Oceans and Seas

the work of author Michael Krieger

On Patrol: Pt. 18 – Safety and Plenty

Posted by on Oct 25, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 18 – Safety and Plenty

Surface to Surface

The ship is still east of Horsburgh Light. Approaching are the Courageous, and one of the missile corvettes. The corvettes are slightly longer than the patrol vessels and carry Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles and antisubmarine torpedoes, along with the armament that we have. The three ships are headed some thirty miles out in the China Sea for gunnery practice. I want to go with them. The Unity, however, has her own duty to perform. Her wake boils out behind her as she turns and heads southwest.

The Unity just before she heads back to base.

Guns Manned

A fishing trawler we have been told to investigate bobs a few hundred yards to starboard. She is about sixty feet  long with a mast and boom forward and a ramshackle house aft. She appears to be untended. Without binoculars, I can see no signs of life aboard. Nor is there any indication that she is fishing. Our 12.7mm guns are manned, and the Unity edges closer.

Ruse to Fool

Suddenly a blizzard of white paper squares is tossed into the wind by someone inside. For a few seconds they remain together in the air before they flutter into the sea. Is this some kind of ruse to fool us?

“Joss papers,” Dave Wong tells me. “Yep, it’s the traditional Chinese way of praying, making offering to the gods. It’s considered to be money in the afterworld. And just for your information,” the warrant officer adds, “this is the seventh month of the Chinese tradition which is the Ghost Festival period.”

Tradition

Offering joss to the gods is a traditional Taoist form of prayer. Taoism is practiced by about 11 percent of Singapore Chinese and perhaps by the same proportion of Indonesians of Chinese extraction. Taoism is believed to have been founded by Lao Tzu, a contemporary of the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius. Taoists believe in yin and yang, the opposing forces of heaven and earth, and in many different gods with different powers. Some Chinese believe in a mixture of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Ghosts are the spirits of certain deceased persons, who are both feared and pitied. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, believers place joss out for them, and large community feasts are prepared for all the hungry gods in the area.

Pray for Safety

Dave Wong continues: “Yes, the festival has already started, and so probably that’s why [these fishermen] are giving offerings to pray for safety, and of course for a good catch.”

“Is that vessel Singapore-registered?” I ask.

“No, it’s not. Probably it’s from Indonesia.”

Though it was not immediately visible, the boat has a long net trailing from it, and after ascertaining that these Indonesians are indeed fishermen, we give the craft plenty of sea room to make sure we do not destroy their net. Soon we head west, back toward Singapore.

Complete Control

With Dave Wong at my elbow, I am allowed to operate the Unity. I take the coxswain’s seat and place one hand over each of the propulsion controls. They joy sticks are shaped to fit the palm of your hand, and they control both the direction and the thrust from each jet. With only slight movements you can make the Unity swirl around 360 degrees in her own length, much as you could with an outboard on a small skiff. Only this is a 500-ton, 177 ft. long vessel!

I am having a hard time just keeping us on course. The controls are so sensitive that I can’t keep us going in a straight line. As we wobble all over the sea, my pathetic steering efforts are met with much good humor by everyone on the bridge. Finally, I am relieved by a smiling Dave Wong, who assures me that I have done well. Uh huh.

Heading In

As we continue back toward base, the crew runs through a missile-defense drill in which an enemy ship has fired a surface-to-surface missile at us. Gunners dry-fire, trying to shoot it down, but failing. Then chaff is fired, which supposedly acts as a false target for the missile’s guidance system. It overshoots us.

The rest of the day is taken with more drills and inspections of sampans. At about sixteen hundred we arrive back at our Taus berth.

I have enjoyed my two-day patrol. The Unity’s crew struck me as most capable and very devoted to their work and to the navy. As for the lack of pirates? Oh well, maybe next time.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

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Hodgepodge Kenis and Sprig leave to go back to work. Kenis appears to be mature and very responsible. Later, I see her manning one of the machine guns on the bridge wing. Spring’s duty station is at the radar repeater on the bridge, where she continually examines and...

