Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tackling piracy in the high seas

On August 15, Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran of the Indian Coast Guard was awarded the Tatrakshak Medal (Gallantary) by President Pratibha Patil for apprehending Somali pirates. Chandran talks about the incident off the coast of Lakshwadeep Islands

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran; The Somali prisoners on the deck of the 'Samar'

On August 16, in his spacious office of the Indian Coast Guard in Fort Kochi, Deputy Inspector General T.K. Sathish Chandran has a smile on his face. He has every reason to be happy. A day earlier, it had been announced that he had been awarded the Tatrakshak Medal (Gallantary) by President Pratibha Patel, on the occasion of Independence Day.

A section of the citation ran as follows: 'The officer exhibited an astute sense of aggressive tactics, with correct evaluation and solutions in a highly volatile and developing situation.'

This was what happened: Chandran received a message on the evening of February 5 that there were pirate ships in the area. This was around 90 miles from Lakshadweep.

“The sun was setting, when we went in search of this ship,” he says. Chandran was the commander of the Advance Offshore Patrol Vessel, ‘Samar’, which had a crew of 110.

“I devised a plan that we would pretend to be a merchant ship,” he says. “The pirates generally look at a ship that is going at a speed of 10 to 12 knots in the merchant ship lanes. I kept a steady course to give the impression that I am heading towards a particular country, with all the lights on.”

At 3.45 a.m., the lookout reported that something was closing in at a fast speed. It turned out to be a small boat. “The Somali pirates attacked us from the back,” says Chandran. “We returned fire.” But it was when they came very close that the pirates realised that it was not a merchant vessel. They started shouting, “Warship, warship,” and hurriedly turned back. The ‘Samar’ gave chase.

“We tracked them on the radar,” says Chandran The pirates returned to the mother ship and started moving away. It was a Thai fishing trawler, called Prantalay-II, which had been captured a year ago by these pirates.

Meanwhile, the crew gradually increased the use of force. “Initially, we flashed a light, to indicate to them to stop,” says Chandran. When that did not work, light and heavy machine guns were used, aimed at the bridge and the control room.

Finally, at 7 a.m., the Carl Gustav rocket launcher was used. “It makes a lot of noise,” says Chandran. “We aimed it 10 feet from the ship, and the water rose up in huge waves. We shot again. The Somalis realised the ship was going to be sunk. After that, all the people came on deck, holding white flags and waving shirts.”

There were 28 Somalis and 24 members of a crew, who had been held hostage.

Chandran asked the men to jump into the water. It was from a height of 40 feet. Most did so without any life jackets. A few held rubber tubes and pieces of thermocole. “They were excellent swimmers,” says Chandran.

The men were rescued one by one. Only 11 Somalis remained on the deck because they did not know how to swim. “They were arrested later by a boarding party,” says Chandran. “The Somalis were just robbers. When they encountered a stronger force, they wilted.”

The Thai crew was in bad shape. “The Somalis had been extremely cruel, and adequate food or water had not been given to them,” says Chandran. “Only the captain and the chief engineer were treated well, because they knew how to navigate the ship. The others were psychologically damaged.”

It was decided to take the group to Mumbai. But the journey turned out to be hazardous, as the ‘Samar’ had to tow the engine-damaged trawler. The tow rope, 64mm thick, broke four times. “The trawler would drift off,” says Chandran. “We had to go around and make another approach, before attaching it again. Ship handling is the toughest test for any captain. This happened in the middle of the night, in rough seas.”

Today, the Somalis languish in jail in Mumbai, while the crew, after a month's rest in Bangkok, flew to Mumbai and took the ship back to Thailand.

Eventually, it was an enriching experience for Chandran as a leader. “There were many doubts in my mind about whether I was making the right decisions or not,” he says. “In a fast-developing situation, things keep changing all the time. Luckily for me, that day, I made all the right moves. My 14 years of experience in command of ships helped me a lot. Nevertheless, in the end, it was touch and go.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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