Mid November, 2015.
Secured atop the car was a long, narrow kayak.
The car was in the parking lot of a set of apartment blocks in Powai, best known as location for the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai. In some other countries, a car with a kayak on top would be common sight. Mumbai is a metro by the sea. But it shares India’s inertia for water sports, puzzling given the country’s 7,500km-long coastline. There are thousands of fisher folk, who venture out to sea for livelihood. There is the navy and the merchant navy too. But recreational sailing, canoeing, kayaking – all these are still evolving in India. It contrasts an ancient past in which, Indians engaged with the sea. Some, who investigated the phenomenon, have attributed the Indian preference for terra firma to religious strictures that discouraged ocean voyages. It may also have much to do with a heavily populated country’s insistence that everything people do in manic rat race make sense. Livelihood makes sense. Sport for livelihood may also make sense. Sport for sport sake makes no sense. Who knows? What Kaustubh Khade does know is that the drive from Powai in Mumbai’s north east to South Mumbai’s Chowpatty, with kayak on top of his car, attracts attention in island city surrounded by sea. Cops, curious about both kayak and its length exceeding Kaustubh’s mid-sized sedan, stop him and question regularly. “ I am now used to it,’’ the computer engineer said. His is a white kayak, an EPIC 18X model; the names of his sponsors and `Paddle Hard’ – a brand and concept he is promoting, posted on it.
Kaustubh expected none of this.
He has a couple of dolphins in Goa to thank for the turn his life took.
Born 1987 to parents who are doctors, Kaustubh grew up in Mumbai. He has an elder sister. By 1991, the family was in Powai. During his days at the Hiranandani Foundation School (HFS), he was an athlete into sprinting. He also played rugby and football. After tenth, he shifted to the Kendriya Vidyalaya at the IIT campus, a phase associated strongly with sports. “ We played football at least half an hour to an hour every day,’’ he recalled. Next stop was the IIT itself, but in Delhi. Kaustubh and his sister, who elected to pursue engineering, stood out in their extended family dominated by doctors. “ At a very young age, I saw my father give an injection to a kid. The kid was howling. I decided to do engineering,’’ he said laughing. At IIT Delhi, he continued his passion for football but it was marred by recurrent knee problems. Passing out from the elite institute, he secured his first job via campus placement. He was back in Mumbai.
In 2010, Kaustubh went on a dolphin safari in Goa with his friend, Sarang Paramhans. They noticed that the motor boat they were on was scaring away the dolphins. To be less invasive and closer to nature, they decided to shift to a two person-kayak. Kaustubh had briefly kayaked before on the Ganga in Rishikesh. That hadn’t stuck in mind. But being out at sea on a kayak with curious dolphins for company was a life altering experience. So strong was its spell that on the way back to Mumbai, Kaustubh stopped at a boat shop at Panjim in Goa, to buy a kayak. Rajiv Bhatia, who owned Rae Sport Goa (the company is headquartered in Mumbai), quizzed Kaustubh for previous experience in kayaking. The young man confidently quoted Rishikesh and Goa; Bhatia brought him down to earth. He asked Kaustubh: why don’t you train properly in kayaking first and then if you still wish, buy a kayak from Rae Sport?
Kaustubh signed up for a kayaking course with the company in Mumbai. He pursued the sport diligently. Over time, he graduated from the regular kayak to the surf ski variety, a pretty fast kayak, narrower and longer than its brethren. In 2012, Rajiv asked Kaustubh whether he wished to participate in the national championship for dragon boat racing, due in the city under the auspices of the Indian Kayaking & Canoeing Association (IKCA). It was designed to select a national team in the sport. Unlike kayaks, the dragon boat featured 10 rowers in five rows of two each. Additionally, there was a person to steer and a person to drum, which was the means to set a rhythm for the rowing. In some ways, it was a miniature version of Kerala’s famous snake boats. Weighing 200-300kilos each, the dragon boats were imported canoes. Kaustubh was interested. Rajiv Bhatia set about building a team. At one end of South Mumbai’s Marine Drive, on Chowpatty, is an organization that goes by the name: Pransukhlal Mafatlal Hindu Bath & Boat Club. Strong paddlers existed there. So a team including these paddlers was formed. Then, the unexpected occurred. Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is capital, decided not to participate in the national championship. Where would the Mumbai team go? An engaging solution was found: they would represent Goa! “ Our team was a melting pot,’’ Kaustubh said. It was a good team; they trained regularly for three and a half months.
Fourteen states turned up for the nationals held at Marine Drive. Team Goa did well in the time trials based on which the national team was announced. Kaustubh found a place in it. The new team trained for a week in Mumbai. A highlight of 2012 was the training Kaustubh received in Mumbai, from Oscar Chalupsky, twelve-time world champion from South Africa. He taught the fundamentals of kayaking. “ Unlike popular perception, kayaking is not an upper body sport. It actually uses the whole body. Oscar taught me that,’’ Kaustubh said. The Asian Championship was due at Pattaya in Thailand around March-April 2013. Kaustubh would report for practice at Marine Drive from 7AM to 9.30AM; then attend office, report for practice in the afternoon, go back to office and then report after work for evening practice. The balancing act was tough; he was under review at work. His office wasn’t appreciative of the national team and Asian Championship-bug. One day he was asked: what will the office get from this craze? “ Following that exchange it became easy to quit the company,’’ Kaustubh said.
