The Perfect Storm

Seven fishermen, adrift in a small boat, had given up all hope. Would they live to tell the tale?

By Chitra Subramanyam Updated: Oct 1, 2018 18:49:10 IST
The Perfect Storm Illustration by ATRI

Captain Radhika Menon hadn't slept all night. MT Sampurna Swarajya, the oil tanker she was commanding, had been tossed about like a toy, pitching and rolling, as it made its way through the turbulent Bay of Bengal. Menon had been on the bridge monitoring the ship's course. When the morning of 22 June 2015 dawned, it was just as grey as the one before, with waves over 25 feet high and winds blowing at more than 60 knots. Lashings of rain added to the darkening skies. They were now off the coast of Gopalpur in Odisha. Menon sent an update to the headquarters before stepping down to the cabin below to freshen up, leaving the ship in second officer Manoj Chauhan's capable hands.

It was past noon as Chauhan, also the duty officer, stood next to the radar, peering through his binoculars, trying to look past the rain and the swelling sea. He had to maintain the course, while steering the ship. That's when he first spotted the boat in the distance as it bounced about, on the verge of being sucked in by the waves.

Chauhan looked carefully -- the boat was about 1.8 kilometres (1 nautical mile) away. Squinting, he spotted an orange cloth flapping in the wind. This wasn't a deep-sea fishing boat, but one that should have been closer the shoreline. Then he saw something that made him catch his breath-hands, raised and waving frantically, begging for help.

Chauhan alerted Menon who rushed to the navigation bridge and sounded the alarm -- seven short and one prolonged burst -- this was an emergency. She peered through the binoculars and could tell they were fishermen, one of whom looked like a teenager.

They need to be rescued right away. They won't survive for long, she thought.

The adrift boat, she would later recall, had no cabin and no anchor, just seven fishermen, huddled together. They were injured, their bodies were white with skin peeling -- a result, Chauhan would say, of constant contact with salt water. They had been at sea for seven days, lost and battered, and had given up hope.

FORTY-YEAR-OLD Chinna Rao had absolutely no intention of going fishing. He was still recovering from an injury. But his friends, Done Narasimha Murty, 55, and Dasari Danayya, 48, had managed to convince him otherwise.

The monsoon had arrived on 15 June 2015, but it looked like a good day for fishing. Dawn broke and the sun started its transit across the azure sky in Kakinada, off the east coast of Andhra Pradesh.

Chinna Rao checked his phone for weather updates, before climbing into Durgamma, their boat. There were six others, all fishermen by trade, among them, his nephew, Mahesh (then 15 years old). The men lifted anchor as another boat joined them, and they set out to sea. They had a little water and food and blocks of ice to preserve the fish they would catch. The other boat was stocked with food, but the men weren't really planning on being out for too many days.

The fishermen on both the boats worked in tandem through the day, a rhythm built over years of fishing together, breaking only for the night. As always, if the catch was good they would turn back early next morning and head to market.

A deep depression had been building up meanwhile and the wind had picked up by the following morning. As morning turned to afternoon, the sky changed colour, the sun hid behind the clouds and the waves turned rough. Soon, it became dark, as though it was night, and then it started raining. DURGAMMA SLOWED DOWN and dropped anchor. Perhaps it was best to wait for the weather to settle before returning. But it only got worse -- the waves grew higher, relentlessly slamming the boat, finally damaging one of the engines. The fishermen did not panic still, quickly repairing what was possible to fix. Then, early on Tuesday morning, the radar broke, as did the anchor. A barrel carrying spare diesel fell out into the sea. The second boat threw them a rope, anchoring them, but on Wednesday, the storm turned infinitely fiercer and the rope broke setting them adrift. The companion boat disappeared from view, headed to shore and safety, taking with it the food and water.

Exhausted and petrified, the seven men huddled together as the violent sea tried to devour them. Bereft of shelter, they soon lost whatever food and water they had. They tried creating a makeshift anchor by placing stones and a stove into a fishing net, but it did not help.

Despair engulfed Chinna Rao, but he refused to give in. We must fight back, protect ourselves somehow. As the boat threatened to capsize for the 10th time, he drew on years of fishing experience and tried steering the boat through the angry waves. Twice, they nearly lost friends to the sea -- Narasimha Murthy first and later Arjala Appa Rao, 48 -- but somehow, with his heart in his mouth, while motivating them, Chinna Rao managed to pull them back in.

The days started merging -- into one big storm that could only mean a single end. They sat in silence, sometimes breaking into sobs, crying in despair, sure that they would not pull through. Their skin started peeling, exposed to salt water, until finally on Sunday, a week after they had left their home, the men gave in to thirst and, ignoring the fishy smell, turned to the ice used to preserve their catch.

