Homecoming on leave even for a landlubber is an occasion to look forward to, but for a mariner, coming on leave after a long separation from family is really a special and eagerly awaited event.
Merchant navy officers on large ships such as bulk-carriers, which ply mostly on tramp routes, have to be away from India and families for long periods. They usually join or leave their ships in foreign ports. After a tenure of nearly one year on such a ship, I proceeded on leave after handing over charge to my relieving chief engineer at a port called Ghent in Belgium. My cousin and her husband had flown over from the UK to be with me during my ship’s stay in port. But as my leave sanction came through quite fast, they had to cut short the stay to accompany me to Brussels, from where I was to take a flight to Frankfurt and onward to Mumbai and they to London later in the evening.
After exchanges of bon voyages and happy landings with my shipmates, we drove to Brussels airport and reached well in time for our respective flights. Once we were through with the departure formalities, I checked in my gear. Since we had some time to kill before the flight, we went to a nearby restaurant to have one more meal together in Belgium.
The immense and palpable relief one gets after handing over problems and responsibilities of running a ship to someone else coupled with the exuberant feelings in anticipation of reunion with the family, was an easy excuse to have a go at our lunch with gay abandon. So both of us gents downed a quick couple of beers and the lunch got extended bit by bit. We did not realise that an extra one hour difference between the reporting time and boarding the plane was also eaten up with the lunch.
I reported at the departure counter only to find myself alone as the other passengers had left to board the plane.
Anyway, lugging my heavy hand gear I proceeded to board the plane. I was almost running to my destination gate leading to tarmac runways for boarding. Having made quite a track record at running, and befuddled by the beer, I was silently cursing the airline’s punctuality, and for the first time appreciating our Indian Railways’ aversion to punctuality where no one can ever miss a train.
As if my worry of missing the flight was not enough to unnerve me, an air hostess came from the opposite side enquiring if I was the Mr Singh about to miss my flight to Frankfurt. I readily yessed to being the culprit, mumbled an excuse that my watch was half an hour slow having been inadvertently left unadjusted to a different time zone of my last port of call. Hurriedly, she helped me board the plane. So far so good.
When the plane was airborne, I sent a small note of thanks to the pilot asking his forgiveness for the delay on my part which must have caused inconvenience to so many, giving the same excuse of ‘time zone left unadjusted’ on my watch. While we were well on our way, I was rather surprised to see the captain of the plane coming and sitting in the seat next to mine. He seemed an amiable person and enquired about my family, home and job on the ship.
He showed keen interest in the running of a large ship like mine and asked about the countries we had touched in the just-concluded voyage. And then I was amused to find myself caught in his subtle trap when I told him about my last port of call before Ghent, because my last port and Ghent have the same time zone. The captain flashed a genial and all-knowing smile and made for the cockpit, exposing my, a shippie’s, excuse of being late to board the plane.
I don’t like to even think about having a beer after this embarrassing episode because it reminds me of my most irresponsible act and folly.