Voyages as a naval cadet along Indian coasts and A&N Islands
I graduated from the National Defence Academy (NDA) in December of 1971. The war for the liberation of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) was on at that time hence our final departure from the NDA which, usually would happen in the first week of December, got delayed by about ten days to the middle of December. After a break of three weeks, I joined the training ship, INS Krishna (F-46) (HMIS Kistna (U46) was a Black Swan-class sloop, INS Kistna), under the command of Cdr. VK Laroyia, on the 11th of Jan ’72. INS Krishna in its current avatar was an anti-submarine sloop. It had hedgehogs and depth charges against a submarine. If I recollect the sonar was 144. We were 35 cadets on the ship mixed with those from the Naval Academy to form the 3rd Integrated Course. The other half of the cadets were posted on the training ship INS Tir, commanded by Cdr. Mahendra Pratap. The period of training for each group was six months.
For our lot on Krishna, it was literally a ‘Pier head jump’. We joined on the 11th Jan and sailed out on the 12th Jan and returned to Bombay only in the third week of May. Our first stop was at Kochi where we remained in harbour for three days. Thereon, we sailed to Madras (Chennai) en-route to Visakhapatnam (Vizag). Crossing the Gulf of Munnar was an ordeal as the sea was extremely rough. The waves would rise up to the bridge of Krishna whose compass platform was at 35 feet above the waterline. Most of us were seasick but had to continue with our duties. The best place to be in such a situation was in the boiler room. We spent two days in Madras and arrived Vizag on the 18th Jan and berthed on the Indian Navy (IN) Jetty. Those days the finger jetties were only on the drawing board. It was here that we came across the indomitable and impressive Capt Manohar Prahlad Awati, who was commanding the 31st Patrol Vessel Squadron (P31). Our cadet’s squad was marching to the Boys Training Establishment (For Sailors Training), which was located in INS Circar, the naval base for Vizag. A car passed by us and screeched to a halt slightly ahead and reversed to be abreast of the squad. From it stepped out a true sea dog; Capt Awati impressive in his height and beard and called our squad to halt. In his booming voice, he ticked us off for our sloppy marching and exhorted us to do better in a colourful seaman’s language. He drove off as dramatically as he had appeared.
We spent a few days in Vizag engaged in storing ship as well as in our training drills and evolutions and set sail for Port Blair where we were scheduled to arrive by 25th Jan to be in time for the 22nd anniversary of our Republic on the 26th Jan in the silver jubilee year of our Independence.
During our passage from Bombay, we were subjected daily to various seamanship evolutions and drills as also anti-aircraft firings on star shells fired from the 4” guns, using the 40/60 AA Bofor guns. Off Goa, we had also carried out Naval Gunfire Support on the Pigeon Island. Since the mid-1980s this island has been designated as an ecological zone and ever since any sort of firings on it have been prohibited. Besides the drills and evolutions, we would carry out watchkeeping in the boiler room, engine room, on the bridge as Cadet of the watch or COW, look-out, lifebuoy sentry, lifeboat crew etc. As cadets, we were called the lowest form of marine life, by our Cadet’s Divisional Officer (CDO). This was so that we learnt each and everything that a sailor did, so that later as officers we were well acquainted with difficult life and hardships that a sailor endured. Our CDO was a stern-looking officer LT. VK Thapar (32nd NDA) who brooked no non- sense. Soon we were to experience the hardness of his finger bones on parts of our anatomy. However, he may have had a hard exterior, but was soft inside and fair in his dealings with us. Our Executive Officer was Lt Cdr. AV Patwardhan, who had been the Commander of Foxtrot squadron with us in NDA. The officer crew that was in charge of training was very good and competent. We learnt that the best of the officers were usually appointed on the training ships.
