The turn of the tide

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 20 Dec 2017 12:19:03


By manisha karwa,

A New Zealand port town is where INSV Tarini's all-women crew have paused to ponder before setting sail for the third, and perhaps the most arduous leg of their maiden global circumnavigation, finds out the writer

“You have to be careful that your crew doesn’t fall overboard,” said Commander Abhilash Tomy, about the perils of sailing on the high sea. By that count, Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi has succeeded thus far. Her all-women crew has remained out of harm’s way despite manoeuvring through moody swells, choppy waters and lashing rain. If the 82-ft mast had to be clambered upon to adjust the sails, the skipper of INSV Tarini did so herself.

The indigenous, 56-ft sloop (see box) is on a historic quest. The Navika Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy hopes, will be the first circumnavigation by an all-women, Indian crew. It was flagged off with much fanfare by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman from Goa on September 10, 2017. But given that the navy doesn’t permit its women officers to sail, Tarini’s crew had to be specially selected and trained. The six naval officers (see box) have spent the better part of the last three years taking seafaring lessons, going off on sorties, monitoring the weather and “growing their sea legs”.

Skipper Lt Cdr Joshi, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt Cdr Swathi P, Lt Aishwarya Boddapati, Lt S Vijaya Devi and Lt Payal Gupta have also soaked up sagely advice and practical tips by Captain Dilip Donde SC (retired), the pioneering Indian to undertake a solo circumnavigation aboard the INSV Mhadei, and Cdr Tomy, the first one to do the same without stopping at any port.

Tarini will dock in four ports during her 23,000-nautical mile, around-the-world expedition. On November 29, Tarini pulled into Lyttelton, after sailing southeast for 24 days from Fremantle, Australia. Ask the ‘Tarunis’ what luxuries they enjoy on terra firma, and pat come the responses: “Hot showers,” “Sleeping on a stable bed,” “Walking!” “You hardly walk on the boat, not even a hundred steps a day,” says Lt Cdr Jamwal. “When we come to a port, it’s tiring to walk even a kilometre initially.”

Scarlet sunsets, long nights That’s not to suggest that life at sea is about putting your feet up and guzzling sundowners. Come gale or shine, the crew has to be ready. As they were when, in early October, they prepared for an approaching ‘cold front’ with gusty winds, pelting rain and 5m waves. The weather, as the crew documented on their blog, turned the day into a dark night. It was exactly the way we read it and we were all there to witness it (sic) the sky darkened even in the middle hour of the day clouds were packed right next to each other like an army of soldiers behind enemy lane there was sudden chill in the air that our teeth started clattering.

The cold front got along winds stronger than we have ever seen colder beyond what we thought and rain heavier than we could ever fathom... It blinded our view making it impossible to see the person standing right ahead the rain hurt any exposed area of the skin the wind screamed in the ears that weren't covered and the swell tossed the crew that wasn't tethered... The sail that was fully up until few days ago taking all the wind it could get came down reef after reef and reduced to fourth reef… Head sail furled..the high waves could be witnessed breaking at their crest...

Then, just days before arriving in Fremantle, they experienced winds at 60mph. The temperature dropped to 3° C and the crew barely had a couple of layers of warm wear each. “The cold makes any work that much more difficult. Your clothes invariably become wet,” says Lt Cdr Joshi. “But you have to get the work done.”

By work, she means rigging the ropes, steering the boat, emptying out water the waves incessantly deposit on the deck, cooking meals and sitting on the deck at night for long hours of watch. The hours turn longer on days when there is no wind in Tarini’s sails. And when it does turn windy, the crew has to look out for things that might break. “It’s tempting to speed with the wind and let the sails take a beating. But the boat has to survive. If there is any damage, the crew has to be able to repair it,” reminds Cdr Tomy.

That, or rely on ingenuity. Or fortune. Or perhaps both. When the onboard RO plant abruptly stopped functioning, the crew had to ration water for drinking and ablutions. They also started to collect rainwater in empty plastic bottles until Lt Cdr Jamwal got it working again. “Sailing,” she says, “teaches you to survive with very little. It gives you opportunities that you will not otherwise have.”

Sticking it out
Is it possible for six individuals to share “love and togetherness” in cramped quarters after having spent over 70 days at sea? “It becomes difficult at times. You can’t even lie. It's all evident,” says Lt Cdr Joshi. Sour moods, disagreements and arguments don’t make for efficient sailing. “I don’t interfere until I feel things are going out of hand. I try to give everyone their space,” she says. Happiness, she continues, comes from small things. “You don’t expect big achievements to make your day happy. You can draw and feel like you're Picasso!”

Sketching, writing poetry and knitting have brought Tarini’s crew as much joy as have celebrations for crossing the Equator (baking a chocolate - walnut cake as an offering to Lord Neptune; Diwali (marked by lighting diyas and a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi); and birthdays (Lt Cdr Joshi, a midnight’s child, turned 30 on October 30-31 and Lt Gupta turned 27 on November 7). Besides, mother nature has periodically dished out awe-inspiring ‘entertainment’. The crew has found themselves dumbfounded by scarlet sunsets, bioluminescence aquatic fauna and the Aurora Australis or the Southern lights!

Many nautical miles to go…
With their feet treading on hard ground the last few days, the crew is mapping out the next leg. “A circumnavigation is a Herculean task,” says Lt Cdr Jamwal. “It’s best not to bog yourself down with the pressure of going around the world. We think of it as baby steps, from one port to another.”
That’s good strategy, for the Tarunis have yet to encounter the worst. “The weather will be rougher from here on. We are going to go further south,” says the captain. “We will cross (latitude) 55-South at Cape Horn and transit south of the Cap. These are known to be the roughest waters in the world.” The crew as of now are on their way to Port Stanley.

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The boat

INSV Tarini draws her name from the Tara-Tarini temple in Odisha’s Ganjam district. Tara-Tarini, the patron deity for sailors and merchants, is worshipped for safety and success at sea.

The single masthead, 23-tonne vessel is a tonga 56 cruising boat modelled on the INSV Mhadei, says Ratnakar Dandekar, co-founder of Goa-based Aquarius Shipyard Private Limited that won the tender for building the sailing boat. “We had learnt from building the Mhadei. So for Tarini, we have a bigger entrance for the sail lockers, where the sails are stored. The piping and electrical lines are concealed. There are four bunks, and one bathroom and toilet,” says Dandekar.

The 49-year-old adds that the boat is neat and has adequate storage for its female crew. “The storage for personal belongings, equipment and the kitchen is neat and better looking in Tarini. There’s also a gimballed galley, where utensils remain stationary when the boat is moving, in addition to a three-burner hob and an oven.”

Aquarius Shipyard deliveredini 25 days before the scheduled delivery time, and the Indian Navy inducted it on February 18, 2017. Ratnakar’s standard advice to sailors is that they must check and maintain all equipment every third day. “I met the crew before they left and am monitoring their progress,” he adds. “If they have any requirement for a rigger to check the rigging, I do it for them remotely from Goa. If at all there is a major problem, I’m on standby to go on a personal mission.”