Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ What a man can do, a woman can do better.’’ – Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd)

Early December 2015, the INSV Mhadei – the Indian Navy’s sailboat with two circumnavigations and several long voyages to her credit – was tasked with a short trip.

She was to proceed from her home base in Goa to Karwar, pick up materials needed for the upcoming February 2016 International Fleet Review (IFR) in Visakhapatnam (Vizag) and return to Goa.

The iconic vessel had as its crew four woman officers – Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, Lieutenant P. Swathi, Lieutenant Pratibha Jamwal and Sub Lieutenant Payal Gupta. While Payal joined later, Vartika, Swathi and Pratibha had been the Mhadei’s crew since April 2015. They had started off their tenure by training in the basics of sailing at the navy’s facility in Mumbai followed by theoretical training in seamanship, communication, navigation and meteorology at Kochi. After these stints, they had been at Goa, sailing the Mhadei, improving their sailing skills and getting to know the boat better. Besides supervised sailings and monitored ones, they took the boat out by themselves for short trips in the vicinity. Their mentor – as well as mentor for earlier crews on this history-making boat – is Commander Dilip Donde, the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation. It was his job to train an all woman crew for the Mhadei. He had seen the trainees at work; he was confident of their ability. When the trip to Karwar drew close, Donde asked, “ should I come along?’’ It seemed a fine juncture in the training process, for him to step back and have the crew take charge of the boat.

From left: Sub Lieutenant Payal Gupta, Lieutenant P. Swathi, Lieutenant Pratibha Jamwal and Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

From left: Sub Lieutenant Payal Gupta, Lieutenant P. Swathi, Lieutenant Pratibha Jamwal and Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The woman officers decided to sail by themselves.  They had 2-3 days to plan everything. Goa to Karwar is a distance of approximately 40 miles by sea. Around 15:00 hours on December 8, the all woman crew – with Vartika designated as skipper – sailed the Mhadei out from Goa. Next morning 9.30 hours they reached Karwar. After picking up whatever was needed for the IFR, the Mhadei commenced her return leg to Goa on December 9, at 14.30 hours. December 10, 11.00 hours, the crew had the boat safely back in Goa. This quietly executed project by the four naval officers – Vartika, Swathi, Pratibha and Payal – is perhaps the first instance of sailing between two ports by an Indian all woman crew. For the navy, this is a small step towards something bigger.

The Mhadei is an interesting story. Based on a Dutch design, she was built at Aquarius Fibreglass, a boat yard on the river Mandovi, upstream from the naval jetty at Verem, the vessel’s current home. She shot into fame in 2009-2010, when Donde did his solo circumnavigation as part of Sagar Parikrama, a project conceptualized by Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd). In 2012-2013, Lieutenant Commander (now Commander) Abhilash Tomy followed this up with Sagar Parikrama’s second chapter – the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian. In an October 2013 interview to this blog, Vice Admiral Awati, when asked what was next for Sagar Parikrama, said, “ I look forward to the first Indian woman circumnavigator, in my lifetime.’’ (For more on Sagar Parikrama please try this link:

The all woman crew taking the Mhadei out from her anchorage at Verem in Goa towards the estuary of the Mandovi and the sea beyond, on January 4, 2016. At this point she is using her engine. (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The all woman crew taking the Mhadei out from her anchorage at Verem in Goa towards the estuary of the Mandovi and the sea beyond, on January 4, 2016. At this point the sailboat is using her engine (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

After Tomy’s trip, the Mhadei was doing her share of sailings around the Indian coast and away from it. This included the quadrennial race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, which she had been part of before. The navy issued a signal seeking volunteer woman officers to sail aboard the Mhadei on the upcoming Cape-Rio race. Thus in November 2013, when she left Goa for Cape Town to participate in the Cape-Rio race, the Mhadei had Lieutenant Commander Shweta Kapur aboard as part of her crew. On the return leg from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi joined in. On the Cape Town-Goa segment, Lieutenant P. Swathi was part of the crew. Subsequently on a sail from Goa to Port Blair, Lieutenant Pratibha Jamwal came aboard. On the Port Blair-Visakhapatnam-Chennai-Kochi-Goa return leg of this voyage, besides Vartika Joshi, Asst Commandant Vasundhara Chouksey of the Indian Coast Guard and Commander Sowjanya Sri Gutta also featured as part of the crew over various durations. For what the navy was gravitating to, the key was who would return to the Mhadei. While the woman officers had volunteered for specific sailings, the idea of long term association with the Mhadei hadn’t been in the frame yet. And long term association was what the navy was nudging things toward.

