Sailing in India lost one of its strongest supporters with the demise of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd) on November 4, 2018. He was 91. Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s project to execute solo circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat, owes much to him.
Circumnavigation had fascinated Vice Admiral Manohar Awati throughout his career in the navy.
But he had been unable to realize it while in service.
As he told this blog in 2013, it all started in west London soon after World War II. He was in his early twenties, freshly commissioned in the Royal Indian Navy and attending a course at the Royal Naval College. While out on a walk, he bought a book from a person selling books on the footpath near Charing Cross; it was Joshua Slocum’s account of his solo circumnavigation in a sail boat, the first such voyage done. It impressed him deeply.
“ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ he said. In that while he would be awarded the Vir Chakra for leadership and gallantry during operations in the Bay of Bengal (1972 India-Pakistan war), serve as Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) and eventually be Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, sword arm of the Indian Navy. All through his career the idea of circumnavigation in a sail boat survived in his mind. Upon retiring, he persisted with his pet project. It was an uphill task. The project needed funds. The navy wasn’t quite enthusiastic; corporate India – he approached them for funds – by and large cold shouldered him.
In 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, became navy chief. He warmed up to the idea of circumnavigation. Vice Admiral Awati proposed a revised budget and added a condition that would distinguish Sagar Parikrama – he wanted the boat being used for circumnavigation to be built in India. The navy allotted funds. From this was born the INSV Mhadei, perhaps the toughest little boat the Indian Navy has known yet. Based on a Dutch design, she was built at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa. In 2009-2010 Sagar Parikrama bore fruit when Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) became the first Indian to do solo circumnavigation in a sail boat. Two years later, over 2012-2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy executed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat.
Vice Admiral Awati wasn’t done. He had a few more voyages he wished to see happen. Over 2017-2018, the first of these – Indian women completing circumnavigation in a sail boat was realized when six Indian women naval officers sailed around the planet in INSV Tarini, the Mhadei’s sister vessel. In August 2018, soon after an article on the circumnavigation by all woman-crew appeared on this blog, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in: At near 92, I still have ambitions. (a) to be around to see the first Indian woman solo circumnavigator, and (b) to see an Indian sailing boat (go) through the Arctic, and finally (c) to witness an Indian sail boat circumnavigate Antarctica. All this and more shouldn’t take long to be realized if the momentum of Sagar Parikrama is maintained.
Vice Admiral Awati was among the few readers of this blog who periodically wrote in with feedback and suggestions. He wished to include the public in his enthusiasm for sailing (Sagar Parikrama and the fan following it had is excellent example of this). Compared to 2500 kilometers of Himalaya and considerable fuss around mountaineering, India has 7500 kilometers of coastline and no matching push for sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing or any such water-based sport. Vice Admiral Awati felt India was inadequate in its appreciation of the sea and wanted to see the trend corrected. He also knew that if it was to happen in a convincing way, then sailing as activity had to grow. When Maharashtra evolved a policy for outdoor / adventure sports, he was concerned that sailing should be both properly represented and backed by supportive policies. He sought the contact details of those in charge.
This write-up must necessarily end on a personal note.
Journalists are typically awful communicators in the normal sense of the word. Newspaper offices receive so many mails and press releases daily that if you honed your skills in such an environment, you take it for granted that you needn’t respond to each personally. When world reduces to information and data, an element of the impersonal creeps in. The first time I met Vice Admiral Awati was at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Center (INWTC) in Mumbai, when I was doing my first article on Sagar Parikrama. Captain Dilp Donde (Retd) and Commander Abhilash Tomy were also there. We were on the second floor and the lift had been kept on standby for the retired admiral, then in his late eighties, to take. He took the stairs instead and reached the interview table, a bit tired by the effort but happy for it. He spoke to the point and was very articulate; his choice of sentences leaned towards classical harking of bygone era.
Conversation around sailing over, I requested him for a copy of his bio-data, which he agreed to mail across as soon as he got back to Vinchurni in Satara, where he lived. I received the mail – if I recall correctly – the very next day. I was busy writing the article and while I perused the bio-data for material to include in the piece, didn’t reply to the mail. Two days later I got a mail from the admiral in which, he pointed out that while he had promptly dispatched his bio-data to me, I had failed to extend him the courtesy of acknowledging it. I learnt something that day. I have since tried my best to reply not only to his mails but most other’s as well. He never belittled freelance journalist for not belonging to any big media organization or writing for a blog. He recognized individual character and interest in subject. He appreciated good work and always sent in a line when he noticed instances of it. A naval officer once said this of him to me, “ he is the best chief the navy never had.’’
Vice Admiral Awati passed away on November 4, 2018. “ A giant of a man, one of our tallest heroes and greatest icons. Its truly the end of an era. May his soul rest in peace,” Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of Naval Staff, said in his statement available on the official Twitter handle of the Indian Navy spokesperson.
Thank you for everything sir; this blog and this writer will always remember you.
To read an interview with Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (it was done in 2013), please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-four/)
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For all articles related to sailing and Sagar Parikrama, please select from story list / archives or click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section.)