We used to stay in ‘Chest flats’, which includes a bunk and a small cupboard. There were two forward and aft chest flats. I used to be in forward. Our typical daily routine would be to wake up with the call of ‘Reveille’ on the bugle at 0530. After a wash, we were to fall in by part of the ship at 0600 h for Physical Training for half an hour followed by clean-ship duties. The cadet’s part of the ship was the quarterdeck (QD). The most exciting activity in ship’s husbandry was the ‘Holy stoning’ (A method of cleaning wooden decks) of the wooden QD. In this evolution, cadets would be on their haunches scrubbing the deck with a Hoy stone after a white soda had been sprinkled on the deck. As we progressed with our scrubbing from aft to forward a stream of seawater would be sprayed to keep clearing the smudge. In the process, we would get soaked in our blues (A naval blue short and light blue half-sleeved shirt). However, the satisfaction lay in seeing the QD in a sparkling shine at the end of it. The breakfast break would follow from 0800-0900 h. Two cadets at a time were invited by the Captain daily for breakfast. Having a bath was an evolution in itself. The freshwater in the washrooms would be opened only for 10 minutes in which all 35 of us were to manage. Quite often, we would be left with soap left on our bodies, which would be wiped off by towels. Our classes for the professional subjects for which we had to change to whites in Dress no. 8, would be held in the Gun Room overlooking the QD. These would continue to 1330 h and we would break for Dinner. (Lunch was called Dinner in the ships those days. Dinner as in the civilian parlance was called ‘supper’. In 1973, the change to call Lunch and dinner as followed in the civilian terminology was introduced). Accordingly, the announcements on the main broadcast of the ship would be “Hands to dinner/Supper”. We were left free for an hour or so after lunch to catch a bit of rest before the entire ship’s company again mustered for evening quarters (EQ) at 1600 h. Evening quarters were held only when the ship was at sea. After the EQ we would be detailed off in groups for practical training on boats (Including lowering and hoisting), Davits and their types, bends & hitches, semaphore signalling etc. till 1800 h. After a quick evening shower and supper, which would be piped at 1830 h, we would either be detailed for star shell firings or assemble in the Gunroom for ‘Snap Talks’ in Red Sea rig. In the snap talk, a cadet would be given a topic and two minutes for getting his thoughts together before being called upon to address the class for five minutes on the given topic. Snap talks session was attended by all cadets, and officers including the Captain. The aim of the exercise was to train the cadets in public speaking impromptu.
I vividly recall one of the talks in which the topic given was ‘Humour in uniform’. The cadet took it literally and in his talk spoke of how each of the uniforms in the naval domain looked funny. He had no clue about the true meaning of the subject. The sniggers from the class further encouraged him as he thought that he was doing fabulously well, till his balloon was burst in the debrief by the CDO who asked him to fetch a 4” shell to be carried on his shoulders. A 4” shell along with the detonator charge weighs nearly 108 lbs. I am sure that carrying that weight on his shoulders would have wiped out all the contrived humour that he imagined in uniform and that he would have soon thereafter found out the true meaning of ‘Humour in uniform’. After a short self-study period post the Snap talk ‘Pipe down’ would be sounded at 2200 h. Falling off to be in the other world in sleep was the easiest thing as by the end of the day the lowest form of marine life would be totally exhausted.
Sojourn in the Andamans
Cat’s Paw. We arrived at Port Blair in the afternoon of the 25th Jan ’72 and the ship anchored in the bay off Ross Island. Prior to entering Port Blair, we carried out an exercise called ‘Cat’s Paw’. In this evolution, a cadet’s crew in whaler is lowered from the ship and let go. The whaler is expected to make it back to the ship on sails/row.
Two whalers were lowered when the ship was abreast of Chiriya Tapu (10 NM from Ross Island). Our boat had Leading Seaman (LS) Tewari as the boat in-charge whereas the other one had Ishwar Singh, LS. The other boat on rigging up the sails caught the wind and initially moved away from the coast whereas our boat had drifted closer to the coast while the sails were rigged and as a result, we landed up in a zone of doldrums and caught very little wind. Our progress was very slow and we had to resort to pulling (Rowing) the whaler northward to Port Blair. We had been set adrift around 11130 h and even after sail/cum pulling we had not sighted the Ross Island by 1600 h. The sunsets early in this part of the world and at about 1630 with just half an hour to sunset, we saw the ship’s cutter (A type of a Motorboat) approaching and took us in tow to head for the ship. The other whaler had been luckier had managed to sail back to the ship. On reaching we became the butt of jokes from the other lot. Cat’s paw literally means a whiff of a light breeze but that day we needed stronger gusts to make it back to the ship. Nevertheless, it was fun and a great experience. One important lesson that could be imbibed was that never take the sea and conditions for granted.
Republic Day celebrations
The next day the nation was celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Republic, the day our constitution came into force. The Colour Guard (Always presented by cadets whilst in the harbour) was in dress No 2 and the ship was rigged overall. The ship’s company was treated to a ‘Bara Khana’ (Grand Lunch, it’s called such because open to the entire crew in one go and not by watches. Usually, meals are served to the incoming watch first. After they close up then hands to dinner/lunch is piped or announced. On ships all announcements are preceded by a general call on the pipe or the boatswain pipe or in short bosun’s pipe.) and in the evening the ship hosted a reception onboard, which was attended by who’s & who of Port Blair. The incumbent Naval Officer in Charge (NOIC) of A&N, Cmde PC Rajkhowa and the Lt Governor of the Islands were the chief dignitaries. As cadets, we had to rig up the QD with ceremonial awning. As the lowest form of marine life, we were not to attend the reception. Those of us not on watch, organized our own little do in the Gunroom listening and jiving to the hits of those times ‘My Sweet Lord’ by George Harrison and ‘Rose Garden’ by Lyn Anderson and rocking to ‘Hush’ by Billy Joe Royal. We were fortunate to have a jukebox in the Gun Room. Those were the days of 45 RPM and Long Play (LP) records.
