Fishing In Troubled Waters – A Submariner’s Story
Commander Vinayak S Agashe
I am Commander Vinayak S Agashe, now past my prime, tired and retired, with grand children who probably view me as a useless ‘Grand Pa’ because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about anything that I did in the submarine arm of the Indian Navy. Nevertheless, not too long ago, I was a soldier in whites with gonads charged with testosterone. The only proof I have now, that I was such a man, is a coin sized ‘Vishisht Seva Medal’ with a ribbon, kept in a box in my bedroom, a rarely noticed object, just like the submarines that I sailed.
The submarine arm of the Navies of the world is generally referred to as the ‘Silent Service’ because one rarely gets to see it, and what it does routinely for a living is usually classified under the draconian ‘Official Secrets Act’. Very rightly so. A submarine is a deadly, silent, strategic weapon system that could start a war on its own, even with one’s best friend, or stop one with one’s worst foe. Therefore, in peace or war, if a submarine is seen or detected in any place other than its home base, every attempt is usually made to kill it at sight, because more often than not it is always behind enemy lines, doing something fishy. A submarine is usually perceived as an infamous ‘Peeping Tom’, wielding strategic as well as tactical weapons to make war, and hence to be punished, killed by friend or foe, with utter prejudice !!
Life on board electric / diesel propelled submarines of yore was like living in the stomach of a hydro dynamically curvaceous crocodile, hidden in the ‘Purdah’ of the dark depths of oceans, once in a while coming to periscope depth on dark nights to charge batteries, or surface to rendezvous with supply ship to take on board fresh rations, exchange personal mails, spares for machinery if required, or evacuate sick personnel. A submarine carries fuel, lub oil and dry rations to stay on patrol for up to 100 days without any support. As far as possible there is total electronic silence; to and fro coded messages are sent or received underwater on VLF.
Though submarines have hatches on top side to load supplies, torpedoes, bulky machinery and things like that while in port, routine entry of personnel into a submarine is usually through a hatch in the conning tower, sliding down a near vertical ladder. Once inside, for a tall man there is barely headroom to stand upright. None has a bunk of his own except the ‘Captain’ of the boat. The rest shares sleeping quarters on eight hour rotational basis, sleeping wherever one could find space. During wakeful hours one was always on duty, with something or the other to do, usually the underworld mischief, the ‘Izat Iqbal & Quam’ kind, in clandestine service to the nation.
There is no privacy on board, because due to lack of space one or the other controls of the complex systems of the submarine is located even in the ruddy toilet. While one is in deep contemplation like King Solomon, procrastinating on one’s constitution, someone or the other would come by to turn on or close one or the other valves and switches located in the toilet without even a comment ‘Excuse Mois, S’il Vous Plait’!! Fresh water was a scarce commodity and hence sea water and salt crystals in the cleft of the bums or armpit gave submariners permanent ‘Dhobi’s Itch’. The saving grace is that one didn’t have to shave or brush teeth, and therefore all submariners have the look of ‘Davy Jones’, the pirate of the Caribbean, when they are at sea !!
The worst pathological fear of a submariner is a fire on board, death by fire, or asphyxiation by smoke and battery fumes. There is no place one can run off to, and it is not possible to jump out of a submarine when it is submerged. It is usually not possible to surface because one is always in the wrong place and if seen or caught would create a national embarrassment. Fire in a submarine usually leads to catastrophic consequences. Therefore, all told, submariners usually lead a charming ‘Kamikaze’ type of life, whistling ‘Que Serra Serra, whatever will be will be, the future is not ours to see, or worry about’.
The Official Secret Act has a shelf life of around 25 yrs and hence I could perhaps narrate an older story without inviting the wrath of ‘Aye Bee Jee’, simply to give you an idea of what the silent service routinely do to earn a living.
During Sep / Oct 1986 I was in command of INS/M Vagli, a diesel electric ‘Foxtrot’ class submarine, a vintage boat compared to the Nuclear submarines now.
There was a party, ‘Command Reception’ of some sort, on the lawns of Command Mess in Mumbai and every one was enjoying their drink. Someone came and told me that Capt Suresh, the Captain (Submarines), was looking for me. As soon as I met Capt Suresh, he told me to come along to C-in-C’s office. In C-in-C’s office. there were Flag Officer Submarines and Chief of Staff. The C-in-C, V Adm. Chopra, asked me if I am ready to sail right away. I was briefed by the Chief of Staff and I left the party immediately and went on board Vagli.
During the next 3 hours all personnel were recalled, fresh rations along with a team of 12 clearance divers with 4 Geminis (inflatable rubber boats) were loaded, torpedoes were armed, Vagli was prepared for sea and we silently left harbour. So silently that ships secured alongside our berth also did not come to know.
