Before I came aboard, I was a city girl to the core. Born and bred in Mumbai, I was used to jostling my way on to a crowded local train to college and then to work on an everyday basis. I felt uncomfortable in silence. Holidays in hill stations or other ‘nature spots’ were fine for a few days, but then I needed to return to the city and a hectic pace of life. So when I first started sailing, the sea, the sky, the steady sound of the water and the open space that surrounded me, made me nervous.
I had just married a Chief Officer in the Merchant Navy and jumped head first into my marriage by accompanying my husband on an oil tanker, a few weeks after the wedding. If sailing around the world conjures up romantic images of sunsets and doing the Titanic pose on the foc’s’le, I won’t disagree, but there are many other sides to it. I had to learn to live as the only woman in a totally male-dominated environment. I had to find a balance between companionship with my husband – together on a boat every day and night without other friends or family – and my own privacy.
I had too much time on my hands and I felt guilty about the fact that I could lead a life of leisure. I didn’t have a house to run, or work to report to. If I wanted, I could spend all day in bed, or watch films endlessly. After sailing for the first few days, I got a little anxious. What was I to do with myself? I had brought along my art materials, but I couldn’t just paint day in and day out, surely?
My husband, having sailed with other officers’ wives on board, was adamant that I find ways to keep myself busy. Otherwise, he knew only too well, boredom would make me despise sailing, and like some of my predecessors, I would eventually stop accompanying him on voyages.
I did my best to maintain a routine. My mornings began at 3:45 am when my husband, as Chief Officer, had to do the 4-8 am watch. We’d spend time on the bridge; he busy with his day’s planning, while I enjoyed my morning cup of tea with him, often watching the most spectacular sunrises I had ever seen. I helped out with accounting, calculating overtimes and keeping a check on the ship’s safe. I also did watercolours of my travels and wrote journals. But the job I really enjoyed was plotting the ship’s voyage on the maritime charts. I learnt a lot about ocean currents, ship routes and weather systems. I had many opportunities to steer the ship in open seas.
Living on a ship was like living on an island that had its own rules and customs. It was a place populated by men: it was their work and living space and I was an outsider. This didn’t make it easy for either side. I had to do most of the adjusting as I had come into their world. There were unwritten rules that I had to follow. I would stay in my cabin a lot of the time. I didn’t venture into the work spaces unless my husband was present. If I wanted to watch a film in the mess room, I could only do so if I was alone. If another officer wanted to watch a film, it was understood that I should leave and give him the opportunity to relax in his free time. There were certain videos and magazines I pretended not to notice. After six pm, when the men gathered in the mess room to relax, it was out of bounds for me, unless I was accompanied by my husband. Sometimes, I slipped past these boundaries when I joined the men in table tennis and cricket matches, or was lowered off the side of the ship in a full body harness, to go ashore. But in a way, I had to become an archetypically feminine woman, according to outdated traditions.
My Mumbai life as a single, working woman had not prepared me to accept invisibility. When the ship docked in Kuwait, I had to stay in my cabin and not come out for days, until the ship left the shore. The inspectors and dock workers coming on board were prohibited from seeing a woman – or was it the other way around? All books, DVDs, videos, magazines and alcohol had to be put away in a sealed room for the duration of our stay in port. I might as well have been stashed away in that room – I would have enjoyed myself better – rather than kept waiting in my cabin, peeping out from behind the curtains at a hot, sandy landscape and raging against the unfairness of it all. I had been used to my independence – a freedom to live as I wished – having not experienced much discrimination in my life so far.
This isolation and being cut off from the rest of the world while sailing helped me to look inwards more. I gave my emotional needs an importance I never had before. I learnt to love my own company and explore my creativity. I spent hours writing detailed letters to family and friends, bringing me closer to them than when I was actually living amongst them.
The weather played an immense role not just to the smooth voyage of the ship, but also to the mental state of those on board. When the sky was grey and the sea choppy for days on end, it was difficult for me to get out of bed. When the sun shone, and the sea sparkled, my mood immediately changed for the better, and I spent my days outside on the deck, walking miles back and forth on the bridge. It reminded me of my childhood days, when I could spend hours in the back yard, hitting a ball against a wall and catching it, while making up stories in my mind. I did the same on board: my hours of walking produced many short stories and half a novel.
