The party went on well with FORTAN (Fortress Commander Andaman and Nicobar) having his drinks with his staff all with the good intentions to bid us bon voyage to Vishakhapatnam for engine repairs. After the merry-making and forced courtesy smiles we all got into serious business of making preparations for the long voyage. Of course I forgot to mention that we were at Port Blair and the vessel was INS Ghariyal (landing Ship Tanks). It was my first war ship and was there to earn my watch keeping ticket. This would be my first long trip of six hundred nautical miles of Blue Ocean sailing.
The year was 1982 and season was monsoonal.
Met briefing must have been obtained by the Commanding Officer which I understand must have been comprehensive culminating into standard parting shot which is the favorite of IMD i.e. “weather seasonal”.
So the very next day we set sail leaving island for the main land and into the Bay of Bengal.
The only navigational aid on board was a simple-minded radar , with the limited range which at times exceeded visual range that too after lot of cajoling and tuning of dials, other was a versatile sextant. Communication wise we were better of as we had a good operator.
After crossing the channel when we were truly in the Bay of Bengal the wind picked up and the clouds started gathering forces. INS Ghariyal braved on taking sea and winds on the bows. We heroically took it as a part of the sea life that awaited us in our chosen carrier.
Come the third day, winds started howling and sea became violent at our odiousness of competing with him. The first item to give way and take off was the bridge canopy, not that we minded it because it was of no use as there were only thick blue and black angry clouds totally obliterating the sun. Then suddenly the quartermaster (helmsmen) took off unable to hold the wheel and his stomach contents in place. The poor sod was replaced with a bucket for all of us to puke when not steering. Anyhow steering too was a joke as we were at mercy of the angry Neptune. Whenever we tried pointing the head towards the Vishakhapatnam the waves would fling us off course with impunity towards North. Then came the rains, I can now well imagine the plight of people of Mathura would have through when Lord Indira vented his ire and Krishna had to uproot the mountain. Not so lucky for us, Captain was not even a shade near of Krishna, any way there was no hill that could be lifted. We were drenched to the core of our skin with no dry change available. The ship was old and its joints creaked and portholes leaked and the rubber coaming yielded to the nature’s raw elements. The sum total was that our bunks were wet and not only wet but soggy and soaked with the water squeezing out due to the body weight pressure. So no sleep, rather no rest after a good four-hour watch of steering, braving gale force winds and threatening waves ready to break overhead, with a lurking suspicions of the end of our survival. Cook being a mere human being was constrained in cooking as the utensils were finding difficult to stay in position on the hot plate. So no food.
The sea was getting dangerous the waves were getting bigger and bigger imagine a ship climbing up an incline of 45 deg and one had to support himself to stand upright. What upright, during the ascent we were looking upwards at a very unpleasant sky with rain falling on our exposed face, with winds making a deafening noise in our ears and when we reached the crest of the monstrous wave the ship would topple over and commence its seemingly never-ending downward journey. During the descent all around the sea was churning and frothy and waiting to engulf us. What held her back we know not? Mercifully on hitting the trough the vessel did not dig in but dutifully found will power, time and space for its upward journey to the crest. Both sea and winds had crossed all known beau fort scales. We were truly at the mercy of our Captain who was also at the mercy of his own limited knowledge and ALL KNOWING. The best part is that even the rats on board were sea-sick they would not move even after prodding. To think of it no one bothered about them. We were wet, dog tired, and hungry and shit scared.
With all efforts of our keeping the vessels head into sea having been failed the Captain decides to turn back to Port Blair. Taking note of our admission to defeat the winds and sea started to relent. Now all ashore wanted to help and be generous. To show and shower generosity we were asked where we were. To this we had no answer. Busy fighting the elements we lost all senses of position. We dead reckoned our position to be somewhere in the northern part of Bay of Bengal since the winds and sea was pushing us in that direction. So with a new purpose in life we chugged up on an easterly course. Lo and behold something did start painting on the radar, but then knowing the capabilities of the equipment we decided for the day break. Come day break and we sighted land. With every passing hour HQ was breathing down our neck, with same question “where are you”.
With the conformation of survival the stock taking of the vessel commenced. Our tank space was flooded; all tightly packed items were floating. Within minutes the submersible pumps after sucking up water from the tank space and spewing it overboard ate up garbage and got clogged thus spluttered to a hissing halt leaving us helpless with a miniature swimming pool in the tank space. The same was dutifully recorded and transmitted as a sitrep.
The HQ meanwhile had launched a SAR mission namely twin-engine islander to go up north along the coast and report the position of INS Ghariyal. We were sighted but no material help could be rendered as no help is possible between warships at sea and a fixed wing aircraft. The aircraft circled around us as confidence boosting measure and position reporting. The position thus given by the islander was plotted and we suddenly realized that had we drifted a bit more to the north we would have missed the northern most islands and would have hit Burma. A missed opportunity of a foreign visit.
The cook on board found courage and entered the galley and cooked something to sustain us for the rigor ahead. The ships’ company could be clubbed into two groups. Group no 1 which was sea sick and had thrown everything out of the wrong hole. Result they were near dead and of no use. Group 2 not sea-sick but had worked empty stomach for a week and nearly dead of fatigue and hunger but were still pushing them self to the limit to keep the ship afloat and us alive. It was a disciplined misery all round. But the vessel chugged on nevertheless.
Once again the aviation came to our help. The ship’s company leaped up in joy when they heard the fluttering of the rotor blades. Down came the winch of Chetek with a heavy load and the charge of the able-bodied seamen towards it was visible. Onward they charged thinking it was hot cooked food. Imagine to their utter dismay when the bag revealed a working heavy-duty submersible pump. Not only it was a big letdown but it meant extra work for the pump needed to be dragged down, placed, connected and operated. The groans of men and officers could be heard in the bridge and I am sure FORTAN would also have heard it.
The next day we went alongside the jetty. Amends were made, the sister ship INS Guldar gave us a hot meal and dry bunks to sleep.
Thus we were back from where we started. Wish it had all ended here, but no gods were preparing a twist in our next foray to Vishakhapatnam.
– By Cdr Anil Sharma