On Monday, for reasons yet unknown, the 3,850-tonne guided-missile frigate INS Betwa tipped over at Bombay’s Naval Dockyard during a procedure called undocking. Right now, the ship lies on its side within the dock, half submerged. This wasn’t the first disaster to befall INS Betwa. In 2014, an unidentified object damaged its sonar dome, a large bump at the bottom of the hull that carries equipment used to identify underwater objects. The sonar failed to do its job or the crew ignored its readings. Either way, it was the equivalent of a bat flying smack into a wall. The likeliest explanation for the latest calamity, which claimed two lives, is that sailors miscalculated the relative loads on the two sides of the ship, with the result that it listed to the heavier side and eventually toppled as the water level rose within the dock. Given what I know of the dockyard, however, it wouldn’t surprise me if the people on shore were to blame.

I haven’t stepped inside the facility for nearly twenty years, but passed through security at Lion Gate every day for a number of weeks while working on a film about the institution’s history and current activities. Its impressive past was dominated for a century by a single family, the Wadias, now associated with non-marine endeavours like the manufacture of bed sheets and biscuits. The trade established by Lovji Wadia in 1736 provided the East India Company and the British crown with several third-rate and fourth-rate vessels, and even a few second-rate ones. That might seem like condemnation rather than praise to most ears, but those aware of the Royal Navy’s rating system, will better comprehend the achievement. It was from the deck of the Bombay-built ship HMS Minden that the American lawyer Francis Scott Key saw the Star Spangled Banner waving over Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, and was inspired to write the song that became the US national anthem.

The Naval Dockyard’s current work left me less enthralled than its past. It has grown massively since the days of the Wadias, of course, and ship-building activities have been shifted out to the neighbouring Mazagaon docks, leaving the Colaba dockyard to focus on maintenance and repair. Over 10,000 civilians are employed in the various workshops dotted around the old central complex. A refurbished version of the dry dock Lovji Wadia built is still functional, though big ships like INS Betwa use a bigger one next to it. These docks are the most stimulating parts of the facility from a cinematic viewpoint.

Manoeuvring into position

Dry docks are required to repair those portions of the exteriors of ships that usually lie below the waterline. To remove barnacles and add new coats of paint, ships are brought into a basin from which water can be pumped out. Weighted blocks based on the design of the ship’s hull are placed on the floor of the dock in preparation for the docking, and the vessel has to settle down precisely onto those blocks. Manoeuvring the ship into the dock requires dozens of men on both sides pulling on thick ropes which are eventually tied to sturdy bollards. Undocking reverses the process at the end of maintenance and repair. It seemed to my untrained eyes to be the easier of the two procedures: water let in, the gate of the dock raised and removed to one side, the ship floating and sliding gently forward guided by tug boats. But the undocking we filmed required two attempts, because the first one was too close to lunchtime.

What does lunch have to do with it? Although the dockyard is a military facility, its employees are civilians, and they have, or at least had at that time, a very obtrusive union. Naval officers were in charge of individual workshops and the yard as a whole, but officers came in for a while before being transferred out, while workers stayed in their secure jobs. The relation between officers and civilians was tense, because the officers had schedules to adhere to, but pushing workers hard led to flash strikes and tool-down agitations. To get ships ready in time, the navy would hire contract labourers, who toiled at dusk and through much of the night after the regular shift had left. It was depressing to witness the contrast between a lazy, entitled unionised workforce and the hard-working, underpaid casual labour. Some of the most atmospheric shots in our film, of sparks flying inside the dry dock from soldering irons and gas cutters used during the night-shift, did not represent dockyard employees at all. Since ours was a commissioned documentary, the commentary I wrote completely ignored the issue of casual labour.

Special skills

There were many types of work carried out in the dockyard that required special skills and experience, which contract labour could not provide. Among these were the docking and undocking of ships. Undocking had to take place within a certain time frame because it depended on the tide. On our first attempt at shooting the process, the sailors reported on deck at the appointed minute, and stood waiting for the civilian workers to show up. Unfortunately, the ship was to be taken out in the early afternoon. Since the dining hall was a fair distance from many of the workshops, workers tacked on the time it took to walk there and back to the break, which meant that lunch often took closer to two hours than one. By the time all workers had assembled at dockside, it was too late to comfortably complete the procedure before the tide got too low. The undocking was postponed to a date when the tide was more considerate of long lunch breaks. We didn’t complain about the changed schedule, for it offered us better light conditions in which to capture the vessel exiting the dock.

I couldn’t help noting, in reading about INS Betwa, that the mishap occurred at 1.50 pm. That’s probably a completely irrelevant detail. Unless it isn’t.