Steering Lives Back to Safety

Stranded at sea in a cyclone and unable to contact his family, Kesavan P dialled the RF-IS helpline number; for the next 12 hours, the team at the other end of the line was his only link to the shore, and his only hope for survival

Steering Lives Back to Safety

Early on November 9, 2015, the ESSO-Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) and the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a joint bulletin with a cyclone alert in coastal Tamil Nadu, warning fisherfolk against venturing into the sea for the day. Hearing the alert from his home in the Pazhayar village in Nagapattinam district, 20-year-old Kesavan P worried about his boat, which was anchored in the village fishing harbour.

Kesavan was aware that once the storm set in, the wind and the waves would cause the boats moored at the harbour to crash into each other, and damage them beyond repair. Kesavan’s wooden boat was old and crumbling, but as the family’s only source of livelihood, it was invaluable to him.

Determined to save the boat even at the cost of risking his own life, Kesavan stepped out at the crack of dawn to retrieve the vessel, row it into the Pazhayar River, and drop anchor at a spot in Targas near his home, where he felt it would be safe from harm.

By the time Kesavan started manoeuvering the boat into the river, the wind had grown stronger. Things suddenly took a turn for the worse – a stray rope that had come undone got caught in his boat’s propeller, causing the boat’s engine to shut down abruptly. The winds lashed his boat, pushing it deeper and deeper into the sea. Panicking, Kesavan desperately tried calling his family members, but the mobile signal was too weak.

Searching every recess of his memory for other phone numbers he could try, Kesavan suddenly thought of Reliance Foundation Information Services (RF-IS). Kesavan was in the habit of watching the RF-IS news bulletin on his local television channel before heading out to sea every day. The Ocean State Forecasts in the bulletin always helped him locate potential fishing zones, and plied him with a wealth of useful information about potential safety hazards at sea, the height of waves and probable weather changes.

Though he was miles away from his television set that morning, Kesavan effortlessly remembered the toll-free helpline number that he saw on the screen every morning. He furiously started dialling the number, and after several attempts, miraculously managed to connect.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, the RF-IS team remained in constant touch with Kesavan. Furious winds had disrupted all telecommunication networks, and it took the team six calls to get all the details about Kesavan’s identity, his boat’s registration number and his approximate location.

Wasting no time, the RF-IS team called his family members and briefed them on the turn of events. The team also shared information about Kesavan’s coordinates with the department of fisheries, the Indian Coast Guard, the local panchayat and the state’s marine police control room in Chennai.

Meanwhile, Kesavan’s alarmed family members leapt into action. Four of them borrowed an old wooden boat and rowed it into the choppy waters to rescue him. They managed to reach him with considerable difficulty, but by then, the cyclone had hit the sea with full force, lashing their boat and damaging it severely. With both boats damaged and all five men now stranded at sea, the crisis had deepened – the RF-IS team had to act fast.

Thinking of practical and speedy solutions, the team got in touch with Meenavaselvan, who was the president of the Mechanised Boat Association in Kesavan’s village.

Though Meenavaselvan couldn’t quite identify Kesavan at first and was hesitant to help, the RF-IS team persuaded him by providing sundry details about Kesavan’s family, his boat’s registration number and his location. Convinced about the emergency, Meenavaselvan took down all the information he needed to stage a rescue operation. He then arranged for two sturdy, well-equipped trawlers, and a small team of fishermen to take them out to sea. At around 7 pm that evening, Kesavan, his family members, and the two broken boats were finally rescued – 12 hours after the ordeal had started.

Recalling the experience, Kesavan said, “Around noon that day, I fainted out of exhaustion and hunger. I remained unconscious for the next two hours. When I regained consciousness, I realised that the RF-IS team had been trying to contact me and quickly called them back. I learnt that they had been working hard, contacting different authorities who could help me. This kept my hopes alive. Till the moment we saw the rescue team heading in our direction, the RF-IS toll-free helpline was our only source of confidence and our only hope for survival.”