Then, on 22 June, they spotted the MT Sampurna Swarajya. Narasimha Murthy's orange towel was tied to a six-foot pole and the desperate men waved it wildly. Then they stood as close to the edge as possible, waving, some with their hands folded, hoping that someone would see them. MENON HAD WASTED no time. She assessed the risks and had a plan in place. There was no time for fear or nervousness, just a steely determination to save the fishermen. The waves seemed just about a little higher, the sea wild and the rain unceasing. The crew prepared for the most challenging rescue operation of their lives.

Menon positioned herself on the bridge, giving instructions to the team below. Chief officer Gursimrandeep Singh was on the main deck, which was windy and slippery, keeping an eye on the crew. The emergency team he was monitoring had readied the pilot, or a specialized rope ladder, scrambling net, life buoys and life jackets. Chauhan asked the engine room to reduce the ship's RPM to better manoeuvre it. Menon knew that the most important thing was to stop the boat from drifting out of sight. So, the MT Sampurna Swarajya slowly swung around to create a lee or shelter from the wind and the rain.

A gantline, or rope for hoisting, was tied around a jerrycan and thrown into the water. Singh signalled to Chinna Rao, instructing him to grab the line, pick up the slack and bring Durgamma alongside the tanker. But the sea was way too rough and the men too weak from hunger and thirst. The boat drifted towards the stern.

Menon did not give up. At 12.40 p.m., The tanker swung around once again for a second approach. Chinna Rao and the other fishermen managed to pick up the gantline using a boat hook and secured it properly. They pulled up the pilot ladder as well.

By 1.07 p.m., two of the fishermen had managed to make their way across the sea into the safety of the tanker. But the weather did not show any signs of letting up, the line gave way, breaking and separating the boat and the ship. As the fishing boat threatened to drift away, the tanker swung around a third time, positioning itself so it could offer better shelter. This time Singh passed two lines for added support, while also lowering the buoys and life jackets. By 1.18 p.m., all seven men were safely aboard and Durgamma was left to drift away. The whole rescue operation had taken about 40 minutes, through beating rain and an unforgiving sea.

AS CHINNA RAO and the remaining six fishermen climbed into the ship, they fell on their knees, sobbing. Their clothes were torn and they couldn't walk. Chauhan helped with the first aid, cleaning their lacerations with antiseptic. After sometime, the crew offered them water and then, much later, coffee, sandwiches and clothes. The crew also managed to find someone fluent in Telugu to communicate with the men who spoke only the local dialect and broken English. Menon kept an eye on them, checking to make sure they were alright.

Once they had recovered a little, Menon offered Chinna Rao the satellite phone. "Call your families. You have been away for too long." Calling home, he was horrified to find the families had started preparing for their funeral. "Fishermen's families believe that if the men have gone missing for seven days, they are lost at sea," Menon says. "They had even set up the tents for the last rites outside their homes." The families could not believe what happened. "We told them that everyone was safe," she says.

Chinna Rao still remembers every little detail. "We were on death's doorstep," he says, "I am living a second life." And then he says with a chuckle, "I was a 5'2" man in a boat full of really tall men, but everyone else seemed to have given up. I ended up steering the boat and rescuing two of my friends. Now, the entire village thinks I am a hero."

OVER A YEAR LATER, on 22 November 2016, Radhika Menon, the first woman captain in the Indian Merchant Navy, stood up to a standing ovation at a distinguished gathering in London. She was at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN specialized agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping. Menon had become the first female captain in the Indian Merchant Navy and the first woman to receive the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea.

"It is every seafarer's and Master's solemn duty and obligation to save souls in distress at sea. I only did what a seafarer should do for a fellow soul in distress at sea. Yes, it was an instant decision, but not without assessing the risks involved. I just did my duty," she said after receiving the award.

Dasari Danayya choked with emotion while speaking for a video broadcast at the ceremony. "We could do nothing except wipe the tears from our eyes. Madam appeared like a goddess, and saved our lives," he told the Shipping Corporation of India.

Watching the video, for the first time, Menon felt a sliver of fear. "Sitting there on the dais, watching the documentary, I realized the scope of the rescue operation. Various scenarios started playing in my mind and I wondered, what if. I think that was the only time I felt fear," she recalls. "When one is in a seafaring profession, we are taught to tackle all kinds of emergencies, from storms and fires to flooding. I had the team and they had my back. This was our first rescue operation, but, at the time there was no space for nervousness. I didn't think about failure or what would happen if my crew had been injured or washed away. At that moment, all I could focus on was how to steer the tanker so that I could rescue the fishermen while keeping my crew safe."


Telugu translations courtesy: Balaji Singh, Care Today Fund

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