Guiding light for young sailorsHe used to safeguard Singapore waters as a Navigation Systems Supervisor. Now, ME3 Woon Wei Wen trains the next generation in charting their own path.
// Story by Thrina Tham
// Photos by Chua Soon Lye
Reading charts, plotting routes, deciphering unfamiliar new nautical terms. It's not easy to enjoy learning when your trade is one of most the technical aspects of naval navigation.
But Military Expert (ME) 3 Woon Wei Wen makes it just that for his trainees.
Having sailed with the Republic of Singapore Navy for 13 years, ME3 Woon is now an instructor at the Naval Military Experts Institute's Sensor Systems School, where he trains and qualifies young Navigation Systems Operators.
"His training style is fun… He jokes with us and is also a fatherly figure who will nag at you, but in a good way," said ME1(T) Theodore Soh, a trainee who is completing his Basic Specialist Course (BSC) 1 later this month.
As an instructor, ME3 Woon runs the four-month-long course for both Full-time National Servicemen and Regulars, as well as another 22-week BSC2 course and other advanced training for Regulars.
He also works closely with the operational flotillas to ensure that trainees are doing well when sent on board ship for on-the-job training and their eventual deployment.
Nagging but caring navigator
ME3 Woon said his teaching is far from the old days when trainees would just "download" information from their trainers.
Instead, the 42-year-old prefers a discussion-based approach, often getting trainees to share what they have learnt with the class. "After the practice, I'd do a round-up and add on any valuable lessons from what I have encountered on board ship," he said.
ME1(T) Soh, 21, added: "To me, he nags about everything because I'm bad with theoretical topics. But as he repeats and time goes by, I will remember (the information)."
ME3 Woon's dedication extends beyond imparting knowledge, said fellow BSC1 trainee Specialist Cadet (SCT) Tan Wei Ye.
Once, the trainees had to attend a harbour practical lesson the morning after an overnight quartermaster duty.
"He made extra arrangements for another group to take over our duty – and that we would help them the next time – so that we had enough rest and would be in a good state to learn," said SCT Tan, a Full-time National Serviceman (NSF).
The 18-year-old also found support in his trainer when he was suddenly diagnosed with myoclonus while mid-course. Myoclonus is a condition which causes involuntary twitches or jerks.
"He found ways to help me get back on track if I missed some modules. He really encouraged me to get through this, and to finish my course," said SCT Tan.
All on the same ship
If anyone knows what it is like to be in a sailor's boots, it is ME3 Woon. He enlisted in 2001 as a Navigation Systems Operator on board the former Patrol Vessel RSS Justice, working his way up to the role of a supervisor.
In 2013, he moved to the Missile Corvette, RSS Valour, where he took part in various exercises with neighbouring navies such as Malaysia and Thailand.
While on board RSS Valour, he was also deployed for the 2014 search operations for the missing AirAsia plane QZ8501. "My ship was on stand-by: we were activated on 28 Dec and slipped off that same night.
"As the Navigation Systems Supervisor as well as the Bridge Supervisor, I had to ensure my ship was safe throughout the operation and watch over the state of my crew," recalled ME3 Woon, on the eight-day-long deployment.
In 2018, he joined NMI as an instructor and has been teaching there since.
Look for me anytime
With ME3 Woon's approachable manner, it is no wonder that many of his former trainees continue to keep in touch with him after graduating.
He shares Telegram groups with them, which are active with messages ranging from random chatter to seeking help for work.
Recently, some ex-trainees called ME3 Woon for help when their ship was in a maintenance yard for service checks but they could not locate a breaker.
"To be sure, I went through the manual again to see the relevant diagram and I sent it to them," said ME3 Woon.
"After they tried and it worked, I said, 'Eh this one I taught y'all right? Forget already ah? Never mind, it's okay, just look for me if anything.'"
On his biggest priority as a trainer, he said: "For NSFs, it is to make sure they can contribute to their ship and also enjoy their time in their NS.
"For Regulars, it is to remind them the importance of their role and their fundamentals; so that they can continue to serve with interest, and that their whole ship is safe."