I was posted on the minesweeper Karwar after completing my Bridge Watchkeeping undertrainee period on the second Leander Class Frigate Himgiri. It was quite a come-down. Himgiri had the latest in radars and sensors and propulsion; whereas, Karwar took you a century behind in time. However, in the end I learnt more on Karwar than on Himgiri.
First of all, on a small ship, you are all by yourself; there ain’t Training Officers and Assistant Training Officers who pounce at you from unsuspecting quarters and at odd times. Secondly, you find yourself suddenly responsible for every action and inaction of yours. And thirdly, there is no one you can turn to in case you land in the gooey stuff.
There was another great thing about Karwar. It was similar to buying a second or third hand Yezdi and forced to learn mobike mechanics the hard way. There were problems galore in every nook and cranny and we were the one who had to find answers. And guess what? We did!
It had an open Bridge with an awning that kept us from sun, rain, winds and gales. We used to jump with collective joy when the Kelvin Hughes radar used to actually paint the land. Expecting it to pick up small boats at sea was like asking a child to journey up to the moon by his paper plane! Also, unlike on Himgiri, we didn’t have to exercise emergencies and contingencies since these used to occur at the drop of a hat.
The worst were the navigation aids. The best nav aids on board were Eye Balls Mk I. This never-fail instrument would never fail us, come hell or thunder storm. It sometimes required protection and we had one readily available: the hood of the Kelvin Hughes PPI. That hood was of no use on the radar since it never picked up anything. Hence, the hood could be used on Eye Balls Mk I for protection against rain and fierce winds.
What about the engines? Well, the diesel reciprocating engines behaved well. However, due to low speeds during minesweeping, there used to be unburnt fuel deposits in the funnel. A lot of excitement used to be caused by frequent funnel fires. But, the men knew what to do and that was a great thing. There was never any panic.
What about the gyro? I used to think that the most common use of the gyro was to give us exercises in breakdowns. After the breakdowns, if the electric people managed to get it going, it would be good enough for pointing out only cardinal directions.
With all this, if you think we were meant for minesweeping duties close to coast in Bombay only, you are mistaken. There is nary a port on the Western seaboard that Karwar didn’t sweep the approach channel to. Going to Goa and other such ports was great fun as one would do some close coastal navigation and hence lack of radar and reliable gyro didn’t stand in the way of our successfully navigating to these ports. However, ports like Porbandar used to pose huge problems since we had to cross large (by Karwar standards) swathes of sea without being in visual touch of any land. We used to feel like Christopher Columbus who had set sail to discover India but had landed in America. We had many such experiences.
Once, we were returning from Porbandar to Bombay. On the way, the weather turned bad. Continuous gales and sea kept us from resting even for a minute. The ship’s dead reckoning position put us at about 55 miles from Bombay Floating Light and then the gyro did its breakdown-act’ that it had perfected. There hadn’t been a ‘fix’ for hours and we were not sure whether we were on the right track to Bombay. Many a times, the fishermen used to help us in similar situations by pointing towards Bombay. But, that forenoon, there was not a fisherman in sight. My CO looked at me and I looked back at him and then he looked at me in despair and I looked at him in despair. He again looked at me in desperation and I was about to return to him an equivalent look when our XO Sanjiv Vasant Kulkarni walked up to the Bridge. SV had – and since I met him recently, has – world’s best smile. When God was moulding men and women, God had very kindly made him the most positive and encouragingly smiling gentleman ever. He took the scene at the Bridge in and then beamed his smile to let it become sunnier. CO and I refused to budge. We were lost at sea and beaming smiles hardly uplifted our mood. So, SV asked us as to what had happened. We told him.
SV went to the side of the Bridge, sniffed the air, looked around and like a seer called to discover water in a parched land, he suddenly pointed towards his right and said, “That’s where Bombay is.”
Totally lost as we were, we didn’t even question him and a few hours later, with his frequent pointed directions, we were at BFL (Bombay Floating Light)
I was curious to know more about this method of navigation since I had not learnt it in ND School or during my watchkeeping tenure on Himgiri. So, after we returned and sat in the wardroom nursing our Oranjebooms, I asked him to explain.
His explanation was as simple as the honest simplicity that was his hallmark: He had recently got married and his wife worked in Bank of Baroda at Cuffe Parade, Bombay. Wherever he went, he knew the precise direction to Bank of Baroda, Cuffe Parade!
I became a communicator in subsequent years. But, I often wondered why the NHQ had to spend so much of money buying navigation instruments when all they had to do was to get people married and let Beacons of Love navigate their ships.
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