"Not all men seek rest and peace, some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood, restless harbingers of violence and bloodshed, knowing no other path."*
* Description of the "Free Companions" from: The Stalker of the Sands [The Savage Sword of Conan, the barbarian, Vol. 1, No. 54].
Think of ‘Baywatch?and the mind flashes images of those lovely curvaceous young women with sex oozing out of their red scoop-back swim suits, which just don’t stop at the hips but go all the way up to the waist for that figure-hugging look. Of muscular men with goggles and body boards diving in the sea to either rescue somebody or put anti-social elements loitering on the beach behind bars.
As I watch Star World, I wonder what our Indian Coast Guard must be looking like? Would they be as good-looking as these? Would they be as agile in their rescue operations as the ones we see on television?
On October 22, 1999 a Japanese-owned tanker, Alondra Rainbow, with a crew of 15 Filipinos and two Japanese sailors, carrying 7,000 tonnes of aluminium ingots sailed from the port of Kuala Tanjong in Indonesia. The ship was bound for Mike in Japan. Suddenly, on October 29, it was attacked and boarded by masked Indonesian pirates armed with guns and swords. They blindfolded the crew and cast them adrift on an open life raft with just basic provisions for survival. Only after gruelling 11 days some Thai fishermen picked them up off the coast of Thailand on November 9 and brought them ashore at Phuket. The Captain and Chief Engineer were back in Japan on November 15.On receipt of the information from the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC), Kuala Lumpur, the Indian Coast Guard directed its ships deployed in the Arabian Sea to intensify patrol. A ship, Al Sheuhadaa, reported sighting a ship similar in description to Alondra Rainbow close to Sri Lanka. The Coast Guard ships now became more alert. Late at night while investigating vessels off Kochi, Coast Guard ship Tarabai intercepted the pirated vessel.
The ship looked freshly painted and was named Mega Rama. Interrogation of the crew by radio yielded no reply. This made the Coast Guard suspicious. The vessel appeared to be bound for Port Fujeira on the coast of Saudi Arabia. A Dornier aircraft and two patrol boats were sent after her. When the patrol boats got nearer, the vessel increased its speed from 8 knots to 14 knots and altered course seawards. Later, it was learnt that 15 Indonesian pirates had taken control of the vessel.
On November 14 the patrol boat caught up with Mega Rama after a chase of 300 nautical miles and over 24 hours. The description of Mega Rama was the same as that of Alondra Rainbow. Besides, International Maritime records revealed, there was no ship named Mega Rama. The patrol boats repeatedly warned the pirates to stop and subject themselves to an examination as provided under the UN Law of the Seas. The Coast Guard started using graduated force. Warning shots were fired across the bows of the Alondra, but the pirates refused to give up. The Coast Guard then requested assistance from the Indian Navy. INS Prahar arrived at midnight the same day. After firing warning shots across the bow, the gunboat fired its main weapons. The pirates, who tried to set the vessel on fire and scuttle it, were cornered from three directions. They soon realised the futility of fleeing and gave up. The 2-day chase ended.
The Indian Coast Guard, along with the Navy, foiled the hijackers?attempt of setting the vessel on fire so as to destroy all evidence of the hijacking. After taking the pirates as prisoners, the fire was put out by the boarding party. Several leaks were discovered and plugged immediately. It was also discovered that 40 per cent of the cargo was offloaded before its capture. The ship was then taken under tow and brought to Mumbai.
"This was a perfect example of co-operation between the shipping industry and law enforcement agencies," remarked IMB (International Maritime Bureau) Director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan. The Indian Coast Guard were particularly proud for the seizure of the hijacked vessel and the apprehension of all the international hijackers of MV Alondra Rainbow as this was the first such recovery in the history of international maritime efforts against international high sea piracy. The Indian Coast Guard received praise and international recognition for they were the first in the world to achieve this feat. In all previous hijacking, recovery of vessel or crew had not been made.
Well, doesn’t this remind us of Baywatch? But our Indian Coast Guard personnel are real life heroes, not reel life heroes like David Hasselhoff. Instead of cosy water scooters, they use Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), Fast Patrol Vessels (FPV), Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPV), Interceptor Boats and Hovercrafts, much larger, complicated and cumbersome to operate. The OPVs even have decks for helicopter landing. An advanced OPV such as CGS Sangram has accommodation facility for a helicopter on deck. The advanced OPVs are fitted with a state-of-the-art gun. Besides, there are latest navigational and communication equipment fitted on board. The larger ships sail for several weeks at a time. These ships are more comfortable than the smaller ones. For smaller ships, the facilities are less. Still, smaller vessels such as the Interceptor Crafts, which are fast on water, operate for 6 to 8 hours per sortie. These crafts make it easier to save lives or catch criminals. Lately, they have also acquired Hovercrafts, which are the fastest, with a speed of 50 knots i.e. 90 km. per hour.
