Monday, March 18, 2013

Ahoy, Captain ahead!

Radhika Menon has created history by becoming the first woman to become a captain in the Indian Merchant Navy 

Photo by Ch. Kodandaramaiah

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 27, last year, Captain Radhika Menon, of the 21,827 tonne oil tanker, 'Suvarna Swarajya', was going through a spot of tension at Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. It was raining heavily and there were winds of 60 kms per hour. The ship was buffeted from side to side. “The big ship was behaving like a small toy,” says Radhika. It was a time when it was difficult to keep one's balance. A few of the crew members became sea-sick. All the items inside the cabins were thrown about, and fell to the floor.

The vessel dragged its anchor twice. “It had to be re-anchored,” says Radhika. For two days they remained in this uncomfortable situation. On October 29, the Meteorological Department declared that the depression near the coast of Sri Lanka  had developed into a cyclone called Nilam and was approaching land between Nellore  and Nagapattinam. Radhika decided to move away. Eventually, she went near Krishnapatnam, 496 kms away. By doing this I was able to avoid the direct impact of the cyclone,” she says. Later, they returned to Nagapattinam, collected a shipment of naptha, and sailed to Thirukkadaiyur  Port in Tamil Nadu.

Not many people know that Radhika has made history. She is the first woman captain of the Indian Merchant Navy. Appointed a few months ago, she was not surprised. “I knew I would become captain one day,” she says, with a smile.

Asked about her responsibilities, Radhika says, “I have to plan the navigation routes and manoueuvre the ship in and out of the harbour. I have to tackle all types of emergencies, like a sudden, unexpected storm.” She also has to do all the paperwork and monitor all departments and ensure that safety rules and regulations are complied with. Radhika also oversees the training of the staff on board and conducts emergency drills. “In short, I am overall in  charge of the ship,” she says.

Interestingly, apart from Radhika, and one cadet, it is an all-male crew of 38. “They know me well, and have no problems of taking orders from me,” she says. “Do remember I have been with the Shipping Corporation of India [SCI] for 22 years.” She did a one-and-a-half year radio course at the All India Marine College in Kochi before she became a radio officer in SCI, the first woman to do so in India .

But it has not been a smooth journey. “As compared to a male officer, I am scrutinised much more,” she says. “I try to avoid making mistakes. If I do make one, it will be talked about, and never forgotten. My attitude is simple: if a hurdle has been placed in front of you, then you have to clear it.”

But there are many enjoyable aspects of the job. “I love the harbour approaches, especially those at Vishakapatnam, where there are some nice hills. In my hometown of Kochi , there are the Chinese nets, apart from the island of Mattancherry , with its old houses and beaches. It is so nice when you look at it from the sea.”

Radhika also loves the weather. “There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The best sight is star-filled nights. It is like looking at the night sky inside a planetarium. I enjoy the unpolluted atmosphere.”

But she watches the sea carefully. “It has so many different moods,” says Radhika. “It can be unforgiving if you make a mistake. Carelessness and complacency has led to disasters. The sea must always be treated with respect.”

Meanwhile, when asked about balancing a career with home, Radhika says, “When my son, Bhavesh, was younger [he is 17 now], I would do short stints,” she says. “The passenger ship I worked on operated between Kochi and the Lakshadweep Islands .” But now Radhika works for one year and then takes a full year off. Her husband, Praveen Venugopal, works for a mobile firm in Kochi .

Her advice to young girls who are planning to join the Merchant Navy is clear. “She should not expect any special consideration just because she is a girl,” says Radhika. “She should know her work thoroughly, so that she can command the respect of others.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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