I had always wanted to be a communicator; I like the nice ring to the word and imagined myself as an enlightened human being communicating with fellow netizens on this earth, with nature and God. Therefore, in the Navy, when the time came for me to do my specialisation, I decided to specialise in Communications and Electronic Warfare. However, I soon realised that one can’t help becoming a navigator when the call of duty demands. The first time I donned the role of a navigator was when I became the ‘other officer’ (other than the XO, (Executive Officer or second-in-command, that is) on the minesweeper Karwar. I totalled more miles there than in my watch-keeping tenure on Himgiri, even though we sailed like crazy on Himgiri and even went to a three nation foreign cruise too. There is hardly a port on the West coast of India (big, small or minor) that I didn’t navigate my way through as the other officer on Karwar.
However, after my specialisation in Communications, I wasn’t prepared to become the navigator of Himgiri. But, such is fate; you don’t chase it as much as fate chases you. And it was all because of our CO: Captain Jerry Patel. He was the world’s most avid Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer. When he was Director of ASW School, and we, undergoing Long Communications course, visited him in his school, he made us feel like worms that we had chosen to waste our time in the Indian Navy doing anything other than ASW. So, when he became CO of Himgiri, naturally, he considered that the only role Himgiri had to perform was to complete its trials of indigenous SONAR developed by a team under the famous Captain Paul Raj.
After long trials at sea when we returned to Bombay, it came out that Paul Raj and his team won’t be ready for trials in a hurry after setting right the anomalies and defects observed. The debrief done on board brought out that it would take minimum of six weeks. So, my course-mate Billoo, who was the Navigator of the ship, asked Jerry if he could proceed on a month’s leave and, since we were expected to be in harbour, I could carry out NO’s duties in addition to my own.
Billoo’s leave was duly sanctioned and he hadn’t yet left station when news came from Cochin that Paul Raj felt that we should progress trials in other areas whilst defectation was in progress. Billoo wanted to be recalled from leave; but, Jerry told him that like Lord Rama honouring the mere word of his father Dasharath, he, Jerry, had never gone back on his word. We merrily sailed and the plus point was that I collected a lot of Pilotage Fee that kept me in good ‘spirits’ for months after that.
However, the bad news was that Jerry, though excellent in ASW, wasn’t a great ship-handler. Billoo told me later, after the hair-raising experience that I was subjected to, that in the interests of the safety of the ship, many a times, he had quietly passed orders to the MCR (Machinery Control Room) and Wheel House, different from the orders concocted by the CO. However, I was not well versed in such stratagems.
We were to enter Cochin on a certain morning after several incident-free entering and leaving harbour sorties in Goa. In the night before, they signaled us a berth on the trots in Mattancherry Channel. We hadn’t been there earlier. So, I worked out a plan totally by myself without going through Billoo’s earlier N.O.’s notes. After that, before CO made his Night Orders, I discussed the plan with CO on the chart and he approved it without any alterations. We were to enter with a slight flood; but, I assured CO that it would be alright. According to the plan, after passing the head rope to the closest mooring buoy, the ship would swing on its own with the current, and would thus be facing towards the entrance of the channel. This would also enable us quick getaway whilst leaving harbour.
In the morning at about 6:30 AM Special Sea Dutymen for entering harbour closed up. Everything went according to the plan made by me. However, when we came to the entrance of the Mattancherry Channel, near Malabar Hotel, suddenly, without any warning, Jerry said we should try a stern-board approach to the trots so as to head the tide all the while! I was aghast. And that’s where, later day wisdom imparted too late by Billoo, would have come in handy!
So, here was Himgiri entering harbour and somewhere near the Starboard hand buoy near Malabar Hotel, CO suddenly decided to go stern-board. Following sequence followed:
1. We tried to turn around with engines and wheel. The Foxle Officer, Vincent Dhanraj was giving us distances from the buoy and in agitated voice he kept telling us that we were coming rather close to the buoy since the tide and the current were pushing us to the buoy.
2. At one time, when we were too close to the buoy for comfort, CO had no choice but to give Full astern both engines. The Engine Room took some time in responding but when it did, it took our breath away. The navigable width of the channel at this point is only about a cable (200 yards) and suddenly we started going full speed towards the vessels at the trots on the other side of the vessel.
3. Many of these vessels started warning us by ‘all available means’ (and you thought George Bush is the only one who ever used this expression!) These included beating drums, doing curious Zulu dances and the like and emergency pressing of ship’s siren as if it was midnight on the night of 31st Dec and 1st of Jan.
4. By this time, we had already started giving orders to reverse the trend of our going astern towards these hapless vessels and fishing boats. First, “stop both engines” order was given. Nothing happened; and the people on these vessels started doing much more vigorous version of Zulu dance and even bhangra to ward off the evil of our hitting them with full force. So, in quick succession, orders such as “slow ahead both engines” and “half ahead both engines were given. We felt that we would have hit the vessels astern and hence finally “full ahead both engines” was given.
5. By this time, the current had made us abreast of Malabar Hotel. Some of the foreigners there had heard a lot about Indian Navy coming of age and initially they were cheering our “bold Manoeuvres” through loud clapping. But soon, they saw us approaching them in full speed like a rogue missile. So they started running helter-skelter. The fishermen on that side of the channel had hurriedly started casting off their boats to evade a Tsunami called Himgiri hitting them.
6. Fortunately, after a series of orders and me visibly praying to all sorts of gods post my quick transformation into a believer, we found ourselves the first of the mooring buoys. Every piece of hair on my head was pointing towards the sky. We lowered the whaler with the buoy jumpers. They themselves were finding it difficult to approach the buoy because by this time the flood had really built up into a strong current.
7. In the midst of all this, the CO spotted Captain Paul Raj standing at the jetty, a little distance from the trots. He smilingly waved at him as if nothing had happened and told me, “Send a boat for him immediately. We can’t have him waiting there.”
8. I just looked at him wondrously; here we were with just one boat with buoy jumpers trying valiantly to approach the buoy and hence secure the ship lying in precarious position and there he was telling me to send the boat to receive Captain Paul Raj!
Finally, to cut a long story short, we secured at the trots and CO stopped trotting. After, we returned to Bombay, he came down to the wardroom to attend a wining-out of an officer and he good-naturedly told everyone: “Never go against the advice of your navigator, even if he is only a stand-by navigator”!
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