AQUARIUS: TALENTED BOAT BUILDER LIMITED BY MARKET

Ratnakar Dandekar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ever since it built the INSV Mhadei, Goa based-Aquarius Shipyard has become a noted builder of sail boats in India.

The Mhadei did two circumnavigations; she also participated in trans-Atlantic races and other long voyages. After the Mhadei, Aquarius built the Tarini, which is identical to the former. If all goes as planned, the Tarini is expected to sail sometime in August 2017 on a circumnavigation executed for the first time by an all-woman Indian crew. Both vessels are sloops, based on the Tonga 56 design by Van de Stadt of Netherlands. According to Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius, there is a third Tonga 56 being built by the yard; this one for a private party in India. On August 7, 2017, Aquarius floated the ketch, Thuriya, built for Commander Abhilash Tomy KC to sail in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which will be another case of circumnavigation; a solo nonstop circumnavigation.

Each of these voyages comes with post-launch support offered by Aquarius. While the 2018 GGR is a case of retro sailing with very low electronic technology onboard and strict race regulations in place, in the previous two circumnavigations of the Mhadei – India’s first solo circumnavigation and first solo nonstop circumnavigation – Ratnakar as builder, was available for online consultation whenever anything went wrong aboard. The yard is thus a rare repository of knowledge and experience on building a sail boat from submitted design and supporting long voyages at sea.

Yet this does not translate into bright market opportunity for Aquarius.

The main reason is that a market for sail boats and yachts is so nascent in India that it is almost nonexistent. Potential buyers are growing in tune with India’s rising GDP and increase in the number of wealthy individuals. But sense of adventure and genuine appreciation of sailing is lacking. Most people who can afford a yacht prefer to buy it from overseas as the intention is to own a vessel one can brag about. Brand and cost matter. As Abhilash, who will sail next year as part of the retro styled 2018 GGR, pointed out, Indian buyers seek expensive yachts and brands they can boast of. While that is the state of buyers, any hope of kindling a popular market for sail boats with appropriate models – similar to what the Maruti 800 did for motoring in India – is checked by the very limited interest in sailing in India despite the country’s 7500 km-long coastline. Sailing is still mostly a privilege of the navy, an organization with vast resources and the ability to own and deploy boats. In several countries, civilian sailing has acquired scale and respect with reputed sailors from the civilian domain. In India, the scene is completely different.

The Thuriya, just before her launch on August 7, 2017. This ketch, the latest sail boat built by Aquarius, is slated to do a circumnavigation over 2018-2019 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Developing the local market is important for sailing to take off. Globally, the big sailing markets are Europe and US, of which Europe is closer to India. But India is not geographically as close as Turkey and the Middle East are to Europe. Builders from there have been doing a good job, exporting sail boats. Lack of scale also impacts Indian builders. According to Ratnakar, because he builds with skilled craftsmen, some of the low cost advantages associated with India are lost. On like to like comparison – that is if you compare a one off build overseas with similar work by Aquarius – he will be cheaper. But the problem is, his cost for a boat tends to be high when compared to boats coming off serial production overseas. Serial production cannot happen without a market in sight. Finally, the segment of yachts he can service – basically the middle category placed between cheap boats and the truly expensive ones – has not been doing well internationally. Turkish and Middle East builders were well placed to cash in on the recessionary trend that hit the market, Ratnakar said.

Notwithstanding this predicament, Ratnakar wished to continue building sail boats. Economically it doesn’t make much sense. Given the sort of clients he caters to – mostly the Indian military and the country’s many state governments – winning an order is based on being lowest bidder. Economics takes precedence. What still attracts him to sail boats is, the challenge in building them. When a boat is powered by wind, the requirement for good design and excellent craftsmanship in construction rises to the fore. When the risk is further compounded by circumnavigation and solo sailing, the requirement for these attributes is even stronger.

“ There is more challenge in building sail boats,’’ Ratnakar said.

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

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