Life for Indian Coast Guard is responsible and hectic, systematic and orderly. Their day begins at the crack of dawn at 6.00 a.m. From 6.30 to 7.00 a.m. is fitness time. From 7.00 to 7.30 it is time to clean their cabins and the ship. From 7.30 to 8.30 they bathe and have breakfast. Work begins at 8.30 sharp. 10.30 to 10.45 they take a short tea break and lunch is from 12.30 to 1.30 p.m., after which it is back to work. At about 3.30 p.m., work ends. 4.30 p.m. onwards is for sports.
If the ship is alongside at shore, the officers and men can go home, except for at least one officer with his team of enrolled personnel that mans the ship. This team is responsible for safety of the ship. The Coast Guard has to be on its toes throughout and its men and their families fight the battle of living under perpetual uncertainty. They may be called upon to attend duty any time of the day or night for which they have a recall procedure. All officers and men staying ashore have to be in touch with the ship if they are away for more than four hours. After all, a distress can’t wait!
An incident that occurred on June 12, 2001 is a case in point. At 8.30 a.m. the Indian Coast Guard received a distress alert from Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC), Norway. They also received messages relayed from Australia, New Zealand and France. A 3,50,000 tonne tanker, which had set off from Singapore in early June 2001, was headed for UAE for loading crude oil. The Singapore-registered crude carrier MT Hang Sen ran into trouble after an explosion was reported in one of its tanks. The Indian Coast Guard immediately diverted the merchant ship MT Probo Boro for assistance. When asked if he needed assistance, Choe Kwang Yell, the Korean master of the vessel, said: "I don’t require assistance. There is no casualty on board. The cause of the explosion is not known. The tanker is not carrying oil but is only filled with ballast." Nevertheless, the ship was requested to give a "SITREP" (situation report) every 4 hours.
At 9.40 p.m., there was a huge blast which ripped through the 24-year-old Hang Sen. The vessel broke into two parts 360 nautical miles off Mumbai. Once again, Hang Sen activated distress alert and requested for immediate assistance as it was sinking. The Indian Coast Guard swung into a co-ordination move with CGS Varuna and a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft, which they had kept as standby. At 10.30 p.m. the International Safety Net was activated and ships in the area were diverted to the position for rescue operations. At 11.00 p.m. MV (Motor Vessel) Clovely and MV Aztec picked up 38 crewmembers out of 42. Four were reported missing: three from the explosion and one taken by sea during lifeboat transfer.
A parallel search was carried out by eight ships. At 1.00 a.m. on June 13 the Dornier plane was launched from Goa. Ultimately, on June 15 at 11.00 a.m. the search was terminated. On June 16 MV Euro sprit sighted the bows portion of the Hang Sen. Nav (Navigational) warning was issued for merchant ships to keep clear of the area. The Coast Guard instructed Varuna to keep watch of the floating wreck. The owners, Ocean Tank PTE, Singapore, were approached for salvage. On June 17 the tug carrying the owners from Sri Lanka arrived at the scene, but gave up on June 19. Regretting their inability to salvage, they requested the Indian Coast Guard for assistance in sinking the wreck. The Coast Guard in turn took the assistance of the Navy. In the meantime, Director General, Shipping, was approached for clearance for sinking. After the clearance was received, the Navy was requested to sink the wreck. On June 22, the Navy sank the wreck at 10.15 a.m.
Till date, Indian Coast Guard has directly rescued 1,371 lives in 1,031 search and rescue operations. In a swift operation on May 24, 2001, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued two fishermen off Silver Beach near Madh Island. The fishing boat Heerkanya of Madh Island with five fishermen sank after colliding with a rock. Three fishermen out of five swam across to the beach while two of them got entrapped in the boat. The fishermen remained adrift with the help of thermocol buoys, fighting for life in the rough sea. On receiving information, the Coast Guard helicopter was immediately launched for rescue. The fishermen were located about 1 km. from the coast and rescued. The helicopter lowered an air crew diver who helped the fishermen one by one into the helicopter. Later, both the rescued fishermen, Govind Padya Jhinga (age: 50) and Mahadev Gaya Khutika (age: 35) were given first aid and handed over to the fisheries.
