A Navy all at sea with little sleep

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep

E Joseph Cossman

Over a decade ago, I was the Executive Officer of a frontline warship – the missile corvette INS Khukri. Widely acknowledged as one of the most challenging ships to serve as ‘EXO’, these ships are well known for their compact size and formidable firepower. Bristling with weapon systems, they partake in all fleet exercises with the same gusto as capital ships albeit with one-fourth the manning. My situation during that assignment mostly resembled that of Al Pacino in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 movie ‘Insomnia’. Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect over my tenure through rose-tinted glasses of an aviator accustomed to the privilege of elaborate rules and regulations covering ‘fatigue’ and ‘flight duty time limits (FDTL)’. I pondered over how fatigue and insomnia is hardly acknowledged as an issue on our warships. Often aviators posted on ships become the subject of jokes centred around their mandatory ‘8-hour beauty sleep’ requirement!

In the last decade, Indian Navy has seen several high profile accidents with many lives lost. A little past midnight of 13 / 14 August 2013, INS Sindhurakshak, a Kilo-class submarine exploded into a huge fireball while being prepared for an early morning sortie on Independence Day killing 18 personnel. INS Vindhyagiri, a Leander-class frigate sank in Mumbai harbour on Monday, 31 Jan 2011. The frigate commissioned in 1981, hit a merchant vessel near Sunk Rock lighthouse on Sunday 30th Jan, as it was entering harbour after a ‘day at sea’ for families of sailors and officers. In 2010, a crew member onboard INS Mumbai was instantly killed when a close-in weapon system went off in harbour during drills. Having known key officers on that ship, I am aware of an explosive mix of crew fatigue and relentless operational pressure that was surging in the run up to that accident which was ultimately blamed on violation of SOPs and human error. Nobody acknowledged fatigue, publicly at least. We seldom drill beyond the surface, content as we are with the finding of human error. On 5th Dec 2016, INS Betwa, a 3850-ton guided missile frigate keeled over during undocking post medium refit at Mumbai with loss of two lives. This is the latest in a series of accidents that have plagued the Navy, showing no signs of waning despite the resignation of navy chief Admiral DK Joshi in Feb 2014.

While all the inquiry reports submitted till date have assigned blame on ageing platforms, technological obsolescence, all-encompassing human error etc., the likely contribution of fatigue has been understated or completely brushed under the rug. Not surprising in a navy that is numerically smaller than other services but prides itself on working harder than others to stake claim to a greater proportion of the defence budget. Life on our ships is hard, made ever harder by the mounting national and international engagements as we play a greater role in shaping events beyond our shores. Unfortunately, in our culture safety and comfort become easy casualties in the 24/7 operational tempo. Working over weekends & holidays, sailing out on Fridays and returning to port on Mondays, disproportionate balance of work between afloat and shore agencies, poor habitability on ships – the list goes on. We have no doubt improved habitability on our ships compared to the 80s and 90s. But have we allowed our officers or men to soak in these modern luxuries for rest and recreation (R&R)? I think not. As a Commanding Officer or operations staff at HQ, it is taboo to even acknowledge that people on our ships & submarines may be way too tired.

While exercising with foreign navies, it is not uncommon to find sailors lazing around in their trunks on the upper deck on a holiday. Our sailors will usually be hanging down the ship’s side, applying an extra coat of paint to improve the ship’s appearance under the Nelson’s eye of senior officers who have been groomed under the same culture. Quite a few officers may be working on infructuous PPTs or curating functions. As an example, imagine the number of things running in the minds of officers & sailors as they prepare to embark on a two-month, cross-coast deployment early next morning. Who wouldn’t want to spend an extra hour with families or hang out in the bar? On the eve of your departure, how would you like to be tasked with hosting a grand farewell party onboard your ship for some visiting dignitary with the Fleet Commander & Commander-in-Chief in attendance? I have been through this. So have many others. When we sailed early next morning, more than 75% of the Ships Company and officers had hardly slept a wink. Soon after leaving harbour, we were consumed by the relentless orgy of exercises that have come to define our fleet deployments. Who is keeping account of fatigue and its unseen hand in errors of judgment that may arise in such situations, only to be classified as human error in subsequent inquiries?

