“Offering my service and then joining the rescue team were instantaneous decisions. There was no time to ponder upon what I was doing. I was on an adrenaline rush to save them,” says Devang Subil, who played an essential role in the rescue of four fishermen who went missing in the high seas off Thalikulam coast on Tuesday morning.
The 19-year-old, second-year engineering student at Christ University, Bengaluru, sounds bashful when he says, the fisherfolk now seem to view him as a God. “I just did what I could do, it was the coastal police and the fishermen who joined in the rescue mission, who did the real work,” says Devang, whose use of a drone camera helped locate the fishermen who were adrift at sea.
An avid photographer, his love for shooting on land soon took him to the skies as he began aerial photography. “I had built a drone as part of my first year engineering project. That is how I learnt about drones and how to fly them. The one I made had limitations and problems with stability, however. Noticing my fascination for drones and love for photography, my father, Subil EJ, bought me one.”
Since college is closed due to Covid-19, armed with the drone his father gifted him, Devang who lives close to the Thalikulam beach would frequent it often. “I would shoot pictures of boats, landscapes, and even videos by the beach. The beach had become such a regular haunt that I had become friends with a few of the fishermen there.”
And that is what he says led him to rush to the spot when his father told him the news of a boat lost at sea. “He however, didn’t tell me that four men were missing.”
When he did hear the news upon reaching the Thalikulam shore, he was stunned. “I worried it might be one of my fishermen friends or a familiar face.” A determined to help Devang soon approached “our panchayat president Sajitha maam and said that I could help with the rescue mission with my drone. She took me to our MLA Geeta Gopi madam who within a few minutes organised the required permission for me.”
However, the rescue team had more or less given up hope by then. “We actually went into the sea with zero hope as fishermen who went in search for them for six to seven hours had returned empty-handed. If they who know the sea like the back of their hands could not find their friends, how would we? Although they had given up hope, I said that there could still be a one per cent chance that we could save them. They came along with me based on that one per cent chance.”
While at first, he thought he would be able to locate them using his drone from shore, he soon realised he would have to travel to sea for the search and rescue operation after speaking to the fishermen there. “They said that the men were probably lost around 11 nautical miles away from the coast. That is impossible for the drone to reach from shore. I entered the police boat and when it reached 11 nautical miles, I released my drone. Although the strong wind and choppy waves created problems, after 15 minutes or so, my drone captured visuals of a man clinging onto a log and beamed the faint visuals on my mobile phone. After we pulled him out, he told us where the others were. We rescued the fourth person on our way back to shore.”
According to Devang, although he was warned he might get seasick as it was his first journey out at sea, the need to rescue the fishermen, he says blocked out such thoughts and "even fear". He admits that he found handling the drone over the waters tough at first. “At first, wherever I turned the camera, it was just vast blue; it was difficult to find the drone’s location as I had already sent it ahead of us. I had to use a compass and map to find it. On the way back, the wind was blowing in a different direction so, it was tough to make a soft landing for the drone. I actually thought I had lost my drone at first.”
It was the evening news that alerted his mother of his escapade. “I left home telling my mom, Sandhya Sunil, I was going to take a photo,” says Devang sheepishly. Even his father had no idea that Devang had joined the rescue and search operation. “As I said, it was an instantaneous decision. There was no time to discuss or inform my folks.”
According to Devang, he is now a mini-celebrity in his village. “People stop me and ask for selfies and also to congratulate me. I am now working on making a new drone.”
In the wee hours of Tuesday, a boat carrying four fishermen – Karappam Veetil Ekbal, Chembanadan Kuttan, Puthanparan Subramanian, and Chembanadan Vijayan, had capsized mid-sea amid a high tide. Kuttan is said to have somehow managed to alert his friends and authorities about the incident. Although the coastal police and other fishermen launched a search operation immediately, they failed to locate the missing fishermen.
According to the Kerala Fishing Boat Operator’s Association, it was the first time a drone camera was used to save fishermen from seas in South India. The Association plans to submit a proposal to the State Fisheries Department to deploy more drones and train rescuers to use them.