Thursday, January 6, 2011

I joined the Navy to see the world

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” – Vincent van Gogh
I joined the navy to see the world. In pursuit of that dream I set foot on board the Indian Naval Ship Krishna on 01 July 1968 (earlier known as Kistna), the cadet training ship of the Indian navy. Krishna was a modified Black Swan class launched in Yarrow on 22 April, 1943. The Black Swan class and Modified Black Swan class were two classes of sloop of the Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy. Like Corvettes, sloops of that period were specialized convoy-defense vessels. In World War II, Black Swan-class sloops sank 29 U - Boats. After the war, sloops continued in service with the Royal Navy, Egyptian Navy, Indian Navy, Pakistani Navy and the West German Navy. Krishna continued to serve the Indian navy for many more years.

Commander VS Mathur, Commanding Officer INS Krishna wrote a demi-official letter on 10th June, 1968 in which he said, ‘Dear Cadet Prabhakar, My heartiest congratulations …. I am looking forward to your joining this ship for further training as a Naval cadet for a period of 6 months. You are therefore required to report at the undersigned address by 0900 on 1st July 1968 …….You will then be taken to the tailors to be outfitted in Naval uniform ….During your stay on board for a period of 6 months you will, apart from learning the ways of the navy, also visit a few ports in India and abroad…….You are also required to bring along a cheque for Rs 240/= made out to “The Commanding Office, INS Krishna,” from which you will be paid pocket money of Rs 40/= per month.
The same letter went to all my course mates. We were 27 cadets from the 34th NDA course who reported on board for training. Except for a very short and vomity experience at sea for 6 days during our initiation camp, ‘Water Baby’, none of us had been on board a war ship before. All of us assembled on the Quarter Deck to be addressed by our Cadet Divisional Officer (CDO) Lt VA Shivdasani who would be our God, mentor, tormentor and ‘maibap’ all rolled into one for the next six months.
On the very first day we were officially informed by our CDO, that we were the lowest form of marine life, even lower than planktons* and barnacles** (a mass of tiny organisms floating in the sea *) (a small invertebrate animal with a shell that clings to rocks and ships’ bottoms**).

