Oman and India: Brothers united by the sea
December 5, 2018 | 5:09 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan

There’s a certain something about the Navy that’s truly stirring. It’s a truly inspiring sight to see a battleship, flags waving in the breeze, its emblems glinting against the rays of the morning sun as this mighty engine of war pulls into port, dwarfing you as you stand beside it.

As you look up, your hand raised against your forehead, you can’t help but be amazed at the sense of might and power that such a vessel exudes, its sole purpose the defence

of people those on board have sworn to protect. The brave officers and sailors voluntarily give up their civilian clothes that you and I take for granted and exchange them for the white and blue uniforms of navies all across the world along with the responsibilities that go with them. They say goodbye to their families and spend several months as defenders of the sea with barely a few weeks to spend with their loved ones. They head back to the open waters to take on the duties they vowed to never shirk.

To see these brave men and women in action and in the flesh is truly humbling. Naval sailors go through some of the hardest training regimens across the armed forces, and you’d think that they’d be a few hours of down time for them when they pulled into port. A chance for them to stretch their legs and blow off some steam before once again embarking on the high seas.

Any rest that would be coming their way would have to wait: T-weekly was recently invited to check out three ships of the Indian Navy that had come to Oman, as part of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a multilateral training exercise across navies of the Indian Ocean Region to increase preparedness and togetherness, should they need to answer a united call to defend the region.

Sailors from both countries stood proud across their ships, their right hands raised to their temples in crisp salutes. On shore, a guard of honour, assembled from naval soldiers, stood rigidly at attention, their freshly laundered naval tunics as white as the foam the ships left in their wake. It was truly a humbling sight to see these young sailors, who had spent the last fortnight on active duty in the open sea, delay their rest just a bit longer to welcome us on board their immaculately maintained vessels.

The Royal Navy of Oman had sent one of its prize yachts, Zeenat Al Bahar, to Kochi, where the latest edition of the IONS was taking place, and having flown the Sultanate’s flag in India, sailors on three Indian ships would be sailing with their Omani brethren back to Muscat.

INS Tarangini and INS Sudarshini, two yachts used by naval cadets of the Indian Navy, and patrol vessel INS Sujata, docked at Oman’s Port Sultan Qaboos alongside the Zeenat Al Bahar, the flotilla having departed from Kochi on the 14th of November. In doing so, the two navies were sending a very symbolic message: Oman and India were not only brothers at sea, but they had been for millennia. The routes they took traced the ancient trade routes across the Gujarat coastline and the Malabar Coast that once connected the Arabian Gulf to India, a route which brought thriving trade in the form of frankincense, spices, dates and precious stones between the two regions millennia ago, a practice that carries on to this day.

“We also recreated the ancient trading routes between India and Oman, which go back in fact not just centuries, but millennia,” said Vice Admiral Anil Kumar Chawla, Flag Officer Commanding at the Indian Navy’s Southern Naval Command. “There was in fact vibrant trade in the past between Muscat and the Malabar Coast as well as Gujarat. I would also like to add that the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy of Oman have the closest relations. We started bilateral exercises way back in 1993, and we completed 25 years of naval relations this year.

“Another objective was to get as many member of the IONS as possible. We have many young naval cadets on these ships,” he added. “We have representatives from Australia, England, China, the Maldives, Sri Lank and Bangladesh on board INS Tarangini, and being on board has strengthened the bonds of friendship among these young people. This was the aim of this programme and we are glad to have met its objectives. We are most grateful to the Royal Navy of Oman and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos for giving us the Royal Yacht for this event, and to the Royal Navy of Oman for supporting us.”

IONS was begun as by the Indian Navy in 2008 as a voluntary initiative to boost cooperation across navies of the Indian Ocean rim. It brings together key naval personnel and policymakers of these nations to identify and develop solutions to areas of cooperation, such as security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). In the last 10 years, the activity has grown very significantly and consists of 32 member nations.

For many of the Omani sailors travelling to India, it would be the first time they’d taken part in such a large-scale exercise. The trip is after all, designed for younger cadets, who were steered in the right direction by Lieutenant Commander Salim bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Moani, the Commanding Officer of Zeenat Al Bahar.

“The trip was fantastic, and actually, we didn’t experience any difficulties,” he told T weekly. “The navigation was good, but we did have some bad weather in the final few hours just outside Kochi, but in general, we had a very good experience. Being invited to join and participate in this event, it was an honour. We are delighted to participate in events like this, and we were so impressed and it was great to participate, really.

“We also received a great welcome by the Indians,” added Lt Cdr Al Moani. “The navigation was very good since the time we left Oman, except for a little bit of bad weather outside Kochi for two or three hours, and the rest of it was very good. Since we left for Kochi from Muscat, we never used the sail continuously. On Zeenat Al Bahar, we used the engine for five days continuously, and we alternated with the sail. This was a great experience for us. Of course, our sailors enjoyed the trip and they took a lot of experience from the sailors in India as well as the officers, so this was a great experience for all of us. Most of the officers from Oman have been trained for navigation, this is like a second nature for them.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Commander Rahul Mehta, Commanding Officer of INS Tarangini. For him, leading the Tarangini was doubly special.

“I was a cadet on board this ship and I am among the first to be commanding the same ship,” he said. “This ship teaches you the basics of sailing. You get connected to the elements of sailing, such as the water, the sea, the breeze and the winds. It starts from scratch...if you need to learn to ride a motorbike, you need to learn to ride a bicycle first. This is what gives you the basics. Once you are here, you can go anywhere, so this is a stepping stone.

“Zeenat Al Bahar started from Kochi on the 11th of this month, and the journey had been going on for about 18 days,” he said. “It has been a privilege to sail with them and we are very happy to be in Muscat. The cadets get used to sailing on the open water. It takes at most 24 to 48 hours, and that’s all that matters, because after that you are fine. It’s a beautiful experience because they learn to do these things as a team. You are a team or 15 cadets and six sea riders, so they become a team within no time, and that was the idea of this.”

For many of the ensigns on board the flotilla, it would be their first time out on the open water. They were to learn the art of handling a ship on the open seas, where the waves can become extremely rough, and require a firm hand at the helm, a skill that only comes with experience. Handling a ship, after all, is not all plain sailing, especially when the lives of so many depend on the hand at the tiller.

“The cadets here complete four years of training in the Indian Naval Academy or the National Defence Academy, so they have several opportunities to go to sea,” said Vice Admiral Chawla. “They have sailed smaller boats and yachts so it is not that they are stepping onto a vessel for the first time, but they are stepping onto this sort of ship for the first time so it is indeed a challenge. For example, when you man the masts at sea, and there is bad weather during a storm, you have to hurry to bring down the sails, because there is a very small window that you have before they can get damaged,” he added.

“We have a very close relationship with the Royal Navy of Oman, and we have the best of experiences,” he added. “We are like brothers at sea. I would say they are very professional, very competent, it is a highly professional navy, and we are privileged to be associated with them.”

The sailors would stay in Muscat for three days, a chance for them to get some R&R while their reliable vessels were given the once-over at port. In a way, it was good they were coming to Muscat...the laid-back nature of the Sultanate was just what they’d need after the hard graft they’d put in on the waves.

The sailors on board these ships would surely make the most of their time on land, because they know that snatches of peace such as these are few and far between. They are after all, always ready to heed the call to arms at a moment’s notice. It is just another day in the life of a sailor, and we thank them for it.

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