A daring journey of 6 Tamil Nadu fishermen across dangerous waters in a fishing boat

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the day. On the morning of April 22nd, six fishermen loaded their nets, hooks, bait and food on the deck of the boat and set sail in the darkened sea off the shore. As they did every day.

Besides, the six men on the boat had a bold plan that day: to leave their employer at Bandar-e Siruiyeh, a port in the Iranian province of Hormozkhan, and head back to India, a distance of more than 1,500 nautical miles, before entering the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, which are forbidden by geoscientists. Cross the politically volatile Strait of Hormuz.

On 6 May, the six sailed into Indian waters after two weeks of passing patrol vessels and surviving rough weather at sea.

It was Nithya Dayalan (31), her brother Arun Dayalan (29), cousin Kalidas Kumar (22), Muneeswaran (37), Rajendran (38), and Maria Dennis (37), and before they were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard off the coast of Kochi, The story of their long, dangerous journey from Iran to Qatar, through the Strait of Hormuz and Oman.

After preliminary investigation, the six have now returned to their homes in Tamil Nadu. 5 of them are from Ramanathapuram district and Dennis is from Kanyakumari.

After the initial inquiries, the six are now back in their homes in Tamil Nadu.

Nithya Dayalan, speaking to The Indian Express from his home in the fishing hamlet of Tirupalaikudi in Ramanathapuram, said that early last year, a few people, including myself, got an opportunity to work on a fishing vessel in Iran.

“Life at sea has never been easy for Tamil Nadu fishermen like me. There are not enough fish, the weather is erratic, there are restrictions on fishing, and the cost of living has gone up. It has become difficult to run our family,” said Nitya Dayalan.

When a friend from Kanyakumari told her about a “trusted employer” in Iran, Nithya Dayalan didn’t think twice.

Finally, in January last year, Nithya Dayalan, his cousin Kalidas and Dennis from Kanyakumari flew from Thiruvananthapuram to Tehran via Dubai. Others joined them in Iran in September last year.

Finally, sometime in January last year, Dayalan, his cousin Kalidas and Dennis from Kanyakumari flew from Thiruvananthapuram to Tehran via Dubai. The others joined them in Iran around September last year. (Express photo)

In Iran, they were taken to Bandar-e Siruiyeh, located on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf, where they began working on a ship owned by an Arab, Syed Jafareh.

The job turned out to be more difficult than they thought. “Our routine was tough – 10 days at sea, followed by 10 days on land. Not even two hours of sleep a day while at sea,” says Nithya Dayalan.

Nithya Dayalan says that despite being promised Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 a month, he received only Rs 10,000 in most months. “Gradually, that also stopped. Our employer refused to give us food when we said that we would not go to sea without being paid. And the boss took away our passports and there was nothing we could do. We are stuck,” says Nithya Dayalan.

Finally, on April 22, Nitya Dayalan and others decided to escape. Hoping to be extradited to India, they planned to stray into Qatari waters and strand themselves.

That morning, a 350cc Chinese engine roared to life to power the Nitya Dayalan boat. Soon, the wood-and-fiberglass ship began its journey across the ocean, the Iranian coast now far on the horizon.

“When we entered Qatar’s (sea) territory, their coast guard confronted us. We begged them to arrest us and take us to the Indian Embassy. But they said we would be held in jail for six months before being taken to the embassy. They advised us to go back to our employer or go to the Indian embassy in Iran,” says Nitya Dayalan.

But for the fishermen, going back was never an option. “The Indian embassy is about 600 km from where we lived. We don’t have money to travel that far. Besides, we don’t have passports,” says Nithya Dayalan.

boat

Returning to Iranian waters, they diverted their boat to the Strait of Hormuz, a critical choke point in the Persian Gulf and the only passage into the Indian Ocean. “From there we traveled towards the Oman border,” says Nitya Dayalan.

Most days, their small boat is the only vessel they can see. As the little food they had ran out, they ate only once a day – mostly kuboos and fish broth.

The days went on. “We took turns at the steering wheel. Two of us would be at the steering wheel for at least 3-4 hours, after which someone else would take over. Since we were crossing international sea borders, we kept our eye on the GPS to know where we were. One of us monitors the engine and watches for leaks, while the others sleep and take rest,” says Nithya Dayalan.

A few days were spent in storms and heavy rains. “A storm hit our boat near Oman and water entered the radiator. We have to turn off the engine and drain the water manually. As we started sailing again, another storm hit and this time, water entered the gearbox. We cleaned it and used some non-standard oil to get the gearbox running again,” says Nithya Dayalan.

Then, on April 27, around 8 a.m., a US Coast Guard vessel intercepted their boat in the Gulf of Oman. “We spoke to them in detail (via Wireless Radio Channel 16) about our plight,” says Nithya Dayalan. “We could speak little English, but surprisingly, they patiently listened and understood us. Finally, they asked us to leave, but we begged them to arrest us and take us to the Indian embassy in Oman,” Nithya Dayalan said.

The US Coast Guard did not heed their pleas, but did not abandon them either. Nitya Dayalan said, “They asked us to go through the Oman Sea. Later, we noticed them following our boat. We were nervous. Slowly, we realized they were taking us. Maybe for our safety?” Nitya Dayalan said.

“They followed us till evening. Then, before sunset, we saw them unloading a boat from their ship. Four officers – two men and two women – approached our boat,” Nithya Dayalan said.

After a basic inspection of our fishing boat, the American officials left and gave us some “gifts”: sunglasses, medicine boxes, snacks and drinking water. “They also gave us a card with an Oman Coast Guard number and told us to use it if we were to dock in Oman again,” says Nitya Dayalan.

Nithya Dayalan says the experience left them relieved and grateful. Their journey continued through the Oman Sea until they entered Indian waters after about five days of travel. “By then, we were short of diesel and kept praying and hoping it would last for a few more days,” Nithya Dayalan said.

Finally, in the early hours of May 5, as they neared the Kerala coast, a sense of relief overtook them.

“We have not been in touch with our family for almost two weeks. They don’t know we are at sea. We had two Indian SIM cards. So we talked to a Tamil fishing boat through our wireless, shared our SIM card numbers and asked to be recharged by someone on shore. They did it and we called our family and asked them to come to Kochi immediately,” said Nithya Dayalan.

Soon, they spotted an Indian Coast Guard ship. “We approached them. After investigation, they took us to Kochi port,” says Dayalan, adding that the police confiscated their phones and their Iranian boat number: 3/11875 and released them.

Now back home, Nitya Dayalan continues what he has already done here: At 4 a.m., the sea crashes into the precocious darkness of the shore, he loads his nets, hooks, bait and provisions on deck and sets sail. Nothing seemed unusual about his days.

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