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On Patrol: Pt. 17 – Castaways and Fish Traps

Posted by on Oct 18, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 17 – Castaways and Fish Traps

Bridge Watch

We continue at flank speed. Then the operations center orders us to break off our escort. Slowly we pull ahead of the Haydock and come to fifty degrees. At seventeen past one in the morning, orders are given for action stations to stand down, and those who are not part of the normal bridge watch fall out. I do, too, to get some badly needed sleep.

Captain Ng on the bridge

Castaway

The next morning finds us idling through light chop seven miles northeast of Horsburgh Light. Breakfast is tomatoes, cucumbers, and egg salad on toast, and I gobble down my portion. After breakfast I begin talking to Captain Ng Ho Kwang, a studious-looking young officer temporarily attached to the Unity. In the Singapore navy, the captain rank is equivalent to that of the U.S. Navy lieutenant (a major is equivalent to lieutenant commander). I ask Captain Ng to pronounce his last name. It comes out like “now” spoken with the mouth closed. I try it, rather unsuccessfully. We begin talking about the movie Castaway starring Tom Hanks. It seems to me that most people watching that movie ask themselves what they would have done in similar circumstances, marooned on a tiny tropical island with almost nothing but what the island and the sea can provide. We agree that there was a lot of interesting stuff in the film. I ask what he would have done in the Hanks character’s place.

“Um, I probably will not be so bold enough to make the raft and just travel out, not knowing where it leads me to, yeah. But of course every risk is a chance. But probably I will not do that,” he laughs. “But, uh, definitely I will set up my own shelter, my base in that island. A cozy place for me to stay in.”

“What would you do to increase your chances of getting food?”

Foraging

‘Well, I don’t seem to remember there are animals on the island, but what they do have is definitely fish, big vegetables, and a forested area. These are all very good, uh, resources. With all the luggage [the Fed Ex parcels that wash up after the plane crash], which is a means of resources, then I will pick out whatever I can use to make water from. From rainwater, from seawater, by evaporating means like condensation, whatever I can think of. Like the recycling of resources and, uh, fish will be a very good means of survival in the island.”

“Hanks didn’t have any fishing rod. What would you do to try and get fish?”

“Improvise, improvise. Just like in Singapore, there’s a lot of kelongs (fish traps). They pound sticks into the sea base.”

“Right, to form fish traps.”

“Fish traps, very big fish traps, luring all the fish into this area.”

“Then the tide goes down.”

“Yes, and they will trap the fish inside. With observation and references to the tidal condition and, uh, movement of the fish, that probably will give me a constant supply of food.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t think of that in the movie,” I add. “All they would have to do is use rocks or pieces of coral.”

“Well, I guess it’s more the culture and background that we are brought up in. Probably in the Southeast Asia countries, that is what we’re going to use. It is more sure than to take one stick and pierce it through fish. I say that’s quite difficult!”

We both laugh, and Captain Ng excuses himself to return to his duty station.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

Hodgepodge Kenis and Sprig leave to go back to work. Kenis appears to be mature and very responsible. Later, I see her manning one of the machine guns on the bridge wing. Spring’s duty station is at the radar repeater on the bridge, where she continually examines and...

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On Patrol: Pt. 16 – Cover the Flanks

Posted by on Oct 11, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 16 – Cover the Flanks

Dangerous Waters

The Haydock increases speed to put more space between her and the freighter following her. The two ships may have been sailing in an unofficial convoy, a tactic that is used more and more by masters of ships traveling through heavily pirated areas at night. We slip in astern of her.

.50 caliber gunners

Both the starboard .50 caliber machine guns are manned.

Maritime Risk

The shipping lanes just ahead are the narrowest in all the straits, each only a little over half-mile wide. Just to the south, outside the lanes lie shoals and some very shallow water. To make matters even worse, the area has a great deal of cross-traffic, with large and small vessels entering from Singapore’s islands to the north and Indonesian islands to the south. It is an area of considerable risk—even forgetting pirates.

