TWO SOLO VOYAGES, BACK TO BACK
Diwar Island is accessed by ferry from Old Goa.
Long ways off from where you land on the other side, is Naroa (pronounced Narwa) and further on is the point where the Konkan Railway’s bridge spans across the Mandovi River. From a passing train, if you look seaward, right below at the edge of Diwar Island, you will see the boat yard started eighteen years ago by Ratnakar Dandekar and his wife. Called Aquarius Fibreglass, the company traditionally made small crafts. They had just burnt their fingers building a big 20 metre-vessel for a state government with the associated rigmarole of delayed payments et al, when the naval team arrived to find out if they could be short listed for not just a long 56 feet-vessel for government but a sail boat at that. Dandekar is an instrumentation engineer. His father is a naval architect. None at Aquarius had built sail boats before.
Building sail boats require skill. Very simply it can be explained so – a boat with an engine will power its way through water even if its design and fabrication is bad; a boat powered by sail must be sensitive to the wind, harness it and translate that energy to effortless movement on water, which means everything from concept to construction, matters. Because of this, it is also said in builders’ circles that should a sailing voyage succeed, then the sailor gets all the credit but should one fail or the sailor be lost, then all the fault is heaped on the boat builder. Of four Indian boat builders that the navy subsequently short listed, only one had built a sail boat before. In what is probably testimony to the challenge in making sail boats – particularly one for solo circumnavigation – the experienced builder never submitted a bid in the ensuing tender process. Aquarius won as its bid was the lowest. Dandekar recalled the navy asking him to reduce his quote further! He had a year to deliver the boat he knew nothing of. Indeed on the other side of the tender process too, experience was as blank. Donde set a tight budget and delivery schedule based on his own learning-on-the-run. “ We were like the proverbial blind men and the elephant,’’ Dandekar said. Like others in the Sagar Parikrama project, working by imagining, he read Sir Robin’s book to get an idea of sailing solo and what all can potentially go wrong with a sail boat at sea on such a demanding voyage. That done, he took a decision – since this was totally new territory for Aquarius, he would stick to loyally executing the Tonga 56 design. The navy’s agreement with Van de Stadt required periodic inspection by the designer. They deputed Dutch boat builder and consultant, Johan Vels.
Aquarius’s first order for a sail boat entailed cost that exceeded its then annual turnover. Banks helped with loans. Materials were procured. For strength, the boat’s hull was made as a sandwich of three layers – 3mm fibreglass, 35mm red cedar wood and 3mm fibreglass. For Dandekar, the hull was wake-up call. The wood had 74 per cent humidity against the stipulated 12 per cent. In nature, the required reduction would take years to happen; artificially hurried, three months. Ovens were set up. “ That was when I realized I had to start learning and be totally dedicated,’’ Dandekar said. He was hands-on, working with his staff. Donde camped in Goa for much of the duration of building. Challenges continued. The boat’s keel was of steel with nine tons of lead within. The yard hadn’t handled molten lead before. Dandekar learnt how to do it at a friend’s battery making-facility at Vasai near Mumbai. Once back in Goa, the Aquarius team poured the nine tons, two kilos at a time using a ladle. Sometimes they overworked and committed errors due to strain. In such a case of oversight, the rudder was fitted improperly first; days were lost correcting it. Donde then laid down a rule – work hard but rest as well. Although building to given design, the boat’s interiors were altered to be functional and useful to the crew. As construction progressed, the visiting Vels monitored quality. Eventually, he felt they had a good boat going. After the Mhadei (another name for the river, Mandovi) was launched, she was taken to moorings beyond the road bridge to Panjim to get her mast fitted. The 24 metre high-mast arrived in two pieces and in accordance with sailing’s accrued wisdom of the years, is held in place less by fixtures at the bottom and far more by the strength of its rigging; basically tensioned stays and ropes running from the mast to the sides of the boat. She then proceeded for her mandated two months of testing by Donde and crew. Sir Robin also joined in for an initial trial run. Following a trip to Colombo, the navy team sailed her short-handed to Mauritius, the first time the navy did short-handed sailing. Then Donde sailed her back to India, alone – his first solo voyage and a first for the country.
The world is a free place to every explorer’s imagination and next to the sky the sea is visibly freest of all. However if you want your circumnavigation to be officially accepted by sailing’s connoisseurs, there are parameters to follow. The trip heads for the southern hemisphere and its vast oceans free of intervening land masses. The voyage must cover minimum 40,000 kilometres (21,600 nautical miles), it should avoid the world’s straits and man-made canals, grace three great capes (Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn), it spends time in the feisty Southern Ocean with its Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, endures the vastness of the Pacific, crosses all meridians and journeys north to cross the Equator at least twice. The course is typically eastward to take advantage of the Westerlies. For emphasis on sail, engines in sail boats must be used sparingly (ex: you can use it to get in and out of a crowded marina). Sailing in days preceding engines and norms by sports bodies, Slocum first crossed the Atlantic. He travelled from North America to Gibraltar in Europe where he was warned of the pirates of the Red Sea. So from Gibraltar he sailed down the Atlantic, escaped a chase by pirates off the North African coast, touched Brazil, went onward to the Strait of Magellan near Cape Horn (navigating this strait can be more harrowing than the Horn) and west into the Pacific. Like Magellan, he sailed against prevailing winds.
Donde embarked on his circumnavigation voyage on August 19, 2009 and returned on May 19, 2010. For India, he is the pioneer. An unassuming individual, his successful solo voyage around the globe with four halts, seasoned the boat and the team behind Sagar Parikrama. It was history for the Mhadei too. The India built-Mhadei became the first Tonga 56 to do a successful solo circumnavigation. Things did go wrong. But she didn’t fail to bring her sailor back, safe. The team’s confidence grew. Towards the end of Donde’s voyage, Awati had proposed upping the ante to a solo, nonstop circumnavigation for next project. This, as per sailing’s norms, required to be unassisted in the physical sense. Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy, for long part of the Sagar Parikrama team, was ideal candidate. A maritime reconnaissance pilot and sailing aficionado, he had been Donde’s support crew, meeting him at Fremantle, Lyttleton, Falkland Islands and Cape Town during the circumnavigation. Tomy was an active sailor from his training days at the Naval Academy. After commissioning as a pilot, he was selected to the navy’s shooting team. He left it. Shooting’s target oriented approach failed to attract as much as the romanticism of sailing. Twice he got lost – first at Jamnagar when he and a couple of others spent a night adrift at sea in damaged sail boats; the second time, in Mumbai, when a capsized boat couldn’t be corrected and the outgoing tide swept Tomy right out of the bay, into the outer sea where he floated till rescued. He had met Donde briefly a few times before but got to know him at a sailing event in Simonstown, South Africa, where Tomy won a competition. Later when the navy dispatched another `India General’ seeking an assistant for Donde in Sagar Parikrama who would also be stand-by, Tomy volunteered.
Tomy’s previous sailing had been mostly on small vessels. Sagar Parikrama’s big boat and longer trips initially challenged. He was frequently sea-sick. His first solo sail was a trip in the boat from Cape Town to India. He got sea-sick but realized that solo sailor was the weakest link aboard and had better learn to function. Once back in Goa, he took to living in the Mhadei as a means to get used to what would be his new home. Then sailing out from Goa on November 1, 2012, he returned five months later as the first Indian to have done a solo, nonstop circumnavigation. To his advantage, Tomy had a boat that had gone through its teething troubles and performed well. “ Commander Donde’s voyage was tougher than mine,’’ he said. When you catch Awati, Donde and Tomy together, it is an ambiance of informal talk, leg pulling and camaraderie shaped by Sagar Parikrama. In their respective blogs, written as they sailed, Donde’s style is easy and forgiving; the younger Tomy gets there as the voyage progresses.
A solo voyage in the 21st century is very different from Slocum’s.
Navigating in the age of sextant, Slocum often preferred `dead reckoning,’ a technique that was still older. Although he made ample stops, at sea he was truly alone. He communicated with passing ships and boats by drawing close and shouting above the waves. He had no engine, no radio. If something went wrong, the solo sailor was utterly single-handed in finding solution. Sagar Parikrama had Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite phone, radio, Internet on tap and an INMARSAT Mini-C that automatically transmitted its position at fixed intervals. During Commader Donde’s trip (the first Indian solo circumnavigation) the boat’s autopilots broke down in the Pacific. But as someone tracking his blog reminded – you have an online audience, including those who sailed long distances in similar boats and therefore able to imagine a potential fix.
