Please tell us about yourself

Reshma Nilofer Naha is the first woman marine pilot in India.

Piloting a ship is a tough job because one has to be aware to avoid accidents and lot of thought has to go through even for making a simple manoeuvre.

However, this will not be an issues for the first woman river pilot in the world who is tasked to carry out the difficult task of piloting ships from the sea to the Kolkata Port. Reshma Nilofer Naha will pilot ships through a distance of 223 km, of which 148 km will be up the Hooghly-a treacherous route full of sharp ‘bars and bends’. Chennai-born Reshma is currently undergoing training for her task at the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT).

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Ms.Reshma is a BSc (Nautical Science) graduate and was recruited by the (KoPT) in 2011. She served as a cadet at sea for a year and obtained the 2nd and 1st mates competency certificates from the Directorate General of Shipping after joining the KoPT. She cleared the Grade III Part-1 exam from KoPT and will qualify as a Grade III pilot within the next six months, according to JJ Biswas, Director, Marine Department, KoPT.

Reshma will initially handle smaller vessels, and upon gaining experience, will graduate to Grade II and Grade I, where she will pilot large ships like Panamax vessels–known to be nearly 300 metres long, with capacities of more than 70,000 tonnes.

Read on to catch up on her amazing journey and her exciting professional life.

  1. Firstly, our hearty congratulations for becoming the first female River Pilot in India. How does this achievement feel?

I trained for almost 6.5 years to become a pilot and it has just been around 2 months since I qualified as a pilot. It happened on Jan 16, 2018. I got so used to being a trainee that the fact that I am a pilot now is still sinking in. You know, when you are a trainee you always sail with another senior pilot and there is always that protection. But, now when the entire ship becomes your responsibility, it is a different feeling. Slowly I am starting to realise that oh yes I am a pilot now and it feels great. The fruits of success are always sweet and I am feeling elated to be in this position. My job is definitely challenging and every day is different from the previous day. That makes it very interesting as there is no monotony. I am enjoying my job along with the added responsibilities.

  1. Can you tell us a little bit about your educational qualification? For aspiring River Pilots, what is the kind of education and preparation that are required?

I finished B.E in Marine Technology in BIT, Ranchi. I studied in AMET (Academy of Maritime Education and Training) in Kanathur in Chennai. At that time, in 2006, they were affiliated to BIT, Ranchi. Then later they became a university. It was a 5 year tailored course. My course was a combination of nautical sciences as well as marine engineering. The Maersk line, a Danish shipping company having the biggest container ships in the world, had a requirement for people with knowledge in the two shipping departments and my course was one tailored for that requirement. I sailed with them for two years and then joined Kolkata port trust in April 2011 and I have been here ever since. 

You can do Bsc nautical science (three years) and become a deck officer or do B.E in marine engineering (four years) and become an engine officer. There are other crew and cooks on the ship. Pre-sea GP Rating training is given to crew and for cooks there are hotel management and catering courses. I request student to join in colleges approved by DGS. The approvals are very important for placements. I was fortunate to have studied in a sponsored programme. At the moment the shipping job scene is not that great to have sponsored programmes. But, in 2006, the Maersk Line was sponsoring the whole course and they covered all my course costs apart from my boarding and lodging. They treated us like an employee from day one. 

  1. What made you get into the Maritime Industry? What kind of social barriers did you face?

I studied in SBOA Matriculation in Anna Nagar. I was always into extra-curricular. I had the childhood dream of becoming a doctor but over time I realised that I was not a topper and it was difficult for me to get into government colleges. As I grew up, I never had a particular aim. Even during my 12th board exams I told my parents that I can do anything that doesn’t burden them. When I saw the ad from AMET, it looked interesting. I read more about it and I saw that maritime industry is quite a good job. So, I thought why not. But, it definitely was a tough call to take up marine technology.

My mother’s friend’s son was into shipping and I took pointers from him too. Basically, I don’t like the rat race and luckily I dint end up there.

Regarding social barriers, the biggest support I had was that the people who mattered to me, my parents and siblings, encouraged me to take up this profession. They said that if this is what interests you and if you are ready to do it all your life then go ahead. Nobody stopped me at home, so what other social barriers should I be bothered about? A lot of people around us kept asking you are a girl so why are you choosing this profession. They said that the ship is not a place for a woman to be. But, these things did not matter to me. Even in college, a few people found it strange that I wanted to go into the maritime industry. But, there were many who liked the idea as well.

  1. What made you choose this relatively offbeat career when most of the people in the country are looking for ‘safe’ IT job?