Superstructure

The Haydock has slowed to 8.7 knots and we are now just astern of her. Her white superstructure looms only a few hundred yards off. Fire hoses pour cascades of water over her transom, an action intended to prevent pirates from using one of their favorite tactics: bringing their boat nearly up against the stern of a merchant vessel and then throwing grappling hooks over her rail with knotted lines attacked. Young, agile pirates are able to scale a ship’s hull in seconds. It is usually a simple matter to make hostages of the first mariners they come across so they can have control of even a large vessel. Since merchant sailors go unarmed, with the exception of Russian and Israeli crews, there is little risk for the pirates.

Starboard Flank

I have lost track of the suspicious sampan, so I go out on the starboard bridge wing. A young sergeant mans the forward gun and Leading Gunner Sergeant Shyamlal Suresh tends the aft gun. Both men are totally focused, with the forward gunner’s weapon aimed ahead to starboard at where I imagine (but cannot) see the sampan to be. Sergeant Suresh rotates his weapon, first forward, then back, covering our starboard flank.

Ricochet

It suddenly occurs to me that if an attack were made on the Haydock, which seems unlikely given that we stand out like a sore thumb, even on this moonless, rainy night, pirates might not be our greatest danger. If one of the machine gunners began firing at attacking pirates and one of the .50-caliber bullets ricocheted off either the water or the attacking vessel, and if that ricochet penetrated one of those two double-hulled tanks of natural gas, we might be dancing with the angels. A rather sobering thought.

I ask Major Wong about the possibility of blowing ourselves to smithereens. He laughs and tells me no, they have strategies to prevent that from happening—but of course he won’t tell me what those are. So I ask him what would happen if the gas in one of those tanks did blow. “Maybe everything gone within two miles,” he reassures me, smiling.

East End

We pass the sampan, which is in the shallows to starboard. Three men tend a fishing net draped over the transom. Now that we are out of the narrowest part of the channel, the Haydock speeds up again. She is doing fourteen knots and is starting to pull away from us. The order is given for us to increase speed accordingly, and slowly we begin to close. The tanker is doing nearly twenty knots now, which must be her flat-out max. We go faster until we are a thousand yards astern and remain there. Our wake rolls off to each side of us. The rain has stopped and with our speed the night air feels cool and refreshing. We have passed Changi, at the east end of Singapore Island.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

Hodgepodge Kenis and Sprig leave to go back to work. Kenis appears to be mature and very responsible. Later, I see her manning one of the machine guns on the bridge wing. Spring’s duty station is at the radar repeater on the bridge, where she continually examines and...

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On Patrol: Pt. 15 – Armed Pirates

Posted by on Oct 4, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 15 – Armed Pirates

Plundered

Two months earlier, in March 2004, the An Hui, a Singapore tug, was stopped in the same area, perhaps by the same gang, which also inflicted injuries on the crew and stole cash and crew’s belongings. Just to the west of where those attacks occurred, within a period of a week, according to Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority, a Cayman Islands-registered bulk carrier, the Pilion, beat off an attack. Another Bulk carrier, the Cape Haralambos, and a Turkish container ship, the Border, were not so lucky. Both were plundered by armed pirates and had valuables stolen.

50 cal gunner

A 50 caliber machine gun is manned during action stations.

Ransom

Nor are attacks’ perpetrated simply by bad men with long knives. In 2003 in the Malacca Strait the tanker Peurider faced pirates in a fishing boat firing machine guns and grenade launchers. Once on the ship, they stole valuables, and took hostages for ransom, leaving the damaged ship adrift. Another vessel, the container ship Pancaran Sinar, after being boarded by machine-gun-wielding pirates who took her crew hostage, sailed unmanned down the Malacca Strait for over an hour—potentially an unguided missile that could have caused a disastrous collision.

