This is a guest article, written by the DH on his personal experience on board the now decommissioned Foxtrot sub INS Vela
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t had to listen to a submarine ‘old timer’ going on and on about the beauty, sleek lines and power of the Foxtrot Submarine. How many of us haven’t been accosted by an old sea dog at the Submarine Day Ball, staggering slightly, and happily tipsy, eager to find a youngster to regale, with stories of his Glory Days on a Foxtrot. The list will be short I am sure. And while these graceful boats may finally have found eternal berthing in the great dockyard beyond the skies, their memories live on in us, inspired by the stories we pass on, and tales that bring alive a bygone era that fewer and fewer of us can claim to have been a part of. Here is a story however, that is unique to the crew of INS Vela that as far as I know, has not been written of until now. I have no doubt that what Vela and her crew experienced on that day was like nothing any other Indian submarine has ever experienced – the force of a tsunami.
Almost every one of us can remember where we were at 6.28 AM on 26 Dec 2004. The underwater earthquake that occurred on that day, and the tsunami it created, resulted in the deaths of almost a quarter of a million people from Indonesia to Africa, and it left a trail of devastation across the expanse of the entire Indian Ocean. Entire towns were swept away, and anything that stood in the path of the killer waves was completely destroyed, all except for one single boat out at sea and her intrepid crew, unmindful of the danger that would soon engulf them.
The control room depth gauge read a steady 65m as the watch on duty calmly went about their duties, scanning instruments, checking bilge levels and easing off a little on the bow planes. The CO was a notoriously light sleeper, and like any good CO, hyper-sensitive to changes in the boat’s trim even in his sleep. The Trim Officer, eager to finish his watch and not wanting to incur any unwanted attention from the ’Old Man’ nudged the bow upward by transferring a few hundred litres of water through the trimming system. It was just like any other day at sea, the cooks were hard at work in the cramped galley, a line was building up outside the WC, and off duty men were trying to squeeze in a few minutes of sleep before breakfast and the start of exercises for the day. Like any other Navigating Officer at sea, I was relishing a few minutes away from my post in the chart house, off watch but never completely off duty, drifting in and out of sleep on my bunk in the second compartment. The time on the ships clock – 06:43.
And then, without warning, the shaking started.
The closest I have been to a depth charge attack is during a PLAB (air dropped underwater explosive) drop that was done about a mile from our submarine during an exercise. Even though we knew it was a drill, and the explosion was a safe distance from us, the shock waves caused our hull to shudder under the stress, heavy machinery wobbled on it’s shock mounting and a couple of bulbs even shattered in their holders until the vibrations subsided. The PLAB drop was like a ripple in a saucer compared to the Tsunami shock wave that passed through Vela on the morning of 26 Dec.
Like many others who were asleep at the time, I was thrown out of my bunk with the force of the first impact. Instinctively knowing what to do, using the bulkheads for support, and following the CO who was already ahead of me, I made my way aft towards the hatch into the control room, where the EXO was shouting orders to isolate compartments, shut hatches, and seal ventilation trunkings to prevent the spread of any flooding. It was truly a surreal scene in the control room, the entire submarine was shuddering violently, the hull creaking ominously and men holding onto any support they could find. Light bulbs were clattering noisily in their holders and the myriad of pipes were rattling uncontrollably.
What had happened? “The Depth Gauges have failed. We have hit the bottom!” someone shouted. Had we crashed into the sea bottom? Or maybe an uncharted sea-mount? Perhaps we had been caught in a fishing net and were being dragged! “Report Inspection”, the EXO barked into the intercom and like clockwork, one by one replies crackled through the faithful old kastan speaker– No damage, no fires, no leaks observed. And yet the submarine continued to shudder and tremble. It went on for at least two agonisingly long minutes. If one can picture a dog shaking off water after a dip in the sea, that is how Vela was being violently thrown about. And then, as abruptly as it had begun, the vibrations suddenly subsided completely, and we were left feeling like we had been in a dream, the boat was peaceful again, just as she had been not three minutes earlier, planing calmly and serenely through the water, the depth gauge still showing a steady 65m. There was an eerie stillness in the water. Later that day, I entered in the ships log, “0643 – Experienced unknown powerful vibrations for two to three minutes”
Bewildered and confused, we had no idea what had just happened and since all systems were functioning, and no damage had been reported, we carried on with our drills for the rest of day, blissfully unaware of the disastrous events that were unfolding ashore both nearby and hundreds of miles away. It was only later that evening, when we came up to periscope depth to charge our batteries, that our radio operator heard the news and informed us of the tsunami that had struck.
In hindsight it occurred to me that we were not hit by the tsunami wave, but by the shock wave of the earthquake itself. The tsunami waves took nearly three hours to reach the Indian Peninsula whereas we had been hit within minutes of the actual earthquake, which could only be possible if the waves had travelled at the speed of sound – almost 3000 knots underwater (three times faster than a fighter jet). If only we had known, we might have surfaced and radioed a warning, perhaps thousands could have been saved! But alas, such an incident with a submarine has never been documented and we were ignorant to the enormity of what was to come. Estimates put the energy released by the shock wave at more than 1500 Hiroshima Atomic Bombs, and while just a tiny fraction of this energy impacted INS Vela that morning, I have no doubt that despite her vintage of nearly 32 years, it was her classic U-boat design, superb build quality, and the alertness and training of her crew that saw her through this dangerous encounter with the fury of mother nature.
Now I too have a ‘Foxtrot’ story to tell, someday when I am older, retired, and at a Submarine Day Ball.