My sailing orders were for an innocuous ‘operational patrol’, an euphemism for clandestine gathering of technical intelligence of every kind, whether to do with natural changes in oceanography, access into harbours, monitoring acoustic and magnetic signatures of ships of every kind, radio & radar intercepts, assessment of maritime threat scenarios, infiltration or exfiltration of intelligence operatives …..and so on, basically espionage. This particular mission was to snoop around for 30 odd days and we were to go close inshore, submerged as usual, and operate with acute risk and caution. We were to go into the territorial waters of Sri Lanka, a country which at that time was neither at war with us, nor showed any hostility. But in the murky underworld of espionage, a friend today could be an enemy tomorrow and hence it was our job to keep a track of friends as well as foes, knowing fully well that if caught, surrender was not an option, that we would be destroyed on sight, and no mercy would be shown to Peeping Toms. We had much in common with the slogan of the Gorkha Regiment of the army, ‘Kafar Bhanda Marnu Ramro’, or ‘better to die than surrender and chatter like a coward’.
Vagli approached operational area off Batticaloa at 100 meters depth. I called a meeting of the Departmental Heads, Lt Cdrs Robin Pereira (Ex O), PC Agarwal (Eng-O) and Lt Srikant (Electrcal-O), to explain to them the mission goals, what was on my mind, how we were going to play the hide and seek game, and to seek their wise counsel. On a submarine we did team work, with everyone doing their share of the myriad tasks, with ‘a-priori’ knowledge and zestful cooperation, doing what needs to be done without being told or reminded.
After discussion and deliberations it was decided that we would proceed with silent speed, at 100 meters depth, to take up position at the boundary of the territorial waters before sunset. Thereafter, during the dark hours, we would rise to a depth of 50 meters for the foray along the coast line, as close as we could get. Since the continental shelf was steep, the depth of water shown on our navigation chart of the target area as ‘Bottomless’ or more than 1000 meters.
A submarine operates on the simple ‘Archimedes’ principle; once under water, it maintains neutral buoyancy with zero trim, or horizontal position by filling Compensating Tanks (Comp) with water or by blowing out water with compressed air.. As the sunset, we were in position at 100 meters depth, zero trim, running minimum machinery so as to remain silent. Any sound produced on board is the bitter enemy of a submarine since sound travels far underwater and warns the enemy of our approach.
The sea-surface picture obtained using ‘Sonar’, like an underwater radar, indicated 4 trawlers, 3 merchant ships and 2 hostile war ships- possibly frigates. We crawled past avoiding the hostile vessels, like a silent shark, closer and closer to the shore line. We rose to 50 mtrs depth as planned. My men went about silently doing their own independent tasks of surveillance and gathering a plethora of strategic and tactical intelligence. The clock ticked loudly and time flew at super speed. I handed over the control room (Con), the nerve centre of the submarine, to the ‘Duty Officer (DO) On Watch’ and retired to my cabin a few yards away from the Con to cock a short routine snooze
Around 2 in the morning, I instinctively sensed a slight change in the trim (the submarine was tilting nose up). Even before the DO could switch on the intercom to report the changed situation, I rose from my bunk and rushed to the Control room. A quick glance at the instruments warned me that for some strange reason we were involuntarily losing depth and slowly rising to the surface.
”Slow Ahead, Port and Starboard Motors, Both planes to Dive” I commanded. The DO repeated my command to the propulsion controller. The control planes (like elevators on an aircraft) are just aft of propellers and therefore the planes become more effective with increased wash of propellers. I could feel the vibrations increase as the propellers increased thrust; still the submarine kept losing depth- it kept going up on its own gradually.
‘Flood Comp-2, half ton”’, I commanded. The DO dutifully repeated my command to the Panel Chief, a senior sailor responsible for taking in water in Comp-2 filling water in the ballast tanks to make the boat more heavy so that it would stop going up.
‘Flood Comp-2 half ton” I repeated the commanded, rather superciliously. I could see that the Planes-man was already struggling with the planes control to get the submarine back to horizontal position, taking reference from the trim indicator on a panel in front of him. The submarine trim is controlled by Forward and Aft planes, using a pull push control, much like the joy stick of an aeroplane.
The normal laws of hydro-dynamics and submarine control system did not seem to be working. Vagli was responding rather erratically and seemed sluggish. If this continued, if we surfaced involuntarily and got detected, the consequences were unthinkable. It was as dangerous a situation as I could get myself into. I began to sweat despite the air conditioning.
My voice was hoarse with tension and perhaps too loud for the confines of the control room. My command was dutifully repeated by the Officer of the watch (OOW) on the intercom. I could imagine every man on the ship scurrying about like rats inspecting every part of the submarine from head to toe and top to bottom. One by one they called from their individual stations to report ‘All Correct’. The OOW used a check list till the last man called.
