Captain Joshua Slocum (Image: from the cover of his book)

Captain Joshua Slocum (Image: from the cover of his book)

The story of Captain Joshua Slocum stuns.

Over three years spanning 1895-98, Slocum became the first man to circumnavigate the globe alone. Hailing from Nova Scotia, he was a veteran sailor, his association with the sea beginning when yet a young lad. Slocum became a captain, even owning a ship in part. He appears maritime survivor in the classical sense. Once, shipwrecked in South America, he built a new vessel and sailed back to the North with his family. But he remained a man of sail and when the age of steam navigation dawned, Slocum’s relevance faded. That was when he saw the `Spray,’ rebuilt her and over three years, sailed the sloop around the world, alone. His book on the voyage, written with little drama, presents itself to the reader as an understatement. In 1909, aged 65 and now known for his solo circumnavigation, the captain embarked on another solo project in the Spray – exploring rivers in South America. He wasn’t seen again and was eventually declared dead as of November 14th that year. The oceans cover approximately 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface. They hold 97 per cent of the planet’s water. The total volume of our oceans is about 1.3 billion cubic kilometres and its average depth is 12,080 feet with a maximum depth of 35,994 feet. It is home to many species. Climate as we know wouldn’t exist without the oceans. The Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Earth’s land masses combined. The Southern Ocean, essentially the southern waters of the world’s oceans leading up to Antarctica, poses some of the harshest weather conditions at sea.

Yet Slocum, sailing alone, never knew how to swim.

London. 1948.

A bombed out Europe was trying to reconstruct. For the 21 year-old Indian officer, newly commissioned in the then Royal Indian Navy, it was a good time to be in London attending a course at the Royal Naval College. He was feted everywhere he went simply because, in the eyes of the English, the Indian Army had fought well in the defence of Empire. India had become independent. But there was no bitterness towards the country; in fact great things were expected of her.  It was also hoped that the proposed republic would stay within the Commonwealth. One day, out on a walk in the city, the officer bought a book from a footpath bookseller somewhere near Charing Cross in west London.

It was Slocum’s book `Sailing Alone around the World.’ 

Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Returning to India, the officer had a great career in the Indian Navy. He was awarded the Vir Chakra and eventually retired as Vice Admiral after many distinguished posts held including Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. “ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati said laughing, this June, at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Centre (INWTC), Mumbai. Post retirement, in the early 1990s, Awati, who was passionate about sailing, approached leading companies to sponsor an Indian solo circumnavigation project. Estimated project cost then was roughly two crore (twenty million) rupees; a crore for the boat, the rest for the voyage. Save some interest shown by Godrej, Awati’s appeal to corporate India fell on deaf ears. Same time, mountaineering was finding support from private patrons. “ The Indian mind is not naturally sea friendly,’’ Awati said. He wrote to the Chief of Naval Staff. No luck there too. The risk involved in sailing solo caused trepidation. Then in 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, who had become the navy chief, responded. Awati proposed a revised budget of four crore rupees and one condition – the boat should be built in India. Within two months the navy chief secured defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s approval for six crore rupees. The navy sent out an `India General’ – a signal to all hands – seeking volunteers for the project. The book Awati bought 58 years ago in London was at last, coming alive in an Indian edition of solo circumnavigation – Sagar Parikrama. But even within the navy this was easier said than done.

Three sail boats from the Indian armed forces – Tarangini, Samudra and Trishna – had sailed around the world earlier. But they don’t qualify for pure circumnavigation under sail as they could use the diesel engines aboard and their routes did not exclude straits and manmade canals. Besides, Awati’s Sagar Parikrama project was going to be solo. That made a huge difference. Although the Indian Navy has a tradition of sail boats, short-handed sailing or sailing with less than the full complement of crew was not a practice. The navy’s voyages were typically team efforts and the purpose of sailing in the curriculum was to forge team spirit. That made solo circumnavigation, requiring sustained personal sustenance at sea, a major leap in mindset and skill. Look landward and you see this in mountaineering, where the bulk of ascents by the Indian armed forces are full blown assaults by large teams.

Commander Dilip Donde (Photo: Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy)

Commander Dilip Donde (Photo: Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy)

Commander Dilip Donde loved to sail.

He used to be the First Mate on INS Tarangini. He is a clearance diver as well. According to Wikipedia, the clearance diver “ was originally a specialist naval diver who used explosives underwater to remove obstructions to make harbours and shipping channels safe for navigation. Later, the term grew to encompass more naval underwater work.’’ Donde was stationed in the Andamans. He was in Mumbai on a sailing assignment when at a function where the navy chief was present, he was asked by the officer tasked with finding a candidate for Sagar Parikrama whether he wished to volunteer (incidentally this officer had been Donde’s diving instructor and knew his abilities pretty well). Donde did exactly that. “ I just volunteered, just jumped in,’’ he recalled. Then, the fullness of what he had got himself into, dawned. There wasn’t anything in the sailing he had done so far that prepped him to be a solo sailor of such long distances. He spent a few days with Awati, gauging the depth of his new project to dive into it, and then commenced building it up from scratch.

