When Captain Radhika Menon saw a boy frantically waving from a boat caught in a storm, she knew she had to act fast. Had the bridge been unmanned, the fate of seven fishermen would have been at the mercy of the sea.
Saving lives at sea
“The boat was barely visible through the binoculars,” says Captain Menon, recalling the sighting of a fishing vessel from onboard the oil tanker MT Sampurna Swarajya in the Bay of Bengal in June 2015. She immediately ordered a rescue operation, saving the lives of the seven fishermen. The success of the operation has earned her the IMO (International Maritime Organization) Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea – a first for a woman.
“The seas were stormy, with 60-70 knot winds and wave height of up to 9 meters. The fishermen didn’t stand a chance in that weather,” says Captain Menon. She points out that in such conditions the vessel radar would not have been able to pick up the boat as a target – there had to be a human on the bridge to see the boat. “This simple boat didn’t even have a satellite tracker,” she adds.
While positive to the recent advances in shipping technology, she firmly believes that fully unmanned vessels still have a way to go. “The position that autonomous shouldn’t mean unmanned is a very good one. Keep the skilled people on board and give them the latest technology to support them.”
Captain Menon credits much of the success of the operation to her team. When she told the crew that they would start maneuvering for the rescue, there wasn’t a second of hesitation. “They trusted me, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do. I really admire my team, and I am thankful to them for agreeing to go on an open deck in such weather.”
The first attempt failed due to the strong winds pulling the boat away towards the stern of the tanker. Captain Menon had to stop the engines and allow the boat to clear the propeller area of the tanker. Only then was she able to make a second approach to the boat and rescue two of the fisherman with the help of a pilot ladder – a specialized rope ladder used on vessels. It took another attempt to bring the remaining five fishermen safely on board.
Among those rescued was the 15-year-old boy Captain Menon first saw from the bridge. When he was climbing the ladder, just two short steps away from the deck, a gust of wind sent the ladder flying parallel to the deck, with the young fisherman clinging to it for his life. “If that ladder crashed on the side of the ship, the kid would have been gone," Captain Menon recalls. Luckily the wind kept the ladder parallel to the deck for about 30-40 seconds, and one of my crew, a very tall guy, picked up the boy and pulled him onto the deck.”
After the fishermen were safely on board, they called their homes using an onboard satellite phone – just in time to stop their funeral prayers. The fishermen had been missing for seven days, floating in open seas, with no food or water, and their families had lost all hope of ever seeing them alive.
When the rescue operation was completed, Captain Menon called the Shipping Corporation of India. “I forgot to inform them that I was turning the ship around,” she says, laughing. “When I told them what happened, they couldn’t believe it!”
Opening the seas for women
Not only is Captain Menon the first woman to receive the highest IMO bravery recognition; she is also the first female captain in the Indian Merchant Navy.
Her career at sea started with a desire to do something other than a “regular nine-to-five job.” When she first started as a radio officer at the Shipping Corporation of India, she was filled with enthusiasm, even though her parents didn’t know much about the profession: “It was difficult. I was questioning how suitable this choice was for a girl.”
This is no longer the case, with Captain Menon acknowledging that she has been successful in her career. Part of that, she believes, is the constant striving for excellence: “Whatever action I take, it has to be perfect. Women have no room for mistakes in this profession – if anything goes wrong, people will be very unforgiving.”
Building trust took time. “Out at sea, or with any job you do, you are answerable to yourself and to God. If people don’t accept me, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m on a ship and I’m doing the best job I can. When people you work with see that you’re doing your job well and that you are reliable, you can expect support and respect from them.”
In 2017, to help young women pursuing a career at sea, Captain Menon established the International Women Seafarers Foundation (IWSF). Even though today the doors of maritime training institutes are open to women, many of them still face challenges finding employment.
“Not all shipping companies are accepting girls. If there are 10 boys and 10 girls among applicants, probably one or two girls will get a chance for a fair interview – but boys will always get a chance,” says Captain Menon.
IWSF helps young female graduates get on a path towards a career at sea. “We are not asking shipping companies to accept a girl just because she is a girl. Give her a fair chance for a fair interview – that’s all we’re asking,” says Menon.
The Foundation is also supporting women while they are out at sea. Captain Menon and her IWSF colleagues consult them before they go on board, making sure they are mentally prepared for months of social isolation and being one of the few – if not the only – female in the team.
“If they have problems on board, they call us. We talk to them; sometimes that helps resolve the issue, but we have also dealt with a few cases of harassment,” says Captain Menon. IWSF tackles these cases by speaking directly to the shipping company, and resolving them in a way that wouldn’t affect a woman’s career at sea.
“Since girls are new to the sea, most of the companies don’t have procedures for handling these situations,” says Captain Menon. “Things can get out of proportion; a girl would be signed off, and the shipping company would think that girls are a problem – and shut doors to other girls coming into the profession.” Here is where IWSF comes in, investigating and mediating the issue.
Seafaring as a male profession is a wrong concept, believes Captain Menon: “There is no stamp on any profession saying that it is for males or females. Professions are not gender based.”
Looking into the future
One day, Captain Menon hopes, the attitude towards women at sea will change for the better: “With more women coming into this field, seafaring will become more open.” She acknowledges that she has seen progress since she started on her seafaring studies, with parents no longer as skeptical to sending their daughters to sea.
As for the advances in technology – in particular, the increasing levels automation in ship navigation, steering and control – she believes focusing on the people on board is key. “Technology is advancing, and I am sure the day of fully autonomous shipping will come. But for now, make sure the technology is supporting the end user, be it a seafarer or a fisherman. And to me, that’s an advantage.”