RAF Gan – A Visiting Yank Oceanographer Recalls
Bob Knox

On a complete lark the other day I Googled “RAF Gan;” first time I’ve tried such a thing.  I half expected no results.  I was amazed and delighted to see the extent of this website, and even more amazed to spot a few references to my oceanographic project of the early 1970s, e.g. Gan Island Post article of 13/11/72 on the equatorial undercurrent project, a passing mention in the GIP poem of 11/03/72 and an archived guestbook entry from T. Mitchell filed under 1973.  Kudos to the site organizers and numerous contributors - it is an astonishing array of material and images.

The GIP article on the undercurrent project is a good capsule description in layman’s language.  In the end, that series of measurements ran from January 1973 to May 1975 and the record remains among the longest for Indian Ocean currents.  It has played a significant role in revealing the connection between the variable winds over the ocean (the monsoons, with their infamous rainy periods at Gan) and the response of the currents along the equator.  The first thing to say about this little piece of scientific progress is that none of it would have been possible without the remarkable assistance of many people on Gan, especially in MCU and the Met Office.  I never even met many of you who lent a hand in the weekly measurements, but to all of you – many thanks.  I’ve now had a long career in oceanography, but have never worked with a more professional and willing group of people than you.  One name stands out – the late Syd Pitcher, who headed the Met Office when I first arrived in 1971 and was starting up the project.  His assistance and good offices at the front end of the work were indispensable.  He completed his tour before my second visit, but his home was near Heathrow so on my subsequent trips he and his wife Peggy became a virtual aunt and uncle, taking me in for welcome breaks in the journey. Wonderful, kind people both.  We have kept up with Peggy since Syd’s passing.

My time on Gan was not long in total – a handful of trips from Sept. 1971 through the end of the project, generally for a couple of weeks at a time.  Hardly sufficient to warrant a “not having” tie.  At the outset I was at Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Oceanographic Institution per the GIP article, so only 9 hours jet-lagged upon arrival; from June 1973 I have been at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, which made for the maximum 12-hour lag.  I’d arrive, try to become coherent, see to the equipment and any repairs or modifications needed, meet and talk with key people who might have rotated to Gan since my previous visit, go to sea on the weekly measurements depending on schedule, then return home.  I was never at sea long enough to get my sea legs, a source of much mirth to various MCU folks as I hung over the rail from time to time.

So many memories.   A sampler, in no particular order:

  1. The ceiling of the bar at the Officer’s Mess, with its curious black-ink imprints…..
  2. The kindly barmen there, Mohammed (“Mo”) and Moosa, who accommodated my weird American taste for enough ice – even ice made of Gan water - to get drinks really cold.  Does anyone know what became of them?  I had a heart-rending letter from them as the station was winding down, afraid of the future and seeking my help in emigrating to the U.S.  I could not do this; the best I could offer was license to scavenge whatever was left of my project hardware and supplies that might be useful.  I hope they managed OK in the post-RAF world.  It must have been a jolt.
  3. Mo and Moosa also helped me arrange a little US flag, to be hoisted at the bar to signal free drinks on me for a period of time, a la the British flag that was the standard signal in this regard.  The Stars and Stripes indeed got noticed, with predictable results in alcohol consumption - somewhat to the detriment of my bar account, but (I hope) to the betterment of Anglo-US relations.
  4. Giving a little lesson in applied oceanography to the crew of the pinnace one day.  Because the surface current and wind were toward the west, they figured that when we steamed back to Gan from the equatorial channel we would have to head a bit southeast, to make up for the drift.  I said I thought the drag of the undercurrent on the cable and current meter during the measurement would have more than overcome this, and would have pulled the vessel upwind, toward the east, so that we should aim a bit southwest.  As we headed home, looking for the atoll to rise on the horizon, I was right.  Whew!
  5. The Maldivians – a gentle, alert and inquisitive people.  If I had a piece of gear opened up somewhere near the MCU, I’d soon find myself in a ring of onlookers, quietly taking in whatever I was doing.  I wish I had had time and language to engage some of them more.  They seemed very interested to learn.
  6. On one occasion a dhoni fishing to the south of the atoll was caught off guard by a wind from the north.  Never made it back to the atoll by nightfall.  The RAF turned to in marine craft to search during the night with no luck, and in the next day or two a Nimrod was called in to extend the search.  No results.  A week or so later a merchant ship passing well south of the atoll en route to Singapore came across the boat in the open ocean and rescued survivors, but by then several had died of exposure, thirst, etc.  It later materialized that the RAF pinnace had passed close to the dhoni the first stormy night, but the dhoni had not so much as a flashlight by way of signal or emergency gear.  One got the impression of a fatalistic outlook on all this by the Maldivians, not a lesson about improving dhoni safety equipment.  A different culture.
  7. US navy admiral John McCain II (father of current US Senator John McCain) was then Commander in Chief, Pacific and on a visit to SE Asia and/or Diego Garcia when he stopped over at Gan for refueling, etc.  Two aircraft, a military version of a Boeing 707, and a smaller propeller craft.  A friend asked me if I’d like to watch from the control tower as the American admiral’s plane took off, so in I went.  All seemed OK until the plane got airborne, then all hell broke loose and before I comprehended what was going on, the plane had circled back and landed immediately, finishing up near the end of the runway with all four engines dead, I believe.  The admiral and some of his folks carried on in the prop plane, leaving the 707 crew and others behind to deal with the problem.  Their first stop that evening was the bar for some serious refueling of their own.  I think the problem had to do with matching the particular type of fuel to certain settings on the engines, and a mistake somewhere in that matchup.  I don’t know if the mistake was attributable to US, UK or both - in any event, it was a rather near miss.  I later heard it took some considerable time to marshal US repair parts and people to get the 707 back in the air and out of Gan.
  8. The Royal Visit of March 1973.  I had known this was in the offing.  Realizing that all regular work would stop during the visit, and that I would just be out of place, I made plans to complete one of my own visits just prior to the Royal one.  I got that part right, but had no idea there would be an earlier dress rehearsal for the Royal visit.  This rehearsal took place while I was on the island.  Work did indeed cease for the day.  I figured just to watch the proceedings from a respectful distance.  But someone realized that they needed some extra bodies to play the parts of various members of the Royal entourage, and as a decidedly extra body I ended up being drafted as a fill-in for the Queen’s equerry.  I have no idea what this person does in real life, but it meant that I was shepherded around the whole island tour, doors were held open solemnly by guys with whom I had been drinking (probably too much) the night before, etc.  A copy of the meal to be served on the day was laid on and served out, to test the catering process and equipment.  There were several moments of hilarity but I had to be careful to keep a straight face, because all was being overseen by two very high RAF general officers, one male playing Prince Philip and one female playing the Queen.  They were being deadly serious about it all and were checking like hawks for any flaws.  A chuckle from a young Yank scientist would have been quite out of bounds.
  9. Last item.  Returning to Brize Norton sometime in a freezing February, typical zero-dark-thirty arrival, wind blowing across the airfield, driving sleet before it.  Ahead of me to get off the plane was a guy who was ending his Gan tour and, like so many, appreciated the good things about Gan as well as the difficulties.  He had his best coming-home tan on.  Stuck his head outside the cabin to start down the ladder, got a blast of sleet in the face, and did a momentary about-face as if to return to Gan, sunshine, trade winds, warm water and palm trees.

Again my thanks to all who assisted the undercurrent project, and my respect for all who despite the unaccompanied aspect worked to create a certain upbeat esprit about Gan that I will always remember.  If ever you pass through San Diego, give me a call.

Bob Knox

Dr. Robert A. Knox
Research Oceanographer and Associate Director
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 0210
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman DriveLa Jolla, CA  92093-0210  USA
858-822-5811 (fax)

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