I did not want a safe job. I wanted a challenge everyday and I wanted my work to be exciting. That was the most important thing for me. I despised taking up and engineering course and ending up in an IT company.

  1. Given the low percentage of women working in the Maritime Industry, what do you think is stopping women from taking up this profession?

All our barriers are based on your upbringing. Your parents matter the most. Many parents are ignorant about the role of women in the maritime industry. Many parents make up their minds that their child should become an engineer or a doctor. These things create a problem.

The other reason is that women have a lot more responsibilities in life when compared to men. A woman has to be a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother and not all women feel that they are cut out for the challenges in the maritime industry. But, I feel that a woman can fulfil all her roles and be much more too. They can take care of family as well as be leaders at work. Also, Just like men, women also don’t want to just experiment their life away to see whether it works for them or not. This fear also keeps women out of this industry.

Third thing is, women are expected to stay at home, cook food and take care of domestic responsibilities. Having kids can stop women from taking up this profession as well. I would like to say to women that you can have a baby and a career too. There is no need to fear that one of the two departments will suffer. We need a supportive family and then sky is the limit. Another concern that women have is that, this profession can keep you away from your home for days or even months. So, not all women might be ready for this. But, for a pilot, we are shore based and we get a good mix of working on shore as well as on the ship. You don’t have to stay on the ship for like six months at a stretch like other seafarers. Mind you, there are hundreds of seafarers today who are women and they stay on the ship for as long as their job demands. Things are changing. So, the low percentage is not that low anymore.

  1. What do you think is the most important quality that a River Pilot should possess to be a success?

Grit and presence of mind are the most important qualities. They should not crumble under pressure and they should deal with emergencies. They should be willing to face challenges every day. Each ships behaves differently so they should be technically sound as well.

  1. Tell us about the physical and mental fitness challenges that you have faced in your journey in the Maritime Industry.

This job requires physical fitness and mental acumen as well. You don’t exactly need to have a six pack or something. But, your flexibility and your ability to board a ship in bad weather is very important. Also, you have to be mentally strong. 

To get into a maritime college you have to go through written exams, but you will have to pass medical tests as well. Fitness exams are taken, for deck officers there is a 6 by 6 vision requirement. For engineers this is not required but every mariner is tested for colour blindness. Each person on a ship is important and has to be very fit to do their respective jobs. All the crew including the officers, engineers, the cook, etc should be fit to fulfil their responsibility. Even if one person makes a mistake, it can lead to disasters. So, everyone should be fit.

  1. How would you describe your experience of working in a male-dominated professional space? What advice would you give to women facing similar situations in various other professions?

Who is labelling some professions as male-dominated and others as not male-dominated? Is it the society or the women themselves? Unless we women allow the men to dominate a field of work, nothing is male-dominated. Yes, ships have a lot more men than women but everyone has the same opportunities. Because there are less women, people don’t take a woman seriously on the ship. There are hundreds of women seafarers these days but all of us face issues of lack of respect, being taken as a joke, etc. 

All the women in these sorts of male-dominated fields face similar issues where people judge you by your looks of your physique. Men will judge you even before they get to know you. You will have to deal with preconceived notions. You will not be taken seriously and subordinates will take you for granted. You will not be respected for who you are. These are all things that we face every day. Many of these issues may also remain the same till we retire from our profession. I keep telling people around that if you want to judge people then judge them by their ability instead of by their gender. I ask people to not believe what other people say and see for themselves how women do their job. 

My advice to women is that if you do your job well, you will be recognised over time. You should be able to command respect not demand it. Let your work speak for you. Today, the situation is such that only if you work twice as well as men then you will get a little bit of credit. So, I would say just ignore the people who affect you negatively. Concentrate on doing your job well and make sure nobody can find faults with you. Be good at what you do. Be very good at what you do. Become irreplaceable in your job.

  1. As a woman achiever who has seen supportive as well as dismissive men, do you think our society is growing in terms of woman empowerment? What would you say is the most difficult battle that a woman has to face?

A woman is treated better today, but there is a long way to go. There are many men I know who tell their wives to stay at home. Many men say that a woman is substandard and cannot work as well as a man. That said, I would say that most difficult battle a woman faces is within her own self. That is the hardest. We need to stop telling ourselves that being a woman is a disadvantage. We need to empower ourselves instead of gossiping and making life difficult for other women. Women are not women’s worst enemies. I disagree with that.

I myself had to fight thoughts of giving up. I had to be strong even when I had so many doubts about myself. A woman has to tell herself that she is better than she thinks. She has to up her game. Only when you do that your battles are over. What other people tell doesn’t matter. You have to convince only yourself.

