FOR a ship making ready to carry a cargo of cigarettes, the Sea Raider's dingy hold seemed oddly equipped. Scores of bright orange lifejackets were scattered across the iron floor, their Philippine Coast Guard stamps and serial numbers still visible through grime-covered wrappings. Split cardboard boxes containing bag upon bag of new styrofoam lunch boxes littered the floor. Then there were the hundreds of rusting bed frames stacked against the inner hull, their springs corroded from exposure to salt water. Asked why a crew of 15 should need so much safety gear, so many lunch boxes and so many beds, Filipino boatswain Mr Charlie Balatico simply scratched his head. But to Hongkong marine investigators and United States authorities, everything aboard the Sea Raider pointed to its potential involvement in the lucrative and highly illegal trade of smuggling mainland Chinese to the US. Any doubts they harboured were quickly removed by another crew member of the Sea Raider, who has since returned to the Philippines with most of Mr Balatico's shipmates. He admitted to police the 882-tonne vessel was scheduled to pick up more than 300 Chinese illegals from an island off Taiwan and take them to the US. The Sea Raider is moored in a Tsing Yi Island shipyard. Bad luck, engine trouble and a string of debts appear to have stopped it joining the burgeoning trade in human cargo now mushrooming between the mainland and the US. But the authorities in Hongkong and in the US believe its presence is testimony to the pivotal role the territory plays in a heartbreak business controlled by racketeers and triads. But breaking the grip of those who claim they offer mainlanders the chance to live the American dream is a frustrating business both for police and immigration officials. There is, of course, no crime in carrying a cargo of bunk beds. And since, more often than not, the ''passengers'' are loaded in international waters, the ships are often beyond legal jurisdiction. Marine investigators from Hongkong, London, and the US find it almost impossible to trace the real owners of the ships. The trail is easily lost in a maze of charter firms, agents, forged documents, false names and shelf companies. A Lloyds of London Shipping Register source said most of these ships were bought and sold so often, and their names changed so quickly, it was almost impossible to keep track. The profits are staggering. Illegals pay up to US$30,000 (about HK$232,000) for the journey. Few realise they will end up in the sweatshops of New York's Chinatown. Fewer still are told it will take years to pay off loans for the cost of the voyage. No one knows how many ships offload their human cargoes undetected but more than a dozen have been intercepted off the US in the last year. Conditions on board are often appalling. In December, the 50-metre trawler Manyoshi Maru was intercepted by a US Coast Guard cutter off San Francisco, after the crew put out a distress call when their suffering passengers allegedly threatened mutiny. The ship was found packed with an illegal human cargo amid squalid conditions. It was ''shoulder to shoulder'', Xiao Qijin, 16, recounted later. ''It was hard to walk, even. A lot of people got seasick and vomited all over us.'' At sea for nearly seven weeks, the 16 female and 164 male passengers - including four teenage boys - had neither beds nor bathrooms. What food was left sloshed around with the human waste and garbage that covered the deck of their single, communal compartment. ''It's abominable,'' said Coast Guard Petty Officer Gary Openshaw. ''They're living in their own filth. There's vomit, urine and excrement strewn through the decks.'' Even those that arrive undetected are often exploited or preyed on by gangs. US INVESTIGATORS have found people handcuffed, beaten and sometimes murdered. In one case earlier this year, a 30-year-old Chinese restaurant worker was kidnapped and held for ransom when he refused to pay more money to the gang who smuggled him into the US. Police later found the man handcuffed to a bed, where he had been beaten repeatedly with a hammer. The Sea Raider was to have been part of a fleet of up to 15 vessels used by one of the syndicates and police said the trend marked a significant change in tactics by smugglers. Once they used Taiwanese fishing boats. Now the trade has grown so big - thousands also fly into the US using false travel documents - only freighters can accommodate their customers. At least three other cargo ships are believed to have stopped in the territory recently, before heading off to pick up mainland Chinese looking to start a new life in the US. One of those vessels, the 489-tonne Eastern World I, had 400 beds fitted into its hull when inspected by Marine Department officials in November. ''They filled the cargo hold with temporary fixtures and were going to pack people in like sardines,'' said one officer working on the case. A Marine Department spokesman said the