Ships undergoing maintenance refits have a different bag of woes. Since refits are mostly dockyard responsibility (on paper at least), the ship is an easy target for communal duties that operational ships cannot fill. Ships in dockyards work under immense stress caused due to extremely poor habitability conditions, extraneous secondary duties, poaching of manpower by higher formations, and finally ‘inherited’ tasks which are actually the responsibility of dockyard and its civilian workforce (who incidentally are unionised and governed by more elaborate and protectionist rules). Added to this is the fact that tenure spent on a ship in refit does nothing to your career and is a thankless duty as far as promotions and ACRs go. If all this doesn’t cause fatigue and propensity for errors, I don’t know what will.

In an article that appeared online (Timing is everything: Watching the clock may hold a clue to the INS Betwa accident), Girish Shahane draws some interesting inferences from the work-sharing equation between dockyard and refit ships and timing of the Betwa accident, lunch hour on a Monday. This from his experience of filming a documentary two decades ago in the same dockyard. I couldn’t help but relate to his plausible but as yet unproven hypothesis. But sadly, even after two decades the Service will be loath to acknowledge fatigue as a factor in this or future accidents.

Navies do not work Monday to Friday. Or 9 to 5. Neither does the adversary. That is not my case. Watch systems, manning plans and degrees of readiness were all formulated to ensure an equitable distribution of work and rest. But at play is a serious disorder where ‘one-year syndrome’ and ‘zero-error syndrome’ have contrived to ensure that personnel on our ships are often fatigued and sleep deprived to insane levels. The hierarchical structure and ‘yes boss’ culture doesn’t allow for R&R in the true sense that our predecessors ordained while framing the rules. ‘Make & mend’ – an age old naval routine where sailors are allowed an afternoon off to attend to their clothing or as a period of leisure without set duties, is observed more in the breach today.

As we aspire to become a blue water force, a change in mindset at all levels is perhaps in order. Weapon firings, overseas deployments, multilateral exercises, docking, undocking, annual reports – it’s all very well. But let us also give our officers and men time and freedom to put on a hat, extend a fishing rod over the side and read their favourite book as often as we can. The manhours ‘wasted’ in these idle pursuits may well reap unimaginable payback by way of accidents averted by alert crew members – just like in aviation.

Material fatigue can cause dock blocks to collapse and keel-over ships. So can human fatigue. Who is measuring the latter?



©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2016. All rights reserved.

43 thoughts on “A Navy all at sea with little sleep

  1. Hi KPS how true!! No one wants to acknowledge the fatigue factor. Hope the system acknowledges this fact and does some much needed course correction.
    Very well written. Bravo

  2. So true. All the points brought out are well known but rarely acknowledged, by higher formations, senior officers and the top decision makers.
    In a bid to please the auditors who account for engine hours are accounted, especially on the fast attack boats, by scheduling exercises at sea back to back. By the time the crew enters harbour, a potentially dangerous evolution, where undivided attention and concentrating are required, they always end up tired and sometimes hungry.

    Lack of dockyard resources leads to the ship’s staff putting extra hours just before sailing out. Imagine staying awake and hungry while handling ammunition with a tight deadline. Disasters are waiting to happen for those refusing to acknowledge their limits for the live of their promotions. When stepping into the nuclear age, it is even more critical to match resources and capabilities as also to acknowledge limits of operational envelope

  3. Well put thoughts. I have been part of this great service. However, the line between being disciplined and servile is rather thin. It is for the present leadership to take a call.

  4. Well put KPS. Wish we had put our foot down and done the right thing when it mattered the most, and we were in a position to do so instead of just mopping now and expecting the present lot to do the right thing!

