One had been swayed by the Yellow Submarine, that cool Beatles number of the 60s. This one looked cool too. And mysterious. As it lolled on the gentle waters off Visakhapatnam, this mean machine seemed to hide Cimmerian secrets in its bosom. And some 70 men.
The invitation from Commander S. Dasika of the Eastern Naval Command was too tempting to forego, in spite of the claustrophobic rush at the mention of a submarine. It is not often that one gets a chance to visit an Indian Navy submarine.
An officer looks through the periscope
This one was docked after a return from a mission on the high seas. We took a small ride to the sub, and walked across a little plank to stand atop its fin. Everything seemed normal till people started disappearing into a little hatch. Commander S.V. Bhokare urged caution. “Be careful while climbing down. Place the middle of your foot on the rung and hold tight on either side and you will be fine. Beneath the first hatch is another and we will be going inside that.”
Officer Girish chivalrously offered to carry my bag. I wished he could do the same with me. Since the offer did not come I took the plunge, landing in a bit of a heap. But the guys working at the engines didn’t seem to mind. They smiled and went on with their work. If the hatch was small, this area was smaller.
Yet there were enthusiastic men hunkering over the consoles. Seeing my discomfort at the work environment, one gentleman officer offered me a chair under a miniature fan. He also suggested a glass of water. I gritted my teeth and asked him to continue with the tour.
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At a training session
Next I found myself in front of the periscope, which was mounted for a six-footer or for someone standing on a stool. Since I cannot boast of such heights and could not spot a stool, I stood on my toes and scanned the expanse of water. I wanted to cry “Mayday” till a helpful officer turned the periscope 180º, now I saw human beings walking and driving on terra firma.
That wonderful sight seemed so far away. Here I was inside a hulk of a machine which seemed to close in on me. The space is curtailed because of the machinery and, of course, the men. If you are not careful you may step on 70 pairs of toes or, worse, hit one of those valves while passing from one hatch to another. The conditions have not deterred the men who have opted to work in this arm of the Navy which was established with the commissioning of INS Kalvari (now decommissioned) in December 1967. Indeed, you need a special kind of attitude and resilience to be a submariner.
“On a long trip, the first six days are filled with routine work,” said a Captain who has spent 15 years as a submariner. “By the seventh day monotony sets in and this is the time there might be some small problems among the men. By the 11th day everyone reconciles and thereafter nothing can shake you.”
The sub becomes home now, whether the journey is for a day or a month and a half. The duration of underwater stay depends on the mission and the type of sub. There are three classes of submarines in operation – Foxtrot, Kilo and Type 209/1500 Class. The Indian Navy’s diesel-electric submarines are of Russian or German origin. While a nuclear submarine can remain underwater for longer periods, the conventional sub has to surface every 24 – 48 hours for fresh air and recharging of the batteries.
On a longer trip, battery gases, engine fumes and oil vapours contaminate the air on board, making it necessary for the sub to surface for fresh air. The process is fraught with danger, no matter how much care is taken. But then, the submariner has to be alert all the time, even if he does not get enough sleep. While there may be 70 or more men on board there are only 30 bunks. So the men do ‘hot bunking’: each one catches some sleep before someone else takes over.
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Cooking is a challenge in the hot & cramped galley
Damage control drills, maintenance of equipment and three-hour watches every six hours leave the men with little time for anything else. Day and night merges once the sub slips into the water. The sonar now becomes the eyes and ears of the submariners. If a ship or a boat approaches, the men can make out the make of the engine, even recognise the type of fish out there.
Instructions are conveyed through voice boxes, but at low volume since sound carries under water. Water, like space, is at a premium. An experiment is on for converting sea water into fresh water. For now, bathing, even a shave, is unthinkable. The men wear disposables, a coloured set of shorts and blouse, which they discard after a few days.
“We might all wear disposables and look the same but the crew know who is who,” said the Captain. Running the show is the Commanding Officer or Captain, who has four departments under him – Executive, Logistics, Electrical and Engineering. Each department has an Executive Officer, a Navigating Officer, a Gunnery Officer, an Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer and a First Lieutenant.
At work in the engine room of the submarine
The galley was so small that if two guys were standing, somebody’s elbow would be cooking. Since the oxygen supply is sparse, care is taken to avoid food aroma from burdening the air. Frying is thus avoided and onions are not allowed on board. To conserve energy chopped vegetables are stocked along with milk, bread and cheese.
Tinned food is also available but it is not used too often because of the Indian palate. The men have to be very careful while dumping empty cans, for they can be a giveaway for someone on a covert mission. There is already the experience of the Pakistani submarine Ghazi which was downed off the Vizag coast in 1971, after fishermen noticed cans floating in water.
For a break from the routine the men read, watch videos and play at cards. Musical competitions are organised and the best team wins a token prize and a little flag. The cooking competitions are the most eagerly awaited. “When you are on a long patrol, innovative menus are greatly appreciated,” said the Captain, who remembers the lunch shared with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his eight-hour stay on board a submarine.
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Damage control drills, maintenance of equipment and three-hour watches every six hours leave the men with little time for anything else.
After touring the wonder machine one, gets the feeling that these men are the toughest around. Yet, no one is free from claustrophobia, said the Captain, since they “have to don a suit and do the escape exercises.” Life on the submarine is never free from danger.
“I might be about to bunk in when I hear that the sub is diving to depths of 150 or 200 feet. Immediately all my senses are alerted. Going that deep means trouble. Then you find out it is only an exercise, but even then you are watchful.”
“Pressures like these separate the men from the boys,” he added. One salutes the submariner for his courage and attitude and for protecting the water frontiers of the nation. After the journey down under, it was sheer pleasure to get back in the sun. I have decided never again to complain about the weather. I will also never be a submariner.
THE ART OF SURVIVAL
It is not enough learning to survive in a submarine. More important, one should know how to get out of a disabled one. Imparting that training to the submariners is a school – INS Satavahana, commissioned in December 1974 in Vizag. All submariners are sent to the premier training establishment periodically. The main objective is to ascertain their fitness and then to keep them on their toes. As one officer put it, “If you get through this training, you are ready for anything.”
The main feature at this base is its Escape Training School, one of its kind in Asia, which was set up in 1986 with the aim of training submarine personnel on escaping a disabled sub. For even while escaping there are rules to be followed, commands to be obeyed. Proper suits are provided, for in an emergency the men would be emerging from a pressurized submarine into the sea. The suit is colored to attract attention, and has a repellent for protection from sharks and other sea predators.