Sentinel of the deep blue sea | Sunday Observer

Sentinel of the deep blue sea

While vigilant patrolling is a key element in coastal defence, the Navy has the onerous responsibility to protect our borders. The Sri Lanka Navy has a fleet of Off Shore Patrol Vessels (OPV) which venture out into the deep sea. One such OPV is SLNS Sagara (P-622) berthed at the Naval Dockyard in Trincomalee alongside a large landing craft.

One bright Friday morning when the radiant rays of the sun flashed out in splendour over the coast, I carefully made my entry along the gangway, following a Petty Officer. The vessel was built in India in 1991 and later given to Sri Lanka in February 2006. Sagara has a displacement of 1,367 tons with a length of 74.8 meters and a width of 8.4 meters. The crew consists of 120 men. Her present Commanding Officer is Captain Anura Danapala, a past student of Trinity College, Kandy.

As I walked up the gangway, I was greeted by the gangway guard, made up of a Duty Petty Officer, Guard Commander and Quarter Master. I was rather surprised to see the polished, wood panelled walls of the captain’s office (cabin), a contrast to the dark grey paint that often coats naval vessels. After formal greetings, Capt. Danapala introduced me to the ship’s young gunnery officer Lt. Cmdr.Edirisinghe.

We walk through a passage and a hatch opens to the ship’s “forecastle” (pronounced fowk-sul) which is the upper deck, forward of the foremast. This area comes under the direct responsibility of the gunnery officer, in the sailing tradition of the British Admiralty, as the ship’s primary armament the 30 mm Madak Gun is mounted on this position.

The rotating gun manned by a two man team has an effective range of 4,000 meters and an air target range of 2,000 meters. During live firing the gunners get orders from the bridge via “guncomm” communication system. The gun crew is put on rotation to keep the gunners alert and physically stable when engaging enemy targets.

The vessel’s fire power is supplemented by 12.7 mm mounted weapons which have a range of 6,765 meters. SLNS Sagara also has a heli- pad. When confronted, for example, with an enemy advance of small craft the gunnery officer can call in his “fire team” who, with their machine guns will create a suppressing “firewall” towards the approaching threat.

The forecastle also houses the mighty anchor, connected to 7 shackles (each shackle being 27 meters). The anchor is lowered only on the command of the Captain.

Naval terminology may be confusing to laymen. For a start, the left of a vessel is known as portside (indicated by red) the right is known as starboard (indicated by green). The kitchen is called a galley, and toilets are referred to as heads!

Engine Room

I also learnt from an officer, one of the meanings attached to the word NAVY- neat, able bodied, valiant, yachtsmen. SLNS Sagara sails on routine patrol travelling almost 200 nautical miles into the blue ocean (a nautical mile is 1.8km). Discipline and teamwork are a must to maintain the vessel at effective operational levels. Many departments work in harmony to ensure this.

The Engine Room is the heart of Sagara, generating continuous power that propels her to speeds of 19.5 knots. The officer in charge of this function is Cmdr. Lanka. He explains to me that the two 16 cylinder engines release 6,400 horsepower(x2). The diesel driven engines require daily checks and readings. Next to the engines is the MCR - Machinery Control Room where the throttles are located (in addition to the throttles on the bridge). By now, I have mildly mastered the art of going up and down the somewhat steep step ladders!

The engineering section provides fire fighting capacity to the OPV and uses a Hallon fire fighting system. I observe many pipelines painted in various hues.

Another vital duty performed by engineering is the conversion of sea water into fresh water using the reverse osmosis process. Sagara has a capacity to produce 10,000 litres a day.

The in-house garbage is sent to the Incinerator room and transformed into dust. International maritime laws forbid the random dumping of waste into the sea. In addition, the crews practice fire response drills, safety drills, and towing drills.

Damage control rounds are done every 2 hours to ensure highest operating standards.

A key drill on all naval vessels is the MOB - Man overboard, as a sailor may accidentally hit the water. Once alerted, the bridge will rapidly alter the sailing direction, to a 60 degree “harder port” turn.

This is to avoid the fallen sailor being sucked into the ship’s turning propeller which can indeed be fatal. There are life rafts that automatically inflate when released and can hold up to 50 sailors in a major emergency. A 24 hour sick bay has two qualified paramedics on duty who specialize in combat medicine.

Sailing domain

I enter the Bridge (wheel house), the “sailing domain” of the vessel. It is where the Captain sits and directs his team.

The Navigation Officer also makes an important contribution. Lt. Cmder J. Ranaweera shows me an array of compasses, GPS systems and radars. In addition, the OPV has a chart room where the course is plotted using sea maps. The sextant is still used to locate nautical bearings. During the voyage the officers take turns in being the OOW- Officer of the Watch. For this, they must be competent in BWK (bridge watch keeping). Above the bridge is the bridge top, a section that offers an extended view and houses the antenna mast. Sentries are posted here at times to enhance visual observation.

The Communication department ensures that the ship is connected to her shore command and other naval vessels at sea. The Navy uses a system of 69 flags and pennants to express a set of messages.

The Quarter Master also uses his whistle to blow certain signals to the crew (the call is known as piping). I remember in his entertaining book ”Spit and Polish” Carl Muller makes much reference to the Quarter Master’s pipe! At sea, the men need to be fed and morale kept high. The catering and mess crews do an amazing job in a rather confined space, turning out fresh cuisine.

Cooking on-board

Cooking on-board a vessel at sea is not that easy, as the cooks must be alert at the stove as the vessel ploughs through the waters which can be turbulent at times. The Supply Officer maintains sufficient stock for each voyage. The sailors are housed in a mess, according to their ranks and enjoy a reasonable level of comfort.

They have access to television and board games. Discipline is maintained by the DI- Drill Instructor. This robust sailor’s uniform displays a golden chain link cord. Naval vessels are loaded with British sailing customs.

On December 31, her bell is rung by the youngest sailor 16 times, 8 times to ring away the old year and 8 times to herald in the New Year.

Having sat down to a delicious lunch of rice and curry with the officers of Sagara, I return to the captain’s office where I observe a framed quote by Joseph Conrad which best captures the role of a naval captain at sea,

“There is one who alone is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. This is the most demanding assignment of the Navy.”