Sailing trip taught them to love nature

Associate Professor Martin Henz (centre) with NUS students (from left) Jonathan Yeo, Darren Wee, Tan Fangning and Jeremiah Loke. The group is now working on returning the shells to the relevant authorities, having learnt that they are not supposed to
Associate Professor Martin Henz (centre) with NUS students (from left) Jonathan Yeo, Darren Wee, Tan Fangning and Jeremiah Loke. The group is now working on returning the shells to the relevant authorities, having learnt that they are not supposed to be removed.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
The nine NUS students, accompanied by Prof Henz, Captain Blake and his wife, three NUS alumni and a crew member, set sail on the 60ft schooner Four Friends for a week. The students and alumni took turns to be at the helm of the ship when they sailed
The nine NUS students, accompanied by Prof Henz, Captain Blake and his wife, three NUS alumni and a crew member, set sail on the 60ft schooner Four Friends for a week. The students and alumni took turns to be at the helm of the ship when they sailed in the day, under the supervision of the captain.PHOTO: COURTESY OF KELMAN CHIANG

For 7 days, NUS students navigated a ship through storms and explored Riau Islands

Half of them had no sailing experience, and some could not even swim.

But for seven days this month, before the school semester started, a group of National University of Singapore (NUS) students headed off in a type of ship called a schooner to the Riau Islands in Indonesia on a remarkable voyage.

Armed only with tentative plans, they navigated through sudden storms, explored desolate islands and swam across the Equator, living and working together on the 60ft (18m) schooner despite being strangers at the start.

The trip - the first of its kind to be organised by NUS - was the brainchild of Associate Professor Martin Henz, who is from Germany and teaches at NUS' School of Computing and Faculty of Engineering.

An avid sailor with eight years of experience who has been taking NUS students on sailing trips to islands in Singapore and Bintan since 2013, Prof Henz approached a contact, Captain Warren Blake, a New Zealander in his 70s, around June last year.

The captain had taken students from international schools here on learning trips in the region on his schooner Four Friends, which is berthed in Batam.

"I was wondering if it would be possible to engage NUS students from all disciplines in a longer voyage, so that they can learn some of the methods used in other disciplines, and share their perspectives," said Prof Henz, 50, who has been in Singapore for two decades.

In the middle of last month, he called for students who were interested in sailing out at sea for a week to sign up for the trip, which cost $400 each after subsidies from NUS.

Twenty people expressed interest, and places were given out on a first come, first served basis.

Eventually, nine students from various faculties, including computing, business, and arts and social sciences, set sail from Batam on Jan 1 after two planning meetings, accompanied by Prof Henz, Captain Blake and his wife, three NUS alumni who saw posts about the trip online, as well as a crew member.

What set the voyage apart from other student exchange programmes, where one would usually be more passively introduced to experiences and new places, was how involved the students were in the whole process, said third-year student Jeremiah Loke, 23, an English literature and geography major.

Supervised by Captain Blake, the 12 students and alumni took turns to be at the helm of the ship when they sailed in the day.

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Being immersed in nature was a new experience and helped me realise how we can work with nature to form a sustainable living system.

FIRST-YEAR ACCOUNTANCY STUDENT JONATHAN YEO

They were divided into groups of four and rotated through four-hour shifts each day, with each person assigned roles such as steering, plotting their course and being on the lookout for potential obstacles, including objects or fishing boats.

Said Mr Loke: "There is a degree of interactivity and consideration between you and the landscape, you and your peers, even you and yourself (that is required)... We had to look out for one another's well-being and always be ready to help out."

When the group was planning the route south to Pulau Lingga, existing information showed that a narrow channel through Pulau Sebangka that could save them from taking a longer route was apparently too shallow for the schooner to sail through, leading them to start out with a more conservative itinerary.

But using a depth sounder which uses sonar, the team did its own survey of the actual depth of the channel and corrected some of the maps after determining that it was, in fact, deep enough for them to pass through.

Despite "small emergencies", including a sudden and violent storm that woke them in the middle of the night, the group managed to visit the Indonesian islands of Benan, Pulau Sebangka, Pulau Lingga and Pulau Gojong, and dived off the ship to swim across the Equator, which lies between Pulau Sebangka and Pulau Gojong.

They also kayaked through mangroves and swam in a waterfall.

First-year accountancy student Jonathan Yeo, 20, who is a national sailor, said hehas a deeper appreciation for nature after the trip.

"Some people say Singapore is a concrete jungle... Being immersed in nature was a new experience and helped me realise how we can work with nature to form a sustainable living system," he said.

Prof Henz, said that he was really happy with the students' accomplishments and is keen to take others on similar trips in the future, though plans are still tentative.

"I tried to scale back their expectations (initially) and we had a pretty conservative itinerary...

"But I must say, every single day exceeded my expectations in terms of what we managed to accomplish and the places we saw," he said.

Second-year geography major Tan Fangning, 20, the only girl from NUS who went on the trip, said she conquered uncharted territory on the trip.

"I don't know how to swim, so there were definitely instances when I had a fear of the water.

"But being out there in the open sea showed me that we really know very little about what the earth has to offer," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Sailing trip taught them to love nature'. Print Edition | Subscribe