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Captain shorn of warship command

- INS Airavat ‘touches bottom’

New Delhi, Feb. 3: The navy has removed the captain of one of its latest amphibious warships from command after the vessel “touched bottom” while entering the harbour at Visakhapatnam last week.

One of the two propellers of the INS Airavat was damaged. The Airavat is classified as a Landing Ship Tank (Large). It is capable of carrying upto 500 marines and 10 tanks and is designed to beach for an assault force. The ship was built in Calcutta by the Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers.

A source in the navy said the commanding officer of the ship was relieved of his responsibility after the incident last Thursday night. When warships enter harbour all hands are at their stations and the commander is in the bridge instructing the navigators.

On Thursday night, the INS Airavat was returning to its home port and seeking to enter the naval dockyard at the Eastern Naval Command headquarters. The vessel is 124 metres long while the channel through which it was to enter is 100 metres wide. The channel not only zigzags, requiring such a large ship to be deftly manoeuvred, but also has uneven depths.

It was probably while negotiating the channel that the navigators made a mistake with the result that a propeller hit the depths. In naval parlance this is called “touching bottom”. It is not the same as “running aground”.

The damaged propeller would be replaced in the dry dock. The damage will not tell on its capabilities after the replacement, navy sources claimed.

The Airavat is crucial to the capabilities of the navy’s eastern fleet. It is equipped, not only for assault, but also with a hospital and compartments for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. In 2011, the ship was buzzed by the Chinese — who asked questions of it over a radio — while sailing from one port in Vietnam to another through the South China Sea that China and Vietnam (among others) dispute.

The damage to the Airavat is the fourth major incident to hit the navy since August when its submarine, the INS Sindhurakshak, sank after a suspected explosion in its weapons compartment. In December, the INS Talwar, a frigate, hit a fishing vessel, also during coastal manouevres near Mumbai. The commanding officers of the INS Talwar and the INS Betwa, that had a crack on its sonar dome, were also removed.

In none of the incidents the navy’s operational capability was severely damaged. But the spurt in accidents — there were three minor ones too in the same period — has focussed attention on deficiencies that navy sources said were being addressed.