Marine pilot Reshma, a Chennai 'ponnu', is India's first female river pilot

On World Maritime Day, India’s first female river pilot Reshma Nilofer Naha shares the ebbs and flows of her off-shore and off-beat life.
Reshma Nilofer Naha
Reshma Nilofer Naha

CHENNAI: Almost every day for the last one year, Reshma Nilofer Naha has been travelling to the high sea on a small pilot vessel, disembarking, getting into larger vessels, manoeuvering, navigating and berthing ships — sometimes in daylight and sometimes in pitch darkness, from Sagar to Kolkata and Haldia ports through the serpentine Hooghly. A Nari Shakti Puraskar recipient, India’s first woman river pilot has traversed not only strong winds, bad weather, and fast-moving channels but also gender-based barriers. The pilot, who works at the Kolkata Port Trust, shares the tides of her life.

Humble beginnings 
Reshma grew up in a 600 sq ft government quarters house and was introduced to rich values, morals, and education by her parents who were central government employees. “I am a Chennai ponnu. I love the city to bits and ensure I visit it once every year,” says the former resident of Anna Nagar. 

Chasing dreams
A flagbearer of dreaming beyond the shoreline, Reshma decided to steer clear of stepping into run-of-the-mill courses. “I’ve always believed that when you want something with all your heart, the universe gives it to you. That’s how the maritime industry found me,” she says.

A newspaper announcement about a shipping company offering a tailor-made dual competency programme changed the course of her life. “Around 4,000 candidates wrote the talent exam for the five-year BE Marine Tech programme — a combination of BSc Nautical Science and BE Marine Technology. I was one among the 300 who were selected for the fully sponsored course,” recalls the first generation sailor.

Gender-bending voyages
Five years of training at AMET University, Kanathur, amid 5,000 male students prepared Reshma for what she was about to encounter in a male-dominated industry. “There were only five female students at the university. It taught us how to tackle life’s pressures, face challenges and most importantly to not be intimidated by men,” she shares.

As a trainee, she went on to sail for two years in fleets of different nationalities and matured as an officer onboard ships. While hunting for a job that offered her the best of both worlds, another newspaper advertisement serendipitously came to her rescue. The Kolkata Port Trust was hiring junior officers as pilot trainees and Reshma grabbed the opportunity. She trained for six-and-a-half-years before becoming a river pilot last year.

No bed of roses
While being the country’s first female pilot is a dream feat, for Reshma it has come with a lot of responsibility. “Not everyone is welcoming. There are people who ask, ‘Will she be able to work like a man?’. Whether you like it or not, you become the flag bearer for the whole of womankind and you are under constant scrutiny. So was I. It has taken time for me to change the gender dynamics. Now, my male counterparts consider me a part of their family,” she explains.

During the tougher moments of her journey thus far, she drew from her family’s support and her seniors, some who double as mentors.

Changing tides
On a journey that’s both treacherous and rewarding, Reshma is on a quest to further bend the system into an inclusive space and the attitudes of people. “In the recent past, space has become more welcoming. But it has been a very lonely journey. I am hoping my story will inspire more girls and women,” she says, adding that she’s looking forward to having female colleagues on board and to have freewheeling chats with them. “I want to make the infrastructure of maritime in India a better place for women,” she said.

Aye aye, captain!
Reshma has piloted many vessels including the Navy, Coastguard, Merchant Navy and bulk carriers. She navigated her first vessel, the ICGS Rajkiran (Military Ops) when she was a trainee. She hopes to navigate a gas carrier soon.

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The New Indian Express