Commander Donde is clear that such long term association with a sailboat has to be voluntary. It is not a decision that can be wholly reasoned or calculated in the head; there’s a lot of heart involved for it is a commitment to the sea. In a sailboat, the duration of ocean voyages can be long. That time and whatever happens in that time must be endured. Sailing in a small boat, powered by wind, is far more difficult than being aboard a big engine powered-ship, where you have many hands for the various tasks. On big ships you also have systems in place. On a sail boat, each member of its small crew must be prepared to do everything that is needed to keep their home on water shipshape and afloat. Both sense of responsibility and the responsibilities are more.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Currently in the Indian Navy, woman officers don’t serve at sea. They work ashore. In branches of the navy like its aviation wing, some of them fly as observers aboard shore based maritime reconnaissance aircraft. When the call for long term association with the Mhadei came, Vartika, Swathi and Pratibha responded again. They had previous experience aboard the sailboat; they were also the voluntary returnees, returning because they wished to. Vartika who studied naval architecture, was previously working ashore with the navy on the ship design and construction side. Both Swathi and Pratibha were shore based air traffic controllers (ATC) with the navy’s aviation arm. All of them sought the sea. Payal, who joined later, is an education officer with the navy. Donde said it didn’t bother him that his woman trainees had no background in sailing or work at sea (except for the earlier stints aboard the Mhadei). On the other hand, he appreciated their chance to learn with no preconceived notions in the head, no previous baggage, nothing to unlearn. “ Unlearning is more difficult than learning. Here you have a clean slate,’’ he said. According to him, the sea is always throwing some challenge or the other at you that even an experienced sailor would be well advised to keep his ego in check and be open to learning. “ No two sailings are the same,’’ Donde said. As for gender, which is often made out to be a big issue on land, the sea gives no damn whether a person out sailing is a man or a woman. “ I am happy to work with this team,’’ Donde said.

Commander Dilip Donde and the crew at work aboard the Mhadei (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Commander Dilip Donde and some of the crew at work aboard the Mhadei (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When they first came aboard the woman officers had no idea of the terms used for each item and equipment on the sailboat. They have since learnt the terms, learnt to sail the boat and sail by themselves on short trips with nobody else supervising or available at hand for advice. There is a link between every boat and the people who sail it or imagine its expeditions. Vice Admiral Awati and Commander Donde have known the Mhadei from her design and build days. Her initial voyages and first circumnavigation were with Donde. Ahead of his solo nonstop circumnavigation, Abhilash Tomy in a bid to make himself comfortable with the sea and the vessel that would be his home for a few months, had taken to living aboard the Mhadei.  Now, there is a bond growing between the Mhadei and her new crew. Pratibha, Swathi and Payal said that in addition to being their workplace and the focus of their current official duties, the boat has become a hangout for them. During their after work hours too they (Vartika included) find themselves with Mhadei. Needless to say, they ushered in the New Year in her company.

Vice Admiral Awati responded by email. “ What a man can do, a woman can do better. I have long detested our tongue in cheek adulation of woman. We put her on a pedestal, then, show no qualms despoiling her or trying to murder her at birth. It is a devastating society for a woman. So what should I, who has no daughter, do? I have to do whatever I can to put the Indian woman in her rightful place vis-a-vis her man who has long patronised a patriarchal society and ensured its continued moral downfall. I hope you understand why I have worked my way to getting the first Indian woman solo circumnavigator on the records. Women have a crucial place in society. Women must outdo men in all spheres of activity except in the dispensation of violence. Naturally therefore, there has to be a woman or better still, women in Sagar Parikrama. Without her my concept of circumnavigation by an Indian is incomplete. The sea is the ultimate challenge to be faced and overcome in all its myriad moods. When an Indian woman sails solo around the world she will have achieved, attained a national hope,’’ he wrote.

The Mhadei near the Mandovi's estuary on January 4, 2016 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Mhadei near the Mandovi’s estuary on January 4, 2016 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At least two more woman officers are expected to join the pool of sailing talent assembled at Goa, which has Vartika, Swathi and Pratibha as its core. Payal who is yet to do a long voyage will be looking out for that opportunity. One such chance will emerge in early February 2016, when after the upcoming IFR in Visakhapatnam, the all woman crew will take charge of the Mhadei and sail her back to Goa via Chennai and Kochi. In the meantime, the navy which had sought bids for a sister vessel for the Mhadei, is set to complete the process and place the order on Aquarius. The new boat, slated for delivery in January 2017, will be a replica of the Mhadei. In other words, training on the Mhadei will equip you to sail the new boat as well. If all goes as planned, then in August 2017 the Indian Navy’s all woman sailing crew will attempt its first circumnavigation – the first by an all woman Indian team – in the new sailboat, Captain Ashwin Arvind, Director (Sailing), Indian Navy said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)