SKIPPER’S TAKE / FIRST CIRCUMNAVIGATION BY A CREW OF INDIAN WOMEN

Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

On May 21, 2018, after 197 days at sea and 254 days away from home, the first Indian all women-crew to circumnavigate the globe returned to Goa. This article is based on a conversation with the skipper of INSV Tarini, Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi.  It gives an idea of the countdown to circumnavigation and how the voyage actually unfolded, out at sea.

The Laser phase

Bruce Kirby was originally a journalist.

He worked with the Ottawa Journal and later, the Montreal Star. Having gained competence at sailing during his childhood and youth, he represented Canada in sailing at the 1956 Olympics, finishing eighth in a field of 24. Two years later, he tried his hand at boat designing. His designs worked well. In 1965, he moved with family from Montreal to Chicago and assumed charge as editor of a magazine called One Design, which would later become today’s Sailing World. Around this time, he was asked by a friend in Montreal to design a boat, compact enough to be transported on top of a car. The result was – the Laser; it hit the market in 1971 and proved useful to popularize sailing.

According to the website of Bruce Kirby Marine, there are an estimated 182,000 Laser boats worldwide. The model’s success inspired Bruce Kirby to resign his position at the magazine and become a full time sailboat designer. One of the highlights of the Laser is that it has strict one-design class rules, meaning a boat – today’s or older – is near similar, allowing for distinction in performance to be narrowed down to sailors’ competence. The Laser has a presence in India’s sailing scene. Over 40 years after the model first hit the market, it was on a Laser that Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi learnt the fundamentals of sailing. The location was Visakhapatnam, home to the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command.

Hailing from Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, Vartika did her BTech in aerospace engineering. In 2010, she joined the Indian Navy. “ I joined the navy because I liked the idea,’’ she said. The navy trained her to be a naval architect. At the back of her mind, she wished for a taste of the sea. Upon being commissioned as a naval officer, her first appointment was at Visakhapatnam. Selections were on for the inter-command sailing competition. It was open to women as well. “ Among women officers around, I was junior and relatively free. So I availed the opportunity,’’ she said. That was her introduction to sailing. It included a brief spell of training in Mumbai; all of it more or less restricted to the immediate need at hand. One weekend in Visakhapatnam, she decided to head to the navy’s sailing club and try out a Laser boat on her own.  The staff ashore showed her some of the knots she would use, fitted her out in a life jacket, put her on the boat and pushed her out into the water. She capsized multiple times that day and had to be eventually rescued and brought back to shore. But something engaged about sailing. For one, a sail is not much different from the wings of an aircraft; something she had studied in college. Although their respective axis is different – one is positioned vertically, the other horizontally – both harness wind energy provided you know how to do it. The following weekend, she returned to the club to try out the Laser again. Gradually, over several such visits, she learnt how to sail the boat.

The Mhadei; seen from inside the Tarini. They are sister vessels, near identical to each other; Mhadei being the older. This photo was taken in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Atlantic with Mhadei

By this time, more than a thousand kilometers away on the Indian west coast, Goa had become home to a small boat with a giant reputation. In a fleet of vessels ranging in size from aircraft carrier to small boats, the INSV Mhadei should be among the smallest vessels in the Indian Navy’s possession. But she had completed two circumnavigations. Thanks to her the Indian Navy had the distinction of having done solo circumnavigation and solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. Besides the two circumnavigations, the Mhadei had done several long voyages in the Indian Ocean area, particularly across the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. She was also a regular participant at the annual Cape to Rio yacht race, the longest such intercontinental race in the southern hemisphere. In 2014, when the Indian Navy sent out a signal seeking volunteers from among its women officers for the Cape to Rio Race, Vartika did not hesitate to sign up. She was selected to be part of the Mhadei’s crew on the return leg from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Cape Town in South Africa. This was her first open ocean voyage.

