The Singapore Maritime Academy (SMA) is home to several veteran instructors and teachers, all of whom help train new generations of mariners for life on the high seas. Some are even training the children of former students, who are current cadets at the academy!Learning the Ropes
It's sweltering on the Poly Marina dock. Tan Teng Han stands there, a thick rope coiled in his hand. He’s supposed to send it across the daunting distance of 25 metres. Still, he’s confident in his ability. After all, he’s been trained by the best.
The enthusiasm is thick in the air. His friends are calling out encouragement, urging Teng Han on.
“Coil the line! Throw!” his fellow cadets yell.
Ko Kwai Fatt in action in one of his practical lessons at the Poly Marina
They’re having a ball of a time, and one reason for this is because their instructor, Mr Ko Kwai Fatt, has promised a lunch treat to whoever passes this rope challenge. So naturally, they’re all behind Teng Han as he makes his attempt.
In one fluid motion, Teng Han releases the rope. Uncoiling swift as a snake, it is sent darting through the air.
It crosses the target line – success! Lunch for him is on Mr Ko today!
By the end of the class, Teng Han and two other cadets have succeeded at the challenge. But they don’t want to be the only ones treated to lunch. They cajole Mr Ko to instead give the whole class a lunch treat, in recognition of everyone putting in their best effort. Mr Ko readily agrees: pizza and sodas for everyone it is!
Welcome to a day at the Singapore Maritime Academy of Singapore Polytechnic (SP).
Looking at Teng Han, Mr Ko, who joined SP in 1977, is still amazed by how much Teng Han reminds him of another student from over 20 years before. The resemblance is uncanny; in both aspect and manner, Teng Han appears to be a clone of his father, Captain Tan Aik Ngee, who graduated in 1993 and who was himself a student of Mr Ko's.
Tan Teng Han (left, standing) bears a striking resemblance to his father, Capt Tan Aik Ngee (next to Teng Han)
“From the very first time I saw Teng Han, I found him very familiar,” says Mr Ko, “so to be sure, I introduced myself and it was then that I realised that, yes, he was indeed Captain Tan’s son.”
Teng Han remembers that day well. In fact, he was a little freaked out at the time.
“I felt so uneasy because he kept on looking at my face,” says Teng Han, laughing at the memory of their first meeting.
Yet, as alike as they are in their features, Teng Han and Captain Tan stand out for different reasons to Mr Ko.
He remembers how Captain Tan’s most distinctive trait was that he was one of the more active students in his cohort. He often joined the weekend sailing trips to nearby islands like Kusu Island and Pulau Hantu that Mr Ko would organise for the students.
On the other hand, Mr Ko describes Teng Han as one who stands out for being cooperative, intelligent and very willing to share knowledge.
You see, as Teng Han had already learnt some basic rope work and seamanship from his father before joining SMA, he often helps his appreciative fellow cadets to literally learn the ropes!
Captain Tan and Teng Han have both mastered basic rope work under Mr Ko’s tutelage, along with other seamanship and sea survival skills. Mr Ko is held in such high regard that up to today, Captain Tan still goes to Mr Ko for quick lessons and coaching whenever there’s a need!
“I always think of Mr Ko as my rescue, he is my mayday number for all things nautical,” says the captain of his mentor and friend.
For example, when Captain Tan recently decided to make a sailing trip on his own, Mr Ko was the one he turned to in preparation for the voyage.
“I had just bought an old sailing boat and intended to sail it to Kedah. However, I needed to brush up on my sailing skills. Even though I am a Master Mariner, navigating a ship and sailing a boat are very different. So I looked to Mr Ko to get a refresher crash course on sailing for a few hours. Then, I sailed the boat all the way to Kedah,” says Captain Tan.
Bonds Across Generations
Ko Kwai Fatt (left), Tan Teng Han (middle) and Tan Aik Ngee (right) behind the wheel of SP@Dover, Singapore Polytechnic’s training boat
Who knows, were it not for Mr Ko, Captain Tan might not have made that voyage at all.
That’s all part of the magic of the Singapore Maritime Academy, where two generations of the Tan family and so many more people build on their love for the sea under the guidance of the expert teaching and training ‘crew’.
Even years after learning there, graduates still see the Academy as a safe harbour and guiding light for them. They return often to visit and to refresh their knowledge with their instructors.
And to Teng Han, this makes the academy all the richer as a learning experience. He is benefitting from a collective resource pool built upon generation after generation of expertise.
When Mr Ko was asked how he felt about having taught the father and now the next generation, he said with a lot of emotion, “It’s a very, very wonderful feeling.”
This 60th anniversary, Teng Han is in his final year in the academy. Perhaps by SP’s 80th anniversary, there might even be a Teng Han Jr. learning the ropes of seamanship here!