“One of the most rewarding experiences of being at sea – sailing silently and gracefully by the wind – is the serene tranquillity and the changing moods of the sea and the skies. The colour of the sea, the sun and the stars change constantly, with each day being more fascinating than the other. It is indeed a sight to behold the star-studded skies on a clear night – millions and millions of stars that I never ever saw or imagined, were visible through the clear atmosphere above the seas, as compared to the dusty and light obscured visibility in our cities.”
The sea has always beckoned men of courage to its placid calms and raging fury, challenging him to explore its mysterious expanses. Man’s desire to cross the seas dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries during the days of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. That is why the sea has become synonymous with the spirit of adventure and the quest of mankind to discover the unknown. From serene tranquillity to tempestuous fury, the sea green waters have always stirred the spirit of travel through its enormous moods.
The yacht Samudra is a 17-year-old, Ketch Class, ‘Amphitrite 43’ fibre- glass sailing yacht, 43 feet in length, 13 feet 11 inches beam (width) and 13,000 Kg displacement. It has two masts, the main mast being 60 feet in height and the mizzen mast being 14 feet in height and is designed for carrying a jib sail/Genoa, a main sail, a mizzen sail and a huge spinnaker. It has a lower covered deck with 7 bunks, 3 X 300 litres fresh water SS tanks, a toilet and a small galley (kitchen) with a gimballed gas stove with clip-on vessels, three stainless steel fresh water tanks and an insulated ice-box. The yacht was handed over to the Indian Armed Forces in the 1980s by the Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands after being captured by the Coast Guard for illegally operating in Indian waters with sophisticated equipment in the lower deck. The crew fired at the Coast Guard and were over-powered. One crew member tried escaping by jumping into the sea and was later captured.
The Gulf Expedition was launched from Kochi in September 91 and after sailing along the Western coast of India up to Mumbai, the Yacht crossed the Arabian Sea and called on the ports of Muscat and Bandar Abbas, later to return to India sailing along the Makran coast touching Okha in Gujarat, Bombay, Goa, Mangalore and finally returning home to Kochi in December 91 after a 6000 KM voyage across the seas.
Samudra always carries an inter-services crew comprising one Army officer, four Naval officers, one Air Force officer and one Coast Guard officer selected after a tough screening comprising of both physical and mental abilities with stress being laid on the all-round qualities. Multifarious skills acquired by an individual through his life, may come in as a lifesaver in emergencies during such perilous voices. I was lucky to be selected from amongst ten Army aspirants thanks to my HAM background, Engineering Experience in the Army and sailing skills acquired during my days of competitive sport sailing. I discharged the duties of second in command, medical officer, sailing tactician, engineer officer and communication officer.
The other responsibilities were divided thus; the skipper was Commander SB Anand from the Navy, the navigating officer was Lieutenant Mukul Asthana from the Navy who had prior service in the Merchant Navy and was an expert astro-navigator who knew the stars like the back of his hand, ‘Tough-as-Nails’ Lieutenant Anil Katoch from the Naval Marine Commandos (MARCOS) was the diving and rescue officer, Lieutenant NK Grover from the Navy with two earlier yachting expeditions to his credit was in charge of sailing, seamanship and lifesaving stores and sailing technician, an engineer officer from the coast guard Assistant Commandant Pradip Salunkhe was assigned the job of electrical officer and Flight Lieutenant SK Arora, a helicopter pilot from the Air Force looked after supplies, logistics and boat storing. Each crew member had unique abilities and combined to synergise as a capable team for this arduous expedition.
