Long before WhatsApp, Telegram (the App) and “broadcast” were invented, warships used a simple technology for catching the attention of all onboard. It was called “main broadcast” (MB) — a simple microphone, hooked to the ship’s central broadcast system, placed strategically at important nodes in the ship like the bridge, ops room, emergency conning position, gangway (in harbour), etc.
Only key personnel like commanding officer (CO, addressed as Captain), executive officer (second-in-command, known as EXO or ‘No.1’), officer of the day (OOD), officer of the watch (OOW), duty quartermaster (Duty QM), etc. were allowed access to the ship’s MB. If access to MB was not tightly regulated, it could turn nuisance or become a martial karaoke.
You picked up the MB, squeezed the trigger and made an announcement — it was that simple! No marine or aeronautical radio telephony licence was required to operate it. Phraseology evolved over generations; seafarers handed down “best practices”, guided by a voluminous book called “the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship”.
Lilting melodies at daybreak
On a modern Indian warship, the day usually starts with “hands call” piped on the ‘bosun’s pipe’ by the Duty QM or “reveille” played on the sonorous bugle — both beamed out via the ship’s MB. The shrill bosun’s call is followed by the duty QM’s emotionless “good morning to …(an infinitesimal pause)…everybody”. Five minutes later, another shrill “general call” on the pipe with “hands to tea” follows. Weary sailors lumber out of their bunks to line-up for their morning cuppa. We deviate a little from the seamanship volume here to make way for some Indian touch. Anup Jalota’s bhajans (devotional songs), MS Subbulakshmi’s “Suprabhatam” or Jagjit Singh’s “Hey Ram” wafts through the ship’s MB for next 25 minutes before the duty QM breaks the reverie with “Outpipe. Outpipe. Focsle”.
No, “outpipe” is not a signal to pull out your pipe or light up a Havana. It means “fall-in” or “muster” at designated places (focsle for gunnery department). After muster and headcount, the ship’s physical training instructor (PTI) takes a naval ‘zumba class’ called “mass PT” for off-watchkeepers. If a young Sub Lieutenant or sailor preparing for ‘clearance diver’ course is assigned this responsibility, you’ll probably need a generous spray of muscle relaxant when “secure, secure. Hands to breakfast” is piped 45 minutes later.
The water routine!
Warships are an eternal beehive of activity, punctuated by small joys like a cuppa tea for “stand easy” (short break) or the “fresh water tanky” ushering-in monsoon magic with “fresh water will be available in all the bathrooms for one zero minutes time” (water routine). The orgy of skimpily clad bodies scampering with soap and water to get their daily shine can well be described as “flesh-water tanky”. But that would be too “desi” (country) for the anglicized navy’s liking.
Liberal & secular
An amazing example of India that blends the best from across the world in a melting pot called “warship” is a naval announcement for short break. In the highly polarised world today where ‘political correctness’ has replaced wit and nuance, many landlubbers would roll their eyes in disbelief at a naval announcement that goes: “cigarette bandh, cigarette bandh. Kaam shuru” (Hindi for “stub out your cigarettes and get back to work”). Naval ships are truly liberal and secular. We never split hair on why such a call should target the ‘minority community’ of smokers; nor why ‘smoking’ should be given ‘airtime’. The nation doesn’t want to know what you were smoking so long as you stub out the bad habit and get back to work!
Pack-up or secure?
What air force knows as “pack up”, navy calls “secure”. Customs and traditions, ethos and best practices evolve over time. Good seamanship means you never leave your workplace without tidying up, securing & stowing all ropes, tools, cleaning material and loose gear (hence “secure” for the navy?). Maybe the air force would rather you “pack your chutes”? Given the vintage of some aircraft they fly, I cannot disagree.
Man aloft; negative transmission
A warship’s mainmast bristles with all kinds of aerials and radar antennae. Before anybody climbs up the ship’s mast or superstructure for maintenance, it is mandatory to deposit the “safe to transmit” radar/radio keys with OOD/OOW, take necessary clearances, and report to the duty QM who will then announce “Man aloft. Negative transmission”. (Very soon, lady officers will be welcomed back into India’s frontline warships with this announcement. Expect no quarter, ladies!)
