FINALLY – MAN OVERBOARD

I was commanding the Fleet Tanker Aditya in the year 2001. I had a boss who was very understanding, kind and encouraging; but, I had my boss’s boss who was a terror. The latter had made no secret of his desire to see me land squarely in the gooey stuff. So, he tried sending me into orbit at the slightest pretext. It would have given him immense satisfaction if I would make some blunder or the other so that he would feel vindicated that I didn’t deserve to be given command of a catamaran let alone of a major warship. Therefore, throughout my tenure I had the Damocles sword hanging on my head and it made me very uncomfortable indeed. His spies were everywhere to give him the ‘good news‘ of my failure so that he could finally rejoice and have his I-told-you-so smirk.

Aditya, the Fleet Tanker I commanded

In an earlier appointment, he had me punished for having complained about a Fire-fighting system not operational since its commissioning; he, through his minions, turned the tables on me by proving that actually the system became non-ops by my having done something to it. It was the kind of stuff that Franz Kafka became famous in depicting or Vijay Tendulkar tried to satirically bring out in the unforgettable movie ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro‘, in which the complainants suddenly found themselves behind bars as accused or convicts. But, this man was undeterred by such comparisons. After a Board of Inquiry a Show Cause Notice has to be issued within three months. His came to me more than six months later. He circumvented it by writing to me (I still have that letter), “It was issued six months back but due to a clerical lapse it didn’t reach you.” When it comes to respect for law, some of the senior officers in the armed forces have a simple tenet, “Hum God nahin hain; per God se kam bhi nahin hain.” (I am not a God but I am no less than a God).

On another occasion he ordered an unlawful and unethical Board of Inquiry whose charge read, “To investigate lapses, if any, on the part of the officer”. What was the trigger for this? Well, my successor had been guilty of wrongful destruction of classified documents. He felt that if he could somehow find something against me too, it would make his day. In short, he was gunning for me with vengeance.

The tales of his eccentricity and megalomania are legends in the Navy; he simply removed anyone – like a fly in his coffee – who made the unpardonable mistake of disagreeing with him on anything. In the inimitable Wodehouse style, he’d raze such a person to the ground and jump on his remains in hobnobbed boots. Now that we have a curious drama unfolding before our eyes about the date of birth of the Army Chief, I keep reminding myself that I have already seen the worst in skullduggery by a very senior officer. Others are just pale imitations of the original, that is, him.

The long and short of it was that, throughout my tenure as the Commanding Officer, life hung from a thin string that could snap anytime. His way to quarantine me (as if I were a leper) was to always keep me at anchorage or sailing so that I could never rest or attend to maintenance of the ship. All holidays were invariably spent at sea by my crew (ship’s company in the naval parlance) and to give credit where it is due, my officers and sailors kept chins up and never complained or let me down. Once he had his minions chemically examine a slick of oil in the dockyard so that should it come out that it had originated from Aditya he could chew me.

Despite all this I enjoyed my command as any officer of the Executive Branch in the Navy would do. I was, however, always on guard throughout the innings like a die-hard batsman.

Finally, my tenure was coming to an end without incident and I had started congratulating myself. On my last sailing with the Fleet I was to take my successor for OJT (On Job Training). During this sailing, as if the urgent prayers of my boss’s boss were overwhelming the gods, everything that could go wrong went wrong. I had a minor fire on board, a case of steering failure, fuelling rig failure etc. Still everything was under control.

On the night before returning to home port, I was on the Bridge of the ship until late in the evening busy with all the Fleet exercises. The Fleet Commander passed his night instructions. I read through these and gave appropriate orders to my own ship’s company and then came down to have my dinner. I had just stepped into my cabin when I heard an urgent announcement, “Man Overboard, Man Overboard.”

