Peter the Great Bay
As I sat on that seawall in Colaba and tried to focus on the smudge on the horizon that had been the Amaretsu Maru, that one memory of the Sindhudhanush suddenly flooded in.
Subs usually slink into base noiselessly, without fanfare, their dark grey hulls barely discernible against the angry grey of the sea. If you are riding a nuclear sub, chances are you’ve been in the murky depths a long time, four months, maybe even six. To be a nuclear submariner, your main training involves being able to live with a hundred other farting, belching males inside a badly ventilated, confined space for months at a time, with no windows to open and no sights to take in. Trust me, that requires training, in anger management, besides an extremely high level of discipline.
Within a couple of months under water, you are dying to catch the first glimpse of the horizon, gulls, seaweed, a treeline, or if its dark, the blazing lights of your home port. In contrast, diesel subs surface more frequently. Not that it means you can open the hatch and walk around topside just like that. But if you are an officer, you can at least take a peek through the scope, at the outside world.
Earlier, during the Second Great War and in the 50s through the 60s, diesel-powered subs had to surface to take in oxygen for the batteries every two to three days. Not anymore. Modern diesel subs use air-independent propulsion systems that enable them to remain submerged for a couple of weeks at a time, no problem.
Diesels have certain advantages. Unlike a nuclear sub, a diesel sub can gently settle on the ocean floor, turn off its engines and remain deadly silent, while it watches the traffic pass over it, completely invisible. You can’t shut down the reactor of a nuclear sub, mid-voyage.
Nuclear subs are a whole lot more expensive than diesels. The 8000 ton Akula-Class hunter-killer, Chakra-2, India’s second nuclear powered submarine, costed us a cool $1 billion, just to lease for 10 years. If you had wanted to purchase it outright, you would have needed to drop $2.0 – 2.5 billion easily. On the other hand, you could own a diesel sub for just over $500 million.
But all these pluses that the a diesel has get swept away by certain sterling qualities of a nuclear sub. It is way bigger and far more powerful and therefore swifter. It makes less noise and has the ability to remain submerged almost indefinitely, thus enhancing multifold, its operational readiness in times of conflict. Nothing can beat that.
It was the February of 1988 and I was Lt Commander by then, First Officer on the Sindhudhanush, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine, a 5000 ton Charlie-Class cruise missile sub. Our skipper, Capt. Sudhir Doshi, was guiding it through the treacherous shallows, at periscope depth and I had my hands clamped over the two handle bars of the scope. I pressed down on the button and immediately the hydraulic drive of the periscope took over with a subdued hum and the in-built gyro-stabilizers began compensating automatically for the inevitable buffeting which makes a sub pitch and yaw near the surface.
It was a gorgeous night outside, the waves only about a meter high. I turned the scope around on its bearing and suddenly there it was, a close packed jumble of lights on the horizon – Visakhapatnam, the Head Quarters of India’s Eastern Naval Command. I kept panning the scope further south along the coastline and another sprawling splash of lights swung into view. That would be INS Varsha, the new naval base which was then coming up, to ease congestion at the main Visag docks.
Boy, what a pretty sight that was. I swung the scope the other way and first the dark hull and then the superstructure of the recently refurbished and painted guided missile frigate, INS Dunagiri came into focus, ablaze with lights, the tricolor waving in the gentle breeze, from it’s stern flagstaff. The Dunagiri made a magnificent chaperon. As I manipulated the scope, the spray hit the lens and diffracted the shore lights into a million sparkles, like when you’re trying to watch diwali lights through tears.
A month prior, the sub, upgraded and redesigned to withstand the heat and humidity of the tropics, had been christened INS Sindhudhanush from the impersonal Soviet name, K-42. A week after the christening, we had eased out of the -25°C blizzard-hit Bukhta Fedorova quays of Vladivostok port in the eastern Soviet Union and inched into the Amur Bay. A Russian crew, headed by Captain 3rd Rank, Ruslan Karimov and a specialist Russian crew of six were in charge till the Sindhudhanush entered the Peter the Great Gulf, steering through icebergs the size of basketball courts.
Karimov was a bear of a man and rightly so. They said he used to have a Kamchatka brown bear cub in his cabin in his previous command, another Charlie-Class SSGN, the K-320. He had come upon it when the K-320 had surfaced in the midst of pack ice that jammed the Proliv Dimitriya Lapteva, north of the Arctic Circle. The cub had been wandering around on an ice floe, looking for its mother.
Realizing that its chances of survival alone were next to nil, in an environment that was extremely hostile even to bears, Karimov had brought it on board and named it Suka. Now, Kamchatka brown bears usually grow to around a ton in weight, the same size as grizzlies. Within a year, Suka was so huge, he had to be left behind at Balaclava, when the sub called on the Black Sea submarine base for provisioning.
But intimidating though he looked, Karimov was a much loved skipper among his crew who addressed him affectionately by his nickname, ‘Sasha’. (Informality among submarine crews is common in almost all navies of the world).
Once the Sindhudhanush was clear of the ice, Sasha Karimov and his crew stood down and handed over charge to our skipper, Capt. Doshi, but remained close, observing every move that the Indian crew made. Some sections of the sub remained out of bounds for the Indians, excepting Capt. Doshi and myself. These were the reactor compartment, missile tubes and torpedo room.
We surfaced only once after that. It hits you, the blue, in every direction, a breathtaking sight indeed. The waves were not even a foot high. It is amazing how the ocean can turn into a placid swimming pool at it’s whim.
As the continental shelf dropped off and the active sonar bathometer began reading depths upwards of 2 kms, we dived and stabilized at 160 meters and then proceeded south, down the Sea of Japan…..