It was the beginning of the last leg of a challenging journey. The six young Indian Navy officers steering the Navika Sagar Parikrama — the first Indian all-women expedition circumnavigating the globe on INSV Tarini, reached the immigration office in Capetown. Just then, a gentleman at the immigration office put across his amazement, candidly. He said, "six girls. Where is the navigator?" Members of this audacious crew found humour in it.
Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati wrote to Swarajya, "you'll be surprised to know that few of our male counterparts still think you need a man to handle and navigate the boat. It is not always about muscle power. I have seen experienced men sailors land boats into damage." Crossing the notorious Drake Passage has seemingly given Boddapati more humour.
The Navika Sagar Parikrama culminated in Goa, covering 21,600 nautical miles in an eventful voyage, recently. The six young officers, changed as individuals after braving an unstable environment in a grueling task, were welcomed by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Mandovi, Goa. "It is a staggering achievement at many levels... for all those involved... daring to dream big," the Indian Navy tweeted. Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi led the expedition of five naval officers including Lt-Commander Pratibha Jamwal, Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati, Lt-Commander Patarapalli Swathi, Lieutenant Vijaya Devi and Lieutenant Payal Gupta.
Last week, the crew met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the presence of Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba. A tweet from spokesperson of the Indian Navy said, "It is a staggering achievement at many levels — for the @indiannavy that conceived & steered the initiative, for Indian women who just broke one more glass ceiling, for all those involved with the odyssey for daring to dream big..."
In the latest edition of Mann Ki Baat, the monthly radio programme, Prime Minister Modi hailed the six member crew. Modi had met the team on 16 August last year, before they embarked on the voyage in September.
The expedition had five stages and stops — Fremantle (in Australia), Lyttleton (in New Zealand), Port Stanley (Falklands), Cape Town (South Africa) and the last, an unexpected one, Mauritius. The crew passed south of the three Capes. Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope — the ‘Big Bosses’ which are defining and necessary to be rounded for "circumnavigation". INSV Tarini crossed the Equator twice.
After leaving Goa in September, INSV Tarini reached Fremantle Port in Australia in October last year, Lyttelton (New Zealand), a month later, steered across Drake Passage to round the Cape Horn off the Southern tip of South America, sped towards the Falkland Islands. In the last leg of their journey, they set off from Cape of Good Hope on 15 March, for Goa. "We would not want to get carried away before it is actually finished," Lt-Commander Jamwal wrote to Swarajya before the beginning of the last leg.
The unscheduled stop at Port Louis in Mauritius was for repair works required by the boat owing to a technical snag in the steering gear. It delayed the crew's return to Goa. Cape Town, which INSV Tarini touched on the day of Holi, in March, was supposed to be the last stop before the beginning of the final leg. The crew has received appreciation for how it handled the repair works in the middle of the ocean and Tarini's journey from there to the port in Mauritius.
Inspired by Commander Dilip Donde, SC (Retd), who undertook the first solo circumnavigation between 2009 and 2010 onboard indigenously-built vessel INSV Mhadei, the officers worked ‘from scratch’ for the parikrama. Lt-Commander Pratibha Jamwal said, "I heard of circumnavigation first was when Commander Dilip did his circumnavigation. I was in 11th standard, probably. I really had no idea at that time and never imagined in my wildest dream that I will be doing something like this. I am very thankful that I got this opportunity."
The officers trained to take challenges in the navy, underwent training in Kochi. Later, they began their training on INS Mhadei, the boat Commander Donde completed his historic circumnavigation on. He taught and trained them on every aspect of the boat. Then, they sailed extensively on INS Mhadei and the indigenously-built INSV Tarini for training and preparations.
Sailing on INSV Tarini, these officers would bust a bunch of gender stereotypes and some notions for themselves. "What I feared the most was living in a closed environment with five other girls, most of whom I hardly knew. I am a little finicky about things and cleanliness and choosy about food. Now, I can say that my mom will be very proud of how 'domesticated' I have become and have learned to cope with living habits of others onboard," Boddapati adds.
Storms helped break rhythm and stereotypes. The crew faced multiple storms. Boats are gender neutral. So is inclement weather. The challenges had to be met. "You are not going to get a special treatment based on your gender," Jamwal added.
The women stood together and steered past obstacles. Near Falkland Islands, the team faced hurricane-force winds. The voyage to Falkland Islands from New Zealand was full of challenges, including ugly weather, several storms and cold weather conditions. The subzero temperatures tested the team's mental strength (and toes and fingers). In Lt Commander P Swathi’s words, one big storm during this stretch was almost like "a super cyclone on land". She says in a video, "the winds went up to 140 kms per hour. The wave height is like 10 metres." Swathi was navigation officer at INSV Tarini.