A Man Overboard is one of the biggest nightmares of a Navy man. All Officers of the Watch know the procedure by heart. I rushed to the bridge and asked the Fleet Commander’s permission to act independently and manoeuvre to recover the man. As I performed the Williamson Turn (made famous by an USNR officer John Williamson in 1947), so as to retrace the ship’s track, I had two thoughts in my mind: one, why did it have to happen to me at the fag end of my command? and two, how could a man fall overboard from such a large ship that is steady as a rock (172 metres and tonnage comparable to a light aircraft carrier when fully loaded)? A Williamson turn looks as follows: the first helm is towards the direction of the fallen man so as to keep the stern and hence the propellers away from the man:

This is left handed Williamson Turn for a man having fallen on Port side; it can be right handed for a man overboard on Starboard side

In the meantime we went through the other drills, eg, keeping a boat ready with a diver. I silently prayed that the man should be alive. As we retraced the track, the powerful searchlight from the signalling projector illuminated the surface of the sea in the ahead sector. And finally, we saw a head bobbing in the swell. We approached closer and started lowering the boat. It was taking time and we were afraid that the man might lose his life. The Senior Engineer of the ship (a qualified diver) asked my permission to dive straight from the ship into the water and save the man. I weighed the pros and cons and considering that a boat was already being lowered, I gave him permission.

In the meantime, the Fleet staff had been constantly asking me to provide SITREP (Situational Report). What followed was simply comical. It came out that nearly 50 nautical miles into the sea, there was a fishermen recovering his fishing net by jumping directly into the sea. Soon we saw his boat about a cable away. My ship’s Lifeguard Sentry at the quarterdeck had done the right thing by throwing lifebuoy for him and then raising the ‘Man Overbaord’ alarm. Why couldn’t the bridge see him and his boat? Well, the Indian fishermen at sea, many times, don’t use any light and are difficult to spot in the dark (they are also so small a target that the radar won’t pick them up too). Those who have the notion that the navy and the coast guard would be able to “seal our maritime borders against such threats as Kasab coming to our shores by a small boat”, have no idea of the mammoth task.

We gave some food stuff and cigarettes to the fishermen and soon we were on our way; having denied my boss’s boss the last opportunity to fix me. When I went to call on him just prior to his retirement, he told me, “Perhaps in your case my staff misguided me.” I wished he had not lied at least on my last meeting with him.

Finally…….Man Overboard.

© 2012 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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9 Comments

  1. gr8. you are quite incorrigible. you were so lucky to have such a nice boss’s boss, very few have had that privelege and many of them did not make it to the next rank. it takes all sorts of people to make a world and it would be a boring and dull world if you didnt have creepy crawlies.
    have fun

    1. Thank you Sir. “Lucky to have such a nice boss’s boss”?
      Well,Sir, here is one for being lucky:

      Vo aaye ghar hamaare khuda ki kudarat hai
      Kabhi ham unako kabhi apane ghar ko dekhate hain

      The fact is that if it hadn’t been for you who helped to get me justice, I won’t have even got the command. And that’s the strength of the Navy: for every cc, there are many others who uphold values and are role models. My boss was one too.

  2. Sir Ji,

    me being from the army, had a similar experience through most of my carrier and especially the last. The saddest part was i was his Adjutant. I used to wonder why was form 10 not filled up for him, and you know what in his next tenure it was actually done. I could relate to your piece every step of the way. Cheers Sir

    1. One of the very senior officers reading this article has written to me: “charmingly understated”. Srikanth you have no idea of how vengeful the subject of my article could get. And everything he couched in some virtue or the other. Even now, I am sure, he would argue with himself that he didn’t do anything wrong.

      Cheers. All of us come across these cc’s

  3. a fine article about life in the navy. one really cant imagine why CO s have such strange and un officer like behaviour especially when they them selves have come up on the same route!

  4. Gr8 Sir. Salute to your mental strength n exceptional courage. Your Boss’s Boss must have realized : A man can be destroyed but not defeated. A man is not made for defeat.