When I was a midshipman, we had a tyrant EXO whose chosen purpose in life was to shoot abstract questions that had no real answers — eg., “why are lighthouses located ashore and not installed on ships?”. He would then proceed to pronounce summary punishment on the hapless victims. One such punishment required two of us snotties (midshipman) to adopt “Titanic pose” on the mainmast of a landing ship tank (LST) in pristine white dress No. 2s.
As we gingerly scaled the lattice mast in white ceremonial attire cut from fine “Admiral’s Choice” gabardine cloth, without the customary “safe to transmit” clearances, the duty QM (who was also a victim of the EXO’s excesses), picked up the MB & announced poker-faced: “Man aloft. Negative transmission”. Without the company of Kate Winslet, that really burnt.
Ship’s supply will be interrupted…
Recently, Mumbai went delirious over a short power outage. Coming after almost 15 years of uninterrupted power supply, Mumbaikars went all wimpy and took to social media like it was doomsday. Onboard ships, changing over load from one generator to another, or from shore supply to onboard generators when in harbour, is a daily affair. We don’t go paranoid or scramble for our battery banks when the QM announces “ship’s supply will be interrupted for zero-five minutes for changing over load”. Maybe that famed ghost called ‘Mumbai spirit’ needs a visit to INS Mumbai.
Ship’s central video — our own Netflix!
Long before laptops, portable electronic devices and hard drives with incredible memory were invented, ships sailed for months on an entertainment system called “ship’s central video”. A veritable treasure trove of VHS cassettes was “managed” from multiple “sources” before the ship put out to sea. Every CO knew the path from captain to flag rank was laced with many coral reefs and “blue lagoons”. Some flag officers even insisted on a daily stack of ‘handpicked’ CDs for ‘private screening’ in flag quarters. Lesser mortals had to get their net fix from the ship’s central video, hostage to the benevolence (and imagination) of the electrical department. Every day, the “Duty EMR” (Electrical Mechanical Radio) would randomly pick one cassette and slip it into the one and only VCR player onboard before announcing the name of the movie on ship’s MB.
So when we heard the announcement “An english movie Head Cleaner will be played on ship’s central video now”, eyebrows were raised and anticipation mounted. No guesses what the movie looked like. It was “fifty shades of grey”, minus the juicy content; no “dirty picture”, just a very “grainy” one. Shortly, the errant Duty EMR who poured cold water on everyone’s fantasies realised his amazing ‘prime video’ wasn’t working. “Cliffhanger” soon made way for “An Ordinary Life”. Nowadays, I am told, each one has their own lap-props and de(vices) and “head cleaner” has been discharged “SNLR” — services no longer required.
Double-up & secure
Hectic activity unfolds on ship’s MB as a ship prepares for sea or “secures” alongside in harbour. After the captain “cons” the ship to alongside berth, it’s left to the EXO to complete the tedious activity of passing the berthing hawsers, “double-up all lines and secure”. A barrage of orders on MB and upper deck broadcast usually follow, not always scripted. Each conning or berthing order has to be acknowledged and read back. The perfect ‘position’ is seldom achieved in one attempt and the ship usually needs to “warp” a few feet ahead or astern. Sometimes, you may even have to go “69” on an assigned berth alongside a “sister ship” (please don’t get whacky army ideas; this is the navy!).
Now, focsle is the fore part of a ship, bristling with missiles, “gunnery” and loud voices; quarterdeck is the rear, home to the quiet, stealthy, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) specialists. Once when the EXO thundered on MB, “Focsle, we’ll be moving ahead by one-zero metres”, the ASWO decided he wasn’t getting due attention (or promotions). He sent up his grouse with a query on main broadcast: “confirm quarterdeck will also be moving?”.
“Well, what do you think?” boomed the EXO with a wicked sense of humour!
Cold move & hot move
When the ship shifts berth on own power (main engines), navy calls it a “hot move”. When tugs are employed or this is done with capstan and “pulling hawsers”, we call it “cold move”. A study of recent naval history reveals that a little bit of both may be required, especially when it comes to promotions. Sometimes, you’ve got to “let go number 3” just so you can “hold on to number 1! Physics makes way for chemistry, especially when you enter the higher orbit of flag rank!
