There is this story of a sailor who went on his first leave after having been recruited in the Navy and having served on his first ship. The next day, first his mother and then his sisters, brother, father etc noticed that Jagtar Singh was in such deep sleep – as the one that a person gets in the Punjabi proverb ghode vech ke (after selling the horses) – that he refused to budge, let alone get up.

As the story goes, the alarmed parents and family consulted other siyaane (wise) men and women in the village but no one had any clue to this peculiar problem, let alone a solution. They also consulted the local quack who felt the sailor’s pulse and declared that the problem was beyond his saayins (science) too and all that the family could do was to pray.

They were about to give up when it occurred to them that Satnam Singh, another sailor, who had retired from the Navy a few years back, lived in the next village and probably he would know what is to be done with this unique naval problem. So, their other son Amrik (nickname Happy) was sent on the only power driven vehicle the family had – their Escort tractor – to fetch Satnam Singh from the next village.

One thing that the Navy teaches you is camaraderie; the fact is that you live in such close quarters that you are not just familiar with the way your shipmate’s looks but also his whims, fancies, idiosyncrasies and – hold your breath – smell. There is something about the salty seawater smell of a navy man that makes him stand out like a… a….well, salt-horse in the waves at sea. Hence, very soon, they had Happy bringing back Satnam Singh to revive Jagtar Singh. Satnam didn’t take long to come to grips with the situation. He lifted the eyelids of Jagtar and satisfied himself that Jagtar was alive but only blissfully sleeping; almost in a state of induced coma. He stood next to Jagtar’s prone figure and shouted, “Fresh water would remain open in all bathrooms for the next ten minutes”.

Jagtar’s reaction was to be seen to believed. He shot out of his cot like a pilot of an about to go down plane from his ejection seat, grabbed the nearest towel and shot into the nearest bathroom.

The grateful family asked Satnam, “Kaka, tussi Navy wich daakter sige?” (Son, were you a doctor in the Navy?)
And Satnam replied with pride, “Nahin ji; main fresh-water tankey si aapne jahaaz wich” (No, I was a Fresh Water Tankeyon my ship)

Many of you from the Army, Navy or civil backgrounds won’t know the importance of this position on the ship that Satnam proudly said he occupied, but an officer or sailor or even civilian on board (yes we have some civilians too on board like the dhobi, barber and civilian bearers) would know that a Fresh Water Tankey on board a ship is next to God only. He is a ME (Mechanical Engineer) who has been entrusted with the opening and closing of water from the Fresh Water Tank or Tanks (and hence called Tankey) to various bathrooms and galleys. Water at sea is the most scarce commodity. It would surely remind you of ‘water water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.

Yesterday, the veteran naval community in Mumbai were regaled by our annual Admiral Soman lecture (named after the visionary Vice Admiral Bhaskar Sadashiv Soman who was the 4th Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy from 1962 to 1966) by Ms Mehar Heroyce Moos on the subject of her expedition to Antarctica in 1977, making her the first Indian woman to have done so. She has been an avid and intrepid traveler who has visited 180 countries, tasted all kinds of food, met all kinds of people, and seen every nook and corner of our vast and beautiful Earth. During her talk she mentioned how, in Antarctica, water was the most precious commodity in all the camps. This would give you an idea of the famous water-water-everywhere dilemma. Antarctica is house to so much of ice that if it were to suddenly melt, the water levels of the oceans would rise by 57 feet. It stores seventy percent of Earth’s usable water. And yet when you are there, water is scarce.

Mehar Moos delivering her Antarctica talk at INHS Asvini auditorium in Mumbai
Mehar Moos delivering her Antarctica talk at INHS Asvini auditorium in Mumbai

Ships have evaporators to convert the salt-water into usable or potable water called fresh-water. Warships, as compared to merchant ships, have considerable manpower on board to man various weapons and sensors and combat positions. These men require fresh-water for various activities. The ship’s main purpose is to fight and hence fresh-water is not just scarce but luxury on board. Hence the importance of FW Tankey on board. It would be only at some scheduled timings that FW Tankey would open the fresh-water. If you miss the announcement, you have to wait for the next schedule that lasts only about 10 to 15 minutes. And who knows when the next schedule is there, whether you will be on watch or not, spreading your fragrance to all those who were fortunate enough to have not missed the earlier schedule.

Precisely for this reason, your ears are so tuned to this refreshing announcement that nothing else, not even ‘Hands to Action Stations’ or even ‘Hands to Lunch/Dinner’ gets the kind of response that ‘Fresh-Water will remain open in all bathrooms for ten minutes’ obtains. To this is to be added the fact that it is not as if each person on board has his own bathroom. The ratio is generally 10 to 20 persons per bathroom. Having the luxury of bath on board is therefore a race, not only against the other hopefuls but also against yourself, your needs and desires, and your skills that enable you to finish your bath before there is urgent knock at your bathroom door for having taken more time than was necessary for a “bride to get ready for her wedding“.

Thanks to Satnam, Jagtar’s family learnt how to bring Jagtar out of his indolence. But, they didn’t know that the Navy conditions your mind to such an extent that you find yourself at sea (lost) when you are on land. Jagtar was a changed man, unfit for everything except to be a sailor on board.

To learn more about how to wake up a determined sleeper on board, please read: Night Watch.

© 2016, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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  1. The most delighted lot at the announcement of “fresh water will remain open for 15 minutes time” used to be sailors from Rajsathan a state naturally sufferer of water constraint. In a way they used to go on mad on hearing the announcement and start celebrating as SPRING has approached suddenly. Even after completing their wash and all they would keep dancing and shoting about the arrival of water , between mess and bathroom opening tap and playing with water. Besides they would keep warning others …… BHAI LOGO JALDI KAR LO JAANE HI WALLA HAI ……

    1. Thanks Jaswant for reviving those nostalgic memories.Yes, I have seen many officers and sailors drool like a dog spotting a bone at the announcement of fresh-water. This was especially so on Russian ships as Russians probably felt that anyone given more than a mug of water a day cannot be called a combatant.