At around 10.30 pm last Tuesday, the six-member crew on board Niharika, a fishing boat anchored near Karnataka’s Bhatkal coast, were washing their plates after a meal of brown rice and fried mackerel when they heard a faint cry.
“It was pitch dark, not too windy, and there was no other boat around. We thought the sound was unusual,” Vishnu, brother of captain Mahadev Sukku Harikanth, told The Sunday Express.
At first, they ignored it. But then, Premanand, the 21-year-old cook, said he could hear someone calling out “bhaiya, bhaiya”. “We realised it was someone crying for help,” said Mahadev, a veteran fisherman with over 15 years of experience out on the Arabian Sea.
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And so began the incredible story of the rescue that saved the life of Lt Commander Nikhil Joshi, pilot of the Indian Navy’s Dornier aircraft that crashed earlier that night, killing the two others on board.
As soon as it sank in that someone out there needed help, Mahadev said he rushed to the “Master’s room” (captain’s room) on the bridge of the boat and switched on all the eight “focus lights”, turning them to the sea.
The crew, meanwhile, got down on a concrete slab on the left of the boat. Soon, they heard that faint cry again — “bhaiya, bhaiya” — and then, the sound of water splashing. Mahadev turned the lights towards the direction of the sound.
And there, finally, they saw a “human figure”, about 500m away. “I didn’t even wait to pull up the anchor fully, and sped towards that spot. We saw that it was a man, and that he was in uniform. The crew threw a “ring buoy” out. We then advised him to move towards the left of the boat. We passed a rope for him to hold but he was weak and just wrapped it around his waist. We pulled him up,” Mahadev said.
It took four of them to get the man on the boat. “We placed him on the floor of the boat. He was shivering but he thanked us. For the next 15 minutes, he was quiet and remained wrapped in a blanket that we gave him,” Mahadev said.
Then, the officer gave the crew a mobile number to call for help. “But the boat was 25 nautical miles away from land and the mobile network was not connecting,” said Vishnu, Mahadev’s brother.
“So we sped towards Karwar to get help as soon as possible. Somewhere along the way, we got mobile connectivity and called the number. Those who answered asked for our coordinates and directed us to stay on course for Karwar.
We later realised they were senior Naval officers. In the next 20 minutes, we received more than 30 calls from Naval officials in Pune, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, all asking about the condition of the officer.”
Other members of the crew said they gave the officer hot water and lime juice. “When we asked him if he would like some tea, he said he wouldn’t mind a little,” one of them said.
Mahadev picks up the story now. “Around 10 nautical miles from Karwar, we received a call on my mobile and were told to stop the boat. A Naval ship signalled to us and we responded. Soon, a small boat approached us and two Navy men came on board and began providing first aid to the man we had saved. Then, they took him along with them,” he said.
According to him, the crew also passed on a small hand-written note listing the coordinates of the rescue site. “We were not told by anyone about the plane crash. We came to know of it from the news later. We are only happy that we did our part to serve the country,” Mahadev said.
“This will remain in the minds of the crew for the rest of their lives. We saved the life of a soldier and that makes us proud. I wish we could have also found those two others,” he added.
On Saturday morning, Mahadev and his crew were busy at the Mangalore port, unloading the “fresh” catch from their latest trip — around 50,000 fish. Sometime overnight, they said, the Niharika will set sail again.