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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
More from “On Patrol”
Engine Room We are barely moving through the water and suddenly an alarm goes off on the bridge. Major Wong speaks with Sergeant Koh, the chief engineer, explains that enough bypass gas and some from hot, oily surfaces have collected to set off an engine room alarm....
Heart Goes Out P.J. met his wife, Elaine, an associate engineer working for a semiconductor manufacturer, in an internet chat room. They have been married only a short time and as yet have no children. Both are computer buffs, and its possible P.J. may leave the navy...
Limbs Fly Back on the main deck we go out, forward, next to the 76mm gun. I am instructed not to step between the anchor chains running from the chain locker through chocks to the Unity’s anchors. If accidentally the anchor windlass lock released, I might watch a few...
Ransom On February 9, 2003, an Indonesian tugboat, the Sing Sing Mariner, was towing a barge near Bintan Island. Unnoticed by the men on the tug, armed pirates boarded the barge and kidnapped its five-man crew, to hold them for ransom. The tug continued to sail until...
Tight Quarters The rear of the cramped bridge space is taken up with a series of consoles in front of a bench seat. Four screens provide diagnostic information on all the ship’s systems, including engine functions. All together a half dozen people working from the...
Terrorism In 2002 a videotape found in an al-Qaeda hideout in Afghanistan led authorities in Singapore to arrest thirteen members of Jamaah Islamiyah, an Asian al-Qaeda affiliate, who were planning to place bombs at a bus stop and mass-transit station frequented by...
New Course The Unity enters the main shipping channel, and as we pass Raffles Light, named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who “founded” the city in 1829 for the British East India Company, she takes a new course, heading east northeast. She joins the shipping lane...
Taus Navy Base, Republic of Signapore Slowly the RSS Unity backs out of her berth into the waterway, passing sister patrol vessels and three corvettes bristling with guns and missiles at an adjacent dock. P. J. Lau, the exec, is at the conn. “Starboard 15,” he orders...