Spy ships play a very important role in intelligence gathering at sea. Every time there was a practice missile or torpedo firing in the Indian seas, a foreign origin spy ship would appear mysteriously in the vicinity. These spy ships would normally masquerade as deep sea fishing trawlers with fishing equipment like wire trawls and davits but would also possess communication equipment far advanced than the requirement for any normal ocean going trawler. Their identities would normally be buried in mystery originating either in the Far East or many a times from the super powers and would be floating around in the area. Their modus operandi appeared to continuously gauge our ability to utilise the new additions that were commissioned into our Navy. In a nutshell to find out as to how we could exploit our equipment which we had imported from other countries. For it is a well-known fact that it is always the ‘man behind the machine that matters’ and who needs to be assessed constantly by adversaries. These deep sea trawlers inevitably operated with a huge mother ship as a consort which remained hundreds of nautical miles away at sea to render any support, if required.
On this particular mission as I was doing the periscope dog watch during the day as the Executive Officer on my submarine which was on transit to a particular area, I observed a lone fishing vessel on the horizon, which I promptly reported to the Captain as being of suspicious identity and movements. The Captain quickly altered our course towards the suspicious vessel to take a clearer look. Slowly as we approached undetected with only our periscope jutting out of the water, we could see that this was an ordinary Indian fishing vessel of medium size that appeared adrift and there was no fishing activity visible. As we circled the vessel silently, I could see some crewmen in lungis come out on deck. On reporting this to the Captain and conversing with him constantly as he was also looking through the second periscope, he decided to surface and check the identity of this suspicious vessel as it appeared to be too far north for fishermen in lungis to be earning their livelihood.
Quickly a team was made ready to board the fishing vessel and on receiving their readiness report the submarine surfaced barely a few hundred yards from the floating boat. The operation was very precise and swift, our crew jumped over on the vessel armed to their teeth and carried out a thorough search for contraband which resulted in lining up the crew on deck whilst this search was taking place. After checking their identity papers etc, it was found there was no contraband and that these fishermen had strayed too far north and were lost at sea just floating in the ocean waiting for attempted repairs to take place on their defective engine. Besides, they had a very young member who was seriously sick and delirious with high fever due to a deep wound. Our Captain, being the kind person he was (God bless his soul as he is no more) decided to render medical as well as technical assistance to a random fishing boat which obviously belonged to our southern shores.
Upon learning their story it was really a miracle that they had survived at sea for more than twenty days at a stretch and were totally out of food and medicines also they had an engine breakdown. We spent exactly an hour beside the boat and having sent our medical and marine engineering specialists to repair the broken engine and render immediate medical help to the stranded crew, after which we silently dived and continued our mission. The gratitude expressed by these seafarers would never appear in any open print media and would remain our little secret contribution towards the people of our motherland. For them we would have appeared like some saviours emerging from the depths of the ocean to render assistance and then silently submerge into silence once again. I still remember my Captain’s words, “It is people like these who feed this vast country of ours and who need to be protected”. Though it was not our primary duty to render any assistance, the human touch of my Captain at the cost of just one hour of our primary mission would go a long way in imbibing life lessons. Infact, it is practical experience of operations at sea like these that build a person’s character. The famous adage is absolutely true, “there is no alternate to practical experience at sea”.
This incident brought back a rush of memories which took me back a decade from then to when I was a Midshipman on a frigate. This was a training ship for Midshipmen and was deployed at sea for anti-fishing patrols in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends to 200 nautical miles from our coast. We were operating on the fringes of this zone looking for foreign fishing trawlers also masquerading as spy ships. In those days Indian fishing boats, mainly wooden were very small and merely had a range of a few tens of miles, whereas, Taiwanese trawlers were steel hulled small ships as big as mine sweepers designed for deep sea fishing which used to frequent the waters of the Indian Ocean, where it was known that “fish die of old age” as the Indian fishing industry was not so advanced then. These Taiwanese trawlers frequently fished inside our EEZ and then deposited their catch to their mother ship positioned in the deep sea a few hundred miles nearby.
