Voyage across the Equator

30 January 2017 | Education
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The schooner named Four Friends is 18 metres long, with 2 masts and up to 8 sails. (Photo: Kelman Chiang)

Nine NUS students kicked off their new year earlier this month by sailing off on a ship for a week-long voyage across the Equator.

Sailing aboard an 18-metre schooner, the students, together with three NUS alumni, one faculty member and the ship’s captain and crew, set off from Batam at the crack of dawn on 2 January for their destination Pulau Lingga, an Indonesian island on the Equator. Along the way, they learned how to sail, and picked up lessons in maritime navigation and geography, and a renewed perspective on nature and the environment. For half of the team, this was also their first time sailing.

Infographic VoyageMap

The week-long 400-kilometre voyage started off from Batam, with stops on the islands of Benan, Sebangka, Lingga, Gojong, before anchoring at Pulau Telang on their return.

Their adventure on the high seas saw them through a range of new experiences, from keeping watch aboard the ship to navigating by the stars, and swimming across the equator. They also dealt head-on with an unexpected Sumatran squall.

Darren Wee, Year 2 student from NUS Computing, recounted, “It was a sudden and violent storm, and our first on the voyage. It was about 4 in the morning. Some of us were sleeping in hammocks on the deck when someone shouted ‘rain!’ I was barely awake at first, but the gusty winds just suddenly picked up.”

Jonathan Yeo, Year 1 student from NUS Business and a former national sailor, shared how the team scrambled to remove awnings and shelters on the deck as the rain beat down on them. “The wind was blowing the ship at an angle, going at 40 knots, or 80 kilometres per hour. Thankfully we were already anchored for the night, and our very experienced captain took charge, using the ship’s engine to counter the force of the wind”.

Equator 4

Aside from sailing the high seas, the students also took their kayaks down narrow channels to explore the mangrove areas on some of the islands. (Photo: Kelman Chiang)

Another memorable point of the voyage was when the students charted their own course through a channel that existing maps showed to be too shallow for a ship to pass through. As they approached Pulau Lingga, they were faced with two choices: they could either take the longer route around the island, or take a shorter route across the narrow channel of uncertain depth. Under the captain’s guidance, the students chose the latter.

Using a depth sounder that runs on sonar, they charted the channel’s depth at one-minute intervals as the ship proceeded slowly. The actual depth turned out to be up to 20-metres deep, more than enough for a ship to sail through. They made it across the channel, and christened it “Selat NUS” — selat being the Malay word for channel or strait. They have also shared the data collected with the marina at Nongsa Point, Batam, which will be made available to others sailing in the area in the future.

The idea for this unconventional learning journey came from Associate Professor Martin Henz, from NUS Computing and Engineering, who is an avid sailor and had previously worked with students on various sailing-related projects. “We wanted not just a longer voyage, but one that encourages multi-disciplinary learning and cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives between students,” said Assoc Prof Henz.

For the students, it was a trip that took them out of their comfort zone, where their perspectives were challenged and new friendships were forged. Many were introspective as they recounted their trip.

Tan Fangning, a Year 2 NUS Arts student, was attracted by the sense of adventure when she first heard of the trip. It was a bold move to sign up for a voyage as a non-swimmer with no sailing experience. “This was literally uncharted territory for me," she said. "I have never had the experience of going out in the open seas. But I learned to push my fears to the back of my mind.”

Darren shared how he appreciated the opportunity to be off the grid for a week and learned to relax, while Jonathan developed a deeper appreciation for nature, and a curiosity in the bigger picture and the universe.

For Jeremiah Loke, Year 3 student from NUS Arts, the trip had "an ideal combination of physical activity and space for reflection”. He summed it up, “I came back feeling more relaxed. It uncluttered my mind, just by being out at sea with the regulating calm waves. I am more purposeful when I do things now.”