At the same time, I gained a deeper understanding of the working life of seafarers and how their lives were fraught with danger. Before, my husband had only told me beautiful stories of the sea; of the dolphins and whales and different countries he had visited – brighter anecdotes of adventures during his career at sea. He never mentioned the darker side: the dangers of work to which even lives could be lost, or the stress and fatigue that was taken for granted. There were times when they worked 72 hours at a stretch, for example during tank cleaning operations. My husband would come back and collapse on the bed, in his greasy boiler suit and with his work boots on.
He once handed me a spare walkie-talkie and told me to listen in while he went out to the fo’c’sle storeroom to investigate why the fire alarm had gone off there. There was a gale of force 10 blowing outside, the ship pitching recklessly and brutish waves engulfing the main deck. I couldn’t bear to watch so I stayed in my cabin, listening on the walkie-talkie to the shouts and cries of the men outside. They had tied themselves to a rope, my husband leading the team, and were inching forward in the heavy rain. I got increasingly panic-stricken, knowing I would be helpless if anything should happen. Then I heard a shout: “Look out, Chief.” Silence followed. I rushed to the toilet and threw up. I stared at the walkie-talkie, petrified, willing it to come to life again. After what seemed like ages, I heard from them again. My husband was safe. Later, he told me very casually that he had hit the side rails along with a few others, but the rope tied to their waists had saved them.
But it was not always so grim on board the ship. Christmas parties were the highlight of any winter voyage. Once, the chief cook, being very artistic, organised a fancy dress party. He managed to transform about twenty-five men into all sorts of characters, mostly female! He used everything he could get his hands on: mops as wigs, a nurse’s uniform from the rags store, paint, footballs, grapefruit and even my lipstick! I had a difficult job now, being (of course) appointed judge of the best costume.
I had my own jobs on board. I sat by the bed of a crew member who had inhaled poisonous fumes and was rendered unconscious. I helped my husband to administer shots to another officer, jaundiced and shivering in the ship’s hospital bed. Stress levels soared when the ships were due for inspection. Everything had to be in perfect order for the ship to pass all the stringent tests required to mark it safe as a place to work. All paperwork had to be up-to-date, ship standards maintained and health and safety issues checked.
When we sailed out of Brazil in 2003, the tanker got orders to sail to Nigeria for the next loading assignment. All supernumeraries would require an immigration pass, and that included me. But knowing the political situation in Nigeria at that moment, and the time it would take to acquire the pass, we realised it would not be possible. So I sailed into a country without any papers and, to avoid a fine or imprisonment, hid in my cabin for a few days. Once again I became invisible. The mess man and I had a code, so that I would open the door only to him so he could slip me my food. I sat cooped in my cabin for three to four days, listening to Nigerian radio and eating fish curry and rice in my day-room.
The radio was my companion on all my voyages over the four years I sailed, almost six months at a time, on seven ships. Whenever we anchored in a port, I would tune into the local radio, listen to programmes and record songs. I built an entire library of those recordings that I have to this day. Sometimes, when I hear a particular song, it transports me back to that ship, that cabin, that country where I recorded it and played it endlessly on the longs days at sea.
Then, one day, the ship sailed into the port of Mumbai. From my vantage point on the deck, I could see the familiar skyline of my city. The Gateway of India. The Taj Hotel. The spire of St Andrew and St Columba church. I was looking at my life from the outside. I longed to go ashore and get lost in the crowds of Mumbai. But I was on my own, standing on the deck, trying to spot familiar landmarks through my tears. I borrowed a pair of binoculars and would spend a long time peering through them, hoping perhaps to spot known faces.
I saw the hospital on Mahim Bay, opposite the school I went to. I tried my best to catch a glimpse of the school, knowing my mother would be teaching inside. Would she know I was looking out for her? I went back to my cabin and a little later there was a knock on my cabin door. Reluctantly, I opened it and there, grinning at me, were my mother and sister. My husband had arranged to have them come aboard to surprise me. I was so pleased to have them on board, with a chance for them to see how I lived; what I did. It had become important for me that they understood my way of life on the ship; now a part of who I was.
Susmita Bhattacharya is a writer and creative writing tutor based in Plymouth, UK. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in March 2015. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals in the UK and internationally such as Wasafiri, Litro, Riptide, Eleven Eleven, Tears in the Fence as well as been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. You can find more of her writing on her blog here.