RSS Vengeance 9 May 2013: Aboard the Republic of Singapore Navy's fastest strike craft, some things are still done the time-tested way. This includes parallel parking a warship.
Despite her upgrade, the Missile Corvette RSS Vengeance is brought alongside in the same way as ships of the line from Admiral Nelson's time: With the help of an officer empowered to order the warship this way or that just by eyeballing the way she handles in wind and current.
Vengeance and five other sister ships of the Victory-class from 188 Squadron are the last of the RSN's strike craft with four engines and four propellors. So watching the bridge action as OOW Major Ng Cheng Siong plays with the four MTU diesels is a real treat.
Knowing how to drive the MCV is one thing. Major Ng also keeps in mind the large sail area of the MCV. Yes, she has no sail for propulsion but her large mast packed with electronic sensors has a large sail area which can catch the wind and pose a challenge to moving the deck where the OOW wants it to be.
Joy ride over, Vengeance approaches Changi Naval Base on helm order course 270, throttle order slow ahead all engines to bring her into protected waters sheltered by a vast concrete pier that serves as a breakwater from choppy waters of the Singapore Strait.
Through open doors port and starboard on her bridge - a working area about the size of two parking lots crammed with a dozen plus sailors, machinery and navaids to steer the warship - one observes concrete emplacements with searchlights, loud hailers and MGs which lord over the entrance to Singapore's largest naval base. Warnings painted in red on the sea facing side of the pier are less subtle. They inform seafarers not to enter protected waters.
Activity picks up on Vengeance as sailors on her upper decks are readied for coming alongside portside. RSS Vengeance, last of the Singapore-built 62-metre long, 530 tonne missile-armed vessels of the Victory-class, is entering harbour.
All's quiet on the bridge as OOW Major Ng rattles off a series of helm orders (Steer 265. Ship proceeding in now), throttle changes (Up Step 2 all engines) and queries about the MCV's speed (SOG?) and position as the East Pier looms into view just off her starboard bow.
Her Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel He Ruimin, keeps a keen eye on the proceedings from the CO's seat on the right hand side of the bridge. He says barely a word and appears content to allow his OOW to run the show. Such delegation of authority may appear wonderful to exercise but LTC He knows the buck stops with him.
Every update is acknowledged by the OOW as updates come in thick and fast. Reports by multiple lookouts port and starboard, the helmsman who takes the ship's wheel, throttleman who controls the engines, the sailor who scrutinises every blip on his radar display add to the buzz on the bridge as Vengeance approaches journey's end.
Indeed, it will probably take the Principal Warfare Officer fewer verbal commands to order a Harpoon missile launch than Major Ng will make to bring his deck alongside.
There's no model answer to berth a ship. Every approach is different. In degree of difficulty, there's only challenging, more challenging and career wrecking.
And despite the recent upgrade that gave Vengeance an eye in the sky (Scan Eagle UAV), a pair of new Lxxxxxx multi tube decoy launchers and other refinements, Singaporean defence engineers have not given her parking assist.
A lookout on the bridge calls out a floating log. Major Ng acknowledges the lookout and a dozen eyeballs on the bridge track the flotsam silently as it bobs past us to starboard. It may seem trivial, but that log -harmless though it may seem - could damage her props.
The parking area comes into view. It is 62 metres long - same length as Vengeance - and like Vengeance has protruding bits on the same level as the bridge wing that should be avoided. It is Vigilance, the MCV's sistership. We are to berth alongside Vigilance on her starboard side.
Denting Vigilance would be a career
Aboard today as passengers for the Sea Cruise joy ride are a dozen-plus Singaporean bloggers whose combined daily readership probably numbers into the tens of thousands. Any mishap and it is very likely news would reach cyberspace before the RSN's Chief of Navy learns about it.
If the task at hand was stressful, the OOW and bridge hands did not show it.
With 40-plus people aboard Vengeance trusting his judgement and millions of dollars of Singaporean tax payers defence dollars under his feet, Major Ng is a picture of composed calm as he coaxes the MCV alongside.
To the uninitiated, it may look like OOW cannot make up his mind as orders are given, acknowledged then rescinded just after they are carried out. Multiple orders are given and acknowledged in the space of less than a minute. [OOW Major Ng would probably make a formidable customer if he changed his food order like this in a restaurant...]
OOW: Check stern
Lookouts: Check stern. Stern clear Sir!
OOW: Very good.
OOW: Slow ahead all engines
Throttleman: Slow ahead all engines Sir!
OOW: Very good.
OOW: Stop all engines
Throttleman: All engines stop Sir!
OOW: Very good.
OOW: Finish on both port. Starboard inner slow ahead.
Throttleman: Finish on both port. Starboard inner slow ahead Sir!
OOW: Very good.
OOW: Stop starboard inner.
Throttleman: Starboard inner stop Sir!
OOW: Very good.
And so it goes on and on and on.
This back and forth between OOW and his colleagues as port and starboard propellors are moved, then stopped a split second later and then moved again. MTU diesels driving inner props are gunned into action only to be stopped a moment just after the throttleman acknowledges the order to gun them into life.
The effect is tangible. We see and feel Vengeance coming alongside Vigilance smoothly.
Outside, sailors put spherical (neon pink!) air-filled fenders in between the hull and bridge wing of both MCVs.
OOW: Both starboard stop. Both port finish. Finish with both starboard.
All the above was executed in calm clear weather in bright sunshine.
This is just for berthing a warship.
Think it's easy? Now you try doing all that in the dark while balancing on your deck in stormy seas, with minimal sleep and with someone out to bomb, shoot or torpedo you while you manoeuvre your warship to do the same.
PWO: Report all contacts within range...
Am grateful to LTC He Ruimin and his crew for the hospitality aboard Vengeance during the Navy Open House preview and to the MINDEF Public Affairs Directorate team for making it happen.
Having clocked sea time (defined as overnighters) with the RSN, RAN and USN on both sides of the Malay peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, it is always a joy to watch a bridge team in action.
FYI, among the three Services land, sea and air, the one I would sign up for if I lived my teen years all over again is the Navy.