Home’ for this seafaring couple was onboard a ship that took them on an adventure around the world

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Violeta “Violy” Tupas was 20 years old when she met the love of her life, Captain Pacifico “Pacing” Huelar, onboard an inter-island ship traveling from Cebu to Manila. It was the start of an enduring love story that spanned more than four decades, and has the world as silent witness to an amazing journey onboard a merchant vessel.

There were sacrifices made, which included missing out on the growing years of their only son, Collin, now 48 years old and a seafarer also. There are no regrets, though, for this housewife who braved the unconventional role of being among the first seafarer wives who chose to join their husbands onboard a vessel, enduring the same hardship and harsh elements most seafarers confront at sea.

“Looking back, it was probably the best decision I ever made,” Violy says. “My son grew up well, respectful and more responsible than kids who have both parents at home to guide them. He respects his elders and knows the value of money. We were very doting parents, and he turned out very sensitive to the needs of others around him.”

Her husband could not agree more. “I had the best of both worlds,” shares Pacing. “I was able to do my job efficiently, providing for my family, while still enjoying the familiarity of home with my wife beside me. Our son, even back then, is well-grounded; even when we were not around while he was growing up, he turned out God-fearing and responsible, able to do things by himself, and was a seasoned traveler even before he turned 10. It might have been a strange set-up, but it worked for us.”

Love at first ship

It was 1967 when Violeta met her husband. “It was my first unescorted trip onboard a ship to meet my mother. I was supposed to meet her in Cebu after my relatives brought me there from Leyte,” she recalls.

As with most domestic ships bound for Manila that time, it was filled to capacity and there were still passengers trying to get onboard. The young lady was noticed by the second mate officer who, at that time, was sailing onboard an inter-island ship owned by the Philippine President Line (PPL). He noticed her among the throng and intervened to have her ahead of the line, earning scathing comments from other passengers.

Violy remembers Pacing to be some kind of show-off, a toughie. “We got to know each other even more after that first trip. At first, I thought his name was Segundo as the crew kept calling him that, I guess because of his position. It was only after we went steady that I found out his name was Pacifico. I teased him constantly about his name.” Later during their marriage, Pacing would always use his name every time Violy asked how much he loves her. “As wide and as deep as my name suggests,” he would say.

Sailing lovers

Pacing was smitten with the young Waray, and although engaged at that time, courted Violy. “My mother disapproved of it because she thought he was too old for me,” Violy shares. However, it did not deter Pacing; the two got married after a year of courtship. She was 21 and he was 34.

The young bride accompanied her husband for a while on his inter-island stint with PPL. It was easier then, as they were home weekly. After a few years, the couple had their first and only child, Collin, named after the first overseas vessel, MV Collin, Pacing was assigned to.

Violy started accompanying her husband when their son was three years old. “He was a chief mate by then, and my mother took care of my son after it was decided that I visit him upon his request to the company,” she recalls. Soon, Violy began accompanying her husband regularly. This began her foray into international shipping. “I thought it would be hard. I was thinking of my son and my family and whether I can stand being onboard a ship for months. I also thought of having to encounter bad weather onboard. What if the ship encountered problems while in the middle of the ocean? What if we get boarded by pirates? What if we encounter some freak storm? Such questions were racing in my mind, but I braved all these. I did not want to be far away from my husband yet, and the fears I had were outweighed by my desire to be with him,” she shares.

Violy’s first international port of destination was Hong Kong, then Japan, and eventually outwards to Russia and parts of Africa and South America, including Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala. “I lost count of the number of countries I have been to,” Violy shares, adding that all first-time visits were always an adventure.

One of the boys

Life onboard a ship on long voyages can be very challenging. As accompanying wives were a novelty then, Violy was concerned about the crew’s reaction to her presence. “I probably lost a few nights’ sleep over it, but after a while I can say that the crew were all right with it,” she says.