For sailor coming aboard the Mhadei, skills honed on a Laser in Visakhapatnam, open ocean voyage in the Atlantic was an eye opener. When it came to the Laser, it was all about the basics of sailing in protected environs, not far from land. In contrast, the Mhadei in the ocean was a case of several subjects – ranging from the nuts and bolts of a yacht to sea conditions and atmospherics and how the yacht behaved through it all – converging. She was a world by herself. For Vartika, that initiation in the Atlantic was rough but the journey it promised, attracted. “ I continued to volunteer for more expeditions on the Mhadei,’’ she said. The call for women volunteers had always been part of the agenda at Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s circumnavigation project. Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd), who played a major role in imagining and implementing Sagar Parikrama, had told this blog in an interview in October 2013 that he wished to see the project present India its first woman circumnavigator. When the signal seeking volunteers for an all women crew to do circumnavigation appeared, Vartika didn’t hesitate to grab the opportunity.

From training days; some of the all women-crew with Capt Dilip Donde (Retd) (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

On September 10, 2017, the much awaited circumnavigation by women officers commenced from Goa. There were six crew members aboard. Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi was skipper. Her team included Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal (from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh); Lt Cdr Patarlapalli Swati (from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh), Lt Cdr Aishwarya Bodapatti (from Hyderabad, Telangana) Lt Cdr Vijaya Devi (from Kwakta Santhong Sabhal Leikai, Bishnupur district, Manipur) and Lt Payal Gupta (from Dehradun, Uttarakhand). Pratibha had her first sailing aboard the Mhadei on a run from Goa to Port Blair. In 2015, she became part of the all women crew. Swati had her debut in open ocean voyage in 2014, on the Cape Town-Goa sailing leg of a Mhadei returning from the Cape to Rio Race. Aishwarya joined the crew on their second training sortie – from Goa to Mauritius – aboard the INSV Mhadei. Vijaya Devi has been a podium finisher among women at yachting and Laser boat championships. She became part of the crew in December 2016. Payal joined the crew on the team’s first independent sortie from Goa to Karwar; she also took part in the 2016 Cape to Rio Race. The crew’s training had started with various courses on basic seamanship, navigation, communication, meteorology and basic boat handling taught at the navy’s training schools in Kochi and Mumbai by Cdr Abhimanyu Patankar and Cdr Abhilash Tomy. That was followed by hands-on training aboard the Mhadei under Capt Dilip Donde (Retd). The team’s first independent sortie was from Goa to Karwar. Later the team sailed with Dilip to Visakhapatnam for an International Fleet Review. At Visakhapatnam, Dilip disembarked and the all women crew sailed the Mhadei around the Indian peninsula, back to Goa, on their own.

INSV Tarini (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tarini enters the frame

Goa’s capital Panjim, is adjacent to the Mandovi River. Upstream from the riverine jetty where the navy’s sailboats are berthed, is Aquarius Shipyard, which built INSV Mhadei. While the all women crew trained on the Mhadei, Aquarius was building an identical sister vessel. This new yacht was to be the all women crew’s vessel for circumnavigation. Having the boat under construction in Goa itself was a boon for the crew; they could go over to the yard and see it assume shape. It is important familiarization given circumnavigation entails months of stay aboard a boat, which is all that stands between you and the ocean. Knowing your boat properly is essential for long voyages. “ I was with the new boat right from the time her keel was laid,’’ Vartika said. Another advantage of construction happening nearby was that some of the crew’s suggestions – related to ergonomics – could be incorporated in the design. On February 18, 2017, the new boat was inducted into the navy as INSV Tarini. The crew took her out on trial runs to Mumbai and Porbandar followed by a longer voyage to Mauritius. In addition to acquiring skills and getting boat in place, there were a few other details too to be addressed. When you are at sea, your boat is everything. As your floating home, it must be looked after well and kept in fine fettle. There is plenty of work to do on a boat tackling long voyage. This work engages the upper body adequately. But given the human being needs a surface to walk on to engage the legs and walkable surface area is limited on a sailboat, the lower body runs the danger of wasting. Ahead of voyage, the crew trained to improve and sustain their lower body strength.

Planning and preparation are very important for the success of a voyage, Vartika said. By the time they cast off on circumnavigation, the crew knew their boat well. Thanks to the sorties they did together, they also knew each other well. One of the less highlighted angles of expeditions is coexistence. While expeditions definitely mean the relief of getting away from life as we know it, they brew their own stress. Despite best efforts to stay on good behavior, stress can make people abrasive and fragile. In daily life there are multiple avenues to destress. Such options reduce on an expedition. On a mountain side, you can take a walk perhaps. What do you do on a boat? “ Our training for the expedition began in 2015. The idea of subjecting the entire team to a long training experience was to not only learn about sailing the boat but sail it together. This aspect was going to be as important as the sailing itself especially when sailing for long duration,’’ Vartika said. According to her, initially, adjusting to each other’s lifestyle was tough for the crew. Living together and seeing each other’s faces in seven meter by five meter living space, 24 x 7 made them quite vulnerable to each other’s emotions and actions. Amid this they were required to tackle all that nature threw at them. “ My training at sea with others of the crew helped me become more receptive towards the rest and also look at the larger picture. Our training phase helped me understand the crew better and be in sync with their nature and reflex towards any given situation,’’ she said. The team took to circumnavigation only after they were convinced that they were ready for what lay ahead. Circumnavigation of the planet by sea is punctuated by the three capes the route passes through and the challenges posed by the Southern Ocean. The three capes are Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn at the tip of South America and Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

The all women-crew of INSV Tarini with the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

The Southern Ocean

Located at 32.03 degrees south latitude Fremantle is a port city in Western Australia; it is part of the Perth metropolitan area. The Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama, in its version of circumnavigation with stops, has traditionally had its ports of call at Fremantle, Lyttelton, Falkland Islands and Cape Town. For the Tarini and her all women crew, the first leg from Goa to Fremantle was initially slow progress. Two weeks out from Goa, as the boat crossed the Equator, a challenge loomed. The trade winds in the southern hemisphere blow in from the south east. That was also the direction the Tarini wished to proceed. To harness the wind, the boat therefore sailed at an angle – in south-south west direction. But that course had to be endured for 20-22 days before favorable winds appeared and course to Fremantle had. The course correction to Fremantle occurred at around 32 degrees south latitude. In this phase there were winds of over 45 knots with accompanying wave heights of 5-6 meters. Thus welcomed to the Southern Ocean, the Tarini proceeded to a 12 day-halt at Fremantle, during which time it underwent minor repairs, maintenance checks and stocked up for the next leg of the journey to Lyttelton in New Zealand, a port town that lay further south on the map at latitude 43.6 degrees. “ This was a short leg. But it was in the Roaring Forties,’’ Vartika said of the voyage to Lyttelton. The Roaring Forties refer to strong westerly winds found in the southern hemisphere, generally between 40 degrees and 50 degrees south. It was one of the reasons why the Tarini got a good check-up at Fremantle. These are not seas you take chances with.

The first landmark to cross on this leg was Cape Leeuwin. The Tarini enjoyed good winds till the Great Australian Bight, that massive arc on the southern coastline of Australia, you see on the map. Then the boat got stuck in a big high pressure weather system that was forming in the area. According to Vartika, such weather systems; more precisely the frequent birth and demise of weather systems, is characteristic of the Southern Ocean. It is a zone of tireless churn. Thanks to this, the seas here appear confused. You can have instances of short-lived calm with little wind above deck and choppy waters below, all at once. Both Dilip and Abhilash had faced rough weather in the waters off southern Australia during their circumnavigation voyages. Forewarned of the high pressure system, the Tarini skirted it; that’s what sail boats moving under the power of wind do when beset with obstacles made of the same energy driving it. The tactic worked. It was a smooth passage. Not long after they tackled this weather system, while sailing through the Tasman Sea, the Tarini’s crew had their first glimpse of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis). “ It was a memorable experience,’’ Vartika said. Twenty five days after she left Fremantle, the Tarini neared Lyttelton. The actual entry to harbor was delayed, thanks to the shifty weather changing gear again. The 12 days (that was standard duration for the Tarini’s scheduled stops) halt at Lyttelton was well used to check the boat and replenish supplies. Ahead lay the longest phase of the journey – the crossing of the South Pacific Ocean and the dip to as south as it gets during circumnavigation: at almost 56 degrees south, the tip of South America; Cape Horn.

The Pacific Ocean is a huge expanse of water. It represents 46 per cent of the Earth’s water surface; it is bigger than all land combined. It is also the stuff of human heritage for humanity’s migration to lonely islands tucked deep in these parts have to be fantastic narratives in ocean crossing. Especially when you consider what boats and navigation technology, people living centuries ago, had. On the world map, a line east from Lyttelton to Cape Horn would appear straightforward with a gentle southern tilt. But that’s not how voyages in the Southern Ocean pan out, particularly that of a sail boat dependent on wind. As Tarini left Lyttelton, there was news of several weather systems forming in the southern latitudes. Those advising caution included a couple on a sail boat journeying east to west and who were reaching New Zealand from Falkland Islands. Given the general direction of Cape Horn and the weather systems ahead, it was once again imperative for sail boat to dip south to skirt these systems and then proceed east. After some days spent sailing south, the Tarini found favorable winds for the passage eastward. The breeze was steady and the going, good.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The approaching storm

According to information on the Internet, South Pacific weather – traditionally described as tropical with its northern latitudes close to the equator being warmer than those farther to the south – has been impacted by global warming. The official rainy season may end up dry and the dry season, wet. The region’s hurricane season – November to April – isn’t as reliable as before. In 1997, Hurricane Keli became the first South Pacific hurricane of June. Close to January 2018, it became evident that there was a major storm brewing in Tarini’s path. Preparation of boat and crew for rendezvous with the weather system commenced days in advance. The movement of the storm’s frontal system was studied on a daily basis and plans devised on how best to avoid it. The Chilean weather agency provided regular updates; the Tarini’s crew also kept Chile’s maritime rescue coordination center updated on the boat’s daily position. This was in addition to the weather data and updates provided by the Indian Navy. All this, along with daily observations of weather from the boat, sufficed to give skipper and crew a fair idea of what lay in store and how to proceed. They started preparing themselves and boat for the worst.

Vartika commenced her preparations, checking every detail of the boat, making sure that nothing, which could possibly give away, was loose. All potential sources of water ingress were sealed and all underwater valves closed a day before the storm was predicted to hit. Laptops and phones aboard were charged following which, power was switched off to sockets and equipment consuming much electricity. Hours before the storm, the batteries aboard were charged so that the generator wouldn’t have to be operated during the storm. Skipper and crew then discussed how they should stay ready at a personal level. They decided to keep their life jackets on and stay hooked (clipped in) to the boat at all times. All winter gear and foul weather gear was kept accessible for use. Meanwhile the temperature dropped to sub-zero and there were frequent hailstorms. The wind and the sea rose quickly and the barometer level dropped. “ There used to be squalls. The wind, blowing at 30-35 knots would suddenly speed up to 45 knots. Adjusting the sails accordingly became frequent,’’ Vartika said. The main sail-area was dropped to the last reef to prevent the boat from getting overpowered. Some mornings, there was snowfall. Safety drills were memorized and shore authorities, informed. On a sail boat, the crew takes turns being on watch. Those not on watch rest, cook or address various maintenance jobs. Typically, two crew members are on watch; each watch lasting four hours. As the storm drew closer, the number of people on watch was raised to three and the duration of watch shortened to two to preserve quality of response. They worked wearing harnesses with slings attached that kept them tethered to the deck.

The Drake Passage is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific. For ships sailing between the two oceans, conditions will be rough in the Drake Passage although not as bad as they tend to be in the narrower and sometimes icebound Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel. Besides for a proper appreciation of Cape Horn – something circumnavigators look forward to – a boat has to be in the Drake Passage. Geologically, this 800 kilometer wide-span of water (the shortest route from Antarctica to any other landmass) is significant. According to Wikipedia, till about 41 million years ago, the Atlantic and Pacific were not connected in the south. Antarctica was warmer than today and it had no ice cap. It was once the two oceans joined via the Drake Passage that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current commenced and the continent cooled significantly. In January 2018, roughly a week before the Tarini entered the Drake Passage, the storm hit her in the Pacific. The wind speed picked up to 70 knots. The waves were huge. “ For the first time, we felt scared,’’ Vartika said of the waves.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A wave to remember

The storm had the little boat in its maw for around 20 hours. On the Tarini’s deck, to the aft, are two steering wheels, one each on the port and starboard side. A sailor on deck steering the boat is exposed to the ocean ambiance through which, the boat is sailing. At one point in the passage through the storm, Vartika was at the wheel of the boat, when a huge wave rising up from aft crashed on the boat’s deck. Unlike a big ship, a sail boat uses the energy of wind to propel forward. It is a delicate equation for although nature provides the required energy, nature’s scale is humongous compared to size of sail boat. It takes little by way of excess nature to tip the balance and damage a boat or endanger a voyage. That’s why in the run up to storm, the sail areas were frequently adjusted and as the winds gathered speed, utterly minimized. As sensitive as sails to the wind, is a boat’s steering mechanism to the sea around. The sea is a lot of water; it is medium we underestimate for the force it can wield. Sailor on deck handling the wheel can sense through the steering column the fury of ocean being tackled. Unlike big ships, on a sail boat this feel is real. “ I could feel the power of the ocean on the wheel,’’ Vartika recalled. As the giant wave reared up behind Tarini and crash on deck was imminent, she shouted to the crew within to prepare for impact and get into `brace position.’ She let the wheel run free allowing the boat to naturally turn into the wind. If you fight the ocean under such circumstances and attempt steering, you risk breaking the steering column. As the boat turned into the wind, it slowed down significantly. The wave crashed on the deck.

Passing Cape Horn (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

The impact was severe enough to throw the crew inside, from one side to the other. On deck, Vartika was in the grip of the wave. “ When the wave hit I remember having one hand on the wheel to keep myself in place. But with water all around, for a few seconds I didn’t know where I was – on the boat or in the ocean,’’ she said. When the wave receded, Vartika found herself not at the wheel but close to the boat’s guard rail, half in, half out. Luckily her tether had held. Although the crew was tossed around, there was no major injury. The storm left its stamp in another way – the wave had crashed at a time when the door, which sealed living quarters from deck, was still tad open to allow passage for crew members. Result: everything inside got wet. Water entered the engine compartment too. It was a drenched Tarini sorely in need of sunshine to dry things up that sailed into Drake Passage and rounded Cape Horn, every sailor’s prized claim to fame on circumnavigation. It was a foggy day. The Indian tricolor was hoisted aboard to mark the moment. They were now in the Atlantic. Vartika’s thoughts were elsewhere. She knew the only point of completion in circumnavigation is when you are back where you started. Goa was still long way off.

Upon rounding Cape Horn, the Tarini sailed north for Falkland Islands at latitude 51.8 degrees south. A lot of repair and maintenance work awaited in the 12 day-lay over scheduled there. The boat’s engine had packed up in the flooding that followed the storm in the Pacific. Sail boats – including those doing circumnavigation under circumnavigation rules – use their engines to maneuver in harbor. With her engine gone, the Tarini was devoid of such power. At Falklands, this posed a new challenge. The crew somehow managed to make it to berth without using the engine and solely with the help of wind. Needless to say, getting the engine back to working condition was one of the things addressed at Falkland Islands.

