The climb of your lifeCan PIONEER journalist Benita Teo prove herself a worthy hand at sea?
//Photos Chai Sian Liang
In my head, I’m Captain Jack Sparrow, swinging gracefully from the sails of the Black Pearl and trading blows with undead seamen.
In reality, I’m clinging on to the ropes of the Jacob’s ladder while shaking all the way down to my sneakers.
As a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a dashing pirate by…joining the good guys who go out to nab them.
Okay, so the Republic of Singapore Navy’s Accompanying Sea Security Teams (ASSeTs) don’t actually patrol our local waters for pirates.
As part of maritime security operations, these teams board selected commercial vessels to carry out checks for unauthorised and illegal personnel and items.
And at the Boarding and Search Trainer (BST) at Pulau Brani, I found out how these ASSeT operators worked.
Looking the part
Like the seafarers of yore, having the right gear is important.
For me, this included a Floatation Ballistic Armour Vest (FBAV), MP5 sub-machine gun and an outer belt for secondary weapons like a baton and P226 pistol.
“I feel like Inspector Elaine Tay in Triple Nine!” I exclaimed, clutching my pistol and waddling like a pregnant penguin.
I was now ready for my first task: learning to board the training ship from shore using the Jacob’s ladder. Luckily, I was hooked to a belaying cable so I wouldn’t fall off.
Cautiously, I grabbed the rope, placing the ball of my left foot on the first wooden step. The rope ladder swung as my body weight pulled it away from the hull.
But as I stepped up carefully, I discovered that the ladder swayed less the higher I got. Having dry land below also helped me to climb without fear.
Quite easily, I reached the top of the 3m-high ladder and back down.
My confidence (artificially) boosted, I decided to be “extra” and ask to try boarding the BST from the wet or sea side, the way ASSeTs usually would. Bad idea.
Ship gets real
Rarely do people find a task that evokes all their fears at the same time. This was like winning the bingo of all my phobias: heights and deep water.
Slight panic set in as I climbed down the jetty beside the BST to board the boat that would take me to the 6m ladder on the sea side.
My instructor reminded me of the safety measures during our short journey. I nodded silently. Whatever Dutch courage I had acquired, drunk on my earlier success, had melted away.
By the time he hooked up the belay cable, my hands had turned cold. But I couldn’t back out now. Taking a deep breath, I gripped the ropes hard and began to climb.
With my first step, the ladder swung more than I’d expected, clanging loudly as the planks bounced against the ship. Since this ladder was twice as long, its lower third hung freely away from the hull.
I clung on tighter with my hands, terrified of being flung off. Trying to control the swinging — while my heart was thumping out of my chest and my whole body was trembling — sapped my energy. Several times, I had to hug the ropes to catch my breath.
But every time I stopped, my instructor cheered me on from the boat below. With renewed vigour, I continued to climb.
After what felt like hours (it was actually just six minutes), I was finally at the top. I couldn’t have been happier to see my belayer reaching to help me up onto the deck.
It didn’t matter that my arms were burning and my face was covered in sweat and tears — I had gotten on the boat.
Imagine being confined in a ship compartment with a masked attacker waving his knife and yelling threats: do you negotiate with him or do you open fire? I got a taste of this when learning to approach hostile crew members and to fire the MP5.
The attacker appeared from behind me, seemingly unarmed. “Get back, Sir! Put your hands up!” I commanded, echoing my instructor’s words.
He moved forward, and I pointed my weapon at him while still calling him to back down.
The man then pulled out a knife from behind him.
“Put down your weapon, or I will use lethal force!”
He continued to advance, now waving his knife.
Even though this was a mock scenario, I could feel the adrenaline rush from facing down an aggressor, and wanting to charge at him.
But my instructor kept me controlled. “Give him two rounds,” he said.
I fired the training rounds square into the attacker’s torso. He dropped the knife and fell to the ground. I moved in and kicked his weapon away.
I had wanted an elaborate sword-fighting scene with zombie pirates. Instead, I got to apprehend an armed attacker with my sub-machine gun.
I’ve always wanted to be a swashbuckler. I guess this is as close as I’ll get, for now.
Catch Benita in action!