I heard the term ‘khalifa’ for the first time on board. The khalifa ensured that we were all given a clean head shave. Even to this day I am unable to understand why such a close haircut should be necessary for modern military discipline and efficiency. I later discovered that in the early days of warfare, soldiers invariably ended up in hand-to-hand combat. Having long hair and a beard was a disadvantage, as it gave the opponent a chance to gain a good grip. Another reason, I was told, was that long hair affected the aiming of an arrow fired from a long bow. I now realize that a short haircut is low on maintenance and less time is spent on grooming. Also, lice cannot breed in such spartan surroundings.
Warships are generally packed with weapons, ammunition magazines, sensors, communication equipment, engines, fuel, water tanks, provisions and things which are required to keep the ship afloat, moving and fighting. Crew accommodation is a luxury and cadets’ quarters - the last priority. All of us were housed in a cabin called the ‘Chest Flat’ which was 10ft x 20ft and was full of lockers and bunks. In the Royal navy – the ‘lobby-like place’ in a warship - is known as a ‘Flat’ and the black box in which the cadets and midshipmen kept their personal belongings is called a ‘sea–chest’. We ate in the class room and in harbour we slept on the ‘Poop Deck’ at the stern of the ship. At sea, we slept wherever we could find a safe place.
Six months on board a warship, as a cadet, is probably the toughest training one can undergo in life. Those six months are spent in learning all aspects of the navy – starting at the lowest rung of the naval ladder. Apart from professional subjects such as navigation, weapons, propulsion, power generation, we are trained as cooks in the galley, we do guard and sentry duties and ‘clean ship’. (an all inclusive terminology invented by the navy to include - cleaning and painting the ship, sweeping, swapping, washing utensils etc.) We are also trained to make and mend clothes – when decoded it means stitching and repairing clothes. No wonder we make such wonderful husbands.
We set sail on 10th of August, 1968 from Mumbai to Mombasa in Kenya, a distance of 2384 nautical miles. This was our maiden voyage. INS Krishna was no Payyoli Express and it would take 10 to 12 days to reach our destination. As we learnt subsequently, sailing in the Indian Ocean during monsoon, can be extremely difficult with rough seas, high winds and torrential rains. The order to ‘prepare the ship for sea’, was given much in advance and our CDO told us to secure all our belongings and lash all loose items. Forty miles into the sea, the ship started to roll and pitch like a small boat and we were tossed about mercilessly. As the ship entered the high seas, the pounding became even more severe and agonizing.
Continuous rolling and pitching leads to sea sickness, which in turn causes vomiting. The body becomes very lethargic and executing even a simple task becomes difficult. Wiki says, “The most common hypothesis for the cause of motion sickness is that it functions as a defense mechanism against neurotokins. The area postrema in the brain is responsible for inducing vomiting when poisons are detected, and for resolving conflicts between vision and balance. When feeling motion but not seeing it (for example, in a ship with no windows), the inner ear transmits to the brain that it senses motion, but the eyes tell the brain that everything is still. As a result of the discordance, the brain comes to the conclusion that one of them is hullucinating and further concludes that the hallucination is due to poison ingestion. The brain responds by inducing vomiting, to clear the supposed ‘toxin’. Whatever the cause, sea sickness is extremely unbearable. Over a period of time, all of us developed sea legs except poor Stephen Mathew, who remained seasick, the entire voyage.
The next casualty of the rough sea was the cadet’s crockery. In an instant the cadet’s pantry resembled a battle zone – flying saucers, shattered plates and broken dishes were strewn all over the deck. The cook of the mess had not secured them properly. The next six months were spent eating from discarded lamp shades. Those responsible for this lapse were punished for not taking seaman like precautions. We had learnt a valuable lesson in seamanship.
On 16th August we crossed the equator and the ship celebrated the traditional ‘Crossing the Line Ceremony’ . Without any more incidents we reached the Port of Mombasa, the second-largest city in Kenya. It gained independence in 1962. Mombasa had a large Indian population. After a three day halt we proceeded to Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Mozambique. Tamatave is the nation's chief port. Madagascar was a French colony and their influence was still visible in the late sixties. It became independent in 1960. Our next port of call was Seychelles, an island nation located to the Northeast of Madagascar. The republic consists of 155 islands and is an excellent tourist destination. Once a British colony, it became independent in 1976.
In every port we were allowed to go ashore and see the city. The ship’s quarter master would pipe (announce) – ‘Liberty men fall in!’ To proceed ashore in the navy is called ‘Liberty’, which requires a lot of effort – it’s now called ‘Jawan Wardi Badlo’ (sailor change uniform). Firstly, one should not be on any punishment which included ‘Excused Liberty’, one should have a record of unbroken good order and naval discipline, proper turnout and finally – an inspection by the CDO. Not many cadets made it past the CDO and as a rule we never went ashore more than once in each port. However our CDO derived sadistic pleasure in showing us the city on the run during the day, fully dressed in battle fatigues. He always reminded us that we were ambassadors of India and it mattered a lot how we marched and doubled (generally making a fool of ourselves) while he rode majestically on a horse or in a jeep. However, as a gesture of his magnanimity and goodwill, we were allowed to attend extremely boring and lackluster official receptions of the host navy and local NRIs.

Figure 1 - In battle fatigues with two pretty French girls - Madagascar - Aug 1968

Cadets were allowed to smoke and I picked up the habit. We were not allowed to imbibe any alcohol, but this did not stop courageous Rajiv Ratan from bringing a few cans of ‘Tennants’ beer on board in Seychelles. Further, he had the audacity to have it stored in the Captain’s fridge. One quiet afternoon at sea, the Captain was rudely woken up by the noise of a beer can being opened in his lobby by Steward Chakravarthy – ‘Pop!’ The atomic explosion in Hiroshima pales in comparison to what we experienced thereafter.

