'Man Overboard!': A Seaman Remembers An Unforgettable Voyage To South Korea from Bombay
The perilous voyage to South Korea from Bombay aboard the SS Jalagopal in 1953 turned out to be the only time they lost men to a typhoon in his long career, the man recalls.
The sounds of the ektara filled the quiet midnight air as I walked across the deck of SS Jalagopal, dodging sleeping troops from the Indian Army. I knew the tune. It was from the 1952 film Baiju Bawra---'Bacchpan ki mohabbat ko dil se na juda karna/jab yaad meri aaye, milne ki dua karna'. It reminded me of home, of how far away we were. It was March 1953 and we were on our way to South Korea from Madras via Singapore and Hong Kong.
Our job was to transport a contingent of the Indian Army to South Korea, where they were being transported as part of the Indian peacekeeping force under General K. S. Thimayya.
I was 28 and a junior engineer, on a passenger ship with a staff of 100, plying on the Madras-Singapore route. During the trip, we received news of our mission to South Korea. We reached Madras and preparations began almost immediately---after all, the 'lady' had to look tip-top for the voyage!
SS Jalagopal, originally named SS Edavana, had been built in Glasgow in 1914. She served in both World Wars gallantly as a troop ship before she landed in Bombay around 1950. The new owners renamed the vessel, a beauty of her time, and she sailed between Madras, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as a passenger ship.
As the sailing date---September, 1953---came closer and the troops' movement started, an army band, stationed on the jetty, kept us entertained by playing tunes on their stringed instruments. Soon we were off the coastline of Madras on our way to Singapore, docking on the sixth day.
The journey was uneventful and we had gotten used to the troops sleeping on the deck, the lilting ektara keeping us entertained.
After restocking coal and other supplies we were off to South Korea via Hong Kong. Two days in, as the ship was to enter the South China Sea, we received a warning that a typhoon was approaching us---the barometer fitted in the ship was off the charts as the radio officer received weather updates via Morse from the shore. We were on high alert, as typhoons in this region were known to be notoriously unpredictable and treacherous. We went on double shifts, working 12 hours a day, keeping an eye on the tropical storm. All loose items---including on-deck machinery such as anchor and derricks---were secured, as were the lifeboats using shackles, slings and bottle screws. The troops were ordered to go below the main deck, which is a watertight area, and asked to stay there until it was safe.
By the evening of the third day, the Jalagopal was pitching and rolling in the turbulent sea. We were worried about the old lady and the damage the storm could do to her. Things weren't any better the next morning, as huge waves battered the ship. Curiosity, and perhaps boredom, getting the better of them, some soldiers did not realize the fury of the sea and came up on the deck without much thought.
All of a sudden a huge cry went up over the loudspeaker: "Men overboard!"
One unexpectedly big wave had swept across the deck, carrying with it three jawans into the sea. A rescue operation was launched immediately. When a man goes overboard, the duty officer throws the lifebuoy that is at hand on the bridge, makes the necessary announcements and informs the shipmaster, who then takes over the operations. They first try to locate the bodies and the master starts manoeuvring the ship in the area of the sighting. In the meantime, the crew is put on the watch. This continued well into the afternoon, but there was no sign of life in the roiling seas. We circled the area where the men had fallen for more than four hours, searching the best we could---given the weather. We hoped, knowing full well that no one could have survived for even five minutes in those conditions.
The men had disappeared.
The crew was in low spirits. This was the worst thing that could have happened to us. We had lost men in the length of my career, but this was the only time we lost them during a typhoon.
The ektara had fallen silent.
I am 89 now and have served and visited many vessels in the 50 years of my shipping career. Yet, the SS Jalagopal and its crew were the best of the brotherhood. We served in good and bad times and sailed through rough seas. Still, I have never been able to forget this particular voyage and the ektara that fell silent.
Even today, at night, I can hear the tune playing in the starry sky as it did back then, as the grand old lady, Jalagopal, made her way across the sea.