“We should have a cool pseudonym. Something like... The Gulls,” one muses out loud, seeming quite satisfied with herself.
“What, like, a Punjabi way of saying girls?” said the other, genuinely confused.
“No, fool – like Seagulls. We're women at sea, get it?” clarifies the former, somewhat heartbroken.
“How about no?” the latter says jokingly.
What I accidentally eavesdropped on, as Lt. Cdr. Vartika Joshi and Lt. Aishwarya Boddapati miced up for the women's day gala hosted by SHM Shipcare at their boat building facility in Thane, was, in fact, the quintessence of the bonhomie six women officers had come to share, united by the blues – of torrents, and trials of spirit.
As they gear up for the voyage of a lifetime, commissioned by the navy as the first all-women team of Navy officers to circumnavigate the globe this August, two officers present at this event, from this one-of-a-kind team - constituting skipper Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, and crew members Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal, Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati, Lieutenant Patarapalli Swathi, Lieutenant Sh Vijaya Devi and Lieutenant Payal Gupta – caught up with us to trade stories.
Lieutenant Commander Vartika was born in the hilly terrains of Garhwal in Uttarakhand. But she has spent half of her formative years in Rishikesh, for each of her parents held jobs as teachers at either location. Her early memories are ruled by the tides, and embracing the rapids has been one of her primal instincts. And yet – this Naval architect had been kept from the sea her entire life. “I was desperately trying to get close to the sea. I did not like being constrained by four walls,” she says.
She took up aerospace engineering because aviation was more compelling and challenging. “But, in aerospace, if you don't procure a master's degree, there is very little scope,” she explains. At that time, some navy officials visited her college for the university entry scheme, to select a few individuals who could appear for the Service Selection Board (SSB), and eventually get recruited. “Since I was a nature and adventure lover, and wanted to see the ocean, I applied and got selected fortunately,” she narrates.
Lt. Cdr. Vartika opted for a branch called naval construction, which entailed designing and construction of ships. “When I joined the navy in 2010, I wasn't recruited as a 'woman'. The best thing about the forces is that they do not define you by your gender. Same goes for the sport of sailing, it is not gender biased. It's challenging physically and mentally, and fosters a great rapport between anyone. The greatest enemies on land tend to become friends at sea. It's a wonderful thing,” she describes.
She was first posted to Visakhapatnam in 2012, in her capacity as constructor, while constantly looking for an opportunity to sail. Unfortunately, at the time, the navy had not decided to send women officers to ocean-going platforms yet, but soon, in 2013, the navy released a signal. After Commander Abhilash Tomy's non-stop solo trip around the world on board INS Mhadei, the navy had another idea – of sending women at sea, to take part in the Cape to Rio race, which happens once in three years aboard the same Navy vessel, INSV Mhadhei. This vessel had already been used on two circumnavigations, by Commander Tomy and Commander Dilip Donde, who was the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe, albeit not non-stop.
After the performance of the ladies in the Cape to Rio race, the navy was even more resolute in deploying women officers on smaller legs of the circumnavigation expedition, and by 2014, some officers were asked to volunteer, among whom was Lt. Cdr. Vartika. “This is what I was waiting for! People have a fancy perception about sailing, but it is not all fun and games. I soon realised that it requires dedication and responsibility. But it still was something that was immensely close to my heart, and that kept me going!”
During these drills, Vartika didn't get wind of what the navy was on to, of what the eventual mission was, that is, circumnavigation of the globe with an all-women team. “They were just trying to see how the women officers were coping. They first commissioned a mixed team – and none of us had the requisite knowledge to sail on such a boat, working with equipment, etc. I volunteered for another expedition to go around the Indian Peninsula – Port Blaire to Vizag, Chennai, and Kochi, and I was reassured that I was, in fact, ready for more. The first time was experimental, I needed a second go at it to see if it really was my cup of tea,” she recounts.
After the raging success of these expeditions, the signal to form an all-woman team was issued. Various women officers were deployed to many legs of the Cape to Rio race, round the peninsula track, etc., to test the waters, until the final team was commissioned.
“We were all scared – we had no idea what we were going to face. You cannot romanticise the idea of these expeditions, and if anyone says they are not scared, they are lying. The only way to combat this apprehension is by preparing, and anticipating every possible situation,” she explains. And if Lt. Cdr. Vartika herself was anxious, one can only imagine the plight of her parents – who had never seen the sea, and had only heard daunting stories about the wrath of the world's oceans. “I called them to Mauritius, and even invited them aboard and to see how the boat fared, and how adept we were. While my father was somewhat convinced, my mother is nervous about this till today,” she says.
Born and raised in Hyderabad, Aishwaya’s father worked with the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and so, she did her entire schooling from an air force station, in increasing awe of the uniform; but not in a way that she coveted someone in uniform – she saw herself in one.
“I was always attracted to the uniform. That's how I joined the navy. As for sailing, it was destiny. Every time I travelled, adventure sports were a must. So, joining the armed forces is the best thing I have ever done – because here, this was to become my whole life,” she says. She also came on board as a Naval Constructor. Her basic training took place in the Andamans.
However, during her first expedition to Mauritius – she had no idea what awaited at the land's end. “I was completely raw and unaware of what was in store for me. I was just excited that I am going to Mauritius,” she candidly says.