On our last leg we were kept busy in ‘survival at sea exercises’. In one such exercise called ‘Samudra Kanya’, we are required to build a raft from all the discards in the ship, lower it into sea and go around the ship once.

Figure 2- The Castaways In another exercise named ‘Cats Paw’, groups of eight would be lowered into the ship’s whalers and we were required to sail in them and reach the nearest harbour, which could as far as eighty miles. While getting into the boat, one cadet from my group accidently dropped the communication set on the deck (unknown to the rest of us). I still remember the ship’s call sign was ‘Tom Cat’ and the boat was ‘Rat Cat’. Rat Cat remained incommunicado during our entire 32 hours of survival training at sea. A very scary experience.

Figure 3 - The silent Rat Cat – CDO in a hat at the back
Our training included use of small arms and weapons. In one such session, I was required to throw a hand grenade over the ship side. Unfortunately it fell very close to the ship, upsetting the CDO – later on I had to run around the ship on the upper deck with two hand grenades with pins removed and my heart in my mouth! Another very interesting task was climbing the ship’s mast when the ship was underway. As the ship rolled, the mast would sway from one end to another and looking down at the ship from a height of 40ft is something I will never forget.

Figure 4 - Off Goa with other cadets - Snitch, Kats, Nair, Roy and Aulakh - I am sitting on the boat
After a month of sea voyage we reached Kochi as fully qualified ‘sea dogs’. We had a wonderful and relaxing midterm break at Dunmore Cottage in Coonor. We spent some more days at sea on the West coast and returned to good old Mumbai for our passing out.

Our CDO was related to the film actresses Sadhana and Babita. He hosted a cocktail on board with a lot of Bollywood celebrities and wanted cadets ‘who had the go and charm’ to come forward to attend the party. Four party animals volunteered. Our pure unadulterated envy and deep disappointment was very short lived – one cadet was detailed at the Lion gate to direct the traffic, the next to open the car doors, another to collect caps at the gangway and the last one to help the ladies negotiate steep ships ladder. Stupid barnacles, what did they expect?

Unable to remain cooped up in the ship, a few of us stealthily smuggled ourselves out of the ship to attend a dance party organised by a local Mumbai cadet. After an excellent evening we returned, to be caught at the gangway. 12 of us were punished with 7 days No 11(which involved ‘excused liberty’ and extra work). Even the passing out cake had ‘Dirty Dozen’ boldly written on it.

The close quarters in which 27 of us lived and worked for six months under severe hardship, stress and challenges of sea, brought us together for life. The camaraderie continued during the service and is still present in abundance even after retirement. Those six months gave us stuff, that memories are made up of- stuff you can relate to your grandkids as they sit on your lap.
Unfortunately Bhandari, Makin, Bedi and Chats left us early. May their soul rest in peace.

George Bernard Shaw once said:

Men go into the Navy . . . thinking they will enjoy it. They do enjoy it for about a year, at least the stupid ones do, riding back and forth dully on ships. The bright ones find that they don’t like it in half a year, but there’s always the thought of that pension if only they stay in. . . . Gradually, they become crazy, crazier and crazier. Only the Navy has no way of distinguishing between the sane and the insane. Only about five percent of the Royal Navy have the sea intheir veins. They are the ones who become captains. Thereafter, they are segregated on their bridges. If they are not mad before this, they go mad then. And the maddest of them become admirals.

I left the navy as a captain - rest is left to your fertile imagination.


  1. hey i m anshay frm bhopal i find ur blog really exciting ,,,,,can we friends? whenever u come online just pls do me a favor just review my blog and contact me i need ur help ur posts are awesome i too wanna write some of theme

  2. Dear Anshay
    Thanks for visiting my blog and finding it interesting.In what way do you want me to help you.

  3. Dear Sir,

    Your writings make an interesting read. I have read and heard many accounts of life in Army and Air Force but this is the first time I am reading first hand experiences on life in Navy.

    Thanks a lot.

  4. Pubs,
    Well articulated we have nostalgic memories and you have taken us to the tough times