The strong winds hissed violently as the Ampan cyclone unleashed its fury in the Indian Ocean. The waves tossed with increasing momentum. The gusty wind coupled with heavy rain caused fear among coastal communities. The Fisheries Department had alerted all multi-day fishing trawlers to remain in the safety of their local harbours. However some fishermen had set off to sea, not realizing the imminent danger ahead. It was after a few days that the regional harbour was updated on the missing trawlers, which had now drifted terribly off course. The wind speed reached upto 185 kmph. Officers of the Fisheries Department repeatedly tried to contact the lost vessels calling on their radio channels.
There was radio silence. Tension had engulfed the families of these fishermen. A ray of hope appeared when radio contact was finally established. The desperate fishermen pleaded for rescue. Authorities were given to understand that about 30 fishing trawlers had been swept away almost 700 nautical miles, near the sea area of Indonesia and the Andaman Islands. Unable to navigate in the raging sea and out of fuel, this group of about 180 men waited for their deliverance.
The Off Shore Patrol Vessel, SLNS Samudura is presently attached to Southern Naval Command. She was docked at Hambantota, engaged in her naval routine. Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva, Navy Commander had instructed the Director General Operations (Navy Head Quarters) to immediately launch a search mission. Every country has a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). In Colombo the MRCC is located at Navy Head Quarters. During an emergency seafarers on merchant ships can normally call for help on Channel 16- the international distress call frequency. The position of vessels can also be traced via the VMS (Vessel Monitoring System).
On the morning of 21 May (Thursday) the Captain of SLNS Samudura received the signal from Navy Head Quarters to set sail. Switching into duty alert mode the officers and sailors moved quickly to prepare for this challenging task. Navy crews train regularly to respond to such maritime emergencies, in all weather conditions. The OPV had to carry an additional load of fuel for the stranded trawlers, along with food rations. At this early stage the Navy did not know if any of the fishermen were ill and required medical attention. Accordingly Navy medics also formed part of this 100 man crew. A large naval vessel is subject to the frenzied “pitch and roll” of the mighty ocean during storm conditions. Even the routine task of cooking onboard, becomes a challenge with the ship’s movement in the rough seas, even with stabilisers engaged.
SLNS Samudura (P-621) has a displacement of 759 tons and a speed of 18 knots. She is powered by two V16 Alco diesel engines and can facilitate the landing of a Eurocopter Dolphin Helicopter on deck. Her routine sailing tasks include surveillance and patrolling the deep seas. She is fitted with advanced radar, navigation systems and powerful search lights.
SLNS Samudura sailed out of Hambantota on this dangerous voyage. Her Captain and Navigating officer had to hold a steady course by day and night. As she cruised towards her goal, heavy rain lashed out. Below deck sailors were engaged in their routine tasks. Meanwhile senior officers at Navy Headquarters earnestly monitored the ships progress. Each nautical mile sailed was a mile closer to the stranded men whose families depended on the Navy to bring back their husbands, uncles, nephews, sons and brothers. Children waited anxiously to see their fathers once again. In the cold dark night the 180 fishermen sat in the light of their fading lanterns, pondering their fate o the faraway seas.
During a search mission the ship’s bridge is a very busy place. When visibility was not clear SLNS Samudura had to sound her fog horn, to inform others ships of her presence. The ships hail out bellowed “Close all doors and hatches”- a command given during intense rain. Once the rain ceased the Captain positioned “lookouts” on the starboard (right side) and port (left side). The sailors scanned the sea with their powerful binoculars. Shortly after sunrise on 23 May (Saturday) a sailor reported the sighting of a few trawlers to the ship’s Officer of the Watch.
SLNS Samudura had located the first few trawlers. A sense of relief spread through the ship and Navy Head Quarters was informed of the first phase of success. The fishermen were overjoyed. Over the next hour more stranded trawlers were sighted. But the mission was not yet 100 percent complete. The trawlers had to be safely refueled at sea, via a large hose. Naval crews are very competent in this routine drill called RAS (Replenishment At Sea). The fishermen’s health condition was checked while still adhering to the strict Covid-19 prevention guidelines and other maritime regulations. Most of Saturday was spent checking and refueling the trawlers. The fishermen received ample food and water.
Having ensured that the trawlers were ready for the return journey, the men set sail for Sri Lankan shores. During the return journey SLNS Samudura guided the trawlers like a beacon. Her large presence was a comforting reminder, like that of a protective guardian. By May 25 (Monday) the Navy vessel and trawlers had sailed almost 500 nautical miles. They had 200 nautical miles remaining. The families of these poor fishermen were notified by the fisheries authorities of their imminent return. The anxiety in their hearts was instantly replaced with joy.
After enduring a long voyage of 1500 nautical miles amidst battering waves and howling winds, SLNS Samudura reached Sri Lankan waters. The fishermen were home after their frightening ordeal. Even as the nation faced a deadly pandemic, the Sri Lanka Navy had once again fulfilled its obligation to save lives at sea. This was a noble moment when Sri Lankans went in search of their fellow citizens. This is a manifestation of our humanity. This search mission by SLNS Samudura will be remembered forever in our annals.