All at Sea
With 22 years of marine life, where I rose from being the lowest form of marine creature to an officer and (supposedly or allegedly) gentleman the title to this post may not raise many eyebrows at all. Big deal, most of you would say. If not at sea, on land certainly I have been always ‘all at sea’ forever lost and dreaming of my mountains and ice bound regions of our planet. But you will discover that this post could have no other title at all.
A bit of self-propelled confession: I learnt to swim only after I joined the Navy and I joined the Navy to become a submariner, to be ranked among those elite men who are the rarest breed of men on Earth. And I had also by then discovered that submarines are always meant to be underwater – a place from where you cannot fall overboard, since you are already inside water. To most it may be a very disarming thought but to my imbecile brain it seemed the perfect reason to not hone my aquatic skills beyond the very basic without which I wouldn’t have been given my permanent officer’s commission. Little did I know then that one day all my survival skills and swimming skills (if I had them) would be called upon to help me stay alive. This is that story. Never happened before or since in the history of the Indian Navy and never told before or known to anyone except to the very few of my shipmates on that voyage.
It is a day at the beginning of my submarine career when I was still a navigator’s assistant and did not have independent charge of the Combat Information Centre. In other words I was still a rookie. Besides sharpening pencils for my Navigating Officer and holding the charts up to his inspection in turbulent seas, I also had the charge of the casing, which is the entire upper or outside body of a submarine. A submarine even on surface is more than half submerged since most of its machineries, tanks, etc are already underwater. Only the upper casing, the fin, the bridge, etc are exposed on the surface. A submarine cannot dive deep immediately on leaving the harbor, she has to travel first into deeper and safer water and then she dives and disappears. While the submarine heads for the deep and high seas an enormous chain of highly complex actions start taking place inside where the sub’s crew inspects and operates various gadgets and cutting edge electronic gadgetries to ensure that everything is functioning at its optimum. While all this is happening inside, the casing crew along with the casing officer, goes around and checks every nut and bolt, every deck plate and fittings on the casing outside to ensure that everything is tied and lashed up properly, not a single tiniest bit of instrument is hanging lose or liable to make noise once the submarine dives.
For a submarine its own acoustic signature is her biggest enemy. We simply cannot afford to make any sound since sound travels fast and far inside the water and that would give away our position to the ones hunting us. After the entire casing crew has inspected and secured everything in its rightful place they all go inside the submarine hull and then only the casing officer is left alone on top till the very last as he does all the final checks before he too would climb inside the submarine and then the upper hatch would be shut and the submarine would dip into the sea like a stone. In my opinion, the casing officer’s job is one of the most important and vital one in a submarine, even then for some reason this task often fell to the junior-most and obviously the least experienced officer of the crew. This story is of that time when I happened to be that hapless and hopeless junior-most officer on board and it was my duty to be the last man on top prior to the submarine dived.
We are in the Indian Ocean far from anywhere and the sea is turbulent as white horses fill up the entire water surface and our submarine is taking in massive pitches even with more than two thirds of its hull immersed in water. The casing is taking severe pounding and in all logic it is best for us to dive deep and escape this onslaught. It is close to dusk, the sun is setting fast with its golden orb inching towards the horizon with remarkable rapidity. My crew is doing its best to keep upright and does the casing check up. I finally ask them to get inside as it is highly perilous by then to keep five men on the casing. The submarine groans and croaks like a giant whale, which it definitely resembles. Standing alone on the casing I look out into the infinite stretch of water to my south and I realize that the next land mass is the land of Antarctica. Nearest land from where I stand is directly below, vertically down nearly 6 km a place where I have no wish to go. Within few minutes I have to go down and then dive and I will not be seeing the sun for weeks, so I lap up the last few rays of the moribund sun on my face and shut my eyes in the ecstasy. And while I do so, I feel a sudden uplift of my soul, my being and then my entire body. And as I struggle to get a grip of something, I realize with a sinking feeling that a giant wave has just taken me off the casing and I am now no more on the submarine or any solid ground. I am simply riding the crest of a massive wave front.
