The initiation exercise to toughen up Midshipmen at sea was called Cat’s Paw a nautical term referring to small ripples on the sea stirred up by light breezes. This involved our mother ship dropping off a whaler boat with a crew of six at about 30 to 40 nautical miles (approx. 75 km) at sea from the mouth of any harbour. As the boat was not motorised, the Midshipmen were expected to sail or row the boat back to harbour using celestial navigation and pure common sense and learning to survive the harsh sea with limited stocks of food and water. Cat’s Paw was therefore the ultimate acid test each Midshipman was put through when he was nearing completion of his training to be able to survive at sea and find his way back to land.
But before I proceed further, a bit about the whaler boats used in the Indian Navy in the late 1970s. The Montagu whaler was the standard seaboat of the Royal Navy and other Common Wealth navies Including the Indian Navy between 1910 – 1980, it was a clinker built open boat, which could be pulled by oars or powered by sail namely the main sail and the fore sail. It was double-ended having a pointed stem and stern. They were used for service, training, recreation, racing and rescue at sea. When rowed, it had five oarsmen and a coxswain, in all, it could carry 27 men in case of a rescue. The whaler being the largest boat on many of the warships usually had the job of a seaboat. A seaboat is a boat kept ready for immediate lowering whilst at sea. It is equipped with water, food and other stores in case the boat should be separated from the ship for any length of time.
There is normally one seaboat on each side of a ship, so that the leeward (protected side) boat can be lowered. The falls or ropes from the davits attach to a Robinson’s disengaging gear so that they can be detached from the boat simultaneously, with the boat just above the water. This allows the seaboat to be lowered whilst the ship is still moving at a slow speed. Each watch or shift had a designated seaboat crew and a team of lowerers to get the boat away in case of any emergency. This meant there was no delay in assembling a crew if a boat was needed immediately. By far it was one of the most seaworthy boats ever made. It was literally unsinkable as it had small buoyancy tanks in the bow and stern. The whaler was considered to be the bedrock on which the foundation of seamanship was laid. Modern day seaboats are motorised and are much easier to handle.
This story is about the Cat’s Paw exercise that I as a Midshipman experienced. Our illustrious Captain a legendary aviator, a pioneer White Tiger and one of the first to operate carrier borne fighter aircraft was very enthusiastic to see that we got the experience and taste of the sea. So instead of dropping us off about 30 nautical miles from Cochin harbour where he was assigned to enter, he dropped off at dawn our whaler boat at an enthusiastic 60 nautical miles (approx. 110 km) away. We were told to make our way back to Cochin harbour at best speed that we could do by either sundown or maybe the next day morning and join up with our ship which would be berthed at the Naval jetty in Mattancherry channel.
Came dawn with me and my five colleagues in sports rig being dropped off in the middle of the ocean to begin our Cat’s Paw. The moment we hit the water, we steered our boat away from our moving mother ship and started rigging our sails. Within a few minutes our ship was out of sight as she steamed off in another direction to try and disorient us about the real direction of where Cochin lay. Our plan was to catch the wind in our sails and looking at the stars in the night sky our coxswain pointed the boat in the direction of Cochin. But as luck would have it, there was absolutely no wind and our sails were flapping helplessly. After about half an hour had passed, we decided to start rowing the boat. Now one could imagine what a daunting task it felt at that time to know that we would have to row 60 nautical miles to reach harbour. After about three hours of rowing, we decided to take a short break. As there are no landmarks at sea there was no way of knowing as to how much headway we had made. I was a bit worried about the absence of wind and kept telling my colleagues that I could smell trouble in the form of impending bad weather.
Around mid-day on Day-1 under the harsh sun, we started to feel that we would not make it that evening or night and so we decided to start rationing our limited food and water onboard. But it was reassuring that since the sun was visible we could point the boat in the right direction navigationally. Suddenly in late afternoon, dark clouds started forming up and the sun got obscured. Now the wind started picking up and we quickly decided to rig our sails and take advantage. For a few hours we steadily made good speed but around sunset, I felt that the winds were getting too strong and that it would be safer to lower our main sail otherwise we could capsize our boat.