Thirteen countries participated in the Asian Championship. Across events for men and women, India won six silver medals and three bronze. In the races Kaustubh participated in, India won two silver medals and one bronze. “ We participated in every race. At one stage, we had just got off a race requiring 10 paddlers, when the coach came and said we had to rush for the race featuring 20 paddlers,’’ he said. The championship lasted three days. On return, Kaustubh resigned his job. He would move on to attempting unsuccessfully to start his own business in Bengaluru and transit through employment at a second company before signing up for the firm he currently works at; a start-up commenced by youngsters fresh out of IIT. Start-ups can be hectic. Kaustubh spoke of his life, one eye on his cell phone. We were at a cafe in Powai.
After the 2013 Asian Championship, Kaustubh decided to focus on sea kayaking with emphasis on surf skis. Back in Goa, he had fallen in love with kayaking for the way it allowed the paddler to experience what he was doing with that sense of being close to the elements. Kaustubh explained his later transition to the surf ski, “ what I experienced in Goa is also why I moved to surf skis. Compared to the surf ski, sea kayaks and leisure kayaks are more stable. They kill the joy in every wave.’’ A precise instrument, the unstable surf ski is the most technical kayak in the larger sea kayaking discipline. He decided to participate in the next edition of the Asian Championship in Thailand on surf skis. He started training for the event’s 22 km-run over December-January at Mumbai’s Marine Drive. With the bay not long enough, he managed the required distance by doing laps. However things went wrong in Thailand. The surf ski issued there was a lot more unstable type than what he had trained on. Realizing the futility in racing in that kayak class, he switched disciplines and raced in sea kayaking. He finished fifth out of 17 participants in the 13km-sea kayak race. After this episode, Kaustubh stopped competing. “ Training for competitions had become difficult given the pressures of office and working life,’’ he said.
Around this time, he read the book, “ Fearless’ by Joe Glickman. It was about German kayaker Freya Hoffmeister’s 2009 journey, paddling around Australia. The book left him wondering if something similar was possible in India. He visualized a long term plan: kayak around the Indian peninsula from Mumbai to West Bengal with the Mumbai-Goa leg as first portion to attempt. On the globe, the ocean is a huge mass of seemingly similar blue. In reality, depending on the scale of one’s expedition, it is a collection of different weather patterns – seasonal and unseasonal, underwater geographical features, dissimilar coastlines and a different culture beyond each shore. As Kaustubh found out, navigating the limited distance of Mumbai-Goa itself entailed consolidating 17 separate maps. Complicating matters, threats to India’s security have robbed the surrounding seas of their innocence. This enhanced the importance of official clearances for kayakers trying to paddle personal dreams to success in the waters around India. Getting approvals and stitching the logistics together as efficiently as possible is half the work done in any expedition.
Kaustubh’s idea was not new. Almost ten years before, on December 25, 2005, two kayakers – Sanjeev Kumar and Dev Dutta – had cast off from Mumbai on a voyage around the Indian peninsula to Kolkata. As per their log, they were forced to terminate the trip 28 days later, at Kannur in Kerala. The log mentioned suspicion among the locals of two strangers in a kayak pulling in from the sea. Pestered for two days and worried that the trend could continue along the entire Kerala coast, the duo decided to stop the Kerala leg and resume in Tamil Nadu. However, according to the log, the Tamil Nadu government had just then begun a search for Tamil Tiger operatives, who had earlier clashed at sea with the Indian Coast Guard. Given the circumstances, they concluded, Tamil Nadu waters too may be risky to venture into and wrapped up the expedition for the time being. One thing was clear from this testing of the waters – proper official backing and approvals, make a difference.
With a view to meet an official from the state’s tourism agency, Kaustubh attended a seminar in Navi Mumbai. The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), which has resorts along the Maharashtra coast, decided to support his kayak trip. According to Kaustubh, the MTDC coming aboard made things easier with others in the approvals-frame. The Maharashtra Maritime Board extended support and soon thereafter, the Indian Coast Guard cleared the trip. A few private sponsors stepped in to support the expedition. As a NGO to support through the expedition, he picked Magic Bus, which uses sports and games to work with underprivileged children. It was an ideal fit; Kaustubh loved this NGO’s work. In October 2014, Kaustubh applied for sabbatical from work. He also ordered a kayak – the EPIC 18X, we saw strapped to the top of the car. It is a hybrid of the sea kayak and the surf ski with chambers to hold gear and supplies. He had thought of a December departure. But that didn’t happen. The kayak reached Mumbai on January 26, 2015.