‘All compartments checked correct”, he reported. Just a few minutes had elapsed since I took over the Con from the OOW. I could feel the sweat on my brows. I felt cold stares from those around me. I ordered, “ Flood Comp-2, one ton” The Captain was expected to be ice cool in an emergency, and here I was in cold sweat. I clenched my fists to take control of myself.
‘Flood Comp-2 one ton”, I croaked, trying to use my will power to stop the submarine from going up on its own. ‘Vagli, sweetheart, listen to me’, I spoke to the submarine silently. It seemed that Vagli actually heard my appeal, it started to very slowly come to heel. We stopped coming up.
‘Go back to 50 mtrs depth’, I ordered. The Ex-O repeated my order. In my consternation I had not noticed that Robin had come in quietly and taken over from the OOW. I exhaled slowly, it was very comforting to have Robin besides me.
It took about thirty odd minutes to go back and settle down at 50 mtrs depth, throttle down to our earlier silent speed. We had taken on board 25 tons of additional sea water. I could not figure out the reason for it.. I noticed that Aggy and Srikant too had come silently into the Con and were standing unobtrusively at the back.
‘OOW take over the Con’, I ordered and nodded to my team captains to follow me to the ward room. I gulped down two glasses of cold water, using the time to think, my team captains had the enquiring look that asked, ‘What happened ?’.
They smiled with me. It perhaps broke the tension.
‘One of those things’, I commented shrugging my shoulders. ‘Relax, let us wait and watch’, I said with a confident wave indicating ‘return to quarters’. I went back to my own bunk.
Exactly an hour later, Vagli started to misbehave again, this time in the opposite direction. She went into a nose down trim and started to dive. She was slowly gaining depth. Although I was in my cabin, I could sense this and came to Control room. The OOW immediately sounded the claxon for ‘Action Stations’. All crew members, even those sleeping, ran to their respective work stations.
The Exo. Robin had arrived at the Control room right behind me. From the corner of my eyes I could see that Aggy and Srikant too were standing in the corner, waiting and watching. I was the man in charge and every eye was focussed on me, everyone expected me to make Vagli behave. But Vagli was misbehaving.
Immediately we went into a reverse routine, opposite of what was done an hour earlier. All pumps were started to pump out water from Comp -2, trying to make Vagli lighter, fill it with compressed air. But despite these actions, Vagli kept going down, and further down, slowly but steadily.
Even if pumps were working at their rated capacity, in condition like this one, every minute is like 10 minutes. Needle on the Depth Gauge kept surging towards the Red mark. The red mark indicated Maximum Permissible Diving Depth or Crushing Depth, “Death Beyond”. Every pair of eyes in the Con turned to the depth gauge. The needle kept surging downward, ever so slowly. Another 50 meters and Vagli would reach its ‘Crushing Depth’. If it sinks any lower, we would be crushed by the water pressure around us. Vagli’s pressure hull would get crushed like an egg giving us instant nirvana at the bottom of the ocean.
The situation was so tense that any word from my mouth would be taken as gospel truth and all would interpret and instantly act out of conditioned reflex, without thought, suggestion or dissent. I held the destiny of Vagli and its crew by a slender thread that could break if I were to be hasty or lack wisdom. Another 10 meters were left for the needle on Depth Guage to touch the red mark.
‘Stand by to blow the Centre Group ’, I ordered. Centre group ballast are major ballast tanks from which if all water is blown out, Vagli would gain immediate positive buoyancy making it shoot up vertically like a Polaris missile). My order was with as much calm as I could muster. It was the last trump card up my sleeve. ‘Do it only when I say NOW’, I told the Panel Chief (A senior sailor in charge of High pressure air panel), with a hand on his shoulder. In the small confines of the Control room my whisper sounded like a shout even in my ears. I glanced at Robin. But he was calm and steely, eyes bright and steady, no visible sign of any nervousness. He simply nodded his head, a few millimetres to convey ‘I am with you Captain’. It gave me courage to do whatever that had to be done, gauged by my youthful experience and wisdom. If I blew the centre group ballast tanks, Vagli would shoot up to the surface and thereafter be a sitting duck without sufficient high pressure air- that too close to enemy. It would be disastrous and embarrassing situation for our country. I was now left with the ‘Hobson’s Choice’.
Every pair of eyes in the Control room were on the ‘Depth-Gauge needle. I could imagine that every man on board Vagli, in their crew station out of sight from the Control room, would be experiencing the increased pressure. The crew would be praying silently to Varuna, the god of the sea, to make Vagli behave and to give the Captain wisdom and courage of conviction to save them from instant death in the vast depths of the ocean.
