Navigating uncharted territories

17 January 2018 | Education
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On kayaks, the students explored a mangrove forest at the eastern tip of an uninhabited island of the Pekajiang archipelago (Photo: Nur Afiqah Nasser)

From 11 to 22 December 2017, 16 NUS staff and students set off on an 11-day voyage across the Riau Islands in Indonesia. Final year NUS Communications and New Media student Vanessa Chinnaphongse pens her insights from this journey of self-discovery, where she went out of her comfort zone and found introspection in the little moments out at sea. NUS Seafarers is a series of experiential learning voyages which first began in January 2017.

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Students learnt to plot the ship’s course, look out for nearby obstacles and steer the ship. From left: Vanessa, Year 2 Electrical Engineering student Benjamin Sng, and Year 4 Mechanical Engineering student Arif Solihin (Photo: Nur Afiqah Nasser)

Armed only with a love and curiosity for the ocean, I signed up for an Indonesian voyage with NUS Seafarers in December 2017. I had zero experience at sailing; I am slightly claustrophobic, and I did not know anyone prior to the trip.  I was conscious that I was throwing myself into uncharted territories — both metaphorically and literally — but I wanted to see how I would emerge from this novel sailing experience.  

Spearheaded by NUS Computing’s Associate Professor Martin Henz, I joined 15 NUS students and staff from various faculties aboard Captain Warren Blake’s schooner Four Friends. We sailed south from Singapore to Pulau Bangka, via Benan Island, Pulau Lingga, Singkep and Tudju Islands, all while learning about this bustling Indonesian region through firsthand immersion. This seemingly simple itinerary belies the richness of the experience of living on a sailboat with 15 other people, the oscillation of emotions felt, the thrill of exploration in untouched nature, and the encounter with a cultural and social life so close by, yet vastly different from ours.

For one, the physical demands of this experience imbued me with a kind of mental resilience that I am grateful for even now. I must admit I underestimated the actual conditions of living on a schooner. Having to shower mostly in seawater, navigating in complete darkness past 7.30pm on the sailboat — as any light onboard would interfere with Captain’s night vision while sailing, trying to fall asleep on a rocking sailboat hours before my actual bedtime, were some of the little things that caught me off guard.

Seasickness crippled me on the fifth night, the roughest night of the entire voyage. We were woken up when our schooner faced rougher-than-usual currents and strong winds at four in the morning and we had to quickly hoist the sails up in the dark to get out of Pulau Saja, the stopover of the night. It was monsoon season, after all. The struggles we faced were daunting, exhilarating and invigorating all at once.

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Vanessa enjoying a majestic sunset at Muntok, Pulau Bangka, on their last evening of the voyage

While it was not always smooth-sailing, it was the entirety of these little moments that taught me the art of mindfulness. From adrenaline-charged activities like kayaking in mangroves or trekking through the forest to find freshwater riverbeds, down to the quiet acts of sipping coffee at the crack of dawn watching the sunrise, or playing cards with my fellow seafarers before bedtime — every moment gripped me to the force of the present.

I had never felt more attuned with my senses, thoughts and body. Over the course of the trip, the anxiety-ridden city dweller in me slowly gave way to a more relaxed individual who experienced things more lucidly.

Encounters with the locals and towns in the region were also humbling. I had grown so accustomed to the infrastructural and bureaucratic precision in Singapore that the simplicity of life in those kampongs and developing towns struck me as endearing, almost precious. We had the opportunity to interact with residents, as well as officials there who generously shared insights on their developmental projects. I usually left these islands ruminating on the trade-offs between urban development and the locals’ way of life.

Every single day was substantial and brimming with anticipation and events. The prolonged period of detachment on this voyage served as an unadulterated return to my roots as a person. I was absolutely in love with the seafaring experience.

By Vanessa Auraphin Chinnaphongse, Year 4, NUS Communications and New Media

Read more about previous NUS Seafarers adventures Voyage across the Equator, and Sail to Anambas.