Subdued

Perhaps the most frightening occurrence took place in April 2003, when the tanker Dewi Madrin was sailing in the Malacca Strait. Two speedboats came alongside filled with pirates armed with automatic weapons. They boarded the vessel, but instead of following their usual pattern—breaking into the ships safe and stealing valuables—they subdued the crew and went directly to the bridge, where they took control of the ship. In what, in retrospect, seems to have been piloting lessons, they sailed the ship themselves down the strait for more than an hour. Terrorists often practice before an attack, and the situation on the Dewi Madrin provides a dire warning of the form a future attack might take.

Standing Ready

These are but a few examples of maritime violence in the area, and the reason the crew of the Unity now stands ready at their action stations as we approach the Haydock. We allow her to pass us and then swing around behind her to take up position astern. However, another vessel, a small freighter, is between her and the Unity. So Major Wong orders a course change that puts us on the Haydock’s port quarter, “yeah, I don’t want to impede the passage of the other vessel,” he tells me, “though I would prefer to take station astern. Usually I will take station astern.”

Approaching

Constant updates on position and on nearby vessels are called out. “Large ship at 085.” “The range, now, is three cables” [six hundred yards between us and the Haydock]. “Starboard 15.” “Tanker at one mile, approaching.” “Port 20.” And over the radio from other ships: “I’m not from Taipei.” “I’m from Instanbul, Nordin Shariza, sir.” Then some words from CIC; all I hear is “Okay, okay, lah,” then “bring down your lights.”

Stand By

The CIC informs the officer of the watch that there is a contact, a sampan, in the ten o’clock position. “CDC, contact coming from… That one showing with lights off, the red one at sixty-one cables.”* The gunnery direction officer tells the starboard gunners to stand by and to watch the sampan. As long as she doesn’t move, doesn’t approach the Haydock, she is all right.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

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On Patrol: Pt. 14 – Explosive Escort

Posted by on Sep 27, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 14 – Explosive Escort

Back on the bridge deck, I am left alone. The Unity’s huge mast looms above me. Mostly it appears to be just a fixture to hold the navigating and surface-search radars and the optical device mounted to a twenty-foot extension on top of it. I decide to go below to the cabin assigned me for a quick nap.

Escort

Twenty-three forty-five. I am awakened by an alarm, then a rapid series of knocks on the door. Dave Wong sticks his head in, says, “We are picking up a natural gas tanker that we will be escorting through the straits. We knew you would want to see it.”

The Haydock (similar to this ship) is a natural gas tanker of 4,045 gross tons.

Yes, indeed. Scrambling into tennis shoes, I make my way to the bridge through a passage filled with crewmembers scurrying to their action stations, some donning life jackets and helmets.

Threats

The bridge hums with activity. All four machine guns are manned and are being checked. Steel boxes of 12.7mm ammunition are carried to the individual guns and eighty-round belts fed into the receivers. Everyone wears white flash hoods along with their bulletproof vests and life jackets. The hoods protect against burns from muzzle flash or enemy fire. A white beam from our searchlight goes out hunting for the tanker but also scanning the adjacent water for any sign of danger from any kind of boat whose occupants could pose a threat.

In the glare of our light the tanker appears in the southern shipping lane 500 yards off our port bow. The storm accompanying the distant lightning has finally caught up with us, and a steady rain, together with a moonless night, has reduced visibility. The tanker seems indistinct even at this short range. Briefly, she hits us with her spotlight, blinding us until she can identify us. Then her light plays out ahead of her.

Explosive Cargo

The Haydock is a coastal natural gas tanker of 4,045 gross tons and about 320 feet long. With a Panama registry, she is managed by a Singapore company. Her owner could be anyone, of any nationality, living anywhere in the world. The vessel carries two giant tanks of highly explosive cargo that, if suddenly detonated, might set off a chain reaction that could destroy Singapore’s Bukom refinery.

Not just the refinery is vulnerable. Downtown Singapore abuts the water in numerous places, and they are all potential targets. Business centers, amusement parks, and ferry terminals, all bustling with thousands of people, could be turned into infernos.