Her first voyage not only provided her heart's fill of adventure, but also delivered a jolting reality check about life at sea. “We left in the monsoons – there was this night, and I was on watch. I was learning slowly, and it started raining like crazy. When it rains, we have to lower our speed, and take down the sails. Because it was pouring, there was no time to go put on a raincoat; I had to rush to take control. I was just hanging on for dear life, drenched to my bones, and I had this moment, where I burst out laughing and told myself, in the middle of nowhere, sea till as far as I could see – “What have I gotten myself into! This is not an adventure – it's life-threatening!”
While she had set her sails for the voyage, her parents had another thing coming for her. “My parents were taken aback and were reluctant to send me with five other girls. I did a smart thing and took them on a small voyage. Luckily, the weather was calm, we had a smooth sail, and they relised that the risks were containable. They then agreed, and told me that they were sure I wouldn't have let them hear the end of this if they hadn't let me go anyway,” she quips.
She has a message for the readers – for the women especially. “Anybody can do a desk job, but, doing something unconventional, once you get that adrenaline rush, it is contagious, and you would want it more and more,” she says.
Since the six were all from different cadres – two being constructors, two education officers, and two Air Traffic Controllers, the navy has now shifted their roles around to assign them to this mission full-time. Around 2015 April, they were posted on board the iconic Mhadei, as INSV Tarini was in the initial stages of construction. They have been in both, theoretical and practical training since then.
Maybe a decade ago, the opportunities for women may have been sparse due to both, a leaky pipeline as well as systemic biases against women. But now, both the officers unanimously declare that in fact, in adventure-related expeditions, women are given a conscious boost, to be brought to the forefront. “Our male counterparts often joke that they feel discriminated against,” Lt. Aishwarya laughs, also proving that the camaraderie and dynamics between the officers are healthy and gender agnostic. “The gap was high when I joined, but now the conditions are excellent, and drastically changing,” Lt. Cdr. Vartika adds.
Moreover, the aim of this unique expedition is to promote the sport of sailing, as much as it is to promote women. “It's not prevalent in India at all. And sailing as a sport influences a person greatly – it inculcates self-discipline, focus, concentration, etc. And is way more thrilling than most sports out there,” says Lt. Aishwarya.
And the officers have overwhelming evidence to support this tall claim – in the form of some invigorating tales of their trysts with the high seas. To train for the voyage that is slated to begin in August 2017 aboard INSV Tarini, and which will take eight to nine months to complete, the six have been going on various drills and experimental voyages in order to get the Tarini acquainted with the torrents. Some of their favourite moments have come while travelling in the Southern Ocean. “We have started star gazing, and that is a whole new landscape,” says Lt. Aishwarya, further describing, “Since we do not run on an engine, lots of sea animals come aboard. We race with dolphins, and they always win. Once, we saw hundreds gliding along with us. There were cranes that spent days on our boat, and we took them in as pets, befriended and fed them!”
They are allowed to carry a limited quantity of water, and have a converter for the saline ocean water when the stocks run thin, but it's not always completely potable, so the girls often mix Tang and other such water-based mixers. And there have been countless times, when they've run out of supplies – including food – while at sea. “Once on the way to Cape Town, we were left with only rice and Maggi, and had to think of all possible ways to cook it,” they recount.
Lt. Cdr. Vartika explains how their routine is dependent on weather. “With good breeze, it's smooth sailing. Two of us are on watch at any given point, for four hours at a time. The rest stay inside, and do whatever they please. Here is some inside information – we cook, knit - in which, one of us is an expert, who knits for children, paint, sketch, write poetry, do nail art, the works! That's the best part, you get to pursue your hobbies. It does not feel like a job,” they collectively reveal.
They feel like a big Indian family, when on board. “And like a family, we have our fallouts, but we are all compelled to stay together and that always fixes everything. A family that sails together, stays together,” she says.
There was a time when their steering system broke – and it's the exact same thing, and just as terrifying, as the steering wheel breaking when you're driving a car. “The boat had a mind of its own – while there's pelting rain. You cannot see what's happening five steps away. But we were trained to handle the crisis, and rebuild the mechanism,” Lt. Aishwarya tells us.
In the navy, all six have different ranks, and hence, have a hierarchy to follow. “But at sea, we cannot adhere to this hierarchy. We keep it casual. Even then, the junior most is bullied the most, and she has no option but to take it!” Lt. Aishwarya reveals, adding that the former is always on the lookout for chances to strike back.
They have also been picking up new hobbies – and, owing to popular demand, are also writing a blog. “It's called Parikrama123. We haven't put the 'sagar' in yet, because we're just doing parikramas till now,” Lt. Aishwarya jokes. They update it fairly frequently, and even post their locations regularly. “It's nothing formal our fancy – just a look into our everyday lives at sea,” they tell us, adding how they have a video too, from one stormy albeit adventurous evening – but, will never put it up, as that will scare stiff any hopeful looking to join, they joke.
Lt. Cdr. Vartika sums up this incredible journey beautifully. “If you desire something, it has to be so strong, that you commit to it till it happens. If it's weak, you will find reasons to quit. If it is strong, you will always have reasons to stay.”