To this day, I get emails from a few of the crew members of MV SCI Diglipur thanking me for saving their lives.
It all began in May 1998 when I was appointed Commanding Officer of INS Mahish. This class of ships had rounded bottoms, shallow draft, sluggish steering and speeds to match continental drift of tectonic plates. Additionally, entering and leaving harbour had to be done with one engine propelling forward and the other astern since the main gearbox was designed to move only in one direction.
The radar could hardly see beyond eight miles but had enough lights and ornaments to almost be twinned with Elton John’s head. In short, it was a masterpiece of what a warship should never be and the Soviets (Polish Shipyards) had shot themselves in both feet trying to build a cheap landing craft with nuclear fall-out capabilities but alas with no conventional war capability. INS Mahish was a personage in herself, always surrounded by admirers and consequently, the compliments were of a high order “You should have worked harder to get a better ship!”
The 1999 Odisha cyclone was the most intense recorded tropical cyclone in the North Indian Ocean and among the most destructive in the region. It started as a tropical depression in the Andaman Sea on 25 October 1999 and gradually strengthened into a cyclonic storm, rapidly intensifying into a super cyclonic storm with winds speeds of 260 km/ph and a record-low pressure of 912 mbar. The storm finally dissipated on 4 November 1999.
MV SCI Diglipur: Facing a storm and more
On the evening of 25 October, when the storm was still in its infancy, I visited the ship to make sure that the OOD had buttoned-down everything, including tripling all berthing hawsers and battened down hatches, with an understanding that I was to be called on board if the storm intensified during the night.
At midnight I got a call from our Operations room that General Recall had been initiated for my ship and that I had to put the ship to sea at the earliest. I reported on board in less than ten minutes and in the absence of any further instructions got the ship ready for sailing and prepared the gun mounts with belted ammunition. Less than half an hour later I was ordered to sail out, with less than one-third of my crew on board.
After frenzied plotting on a wet chart, I directed the vessel to immediately proceed to the location and rescue the people on MV SCI Diglipur
Four hours later, as I crossed Manner’s Strait and entered the Western side of the Andaman Islands I felt the rage of a super cyclone. Shortly after that, I received a message that MV SCI Diglipur was floundering about 150 nautical miles North-West of Port Blair and had lost her propeller. She was trimmed at an angle of 45 degrees by the stern and could sink any moment. Eureka! So it turned out to be a peacetime Search and Rescue mission.
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By the morning, both my ExO and I were soaked to the bone in the lashing rain as we took turns at steering the wheel on the open Bridge in the absence of seamen on board. The Chief Quartermaster had his head in a bucket, vomiting his spleen through his nose and was busy stacking all the buckets up to the gunwales while snouting around the Bridge in his dingleberries.
I was now on a SAR mission with no tow rope, no additional submersible pumps to bail out the water, no additional life rafts, no distress flares, no LTAs (Long-range Throwing Apparatus) for passing heaving lines, no GMDSS set for dedicated rescue coordination, no additional rescue boats or inflatable rafts, no manpower to manage my own ship, no basic navigational aids, only one watchkeeping officer and no clue as to how I was supposed to proceed 150 nautical miles when my ship was doing only 2 knots in Gale force winds.
Considering I could even reach my destination, it would take me more than 60 hours of passage to reach the area. To add drama to the extant situation, my ExO reported that the bow door rubber gaskets were beginning to give way and the Tank Space was beginning to flood.
After broadcasting on VHF for about an hour, MV SCI Diglipur responded that there were 35 personnel on board, all safe in the foxhole area fearing that the ship would sink anytime and so needed urgent help. I did the only thing I could do – send Distress Relay Messages to no one in particular on VHF Channel 16 and 70. “Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay, this is Warship relaying Mayday on behalf of MV SCI Diglipur in position ——–, experiencing flooding and likely to sink with 35 crew onboard, any vessel in the area please respond on this channel.” Nothing happened for about an hour.
Then I received a response from a Tanker which was steaming towards Bangladesh about 30nm from MV SCI Diglipur. After frenzied plotting on a wet chart, I directed the vessel to immediately proceed to the location and rescue the people on MV SCI Diglipur. It took them about two hours to reach there and another three hours to float adequate life rafts and rescue all thirty-five personnel onboard MV SCI Diglipur.
Back on my own ship, things were getting bad. The tank space had begun flooding so I called every man-jack on board and spoke to them with the earnestness of an Admiral calling all his reserves into battle, to bail out the water with buckets. And in the next eight hours, we managed to secure the Bow door with additional bottle screw slips and slap molten tar on the gaskets to control the flooding. And because my ExO and the working crew looked as if they had stepped out of a bar in Star Wars, I decided to head home without seeking permission from Headquarters.
After broadcasting on VHF for about an hour, MV SCI Diglipur responded that there were 35 personnel on board, all safe in the foxhole area fearing that the ship would sink anytime and so needed urgent help. I did the only thing I could do – send Distress Relay Messages to no one in particular on VHF Channel 16 and 70.
At this point, it looked as if my quartermaster was ready to keel over and catch gangrene. His lachrymosity was driving me to tears. Adversity and hardships are the cradles of comedy. So my orders to reverse course sounded like the booming guns of a relieving army. I didn’t need to be ahead doctor to quickly decide this. I knew I was committing an act of negligence to good order and naval discipline and was ready to be keelhauled on return. But for me, the safety of my men and the ship was paramount, in a peacetime situation.
Anyway, the drama ended with all thirty-five personnel being rescued. Efforts to tow MV SCI Diglipur after the storm subsided proved futile even with naval commandos embarked on MV Akbar four days later. MV SCI Diglipur drifted and finally grounded off Akyab in Myanmar eighteen days later.