Monday 19 May 2008

Sailing off into the sunset (without puking)

I get sentimental over the weirdest things. Like, say, missile gunboats - known as MGBs for short. Just call me Mr Softie.

When I read that the Republic of Singapore Navy had decommissioned the MGB squadron in a sunset ceremony at Changi Naval Base last Tuesday after over three decades of service, a part of me died a little.

Though this was nothing compared to the death pangs I felt when they shut down Brani Naval Base in 2000.

I had spent most of my full-time national service at Brani Medical Centre as a medical orderly who refused to wear a tunic because it didn't flatter my body type.

What is now called HarbourFront is from where I used to make a daily commute by sea to Pulau Brani early in the morning before the Sentosa-bound holidaymakers arrived.

One of the more bizarre and joked-about aspects of the supposedly high-security naval base was that you could see the Sentosa golf course across the water just 150m away from the wharf where the warships are alongside.

So if you really wanted to, you could actually ding an MGB with a golf ball with a decently hit drive from Sentosa. I think that counts as a water hazard with a penalty of one stroke.

Dinged or not, the MGBs were at the time the pride of the fleet, the most advanced vessels we had.

But going on an exercise in one was like being in a teacup during a tsunami. You've never been seasick until you've been seasick onboard an MGB.

As a medic, I would be attached to different ships for exercises. The plum attachments were, of course, the giant Landing Ship Tanks or LSTs which had survived World War II.

Size does matter.

Those old LSTs have since been replaced by sleeker models with a computerised bridge that resembles the Starship Enterprise (from Star Trek: The Next Generation, not the dinky original series).

During my service, the MGBs themselves were already being edged out by the newer, sexier-sounding missile corvettes (you know, like the sports car) as the navy's most advanced vessels.

But even the corvettes have now been outstripped by the recently commissioned stealth frigates in terms of technological doodads.

And in a few years, the stealth frigate will be made to look like a sampan when the navy acquires an even more ridiculously advanced ship that can sail at warp speed or transform into a giant attack-bot or something.

It's the circle of life - but with weaponised boats.

All of us will be replaced eventually by someone younger and technologically better equipped.

But when we're forcibly retired, it will be with the comforting knowledge that our replacements will also be replaced eventually by someone younger and with anti-submarine capability.

So goodbye, RSS Sea Wolf, once a perennial Best Ship winner and Singapore's first missile gunboat.

I hardly knew ya. I was too busy trying to keep from puking my guts out.

- Published in The New Paper, 18 May 2008

Hi, SM!

I really enjoyed your humour me column today. It's delightful. Thanks!

Have sailed in MGB (the skipper was puking) and MCV. Wrote book about the Navy for the RSN in the early 1990s. Used to work in TNP.

Peter Lim