Out of all the evolutions and exercises that the ships participate in at sea, the favourite of the Fleet Commander and his staff is Fuelling. It is because the entire Fleet is at close quarters and easy to take charge of, with beautifully concocted signals such as: “Where are you going?” and “Read back your station” and “Are you always confused like this?”. The feel of being ‘in control’ can never be achieved with the Fleet spread out and out of visual range of the boss and his staff.
Fuelling also gives the Fleet Commander a photo opp of the largest number of ships engaged at close quarters (for posterity) (as in the accompanying photo). These are also nightmares for the communicator because signals fly up and down on all circuits and by all means: Tactical Primary, hand-sets, Flag Hoist, Semaphore and Flashing Light. The only saving grace is that the Navigator is far too busy himself to laugh at “communication inefficiency” on these.
Within a year of my becoming a commissioned officer, the Indian Navy acquired INS Shakti from Germany. This was the second ship named Shakti (the third one was commissioned in 2011). As a Sub Lieutenant, I saw that within five years of the war with the Pakis, so much was the stress on fuelling and utilising Shakti, that I had visualised that in the next war, the entire Fleet, immediately after leaving harbour, would start fuelling from Shakti and the Pakis would be totally flummoxed.
We had a Fleet Commander who was so fond of fuelling that if a ship on the horizon conveyed its respect to the Fleet Commander with the customary: “Request permission to proceed as previously directed”, the Fleet Commander would immediately give her a standby station on the port or starboard of Shakti for “Token Fuelling” and allow it to go only after the act.
My Captain on Talwar, the late AR Dabir (RIP), used to detest these ‘fuelling’ serials. When you are in your fuelling station, you are just about a 100 to 120 feet away from the tanker. Even at that close distance, the entire Fleet Staff including the Fleet Commander, who would be on board the tanker during these serials, would put the binoculars, hanging around their necks, to their eyes and subject your ship to close scrutiny. My Army friends are familiar with the eyeball-to-eyeball situation at Nathula. Well, this is similar to that but much closer. And….the ‘enemy’ is you-know-who.
Signals emanating from the Fleet Commander and his staff don’t await your being hooked on for fuelling. These start with your being at the standby station, to your making approach and continue until you have ‘disengaged’ and proceeded out of the microscopic gaze of the Fleet Cdr and the staff. You feel like one of those frogs that the medical interns are taught to dissect before they (the interns, that is) can try their hands on human beings. Signals used to range from “A porthole is open”, “There is unnecessary movement on the deck”, “Your boat gripes are dirty” and “The fifth man on the haul rope is not wearing half inflated life jacket” and so on. To say that it is an endless volley of signals is not too much off the mark….it is indeed, more like a running commentary during a football match.
Captain Dabir used to smoke a lot under stress. Most of it was during fuelling when it was not permitted to do so. Once, we were connected with Shakti being on our starboard (right) and being subjected to leery gazes by the Fleet Cdr and co. A ship is a ‘she’ I often reasoned in my mind and these kind of glances would invite the provisions of some or the other section of the Indian Penal Code!
Anyway, the latest signal from the Fleet Cdr on Tactical Primary read: “You are slow like Chinese naval men.” I had no experience with Chinese naval men, but, I reckoned this was not the right time to take the signal to the Captain. So I took it from the yeoman and put it in my pocket. Little did I know that this act of mine was also being observed through the binocs. Next, I was called by FOO on PWSL, a walkie-talkie set prevalent during those days, and told that the Fleet Commander wanted that the signal be shown to the Captain immediately.
I had no choice now but to edge closer to the Captain on the Starboard wing. He looked at me and asked, “Another one?” I confirmed this to him by nodding my head. “Well” he said, “Make to Flag: Spare us your derisive ones, for heavens sake.” I dutifully wrote it down if only to give satisfaction to the microscopic gazes of our bête noire. And then I asked him what to do with the signal received from the Fleet Cdr. He said, “Do you remember what we did with his last one? Do the same.”
I came back to the Bridge (out of scrutinising gaze), threw the latest signal into the dustbin and made to Flag: Your last acknowledged.
I still remember the flourish with which Captain Dabir used to salute the Fleet Commander at the time of disengaging after the Still Pipe. The last part of the salute used to be decoded by me (communicators are good at decoding everything), “Good riddance…….for the time being at least.”
But, he never said that aloud. No point in adding fuel to the fire.
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