SLNS Gajabahu / The nation’s first line of defence | Sunday Observer

SLNS Gajabahu / The nation’s first line of defence

Cruising majestically at a speed of 28 knots is the newest addition to the naval fleet SLNS Gajabahu. As she cuts through the waves she forms a foaming ripple on the waterline as the spray covers her pennant number P-626. I went onboard this amazing vessel which has nine floors and two masts. Initially built for combat deployment during the Vietnam War this ship once belonged to the American Coast Guard and was named as USCGC Sherman.

Last year she was set to be handed over to the Sri Lanka Navy and the first batch of Sri Lankan officers and sailors visited her homeport of Honolulu, Hawaii where they trained for almost eight months with their American counterparts, before sailing this massive vessel to Colombo. Incidentally this sea passage from Hawaii to Colombo took forty days and is the longest sea passage of the Sri Lanka Navy and this voyage had the distinction of crossing the International Date Line (IDL) on April 6. This remarkable achievement was celebrated at sea in keeping with naval traditions. The ship sailed 8455 nautical miles to reach Colombo, having crossed the Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, Singapore and Malacca straits and the Andaman Sea.

Today the vessel carries the crest of a tusker symbolizing the power of King Gajabahu. Commanding Officer of SLNS Gajabahu, Captain Rohitha Abeysinghe leads a crew of 21 officers and 114 sailors. He explained “This vessel has a displacement of 3300 tons. She is 115 metres long and has a beam of 13 metres. She is equipped with a helipad”. I walked the length and breadth of this floating armed fortress along with her Executive Officer Commander Indika Silva and Navigation Officer Lt.Commander Ranaweera. The ship has five levels below deck and four levels above deck. The flight of ladders is quite confusing for a first timer and only accentuates the magnitude of such a large ship, almost equal to a frigate. Young sailors are moving back and forth through hatches. The bosons’ pipe sends out its high pitched signals above the winds. We walk on to level two where the ships main gun is mounted in a sealed dome like turret. This is a MK 76mm gun which unleashes salvos from a remote controlled firing system. Unlike other vessels in the fleet this main gun does not require a gunner on deck.

The target acquisition and firing is done from the Combat Information Centre under the command of the Principal Warfare Officer. In addition to this the vessel has medium and small guns fitted to enrich her firepower at sea, including a 23mm double gun at the rear. Life on SLNS Gajabahu has its own rewards for the crew. This is the first naval vessel in the fleet that comes with her own mini cinema and salon. The cinema has cozy blue cushioned seats. We stopped by at the galley (ships kitchen) where cooks were setting up for lunch. Some young sailors were on their tea break and shared their experience of being in Hawaii. It had been a rewarding experience for these young men, though for the first few days they missed their rice and curry. However soon they were able to indulge in the cuisine of their motherland onboard, with the Americans also happily enjoying some spicy food.

During their training the crew had to suddenly prepare for an incoming hurricane, which was another new experience. The men shared stories of seeing dolphins on their long voyage from Hawaii.

We mounted some ladders and were in the MCR- Main Control Room which is the heart of the ship with her engines and roaring turbines. This vessel has two Fairbank Morse 12 cylinder engines and two Pratt & Whitney gas turbines. Technical crews in blue overalls were busy checking the many valves and indicators. From here we passed through a hatch and entered the cabin of some junior sailors. Each air conditioned cabin has space for 14 men with bunk beds. Being on a ship makes it vital for teamwork and camaraderie. These sailors undertake deep sea patrols that last 11 days and if required can be at sea for 21 days. The ship is well stocked with food and water. The crews train every week maintaining their safety and firefighting drills. The bosons pipe unleashes yet another shrill signal as we found our way to the medical station. This room has the equipment required for basic surgery. After having some tea it was time to visit the wheel house. This location has a clear vantage point of the forecastle (where the main gun is positioned). Lt. Cdr. Ranaweera explained “We have two kinds of radar onboard.

One is the X-Band radar which can scan the horizon for 96 nautical miles and picks up the heat signatures of any vessel”. Small luminous yellow blips appear on the screen, indicating the presence of fishing boats and trawlers. The double masts have an array of antennas. One of the masts had an unusual green garland. It was later explained that this was a naval tradition, to indicate that one of the ships young officers was actually getting married on shore. This was a simple but beautiful gesture of naval brotherhood. After her commissioning parade a few days ago SLNS Gajabahu set out on her maiden deep sea patrol for 11 days. During this time she was able to rescue a sick fisherman at sea and transfer him to hospital.

The vessel has specialised sailors- divers, marines and members of the Special Boat Squadron. She is fitted with a rubber boat that has an endurance of 220 nautical miles. This boat can be launched by automatic hoists while the ship sails holding a cruising speed of 5 knots. The boarding party is armed and ready to approach and investigate suspicious vessels at sea. SLNS Gajabahu is fitted with a stabilised electronic horizon that can enable a pilot to land his chopper on the rear heli - deck at night. With her motto of ‘One ship- One crew” this formidable vessel is the pride of the navy.

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