My civilian friends would be thinking of the epithet ‘Awkward Sentry’ as well suited for a blundering, bumbling guard. Wait until I explain the term. I was the Ship’s Commander of our aircraft carrier Viraat. A carrier is a large ship, almost like a floating town. You can easily get lost on board in hundreds of compartments; this was especially true of Viraat, the old lady (as navy men fondly call her). Not many people know that Viraat’s hull is older than that of the already decommissioned carrier Vikrant. To keep her afloat was a herculean effort. The incidents that happened during my tenure were strange, mammoth, and at frequent intervals. Luckily our Damage Control teams were exceedingly good and we came out of many tricky situations unscathed. My Captain, Jaggi Bedi, had answers to all operational problems and I had trained myself to have answers to all Fire, Flooding and strange problems.

One day we sailed from alongside Berths 3 and 4 (Viraat being so large it occupies two berths) of South Breakwater of Mumbai harbour and we settled on our course out of harbour about 45 minutes after casting off and about one and half hours of Special Sea Duty-men for Leaving Harbour having been closed up. We had FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training)’s sea work-up team embarked. My CO and the ship’s company and all of us were on edge because of their presence since these worthies normally put you through various situations in order to gauge your responses and also to correct your mistakes.

We were nearly abreast of the Sunk Rock and the time was about 7:30 AM. From the Bridge of the ship the Captain noticed a smart sailor going up and down the Flight Deck wielding a baton. Imagining that FOST team had ordered some exercise, he asked me what was going on. I was stumped that my team had not kept me posted and a drill/exercise had been ordered about which I had no intimation.

INS Viraat at sea
INS Viraat at sea

The sailor meanwhile kept his beat; regularly going up and down with what appeared to be song on his lips. A little investigation on the walkie-talkie brought the strange explanation: he was the Awkward Sentry and no one had told him that the ship had sailed off. (For my civilian friends Awkward is a code-word of operations against clandestine attacks in harbour by enemy agents. A ship in harbour requires a number of these sentries to guard against such attacks. However, these guards are not required at sea since no one can board the ship at sea or carry out saboteur attacks when the ship proceeding at speed). Our Awkward Sentry, therefore, really looked awkward for the simple reason that so busy was he patrolling on the Flight Deck that he hadn’t noticed that the ship was not alongside.

If you think this is strange, you probably won’t believe that one of our friends came to visit us on Vikrant (when I was posted there) to do morning PT with us in Bombay harbour and whilst he had a snooze after the PT, the ship sailed off and he was taken to Cochin with us. All he had was his sports rig for the next fortnight.

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  1. Strange. But even strangests are possible in the Navies . Very nice to read about the vivid details of OLD Lady’s leaving harbour

  2. I love Viraat. When it was on the way to Bombay from UK in 1987 we embarked on board this ship by Seaking from Kunjali with Sea Harriers of Tiger Squadron. Miss this ship.