The ship was also ceremoniously lit which presented a very pretty and attractive sight to those ashore. An integral part of training when the ship was, at anchorage, was boat handling. The ship’s cutter, which was used to ferry, the Captain ashore and to bring visitors to the ship was always manned by cadets chaperoned by an experienced sailor. This evolution laid the basics of not only boat handling in particular but of the concepts of ship handling in general, in us as cadets. After all as far as handling is concerned the difference between a boat and a ship is only of the scale, but the fundamentals are the same. The boat hook drill was great fun and was like poetry in motion. Similarly rigging up the accommodation ladder, used to climb up to the deck and walk down to the lower platform to embark the boats was an evolution worth imbibing. I could discern that we were fortunate in executing these evolutions, which were so essential to strengthening our knowledge of seamanship. The other lot on INS Tir was not so fortunate because, in their entire stay on board of six months, the ship hardly clocked two weeks at sea. Rigging up and striking down the stanchions on the QD when the ship entered or left harbour was another evolution, which required physical strength and brawn. After the first few occasions, we became experts in this evolution. As I have stated earlier all this was an experience which was being banked by us to be en-cashed whilst supervising the same evolutions as officers in future. During our first sojourn in the A&N Islands from 25 Jan to about 08 Feb 1972, when we returned to Vizag for an Assisted Maintenance Period (AMP), we visited nearly all the major Islands in the Andaman group.
During our stay in Port Blair, we exercised our ‘Demolition’ training on Ross Island, which used to be the seat of power during the British Raj and housed the Lt Governor’s residence. This Island has now been renamed as ‘Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’ Island. It is a tiny island with an area of 0.312 square km (Length- 1.25 km, width- 0.52 km) and the highest elevated hill of about 45m above MSL. Most of the structures were in ruins with moss gathering on the columns and the walls. In present times some restoration work could be seen when I visited the Island in Jan 2016. The Demolition exercise entailed familiarization with the handling of small explosives such as 1 lb detonator charge, hand grenades, dynamite boxes and plastic rope explosives such as ‘Cordex’ etc. The Cordex could be used to cut heavy trees or wooden pillars. There were quite a few bunkers along the shoreline, which had been there from the Japanese occupation days. A small Naval platoon was stationed on the island permanently for security. During the demolition exercise, the most exciting part was catching fish and cooking there itself on a wood fire. We would throw a 1 lb charge in the water, which would stun the fish causing them to float making it easy for us to catch. We cooked some real exotic fish and also carried some to the ship. Scaling of the fish was necessary and the Seamanship Volume did have a chapter on this, which came in handy for us to put into practice. In a section, right opposite to the Governor’s residence the seabed was rigged with white sanitary tiles and acted as a mini sea swimming pool. After our meal, we enjoyed a swim there. Before returning to the ship we covered the periphery of the island on a route march to see the flora and fauna of the island, which was truly breathtaking. The Island had a church, its own bakery, water pool to store freshwater. Most of these structures have been restored to the extent possible, as it has become a much-sought tourist attraction. In my visit in 2016, I saw a Sound and Light show, which portrayed the history of the Island. The island also hosts a mini sanctuary for deer and birds. Overnight stay on the island is not allowed even in present times. Earlier, the A&N Islands were a restricted territory and not open to the public from the mainland and an entry permit was needed. However, from the late 1970s, these restrictions were relaxed and access was opened up. However, some exotic islands with very rich flora & fauna and a very rich and varied marine life like the Jolly buoy and Red skin have been formed into the “Mahatma Gandhi National Ecological Park”. These islands are reachable by boat from ‘Chiriya Tapu’ and one is not allowed even to carry a plastic bottle with drinking water. One has to obtain a permit from the Andaman’s Tourist Authority in Port Blair to visit these islands.
One of the highest peaks in the A&N islands is Mount Harriet located on the North bank of Port Blair. Some of us cadets marched up to the top, from the North Bay point. It had been declared a national park three years ago in 1969. The view from here was truly breathtaking. The Flora and fauna was something to, be seen to, believe. We spent the better part of our time trekking up and back. We had carried packed lunch with us and made a picnic out of it at the top. This visit also reminded me of the famous book ‘Death in the Andaman’ by MM Kaye, which I had read in school. The main scene of action in the book was also on Mount Harriet. Ross Island too figured prominently in the book. I had learnt that most of the high-ranking British in the A&N stayed on Ross Island for security reasons. They were susceptible to attacks by the locals on the main island. The sunset in these parts was early, simply because the time followed was Indian Standard Time (GMT + 5 1\2) whereas by the longitude of the place it should have been one hour ahead. Usually, the sun would rise at 0530 h and set by 1645 h. Accordingly, we had to leave early to be back on the ship soon after dusk.