The wave takes me down and I crash into the ocean with the ferocity of a thousand fists. Luckily I had managed to gulp in a bit of fresh air before the wave falls on me and pushes me with all its force deep into the ocean depths and I lose all sense of sound or thought. My mind must have frozen for the suddenness of the event and not necessarily out of fear. I don’t recall anything at all how I felt then but I did recall my diving instructor telling me in our submarine training school as we practiced underwater drills that no one had ever fallen overboard from a submarine. And I grin and tell him that well; it had to be me of all the people to prove him wrong finally. Panic is not needed since I have my lifejacket on and it will keep me afloat for a while and I am dead sure that my submarine would soon realize I am not onboard anymore and would turn back and come to pick me up. After a brief moment of immersion and gulping of some amount of brackish water, when I come up on the surface, I can’t see anything at all. The sun is very low, nearly across the nautical twilight and those who have seafaring experience know how quickly and suddenly night envelopes the sea. Moreover the sea is in a state of nearly four, which is a stormy sea with winds gushing in at 60 knots easily. So I am bobbing up and down like a cork with the waves. But for that orange, Ordinance Factory made life-jacket; I don’t think I would have survived more than fifteen minutes. As I ride to the crest of a wave and look around for my submarine, my heart sinks since it is nowhere to be seen.
My well practiced navigator’s eye picks up the stars that are now sprouting all above me like shower of heavenly diamonds. I try to locate the Pole Star and reorient myself for what purpose I know not. Nearest land horizontally is more than several thousand miles in any direction. The one vertically down is not a welcoming thought so I push it out of my mind. There could be sharks, other hungry sea animals, virulent sea serpents and I could be a gift from heaven for their starving bellies. Many such pleasant thoughts assail my very wet and fuddled brain. I find it hard to keep my head above water since the waves are so high now and they toss me around like tissue paper. What could have happened I wonder, why isn’t my submarine turning around, or did someone actually push me overboard. I mean this could well become the perfect murder. It is absolutely impossible to find a dead body in sea and I was certain I would be dead shortly as my lower limbs and body starts to freeze and get hypothermic. With my life long association with cold and wet places I knew when the body begins to lose irretrievably and how it starts to shiver in its last deathly throes.
For the want of anything better I start talking to my Shiva. As the darkness settles in properly like a thick impregnable blanket around me I now know for sure that no one on Earth could or would ever find me. I don’t have any torch or headlamp, the seawater activated lamp on my lifejacket, does not function and in such high and turbulent sea it is absolutely impossible to find a man overboard. By now more than an hour has crossed and my body starts to shiver uncontrollably before quieting down forever. I am young, alive, with many mountains still haunting my dreams and I don’t wish to die or give up the struggle to stay alive. I am foolish, I challenge destiny and I talk to Shiva. I ask him what good is this going to do to anyone. All I have ever asked him is to give me a speedy death in my mountains. Even then, in my early twenties, courting death closely at every step I always imagined myself one day huddled and shivering inside a deep dark crevasse with my life slowly seeping away as my body and then brain and all vital organs freeze and finally die with slow and steadfast sureness. That’s the kind of death I had always been ready for.
While here I am wet, salty, looking up at the sky and counting stars and into the widest open space possible on the face of earth and in a bloody ocean of all places. I start to take in water. My energy is gone completely; I find it extremely difficult to keep my head upright and out of water. I stop struggling, I stop talking to Shiva. I don’t see him, I don’t hear him, but I see a black specter darker than the darkness I am imprisoned in and I smile at him, and he smiles back. I know who he is, I have seen him many times before in the heights of my mountains, often following my path with a longing gaze like that of a vulture overlooking a dying animal. We never die at the moment of death, we die the moment we give up the will to live and so I am dead with a deep regret that instead of a Himalayan grave my body would soon be shredded and eaten up into million pieces and then scattered across the waters of the world.