By nightfall, the sea had gradually become rough and we were being thrown around a lot. We had already lowered our fore sail too and had let out our sea drogue anchor so as not to get drifted. The sea drogue is a small parachute trailed underwater behind a boat on a long line attached to the stern. It is used to slow the boat down in a storm and to prevent the hull from becoming broadside to the waves. The night was terrifying with trying not to fall off the boat and just to survive and ride out the storm. As our boat had no shelter, we were soaking wet too. The whole night saw us getting battered and sleepless. There was no question of any navigation as the stars and celestial bodies were not visible throughout.
Dawn saw some reduction in the raging storm and by mid-day on Day-2, we got the feeling that we were utterly lost. We could neither row the boat nor dare to rig the main sail due to the alarming strong winds. On the evening of Day-2, the storm started abating. Rations and water were precariously low and some of my friends due to continuous exposure to the rain and winds had started feeling ill.
Meanwhile, our Captain was getting worried in harbour when he had heard about the sudden storm that had formed up right in our path. On Day-2, he had raised the alarm with the Headquarters and they had aircraft standing by to carry out a search the moment the weather cleared. On the evening of Day-2 just before a thin and watery sunset, we saw one naval aircraft flying far away on the horizon and did not give it much thought. That night we hauled back our drogue rope and to our horror realised that our drogue parachute was no longer attached to it and must have cut loose in the storm. This put our crew in more anxiety as now we knew that we could have drifted way off our intended course. Day-3 saw some of the members just lying down as they were ill and we had rigged our sails once again and with the direction of the sun visible we just steered our boat in the likely direction of land. That day too saw a lot of air activity but no aircraft flew overhead or even nearby. In fact, we had checked that we had only one emergency flare with us and on one occasion we fired it at what we thought was a naval aircraft to attract its attention but to no avail. It just flew on apparently not sighting our flare.
We did not know that the whole of the Southern Naval Command had been activated in Search and Rescue Operation for us. On Day-4 morning of the Cat’s Paw we had run out of even the water that we had collected in the storm and saw some of us drinking the muddy water from the boat’s bilges. There was no food available anymore. The situation appeared very gloomy and due to the weak winds, it really was a sight to see most of us just sitting there with blistered and parched lips and some lying down on the uncomfortable floor boards of the boat. Instead of five oars in the water, we had decided that in order to conserve our energy, only two would row the boat at any given time. Around mid-day, I observed a strange object on the horizon which looked like a goal post in a totally different and unexpected direction. I then shouted with glee “Land, Ahoy!”
This saw all from our team jump up to see the object and soon we realised that what we were seeing was the gantry crane of Cochin harbour but in a totally unexpected direction. I remember cautioning my friends that it could be a mirage too as sometimes the mind plays tricks. Since we were at sea level, our visual horizon must have been about 8 nautical miles. This gave renewed vigour to us and we started rowing towards this object. Soon we were making good time and now with blisters of blood on our palms we continued to row firmly and as we went closer, we saw the mouth of the harbour and the familiar Mattancherry channel. It was already nightfall on Day-4 of the Cat’s Paw when we threw our boat ropes over our mother ship’s side into the welcoming arms of the crew. I couldn’t imagine as to how those of us who were ill and tired rowed those last few hours into harbour. Words of my seamanship instructor kept echoing in my ears and which led me to keep encouraging my colleagues repeatedly, “Last ten strokes!” saying that line maybe a few thousand times or more.
We were taken on deck and given water and a hot mug of cocoa first, wrapped in blankets and taken to the Gun Room, our Midshipmen’s Dining Mess. Our worried Captain walked in as we stood up to wish him. He was really concerned about our health and welfare reassuring us that he had got the whole command activated to search for us. Apparently, we had drifted way off the likely path we were expected to take because of the storm and the parting of our drogue anchor. But what he was most impressed with was that we had made it on our own. To him we had passed the Cat’s Paw test with flying colours.
That was my first real tryst with the unforgiving sea and soon realised how easy it was to be defeated by it. We had survived at sea for four days with limited food and water for what was meant to be a 24 hour exercise and made it back on our own without any external help. A strong mind can make an exhausted body move much more than can be ever imagined, even after having lost all its energy. We had grown into men of the sea that very day.
This Cat’s Paw will be one to remember for a lifetime.
Read more sea stories here: