The Indian Navy’s all-woman crew gets ready for a mid-August commencement of their circumnavigation trip
“ I am from a place surrounded by land and mountains. So, this is a dream come true for me,’’ Lieutenant Shougrakpam Vijaya Devi said.
Not far from the room she was in at the Ocean Sailing Node (OSN) of INS Mandovi, Goa, was the Mandovi River and further downstream, the estuary where the river met the Arabian Sea. Lieutenant Vijaya Devi, from the Indian Navy’s education branch, hails from Moirang Santhong Sabal Leikai in landlocked Manipur’s Bishnupur district. A post graduate in literature, she picked up sailing during her training days at the Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala, Kerala. Good at handling Laser class boats; she was among those who participated in a selection process to be part of India’s first all-woman team of sailors attempting a circumnavigation in a sail boat. Lieutenant Vijaya Devi made the cut. She was selected. Late July 2017, she was one of five women officers at OSN (a sixth – Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati – was away for her engagement), busy getting everything ready for cast-off on the much awaited voyage.
Captain Atool Sinha, Officer-in-Charge, OSN, wanted the team to be all set by August 10. “ We are as per schedule for a mid-August departure,’’ he said. The voyage will have four stops – Fremantle in Western Australia, Lyttelton in New Zealand, Port William in Falkland Islands and Cape Town in South Africa.
The idea of Sagar Parikrama was originally put forth by Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd). To date, the project has seen the first Indian to successfully circumnavigate the globe (Captain Dilip Donde [Retd]) and the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe non-stop (Commander Abhilash Tomy). In interactions with this blog, Vice Admiral Awati had said that an Indian woman circumnavigating the world was always part of Sagar Parikrama. The navy got around to addressing this task once the solo non-stop circumnavigation was done.
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 (now Lieutenant Commander) P. Swathi, Lieutenant (now Lieutenant Commander) Pratibha Jamwal and Sub Lieutenant (now 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. Following 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. In the initial phase, the all-woman crew was trained by Dilip Donde, a Commander then.
Goa to Karwar is a distance of approximately 40 miles by sea. Around 15:00 hours on December 8, the all-woman crew – with Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi 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 voyage was executed fully by the all-woman crew; the first time they were completely in charge of the Mhadei. The second such voyage with all-woman crew handling the craft happened on the return from IFR, back to Mhadei’s base in Goa. This leg of the journey was also Lieutenant Vijaya Devi’s first outing in the boat at sea. In August 2016, the OSN was set up. Among other functions, the onus of training the all-woman crew for circumnavigation, rested with OSN. Following their return from IFR, the crew then took the Mhadei on a trip to Mauritius. This was followed by a trip to Cape Town and thereafter participation in the annual Cape to Rio Race. Two members of the woman crew, Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi and Lieutenant Payal Gupta, were included in the navy’s team for the race, which was led by Captain Atool Sinha.
In the meantime, upcoming circumnavigation in mind, the navy had placed an order with Aquarius Shipyard (formerly called Aquarius Fibreglass) for a new boat, identical to Mhadei and based on the same Tonga 56 design by Dutch designer Van de Stadt. Once the all-woman crew reassembled after the sailings to Cape Town and participation in the Cape to Rio Race, they were assigned to oversee the construction of the new boat at the yard, as part of getting to know the boat that would eventually be their floating home for months during circumnavigation. On February 18, 2017, the new boat, named INSV Tarini, was inducted into service. She is identical to the tried and tested Mhadei, save upgradation in electronics (natural given the eight years that separate the two boats), some additional storage space and ergonomic improvements for better crew comfort. Dr Pratima Kamat, Professor of History at Goa University, had been associated with the naming of the Mhadei. According to the crew, her studies and writings inspired Tarini’s name too. Mhadei is the boat deity of the Mandovi River in Goa. Tarini draws her name from Odisha’s (formerly Orissa) Tara-Tarini temple in the state’s Ganjam district. The word Tarini means boat, it is also Sanskrit for saviour. There are also sculptural similarities between the Mhadei and Tarini deities.
In the world of boats, identical build does not however guarantee identical behaviour to the T. The materials used while constructing have to taste water and settle in. Every boat must be sailed in, tested and have its initial teething problems sorted out. A sense of its responsiveness must be had. For that, on March 3, 2017 – incidentally the anniversary of the Mhadei’s first sail too – the Tarini’s all-woman crew took her on her first voyage, a Goa-Mumbai-Goa trip. This was followed by Goa-Porbandar-Goa. Now it was time to try her out for rough sea conditions. The seas of the southern hemisphere can sometimes be a handful. The Tarini made for Mauritius. In July, she sailed back to Goa with the incoming south west monsoon; an act not as easy as it may seem in the imagination, for sailing with the wind without being totally at the wind’s mercy, requires skill. “ In downwind, the sail trim and boat’s feedback are less obvious than upwind. So one has to be very careful about keeping the boat balanced,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, Tarini’s skipper, said. The later voyages of the Mhadei and all the voyages of the Tarini have been overseen by the Goa based-OSN. It is the OSN that will be nodal to upcoming circumnavigation too. On July 28, both the Tarini and the Mhadei were berthed alongside each other at the navy’s boat pool in Verem, Goa. One was a veteran of over 125,000 nautical miles sailed, two circumnavigations, 16 crossings of the Equator, six crossings of the Prime Meridian, two crossings of the International Date Line and a couple of Cape to Rio races, including the last one in which she surpassed her design speed to emerge one among a few boats finishing the race – all of this, in eight years of her existence to date. The other, was her younger twin, on the threshold of her first circumnavigation, the first leg of which would be from India to the seas south of Australia.
“ That will be the first time as a team, we sail east on a major voyage. So far, we have always headed west,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, said. Between the two – sailing east and sailing west – there are some differences. When you sail west, you mostly sail against wind and ocean currents. This is tough on the boat as it is getting constantly pounded. When you sail east, you sail with the wind and ocean currents. “ However during our first leg to Australia, we will have to sail against the wind and that would mean much pounding. After Australia, we would be entering the southern ocean that’s known for some of the roughest seas in the world. They say: beyond 40 degrees south, there is no law; beyond 50 degrees south, there is no God,” she said. Several weeks beyond Australia, past the Pacific Ocean and at the tip of South America, lay Cape Horn. In all of sailing, Cape Horn commands respect for it takes good sailing skills to traverse this stormy portion of the planet. Further at sea, it isn’t storms alone that worry. For a sail boat, windless days – those famous doldrums – can be as challenging as days with plenty of wind and waves. So just how well prepared is the navy’s all-woman crew?
One reason for the Mhadei heading west more often than she did east is that part of her refit used to happen at Cape Town. That’s where a lot of the maintenance work on her sails and masts get done. Go through the chronicles of this little boat and you will find Cape Town mentioned affectionately. Sailing westward with Cape Town among ports of call, therefore made sense. But south west and west are also good for training. The trips to Mauritius have served to an extent as introduction to the very northern periphery of the southern ocean. “ Besides, the Cape to Rio Race is ideal for training new crew,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi pointed out how the Cape to Rio Race tested sailing skills on a smaller scale (as compared to circumnavigation); the dimension of a trans-Atlantic crossing. “ We got an opportunity to see all the sails of the Mhadei being used. We also changed sails in rough sea conditions,’’ she said. The longest the all-woman crew has sailed yet is 44 days. “ That,’’ Lieutenant Payal Gupta said, “ approximately matches the longest stretch of sailing at sea we will tackle on the circumnavigation.’’ According to Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi, although the crossing of the Pacific Ocean and Cape Horn to Falkland Islands beyond may appear the longest stretch of circumnavigation for any layperson staring at the atlas; that is not the case for an Indian circumnavigator starting off from the country’s west coast. It is the first leg to Australia that is the longest bit. “ But then the best of estimates in terms of how many days you need to tackle a given stretch, go for a toss if you face bad weather or windless days,’’ she said. Then she recollected reflectively something Captain Dilip Donde, told them from his experience: you can prepare and prepare but then one day, you must cast off prepared to face what comes your way. “ I think we are all excited about the upcoming voyage,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. Her colleague Leiutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal added, “ If you add up all the sailings we have done since reporting for duty as all-woman crew, it is just a shade short of the length of a circumnavigation.’’ The real deal, now beckons.