A Taiwanese trawler was sighted by our ship and the Captain, now an illustrious ex-Chief of the Navy chased and fired a warning gunshot across the bow of the trawler to make her stop, which she did promptly. A team of six including four Midshipmen under the able leadership of Sub Lieutenant Desai was nominated to board and seize this foreign trawler and sail her back to the port of Cochin to hand over to the authorities. Apart from me there were coursemates Ashok, Jaswinder (God bless his soul as he is no more), Ricky and two others armed to our teeth with automatic machine carbines. This was going to be a unique experience for us as we would be boarding this foreign vessel and actually sailing her back to our shores under our independent command not knowing if the crew were hostile and aggressive. As we approached the huge fishing vessel, our strongman Ashok threw the grapnel hook with the rope over the side and we scaled the ship’s side using the rope. All this while, our ship and boat which had brought us there were pointing their weapons towards the trawler crew, which was lined up on deck.
On reaching deck, under the able guidance of Desai, we quickly disappeared inside the ship to carry out a search for contraband and to check if there was any spy equipment or explosives. On getting an all clear, one Midshipman each was given an area of responsibility to guard and to make the crew do their jobs. It was quite clear that this vessel was not a spy ship but a pure fishing vessel having come all the way from Taiwan to fish in the abundant Indian Ocean. The legal acts of search having being conducted, Desai informed the Master of the vessel on the Bridge about seizure of his vessel by the Indian Navy. After seizing all the documents, crew lists, other navigational documents, Desai bid farewell to our frigate and assumed independent charge of this Taiwanese vessel. We then commenced our three day voyage steering the Taiwanese vessel towards friendly waters.
None of the Taiwanese crew except the Master knew more than broken English and communication was purely by sign language and gestures using the carbines that we were carrying. Navigation was a herculean task as all publications and charts were in Mandarin and very difficult to follow. Desai and I, alongwith Ricky did watches on the Bridge too, navigating by pure instinct and the good old mariner’s magnetic compass. As half a day passed, it was meal time and some of my group was appalled to see boiled and semi cooked squid, octopus, clams and other seafood on the table. Our lone vegetarian Ricky found some tinned vegetables and potatoes, Jaswinder kept searching for the elusive kukkad (chicken) desperately and it was only Ashok and I who actually relished the seafood, Desai stuck to bread and butter. Jaswinder in his quest for chicken told the chef using sign language his desire to eat chicken and lo and behold, the chef came up with some gooey curry for Jaswinder. As Jaswinder dipped the ladle in, to his horror he saw the full head of a chicken with feathers and all and nearly puked in the bowl itself. The rest of the voyage found Jaswinder rummaging the ship’s larder for the elusive tinned chicken.
Over the period of the next two days, I took a liking towards the chef, an old chinese man with white hair who very lovingly would feed his crew and also give us food that we liked. Through sign language, he learnt that Ricky was a vegetarian, Jaswinder wanted only kukkad and special seafood platters were prepared by him for Ashok and me. Infact, he took a special liking towards me and he fed me extra exotic seafood, all creepy crawly, which I had never tasted in my life before. Just prior to entering the port to hand them over to the police authorities, through sign language he showed me a photo of his son who surprisingly resembled me quite a lot being of the same young age of twenty years. And that was when realisation struck me that his kindness towards me was because he was missing his son.
After the formalities were done in harbour, we handed over the crew and the vessel to the Customs and Police authorities and proceeded back to our ship which had entered harbour already a day earlier. Later, Ricky showed to all the Midshipmen gathered in the Gun Room of our frigate much to the consternation of all present, his so called war booty of a certain battery operated pleasure giving device which he had picked up from the trawler. I later learnt that this Taiwanese vessel that was seized by us on behalf of the Indian Navy was impounded by the government authorities and the crew languished in jail for more than 6 months.
Life is all about experiencing things practically. Whether it is boarding a hostile Taiwanese trawler to conduct Search and Seizure operations or whether it is about rendering humanitarian assistance to our very own fishermen at sea, it teaches us to be human and to find the best in every situation.
Note:- The photos of the Taiwanee Trawlers and Commandos are illustrative but actually pertain to Taiwanese trawlers and Indian Navy commandos. The receipt attached is the actual one signed by the Master of the trawler that was apprehended by my team.
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