I’d like to make a special mention that all seven members of this expedition passed the amateur radio exams and got wireless licenses before embarking on the expedition. All seven of us, VU3SBA (Anand), VU2RJV (Rajaram), VU2GNK (Grover), VU3SAK (Arora), VU3SPI (Salunkhe), VU3MKL (Mukul) AND VU2KTB (Katoch) also got permission to operate from the yacht and suffix ‘/MS’ (Maritime Station) after our callsigns. Thus, this became an all HAM expedition! We set up a HAM station in the Naval Base at Kochi Operated by the then Lieutenant Muthu (VU2MPE) with a simple ‘Inverted V’ 20 M dipole to keep a tab on the expedition progress and pass important weather and safety information to us. The yacht was also equipped with a 100 Watt Naval Radio Set for official Naval Communications through morse code and a HF (Kenwood TS 830S) and VHF (Yaesu) commercial HAM radio used for HAM communications. The antenna on the yacht was a centre fed inverted V fed at the top of the taller mast and draped over to the fore-stay on the bow and the other leg of inverted V draped over the shorter mast to the rear and stretched further apart and secured.
We also had an International Marine VHF Radio with a commercial quarter wavelength GP antenna, operated by us on ‘Channel 14’ 156.700 MHz meant for Port operations and ship movements. This radio was used by us to contact port authorities and other vessels while entering and leaving ports.
We were very popular for QSOs because of the exciting expedition and a call sign with /MS suffix given to all seven crew members. These contacts were indeed very morale boosting, especially during the long, tough stretches, where psychological pressures of lack of sleep/appetite, loneliness and fear of being so very vulnerable to the vagaries of the seas, start catching up on the crew. Constant daily communication through HAM radio with many Indian HAMS (including many HAMs of KARL, Maj Gen Vombatkere VU2DAY from Leh, OM Adolf VU2AF and OM Varadan VU3ITI from Bengaluru) and those from other countries was the only lifeline on which operators worldwide would have put us in touch with a doctor for advice, and in grave cases for rescue too. The good RST, excellent range and QRM free HF and VHF (near ports) communications from sea was amazing even with an oddly shaped inverted V antenna and pushing out about 100 Watts most times. A special day was celebrated at sea by us with HAMs tx-ing seven shots (for seven crew members) from a kids Deepavali cape pistol over the radio! That’s how we celebrated Deepavali in the middle of the Arabian Sea!
After initial screening, the crew underwent training in navigation, seamanship, medicine and first aid, meteorology, boat repair techniques etc, at the Naval Base, Kochi. Accounts of various voyages were read, apart from perusing charts and admiralty publications like Ocean passages of the world, the Mariners Handbook, the Nautical Almanac, Admiralty list of Lights etc. We spent hours pouring midnight oil over ocean routing charts. This formed an important phase of the expedition, since one must plan meticulously, catering to all possible contingencies that may arise at sea and put in place a plan for each, since there may not be a second chance at sea; preparation had to be a one hundred percent. We practised man-overboard-drill in Kochi and realised that it would be almost impossible in rough seas to manoeuvre this sailing yacht and rescue any crew falling overboard. Thus we instituted a drill of wearing a personal harness secured with a carabiner hook to the steel side ropes whilst on the deck in rough weather and at night.
The boat itself being very old, needed extensive repairs, maintenance and modifications which were personally done by the crew. We fixed a simple radar reflector – two circular aluminium discs were meshed at right angles to each other so that they crossed passing through the centre of each disk. This simple device strung up on the mast considerably improved the chances of being spotted by a ship’s radar! We also carried a mechanical fog horn operated by dragging a cycle chain on a metal reed and the loud low-frequency would be heard for a considerable distance over a foggy sea through an elliptical horn. This could potentially draw the attention of ships on a foggy day with low visibility.
We also discussed the vulnerability of the boat to lightning strikes with two vertical aluminium masts sticking out vertically over the vast sea surface (literally asking for lightning to strike!); the yacht build and design had incorporated a SS plate of about one square meter well below the water line of the boat surface in contact with sea water and a thick SS strip leading up to and firmly connected to one of the thick SS wire side-stay supports of the main mast, ensuring that any lightning strike would be earthed (or sea-ed) effectively. We just cleaned up the underwater SS plate with the help of our crew’s (who was a Naval Marine Commando) scuba-diving skills! We also practised using the life-boats in case of being ship-wrecked. We also calibrated the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radar Beacon) – an international beacon activated by sea-water to send out a radar beacon via satellites to indicate the location, in the unfortunate event of being ship-wrecked and sinking. All this gave great confidence to the crew to handle any problem which may arise at sea. Two months of hard work finally saw us fully prepared to go.
