Alappuzha was the main port of Kerala before Kochi took the mantle of the most important harbour in the state. Though Alappuzha, which was called the ‘Venice of East’, had lost its maritime sheen, the town’s once bustling port is becoming the face of a ship of the Indian Navy. Alappuzha, which is known for its beaches, backwaters, lagoons and serene natural beauty, has another attraction as the Navy’s decommissioned Fast Attack Craft (INFAC) T-81 will be displayed at the seaside as part of the Alappuzha Heritage Project.
When Raja Keshavadas had built Alappuzha, the main attraction of the town was the port along with the vast sandy beach. The goods from mountainous regions, including areas in Kottayam, were brought to Alappuzha through Vembanad Lake and from there the cargo was taken to the port through a man-made canal and finally shipped to foreign countries.
As the coir industry in Alappuzha began to thrive in the 19th century, the seaport also started to expand as coir products were exported in large numbers from the harbour. A sea bridge, which was used to load and unload cargo ship cargo, was built in Alappuzha in 1862. The Alappuzha port played a pivotal role in boosting the trade activities of the state until the emergence of Kochi port at the start of the 20th century. The Alappuzha port sunk into oblivion with the coir sector losing its glory and many industrialists shifting base to Kochi. Though the hope of revival was rekindled with the arrival of a cargo ship at the Alappuzha port on October 11, 1989, no other vessel had called at the port since then.
A ship for Alappuzha
Discussions to source a ship for Alappuzha began after the first Pinarayi Vijayan Government decided to put in place a Port Museum as part of the Alappuzha Heritage Project which was put forward by former state finance minister and former Alappuzha MLA T M Thomas Isaac. After various levels of talks, the Indian Navy decided to hand over the decommissioned Fast Attack Craft (INFAC) T-81 to the Port Museum and a deal to this effect was inked in May 2021.
The ship was brought from Mumbai to Kochi by sea in five days and was taken to the Kottayam harbour in July. The vessel was transported to Thaneermukkom in September and later to Alappuzha by road.
The sea bridge, which was an iconic symbol of the Alappuzha beach, is in a dilapidated situation. Considering the huge tourism potential of the region, the state government is chalking out a project to build a new sea bridge. As part of the project, the museum, which will be established after taking special permission from the Coastal Zone Management Authority, will be displaying the vessel.
The authorities concerned gave a nod to construct a two-storey museum. The government also got the green signal to build a sea bridge after a slew of formalities, including environment study, spread across three years. The museum will have ticket booth, food court, boundary wall and landscaping, among others. A ramp connecting the ticket booth and the ship will also be put in place to facilitate hassle-free movement of visitors. Moreover, scores of plants will be planted in the space between the sea and the ship in a bid to prevent soil erosion.
As per the design, the ship will be fixed to the ground following the dry docking technique and for the time being the vessel is placed on a platform for everyone to see.
A peep into ship’s history
INFAC T-81 is the second of the fast attack craft of the Indian Navy and the vessel was commissioned into the Navy on June 5, 1999 by the then Goa Governor Lieutenant General J F R Jacob. The vessel with a maximum speed of 45 knots had two officers and 18 sailors onboard during her sailing days. The ship is fitted with short-range guns and is used for surveillance, rescue operations and search operations, among others. It also has the capability to intercept intruding fast boats.
INFAC T-81, which was decommissioned at the Mumbai naval dockyard on January 28, 2021, is designed to sail in shallow waters and has a displacement of 60 tonnes. The vessel, which is 25.94m long and has a deck spanning 5.6m, has engine room, aft (rear portion) , crew compartment, captain’s cabin, living area and forward (front portion).
Indian Navy had a ship in the name of Alappuzha – INS Alleppey. It is noteworthy that Alappuzha was earlier known by its Anglicized nomenclature Alleppey. This minesweeper ship was bought from Russia in 1980 and it was a practice to name this class of small ships after small ports. Other minesweeper vessels that bear Kerala town names are INS Kozhikode and INS Kannur. The main purpose of the minesweeper ships is to ferret out sea mines during war and necessitate clear passage of ships. As the vessel was bought from Russia, the Navy personnel underwent three years of training in Russia to understand the operations of the ship. The vessel was brought by sea from Russia in 45 days, and it was eventually decommissioned in March 2015.
It is a mere coincidence that the first captain of INS Alleppey was Alappuzha-native Hector Poppen. Seventy-six-year-old Poppen, who retired as Commander in 1989, realized his long-cherished dream to take the vessel to the shores of his home town when he anchored the ship 1.5km away from the coastline of Alappuzha on May 11, 1981. He took INS Alleppey to Alappuzha for two days after getting special permission from the authorities concerned while he came to Kochi to attend a training session.