10 rough days at sea: First-hand account of search for Flight QZ8501
The sea can be a mysterious place - vast, tempestuous, testy.
When I was assigned to go on board the RSS Persistence on Dec 29, I thought it would be a simple task of getting on the vessel and sailing to the Java Sea to search for the wreckage of flight QZ8501.
The plane was lost en route from Surabaya to Singapore on Dec 28, with 162 people aboard.
I misjudged the vast sea - it took more than 20 hours just to reach the search area.
The curtain of rain and the roll of the rough seas accompanied us almost every day of the tempestuous 10 days I spent on the water.
My endurance was tested on the very first night.
After throwing up my dinner, I fell ill and was confined to the mattress in my tiny bunk. I am 1.85m tall, so I could not even sit up straight in the bunk without hitting my head against the ceiling.
Day broke and I felt better.
There was an announcement that we had been assigned to another search area some eight hours away.
As the eight hours dragged on, I found myself obsessively looking at my watch. Then I told myself to ditch it, using the ship's many pipe calls instead to tell time.
For example, "hands to lunch" means it's midday.
And as we got further out to sea, my mobile phone lost its connectivity. There was a sense of isolation from the support I usually get from social media.
There was only one computer on board for the five media teams to relay our pictures and reports back to Singapore. It was the same computer used by the crew to connect and contact loved ones back home.
Our use of the crew's precious computer time weighed heavily on the media teams, since there was hardly any personal time on this mission, which crossed over the usually joyous New Year period.
"I try to call my mother every night when I have time," said 23-year-old ME1 Vandhana Sakthivel, who cancelled plans for a New Year outing with her mother.
It was a solemn affair on board as the New Year passed, with a short announcement from the CO wishing everyone a Happy New Year and reminding the crew to stay focused on the job.
Days went by slowly. As I looked out to sea, every foreign item in the ocean - no matter how small - would alarm me. I would imagine that it was part of the aircraft.
As the days stretched, my mood sank and I started to miss home.
Even for some of the seasoned crew, being away from home can be hard to endure.
"I miss my family, especially my three-month-old son," said Super Puma pilot CPT Ryan Tan, 31.
"I had to ditch all that I had planned (for his third-month birthday celebrations) and join this mission, but I feel very lucky to have a supportive family."
But my mood shifted on Jan 3 when the RSS Persistence started collecting debris linked to the ill-fated flight.
I was invited to tag along the Super Puma air search and again, the vastness of the sea hit me.
Even the 141m-long LST (landing ship tank) seemed tiny from the air.
One of the most emotional moments on this assignment was when the crew recovered an aircraft life raft.
After getting the photographs I needed, I put down my camera and joined in to help pull up the raft as I didn't want to see it fall back into the choppy seas.
Something shifted inside me as I helped to haul the raft in.
It was my contribution to the effort to recover flight QZ8501, a small contribution to giving closure to the families of the departed.
I got home yesterday, leaving the crew as my stint was over, but noticing that strong bonds had formed.
As I write this, one of the officers sent me a WhatsApp message to say the ship was quieter without us.
I am finally home on solid ground but I still feel like my head is rocking back and forth.
A part of me still wants to be on board and continue to help in the search.
For Ariffin's blog, go to www.tnp.sg/news/board-search-qz8501
Something shifted inside me as I helped to haul the raft in. It was my contribution to the effort to recover flight QZ8501, a small contribution to giving closure to the families of the departed.
- TNP photojournalist Ariffin Jamar