    1. We all do what we can when in service, in our little ways. But sometimes taking a few steps back and giving it a dispassionate look helps. That’s where we come in. No use moping around like you say, let us all speak up; maybe somebody is listening.

  5. An excellent analysis which needs to be read by the heirarchy of the three services. Yes it is particularly applicable to the IN due its opl environment.

  6. Sir
    I completely second your thoughts
    Hv had the good fortune of implementing ideas put forth by you in my capacity as CO of ship and air squadron
    Lucky to hv been commanding non fleet ship mostly on independent outings
    It paid rich dividend with rested, happy contented and satisfied crew
    Nil accidents..minimum incidents..ship tenure
    Maximum reported insigs ..sqdn tenure
    Max possible leave ..healthy social interaction even party onboard with sailor families whilst in refit

    1. Good for you, harbir. I am sure you will carry these lessons forward when you command capital ships and air stations in future. The human factor remains the same, only scale changes. Best wishes 🙂

  7. An important point to be added ‘surface Navy’ remains a default option while other branches have a selection mechanism. It is assumed that anybody can ‘operate’ these hi-tech warships. Senior officers with limited ‘at sea’ experience can easily come and become CO/XO ‘ for a year’. Those officers and sailors who can’t make it to Aviation/ Submarines/ Tech/ Logistics wind up onboard ships. An indicator is the number of personnel applying for other branches. This process breeds incompetency and complacency – it can’t get any worse. Author has missed out Prahar case – perfect example of crew fatigue.

    1. There has to be equal distribution of talent. No job is any lesser or greater than the other. If you disagree, try sailing out a ship without topasses. Thanks for the incisive feedback. We all need to get more frank and call a spade a spade.

  8. When the body suffers from many ailments like diabetes, blood pressure, back aches etc a holistic treatment warrants complete change of lifestyle. Popping pils does not serve the purpose. But we have been trying to solve our deep rooted problems which is manifesting itself in the form of horrific disasters like tipping over of INS Betwa, by popping pils. First and foremost we must acknowledge that we are suffering from serious ailment then only will come our willingness to cure ourselves.

    1. Very true. Like they say, you can wake up a sleeping man but it is very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep. But I have a lot of hope, we are a great navy with a great future.

  9. Beautifully articulated, Sanju.
    Especially those serving on board or manning the birds, their life is a constant battle with fatigue (Arjun has ‘work up’ going on- and sure I know, even if I can’t comprehend the entirety of the exhaustion)

    Little has changed true, but I do hope the alarming regularity of such incidents/accidents will help create awareness. Nothing to day this will happen, but with experienced voices such as yours sharing an insider’s perspective, I hope it will happen too! I’m sharing this onward.

    Also, I’ve been meaning to tell you – you write with such clarity and focus and feeling, it’s a delight to read from you.

    1. Thank you so much, ushachechi! Coming from such an eloquent person like you, it is high praise indeed! Many great things about our navy, some aberrations too. We must celebrate the former and highlight the latter. Tell arjun he’s in the best service! The baton is with Gen Next now!
      Thanks for the encouraging comments and wishing you the very best, sanju 🙂

  10. KPS, congratulations! Very well written. Agree with almost everything you have written. The Navy is indeed taking a hard look at the issues you brought out. Hopefully, things will get better. The current leadership is very serious about bringing in the requisite change. Good luck and happy landings! Keep writing!

    1. Thank you sir. I am not sure how this blog reached you, but I am happy it did! Shows people who matter have got their ears to the ground. Best wishes, Kps 🙂

    2. Incisive . Don’t know most who have made their comments. Very instructive. Saw you pop out. Felt compelled to comment. Thanks.bkv

  11. KPS you have said it all. It is well past the time that we should have taken cognigance of. If we in the Navy donot then who will ?

    1. Very true Sir. I am indeed glad that the message has carried across to senior veterans like you. I am sure with the support and constructive feedback from us, our Navy will correct these small blemishes and set all the right examples for future generations to emulate. Many thanks.

