Baking cakes to celebrating birthdays, dressing up as Santa for Christmas, witnessing the Southern Lights, seeing rare species of marine life, bonding over a shared accomplishment.
Sounds like a perfectly normal set of activities, right?
Now imagine doing all that on a boat, where you have spent more than eight months becoming the first all-women Indian crew to circumnavigate the world.
For the six-member Indian Navy crew, these were the moments that stood out in their expedition on sea. This and the fact that they had created history with an adventure of a life time.
Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, who captained the expedition with her crew – Lieutenant Commanders Pratibha Jamwal, P Swathi, and Lieutenants S Vijaya Devi, B Aishwarya and Payal Gupta – saw this as a chance to do something never done before and volunteered soon after her first trip to Cape Town in 2014.
The Indian Navy does not allow women in combat platforms as yet, and the group had no prior training on a sail boat and hadn’t spent time at sea. But these were small obstacles to overcome, the six women learnt it all within a span of three years and set off on the historic voyage in September 2017.
The expedition, called Navika Sagar Parikrama, saw the six Navy officers cover over 22,000 nautical miles, three oceans, three great capes and five ports across 254 days in a newly-inducted naval vessel, the INSV Tarini. They returned to India in May this year, after a life-changing journey.
“None of us were acquainted with a sail boat or ocean-going boat; none of us had sailed before, nor are woman officers allowed entry in combat platforms as yet. At first, it was difficult to take the boat out to sea, from one point to another. But we slowly built upon it through three years of training,” Joshi told Scroll.in after the preparation.
Starting from scratch
Everything had to be learnt from scratch and then experimented at sea. Incidentally, most of the Indian crew are from the mountains. Joshi is from Rishikesh, Jamwal from Kullu, Aishwarya from Hyderabad, Vijaya Devi from Manipur, Swathi from Andhra Pradesh, and Gupta from Dehradun. They took their parents to visit the boat before sailing on what would be a ride as thrilling as it would be perilous.
“We started with some theoretical courses on navigation, communication, weather prediction,” added Joshi. “Classroom courses are different from sailing outside, we need hands-on training. How to repair things, how to deal with emergencies, when the weather gets rough, if there is a medical emergency - training was needed in tactical aspects as well.”
But with the training done, the women began sailing and notched several nautical miles under the belt to become expert sea-farers.
“We had a vessel called INSV Mhadei that we used as a training boat,” said Joshi. “That was the only boat back then which had done a circumnavigation before, as Tarini was not inducted with the Navy back then.” The team was mentored by Captain Dilip Donde, the first Indian to circumnavigate the world solo.
Slowly, the officers were all exposed to long-duration sailing and the team was formed based on who had the most experience by then, coming together in 2015. After the theoretical courses and hands-on training, they then took out the Mhadei independently.
“When the time came for the circumnavigation, we had already completed almost 21,600 nautical miles, which is close to distance we needed to cover during the entire circumnavigation period,” Joshi said. This was a sign that they were now ready for the mission.
The experience at sea was, however, completely different. For Joshi, as captain of the ship, the first step was to make sure the team was functioning as a unit, as they began to weather the rough and calm days.
“We were the only ones [there] for ourselves, there would be no help on the ocean where sometimes the nearest land was almost 1,000 nautical miles away. Even if there are disagreements between us, at the end of the day we were all together and the mission was ahead of us,” she said.
“The best thing was that we were able to cope up with all of this as a team. Although we had known each other for a year, but the amount of time we spent with each other on sea gave me, as the captain, a chance to understand each and everyone’s behaviors and use their strengths for the good of the project. We gradually developed very well as a team and accomplished what was given to us,” she added.
Over the course of the expedition, the team bonded in a way that made the experience even more memorable, as is evident from the moments Joshi describes as the ones she cherishes the most.
“We celebrated festivals at sea. One of the crew members used to bake cakes and the others used to decorate the boat with balloons and such. We celebrated three birthdays including the first birthday of the boat. Also specific occasions like crossing the equator, the International Date Line and such. When we think about it now on land, we remember the Diwali we spent at sea. The prime minister gave us a video call on Diwali and it was very motivating to talk to him,” Joshi said.
Overcoming challenges together
It was not all calm seas and sunny days; there were several moments of crisis but, for Joshi, the team-work during these times stand out. “The sea can get really tough when winds are picking up. Those are the time we have to be active and need to anticipate what could be there ahead. In South Pacific, we encountered a storm where the seas were almost nine to ten meters high and the winds were picking up to 60-70 knots, which is about a hurricane force of wind on land. It is normal on sea where there is hardly any land mass to stop the winds.
“It is also a blissful experience when something broke down and after a lot of hard work and effort, we are able to fix it together. We will remember these incidents as well because it gave us the strength to move on and if something went bad, we were able to overcome those challenges,” she added.
And then there were moments that left them awestruck.
“When we were crossing the Tasman sea, we witnessed the brilliant Southern Lights from sea. It was rare to watch that in those months, that too from sea. We were absolutely awestruck as we were not expecting it, to see the entire sky lit up in green light. There was bio-luminescence, dolphins swimming in the wake of the boat like our neighbours and a variety of sea creatures. We spotted a dead sperm whale once and we thought it was an island from a distance, it was so huge. We are not specialists, but sometimes we spotted something and had to Google it to learn more about the species,” she said.
While all of this sound likes a fascinating adventure, Joshi hopes their journey can send a message and inspire others Indians. The crew have already lined up a series of lectures and presentations about their journey, hoping to motivate others to take a chance on unconventional voyages.
“In India, not a lot of people embark on an adventure probably because of the fear of nature,” she said. “Taking the first step needs a lot of effort.”