Violy became part of the crew as a supernumerary. “This meant I could be part of the kitchen staff to cook for the crew, I could clean around, act as guidance counselor, and even act as advance party to meet port officials when we dock on international ports,” she shares. Some ports in Europe employ women officials, Violy shares. “It was logical that I was assigned to speak with them before the ship unloads or loads cargo.”

Being a supernumerary did not get her paid regularly, but the company provided her insurance. “It was just a title, but I would like to think that the more permanent description for it would be their ‘second mother’ onboard, which is quite weird as most of my husband’s crew were all older than me. I think they were happier because sometimes I was their guidance counselor. Parang (It was like being an) adviser if they had a problem with family or fellow crew members, or if they had concerns they wanted to pass on to my husband. Sometimes they would leave their valuables with me for safekeeping,” she shares.

When asked about the issue of privacy, Violy quickly points out that the vessel was equipped with everything that it soon felt like she was staying in a hotel. The captain has his own quarters. She jokes, “We had all the time in the world to treat every voyage like a long date. Every port of destination, and even the ship, was our own Luneta. It was like a prolonged honeymoon as well.”

First Filipina in Siberia

New destinations offered Violy and Pacing an excuse for private time away from the confines of the ship. It was a cause for celebration every time the ship docked at a particular port.

One memorable port call for Violy was when they first visited the port of Nakodka in Siberia to load up logs to be delivered to Japan. “I thought there was some sort of local celebration going on, but I was shocked to learn that all the revelries were for my benefit,” she shares. It turns out that Violy was the first Filipina to have visited Siberia. “Ako daw ang unang (I was the first) recorded Filipina there. Gusto nila makakita ng Pilipina(They wanted to see a Filipina). Their only knowledge of the country was through TV and newspapers, and to my surprise, the female officers knew Imelda Marcos and were fascinated by her,” she says.

The atmosphere was like a local fiesta. Russian officers flocked to her and asked her to dance, which she most certainly obliged given that she was welcomed like a celebrity. Pacing took all these in good humor. Besides, as Violy puts it, “he was preening like a proud peacock. We were welcomed there like dignitaries; my husband, being the captain of the ship, was escorted by a few KGB agents. We stayed for three days and were brought to dances and parties.”

Different ports, different experiences

Another unforgettable trip for the couple was when they docked in the Port of Sandakan, Malaysia. “We were in anchorage but at night, we were ferried to the city to visit and sample some local delicacies, and to visit some local night spots,” shares Violy.

That particular time, the couple was sleeping in a hotel after trying out the local disco when they received a phone call at midnight requesting Violy to entertain a guest. “To my horror, some of the officials there thought my husband had picked me up. He looks Indonesian or Malaysian and can speak Bahasa fluently. Of course, my husband was enraged and needed pacifying when he threatened to punch the guy who called up our room,” she recalls. After everything was explained, the officials apologized profusely and told the couple it was an honest mistake. They thought Violy was one of the hospitality girls who visit Sandakan regularly. They learned that a lot of Filipinas travel the short distance from Tawi-Tawi to work as bargirls or prostitutes in the area.

The same thing happened in the port of Manado in Indonesia. It was another case of mistaken identity wherein Pacing was thought to have hired the services of a sex worker. Worst, they thought he was an Indonesian official because of the red government plate of the car used by the local ship agent for their transportation. They wanted to blackmail him in exchange for cash. “It was a blessing we have a consulate in Indonesia. The consular officer explained that Pacing was not an Indonesian official but is, in fact, a Filipino,” Violy shares.

Brazil, on the other hand, was always a good visit despite the country’s reputation. “We loved dancing, and Brazil was always a good place to unwind after a long voyage. Our boogie and tango were a hit with the locals. I would end up exhausted after dancing all night long,” Violy shares. As for the somewhat “interesting” Brazilian women, Violy admits that as prostitution is legal in Brazil, the girls can freely board the vessel without being reprimanded by the local authorities. “Some wives of other captains do not allow girls onboard the ship so the crew had to go ashore. In my case, rather than have the guys get off the ship, I allowed the girls to come onboard. As long as they don’t try to mess with my husband,” she says.