Obviously, ensuring the safety of the Haydock and similarly loaded ships has a high priority. Nobody on the Unity wants the Haydock to be used as a weapon.

Pirates

Not far ahead of us is the Western Boarding Ground, where vessels may be boarded by Singapore customs and immigration officials. It was just to the south of that, only a few miles into Indonesian territory, where another tanker, the Ocean Princess, was recently boarded by pirates, who took her master, three officers, and two of the crew hostage. After beating up the master and the chief engineer, the pirates ransacked the ship for valuables, including the vessel’s cash, and escaped.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

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Hodgepodge Kenis and Sprig leave to go back to work. Kenis appears to be mature and very responsible. Later, I see her manning one of the machine guns on the bridge wing. Spring’s duty station is at the radar repeater on the bridge, where she continually examines and...

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On Patrol: Pt. 13 – Comm Checks and Storm Prep

Posted by on Sep 20, 2019

On Patrol: Pt. 13 – Comm Checks and Storm Prep

In the background are snatches of radio transmissions, some from  central control, others from different ships. Everything seems garbled.

“…to Hong Kong, to Hong Kong…upstairs engine…” A female voice saying, “Three hundred and eighty…” This interspersed with Malay and Chinese transmissions.

Then, “…vessels of the east… radar, coming to ______. Okay? …beach ___, is picking up a pilot from Langkawi… All right, okay, thank you.”

Then over our speaker: “Roger, calling the RSS Unity … Ah, you’re heading toward the west and where are you? Over.”

Part of our response. “This is RSS Unity. My intention is to conduct a comm check. This is Tango Tango. My intention is to conduct a comm check with you. Over.” Then I catch only a snatch of the response from base: “Can I know from you…”

As we continue Southwest, a mood of relaxed watchfulness prevails. Besides Maor Wong, two crewmembers keep watch. The officer of the watch and a sergeant each have responsibility for 180 degrees, from fore to aft, one to the north and the other to the south. A tech reports constantly on radar sightings. Finally there is also the master head’s remotely controlled camera, called an electrical optical device. It appears to be set on infrared, because ships and even small boats stand out on the monitor almost as they would in daylight. This camera is directed not only on the bridge but also by CIC.

“What’s the range of that thing?” I ask Tony Wong, referring to the camera.

“Oh, it can go to the horizon, you know, to eight or nine miles, and of course it can zoom in and out,” he tells me.

Carefully we pass an area south of the Eastern Boarding Ground, where six months earlier a Korean auto carrier filled with Hyundai’s collided with another ship and sank. Some of the crewmembers on the bridge look longingly at the spot, thinking of all those hundreds of Hyundai’s sitting uselessly at the bottom of the Singapore Strait.

Running lights of ferries cross in front and behind us, going between Indonesian islands and Singapore’s Sentosa Ferry Terminal. Someone comes up on the bridge offering green bean soup. There seem to be few takers. Raffles Light flashes brightly off our starboard bow. It marks not only shoals and islands, but also the abrupt course change necessary to enter Main Strait, which in turn, seventeen miles ahead, meets Malacca Strait.

I join my minder, Dave Wong, and another officer for a check topside. On the bow, just forward of the 76mm gun mount, they check other winches and ground tackle. A warm wind blows steadily into our faces. Off to the northwest lighting flashes frequently near the horizon but I hear no thunder. The ship seems to be coasting, gliding through the water, at only six or seven knots. We move toward the stern. The two officers check equipment, mounts, ventilators and engine exhaust blowers, life preservers, antennas, and small-boat lashings. Finally we wind up at the surface-to-air missile battery on the fantail. All seems secure. Lightning flashes more frequently now.

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On Patrol: Pt. 9 – Machine Guns

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Hodgepodge Kenis and Sprig leave to go back to work. Kenis appears to be mature and very responsible. Later, I see her manning one of the machine guns on the bridge wing. Spring’s duty station is at the radar repeater on the bridge, where she continually examines and...

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