One of the duties entrusted to Coast Guard by the Government of India is pollution response and control, and safety of the environment. Coast Guard has to co-ordinate with marine agencies and respond to oil spills at sea. Their response depends upon the type of oil spilt and the area that is affected. And, yes, the task can be equally hazardous, as the oil-spilt area is always toxic with spreading fumes, highly flammable.
More recently, a whale mistakenly swam to the beach and got stranded. The Indian Coast Guard received a report from the locals. They asked various authorities abroad on how best to save the whale. None of them could give clear directives. Finally, the Coast Guard wrapped a coir mat around the fish, tied a rope around it, and, with the help of fishing boats, towed the fish into deep waters by gradually dragging it sideways. Had they pulled the ropes forcefully, there was the chance of the whale’s vertebrae breaking. The moment she went into slightly deep waters, she started wriggling. The Coast Guard cut the rope and saw it dive into the deep blue sea.
Like any other armed force, the Indian Coast Guard has also been successful in confiscating a number of illegal goods. One of the best perks they get is 20 per cent in cash of the value of what’s caught, which is divided at 10 per cent to the informer or agency and 10 per cent to the rest, i.e. those who helped in catching the illegal goods, be it gold, electronics, narcotics, arms, etc. Other perks include canteen facility, official accommodation,leave travel concession, etc. This, plus loan facilities, specialised educational grants and scholarships for the Coast Guard, spouse and children are given. The Coast Guard personnel are entitled to leaves as admissible under Central Civil Service rules.
Is it the perks that attract youngsters to join the Coast Guard? Or, is it that sheer spirit of adventure and love to live life with a touch of danger and risks, and emerge a winner, that attracts them? A Commandant replies: "My father was in Defence, but I joined the Coast Guard as I found it entirely different from any other service. It is that difference that attracted me. Each operation, each situation, is different from the other. Therein lies the challenge ? I am very happy with my job." As he spoke, one thing became clear. Responsibility and position are given to Coast Guard personnel based on experience and not age.
There are four kinds of entries to this field. General Duty Officers: executive category or deck officers. Technical Officers: mechanical engineers trained to be marine engineers. Lady Officers: supply cadres. Direct Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) Holders: for women and men. The first batch of Coast Guard officers started in 1980.
On selection they are called Under-Trainee Assistant Commandants. They are put through a capsule or orientation course at Goa along with Naval Officers for approximately five months. Once through, they are transferred all over the country depending on their specialisation. Here, they are broken up into three groups. The General Duty Officers are sent to the ship, wherein after undergoing afloat training they complete professional courses in maritime and Coast Guard subjects in the shore establishments/Naval schools. The Electrical Officers are sent to Jamnagar and the Engineering Officers are sent to Lonavala. Then comes training for CPL holders, who go for helicopters or fixed wings. These officers go in for further training at INS Rajali and the fixed wings to IAF and then to Daman at Coast Guard Training Centre. Lady officers are sent to INS Hamla in Mumbai.
One wonders whether lady officers are equal to or better than men in times of crisis. A Coast Guard personnel remarks: "As logistic officers, they are doing their job well. Even as CPL holders, ladies are doing well as far as routine sorties are concerned. But we get stuck when it comes to sending them on deployment or any forward areas. This is because of obvious and practical reasons. They cannot be deputed on board ships or given night duties. So there are certain things which are not very practical."
The Indian Coast Guard adapts well to CHANGE. Not just change in weather conditions or change in every day situations, but also in technology. It is one of the few organisations that is constantly updating its methods, fleet and equipment. Communication is always at an advanced level.
Initially, to start operations, naval ships and naval personnel were deputed to Coast Guard. Today, they are an independently working organisation, which has not received the media attention it deserves. They are totally unlike the bare-chested Baywatch guys, always trying to impress their female counterparts and showing off their physique. I noticed that all Coast Guard personnel don white: white cap, white shirt, white nameplate, white belt, white trousers, white socks, and white shoes. Even the rooms of the Headquarters are white with white-coloured furniture. The golden wings on the Commandant’s shirt showed that he was a pilot. The star with 3 broad stripes on both shoulders, exuded respect of a Commandant. On asking him his views of Baywatch, he mockingly said: "That’s just a television serial, Ma’am!" These are the true guardians of our seas, manning our seas 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They deserve the nation’s salute.