The Depth Gauge needle kept surging towards the red mark, ever so gradually now. Vagli was making strange noises of metal under extreme stress..All crew were at Actions Stations. I felt fear gnaw my guts, adrenalin was racing my pulse. In my heart I felt lonely and sad. I clenched my jaws and jutted out my chin, chest out stomach in, to project the external appearance of a ‘hard hat’ Captain to reassure the eyes on me. I was scared.
The depth gauge reached the red mark ‘Crushing Depth’. My inner voice commanded me, ‘Don’t blow, wait’. Seconds that felt like hours ticked by.
But Vagli did hear my inner voice. The depth needle came to an abrupt stop on the red mark. The submarine stopped descending at the danger mark. It stood like that for a minute, what looked like eternity. After a long time I took a deep breath; I felt I had not breathed for quite some time. Then Vagli began to rise. First very slowly and then with increasing rapidity she started coming up.
Frantic orders were shouted to flood the Comp tanks once again, to regain neutral buoyancy to get Vagli under control. By and by, after 15/20 minutes of hectic zestful activities by all hands on board, we were back at 100 mts depth and then to 50 mts. All of them perhaps were now smiling. Robin, Aggy and Srikant were god’s gift to me, a very special breed of men, sailors born to lead.
The courageous men of Vagli were back as a fighting lot, ready to complete the mission, even though Vagli had just recovered from some terrible unknown sickness, which I could not fathom. The four Geminis with 4 clearance divers each were clandestinely launched in the dead of the night, close inshore, at preselected beachheads to reconnoitre the water depth on the shore lines, soil conditions, tides, presence of habitation, pickets or enemy patrols, obstacles inland and so on. They were retrieved uneventfully after two nights. We completed our mission with complete stealth and set sail for the open sea. Once we were back in the open ocean, international waters away from shipping lanes, I radioed “ Amethist “- the code word for successful completion of task assigned.. We were intercepted by a Indian Navy escort after 32 hrs. Once in our territorial waters we surfaced and sailed back safely to home port with the escort.
Happy stories don’t end abruptly in home port. There was the inevitable immediate court of inquiry. All were questioned and statements taken from all, especially Robin, Aggy, Srikant and self to review our actions, strengths and weaknesses of character and decisions. Vagli’s sensors were taken out and analysed. Everyone, top to bottom in the submarine arm wanted to know why Vagli had misbehaved when nothing seemed to be wrong with it. In addition there was the intelligence debrief, for the data we had collected.
There were rumours of every kind including quirks of Poseidon. Covert investigations were done in the target area where we had gone, using innocent looking fishing trawlers armed with complex oceanographic under water equipment. In the end it was revealed that area was prone to volcanic eruptions. So it was the volcanic eruptions on the sea bed which threw Vagli upwards and to compensate we took in an unusual 25 tons of additional ballast water. As we went forward, out of the volcanic area, the water temperature, salinity and density may have changed suddenly, making Vagli too heavy making us sink to the bottom uncontrollably.
A lesson was learnt by all, on the existence of deep sea volcanic activity in the area where we went to snoop; the endemic and unpredictable oceanographic characteristics there, endangering submarine operations. Many years later, similar deep sea volcanic activity was to trigger a catastrophic tsunami. I am glad that other men in their magnificent submarines were not wandering around in that area when the tsunami came.
Few years ago, though retired, I was invited by the Navy to attend the decommissioning ceremony of INS Vagli, the last of the Foxtrot class submarines. There was a parade by young, energetic and smartly dressed submariners to bid adieu to Vagli. It had grown too old like me, no longer fit to prowl around in the deep dark depths of oceans. Along with some of my old ship mates we went into the innards of Vagli, touching here, fondling there, my mind flooding with happy, rich and proud memories of our life and times together. Cheers to INS Vagli, it was a submarine to love and to cherish, to take us to the great depths of hell, but bring us right back with flying colours, the ‘Gin Pendant’ on its periscope !!
All those brave men- all retired and settled all over the world now, some of them no longer alive except in my mind, where I could be with them again whenever I choose. I hope they get to read this soliloquy.
Later I worked in different capacities all over the world and it struck me that no where I could feel that intimacy, the spirit de corps, that spirit of romantic adventure, which I enjoyed in Submarine Service. We were singularly free of petty jealously. I remember a night when I was standing on a bridge of another submarine ploughing through a calm sea with the moon shining when I was struck with an almost mystical conviction that “ Every man below was my brother”. To even this day, when I see a man wearing a submarine badge, I stop him to wring his hand.
INS Vagli (S42), a Vela-Class diesel-electric submarine, served the Indian Navy for 36 years from 1974. It was decommissioned on 9 Dec 2010.
This submarine was to have been dry docked on land, in the Heritage Museum on the shores of Mamallapuram in Tamilnadu. However, due to delays in setting up the Heritage Museum, Vagli languishes in Chennai port, rusted and decaying.