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She Rides the Waves

6 months ago / by Melanie Fourie

Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi overcame gender stereotypes to become the first woman in India to pilot ships

Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi
Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi

National Maritime Day is celebrated on April 5, a significant day in India’s maritime past. On this day in 1919, the SS Loyalty, operated by the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, left what was then called Bombay for London, marking the beginning of Indian seafaring. We spoke to Reshma Nilofer Visalakshi, who is shattering glass ceilings as India’s first and sole female maritime pilot. In 2018, former President Ramnath Kovind honored her with India’s highest prize reserved for women, the Nari Shakti Puraskar. In an interview with her, she discusses her life, career, and resolve to thrive.

You were born and raised in Chennai; a place of rich culture. What are some of your fondest memories of growing up there? 

Yes, Chennai is … my first love and where I consider my heart to be anchored. It would become too long a response if I listed out all my nostalgic memories of growing up in the city. The school years are my fondest memories of my childhood. My parents were both simple, liberal, hardworking folk who allowed me a lot of freedom. They brought up us two girls (I’m the younger of their two daughters) as independent and courageous individuals free to choose any field for a career. The most important part was that they fed the idea of gender equity from a very young age.

Who were your role models?

My early role models were my teachers, then leaders like Che Guevara, our country’s freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Subrahmanya Bharathiyar, astronaut Kalpana Chawla, mathematician Shakuntala Devi, etc. I realize now that most of my role models were rebels, each in a different way.

Women make up only 2% of the workforce in the maritime sector. What made you decide on a career in this male-dominated industry?

Firstly, I didn’t know much about the industry’s gender dynamics and its gender imbalance. I came to know these statistics only when I was about to enroll in the maritime college. But it did not stop me. Call it blind trust in myself and my willingness to work hard. My parents knew about my clarity about life goals and trusted my perseverance and resilience.

After completing a course in marine technology at AMET, you piloted ships throughout the world. Tell us what that was like. And what your first seafaring experience was like.

I spent some time sailing around the world on Maersk container ships, which gave me the experience to join the pilot service training program at the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port, Kolkata (formerly Kolkata Port Trust). As a young teen, my early seafaring days gave me enough adventure and insightful experiences, and I had much to learn and assimilate. I also had maximum fun in those cadet days when responsibilities were at a bare minimum! Seafaring as the lone woman onboard most ships was one where reality hit about how we women at sea would always be seen as “outsiders and intruders in a male domain.” Gaining the trust, respect, and camaraderie of fellow mariners was a slow process, but not impossible. I worked hard and got to a comfortable place soon.

You were trained at the Kolkata Port Trust for six-and-a-half years. The training must have been really rigorous. Can you elaborate on what that entailed?

The training was indeed rigorous. I had to observe and learn from more than a thousand passages in the river Hooghly, which I now know as one of the toughest rivers to navigate in the world. I had to learn ship-handling, river geography, seasons in the river, working in different weather conditions, emergency maneuvers, and working through various adversities. This training taught me an art. We are all artists today. The career never gets monotonous, and that’s a big plus. My senior colleagues often say that we all learn something new, even on the day we retire!

Seafaring can be daunting. Do you see yourself as a naturally calm person? What are some of traits you feel have served you well in your industry?

Actually, I am not a very calm person. I was and continue to be a happy-go-lucky person who wears her heart on her sleeves. Over the years, I have managed to calm my temper and practice more restraint with my child-like impulsive reactions. Basically, I’ve grown as an individual. Piloting and life experiences have both played the most important roles in this change. I’ve become more responsible. When not at work, I am a chirpy, cheerful person who is easy to befriend and have a heart-to-heart conversation with.

You board a ship by climbing a rope ladder. How do you prepare mentally and physically for this feat?

I eat clean, accept my body as it is, and practice body positivity, and it responds by helping me work and climb ladders day in and day out without any problems.

Your shifts are longer than a regular 9–5. How do you manage the longer hours and cope with being away from home?

I actually have a good mix of home and shore duties as a pilot. We are attached to a port and don’t stay out of the house for too many days. But I just about manage while staying far from home (Chennai) thanks to the internet, which brings my family and friends closer to me virtually. Yes, we work odd hours, but I am used to this roster now. It is not impossible if you have help from an understanding family.

What’s exhilarating about being a marine pilot?

Every day is a new day, with new challenges and a different set of people to work with. You feel unexplainable satisfaction on days you face difficult weather and wind conditions. Or when you’ve had a safe operation and disembark with a seemingly relieved and grateful master of the ship thanking you with a smile. It’s a totally different high! These are the days that make the difficult ones pass easily.

The river you pilot can be treacherous. What specific types of navigation challenges do you face and how do you handle them?

The Hooghly is full of challenges, a narrow, snake-like channel with dwindling depths, shifting sands and shallows, very strong tides, bad weather in monsoon months, and many more. The scariest experience was the day I fell from the ladder in bad weather. I was injured but it made me stronger today.

How do you spend your time when you’re not navigating the waters?

I read and write a lot. I socialize with my friends and colleagues, listen to music, watch series, etc.

What can you women who doubt whether they should enter a male-dominated industry?

Acceptance in this industry is hard-earned. If you are willing to put in the hard work and stay strong through the challenges, you will be well rewarded. An adventurous and rewarding career awaits you!