A milestone in Singapore’s shipbuilding history: the launch of the RSS Fearless in 1995

24 02 2010

This eighteenth of February marks the fifteenth anniversary of a milestone in Singapore’s naval shipbuilding history: the launch of the Fearless Class Patrol Vessels. The 55 metre waterjet propelled vessels were launched by the wife of the then Deputy Prime Minister, Mrs Lee Hsien Loong, better known to us as Madam Ho Ching in 1995 at the Singapore Technologies Shipbuilding and Engineering (STSE) shipyard (now known as ST Marine) in Benoi Road. The then state-of-the-art vessels represented a breakthrough in Singapore’s naval ship design and shipbuilding – these were the first missile equipped combat vessels that were designed and constructed indigenously. I suppose there isn’t much fanfare these days about the Patrol Vessels, possibly because they have been somewhat overshadowed by the acquisition of the larger and more heavily armed Stealth Frigates, and perhaps they have intentionally been forgotten so as not to remind us of the tragic events surrounding the third vessel in the class – the RSS Courageous.

Cover of the ST Marine Brochure for the Patrol Vessel.

The Fearless class vessels, which are still in operation, and are equipped with a naval gun and surface-to-air missiles, and feature a locally designed round bilge hull form fitted with a twin engine propulsion system, were one of the first naval combat craft to feature waterjet propulsion, providing the vessel with excellent manoeuvrability. A total of twelve units were built by STSE, the first six of which were equipped with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities being fitted with torpedoes and a hull-mounted sonar [Fearless (Pennant No. 94), Brave (95), Courageous (96), Gallant (97), Resilience (98) and Unity (99)]. The remaining six vessels in the class were not fitted out with ASW capabilities [Resilience (82), Unity (83), Sovereignty (84), Justice (85), Freedom (86) and Independence (87)].

RSS Fearless off Horsburgh Lighthouse/Pedra Branca in 2003, during search and rescue operations following the collision of RSS Courageous (Source: http://www.mindef.gov.sg).

Sunday Times report dated 19 Feb 1995 on the launching of the RSS Fearless.

The champagne bottle that did not break …

Traditionally, the naming (or christening) of a ship is done by breaking a bottle of champagne, and in the case of Naval tradition, the naming usually is carried out during the launching of the ship (when the ship is launched or lowered into the water for the very first time). This can be a spectacular event, as in the case of where the ship is side launched. In the case of RSS Fearless, the launching was only carried out ceremonially by lowering the vessel slowly in a syncrolift (a lift that lifts and lowers ships in and out of water), and the momentous event was to be remembered not for this, but for the fact that the champagne bottle refused to be broken. It finally yielded after several attempts, but as superstition would have it, it is bad luck if the champagne bottle does not break the first time. Perhaps this held true for the superstitious as the RSS Fearless was the lead ship of its class, and the third ship in the class, the RSS Courageous was meet with an accident which resulted in a tragic loss of lives.

Mdm. Ho Ching lets fly with the Champagne bottle ... but it doesn't break!

A second attempt at breaking the bottle - that failed too! The bottle finally broke after several repeated attempts.

Collision of RSS Courageous with ANL Indonesia on 3 January 2003

The RSS Courageous was involved in a collision with a container ship the ANL Indonesia off Pedra Branca on 3 January 2003. The collision sheared-off the stern section of the Courageous, and of the 44 crew onboard, eight were injured and another four, servicewomen resting in the aft section which was sheared-off, lost their lives. Two officers in command of the vessel at the time of the collision were subsequently found negligent, as their decision to steer the vessel to port and across the bow of the ANL Indonesia contravened Regulation 14 of the navigation rules of the road, the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

Chart showing location of collision and the path taken by RSS Courageous (Source: Wikipedia).

The sheared-off stern section of the RSS Courageous being lifted off the seabed onto a barge on 14 Jan 2003 (Source: http://www.mindef.gov.sg).

That the vessel was able to remain afloat despite the loss of buoyancy of the sheared-off stern section and the breach in the watertight integrity of several other compartments (albeit with the quick action taken by the crew and supporting Police Coastguard officers in damage control) is a testament to the survivability of the vessel.