The expedition was flagged off from Kochi on 20th September 91 by the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command of Indian Navy. We merrily set sail in a very excited state and no sooner than being out of sight of the harbour, we realised that we had forgotten to take salt and tea with us. On the passage to Goa, we survived by adding sea water to taste for cooking and believe me, it was one hell of an experience to eat such meals! On the morning of 23rd September, off the coast of Mangalore we had company of a school of whales that came very near us spouting away like huge steam engines! The younger whales frolicked around, and one even went underneath the hull, giving us anxious moments! Later, on the same night, when visibility was very low, one whale came very close to the yacht giving us anxious moments; a gentle whip of it’s tail could easily break up the yacht! On nearing Goa, we encountered near gale conditions and steered through a thunderous rain squall. The power of nature and our own vulnerability struck each one of us and we muttered a silent prayer to God. The whole yacht became a rolling-rocking platform with waves crashing over the bow and washing over the deck right through our yacht. The visibility was ‘nil’ and the huge rain drops were hitting our faces like icy stones. The storm mercifully subsided after an hour and we breathed easy and sailed on.
We left the Indian coast from Bombay on 5th October 1991 on the longest and most arduous leg across the Arabian Sea. The duty cycle was – at any one time for four hours at a stretch, two crew members would be on duty at the wheel to sail and steer the boat as per the navigational plan, be it day or night; thereafter these two get eight hours off. One crew would be nominated as ‘Mother of the Day’ to cook, serve and wash vessels once in six days!
The yacht went through several squalls and thunderstorms and also felt the effects of a distant cyclone. One of the most rewarding experiences of being at sea – sailing silently and gracefully by the wind – is the serene tranquillity and the changing moods of the sea and the skies. The colour of the sea, the sun and the stars change constantly, with each day being more fascinating than the other. It is indeed a sight to behold the star-studded skies on a clear night – millions and millions of stars that I never ever saw or imagined, were visible through the clear atmosphere above the seas, as compared to the dusty and light obscured visibility in our cities. On calm days, one had to just peer over the gunwale of the yacht to spot numerous forms of marine life visible through a transparent blue-green sea. We were half-way across the Arabian Sea when, on a calm day with hardly any breeze and when the sea was a tranquil mirror, we spotted two huge fins sticking out of the water surface to about two feet; a giant shark pair, more than 25 feet in length were heading straight for the yacht! It’s graceful and slow unhurried swimming movement was incredible to watch and no doubt, they are truly the emperors of the ocean, fearing nothing. The sharks, swimming through crystal clear waters went right under our yacht, much to our surprise and anxiety!
Another breath-taking phenomenon one witnesses whilst out at sea, is the bio-luminescence of the waters. The mariners handbook lists about a dozen different types of luminescence each more beautiful than the other. The most common form during our passage was the fluorescent green type, where agitated portions of the sea turned a fluorescent green. At night, with a strong wind blowing, each wave top becomes a fluorescent green, a sight indeed beyond description. During twilight, seeing the luminescent wake of our yacht and it’s silent movement by wind power (without engines), curious dolphins and porpoises used to come and swim effortlessly near the bow wave of the yacht and each would leave beautiful luminescent trails. Dolphins, being the intelligent creatures that they are, used to respond beautifully to whistles and calls from the crew – a most rewarding experience. Also, several birds flying across the vast stretches of the ocean would take rest on our yacht. Some were even bold enough to walk on our deck and allow us to feed them from very close quarters! This provided a great thrill to the crew and served to break the monotony of seeing water all around for weeks on end.
After a few day at sea, I could not bear the aspect of not bathing and took a bucket with a rope and dipped it into the sea (on calm days) and bathed on the open deck! The sea-water bath was indeed refreshing and soon all crew members followed suit!! We also improvised a toilet at the rear end of the yacht with a steel bracket jutting backwards out of the boat with a canvas cover around for privacy. It was sometimes a very risky proposition as the boat would be constantly rolling and pitching even in a gentle sea. But it was certainly better than going below the closed deck and using the miniature toilet and feeling sea-sick due to the claustrophobic feeling.
