The girls are busy stocking up on some of their favourite things. “Movies, music, games, books, Kindle, laptops,” says Aishwarya Bodapatti, with a smile. It’s not exactly a long vacation, though. Lieutenant Bodapatti and five other women are preparing to go on an adventure of a lifetime — the stuff of adrenalin addled dreams for many: to travel the world on a sailboat.
This Indian Navy initiative (the first such attempt by any navy in the world) will see the team set off on board the 56-ft-long oceangoing sloop, INSV (Indian Navy sailing vessel) Tarini, docked at Mandovi in Goa since the beginning of 2017, by end-August or the first week of September. The crew will look to complete the whole trip in about seven months with four stops in between at Fremantle (Australia), Christ Church (New Zealand), Falklands (Argentina) and Cape Town (South Africa).
Bodapatti remembers her maiden voyage to Mauritius from Goa earlier this year aboard INS Tarini. As it tossed and turned, water filled the deck and soaked the women on board. And Bodapatti found herself thinking back to the time when she had bravely opted to be part of the crew that was to circumnavigate the globe. “I had thought being on the sea meant just sitting back and looking at the waters. Then, our auto pilot went on a blink and the radar packed up. I felt an unfamiliar sense of dread and realised what the sea truly was,” says the 28-year-old naval officer. It was her first experience of sailing the high seas and it taught her never to take anything for granted. A BTech graduate, Bodapatti says that her schooling at the Air Force station in Hakimpeth in Hyderabad (her father worked with the CISF), had a lot to do with her choice of career.
“I saw lots of planes flying (Hakimpeth air force base was very close by) and joining the air force first came to mind. But then I saw the naval uniform and it just looked so smart,” she says with a grin. Bodapatti’s always sought out adventure, though, whether it’s in her love for bungee jumping or river rafting.
The idea for this ambitious expedition was apparently floated a few years ago by the Indian Navy, which had already notched up records with the iconic sailboat Mhadei, commissioned in February 2009. Mhadei made two solo circumnavigations in 2009 and a non-stop one in 2013, before the Navy decided it was time to push the boundaries further. Women don’t typically go to the sea in the Navy, and solo circumnavigation would be practically unviable. Hence, the concept of Navika Sagar Parikrama — the First Indian All Women Circumnavigation of the Globe — was born. Almost immediately, a look-out was sounded for volunteers from the Navy.
One of the first to come on board, however, was Lt Commander Vartika Joshi, who will now lead the expedition as the skipper. “I volunteered for this for the same reason I joined the Navy — to explore the oceans,” says the 28-year-old BTech graduate from Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
Growing up near rivers — her mother taught at a college in Rishikesh and father worked in Garhwal — made Vartika keen to explore the waters more. “The oceans were the next logical step,” she says, adding that her family was delighted when she joined the navy and again when she opted for the circumnavigation. On what qualities led to her becoming captain, Joshi says, “Perhaps, my ability to be balanced, not take hasty decisions and take each person’s opinion into consideration when deciding things.”
Are they prepared for the challenge ahead? The answer is a resounding yes. “We’ve undergone intensive training since 2015, not to mention the many sailings from Karwar to Porbandar within India (2015 to ’17), and Rio to Cape Town to Mauritius (2016 to ’17) on international waters,” says Lt Commander Pratibha Jamwal, 28, and a BTech from Himachal Pradesh. “We’ve been especially trained to work with the boat’s equipment and its repairs because that’s one of the biggest challenges out in the waters,” she says.
After her graduation, Jamwal had landed a job with an MNC but she opted for the Navy instead as “being a pahadi I had a special inclination towards defence forces.” Labelling the opportunity as the “rarest of rare”, she feels she lucked out with her career selection. “Here, we are paid to travel the world and have the best experiences.”
Lt Vijaya Devi from Manipur, another member of the expedition, says she was inspired by her father, who was with the Manipur Rifles, to take on the challenge of circumnavigation. Devi has four siblings and she’s the only girl. Her family had initial apprehensions about the journey. “But once they visited me here, they melted,” she says.
Lt Patarapalli Swathi, the only married member of the crew, says she had the full support of her parents and husband, also a naval officer. “He knew this would happen before marriage and was well prepared,” says Swathi, who did her post graduation in computer science from Vizag.
The Ocean Sailing Node, where the women were trained, was established in 2016. However, informally, their training had already begun sometime in 2013, aboard the Mhadei. It started to come together in 2015, when all six women were transferred from their bases and stationed in Goa, where the Ocean Sailing Node took over their training. What followed were basic sail training courses at the Indian Naval Watermanship Training Centre, and, Navigation, Seamanship, Communication and Meteorology courses at various naval training schools in Kochi. After com pletion of these, the team sailed from Vizag to Goa independently in February 2016 and then to Mauritius and back, covering a distance of 4000 nautical miles in July 2016.
“By now, the girls have done 18,000 nautical miles of sailing on their own,” says Captain (retd) Dilip Dhonde, under whose tutelage the Tarini crew first learned the ropes in 2015. “When I trained them, I didn’t make any concession because they were women. I always told them, the boat and the sea are gender-neutral. The challenges they throw will not discriminate between men and women, hence, the response has to be likewise,” says Dhonde, who took premature retirement from the Navy last December.
Challenges don’t always come from the sea. The drudgery of long days is a real issue. “It’s important to keep motivation levels high. During long voyages, we sing, have discussions on different issues and reminisce about our childhood and dreams for the future,” says 26-year-old Lieutenant Payal Gupta, another crew member.
“Six people living with each other continuously has its problems — about hygiene, food choices etc. Small things can irritate you at sea and the fact that none of us are very domesticated doesn’t make it easier!” says Bodapatti. Joshi has a solution: dividing the boat area into six parts and making each member responsible for its cleanliness, ensuring no one feels that they’re making more effort at maintenance than the others.
From what it seems, the six women team have it all figured. As they strike a pose, you hear one of them shout to the others, as they perch themselves on the deck, and make the sign of a time-out. “Not V for Victory, Let’s make a T for Tarini.”