Chatham Saw Mill
This sawmill was set up in 1883 and is the largest in Asia. It is located on Chatham Island just to the North of the Phoenix Bay. It was set up in tune with the British policy of creating infrastructure just to exploit the natural resources from the subjugated land., Their priority was to construct a jetty, albeit a wooden one, to transport the rich timber from here, but they did not develop the infrastructure for the Port as it should have been. This was undertaken only after the independence in 1947 when the Haddo wharf was constructed to accommodate large ships. From the late 1960s to early 1970s the wharf was extended to enable the naval ships of the local flotilla and visiting naval ships. In our first visit, we were at anchor but in our second visit, we had berthed on the Chatham jetty. The product of the sawmill was not just processed and cut timber for export but also included aesthetic products like high-quality furniture, wooden murals, polished driftwood in various shapes. Wooden inlay produce of the mill is well known throughout the world. The most famous wood found in these areas is ‘Padauk’ which is very strong and gets even better when seasoned in seawater. In present times export of ‘Padauk’ from the islands has been prohibited.
The Cellular Jail
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands were mainly used as a penal colony for political and hardened convicts by the British. Initially, they were incarcerated on Viper Island. Once the Cellular Jail was constructed, they were shifted here. Architecturally the structure is very attractive. It consisted of seven two-storied wings that branched out radially from the central core which housed the watchtower and the sentry posts. On each floor of the wings, there were prisoner cells virtually bereft of any furniture. An oriental squat platform was made right next to the door for the prisoner to defecate and the excrete would be extracted from there daily. The cells had iron grilled doors and one ventilator reinforced with iron grills. The conditions in each cell were sub-human, the idea behind such an arrangement being to de-humanise the prisoner and to break his will. The isolation cell in which Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was kept was particularly severe and the worst. He was subjected to the most inhuman torture and brutality and it is indeed a wonder how not only endured but survived through it for 10 years when on a petition he was conditionally released. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his political thought is another matter, but I would not wish even my worst enemy such abominable torture. The Cellular jail after independence has been converted to a ‘National Museum’ and is a must-see for anyone who wishes to see the cruelty that was inflicted on political prisoners by the British. For a brief period, the Islands were under the Japanese occupation who proved to be even crueller. The worst torture the prisoners were subjected to was to extract oil and fiber from coconuts. Presently a ‘Sound and Light’ show is presented to the tourists, which shows the travails and tribulations of the prisoners as also the cruelty of the jailer of Irish descent, David Barrie.
This is truly a heavenly bay or a cove with a beautiful beach about 10 km from the centre of Port Blair. Most of us cadets spent nearly a whole day here enjoying the surf and the breakers. Back in 1972, it was pristine and a virgin beach with no pollution and waste from tourists. Since it is a semi-lunar shaped beach the surf formation is ideal. The beach is guarded at both ends by cliffs and on the southern cliff, there was a shack, which served refreshments and snacks. This remains to-date but is upgraded in its facilities. The entire length of the beach was lined with coconut trees and one could easily get hold of them. We enjoyed the sweet water from them. I had recently visited the place in Jan 2016. The tourist traffic has increased many folds and with it has come the consequential degradation in the quality of the natural habitat. Commercialisation has proliferated leading to contamination of the beach. I also had the opportunity to visit this place in April 1982, when I was undergoing the Principal Control Officer’s Qualifying Course to enable one to be appointed as an Executive Officer on a submarine. We had come to Port Blair for our sea attachment on a submarine, which was on deployment there. A 5 Star hotel ‘Andaman Bay Resort’ had come up there. Cmde Vijay Prasada (Retd) was the General Manager there. Large tourist groups from the Soviet Union and East European countries would come on chartered aircraft to Port Blair to spend short holidays in the hotel at the beach. One could also notice ruins of bunkers made by the Japanese along the shoreline. Anyone visiting Port Blair must not miss Corbyn’s Cove.
Aberdeen is the main promenade of Port Blair. The main bazaar, cinema halls, Andaman Club, the water sports haven, the main parade ground are all located here. As cadets, we played a football match with the team of INS Jarawa and thrashed them by four goals out of which, two were scored by yours truly. In a sense, it was an endorsement of the football blazer that I was awarded in the NDA. The present residence of the Lt-Governor is also located close to Aberdeen on a hill, which overlooks the entire promenade. The other prominent area in Port Blair is Junglee Ghat where the freed convicts had settled down. The indentured labour brought from the mainland had also settled down in this region. When I visited Port Blair in 1982, a new 5 star ‘Bay Island Hotel’ had come up overlooking the Phoenix bay. It is a property worth visiting offering a beautiful view of the harbour entrance and Ross Island.
After being in the harbour for a few days we sailed out to explore the Andaman Group of Islands. The first one was Cinque Island. The island is located South South East of Port Blair and was totally uninhabited. A few of us cadets made a landing on the island. Even after half a century, I can vividly recall the joy that we experienced on seeing the virgin white sand on it. It is a low-lying flat island with very rich vegetation and flora. We walked nearly the entire expanse of the island and the exhilaration that we experienced on such a nature’s wonder. We spent about three hours on the island before pulling back to the ship in our whaler.
