The Baltic Sea also colloquially known amongst mariners and seafarers as the Flooded Meadow is a very shallow sea that borders the countries of Germany, Finland, Poland, Latvia and Sweden with depths ranging from an average of 50 meters to a maximum of about 400 meters in some parts. The German people were very well aware of this phenomenon and hence since times immemorial, even earlier than the First Great War of 1914 had started designing their submarines compact and small in order to be able to operate in such constricted depths. The Kriegs Marine or the German Navy, therefore, has oodles of experience in maintaining their submarine force fighting fit, having mastered the art of submarine warfare with their exquisitely designed U-Boats during the Second World war and thereafter.
However, the Indian submarines on order at the port of Kiel, West Germany were three times larger than the German U-Boats and hence could only be exploited to limited depths in the Flooded Meadow. In order to carry out tests and trials to their full capabilities, the Indian subs had to operate in deeper seas to test and gauge their combat capabilities. Therefore, as a part of the requirement to perform tests and trials, as well as, to impart training to the Indian crew, our newly constructed submarine used to be stationed in the port of Skagen, Denmark with an intention to operate freely in the deeper seas of Kattegat and Skagerrak. As a result, a few members at a time from the Indian crew used to go and barrack in Denmark for a fortnight at a time living in cosy homestays in the fishing town of Skagen due to limited carrying capacity of our submarine. Skagen, was located at the tip of the Jutland peninsula and was Denmark’s leading fishing port since 1907 consisting of an industrial harbour that supports the area’s fishing industry as well as facilities for cruise ships. It also has a shipyard and fish-processing facilities.
On one such voyage, my senior colleague Arvind and I with a few more members of our Indian crew had positioned ourselves in the town of Skagen awaiting our training and also to oversee the performance of our fitted equipment. We were accompanied by a German crew manning our submarine and whose duties we were to emulate in this ‘on the job’ training to be imbibed by us. Mind you, we were all experienced submariners of the Indian Navy but conversant with another class of submarines and therefore, had to basically learn to operate the new equipment and machinery fitted in these super modern and technologically advanced boats. In marine parlance, submarines are also called as ‘boats’. It was something like the refamiliarization training imparted to skilled aircraft pilots when they change over flying from one type of aircraft to another.
Our German crew was headed by Captain Berndt, who was a sturdy, stout, bearded, pink ruddy skinned gentleman with shoulders as broad as a barn door and with many years of experience in driving submarines. He was the epitome of efficiency, knowledge and professionalism and always as cool as a cucumber. His crew were an assorted bunch comprising of officers and sailors who were the best in their profession. This German crew had tremendous respect for our capabilities to operate submarines as they had already seen us at work on our submarine in the Flooded Meadow. One such crew member, a gentle giant named John was a mountain of a man about 6 feet 8 inches tall and probably weighing about 125 kg. He was such a gentle person, always laughing, joking and jovial and who was actually in charge of the Rescue Sphere in the submarine.
This piece of equipment was meant to be the last resort for sunken submariners to escape from a disabled submarine in case of any mishap. His knowledge about every nut and bolt of this important piece of equipment was beyond compare as he was the man who had probably tightened those nuts and bolts with his own hands. He was lovingly called “Captain of the Rescue Sphere” and I felt immensely comfortable to have him on my side in case of any brawl with the boisterous Danish fishermen that we encountered often in the various pubs of Denmark. John could gulp down litres of beer in one evening without blinking an eyelid and could be crowned the champion of any pub easily. His palm was so broad that whenever we shook hands my palm would just about wrap around one side of his thick palm. He was my favourite person from the German crew with whom I used to exchange stories about our different cultures and in turn he would tell me tales about German submarines and pranks about his two little daughters back in Kiel.
John was giving me glances and formulating the words silently which I could lip read as “the sea monster has struck”
During our frequent chats, John once narrated this old ancient legend about the seas of Kattegat and Skagerrak and the presence of a mysterious sea monster named the Kraken whose movement underwater used to churn the seas on the surface at the confluence of these two seas. This phenomenon was so unique that one had to literally see to believe it, where standing at Grenen Point, the two seas coming from opposite directions would merge into one. At this merger was a line of sea surf and confused seas resulting in ‘white horses’ that extended from the coast of Denmark right up to the horizon as far as the eye could see. The local fishermen lore had it that this churning was created by this mysterious sea monster Kraken swimming underwater between these two seas. During my interactions with numerous fishermen and locals earlier, nobody ever recalled having sighted such a monster, however, they all believed in this ancient legend. “White horses’ is a nautical term where the crests of the waves break creating a white crown on each thus giving them their name. My scientific mind refused to believe this legend about the mysterious sea monster as it was apparent that the churning of the sea was caused by the clashing of the opposing waves from the seas of Kattegat and Skagerrak.
On one of our frequent sea sorties that used to typically last for two to three days in the seas of Kattegat and Skagerrak, as we were leaving harbour just after sunrise, I noticed that a huge mechanised trawler was being painted by just two burly Nordic women in coveralls all by themselves. Looking through my binoculars standing on the Bridge of our submarine while negotiating the Skagen harbour channel, I thought to myself that this vessel which was as big as our naval minesweeper would have been painted back home by at least a dozen men with helpers assisting them and here were just these two beautiful damsels unloading the stack of paint on the jetty to finish this job all by themselves just in a few hours.
