Sunday, December 14, 2008

At home down under

Divers, trained by the Navy Diving School, at Kochi, learn to repair ships, place mines on the hull of enemy ships and recover bodies from the sea bed. But for all them diving is also a sublime experience

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September, 2004, Lieutenant R.S. Kumar, of the Navy Diving School at Kochi, received a call from the district collector of Kollam, B. Srinivas. A trawler had capsized at Sakthikulangara, one of the major fishing harbours of Kerala. Six men were trapped underneath. A few fishermen had attempted a rescue, but gave up because the bodies were at a depth of 180 ft.

Kumar arrived with a team of 15 divers. "It was raining," he says. "The current, at five kilometers per hour, was very fast and there were huge swells."

One diver went down, and even though the visibility was poor, he managed to locate the trawler. "However, the bodies were inside, hence, it could not be taken out," he says.

So, the diver came up and another took his place, taking an iron rod with him. He smashed open the cabin door and was able to go inside.

"The bodies were pulled out, tied with ropes, and taken up," says Kumar. "The people and the district administration were grateful. They realised it was a difficult operation."

It is not only the rescue of civilians that Navy divers are involved in. They are also trained to do salvage works and undertake major underwater repairs of ships and crafts. They provide aid to civil society in times of natural calamities, like floods.

"Divers also learn how to carry out clandestine attacks on enemy ships and crafts by placing mines on their hulls," says Commander A.K. Sharma, officer-in-charge of the diving school.

But to develop these skills they have to come to the diving school. It is the only school in South-East Asia, which is recognised by the International Marine Contractors' Association.

"At present there are 100 trainees," says Sharma. They come from the Coast Guard, the Navy, Army and from countries like the Maldives, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Kazakhstan.

The physical training is hard. Every morning, at 7.30 a.m., the trainees, including 14 soldiers from the Army Para Commandoes, do 80 push ups and sit ups, and set out on a 8 km jog. They are dressed in black T-shirts and shorts and wear sneakers. They run in an easy loping manner, holding black flippers, weighing 3 kg, in their hands.

45 minutes later, they reach the Thevara Bridge. They climb the railings, four at a time, put on the flippers, pause for a moment on the edge, 27 feet up, and jump, shouting, “Jai Hind.” Their legs are straight, and their arms are by the side, as they slice through the water.

As they come up, they turn around and swim backwards. "This is known as the combat stroke,” says Commander D.S. Gahlot, 41, chief instructor. “It causes the minimum disturbance of the water, especially when you are using flippers and are in enemy waters.”

The men swim easily and don't look tired at all. After a 3 km swim, they reach the Navy Technical Unit. They take off their flippers, and walk, waist-deep, through 300m long mud flats on the edge of the river.

"This is to strengthen their thigh muscles and to enable them to walk on mud when they reach an enemy shore," says Commander Pankaj Kumar, training coordinator.

Following this, there is a break for breakfast. Later, there are three hours of diving, which includes an astonishing seven-minute session in a swimming pool. The hands and legs of the divers are tied with ropes, behind their backs, and they jump in.

“This is to instill a sense of supreme confidence,” says Sharma. “If they can stay afloat, tied like this, they know they can survive anything.” And indeed, Jai Bhagwan and R. S. Rathore, both 22, look calm, as they go down and come up again. Finally, the duo has to pick up swimming goggles from the pool floor with their teeth.

In the afternoon, after a 90 minute break, they begin with physical exercises and then have to confront an obstacle course, with 21 barriers. The soldiers have to climb walls, walk across a rope bridge, clamber through pipes, and crawl under a network of ropes.

The group seems to be in good physical condition and is able to tackle the obstacles easily. Says First Para Commander Shiv Kumar, "The course is tough, but we are managing." Lance Naik Deepak Singh says, with a wry smile, “We have never trained so hard before."

Commander Sharma says in the initial two-week screening process, 70 per cent fall off. "They lack the will power and the physical fitness," he says.

