A lighthouse raised gives a jolt of joy to the heart. It’s a beacon of hope, and a promise that there is a place, that is safe and sound, beckoning and guiding us safely into harbour. Bless the souls who keep watch on lighthouses, ensuring that the light is always shining brightly for souls who are at sea.
Standing night watch on the bridge of my ship in the middle of the Arabian Sea, a kaleidoscopic of thoughts burst through my mind. Each, a subject of its own, but I can pen only fleeting glimpses of some of them. A random and inexplicable array of thoughts; both professional and otherwise, bulldoze each other for space and supremacy.
The night is silent and still. I can feel the muted vibrations from the engine room on the superstructure of the Bridge. Deep inside the bowels of the ship, its engines propel the ship ahead. It’s nice to hear a healthy deep throttle of sound from the engines. It gives one a feeling of comfort, that all is well and we are on our way home. Heading to Bombay, home for all of us on board. I remember, as a young cadet, standing watch in the engine room to understand its functions, that time too we were heading back to Bombay – and the engine room watch keeper whispering “Our engines have been set for ‘home revolutions’”.
The time is 0115h, and I am standing the Middle Watch (0001h–0400h) on the bridge. It’s considered a difficult watch, since you miss out on sleep for the whole night. You can’t manage a decent amount of sleep before you are awakened at 2330h to close up and you won’t be able to fall asleep immediately after handing over the watch at 0400h.
I wonder what made me volunteer for this Watch. My eyes drift towards the horizon, from Port to Starboard wing, the horizon is clear, the sea inky black. A clear sky with billions of stars shining brightly, like lamps hanging from the sky. They lie just beyond the reach of my hand. Instinctively, I know this is the reason.
The absolute silence, to be in touch with the vast expanse of the Universe, without any disturbances. I look up and fine on Port bow, I can make out the North Star, about 15 degrees in elevation, mentally I put our ship at 15 deg North terrestrial Latitude. We are west of Goa, and still have to cover a few hundred miles to get to our Home Port.
The gentle tick of the Gyro repeater draws my attention. The ships heading is 040, speed 15 kns, we are on auto pilot, once we hit a shipping lane, the quarter master will be called up for precise steering. Right now, I am alone on the bridge, and on the Starboard wing, I can make out the dim silhouette of the night lookout, clutching his binoculars, huddled against the chill of the December winds.
The dim lighting on the bridge helps the duty personnel eyes adjust easily to a dark night. The silence of the night allows me to become part of nature in its true self, as compared to the hustle and bustle of day activities on the bridge. The feeling of oneness with nature sinks into the core of body and soul.
A shooting star brings my attention back to the clear sky. Looking at the vast universe visible in the night sky, I realize how small a human being is in comparison to its never-ending space. I hear the gentle sound of the waves splashing against the ship, making it roll gently. It has a tendency to make one fall asleep, almost like a rocking crib.
Thankfully the sea was calm now, and my mind drifts back to the rough seas we had encountered during our passage from Cape Town. Eight days ago, we had left the Port of Cape Town, in the Republic of South Africa, and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. At the best of times crossing the Cape of Good Hope is difficult. The confluence of the Indian and the South Atlantic Oceans gives rise to rough seas.
Mentally I calculate that we have covered about 3000 NM in the last 8 days, and the passage has been good, except for a few rough spots. We did encounter rough seas, the Indian Ocean does spew out quite a few storms, but we had weathered it well. Our ship maintained good sea-keeping qualities; the stabilizers worked perfectly. Bless the souls who built the ship.
Once again, my mind drifts back to the open sky. I realize that in an instant my mind seems to race from thought to thought – within moments of each other. One moment I’m thinking about the state of the ship, the next the passage we had covered, but at all times I would drift back to the vast cosmos that lay high above us.
Man, as we know is a Social animal and is most comfortable on land, despite the fact that life had evolved a few billion years ago from the Oceans. How did we change? How have we managed to make terra firma our base, giving up our water environment! Many thoughts flashed across my mind.
