Sri Lanka: Salvaging MV Goshan

Navy Adopts Lieutenant Somasundaram's Plan to Move GOSHAN After Failed Railway Attempts

4 mins read
Back in time ferries used to transport passengers from Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi on the southeastern Indian coast as part of the railway service that connected Ceylon and India, and back again.

by Senior Retired Diving Officer

Much has been circulated via oral and print media regarding Operation Goshan. Now I have been requested to submit my version of operation that took place about sixty years ago.

Ceylon Navy Headquarters instructed the senior most engineering officer Commander Eustace Mathysz to form a new task force comprising of the newly formed diving unit of the Ceylon Navy under the leadership of Lieutenant Marty Somasundaram, other senior seamanship personnel to plan and refloat the Indian passenger ferry GOSHAN in which had been grounded consequent to cyclone Emily. Lieutenant K. K. Fernando and instructor Leo Palmon were added to the task force. Interestingly Lieutenant Palmon was to assist with the mathematical calculations as there were no computers associated with this operation at the time. Several civilian employees from the dockyard Trincomalee such as heavy vehicle transport vehicle drivers, fire service personnel to operate water pumps, and several navy support staff were included. The land convoy of the hurriedly formed task force proceeded to Talaimannar. There were instances when some of the land vehicles were too high. They were unable to go through some of the bridges on the road. The tiers had to be deflated at the entrance of those bridges and the reverse had to be done on exiting.

Commander Mathysz was instructed to coordinate with the Ceylon Government Railways as the CGR and the Indo Ceylon ferry GOSHAN were connected in their ferry operations. The Indian Railways were to supply all the material required for the salvage operation. They included all the wires, explosives and several other equipment/components. As for the accommodation of the task force the abandoned customs and other government premises were occupied by the task force. In keeping with the tradition of the egalitarian and the green beret lifestyle of leadership in the diving unit Lieutenant Somasundaram slept on the beach in a tent during the entire period of the operation. There were times when curious villagers and fishermen would hazard a peep into the tent. None were boisterous, always friendly. The railway engineers however enjoyed the luxury of a comfortable and luxuriously appointed special railway compartment. The navy were work oriented and were prepared to rough it out.

The cyclone which affected the north east region of Ceylon along with the south east of India had resulted in tidal waves. The loss of lives in Tamil Nadu was around 1400 and several seagoing craft were lost or damaged beyond recovery. The GOSHAN was carried ashore by the tidal wave. She was beached about fifty meters away from the waterline and parallel to it.

Cyclone Over Ceylon, December 1964

The plan used by the navy was proposed by Lieutenant Somasundaram after it was understood the railway engineers had made several attempts to physically drag the GOSHAN on railway lines placed under the ship with predictably negative results. Fortunately, they did not persist with their plan. Had they done so the results would have not only been disastrous but also accrued damage to the ship. GOSHAN was a flat-bottomed vessel. Unlike trains, ships move best on the principle of buoyancy. Less friction the better. Dragging the ship on several steel railway lines for even a short distance even if they succeeded would have damaged the hull. The ship may well have sunk on reaching the water even if it survived the torturous journey to the sea.

If the principle of buoyancy in the operation was to be adopted, there would be a need to bring the water to the ship rather than taking the ship to the water. That would mean the creation of a loch or a basin around the ship. The loch would need to have a bund that could be easily and very quickly demolished. The bund should not be too high that would cause a ‘waterfall’ damaging the ship as it exited. Neither should it be too short so it prevented the required forceful wave for the ship to exit. The height should be exact. Once that is achieved the second step would be to manoeuvre the ship stern on at right angle to the bund within the loch. The purpose is to offer the least resistance for the ship to exit.

It is essential the loch should be watertight. This would be achieved by sandbagging. The entire operation must also be quick because sea sand erodes. It had to be dredged physically and constantly by the divers. Neglect of that would have been at the diver’s peril. Important also was the survey and removal of offshore underwater obstructions and impediments. They may prevent the passage of the salvaged vessel.

As for the operation the essence was disciplined coordination. Essential that when the conditions are right and when ‘all stations are ready to go’ the following need to take place simultaneously. The planned effects of the demolition last just a few seconds only. The entire mission had to be accomplished in those few seconds.

  1. The demolition of the loch bund is set off when all are ready
  2. The Captain of the GOSHAN has already warmed the ships engine. At the very moment of demolition of the bund the ship’s engine are on full astern moving towards the bund just a few feet away.
  3. GOSHAN sister ship about 100 meters out at sea is to pull at full ahead on the previously tethered taught wire.
  4. The previously tethered taught wire round the bollard to the bulldozer on the pier pulls.
  5. The divers especially were constantly exposed to risks of being crushed by the ship. Often, they had to tunnel under the ship to place props. They had to ensure safety particularly in an environment of explosives.

Make sure everyone is clear of every wire. If any one of the several wires snap the results would be disastrous with many possible deaths and or serious injuries.

As it turned out Commander Eustace M was not at the salvage operation due to sickness. I was in charge and watched over every part of the operation.

Those who took part did marvelously well. They were disciplined and cooperative. It was a beautiful team effort. I was privileged to lead them

Before the final stage of the salvage operation Commander Eustace Mathysz returned to Colombo on account of sickness. Lieutenant Somasundaram was in charge of the entire operation from then on.

The salvage operation ended with the GOSHAN exiting the loch undamaged and under her own power to the sounding of the ship’s siren with the assisting sister ship joining in with her siren blaring as well.

Remarkably there wasn’t a single incident of any injury or calamity during the entire long operation. It was a demonstration of naval disciplined clockwork efficiency admired by many. The cooperation between the service personnel and their civilian staff was demonstrably and admirably at its best. The divers in particular were selfless in their risk handling. They were a shining credit to the navy. Lieutenants K.K. Fernando and Leo Palmon excelled in their participation and contribution.

Lieutenant Marty Somasundaram was personally congratulated by the Captain of the Navy on his ‘boldness’ and success. He noted “this is your finest hour”. In that documented personal signal communication sent to Lieutenant Somasundaram the captain of the Navy made the unusual gesture saying, ‘I salute you’.

Lieutenant Marty Somasundaram says he owes it all to God, His Grace and Mercy

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