The INSV Mhadei (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

The INSV Mhadei (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

The sail boat at the centre of India’s two solo circumnavigations to date, recently celebrated a milestone.

In six years, the INSV Mhadei travelled over 100,000 nautical miles on the world’s oceans.

Given a single circumnavigation is around 23,000 nautical miles, what the sail boat has aggregated exceeds four journeys around the world.

“ One hundred thousand nautical miles is a lot of sailing,’’ Commander Dilip Donde, the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation, said.

His long voyage was followed by Commander Abhilash Tomy’s solo nonstop circumnavigation, another first for the country.

The full story of building the Mhadei and her two nationally significant voyages can be read on this blog under the ` Sagar Parikrama’ category (; please scroll down). It also includes an interview with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd), who was the architect of the Indian Navy’s solo circumnavigation project.

The Indian Navy’s only yacht, the Mhadei is a tough little boat.

If you go through the Mhadei’s voyages so far, you will see it – generally speaking – as oriented towards a major voyage by way of significant objective with plenty of long voyages in between for preparation. Ahead of the first solo circumnavigation voyage for instance, there had been sailings to Colombo and Mauritius. Commander Donde sailing her alone from Mauritius to India became the first instance of such solo sailing by an Indian.

The naval officer embarked on his circumnavigation voyage in August 2009 and returned in May 2010.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Mhadei is a 56 feet long-sloop designed by the Dutch firm Van de Stadt. Her model name is `Tonga 56.’ When Commander Donde finished his voyage, the Mhadei became alongside the first Tonga 56 to do a solo circumnavigation, not to mention the first India built-Tonga 56 to do so. Commander Abhilash Tomy’s first solo voyage was in the Mhadei from Cape Town to India ahead of his upcoming major trip. He sailed out from Mumbai in November 2012 and returned five months later with the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian, done.

The navy then shifted attention to familiarizing its women officers with long distance sailing.

In April-May 2013, soon after she completed the solo nonstop circumnavigation, the Mhadei sailed from Mumbai to Kochi and back to her base in Goa. In November 2013, she sailed out from Goa to Cape Town and then took part in the Cape to Rio Race in January 2014, which entails crossing the Atlantic from Africa to South America. This time she had one woman officer aboard. After returning to Goa, the Mhadei, in November 2014, sailed from Goa to Kochi, Port Blair, Vishakhapattanam, Chennai, Kochi and back to Goa. On the Chennai-Kochi leg, the Mhadei had a crew composed mostly of women. On February 12, 2015, the sail boat celebrated her sixth birthday. Two days later, it was an official celebration of her birthday and 100,000 nautical miles sailed, attended by the union defence minister. “ If you add up the point-to-point distances of all her big trips, it actually works out to more than 100,000 nautical miles,’’ Commander Abhilash Tomy said.

A few aspects help put the 100,000 nautical miles in perspective.

First, the Mhadei’s near continuous sailing and 100,000 nautical miles crossed in six years compares with the general average of most cruising boats spending no more than 10-20 per cent of their time away from home moorings. “ Nobody sails like this,’’ Commander Donde said. Second, the Mhadei’s voyages have been remarkably different from that of bigger ships, other naval vessels included. Because she has so far been a yacht courting adventure, the Mhadei has sailed through some really rough seas testing crew and boat alike. Not to mention, pitting its small size against vast, rough seas. Each long voyage entailed its share of punishment. For example, on the last Cape to Rio Race, following the onset of a tropical cyclone, of 35 boats that started, as many as 10 returned within the first two days. The Mhadei had her sails torn but she was among vessels that finished the race. Third, in her six years of existence so far, the Mhadei spent no more than two to three months per year in maintenance. In some cases, the time taken for maintenance was courtesy, the time required by Indian procedures ashore. Twice – after each circumnavigation – she had her mast taken down and checked. Typically in a sail boat, the parts requiring periodic attention are the sails, the mast, the rigging, ropes, the rudder bearing and electrical wiring (effects of salt water). “ The hull gets damaged only if you bang it up,’’ Commander Donde said. According to him and Commander Abhilash Tomy, a sail boat that is frequently sailing is better positioned to have a healthy hull than one staying in harbour. Except for the regular repainting, the Mhadei has had no major work done on her hull. “ She is built very well,’’ Commander Donde said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Mhadei was built in Goa at Aquarius Fibreglass, a company owned by Ratnakar Dandekar, an unassuming boat builder. For the Mhadei’s skipper, Dandekar is usually the point man to call when any technical glitch occurs. In a nutshell therefore – Dandekar has built a sturdy boat that sailed over 100,000 nautical miles and on top of it, supported it technically from ashore over two full solo circumnavigations. That is a lot of experience. It is understood that the Aquarius Fibreglass boatyard has grown much since the days of building the Mhadei. “ The real hero of this 100,000 nautical miles-story is the builder. In the same breath, if the navy wants to have the Mhadei sailing for long, then she has to keep sailing,’’ Commander Donde said.

A boat’s life span is a very relative subject for there are many variables involved. In general, two important factors therein would be the quality of construction and how well the vessel is maintained and handled. On handling aspect, admiration for the Mhadei rises because as both Commander Donde and Commander Abhilash Tomy said, she had to deal with the learning curve of the sailors she took aboard.

Incidentally, it is worth remembering at this juncture that the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1969 was aboard the `Suhaili,’ a sail boat made of teakwood and built in Mumbai. The Suhaili is still sailing.

The idea of Sagar Parikrama started with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd) picking up a copy of Captain Joshua Slocum’s book on a London street decades ago. Slocum was the first person to do a solo circumnavigation. “ The Mhadei which made my Project Sagarparikrama possible epitomises modern India’s determination, as a first determined step, to return to her old habit of sea-friendliness, if that is the correct word. One hundred thousand nautical miles in six years is evidence of both, her sturdy design and construction, as well as India’s and the Indian Navy’s commitment to make India’s presence at sea evident to the world. My hope now is that this first step may lead to Young India taking to the waves which surround their country, for regular recreation and sport in ever larger numbers in search of both sport and adventure, learn a few lessons from the sea. The sea is a great tutor. Both a Rider of the Waves and a Rider of the Horse develop character and courage, two invaluable qualities for a citizen of a would-be great nation,’’ Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd), said.

The INSV Mhadei (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

The INSV Mhadei (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

It took a while to secure a response from Ratnakar Dandekar. The reason was simple – his work load had increased. Aquarius Fibreglass now has a dry dock; it has diversified into building with aluminium, is starting out with steel, is into rubber-inflatable boats and has nearly completed its first boat built using PVC foam core with vacuum infusion-construction process (this technology provides for light, sturdy, strong boats). Simply put – its building ability now straddles a much wider spectrum in small boats. The Mhadei didn’t directly improve the company’s business. What it did in Aquarius’s context, was remove customer concerns over whether the company can deliver on demanding projects. “ We derived a lot of confidence from the experience of building and supporting the Mhadei,’’ Ratnakar said. Aquarius currently has an order for a sail boat – slightly smaller in dimension than the Mhadei – from a Mumbai based-client. It is scheduled for delivery in 2017.

“ The Mhadei means everything to me. She represents that point in my life as boat builder when I took the biggest step towards building better boats,’’ Ratnakar said.

At present, the Mhadei is the Indian Navy’s only yacht.

There has been talk of making a sister vessel to share duties.

Nothing has been finalized yet.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s