapidly over the waves. In those nights on the open sea, he perceived the delicate connections apparent to most well-seasoned sailors between the sea and sailors, between the sky and the sea, and between the moon and stars in our solar system.
But this year, when Tam Moc was twenty years old, the old sailor completely miscalculated the change of weather. Early in the fourth lunar month, finding the sky clear and cloudless, the sea calm and smooth, he made a deadly decision: to go fishing far offshore.
Going offshore meant taking a short-cut to Sai Gon from his home town in Quang Nam Province. It took only one week instead of one month. What frightened the crew most about this marine route was the unpredictable weather that lingered after the end of the stormy season. When seamen brave the open sea at the end of the stormy season, they know their lives depend on the mercy of God.
Tam Moc was deeply grateful for his chance to work on the boat. Stooping in front of Lai Bien, he offered rice wine to him.
When he glanced up at the young man, Lai Bien was a bit taken aback. With the surface of the blue sea tinted with golden ripples from the late afternoon sunshine framing the boy’s figure, the youth looked like a knight. "You and your father are just like each other!" he exclaimed.
"With such strength and keen eyes, if I keep him below deck as the cook, I’ll owe his father a lot," he said to himself. Holding up the bottle of rice wine, he poured out a few cups.
"Have you learned enough to become a first-class seaman, my boy?" he asked him jokingly.
"I hope so, sir."
Feeling elated, Lai Bien began drinking, but then suddenly realised the weather had turned nasty. Waves were now smashing into the side of the large boat, spraying the deck with water.
"Tam Moc, a storm is coming," he said. "Crewmen, all aboard are to obey my orders!" he shouted out. "A tempest is near!" he said.
No response came from the crew, only silence. The crew had gone down below to sleep and avoid having to deal with the tempest on the open sea. Lai Bien pounded the deck then called out again: "Chin Khu! Answer me and come above deck at once!" he screamed.
Chin Khu remained silent. He pretended to be dead drunk, tossing about and foaming. "What an idiot I am, if I face such a disaster!" he said to himself.
Only Tam Moc and Lai Bien were on deck to deal with the storm. They looked at each other in despair.
Suddenly, Tam Moc remembered his beloved father. At this moment, the old man must have been keeping the door ajar and staring at the storks in flight across the rice fields or looking out over the Ba Ren River where countless sails were gliding towards the horizon. Over the past two years, Tam Moc had worked diligently as a cook, but had not yet fulfilled his father’s wish. As he braved the strong wind, Tam Moc thought about his father, and his eyes filled with tears.
Lai Bien remembered his faithful wife at home, day after day waiting for his homecoming. In his melancholic state, he brushed some hair off of Tam Moc’s forehead with his rough hands.
"My dear Tam Moc, you’re still practically just a schoolboy. Why did you get involved in life on the sea? Tonight, our fates lie in the hands of God. We will either die an honourable death by drowning or survive and sail our boat to the fishing port in glory," said the old sailor.
The word "glory" now seemed to echo in Tam Moc’s ears like the grandiose line of verse he heard for the first time when he got on the boat. Just like last time, the old seaman’s words only made him more resolved to face the challenge.
He stood up, and pushed up sleeves. His bulging muscles thus revealed were like those of a bronze sculpture. In a calm voice, he expressed his determination.
"Esteemed uncle! We must live. We must survive to save our boat at any cost. Now allow me to pick up one of those cowardly men from the hull and throw him into the heaving sea as a warning to the others. Only that way will your orders be strictly obeyed, so that our boat might return to the wharf safe and sound," Tam Moc proposed.
"No, no, my dear boy! No need to do so. With such a group of rogues, no matter how many of them we have – one or a hundred – it would be the same. I’m badly in need of only one man. One will suffice," replied the old seaman.
"Who’s that, sir?"
"It’s the very son of Mr Tu Nghia from Ba Ren Village. It’s none other than you, Tam Moc, my dear." As he said this, he poured spirits over the brave youth’s head according to the customs of fishermen. "From this moment on, you’ll be the first-class sailor," he declared solemnly.
That was the oft-repeated story about Tam Moc. From the day he became a first-class sailor, Mr Lai Bien’s voyages were once again successful, and his crew regained their courage and bravery when facing the open sea.
A few years later, Tam Moc became Lai Bien’s son-in-law and the master of Lai Bien’s boat. In the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of the fishing community in Quang Nam Province, Tam Moc was the most famous fisherman of all.