At Falkland Islands (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

A feast of latitudes and then, a broken steering column

Leaving Falkland Islands, the Tarini made for Cape Town in South Africa. A distinguishing feature of this leg of the voyage is the passage through several latitudes. As the boat does so, the ambient temperature changes; from cold southern hemisphere, it grows warmer towards the tropics. Twenty five days after leaving Falklands, the crew reached Cape Town. Cape Town was a familiar port; some of the Tarini’s crew had been there previously while participating in the Cape to Rio race. Following another 12 day-halt, the boat departed on the last leg of its journey – the trip back to Goa. “ The wind was not supportive in the beginning but we managed to sail around Cape of Good Hope,’’ Vartika said.

They stayed more than 100 nautical miles away from shore to avoid the powerful Agulhas Current that courses down the south east coast of Africa. Agulhas is speculated to be the strongest western boundary current in the world’s oceans; it is on the western boundary of the Indian Ocean. “ Despite the precautions we took, we could still feel the pull of the current,’’ Vartika said. The boat crossed Madagascar, taking a while – thanks to weather patterns – to strike the proper north east course to Goa. Then near Mauritius, a major setback occurred. The boat’s rudder slipped from its position and in the process the entire steering column broke down. The Tarini could no longer be maneuvered. The sails were lowered to keep drift in check. “ Every attachment of the rudder stock had broken down,’’ Vartika said.

At work inside the boat, repairing a malfunctioning sea water filter (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

At first the crew used muscle power to keep the rudder in place; then they lashed it in place with ropes and put their heads together to figure a way out. Twelve hours later, they had managed to partly operationalize the system. A boat like Tarini has two steering wheels. To partly restore the steering mechanism, the crew had to cannibalize parts from one of the steering columns to repair the other. The boat could now be steered to an extent. But it was restricted to one wheel and it was touch and go because they had to be very careful not to stress the fragile system by overloading. Sails had to stay down; progress was slow. They were 180 nautical miles off Mauritius. The crew informed higher ups in the Indian Navy of their predicament. They supported the crew’s decision to head to Mauritius. The navy flew in the parts required for repairing the Tarini, to Port Louis. Given the urgency, the parts were taken from the Mhadei; the Tarini and Mhadei are identical, sister vessels. Respecting the rules of circumnavigation, the work at Port Louis was kept restricted to the repair work at hand. Repairs done, the Tarini cast off for Goa. The slow progress from Cape Town, had however taken a toll. Rations were low. Fresh water was starting to deplete.

Home

Post Mauritius, the vessel was gripped by doldrums. Wind was hard to come by. The boat was crawling, moving very slowly towards her destination. As the Tarini was about to enter Indian waters, the Indian Navy dispatched one of its warships to welcome her in. But the little boat struggled to keep meaningful pace with the ship, powered by powerful engines. There was little wind around for Tarini’s sails. Eventually, the Tarini reached Goa on May 20, 2018. They stayed put at Mandovi Harbor for a day; the official flag-in happened a day later on May 21.

INSV Tarini (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

For Vartika, the circumnavigation had been opportunity to see some of the theories she learnt in aerospace and naval architecture, put to practice. There was also the satisfaction of becoming circumnavigator despite beginning as utter novice in sailing. Not to mention the experiential impact of six people in a boat and a planet’s girth circled. There was no room to hide anything from each other. “ I became dead honest with myself and also with the rest of the crew. I think the best bonds I made have been at sea,’’ she said of herself and her team. Vartika does not hail from a military family. Nor was she a member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), among regular avenues to military and adventure for many young people in India. On August 14, 2018 – eve of Independence Day – the media reported that the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, had approved gallantry awards for the all women-crew of INSV Tarini. “ With the successful completion of the project, the navy would now be opening up opportunities to others also to participate in upcoming sailing expeditions. We are currently manning the navy’s ocean sailing boats at the Ocean Sailing Node in Goa and might take on training and preparing future crew for voyages that some of us who volunteer may also be part of,’’ Vartika said,

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

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