  12. Once again, a thought provoking article.
    Hope senior herichry of the defence acknowledges this fact.
    Very well written

  13. Very well penned article covering an area seen as an impediment to operations and task achievement within the set deadlines.

  14. Very honest and bold article. More than two decades back as EXO of a submarine preparing her for her first check dive at sea after a long MR and a fatigued crew virtually unslept for the previous night, a correct order by the EXO wrongly acted upon by the ERA almost sank the submarine in harbour itself. Thank god some alert minds saved the boat. But of course some heads had to roll. Yes we must pay attention to proper R & R and say without any guilt that I am having time with the family watching a movie or what ever.

    1. You can see where we stand today even after two decades. To twist an old adage, the best time to change was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. Here’s hoping we follow this dictum. Thanks for sharing your experience, it is invaluable!

  15. “” Let us also give our officers and men time and freedom to put on a hat, extend a fishing rod over the side and read their favourite book as often as we can. The manhours ‘wasted’ in these idle pursuits may well reap unimaginable payback by way of accidents averted by alert crew members – just like in aviation.”… Very apt and well suggested.

  16. very lucidly put. a fact that all of us hate to acknowledge but feel very strongly about when u r in chair. once whilst posted at INWT, when i had pointed this out in case of prahar. it was brushed aside stating that this is the inborn quality of all surface navy officers. its nice to see people in right places acknowledging this vital aspect and lets hope to see changes in oue FXPs so that surface naval personnel are also well rested like aviators to give their best.

  17. April 3, 1988. On board the mighty carrier, we entered harbour at 0630 and went to anchor. I was the MOD and ended up spending the day standing at the gangway, with short breaks to the charthouse to see how the NO was planning our departure that evening, and for lunch.

    SSD and cable party commenced at 2130, and as the warships of the western fleet followed the mighty carrier out of Mumbai harbour, we secured SSD and went down for a bite to eat before hitting the bunk. Having been on my feet all day, I was dying to get some shut eye, but knowing only too well that it would be short, since I was to close up for the middle watch.

    So, after a fitful nap of an hour or so, I was up and on the compass (as they liked to call the carrier’s bridge those days). The OOW and AOOW were as pooped as I was; AOOW pushed off to a dark and silent Flyco for a little shut-eye, while the OOW nodded off while sitting on the yeoman’s table. Yours truly didn’t need a place to rest my butt on: I was draped all over the pelorus in complete catatonia.

    The lookout up above must have said “compass, lookout, right ahead, so many boats sighted sir” at least thrice before it got through the haze that the OOW was swimming in. He dragged his eyes open, looked up and screamed “BHATIAAAA” which of course got me out of my dream state very fast. As I looked up, I froze – the sea ahead was filled with lights of a huge trawler fleet, and we were headed right into it.

    In a flash, the OOW had the con and was giving a string of orders containing the words ‘port’, ‘starboard’ and some numerals thrown in for good order. We came perilously close to running some of them over, and comically, the entire fleet followed us in that same zigzag pattern, as if avoiding a dozen submarines. I don’t know how, but we got through unscathed, though I’m quite certain that a few fleet ships would have discovered fishing nets wrapped around their propellers.

    The AOOW was of course also on deck, having been roused by the commotion. As we gathered our breaths and our thoughts, the LO walked into the bridge and casually said ’68’. When the OOW asked him ’68, what?’, he said ’68 boats. I had time. I counted’.

    Was that fatigue? Definitely! In this case, we got lucky. In all the other cases, they weren’t. The losses are there for us to see, or probably, ignore.

  18. The number of comments here themselves speak volumes for the subject. We all acknowledge it but do not accept it. All the three services are at sea here. Navy making more news just because the cost of the mistakes is very high.

  19. Beautifully expressed your experiences Kps..ur article compels readers to view things in a right perspective rather than being biased as u illustrate your points logically. After going through your article..a layman will realise ..” The grass always seems greener on the other side”… sincere thanks for highlighting the key factors imperative for a smooth sail of events..Your writings are so inspiring ..God Bless!!

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