The INSV Tarini is already homeward bound. In a few days INSV Tarini will touch Indian waters marking the successful circumnavigation of the globe, the first such attempt by any Navy in the world. Sonakshi Awasthi spoke to the all-female crew at various points during their seven-month voyage about life on the seas, solitude and the big challenges that rocked their boat. The conversations carried over rough waters, Whatsapp messages and voice calls trace the ups and downs of this historic journey.
“I have problem sleeping the night before we leave,” says Lt. Aishwarya Boddapati while speaking to Indianexpress.com via Whatsapp.
February 2, 2018. It is 4 a.m. in Falkland Islands, archipelago in South Atlantic Ocean and 12:30 p.m. in India. Lt. Boddapati along with five other Navy officers would sail for Cape Town, South Africa, hours after after we finish our conversation marking the last leg of their expedition, a journey of 26,100 nautical miles circumnavigating the globe under the project Navika Sagar Parikrama. The crew led by Skipper Lt. Commander Vartika Joshi aren’t new to rough seas. Even before they sailed in September 2017, aboard the 56-feet long oceangoing sloop, the Indian Navy Sailing Vessel (INSV) Tarini, the women officers: Lt. Commanders Pratibha Jamwal, and Patarapalli Swathi and Lt. Aishwarya Boddapati, Payal Gupta and Vijaya Shougrakpam were together in a 2016 expedition aboard the INSV Mhadei, part of the training for this journey.
One of the big challenges came just before they crossed Cape Horn, often referred to as Everest for the seafarer. Winds with the velocity of 70 knots (140 km/hour) and waves as high as 10 metres hit the boat one night. “The waves kept coming one after the other. It was bad and we had not seen something like this before,” says Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi, the Skipper.
The crew had been monitoring the weather and was prepared for the impending storm. “We cut down our sail. We had to hand steer the boat for 16-17 hours at stretch and we cut down all our power sources and automatic steering. We divided ourselves to keep a watch, three on deck and three taking rest. During the night it would get disorienting as there was no clear sky. We used to listen to the sounds of the wave and then keep the boat steady,” Joshi adds.
“There was water even inside the boat. The skipper came floating, she was trying to make out if she was on board or in water. Lt Vijaya and I tried to find our way to the wheel and controlled the boat,” adds Lt. Jamwal.
Here in Delhi the Navy has been constantly monitoring INSV Tarini. “We are constantly in touch with the officers and we watch Tarini like a hawk,” said Capt. Atool Sinha who trained the officers for two years before they undertook the expedition.
While the all-female crew of the INSV Tarini has been underlined as a testament of women power, Capt. Sinha adds a sobering thought, “Basic training was given to them, you have to prevent injury to self and the boat. Nature will not discriminate between genders or any person.”
Days later on a calm day at sea when we spoke about the storm, nearly all mentioned about how it brought them together as a team. “There was an unspoken understanding amongst all of us. We stayed awake all night about 15 hours straight without sleeping a wink,” says Lt. Boddapati.
Challenges of the sea apart, the drudgery of long days and solitude was a real challenge. Unlike a ship, where the crew has doctors and cooks on board, aboard the INSV Tarini, officers managed daily activities. Showering everyday was a luxury as a reverse osmosis (RO) plant produced water, more precious for cooking daily meals. Washing clothes was an adventure by itself even with the sea all around. The officers would soak clothes in soapy water, tie them to a rope, drop it in the ocean and leave them trailing the boat for sometime. Later the clothes would be pulled out, rinsed with a little bit of RO water and left to dry.
Food was neither sparse nor in plenty. Once the fresh supplies procured from a harbour were over, it was only dry provisions. A three dimensional stabilised kitchen console allowed some cooking. No electricity meant gas cylinders were used and in case they failed or finished, the crew survived on tin food. Tarini halted four times in seven months, at Fremantle in Australia, Lyttelton in New Zealand, Falkland Islands and Cape Horn. During the halts, the crew prepared for the remaining journey and carried out seamanship checks, navigation, communication and safety checks as well as stocked up ration.
“There are six of us onboard, we tend to run out of the food supplies quite quickly and there is not enough storage to go on for a very long duration for all of us,” Lt. Boddapati told the indianexpress.com.
Before setting sail, the crew underwent two years of specialists training which included astronomy, meteorology, navigation, communication, seamanship and reading weather and weather maps. Each member was also trained to handle emergency situations like fixing a fracture, administering CPR, burn and head injuries as well as electrical shocks. While medical personnel were made available on call through a WiFi set up their efficacy was always limited.
“During sail, one is on the rope, 60 ft from the boat, managing the mainsail, and the other is looking after the riggings and the third is on the wheel, what would they do if the one on the rope falls? They have no choice. We can’t go at sea and get one of them back because they had an accident,” said Capt. Sharma.
The crew members carried with them their laptops, kindles and personal diaries but were actually each others biggest support. “They only have four bunks, two people are always on duty, come what may, there are no doctors, so they are their own psychologists, trainers, engineers, psycho-counsellors and cooks. They have nobody except themselves and they are trained in that manner,” says Capt. Sharma.
Many conversations often led back to the time when they bravely opted to be part of this expedition. The idea for the ambitious expedition was floated a few years ago by the Indian Navy, which had made records with the iconic Mhadei, commissioned in February 2009. Mhadei made two solo circumnavigations in 2009 and a non-stop one in 2013, before the Navy decided to push boundaries. Women don’t typically go to the sea in the Navy. It’s then the concept of Navika Sagar Parikrama — the first Indian all women circumnavigation of the globe — was born.
When the Navy was looking for volunteers, nearly all of them grabbed the opportunity. Alpana Joshi, a Professor in Rishikesh and mother of the Skipper, remembers when her daughter announced the decision. “I know she can handle herself and the crew at sea. We did not stop her from dreaming,” says Joshi’s mother. For Lt. Bodapatti, nicknamed “Alligator” by her colleagues, living on land for extended periods was always “boring”. A BTech graduate, her father, a CISF man influenced her career. Same was the case for Lt. Vijaya Devi from Manipur, who was inspired by her father, who was with the Manipur Rifles.
“They are doing something that has never been attempted before. We have trained them and they are volunteers. They were officers of various branches of the Navy. We have taken up this adventure and challenge and they have been trained for it,” said Capt. Sharma.
By the time INSV Tarini is home, the milometer would read 21600 nautical miles, approximately 42,000 kms on land, going round the globe.
What’s the one abiding lesson of this journey? “Never take the sea for granted,” is the unanimous answer from the girls on a boat.