Late July, the sun played hide and seek in the monsoon grey-sky above Goa. Occasionally it rained. At the navy’s boat pool, the Tarini was a picture of serenity. She bobbed up and down gently on the Mandovi, at times straining at her anchor ropes; the Mhadei berthed alongside served as rim of protection. The interiors of the new boat were identical to her older twin. A box of machine tools sat on a table; the table’s edge sporting a heavy steel vice, both intended for any technical work the crew may have to do. The boat will be the all-woman crew’s home for several months as they sail around the Earth. “ If we set sail by mid-August as hoped for, then we should be back in India sometime in April 2018,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. For the duration of that time, it will be the crew’s responsibility to keep their floating home shipshape and in good condition. “ It is true that each one of us have our strong points. But at any given time two people will be on watch and the others may be resting. This is done taking turns. There is no way you can stay comfortable knowing just your strengths. Each of us must know everything about the Tarini; how to keep it running properly,’’ Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal said.
Bougainvillea is a plant seen in many parts of India, including Goa. It has flower-like spring leaves near its flowers. The plant gets its name from the French admiral and explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The plant, a native of South America, was discovered during a voyage of circumnavigation undertaken by the explorer. What makes the plant interesting for this account is that Bougainville’s circumnavigation trip also saw the first reported circumnavigation by a woman. Jeanne Baret, although enlisted as valet and assistant to Philibert Commercon, the botanist who named the colourful plant, is also known to have been his housekeeper and likely, mistress. Since women were forbidden on French navy ships at that time, she came aboard dressed as a man. In that guise, she became the first woman circumnavigator, modern history speaks of. A glance through Wikipedia’s list of circumnavigations is enough to tell you how few and far apart circumnavigation by women have been. After Jeanne Baret’s instance in 1766-1769, the list’s next woman is Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz of Poland who in 1976-1978 became the first woman to do a solo circumnavigation. Close on her heels is Naomi Christine James of New Zealand accomplishing the first solo circumnavigation by a woman via Cape Horn, in 1977-1978. A decade later, in 1988, you have Kay Cottee of Australia who completed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by a woman. Compared to this, on the male side of seafaring, the first circumnavigation stands to the credit of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage over 1519-1522 (completed under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano following Magellan’s death in the Philippines); the first solo circumnavigation is accomplished over 1895-1898 by Joshua Slocum and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968-1969. Nearly 250 years separate the first circumnavigation and the first circumnavigation by a woman; that too, a woman who had to dress up as man to circumvent gender barriers governing entry to navy ships then. Circumnavigation is among the longest voyages out there. It is a test of skill and endurance. A team of Indian women setting out to circumnavigate the world will no doubt be keenly watched by nation and its navy.
Two of the all-woman crew, Lieutenants Payal Gupta and Vijaya Devi, are from the navy’s education branch. They looked forward to sharing their experiences at sea with their students. Years ago, when Sagar Parikrama was conceived by Vice Admiral Awati, this knowledge-sharing was to be among intended outcomes. Embedded in the mission was the goal to make stronger the Indian sailor’s comfort with voyages of long duration at sea. Captain Dilip Donde set a benchmark with the first circumnavigation by an Indian; Commander Abhilash Tomy set it higher with nonstop circumnavigation. The OSN seeks to build further on this track record. An all-woman crew is now set to embark on circumnavigation. It is a sign of sailing in India acquiring true dimensions at last, even as the sport continues to be a niche activity despite 7500km-long coastline. The sea is a great teacher. “ People and lives change at sea,’’ Captain Atool Sinha said. OSN, the organization he heads, aims to promote ocean sailing amongst naval officers. I asked Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi if the ` woman crew’ tag attached to the Tarini’s upcoming expedition and all the judgement and expectations that accompany it, weighed on her mind.
“ No, I don’t think about it. To the sea, gender doesn’t matter,’’ she said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For previous articles on Sagar Parikrama please click on `Sagar Parikrama’ in the categories section of the blog.)