Little Andaman (Butler Bay)
Butler bay on the Little Andaman Island has one of the most beautiful beaches and offers a great opportunity for surfing. Here too a cadet’s landing party went ashore. Those days it was sparsely inhabited and untouched by commercialisation. Butler Bay was also used for beaching practice by the Landing Crafts of the Indian Navy. In present times it has become a major tourist attraction.
Our next stop was Barren Island, which is to the East of Port Blair and is the only periodically active volcano in South East Asia. A landing party of about 12 volunteer cadets went ashore. We were given a proper briefing on what to expect on the island, which included goats and wild giant rodents, which could be the size of a cat. The ship had arrived off the island just after mid-day. Beaching on the island did not present much difficulty, as the surf helped us along. Pulling the whaler ashore was a bit tedious but once we had done that, we secured the boat left two sentries and started the climb. We were dressed in overalls and also had an armed party in our midst. The vegetation was thick due to the fertile soil. As briefed we did come across goats but were really struck on seeing some giant rodents. I had never seen such huge rats. We had climbed up nearly two-thirds of the way to the top when we decided to turn back as the sun was rapidly going down and it was not advisable to hang around in the dark. Un-beaching was not easy. Firstly, the surf was opposing us and secondly, the gradient was very sharp, such that there was no bottom close to the beach. The initial push had to be perpendicular to the lay of the beach timed perfectly to ride the surf as it receded. And for the crew to jump into the boat as soon as it was off the beach. It was a tight manoeuvre but we managed splendidly well and pulled back to the ship and the boat hoisted on board. It is worth mentioning here that lowering and hoisting of boats was an intricate seamanship evolution. During the lowering, it had to be ensured that the boat was unhooked on an even keel and on rising surf. The Unhooking from the falls on an even keel used to be accomplished by ‘Robinson’s Gear’ (It’s a gear to disengage the falls to lower the boat on even keel).
Maya Bunder in the Middle Andaman was our next port of call. It had a jetty and could berth small passenger ships and island hopping ferries. We anchored off the port in the open roadstead. During the approach, cadets were also given opportunities to carry out anchoring practice, which was an essential part of our training. At Maya Bunder also, as was the practice, a cadet landing party was sent ashore. Like elsewhere in these islands the beaches were pristine and the Aves Island at Maya Bunder was a nesting ground for sea turtles on the Karmatang beach.
Port Cornwallis, which serves as the port for Diglipur in the North Andaman was our next destination. Diglipur is also administrative headquarter for the North Andaman Island. The natural beauty of this port is something to behold. We anchored in the inner bay. The most significant feature that still holds firm in my memory was the beach causeway joining the Smith and Ross Islands. Some cadets made a landing on the Smith Island and we explored the causeway, which used to be submerged to below knee-deep water at high tide whereas at low water it was completely exposed. . This beach causeway was so pure and pristine that I had never seen. We spent half a day on this beach enjoying the surfing. When one stood in the middle, one saw the two islands separated by a shallow pool of water. It was truly a majestic sight. Anyone visiting Diglipur must make it a point to spend time on this magnificent causeway joining the Smith and Ross Islands. In present times, a naval establishment INS Kohassa with an airfield has come up at Diglipur. This part is strategically very important to monitor the sea lanes in the North Andaman Sea and the Coco group of Islands (Myanmar) where the Chinese have set up surveillance facilities. The waters in Port Cornwallis were so clean that the visibility would reach nearly 30m in depth.
This is a dormant volcanic island and the easternmost island territory of The Andaman archipelago. It is mainly forested but on its Western part has ashen slopes ending in a plain before joining the sea. It is the second tallest peak in the Andaman. There was a village on the island. A cadet’s landing party was sent ashore of which unfortunately I was not a part of. The ship hove to off the island as the depths precluded anchoring. The island is very rich in flora and fauna due to the fertile volcanic soil. On return to the ship, the excitement of the landing party was easily discernible. This was to be our last stop in the Andaman and after a quick operational turn round (OTR) at Port Blair, we set sail for Vizag for an Assisted Maintenance Period (AMP) and arrived there on or about 11th Feb.
AMP at Vizag
We spent about two weeks in Vizag, during which period the cadets as part of the training, were taken on visits to Hindustan Shipyard Ltd (HSL), the Dolphin’s lighthouse, the weather and cyclone warning station adjacent to it. We also visited Bharat Heavy Plates & Vessels (BHPV) a public sector undertaking (PSU) which manufactured pressure vessels and thick sheets. During the visit, I wondered why it could not make sections of a pressure hull for submarine construction. Nearly three decades later, when I visited the same PSU as the Principal Director of Submarine Acquisition and member-Secretary of a Ministry of Defence Committee, scouting for partners in the 30-year indigenous submarine building plan, I realized that though the capacity and capability existed, what was missing was commitment and honesty of purpose. Inefficiency was all-pervasive, in the PSU. This to my mind is the bane of PSUs in the country in most cases.