Punctuations are important
If you want to summon somebody on the ship, you call the person, then location, repeat name, followed by who placed that request. It goes something like this: “Senior engineer required focsle. Senior engineer. EXO ” (meaning the senior engineer is required to make himself available on focsle and the request has been placed by EXO). English is a funny language and not all seafarers come from Class A cities. That day when the captain turned laundry man comes to mind when up went the call “Ship’s dhobi, Captain’s cabin. Ship’s dhobi Captain”, while those with a penchant for grammar and punctuation chuckled in their dress No. 10s!
So are names…
If punctuations are important, so are names. Ask the QM from up north who had a fetish for full names as per service documents while raising sailors on the ship’s MB. Now, certain parts of India (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, for instance) combine name and ancestry in a manner that the person can be ‘geolocated’ by name itself. The result is a name with “so many initials” (like KPS). The QM held his belief till he encountered tongue-twisters like “Leading Seaman Tumalapalli Sri Sathya Sai Venkateshwara Naidu, gangway” and “Petty officer Thekke Parambil Govindan Kutty EXO’s cabin”.
Canteen — The ship’s “mall road”
“Ship’s canteen is open for sale for next one-five minutes” was one of the most delightful announcements, especially in pre-liberalization days when “bonded goods” like “Rothmans” or “555” cigarettes supplied by shipchandlers were the exclusive privilege of naval warships. Visits of army and air force delegations to a naval warship were never complete without the customary “canteen visit”. Successive pay commissions have so increased purchasing power of the soldier and air warrior as to make the naval connection irrelevant. The neighbourhood kiranewala (grocer) now sells what was then exclusive canteen “maal“. ‘One Man Show’ and Playboy perfume have made way for Calvin Klein Eternity. No wonder the CDS doesn’t approve a third aircraft carrier for the navy 🙂
“Secure. secure. MLR libertymen to clean” is a classic oxymoron — as if married men enjoy any liberties! It signals the end of a hard day’s work when “outliving” married personnel can proceed ashore after washing up. For unknown reasons, in the 21st century, married folks are still tagged “money in lieu of ration (MLR)” in the navy. So when your boss in corporate occasionally calls you “slow starter” or “inefficient”, take comfort from the naval “bundleman”. He slogs his butt out on a ship only to go home where he is stripped of all “ration” and “liberty”. After “secure” is piped, the bachelors — called “in living” in the navy — go to “sailors’ institute” or “officers’ institute” where they drown their sorrows in frosty glasses & return aboard before “liberty expires”.
The 8PM shocker!
If there’s a mighty important announcement to be made — like a “lockdown”, “demonetization” or something like that, naval officials don’t do a “8PM” like PM Narendra Modi. We simply pick up the MB, squeeze the trigger and thunder “do you hear there, do you hear there? This is ‘so & so’ speaking”. The ship will be …bla bla bla….I say again…(repeat)”. Once upon a time, daring Midshipman Rana took the MB by storm. He thundered “Do you hear there, do you hear there? This is the midshipman of the day speaking. The ship is under sailing order and will sail at one-one-zero-zero hours tonight. MLR libertymen will expire onboard at 2130 hours.”
Nobody “expired” and everyone had a good laugh when three beers were logged into the snotty’s black beer account!
So long, folks! It’s time to bid you “goodnight” without the customary WhatsApp forwards. Naval ships pipe “goodnight” or bugle “the last post”, followed by an announcement “goodnight to…(pause)…everybody”. After this, only emergency / action announcements are allowed on the MB. A brave QM once discharged his duty with precision, till he strayed: “goodnight to everybody, except Petty Officer XYZ” who had rubbed him the wrong way that day!
He fared much better than my colleague from Ocean’s Best who as Duty Cadet had to once face up to a ‘Tharoorosaurus’ from those times. When the cadets under his watch created a ruckus in the dormitory (maybe it was a weekend), the sombre-looking Duty Training Officer (DTO) pulled up Duty Cadet Thomas ordering “tell those fcukers to pipe down”. Cadet Thomas rendered a crisp salute, scratched his chin trying to figure what the angrez DTO wanted, then hastily enforced a “pipe down”, switching off all lights and pulling the sheets on us!
Join the navy and sea the world! Hope you enjoyed these delightful main broadcast snippets! Do share your anecdotes too!
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Images screenshotted from an inspirational video from D55 — INS Ranvijay (property of Indian Navy).