Meanwhile, the expedition’s challenges hit home. Although experienced kayaker, Kaustubh’s experience to date had been in protected waters. The sea off Mumbai’s Marine Drive has a reef that acts as natural breakwater. Compared to the outer sea, the bay is calm. Paddling from Mumbai to Goa, Kaustubh wouldn’t be way out at sea as in a sea crossing but he would definitely be beyond natural protective barriers close to the coast. And he would be on a matchstick of a craft, bobbing out of sight in the slightest of ocean swells. His parents Monita and Kisan Khade had been supportive of his foray into kayaking. For them, anything except football, which would have damaged Kaustubh’s knees further, was welcome. To contain the risk, they stepped in. One of the sponsors had recommended a support vessel accompanying the kayak at sea. He now offered to fund it. Monita elected to be on the support vessel; Kisan would drive along the coast meeting up at every halt. Kaustubh concedes, sponsors and support vessel may have taken off some of the spontaneity otherwise inherent in adventure. Halts weren’t a case of pulling in from the sea and camping self-supported; support vessel additionally meant, searching for a suitable jetty, something a kayaker wouldn’t think of. Further, the easily visible support vessel attracted attention. Kaustubh spoke of the police occasionally coming out to inspect. “ The letter from the Coast Guard, which we had in the support vessel, always worked. What was interesting was how the police would come to check, looking all serious and later, after we had showed them the requisite papers, take photos of the kayaker paddling on,’’ he said.
Kaustubh embarked on his trip from Mumbai’s Gateway of India, on February 14, 2015. Waking up every day at 5.30 AM, he would enjoy a fine spell of kayaking from 6.30 AM to 9.30 AM. Then the sun blazed. His worst hours would follow. The paddling would go on till about 1 PM, when he would draw ashore. The remaining part of the day, he rested and blogged, something he had to do as per the modern paradigm of expedition, sponsors and media. Dinner was at 7.30 PM; lights out by 9 PM. It went on so, relatively smooth except for Day 12.
On Day 12, fresh out from a rest day, Kaustubh was paddling on to Ratnagiri. Two thirds of the Mumbai-Goa journey had been completed. Spirits were up although it was a pretty hot day. The plan was to stop en route at Pawas. But the support vessel wanted to look for a jetty at Purnagad further south. It added another ten kilometres to the day, already trying due to the heat. When the team reached Purnagad, they found that while the place did have a jetty, Purnagad was tucked a bit inward and away from the sea. It raised concerns on how the tide may impact locally. Therefore the team paused for lunch at Purnagad and around 3.30 PM set off again with a plan for the kayak to hit shore at Godavne, with night halt for everyone at Ambolgad. Kisan Khade would come to fetch Kaustubh and take him to Ambolgad, dropping him back at Godavne the next morning, to recommence his paddling. That was the idea. However, after the support vessel pushed off for Ambolgad, the weather turned nasty and the sea became rough. Three to four kilometres out at sea, Kaustubh’s kayak almost capsized. He nevertheless managed to crash-land at Godavne, the culmination of a particularly long day spent paddling. He was exhausted. The wave that crashed him onto the beach had also swept off the contact lens in his right eye leaving him half blind. Godavne turned out to be completely different from what the team had imagined. It was an isolated beach surrounded by steep hills. There was no way Kaustubh could haul the kayak singlehandedly to the road. With no prominent path coming down to the beach, his father wasn’t also around. Bereft of any communication device (the cell phone was on the safety boat), a new worry started – was his father not here because something happened to his mother who had proceeded ahead in the safety boat?
Tired, Kaustubh lashed his kayak to a small tree stump and set out to find a way up. It was late evening; darkness was approaching. Packing up the items he could carry, he walked six kilometres along the beach. He ran into four men high on liquor. Somehow he convinced them that he needed to use their cell phone. Finally, he got through to his girlfriend in Mumbai who assured him that his parents were fine. By then two people on motorbikes came looking for him. They took him to the assigned guest house for the night, where he rejoined his parents. Earlier in the day, Kisan Khade had come to Godavne. He had found a goatherd’s path down to the isolated beach but not finding Kaustubh anywhere went back. It hadn’t seemed a place to land. Meanwhile, the locals informed that leopards frequented the Godavne area. After a brief rest, the team returned to Godavne, somehow scouted a path down to the beach and hauled the kayak up. The following day they rested in Ambolgad. The next leg of the trip was commenced away from Godavne. Tough times persisted. The Tarkarli-Vengurla stretch should have gone smoothly but stiff headwinds slowed progress. Finally after 14 days of paddling (excluding rest days), Kaustubh reached Morjim in Goa, the end of his journey. He had kayaked 413km; the expedition was admitted into India’s Limca Book of Records as the longest ` solo’ kayaking by an Indian paddler in the shortest time.
Kaustubh has his eyes on the larger trip around the peninsula. “ This was clearly a pilot,’’ he said of Mumbai-Goa. He imagines that the remaining journey, slated for 2016-2017, would happen in two phases – one to kayak down the west coast and another to kayak up the east coast. The two coasts are different in character. The east can be rougher, not to mention – its capacity for extreme weather. That aside sponsorship will be the biggest challenge. And somewhere amid all this, he also wants to participate “ at least once’’ in Hawai’s Molokai Race. As for that kayak atop the car, still oddity in India’s financial capital surrounded by the sea, it rests when ashore in a garage owned by a friend who stays in the same building as Kaustubh.
(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)