My mind drifts back to the deployment. It’s the fourth in a row. As a navigator it’s an accomplishment. Each deployment was roughly about four months, covering a passage of thousands of nautical miles. I grimace at the thought of the huge draft report that I need to submit to my ‘Old Man’, and after corrections, it’ll be forwarded to higher authorities
The South Atlantic is a tricky Ocean, its deceptive clear blue seas and skies, often give seafarers a false sense of complacency. The conditions may change within a short time. We cannot tame the oceans, but we should be able to blend in, understand its finer nuances and learn to adjust our ‘sails’ accordingly.
We sighted whales, but I felt that their numbers were diminishing. The culprit for it was Man. When we cut across the Gulf – South East Asia sea lane, we saw an unending number of super tankers, carrying ‘blood energy’ oil to feed giant industries that churn out our daily needs. And in turn they poison the atmosphere with emissions. Human’s greed, selfishness and brutality is killing our planet rapidly and surely. For us to live a life in luxury, we are killing the earth. What a sad thought.
My mind swings back to ‘Home Revolutions’, the engine room staff may add a few extra revolutions, to get us home early. But one cannot make too early an ETA, and in that case the few extra revolutions will be in vain, as we may end up patrolling outside the harbour. I know that closer to the port, I will need to reduce our speed made good. Well, I know it always gives a glow in the heart to know that we tried to get home early. Home Port, Bombay! What a relief it will be for many to be back with their families, getting into the hustle and bustle of domestic issues. Attending school PTAs, listening to various complaints from teachers, attending to appliances not working at home, and making payments for various services, it’s never ending.
At the entrance to the harbour, we’ll see the Prongs Lighthouse. I reckoned that we’ll raise its light some time at 2200h, another 21 hours of passage was still left. A lighthouse raised gives a jolt of joy to the heart. It’s a beacon of hope, and a promise that there is a place, that is safe and sound, beckoning and guiding us safely into the harbour. Bless the souls who keep watch on Lighthouses, ensuring that the light is always shining brightly for souls who are at sea.
I think about the Prongs Lighthouse watch keepers, one of the few ‘manned’ lighthouses in our country. There are two watch-keepers. A lonely vigil they must keep. I remember my visit to the Lighthouse the previous winter. It was a 2.5 km trudge through slippery rocks, shale, and broken concrete blocks. I had stumbled over them to reach the lighthouse.
It was built at the edge of Colaba reefs by the British in 1875. They had also built a rough concrete path to walk over. However, in the last half century with no maintenance of the path, the unforgiving sea has eroded it to thousands of pieces of rough asphalt. From close up the lighthouse was an imposing structure. About 145 feet in height, a masonry tower with Red, white and Black bands painted on it. My navigator’s mind had reminded me that it flashed a white light every 10 seconds, and had a luminous range of 19 NM, however with our height of eye from the bridge we’ll be able to raise it at 24 NM.
I think of the lighthouse watch keepers’ lives as compared to ours. They are also secluded and closeted within the lighthouse for about two weeks at a time. However, they are close to land and in an emergency can get evacuated, which is not the case for us. And they certainly do not get to see the great expanse of the universe as we do. The city’s background lights obliterate the clear sky and one misses out all the glory. I decide that I am certainly better off than them. Life at sea is more challenging and definitely gives one a sense of accomplishment.
I glance quickly at the chart, the ships position is fixed with the help of GPS, I note that we are on track and proceeding satisfactorily. Maybe a few miles ahead, thanks to the ‘home revolutions’. Although dependence on technologically superior GPS has increased, invariably we continue to use the age-old sextant to fix the ship. The previous evening, I had ‘shot’ the evening stars and noticed that my ‘observed position’ was very close to that of the GPS. A feeling of satisfaction had gone through me in obtaining a near perfect accuracy.
Seafarers have always depended on this device. The sextant was in use by seafarers for thousands of years; however, in late 1700s its present form was invented. Using this for obtaining the ships position is always a reliable option. Of course, one needs a clear sky as well as a clear horizon. The usage of sextant should be encouraged or else the tradition will die.
The time is about 0330h, I need to shake up the next watch keeper. He will take about 15 minutes to freshen up and then come up to the bridge. I too will be up around 0535h, during the morning nautical twilight, to shoot the stars. We will both witness the sunrise again today. Probably the last for this year. Heading into our port, we will be put on a much-deserved maintenance schedule, and will be operational again only by early next year. I look forward to a clear sunrise today, because tomorrow we’ll be in Bombay.
Art: Ajay Patil