Officers of all other branches in the Indian Navy can argue with me until cows come home (if at all they do) but I am convinced that there is no more thankless job on board a ship than being a SCO or Signal Communication Officer. Presumably, officers of all other specializations (ND, ie, Navigation and Direction; ASW, ie, Anti-Submarine Warfare, G, ie, Gunnery etc) would have done wonders in their own areas of expertise if the ruddy signals had reached them in time. So, as the anecdote goes, when a retired communicator went to apply for a job on the civil street, in his interview, they told him, “We are looking for a very responsible man for this job.” At this our man confidently and gleefully replied, “I am the man, sirs; I have been a SCO in the navy and whenever anything went wrong on the ship they told me: ‘You are responsible’.”

Anyway, to add to my woes as SCO, I was to serve with the navy’s hottest navigators (about one of whom I have already penned an anecdote). In comparison to their shine and halo, somehow, I came out a cropper. I was always on the receiving end except when bouquets were being distributed.

One such incident was when my ship (Himgiri) was detailed as a consort for Rajput at sea. We were to sail from harbour and make R/V (rendezvous with Rajput) somewhere in the Arabian Sea as per promulgated R/V Position, which, the HNIF (Hottest Navigator In the Fleet) had plotted on the chart and had worked out course and speed to reach there at the scheduled hour. As per the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) we were to establish communication  on Tactical Secondary (TS, a communication circuit on High Frequency or HF) with Rajput four hours before the R/V Time and on Tactical Primary (TP, a communication circuit on Very or Ultra High Frequency or V/UHF) an hour before the R/V Time.

Himgiri was a standard Royal Navy design (Leander design) and Rajput was of a class we acquired from the Soviets. As in real life globally, there were always communication glitches between the two; much to the chagrin of the Fleet Communication Officer (FCO; his woes at sea were in multiples of those of his SCOs). Now, anyone familiar with naval communications would appreciate that, at least during those days, to establish successful communication on Tactical Secondary was considered a feat of higher value and difficulty than the one accomplished by Neil Armstrong on 20 Jul 1969. Hence, an R/V was generally said to have occurred when the two ships would be in touch on TP. This being a V/UHF circuit the range is Line of Sight only (max of about 14 nautical miles depending upon the heights of the antennae).

INS Himgiri
INS Himgiri

To cut a long story short, we on Himgiri kept on trying to establish communication on TS and TP with Rajput, a few hours before the R/V Time, but there was no joy. As was generally the case, the entire Command Team including the Captain kept looking at me suspiciously and accusingly. Anil Kapoor’s Mr India hadn’t yet been released but I dreamt of doing the disappearing act in the barrage of all the accusations that were coming my way; the mildest of these being, “When the f- -k would the communicators do anything right?”

I couldn’t achieve Anil Kapoor’s Mr India feat but I made a quick dash to MSO (Main Signal Office) to see if change of communication sets, antenna and lines would accomplish wonders. There was no joy. I hung my head in shame when I returned to the Bridge and received the by-now-familiar command, “Come on, SCO, DO SOMETHING.”

I heard it and my guardian angel heard it too. The latter guided me to go to the chart table and re-check the R/V position. A smile returned to my face when I verified that the HNIF had plotted the promulgated R/V position out by a full degree of Latitude (sixty nautical miles). Instead of 19 degrees 50 minutes, he had plotted it as 18 degrees 50 minutes.

I announced this to the Captain with great relish (the earlier wounds were still wincing) and mercifully there was a quick change in the target of derision of the Captain.

Anil Kapoor was a lucky guy, indeed. Had his vanishing trick film Mr India been released five years before its actual release, first me and then the HINF would have given him a run for his money.

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