We also had sporting activities and events organized during our stay. We played football matches with INS Virbahu and INS Circar. We were also fortunate to visit INS Kalvari, the first Foxtrot class submarine inducted into the Indian Navy in Dec 1967. This is when, I guess, the seeds of my desire to join the submarine arm were laid. Precisely three years later I joined the Basic Submarine course in May 1975.
The stay in Vizag was also utilized for rest and recreation. I recall seeing the movie ‘Hare Krishna Hare Rama’ produced by Dev Anand. The Seamen’s club located at the Southern end of the beach road was another place where we spent a few evenings when ashore on liberty. Here, one could find dancing partners in what otherwise was a laidback city. Cycle rickshaws were the main mode of public transport. A boat ferry was also available from the HSL jetty to reach across the channel. It was faster and more convenient. The hill overlooking the channel was quite unique. It had a temple, a church and a mosque adjacent to each other, which functioned in complete harmony.
On completion of the AMP we sailed out to Port Blair once again and after a short OTR set sail again to explore the Nicobar group of islands. The first stop was the nearest one ‘Car Nicobar’. It is a small low-lying island with, surprisingly, a very progressive and friendly local population. There was an air force station and an airstrip on the island, which had been built during the Japanese occupation. I was part of the landing party, which went ashore on the island and walked the entire periphery. The houses were made of thatched coconut straws raised on stakes to avoid getting inundated should the sea ingress at spring tides. The island suffered severely during the 2004 Tsunami. The Air force station also suffered extensive damage. However, by now everything has been restored. The Malacca village is the most prominent habitat on the island. We were very warmly greeted by the village folks and treated to some sweet coconuts. I remembered playing a football match in school in the Subroto Cup football tournament in Delhi, against the Government School, Car Nicobar and lost to them. I had been impressed with their football skills. It was during this visit that I discovered the real reason for their excellence. The boys and girls on the island used to practice with coconut shells as a substitute for a football. The beach all around the island was pure and clean with great surf and breakers. It was great fun visiting the island and a great education. We returned to the ship in the afternoon, which had ‘hove to’ off the island and shaped course to the Nancowry harbour.
Nancowry and Kamorta Islands
The Nancowry harbour is between Kamorta Island to the North and the Nancowry Island to the South. The ship anchored inside the harbour, which is a sheltered roadstead. There was a naval garrison on the Kardip Island, which a year later was commissioned as a naval establishment. The Nancowry administration oversaw the entire group of the Nicobar group of islands. This island was also famous for the people’s queen, who lived in the Champin region of the Nancowry Island. She had been given this title during the British time. She was extremely popular and a gracious host. A few cadets had gone ashore on liberty and had called on her and were well received. To the West of these twin islands was Katchal Island. It is worth noting that three of the Petya Class corvettes of the 31st Patrol Vessel Squadron were named after these islands. A Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) passenger ferry, which operated inter-island was called Nancowry. During the 2004 tsunami these islands, being close to the epicentre, were severely affected and the ships’ company of INS Kardip played a stellar role in reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The ship stayed in Nancowry for a couple of days after which we sailed for the Great Nicobar Island, the largest in the Nicobar group. We entered Campbell Bay, the port for the island and secured alongside the only jetty, which was wooden. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that during all our sailings and securing alongside, the cadets used to handle the berthing hawsers and the wire springs and we would literally pull the ship alongside using these hawsers even though the windlasses could have been used. The manual force of the lowest form of marine life, however, was the best force. Our hands would get chaffed in the bargain.
The Great Nicobar also has the Southernmost point of India now called ‘Indira Point’ but was earlier known as ‘Pygmalion point’. This is barely 90 nautical miles from the North-Western end of the Indonesian archipelago marking the entrance to Malacca Straits. Therefore, the island is of great strategic importance. The island was sparsely populated but offered vast opportunities to develop agriculture as the soil was very rich and fertile. We came across a group of Sikhs and farmers from Punjab, who had been offered tracts of land by the government to settle and develop the place. A few of them sounded disaffected as the promises made to them had not yet been fully honoured. Nevertheless, they were determined to make a success of their lives there. I have no doubt that they would have succeeded in their endeavours because the Sikhs are a very industrious people. Being closest to the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami, this island was the worst affected but soon bounced back.