Finding one’s ‘Sea-legs’ took time; this term ‘Finding one’s Sea-legs’ is used for the aspect of getting over sea-sickness symptoms of vomiting and lack of appetite on a permanently rolling and pitching vessel. Despite getting over it, we all lost considerable weight during the passage both due to severe duty cycles, lack of sleep and restricted fresh supplies. All fresh vegetables were finished in four days time and thereafter it was tinned food and fish caught at sea.
Entering the Persian Gulf, we were wary of any floating sea-mines leftover from the Gulf War and also of huge ships which would hardly be able to notice us, especially while crossing shipping lanes. One night, we were rudely woken up by a frantic call from the on-duty crew members as a huge ship was very close
After had thus crossed the mighty Arabian Sea and reached the beautiful port of Muscat in Oman, navigating only by the stars and sun with a sextant and steering by a magnetic compass. Satellite navigation or GPS were not used to add to the element of adventure. Even the speed-log – an instrument that measured the boat speed was removed from the yacht for testing our skills in navigation and seamanship.
The reception from the Indian community and the HAMs at Muscat (Sultan of Muscat is a HAM – A41AA), especially from fellow Indian A45YT OM Tariq, was overwhelming.
After a four-day rest and recoup, we sailed across the mouth of the Persian Gulf and entered the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran. The Iranian Navy hosted us and were most warm and friendly. After another brief halt of four days there, we headed back to India, sailing along the Makran coast. Our scheduled halt at Karachi in Pakistan was cancelled at the last moment due to some disturbances following the Sharjah cricket match between India and Pakistan. We reached the port of Okha in Gujarat on 7th November 1991 and after a brief halt, set sail for Kochi with halts at Bombay, Goa and New Mangalore. The expedition finally touched Kochi on 4 December 1991, to a very warm welcome by the Indian Navy on the annual Navy Day.
The experiences during the expedition have been indelibly etched in my memory and shall be cherished by me as a treasure. One feels less earthbound and close to nature during such experiences. I record here my utmost gratitude to the Indian Armed Forces, Indian Army, Indian Navy, to my very own Corps of EME and last but not the least – HAMs of India and the world – for having given me such a wonderful opportunity of a life-time and excellent support during this expedition.
External link: Amateur radio in expeditions: Read here
I was introduced to the wonderful world of amateur Radio by my father in 1974-75 and then got a chance through my school to join a course in VITM, Bangalore under VU2VTM OM Marcus in 1975. I passed the Grade-I license exam but was told that I was too young (15 years old) to be granted a license! I then joined NDA in 1976 and later passed out of IMA and served in the Indian Army till June 2015 and retired as a Brigadier. In 1991, I got selected for an adventure sailing expedition to the Persian Gulf from Kochi and re-wrote the exam and got my HAM license. My experience in the Olympic sport of competitive sailing including two National titles and participation in two World Sailing Championships proved to be the tipping point in my selection because of my skill in sailing the boat in rough seas during trial sorties in Kochi.
I could not be an active HAM much except for the expedition duration of about three months due to exigencies of military service. However, I managed to set up a station in 1993-94 using a discarded service HF radio and was very lucky to have QSOs with my friend VU2MSW, Cdr MS Prakash in Antarctica and relayed important information for the expedition members.
After retiring in June 2015, I contacted OM Sinosh of SIARS and with their wonderful help set up my shack in my QTH at Ashok Nagar from where I operate on VHF with my Baofeng handy and a homebrewed slimjim. I have a UBitx in listening mode with a long-wire antenna but am yet to set up my HF antenna for any tx.
I am greatly pleased to note that world-wide interest in this wonderful hobby has picked up with new digital modes, echolink, satellite repeaters etc. I am indeed grateful and glad to be part of this world of HAMs!