If there is one thing about clearance divers, used to doing work underwater themselves, it is that they don’t mind muddying their hands. Solo sailing values this trait. Transferred to INWTC in Mumbai so that he could execute the project, Donde found a resource person in Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation. Donde met up with Sir Robin in the UK, worked alongside for six weeks and sailed with him from the UK to Spain to help him prepare for an upcoming voyage. In the process he got a ringside view of the solo long distance sailor. Now Donde had to make his boat. Vessel matters; humanity’s first recorded circumnavigation was the product of one ship, from four, surviving intact.

Three hundred and seventy six years before Slocum’s voyage, in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan sailed out from Seville, Spain, seeking a westward passage to the spice-wealth of Asia. He crossed into the Pacific Ocean via the Strait of Magellan, both names, his legacy. The Portuguese explorer was killed in the Philippines, before completing his journey. The expedition lost two ships, a third was damaged. The fourth – the Victoria – with 18 survivors aboard, led by Juan Sebastian Elcano, returned to Spain completing the first known circumnavigation. Thereafter up until Slocum, the story of circumnavigation is without any particularly riveting milestone save the magnificence of travel, hazards of long voyages, nations trying to repeat the feat of Magellan’s crew, men dying from disease and men losing their lives to other men as the impetus for many ocean journeys was commerce and commerce meant competing and confronting to own sea lanes and profitable landmasses. During this period the Drake Passage was found, Martin Ignacio de Loyola became the first person to circumnavigate in both directions, William Dampier became the first person to circumnavigate thrice and Dolphin became the first ship to survive two circumnavigations. While Louis de Bougainville, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe had to do so disguised as a man, the voyage of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev managed something more than just circumnavigation; they sighted Antarctica. One circumnavigator, during this period, arguably brought home a scale of sailing, seafaring and exploration not seen before – Captain James Cook. Our idea of the Pacific owes a lot to Captain Cook’s journeys. What’s the Pacific alone when people have sailed around the world? – You may ask. Remember this – you can put all the world’s continents in the Pacific and still there will be more sea than land. That’s a measure of the world Captain Cook brought to public attention. Slocum however, stripped circumnavigation of imperial ambition, politics and expedition. He took it to the realm of lone man and the sea. In Chapter 2 of his book, he announces his plan with crushing ordinariness, “ At last the time arrived to weigh anchor and get to sea in earnest. I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon, I weighed anchor, set sail and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter.’’ 

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

According to the list of solo circumnavigators available on Sir Robin’s website, for almost four decades after Slocum’s voyage in 1895-98, there wasn’t anyone successfully finishing a solo trip. From one voyage in the 1930s, it gradually rises in frequency each decade. In 1966, Sir Francis Chichester sailed the Gipsy Moth IV around the world with just one halt – Sydney (I remember, when I was a child, my paternal grandfather read a book about this voyage. It was borrowed from Thiruvananthapuram’s British Library). It inspired a new Holy Grail – circumnavigating solo and nonstop. In 1968 Sir Robin did just that in a legendary Sunday Times sponsored-race, the subject of Peter Nichol’s book ` A Voyage for Madmen.’ For the one man who finished the race and another who could have had he wanted to, their boats were as crucial as their own skills at sea.

“ The sort of boat I wanted for a round-the-world voyage would have to be seaworthy and easy to handle. She would also have to be robust, and not at all complicated, and as I wanted to make a fast passage she would have to be long on the waterline, since it is upon length here that the theoretical maximum speed of a hull is dependent. She would also have to be ridiculously cheap to construct as I did not have a lot of money to spend. This, of course, is what every prospective boat owner is after: the impossible for the ridiculous.’’ – Sir Robin, in his book: ` A World of My Own.’ Money remained a problem and Sir Robin eventually raced with the `Suhaili,’ a wooden ketch built earlier in Mumbai, when he was posted there. She was hardly the swift vessel a race around the world demanded. But she was sturdy, capable of steady sailing.

Almost four decades later Donde, having volunteered for the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project, expected as much from the boat in his thoughts. She must be reliable – a safe vessel to sail in. She had to be “ idiot proof’’ – Donde’s description for how forgiving she had to be to the first time circumnavigator’s potential mistakes. Only next did other parameters matter, speed being one, for which she could be long. The navy approached the reputed Dutch boat designing firm -Van de Stadt, explained their need and secured the rights to build a model called the ` Tonga 56,’ a 56 feet-long sloop that was essentially designed for charter trips. Alongside, the navy also dispatched a team to short-list competent boat yards in India, where the vessel may be built.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)       

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