Her last port

Japan has always been like a second home for Pacing and Violy. For the longest time, Pacing’s employers have been Japanese and the couple’s itinerary for every voyage would always include Tokyo, Osaka, and Okinawa. Pacing became fluent in Nihonggo, which made him a favorite among other Filipino officers employed by Japanese ship owners. “He converses with them like a native; (Japanese) has become quite a second language to him,” Violy proudly says of her husband.

Japan, Violy shares, is one of her favorite destinations. Japan was also the last country she visited with her husband before deciding to rest her wandering feet. “It was in 1991. We were sailing in the open seas just off Japan for a few hours already when we suddenly encountered rough seas and bad weather. These things you just take in stride because when you have been onboard for so long, you tend to encounter a lot of problems, both manmade and natural,” she shares.

This case had the element of both. As the storm suddenly surged, they heard an ominous sound. The ship had run aground. The chief mate on duty that day used a general map for the area while he navigated. He did not use a specific map so he failed to point out the shallower parts of the area. Violy was suddenly faced with a situation usually dreaded by even the most seasoned sailors. “I was not scared at first because I have encountered adverse weather before,” she shares. “I went to our private cabin and gathered all the important documents, wrapped them in plastic, stuffed then inside my shoulder bag, and donned my life jacket before joining the crew. By this time, our ship was taking in water fast. And though we radioed for help, I could not help but be anxious. I did not realize how affected I was until we were safely back on land again,” she recalls.

When the responding port authorities brought them to the nearest prefecture of Okinawa, a crew member pointed to Violy’s face. “I couldn’t feel half of my face, and as I was brought to the hospital, I found out I had Bells Palsy. The attending physician recommended I stay for a while but I insisted I wanted to go home,” she shares.

That was the last time she joined her husband as a seafaring wife. Violy, by then considered a seasoned mariner even by her own husband, shares that “It wasn’t because I got scared. I realized I have been away from home a long time, and that I have collected enough experience and memories to last me a lifetime. The thought of home and my son was just overwhelming. I needed to stay and take care of the other half of my family now.”

The Huelars today

Pacing continued to sail until 2000 as a ship superintendent without Violy. In 2000, the couple, along with other partners, set up the HYLB Manning Agency. By that time, Captain Huelar had already retired but continued to work at the company with his wife as the office manager. Violy shares it was a far cry from her exciting life onboard but it gave her an opportunity to dote on their son, who had already graduated from high school.

“Sailing the sea with my husband was a different experience. If given the chance, I would still do it again,” Violy shares, adding that it gave her a different perspective in life, wherein she was made to experience firsthand the hardship her husband went through just to provide for their family. She says, “Maybe that’s why I can say that our long marriage, almost four decades now, is hinged on trust and understanding. We’ve never had any major fights because I can easily read his mind and understand his needs. Accompanying him onboard made me realize how far our loved ones go for the sake of the family. It made me respect him and his job.”

The opportunity to bring a wife onboard usually depends on the principal and the seafarer’s own performance onboard. Pacing shares it is an incentive and not a privilege, and is extended only to officers. In his case, he made sure he could bring his wife and sometimes even his son along. “It was always part of my negotiation whenever I signed a contract with employers. I would have it over a higher salary anytime,” the seasoned captain shares.

The owners saw the viability of it, shares Violy. Productivity and efficiency were seen to have improved, so much so that they started doing it with other vessels as well. “His bosses had always trusted him. He’s a hands-on worker, he has a good rapport with his crew and they all respect him. I guess that’s the secret to a good and happy life onboard,” Violy says.

Pacing, on the other hand, attributes it to the presence of his wife. He declares, “I was happy because she was there and provided me with the most important aspect of my married life, which is home. She was my home, and as far as I am concerned, I can work better and I can concentrate well on the task at hand with her by my side.”

Previously published in Seafarer Asia, Aug.-Sept. 2012 The Health issue. Story by Carmela Huelar.