How the Indian Navy ensured its pride through troubled waters

Jugal R Purohit

On the afternoon of Saturday, as President Pranab Mukherjee welcomes Lt. Commander Abhilash Tommy for creating history by becoming the first Indian to complete a solo, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation of the globe, a few in the Indian Navy will heave a rather heavy sigh of relief. From piracy to anti-national elements smuggling contraband items to shipping accidents which have often been fatal, the theatre between Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and the Indian shoreline – the last leg of Lt. Cdr Tommy’s Sagar Parikrama – has seen way too much of action in the past three years.

In fact unknown to most, around the middle of March, when the Mhadei passed Mauritius, it planners were up against their toughest challenge. “In other oceans, our Defence Attaches (DA) and Naval Attaches (NA) in our embassies would keep a watch on the boat and update her coordinates. But that would not suffice in this area. Yes, piracy is waning but we wanted to take no chances” said a senior officer.

A decision was thus taken at the highest level to task the naval ship on anti-piracy patrol near the Gulf of Aden which envelopes Somalia, the INS Sarvekshak (Pennant no. J22), with ensuring Lt. Cdr Tommy and Mhadei’s safety in these troubled waters. An ocean-going survey vessel, the INS Sarvekshak was to essentially maintain a distant ‘surveillance cover’ – which implies scanning an area of upto 50 nautical miles around the Mhadei and keeping it clear of all threats. “There was neither any direct contact with Mhadei nor any support lent to its mission. But yes, we were around and ensuring that if there was a need, we wouldn’t be too far behind,” said an officer. The navy also utilized the facilities, reach and muscle that its deployment in the Indian Ocean region provides, to secure Lt. Cdr Tommy. “In Seychelles and Mauritius our ships are deployed at their request for conducting surveillance of their EEZ areas and stamping out piracy. That apart, we also have stationed a Dornier aircraft since Feb 2011 in Seychelles. Finally, towards countering piracy in the India’s own backyard, under Operation Island Watch, we maintain presence in Maldives and west of Lakshadweep islands. So of course these assets helped keep him away from harm’s way,” mentioned a senior officer.

In fact, by the end of March, once Lt. Cdr Tommy came closer to the Indian shores, it was the duty of the respective commands to maintain a watchful eye. “It began with the Southern Naval Command and then as he climbed up, the Western Naval Command took it up,” said an officer.

Commander Dilip Donde who skippered the Mhadei for a solo circumnavigation in 2010 said, “By ensuring a naval ship which was providing distant surveillance cover to the Mhadei, that is the best the navy could have done. At sea, especially in troubled waters, there is precious little that a skipper on a yacht can do.” He added that the Mhadei under Lt. Cdr Tommy had done multiple voyages in the affected area and thus the drill was completely well-oiled and executed.