For Donde and Tomy, the word for what the rest of us calls loneliness is – solitude. You have to learn to handle it; not let the mind go into a downward spiral. In the 1968 Sunday Times-race, Donald Crowhurst (he was born in India) embarked on his voyage in a hurriedly built trimaran. His boat developed problems. This was atop the business troubles he already faced. He wanted a win badly to revive his business fortunes. From England, the farthest he went was the Falkland Islands but he conveyed to the world an impression of setting speed records and circumnavigating. His logbooks grew thick with poetry, philosophical speculation and eventually, a self-manufactured delusion that justified exiting this existence for the perceived higher challenge of what lay beyond. The story is there in the book by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Crowhurst wasn’t aboard his boat found adrift in the Atlantic. He is believed to have committed suicide. At the other end was Bernard Moitessier. Coming off Cape Horn in his yacht built of boilerplate steel, the Frenchman, running close second to Sir Robin and at times thought to win, traded competition and record for the romanticism of voyage. He sailed on to Tahiti without turning north to England. In sailing, Cape Horn is iconic. Moitessier became famous even before the 1968 race, for enduring a terrible storm there. Like `Everester,’ there exists the reference, `Cape Horner.’ As with any weather pattern, you can cross it under milder conditions. But the Horn is usually intense with winds denied passage by the Andes, funnelling into the gap between South America’s tip and Antarctica. Then there are the storms off South Africa and the powerful Agulhas Current. On Sagar Parikrama’s boat, a deck eye of 8mm metal was twisted open in one of the Southern Ocean storms. At sea, boats sometimes have their sails ripped; masts broken. “ The sea is unforgiving,’’ Awati said.
By the second half of the 20th century very busy shipping lanes would dissect waters above the Southern Ocean. Peter Nichols, sailing solo across the Atlantic, remarks how dangerous, containers fallen into the sea could be for a small sail boat like his. You can hit containers; other boats, maybe a ship. Big ships take time to slow down, alter direction. Small sail boats rarely show up on their radar and while looking out from the bridge of a giant ship, small boats are lost in the vastness of heaving sea. Nichols sailed across the Atlantic, coping with a failed marriage and hoping to sell off in the US, the sail boat he and his wife had been closely attached to. En route, the boat developed leaks. One of the most touching moments in Nichols’s story is when he is saved by a big ship. On the one hand, the vessel responded to pleas from something as insignificant as solo sailor on vast ocean. On the other hand, as it drew close, it crunched the fore part of the small sail boat without even feeling it. Furious, Nichols tries to kick the huge steel monster away. From Slocum to Donde and Tomy, one responsibility continuing unchanged is – on a boat somebody has to be on watch always and when you are alone, sleep becomes little. Sleep deprivation can cause hallucination. Meanwhile solitude breeds the community of one. Across accounts by solo sailors you find the story narrated with individual donning multiple roles. The chef served a fantastic meal and the crew appreciated it – is one and the same person wearing two hats. It is poignant and amusing. Donde and Tomy are two of just over 200 sailors who circumnavigated alone. More people have been to space. Lots more have climbed Everest to date, the majority of them likely helped up by hired guides. Yet man on Everest attracts people’s attention more. It is an anthropological puzzle, this difference in human approach to water and depth and mountain and height. Maybe Desmond Morris has an explanation?
Meanwhile, India’s officialdom left its characteristic imprint. The tender documents inadequately described the Mhadei as a yacht, when the larger picture was attempting a first in circumnavigation for India with the learning experience therein; all this on a tight budget. After the Mhadei was handed over to the navy, Aquarius which made the boat to schedule was raided by tax officials seeking excise duty payment for the `yacht.’ On their heels came the customs. “ They were only following the law,’’ Dandekar said. The navy spoke up. Although he got back what he was forced to pay, Dandekar wishes this hadn’t happened in an otherwise absolutely engaging project. He has no hesitation in acknowledging how much the Mhadei changed Aquarius. The yard’s ability has been vindicated. Where there used to be just one boat building-shed before, more have come up on the premises. Company turnover has risen. Aquarius looks busy. There is even an aluminium hull getting ready although in the cyclical pattern of the boat building industry, the company which sub-contracted that order to Aquarius sank into financial difficulty leaving Dandekar with the hull. But he is happy that he knows aluminium too, now. That’s his attitude. “ Building the Mhadei was a big achievement. There aren’t too many yards that can claim to have built a sail boat, which did two back to back circumnavigations,’’ Dandekar said.
(….TO BE CONTINUED)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)