Members of the expedition also met Lewis Pugh, United Nations patron of the oceans. The crew met Pugh with their love for ocean navigation, to know his spirit of adventure, experiences and attitude towards challenges. "Lewis is an amazing personality, yet very humble. He explained to us the challenges that he had faced while he was swimming in inclement weather conditions," Jamwal added.
The crew has received immense appreciation, audience and encouragement. Tucked within the larger experience of being embraced by the oceans, waves, ocean life and people from around the globe, were some quaint realisations. "During our halt at various ports, we met and interacted with many women's organisations. The women were impressed with what we were doing, but by end of it, some of them would say, 'I won't send my daughter for it’," said Boddapati. Convincing her own parents for her participation in the circumnavigation feat wasn't simple for this naval officer. She added, "my parents were looking for prospective grooms at that time and coming from an orthodox family, they thought it would be difficult to face society's perspective on a girl doing something so unconventional. Then, the parents had a look at the boat. They also sailed out with us at sea. They never had really said 'no' to any chasing of dreams. I became a part of the all women’s crew."
An average day on INSV Tarini during the parikrama would require the crew to pull in and use all their physical and mental strength and endurance as all-rounders. There would be watch hours. "From 12-4 am and pm-middle watch, 4-8 am and pm morning watch, 8-12- am and pm night watch." Each day was hectic. Each sailor had a routine and jobs and tasks lined up after the routine. Onboard INVS Tarini, the crew also collected data on South Pacific Ocean, other oceans they crossed and weather patterns there.
The boat would require maintenance regularly. "During routine checks, if some equipment or device was found faulty, we would repair and fix it all. These chores are done during off watch hours. During the watch, the routine is to keep a lookout on the boat outside, check if the sails need adjustment according to wind speeds. So, at any point of time, two people are on vigil on the boat," Boddapati added.
Cravings and kitchen played their role. "Onboard the boat, we make sure we carry enough raw material to meet our craving. We can prep anything — right from pizza to panipuri on the boat. We really crave for ice creams as we do not have a refrigerator onboard. We stayed at the Taj (hotel) in Cape Town and they would serve an elaborate South Indian spread for breakfast. It reminded me so much of breakfast at home," Boddapati added
Sometimes, tasks would outnumber plans, depending on the requirements of the boat, including important replacements, weather and whims of the ocean. "Usually, all our chores onboard are divided according to the watch, like, the night watch prepares lunch, morning watch prepares dinner, and breakfast is individually made by the members depending on when they wake up. Cleaning the boat is all divided — two people clean the bilges, two people clean the toilet and external area and two people sweep the living space," Boddapati wrote during their halt in Cape Town.
The crew's journey towards Goa was marked by a special moment when a whale shark with her calves swam alongside Tarini, in sort of a warm ‘escort’. Sailors have moving encounters with ocean life, but INSV Tarini crew's endearing response to the sighting off Arabian Sea, in all its thrill and playfulness, revealed an aspect concealed by a uniform, tasks, tests and symbolism. It was vulnerability to beauty and life, in great measures. It revealed their valuing of a moment — every moment — that has shaped this historic journey and achievement.
How can ocean sailing be encouraged in India? "Indian armed forces always encourage sport activities. The Indian Navy personnel do it as a hobby. There is a great talent pool in sailing in our country, but it's not really easy to buy boats, accessories and train people. For ocean going and circumnavigation to pickup, I feel we should look at a bigger picture, like taking part in ocean-going races like Volvo and Americas cup. We need a lot of sponsors and trainers and great teams. It will take time, but I don't think it's far from happening," Boddapati added.
INSV Tarini crew has done more than ‘breaking the glass ceiling’. Their achievement has more dimension than mere vertical ‘breaking’ of a notion. They have built a narrative. They have broken angry waves and covered the oceans being citizens, officers, sailors, daughters and inspiring women. They have negotiated successfully the three Capes and the demands of the oceans, chaos and calm, night and day. The six women have sailed over mighty waves and realisations on oceans, self, nature, gender and time.
It was a journey that allowed them to be women and girls while being successful professionals. INSV Tarini's arrival in Cape Town was a moment marked with colour and celebration. It coincided with Holi. India's High Commissioner to South Africa, Ruchira Kamboj, welcomed the "Tarini girls" with colours, multiplying their joy, watching them be "girls".
Jamwal wrote to Swarajya from Cape Town, "it is always inspiring to meet strong women. It keeps you from self doubting." That is a minuscule part of the essence of a voyage, of life.
Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi
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