Following the obstacle course, there are cooling down exercises. It is only by 7 p.m. the divers are free. And since most of them prefer to eat food they have cooked, a gas stove is lit, just outside their quarters.

On a frying pan, astonishingly, they pour dollops of pure ghee, followed by a cup of masoor dal, tomato slices, with sprinklings of salt and chillies. This simple dish, to be eaten, with slices of bread, is so tasty that it has become famous all over the Naval Base. "My wife always asks me to bring some home," says Gahlot, with a laugh.

After dinner, the trainees look relaxed and all of them say diving is a sublime experience. But it takes the experienced divers to articulate what they feel. "When I am on the sea bed and look up, I can see this column of sheer blue water above me," says Sharma. "It is an unforgettable sight. Marine life, with its myriad colours, is stunning."

For Lieutenant Vikas Phogat, when he is under water, he feels connected to the rest of the earth. "It is so peaceful and quiet," he says. "You are far away from the hassles of daily life. When I come up, it is from heaven to hell."

So, is there any danger from marine life? "The rule under sea is very simple," says Commander Pankaj Kumar. "If you don't disturb the creatures, it will not disturb you."

He says there are several crocodiles in the harbour at Port Blair, where Navy divers go for regular training. But, so far, it has never attacked the divers.

"The crocodiles are friendlier than human beings," says Gahlot. "If you do not trouble them, they will not trouble you. The only creature who does the most damage on the planet is man."

Lieutenant R.S. Kumar highlights another experience. "At the bottom of the sea you realise how important every single breath is," he says. "We have to take slow breaths, so that the oxygen can last longer. Most people take breathing for granted, but we never do."

Dangers of diving

a) The sudden loss of oxygen is the biggest danger. This can happen if the oxygen tank loses pressure, or gets damaged. When this happens, the diver has to immediately surface or risk drowning. So, it is a must to check the tank before going underwater.

b) Another danger is decompression. If you submerge or come up too fast, higher-than-normal levels of oxygen enter into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on the circulatory system. These can become life-threatening if the person is not put into a decompression chamber. It is always safer to go down with another diver.

c) Sharks are the most dangerous creatures underwater. They can attack and dismember divers. Avoid known feedings grounds. Keep an eye out for the stings of eels and jellyfish.

d) Change in pressure underwater can cause the middle ear to suddenly ache. Though this happens all the time and is not dangerous, a diver should be aware of it.

e) After diving, a diver should clear his ears of water. Otherwise, he might he afflicted inflicted with inner ear barotrauma that can cause hearing impairment.

Nitrogen bubbles can kill you

In diving, if you abide by the rules, it is one of the safest sports. The rules are like this: whenever you make an ascent, it is mandatory to have a 5-minute stop at 3 metres. By breathing in a regular manner, at this juncture, the body is slowly able to adjust as it comes up to the surface.

Sometimes, when this stop does not take place and you go up too fast, a diver could suffer from decompression sickness. Like what happened to Subin J. Kalarikkal, 27, a diving instructor in the Lakshadweep islands.

On April 30 he was with a client, Rukhmini (name changed), at 18 metres below sea-level. When they were going back up Rukhmini started moving very fast. "You should always go up in a ‘controlled ascent,’" says Subin.

So he swam rapidly, and reached Rukhmini and slowed her down. But by doing this, in three seconds, he covered 10 metres. Hours later, when he was at home, Subin experienced a pain in his hip area. He realised that in hurrying up to Rukhmini, he might have aggravated decompression sickness.

So the next day he went to the general hospital at the nearby island of Agathi and inhaled oxygen. However, the pain persisted. On May 2, as a safety precaution, he was airlifted to the Navy Diving School in Kochi. There he entered a decompression chamber for four and a half hours.

"I was taken down to 18 metres and oxygen was administered," he says. "Soon, I felt fresh and energetic once again."

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

1 comment:

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