A VOYAGE ACROSS THE BAY OF BENGAL ON WIND POWER (March 1986)
[ In my perception, one of the few 'achievements' in my life! ]
Being a Marine Engineer, propelling ships across the oceans with the help of engines had been routine for me during my tenure in the Indian Navy. But I always dreamt of making a long voyage someday without any engines and follow the footsteps of our seafaring ancestors. The opportunity presented itself in 1986 when the Eastern Naval Command Adventure Club at Visakhapatnam planned a sailing expedition across the Bay of Bengal from Visakhapatnam to Port Blair.
Two Seabird class boats were made ready for the expedition. These are fibreglass boats with a length of 20 ft. and a beam of 8 ft. INS Circars and INS Virbahu, two shore establishments at Visakhapatnam, sponsored a boat each for the expedition. I found myself in the INS Circars team after a number of early morning training sessions, practice sailing and last but not the least difficult - getting myself spared for fifteen odd days from my office. Convincing my wife about the viability of the expedition wasnt easy either. Commander KS Panwar, a recipient of Vir Chakra during the 1971 Bangladesh War, was to be the leader of the expedition as well as coxwain of the INS Circars boat. Both Commander Panwar and I being Ayn Rand fans, we christened out boat Dagny after the heroine of her book Atlas Shugged. Lt. Parminder Singh and Leading Telegraphist Tapan Chakraborty were also selected for the expedition and the crew of four for Dagny was complete.
The next phase was the detailed planning of the expedition and procurement of all the necessary equipment and provisions. Requirement of food and water had to be very carefully worked out so as not to make the small boat too heavy. The equipment included a magnetic compass, aneroid barometer, sextant (for astro-navigation), binoculars, HF and VHF communication sets with spare batteries, life jackets, etc. We also put together a repair kit to carry out emergency repairs of the boat, sails, ropes and other fittings.
The D-day finally arrived and out boat as well as the INS Virbhu boat coxwained by Lt Chopra were flagged off from the Eastern Naval Command Sailing Club on 15 March 1986. Will they be able to cross seven hundred miles on these boats which are so pathetically small - was the question writ large on the faces of the people who came to see us off. As a matter of fact, Vice Admiral S Chopra, AVSM, NM, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief had kindly offered the services of an escort cum rescue ship but we opted against it as it went against the very spirit of adventure.
After the excitement of the training and preparation and the heady feeling during the impressive flagging off ceremony, the first two days at sea were a very sobering experience. The sea was rough and we got tossed about like tin cans. We were subjected to almost continuous spray and the inside of the boat was about as wet as the outside. But we made good progress, as much as 200 miles in two days as the winds were strong too. Covering the next 500 miles took more than eleven days.
From the third day onwards we found the sea quite calm - at times a bit too calm for sailing. Calm seas are usually associated with low wind speeds and with no winds to fill her sails a sail-boat simply cannot move. Furthermore, there are strong sea currents in the Bay of Bengal and we used to drift helplessly away from our destination whenever nil wind conditions prevailed. Out of the next eleven days, we faced nil wind conditions for about five days cumulatively - an experience that was rather telling on the nerves. During the remaining six days nature was kinder - moderate winds in conjunction with a relatively calm sea.
Although the length of Seabird class boats is 20 feet, the actual space available for living is only 10 feet long because about 6 ft in the forward and 4 feet in the aft are taken up by buoyancy tanks. Even this 10 ft space is totally open/uncovered and packed with the main mast, drop keel housing and other gear. There is no place for even a bunk, leave alone a toilet. Living was, therefore, rather cramped on board for four people. Two people could somehow sleep inside the boat at a time out of whom one could not stretch himself fully. But then none of us had volunteered for the expedition to have a picnic. We used to get roasted in the hot sun during the day and shiver in the cold at night. But our spirits were always high.
As far as food was concerned, we survived mainly on tinned food, bread, rusk and biscuits. We had carried a kerosene wick stove and whenever the sea was calm we used it for boiling potatoes, heating up the tinned food, preparing tea, coffee and soup. In spite of being totally unfamiliar with the culinary arts I emerged as the chief cook and prepared Khichri one day. Chakraborty, a keen angler, hooked a fish once and I even managed to cook it in what I claimed a typically Bengali style.
It may surprise you to learn that one of the more complicated manoeuvres each one of us was required to perform everyday was going to the bathroom. On a small open boat which was constantly rolling/pitching/heaving, this was indeed tricky. The modus operandi was -- go up front (port or starboard depending on tack), hold on to two mast stays, stick out the butt and do it!
Being an interested watcher of the heavens and with the (then) recent exposure to Carl Sagans Cosmos serial on Doordarshan, I was most delighted when I sighted Halleys comet on the night of March 17. It became visible to the naked eye around 0230 hrs about ten degrees above the horizon. We found it in the South Easterly direction slightly below the Little Bear constellation. We kept seeing it for about two and a half hours. It looked great through binoculars - like a gigantic broom sweeping the sky. We kept seeing it every night for the next six days. Thereafter, it was not visible due to the moon getting fuller and rising in that direction. Apart from just seeing the Comet, we actually used it as a reference point for steering as we were proceeding in a south-eastward direction.
We observed a number of fish during our voyage - sharks, schools of dolphins, flying fish and many others. But what was quite inexplicable was that a small school of zebra fish kept swimming with us just under our bows for six full days and nights from 21st March onwards. These fish are about a foot long and have black and white stripes like zebras. They parted company on reaching the coastal waters off South Andaman Island.
After eleven days of sailing we finally sighted land during the evening of March 26. We got close to it and identified it as the west side of South Andaman Island. It was great to sight land after so many days. We were also proud that we had navigated correctly with the help of very simple instruments. As a matter of fact, once we got close (about 100 miles) to the islands, we used an ordinary transistor radio quite effectively to determine the direction of Port Blair radio station. We used to align the radio (with a ferrite rod antenna inside) such that the signal strength would be minimum and get the direction of Port Blair.
Although we were only about 40 miles from Port Blair on the evening of March 26, we could make it to Port Blair only on the afternoon of 28 March 86. Nil wind conditions hampered our progress and the last 15 miles to Port Blair were covered by vigorous paddling. But it was worthwhile effort and the sense of achievement on making it to Port Blair in one piece was tremendous. A warm reception by the Lt. Governor Mr. TS Oberoi, the Chief Secretary Mr R Kapoor and the Fortress Commander Rear Admiral RR Sood and almost all the Naval Personnel stationed at Port Blair overwhelmed us. The next thing was a dash to the telephone exchange to ring up the wives. They had been quite worried and their sense of elation at our achievement was preceded by a tremendous sense of relief on all of us making it in 'one piece' !
A few excerpts from the Official Report on the expedition submitted by Cdr KS Panwar, Vir Chakra, Leader of the expedition :