My numb brain starts calculating the coordinates of my watery grave as if it would one day be engraved somewhere. I am totally delirious by then. Time does not exist anymore, I don’t exist anymore, nothing exists anymore anywhere at all. Shooting stars run across my horizon and I cry out to them to get me out of here. I make wishes, wishes to see my white world again. I am absolutely willing and ready to die but not here, not now, not today, not in this manner. And then from somewhere deep within, like always arises a voice that tells me to get a grip on myself and pray and look around and be focused and alive. I am not yet dead so why think of death. I am not yet frozen so why stop moving. I look up at my beloved stars that have always stayed with me, be it high up in the mountains or across the oceans; they have always lit up my trails. I look at them and start recognizing my old friends. Orion, Ursa Major, Gemini and Scorpio smile down on me. I see Venus and then the mighty Jupiter and the war God of Mars. I recollect the stories, the Greek and Roman mythologies about the stars and the planets, about the gods and goddesses, the pagan and shaman rites and of the kings and queens. I am not going to give up, not going to quit. I kick the water and keep myself upright. I blow in my lifejacket to refill it with lost air. Despite all efforts my body freezes steadily and surely. My lower limbs are numb and anesthetic. I feel them more like ghost limbs. My hands had swollen up through constant immersion in salt water. The skin looks like that of a callow and rotting fish. I start hallucinating and imagine being circled by dorsal fins. I feel for my seamen’s knife around my waist but I don’t feel anything at all. I kick the water since that is the only thing I am capable of doing right now.
At extreme places under extreme situations it is often wise to do whatever is possible for you to do, rather than to try to do what you must do. In action lies salvation and just do whatever you can and that very desperate action may change everything. Guide books and self survival manuals often forget to tell you that when an emergency occurs it doesn’t give you a warning and mostly you won’t be equipped with the things that they want you to use for survival. It’s finally all about adaptation, about improvising from what you have around and within. The expression ‘thinking on your feet’ perhaps came to my mind and I must have laughed since that’s precisely what I wasn’t. Certainty of death has great calming power but with calm I never accept it either or stop resisting since that’s human to do. Our will to survive is our greatest motivator and the reason why today man is supreme specie on earth. We simply don’t give up.
The night deepens and seemingly the maddening sea begins to calm down. I am amazed that I am still floating and still alive, or am I! I am not certain anymore of anything. The sky is beautiful and all my friends are smiling as cheerfully as ever. In my last few mortal moments they are my sole companions and I bid them goodbye. Weary limbs and eyes I pray for release. And then suddenly a brilliant vision from heaven blinds my eyes and I lose consciousness.
Even in my totally collapsed state I realize that there are human hands groping around my body and I am being pulled out of water. And then everything darkens around as I pass out.
P.S. This event happened many years ago at a place and on a submarine I am not at the liberty to reveal or the people who were involved in my rescue. Officially this never happened. No one in the Navy would ever acknowledge this and if any of my friends and colleagues who were onboard that day read this account they would maintain their silence for good reason. I finally tell this story today since it is a great story and today I am no more in the Navy and I must acknowledge the impossible rescue that my submarine did that day. As I was told later, my absence from onboard was realized two hours later, after the submarine had dived deep. Now this is something that is totally unpardonable in the submarines and unthinkable. But this happened since during the mandatory headcount prior to any dive, someone did a miscount of heads and it was presumed that all hands were inside the hull. No one can be blamed for this, and I for one blame no one. But what is amazing and unbelievable that after two hours of dived state when my Captain realized that I wasn’t there onboard he surfaced made a Williamson’s and came looking for me in a pitch dark sea. It must have been one of the greatest pieces of navigation and rescue ever attempted and successfully accomplished in the entire marine history of the world. There was not even a micro-millionth chance of their finding me in such a stormy sea. Any of you with even a bit of marine and ocean going experience would know what I am talking about. But I have a feeling that on that day along with my submarine crew’s heroic efforts and their unwillingness to give up looking for me, some celestial hand must have guided the submarine back right on to me, since that’s how they found me. The searchlight picked me up right on its path. The chances of this happening cannot be measured in the probability scale. It simply shouldn’t have happened. I was not meant to be rescued, yet I did. Shiva was not yet ready to accept me in his domain. Two days later I was heli-lifted and transported back to the nearest base for complete check up and recovery.