As usual, it was a foggy February morning with visibility of only about one nautical mile and wind slicing through our winter sea jackets making me shiver, due to the extreme cold I could feel icicles forming on my moustache each time I breathed out through my nostrils making me frequently adjust my fur sea cap and muffler. Cruising past the jetties we could hear the hustle and bustle of the massive mechanised fishing trawlers and their crews preparing for their sea sorties. These boats or small ships one could call them were huge with fishing and trawling equipment hanging from their davits comprising of heavy wire ropes and metallic nets powered by heavy duty winches. Their method of fishing or trawling was to release these nets in tow behind them to about half a nautical mile and tow them so as to catch fish in their trawls which would then be winched back into the boat and hauled in to collect their catch. These trawlers had a fish cutting and cleaning assembly line inside where the fishermen would cut, clean and pack their catch in crates to be unloaded for export on entry to harbour. Even though this process was mechanised it certainly had to be back breaking hard work.
Our submarine was now fully dived at safe depth somewhere under the confluence of the two seas going through the paces of our trials. Arvind and I were at the weapon control system observing the operator doing his drills, the sonar operator or ‘Pings’ was busy reporting acoustic contacts in the vicinity, John was pottering near the Rescue Sphere when we heard a loud clang on the top side of our submarine followed by a screeching scraping sound. Captain Berndt sprang up like a panther from his Captain’s chair in the Combat Information Centre and asked the Sonar as to what could be the sound. John was giving me glances and formulating the words silently which I could lip read as “the sea monster has struck”.
I immediately conferred with Arvind and we advised the German crew that the noise could be due a wire rope trawl from a nearby fishing trawler as we too were experienced with fishing boats in India. The sonar operator confirmed that there was no trawler in the close vicinity. Meanwhile the scraping noise moved aft and then slowly faded away. Captain Berndt ordered an inspection of all compartments and there was no abnormality reported. We immediately had a conference in the Control Room and finally came to the conclusion that it could have been a stray wire rope or some abandoned fishing net suspended at deep depths.
John the jovial guy ventured that it could have been an encounter with the mysterious sea monster Kraken. Captain Berndt gave him a steely glance and he soon fell silent. The rest of the voyage went without event but for other routine submarine stuff. On entry to harbour after completing our trials we checked our submarine for any external damage of which there was none except for a few scratch marks on the outer casing. I observed that the huge fishing boat which was being tended to by the two Nordic damsels was fully painted and shining in the faint early morning wintery sun. We parted with our German crew on the jetty towards our homestays with the promise that we would meet up that evening at the local pub Fregatten meaning Frigate.
As evening set in, Arvind and I kitted up in our deep winter jackets entered the Fregatten to loud noise and roaring laughter as we opened the door of the pub. On entry, the owner and proprietor a middle aged, pale golden blonde and busty Danish lady named Hanne with a cheerful disposition came forward to take our overcoats and make us comfortable.
I could hear the Danish fishermen talking excitedly about a recent encounter with the mysterious sea monster Kraken on their last voyage
Being a seafarer with years of experience in various bars and pubs of the world, my trained eye quickly took in the crowd scanning for trouble instinctively. I could spot our German group of sailors and the silent Captain Berndt and of course the man mountain John laughing away like some Santa Claus holding a two-litre mug or should I say jug of beer in his hand with ease. Then I noticed another group of Danish men bearded, hollering and backslapping each other which I presumed were some Danish fishermen and of course the two Nordic beauties of the ship painting fame. Now in close quarters, one could really see their rustic beauty with golden hair tied in a neat pony tail, light coloured eyes and healthy large frames showing their Viking lineage. I learnt later that they were Norwegians working on Danish fishing trawlers.
Mentally, I noted that the trouble creators in this bunch would be the boisterous group of Danish fishermen. I felt safe having John on our side in case if a bar brawl broke out. In the meantime, Hanne the owner brought a bottle of Schnapps and with a loud thump on the bar counter announced loudly, “this bottle is for our Indian friends and on the house”. There was a loud cheer from all around and as the bottle was passed around, conversation resumed once again. Meanwhile Arvind and I joined our German group of friends and started bending our elbows too. After a couple of drinks, I could hear the Danish fishermen talking excitedly about a recent encounter with the mysterious sea monster Kraken on their last voyage. On hearing this, John and I moved into their group to find out as to what had happened.
They narrated the story about how the sea monster had cut their nets with its huge teeth in their last outing. Their story was that they too had felt a strong tug on their trawls which they were towing about half a mile behind them and that their small ship tilted and nearly keeled over. Being the superstitious lot that all fishermen around the world are, they quickly gave slack on their trawls and slowly reeled their nets in. Their Master told me that on inspection it appeared that their nets were cut by some large underwater creature. Putting two and two together, since I knew the real story but with John egging them on about the sea monster, I observed Captain Berndt remaining silent but giving me warning glances and soon taking his cue I slowly faded away into the background and now focussed my attention on the Nordic golden haired, grey-green eyed beauties who sitting separately on a table and apparently who had polished off a couple of bottles of wine each and were now digging into their large steaks. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hanne moving about in the crowd encouraging all to refill their glasses.
After a few hours of enjoyment all of us staggered out and with much hugging and backslapping went on our own ways with Arvind and I thanking Hanne profusely for her hospitality and trudging back to our homestay. The Danish fishermen singing folk songs left convinced that they had an encounter with the sea monster Kraken of Kattegat and Skagerrak and we the submarine crews of Germany and India knew otherwise, that in all probability it must have been our submarine’s fin that had cut their wire trawls.
The Kraken is a legendary octopus like sea monster of gigantic size in Scandinavian folklore. According to the Norse legends, the Kraken dwells off the coasts of Norway, Sweden and Greenland and has been known to terrorise sailors. It has been the focus of many superstitious sailors passing the North Atlantic, especially sailors from the Nordic countries due to their proximity to Scandinavian seas. Throughout the centuries, the Kraken has been a major part of sailors’ superstitions and is the centre of many legendary sea tales.
So lives on the legend of the sea monster Kraken of Kattegat and Skagerrak to this day.
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