A Cadets landing party went on a route march heading Northward from the Campbell bay. We had set our destination to the entrance of the biosphere about 10 miles away. The flora and fauna were breathtaking. We also learnt that there was a major river ‘Ganga’ in the Northwestern part of the island. The forests were thick. We had an armed section in the landing party, which was never called upon to use them. The island has a peak ‘Mount Thuillier’ 642m above MSL. We could not reach the destination due to paucity of time and turned back halfway and headed for the ship. Presently, a naval air station INS Baaz, capable of staging P8I maritime patrol aircraft, is in commission on the island. The importance of the air station needs no emphasis. We spent two days in Campbell Bay and headed to Madras from there and arrived by the third week of March for R&R and OTR.
Stay at Madras
In Madras, we had a change of CDO. Lt Thapar left us to join for Long Torpedo and Anti Submarine (TAS) specialist course at Cochin and Lt Ranbir Talwar (35th NDA) took over. The stay at Madras was very good. We saw a few movies there. The box office hits of those days ‘Sharmilee’ starring Shashi Kapoor and Rakhi, Amar Prem with Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. One of those evenings a couple of us (Naresh Kumar and I) were returning to the ship walking back, much after the expiry time for liberty. A jeep stopped and picked us up. Lo and behold seated in it was Lt Rakesh Bakshi, the ship’s TASO but he did not say a word and we marched up the gangway escorted by him. Lucky we were to have escaped without punishment.
The ship loaded provisions at Madras and the loading party as usual, as cadets, the lowest form of marine life. We could never get the better of it as long as we were cadets also referred to as ‘Monkeys’. As is the wont of real-life monkeys, we would also hive off some condensed milk tins, canned pineapples and other fruits to the Gun Room en-route to the cool room of the ship. These would come handy to make ‘Lassi’ before and after a middle watch. Though the cadets were not allowed any alcoholic drinks, a trio of us had managed a bunch of keys, which would unlock the wine store and we would help ourselves to the choicest of sherry, port wine, white Peurto Rico rum etc. The Senior Engineer Officer (SEO) of the ship Lt. Sahadevan, who was also the wine secretary, could never find out the mischief mongers till we ourselves owned up to him just prior to passing out. It was laughed off as part of cadet’s pranks.
Another facet that needs a mention is that as cadets we would also be detailed as cooks of the day, three at a time. The job of this team was to fetch the meals from the ship’s galley (kitchen) to the Gun Room and serve the rest of the class and wash the dishes at the end of it and secure the pantry. In our very first outing from Bombay and before we could reach Cochin, one such team found the easiest way to clean the crockery. They just chucked them overboard. In Cochin not only did we have to shell out for the replacements but were doing ‘Starjumps’ a kind of a punishment for the next few days whenever we were not in evolution or a drill.
Sailing for the next two months
For the next couple of months, the ship sailed and visited Nagapatnam, Rameshwaram, Tuticorin on the East Coast. We anchored off each port and got the opportunity to see the Brihadishvara Temple (also called Rajarajesvaram or Peruvudaiyār Kōvil) at Tanjore (Thanjavur), the Arulmigu Ramanathaswamy Temple at Rameshwaram, which has the famous hallway of 1000 pillars. We continued our passage to Lakshadweep islands known as ‘Laccadives’ those days. During the return passage, we dreaded the rough seas in the Gulf of Munnar but surprisingly, it was as calm and smooth as a mirror.
Our first stop was Minicoy Island, which is the southernmost atoll in the Laccadives. Basically, the Laccadives are mainly atolls. The ship hove to off the island close to the lighthouse. Hove to means lying adrift with engines stopped. Cadets were allowed ashore. It is a flat low lying island with the population speaking Malayalam. We picked up trinkets and souvenirs from there. The lagoon was very beautiful. Subsequently, we sailed and saw all the islands Kavaratti, Kalpeni, Agatti, Kadmat, Amini, Kiltan and Androth. Kavaratti is the capital and the administrative seat of the Lakshadweep islands. There used to be, a naval garrison on it those days, however, in present times there is a commissioned naval establishment INS Dweeprakshak. The beauty of these atolls was out of the world. The waters were so clear that one could the sea up to depths of 40m. Off Androth, we exercised a survival at sea evolution called “Samudra Kanya”. In this exercise, the cadets were to rig up a raft from available material on board and once lowered over the side, were required to make their way back to the ship. Since these waters had corals, sharks could be found here. So, we had to anoint our bodies with shark-repellant before going into the water. The exercise was great fun and after being lowered over the side, the ship sailed away some distance and we rafted back to it. It reminded one, of the famous ‘Kon Tiki’ expedition. The Lakshadweep Islands are very strategically located as they guard the entrance to the North Indian Ocean through the 8 and 10-degree channels.
Passage to Cochin
After exploring the Laccadives, we sailed to Cochin and entered and moored to the buoys in the Ernakulam channel. Thus we could exercise the evolution of ‘Mooring to a buoy’, which was part of our seamanship training. We stayed in Cochin for nearly a week during which period, got the opportunity to visit all the training schools in INS Venduruthy. We also familiarized ourselves with INS Garuda the naval air station there, which also used to serve as the airport for Cochin till as late as the year 2000. Venduruthy was the training and education hub for basic and specialist courses for all officers of the executive branch in the Navy. The visit also provided the opportunity to those among us, who had passed out of the Naval Academy only a few months earlier, to visit their alma mater.
