Midshipmen of our day, and for quite some time thereafter, used to spend two terms, about a year in all, on board the training ship PNS BABUR, on conclusion of which they were subjected to the gruelling Midshipmen Fleetboard exams. With BABUR scheduled to go into long refit, our midshipman class got dispersed, some getting transferred to destroyers and some to smaller vessels like minesweepers and Fast Patrol Boats. Two of us found themselves on board US-origin minesweepers. My colleague, being borne on a non-operational vessel, accompanied us on a couple of trips to sea, and was accorded the privilege of being fondly referred to by the CO as the ‘guest midshipman’.
On joining PNS MUBARAK, the solitary piece of advice I received from the Executive Officer was: “The CO comes at 0730, you must receive him; I come at 0930 – have a transport problem, you see – you needn’t receive me”. Within the next fortnight, the XO got transferred without relief, and all the three operational minesweepers started being tasked for coastal patrol in rotation. After programming in two major factors, namely the relatively slow designed speed of a minesweeper and the fact that the returning vessel was expected to be relieved off Ormara, time in harbour of each of these ships roughly equalled the time at sea. If three more factors are programmed in – the poor sea-keeping qualities of the said vessels, the strict water rationing that had to be enforced on board and the need to enforce 6 hour long defence watches on the bridge – one can gain a better insight of life at sea at the time.
Anyway, the XO-cum-NO used to take one watch, while the CO himself (with me as the non-qualified working component) tackled the other. While on the bridge, the CO was fond of drinking tea, reading books and smoking cigarettes, though not necessarily in that order. Most of the time he got so absorbed in his thoughts that he failed to realize that the tip of his cigarette needed an occasional tapping into the ashtray. Looking beyond this serious façade, I could smell a whiff of humour lurking in the wings (I can just about visualize my stern-faced English teacher at school reproaching me for mixing my metaphors). After giving it what Shakespeare called “a local habitation and a name”, I narrated the joke to the two people (the NO and the guest midshipman) I thought would get it; the ones who had also imbibed the same nighttime shipboard atmosphere. It went something like this: On one of the night watches at sea, the CO kept telling me to take necessary action to avoid the boat whose flickering light he could see on the starboard bow. However much I strained to see, I couldn’t spot it for some reason and put it down to the extra-sensory perception that all COs seemed to be gifted with. When he finally noticed my quizzical look, he blurted out in exasperation, “Dammit, can’t you see it even now? It can’t get closer than this!” After a pregnant pause, the stillness of the night was jarred by a sharp sound as of fingers being snapped, followed by a loud exclamation, “Drat it, it’s the end of my cigarette”.
May I hasten to add that this harmless joke was not born out of malice, but was rather the product of a specific environment, inclusive of stress and opportunity. The opportunity and inspiration was furnished by a larger- than -life setting. Stress in the form of the looming fleetboard exams, while spending a major bulk of my time battling the elements, was countered by the antidote of humour. I must however confess that I wasn’t quite prepared to have this joke repeated to me almost three and a half decades later during an evening walk at NORE II as if it was the gospel truth. The joke had come full circle, almost like the proverbial message in a bottle.
While doing the Ag Sub Lieutenants professional courses at PNS HIMALAYA, the one face we got intimately familiar with was the dark pock-marked one of the Gunnery Instructor who used to accompany the class on our regular post-division doubling forays to the HIMALAYA jetty and back. I like to think that the only reason the class was singled out every time for collective punishment was only to strike ‘dehshat’ (dread) in the hearts of the new entry sailors and shore up the Gunnery Officer’s credentials as an uncompromising toughie. Anyway, towards the end of our stay, we were pleasantly surprised, and the GI was undoubtedly pleasantly relieved, at his promotion to officer rank. On approaching the said GI for offering our felicitations, we couldn’t help overhearing this gem of wisdom that he was spouting to his erstwhile colleagues: “Pyarey, Officer banna aasaan hai, maintain karna mushkil hai”. This is indeed a lesson most of us can do well to remember.
The next phase of our professional training took us to the communication school at PNS KARSAZ, where the disciplinary standards were so taut that the class instructors, predominantly CPOs, were reluctant to even leave us alone for the mandatory five minute breaks between periods. During one such break, the instructor waxed eloquent on the theme of the Pakistan Navy being the best profession in the country, till he was interrupted by a class participant. “Excuse me, Chief Saab,” he interjected, “there is one profession which is even better”. “And which is that?” the Chief asked, puzzled. “Merchant Navy”, he said, spitting out each word with utmost deliberation, “coupled with smuggling”.
The first ship I got posted to for earning my bridge watch-keeping competency was PNS MUKHTAR, a US-origin minesweeper of the type I had served in earlier as a midshipman. Not too long after joining, I was required to take over navigation duties at immediate notice as the Navigation Officer had failed to turn up for some reason while the ship was about to proceed to sea. The CO was a bit more relaxed when the ship was returning to port. “Pervaiz Asghar”, he said suddenly, “this the first time you are independently bringing a ship in?” I nodded. “You must be quite nervous then? he persisted. “Certainly am, Sir,” I replied. “Don’t be”, he went on, “when I was bringing a ship in for the first time, I took it in the wrong channel”.
The Commanding Officer was once holding court at the weekly Requestman and Defaulters table. A junior sailor had put up a request for change of branch to Regulating, as he was finding it very difficult to cope with seasickness. “Research”, the CO advised, “has proved that almost everyone feels seasick, while 99% get over it ultimately”. “So you don’t have to worry”, the CO added reassuringly, “‘cause I am that unfortunate 1%”.
Note: This was published in the February 2012 issue of the ‘Navy News’.