Humans of Sentosa | Retire at 50? No, thank you! Peter Pela decided he was going to get his own ship instead.

“This ship is called The Royal Albatross. When I was looking for a name that reflected the vessel, I thought of sea birds, and one of the most famous sea birds is the albatross. They’re a sailor’s friend. If ships looking for land see an albatross, they will follow it.

I don’t think it was ever my dream to own a vessel like this. My career started off in IT, and I did that till I was 50. But when I hit my 50th birthday, I had a bit of a meltdown. I just thought to myself, ‘Do I really want to retire doing this?’

IT software development is a young person’s game. It’s evolving rather rapidly. If I wanted a career change, I needed to get out as soon as possible because the longer I stayed, the harder it would be to pick up a new career.

So I started exploring my options. My passion’s always been water, whether it’s fishing, diving, sailing. I travelled a lot at the time and was looking for a yacht anyway. And in my searches, I came across a ship in Chicago, and  I thought, “Wow, she looks magnificent!”

It just caught my imagination what I could do with her. Not as she was in Chicago, but I was excited about her potential to be modified and be a commercial venture. So I hung up my keyboard, left IT and took the vessel to Singapore to see what I could do with her.

But that road was much longer than I anticipated. When I brought her to Singapore, the authorities said, ‘We will let you operate her here, but not with 150 passengers. We will cap it at 60.‘ I instantly knew that was not commercially viable.

They said it’s a very different environment here from the lakes in Chicago when I asked why. This vessel is very much a passenger ship. If I wanted to take in more than 60 passengers, I had to meet certain safety certifications.

They would consider licensing the vessel for 150 passengers IF I was willing to do the work, so I took on the challenge. And I’m talking about an extensive modification to the vessel. Literally taking out the decks, strengthening the hull, putting new decks back.

It was a massive learning curve for me because I didn’t really have a nautical background. It was like being in a maritime university and building a ship at the same time. I thought it would take me two to three years to do all the work, but it took me over five.

I will never forget the day we were granted our licensed approvals by MPA. After a long five-year journey and spending millions rebuilding the ship, finally knowing that it was actually going to happen was hugely motivating for me. That first sailing we did meant a lot.

I’m very proud of this ship. I don’t think people truly understand how unique of a vessel it is. You only see tall ships like this in certain parts of the world or movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. And to actually step on one and dine on one? It’s a very rare opportunity.

When COVID-19 first hit Singapore, we couldn’t operate for six months. We didn’t receive any income. No one knew how long the circuit breaker was going to last. We just had to wait patiently and have faith that we’d get through it.

We’re very grateful to the government to have the Jobs Support Scheme. They were just superb in their guidance. Mr Keith Tan – CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board – visited us and offered advice that really helped. I take my hat off to him.

So what did we do to survive? Before COVID, our business was principally tourists and corporates. Now, it’s all locals, and when you think of locals, you think of food, and to attract them, we really had to upgrade our whole culinary experience.

We upskilled our chefs and produced new menus. That’s the best thing we’ve ever done because people are now coming to us not just for the sailing and romantic experience, but also for the food.

If I have any tips for other entrepreneurs out there, never underestimate how much hard work it takes to start and run a business. Do not expect to take your weekends off or go to bed before midnight. Your business is your life.

It’s about dedication and passion. If you lose the passion, you’re in trouble because your business is going to suffer. No one is going to look after your business like you do. That’s why I stepped out of IT when I was 50.

Now, I have a newfound passion. I love this business, and I’m working harder now than I ever did in my whole career. But I don’t regret that because it’s what I enjoy doing, and I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon.” – Peter Pela, 62, Founder and CEO of The Royal Albatross

Interview by: Arman Shah

Feature photo: José Jeuland