  1. Can you brief us about how a typical work-day looks like for you and what the major professional challenges you face everyday are?

A marine pilot shares her local expertise with the captain of the ship. She advices the captain and guides the ship to enter and leave any port. Only the pilot knows the conditions of the particular port. A typical day is like this: I work with a ship leaving the Kolkata port, an outward ship. The timing can be odd. It can be midnight or early morning. Kolkata port is a tidal port and timings are dependent on the tide. I take the vessel out of Kolkata, disembark at Sagar, the rest of the day I rest and I board another vessel the next day. Again this timing can be just any time. The rest can also be insufficient depending on the time. I return back with an inward ship the next day and I get down. Then the next two days are off. So I work two days and take two days off.

Professional challenges are that each ship behaves differently to same commands and same conditions. The tide, the time, the weather, the conditions are all some of the challenges. Breakdowns are also problematic. Also, handling emergencies are a part of a pilot’s job too.

  1. What do you do to relax after a strenuous day? What kind of hobbies do you indulge in?

I bake cakes and savouries. I am an amateur photographer; I like clicking pictures of birds specifically and sceneries as well. I am very active on social media too and I like to write.

  1. Can you tell us about the role of your parents in your journey? How important is it to have a support system in place at home?

I owe everything to my parents. They raised me as a self-confident and independent person. All my choices are mine in life be it good or bad. They dint over protect me and that helped me become independent. They dint restrict me about how I should be. The freedom they gave me was real. It is extremely necessary to have a support system at home. If your family despises your job then you cannot manage at all. It is very difficult. Both your in-laws and parents are very important. Your family has to be your strongest support. Most woman achievers have supportive families, that is not just a coincidence.

A typical bahu’s duties are too many. She is expected to take care of everyone at home. In my case, my time at home is limited and I can’t do much of these things. But, because of my family’s support I have come this far. My parents, my husband and my in-laws have been very supportive and proud of my job.  

  1. What kind of food do you indulge in? Do you follow any specific diet?

I dig South Indian and Thai food. You can call me a foodie. I love good food. I think this is why somewhere in the bargain I lost my physical fitness a bit. But, I do take care of staying fit. There is no specific diet but lately I have been trying to reduce my carbohydrate intake. I am trying to include more greens and vegetables.

  1. Your job must take you away from home quite often. What do you miss the most while you are away?

What I miss most when I am away on ships is my home cooked food. I miss my family. Also, I miss Chennai more than anything. Chennai is my first love and I miss it a lot. Given a chance I would never leave the city.

  1. What would you say is a must-have trait to grow in the Maritime Industry?

The job throws a lot of challenges at you on a daily basis. Mariners must have a never say never attitude and they must be very responsible.

  1. Would you say that awareness about jobs in the Maritime Industry is sufficient? If not, how do you think we can bring awareness among people?

It is not sufficient. But, nowadays there are people creating awareness about such offbeat career options. But, I feel there should be much more awareness. I hope that my achievements and achievements of senior officers will create awareness. We should break stereotypes. There are no pirates anymore like we believe, piracy is there but it is a limited risk. A ship is as safe for a woman or man as land. Not all sailors are drunkards and irresponsible people. 

  1. Who would you say is your biggest inspiration? For people who take you as an inspiration and who want to follow in your footsteps, what would you want to say?

My mother inspires me. I admire her strength. I have a long way to go to achieve the mental strength she has. She is well learned and a great person. I try my best to become better and be like her. Apart from that, I compete with myself to become better than what I was yesterday.

My message is don’t have a particular role model. Your new-year resolution should be to be better than what you were the year before. Be your best version. 

18. What are challenges being a Marine pilot?

The ships coming to the Kolkata or Haldia port have to make contact with the pilot station on Sagar Island on approaching the Sandheads. From there, to the pilot boarding point at Sagar, Vessel Traffic Management Systems provide remote pilotage. Post that, a pilot vessel meets the ship at Middleton Point where the pilot takes charge of the ship until it reaches Kolkata. Upon reaching Kolkata, the ship is handed over to the harbour pilot.

The job is tricky, explained a KoPT official to The Times of India, as the river has several sandbars and bends, and draughts that create problems. As a result, there are many issues that leave little scope to manoeuvre. Which is why the pilots need to make the best use of tides and be well aware of the channel that the ship has to move along, to avoid getting stranded. Extensive training and experience are required, emphasises the official, without which he says it is impossible to handle a ship in a river.