Belize-flagged Eastern World I was found to be breaking safety regulations when it was checked and the information was passed to the police and Immigration Department. ''During a routine port state inspection of the ship we found structures which can be converted into bunk beds,'' the Marine Department spokesman said. ''In a follow up inspection in December, they had made good their deficiencies on the general safety side and had dismantled the structures.'' The spokesman said a cargo vessel could legally carry 12 passengers and the Eastern World I had ''a substantial number'' of bunk beds in the hold. Another ship known to have left Hongkong before picking up more than 100 Chinese, the 499-tonne Solas, is still being detained in Singapore after being stopped by police last month. On Friday, the US Coast Guard boarded another vessel, the East Wood, which it had been tracking for more than a week after receiving an emergency call from the ship claiming it had been taken over by a gang of 30 Chinese ''bad men'', armed with guns and knives. The 94-metre East Wood was dead in the water with a broken generator 2,400 kilometres southwest of Hawaii. It was similar mechanical problems that wrecked plans to use the Sea Raider and stopped it from making its suspected rendezvous with hundreds of mainland Chinese bound for a hazardous journey across the Pacific Ocean. The blue-hulled ship, sitting empty and high in the water, has been stranded in Hongkong since February 5 last year. THE 59-metre vessel first arrived in the territory a month earlier and anchored for about a week before setting sail to an unknown destination. ''The captain said we were going to Vietnam but we had trouble with the main engine and had to return,'' Mr Balatico said. ''We have been here one year already. The captain has gone and only he knew where we were going.'' The vessel was detained in Hongkong last February when the 15-strong crew took legal action against the owners to recover unpaid wages. It was released by the registrar of the Supreme Court, Mr Julian Betts, on July 23 and remained in the Yau Ma Tei Government Dockyard until August 1, when it moved to Tsing Yi. According to the boatswain, the captain, Mr Jimson Sase, left the ship in November allegedly taking with him the main radio, which Mr Balatico claims he sold in Hongkong, and is now in Manila. The boatswain reported the ''theft'' of the radio to Tsing Yi police. Mr Balatico said he had been unable to contact the owner, Mr Serafin San Gabriel, who, according to a business card he carried in his wallet, was president of Superior (SG) Shipping Corporation of Manila. He has also been unable to contact the ship's last Hongkong agent, MSL Ship Management Limited, or the Singaporean charterer, Mr Alvin Wong, who allegedly owes Mr Balatico and the only other crew member still on board, chief engineer Mr Cenon Suan, about$6,000 each in wages. The Sunday Morning Post traced the managing director of MSL, Mr Kok Yuen-fing, who said his company ceased handling the Sea Raider on September 19 after difficulties in contacting the owner and Mr Wong, known to him as Mr Alvin Ng, who also owes him money. Mr Kok said Mr Ng approached him in August and paid cash to cover his initial handling fee, but there were many problems with the ship and he became concerned as to what cargo it was going to carry when he saw the lifejackets in the hold. ''When the ship is like that and it looks like it is not conducting normal business, this is why we stop business with it,'' Mr Kok said. ''I asked Mr Ng why so many lifejackets were in the ship and he told me the ship was working as a passenger vessel in Manila before it came here. ''It looked funny to keep so many lifejackets on the boat.'' Mr Kok has not been able to contact Mr Ng since last year and said the certificates allowing the Sea Raider to trade or leave Hongkong had expired, although the owner, Mr Gabriel, said he was renewing them and intended to come to Hongkong to work on the vessel. Mr Kok said Mr Ng gave him a business card which stated his initials as C. M. and claimed he was a director of Min Gin Shipping and Trading Pte Ltd, of King George's Avenue, Singapore. When contacted on Friday, a spokesman for Min Gin said Mr Ng was ''no longer in this office''. Mr Ng is known to occasionally use the office of an acquaintance, Mr Mohammed Fauzie, who runs Rosson Shipping in Singapore. ''Mr Ng told me it was going to carry cigarettes from Hongkong to China and then told me he was going to stop chartering the Sea Raider because it was not a good ship, it had so many repairs,'' Mr Fauzie said. Mr Gabriel said the ship was hired to service an oil rig in the Pacific but had returned to Hongkong after it began to suffer engine problems. He said the Sea Raider was chartered by a man called Mr Ng, from the Min Gin company more than a year ago and the arrangement was such that the charter firm - and not the owner - had almost complete control over the vessel.