WHEN I asked the captain to tell me the chef's name, he said, ''Foxtrot Romeo Echo Delta'' with a totally straight face. I was puzzled at first. Then it hit me. This was shortwave radio jargon for Fred. It's the way people who fly planes or work on ships talk. Because the ''captain'' wasn't a head waiter in a restaurant, but Cees Ippel, the burly sea captain of MV Volvox Hollandia, a massive Dutch dredger that's been busily sucking sand out of the South China Sea for the past two years in preparation for the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. No doubt that life on the Hollandia can be tedious. The dredging machinery never stops working and the ship must continually be on the move. Hoover-like, it methodically creeps along, performing its ceaseless vacuum-cleaner action on the silt-and-mud carpeted sea bottom, day in, day out, 365 days of the year. The 31-man crew (20 Dutchmen and 10 Filipinos) live on board, taking round-the-clock shifts of eight hours on, eight hours off, for two solid months at a stretch. They work with six or seven other ships of various sizes to remove an Olympic-sized swimming pool amount of matter every minute. The goal is 218 million cubic metres with a mere 32 million to go; the dredgers are ahead of schedule. With few distractions to amuse them, mealtimes are eagerly anticipated daily events and a major source of nourishment, for body and soul. So it wasn't surprising to hear chef Fred Visser confide: ''The cook is considered to be the Mother of the Ship. Ordering the food supplies, planning the menus, preparing three meals a day, helping to serve, making sure everyone is happy, chatting with the men and providing ''a shoulder or an ear'' whenever something's on their minds. If the crew doesn't like the food or the cook, he's off the ship. Obviously this is no place for a prima donna. The cook on a dredger has to be part soul-mate, part social director, part diplomat and above all, a creative wizard. Fred looks confident. Although a very blonde, young-looking 37, he's been running galleys on dredgers since 1985 when his love of the sea lured him away from his own restaurant, near Amsterdam, and off on a round-the-world culinary adventure. Because no one on board this 133 metre-long vessel is allowed to work the gruelling schedule for more than two months straight, the cook must be relieved and replaced half-a-dozen times a year. Then, off he goes, leaving one dredger and (after a 20-day hiatus), joining another. He responded to the topic of salary by licking his lips. The dredger world is small and word travels fast, especially about cooks. A precarious, fragmented situation for most, Fred appears to have been created for this nomadic existence. ''Life never gets boring for me,'' he said. ''I keep the friends I've made on-board, then meet new people on the next ship. I get to relax in my hometown of Alkmaar more often and for longer periods than I could in any other job. It keeps me on my toes in the kitchen and makes life very exciting,'' he said, with a big grin. Looking through the provisions in the galley, there were imported delicacies such as Canadian bacon, kiwi fruit, snow peas, baby carrots, and of course, plenty of big, round Edam and Gouda cheeses. ''I have total control of my domain, ordering produce and canned goods either locally or from importers. I change the menu every day, bake my own bread and pastries and make as great an effort as I would in my own restaurant back in Holland.'' Maybe even greater, considering he has the same customers three meals a day. This could be a chef's nightmare. But not for Mr Visser. Rather than faze him, it just fires his imagination, forcing him to think of new ways to spark the crew's appetite. Lunch guests are rare. But on this afternoon we sat down and ate what the crew eats. Chilled crabmeat cocktail in a tangy sauce, followed by huge bowls of Fred's Fantasy Soup, a hearty blend of cream of celery, beef and fresh vegetables. Then came a chunky feta cheese salad, polished off with grilled tenderloin steaks in bernaise sauce, crispy potato croquettes, an excellent herbed ratatouille, a bowl of hot broccoli and cauliflower dusted with nutmeg and cinnamon. And for dessert, vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. There would be no mutiny on this dredger; even the pickiest crew member couldn't complain. After lunch, we sat at the bar of the ship's amazingly accurate replica of an English pub, complete with dart board and wood-panelling. We shared a Dutch favourite, the gin-like, smooth-tasting Jenever. A few crew members, on breaks, sipped beer. As it's an hour's trip back to Hong Kong in a fast boat, the men seldom have time to go to town, see a film or unwind at a disco. So this cosy bar is a popular place. And, since the crew must (sensibly) pay for their alcohol, it's a congenial but sober place. When it was time to leave, I wanted to find Fred and thank him for the terrific lunch. As I started down the stair, one of the men, a happy, well-fed looking fellow, grabbed my arm. ''Don't bother him now. He's making apple strudel.''