Talking of education, I am reminded of an anecdote on board. In a TAS class at sea, being taken by our CDO, Lt. Talwar, at one point he seemed stuck and said, “I think I need to revise myself”. One of us cadet X whispered, “Ya you better do that” as soon as Lt. Talwar turned to the blackboard. He heard it and turned and asked, “Who said that?” There was expected silence from the class. He then made a guess asked cadet X “Did you say that?” Naturally he got an answer in the negative. He then asked the cadet ‘A’ sitting to the right of X “Did he say that?” The answer was “Sir, I was busy taking notes, so I don’t know”. Lt. Talwar then posed the question to cadet B sitting to the left of X, who replied, “Sir, He asked you to revise”. A fuming CDO asked cadet X to fetch a 4” shell and ordered Cadet B “ And you get two 4” shells, so that next time you won’t snitch on your coursemate”. The entire class could barely suppress their laughter. The incident, however, carried an important message.
Passage to Goa
After sailing out of Cochin, we sailed along the coast northward to Goa and en-route practised anchoring for the cadets off Cannanore, Mangalore, Kazragode, Malvan, before entering Goa and secured alongside the ore jetty. We stayed in Goa just for a day. I remember jumping ship with Ajay Bhagra to see the movie ‘Do Raha’ starring the hot rage those days Radha Saluja with Anil Dhawan. On return, we clambered on board from the head rope, so as not to be caught. It was great fun to have pulled it off.
Okha, here we come
From Goa, we set sail to the Kathiawar and Saurashtra coast. We sailed past Diu, Kathiawar coast, Jakhau and eventually entered Okha. At Okha we saw first hand, the tidal variation and range between high and low tides and recalled the problems on tidal calculations solved in the class specifically of this region. During our stay at Okha, we were lucky to visit Dwaraka and see the Krishna temple. Dwaraka and Rameshwaram are two of the four Dhams for Hindus. It was thus, our good fortune to have covered them during our voyage. After a stay at Okha for two days, we headed to our homeport Bombay five months after we had sailed out in January. Manoeuvring the ship in Okha was not an easy proposition due to strong tidal currents. It was an education in itself.
Home at Last
We entered Bombay on 23rd May and after a couple of days preparation entered the Duncan dock for short refit and dry-docking (SRDD). Our passing out parade (POP) was held on 2nd June and the farewell cocktail and dance on the 3rd of June. In the period leading up to the POP, we were subjected to yet another exercise called “Sea Ferret”. In this, each cadet was required to identify an important and known personality and conduct an interview with him. The idea was to train a cadet in social interaction and to build self-confidence. On completion of the farewell party and dance, which was truly memorable, we proceeded on leave as ‘Midshipmen’ and were to join INS Mysore after six weeks for our Midshipmen training phase. After the midshipmen training phase. We had graduated from being monkeys to snorties ( Mids were called snorties).
Revisiting the Islands
Andaman and Nicobar Islands had their own charm and beckoned me back to visit them in each rank. I visited on INS Beas as a Sub Lt in the summer of 1974, again as LT/Lt Cdr. in 1982, the staff of C in C East, as a Cdr on INS Chakra in summer of 1988 and as the Capt of INS Sindhuraj in Dec 1989. In 1996, I again visited as the Commodore Submarines East. Each visit gave a new pleasure and satisfaction as I saw the changes and the development that was taking place. The tourist traffic kept increasing and once a closed island ‘Havelock’ had now become the main tourist hub. My last visit to the islands was in Jan 2016 and I dare say, with confidence that, the Islands compare with the best of tourist destinations anywhere in the world.
When I look back to the time spent on INS Krishna as a cadet, it brings nostalgia and some great memories of time spent with course mates, of learning evolutions, of seeing new places. In our case, we could not go for a foreign cruise as Training ships usually do, because our time was soon after the war and disengagement had not officially taken place till the end of March 1972. However, we spent five months at sea and sailed the entire coastline of India from East to West and also spent some glorious times in the Island territories. We learnt a lot in the bargain both in knowing the vastness of our country as also in our basic profession doing all evolutions practically, which laid a strong foundation on which to build our naval career. It was hard work and sweat, living as the lowest form of marine life, yet the memories that come with it are cherished. If ever asked, I would unhesitatingly say “Koi lautade mere cadet ke din” (Take me back to my cadet days).
P.S. Nearly half a century has elapsed since the time we were cadets on INS Krishna. Bhaskar Sen, Bappa Mitra, Matloob Khan, AK Vajpayee, Rajiv Kaushal, Arun Narne have left us. I pray that their souls are eternal peace.
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