AMIT SAMARTH COMPLETES STAGE 13 OF TRANS-SIBERIAN EXTREME

Amit Samarth; from the 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the race and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended)

Stages 10 and 13 of the Trans-Siberian Extreme exceed 1000 kilometers each. Amit Samarth has successfully tackled both. A mere two stages remain now between him and finish line.

Nagpur-based cyclist Amit Samarth has completed the 1372 kilometer-long thirteenth stage of the 2018 Red Bull Trans–Siberian Extreme.

He covered the distance in 59 hours, 52 minutes and 39 seconds at an average speed of 22.9 kilometers per hour. Amit completed the stage late Monday (August 13) evening, Indian time.

The roughly 9100 kilometer-long race has 15 stages in all.

The thirteenth stage is the longest of the lot. It was won by German ultra-cyclist Pierre Bischoff, who finished in 49 hours, 46 minutes and 35 seconds, a new stage record. He clocked an average speed of 27.6 kilometers per hour. Michael Knudsen of Denmark finished second; Marcelo Florentino Soares of Brazil, third. The tough stage – coming as it did after the participants had already cycled some 6000 kilometers – saw two cyclists DNF (Did Not Finish). Russian cyclist Vladimir Gusev was the first to DNF; he was followed by Patricio Doucet of Spain. The DNF puts them out of contention in the main race. They continue in a minor classification.

A doctor by profession, Amit is the first cyclist from India participating in the event. If he finishes the race successfully, it would be the second major international endurance event after Race Across America (RAAM) in 2017 that he would be completing in his very first attempt. The Trans-Siberian Extreme is almost double the distance of RAAM, which is a crossing of the United States from the west coast to the east. Sometime in stage 10, the cyclists currently participating in the 2018 Tran-Siberian Extreme pedaled past RAAM’s full length.

The race in Russia spans the distance from Moscow to Vladivostok. All six cyclists who commenced this year’s edition of the race from Moscow on July 24 continue to be there. No one has pulled out from the race yet although Vladimir Gusev of Russia retired twice (he had a DNF earlier in stage seven too) and Patricio Doucet once. Race rules allow a participant to leave the race twice and continue in a minor classification.

From the ranks of the rest who did not have DNF in any stage, Pierre Bischoff of Germany, Michael Knudsen of Denmark and Marcelo Florentino Soares of Brazil have figured in the top three finishes of various stages. Vladimir was first to finish in several stages but with the DNFs he notched up, he is in a minor classification. Bischoff is ultra-cycling world champion of 2017 and a former winner at RAAM (2016). Altogether six cyclists are in the fray in the 2018 edition of Trans-Siberian Extreme including Vladimir and Patricio. Amit has hung in there; he has paced himself judiciously completing every stage and being there for the next. His stage finishes have been well within cut-off, Devnath Pillai, who is part of his support crew in Russia, informed sometime after stage 13 got underway.

Amit Samarth; from the 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme (Photo: courtesy Team Amit Samarth)

The Trans-Siberian Extreme packs a punch in its second half. By the end of stage nine (when the race was last reported on this blog) the longest single stage had been stage three entailing 693 kilometers of cycling. With almost 4000 kilometers pedaled, the cyclists are close to touching the full distance of RAAM when they finish stage nine. That is when they are greeted with stage 10. The tenth stage from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk requires cycling a distance of 1094.59 kilometers. Amit covered this in 45 hours, 32 minutes, 50 seconds. The cyclists had a rest day following stage 10. It is much needed break and recovery from life on saddle because the remaining distance to Vladivostok – approximately 4000 kilometers – is to be covered in just five stages. As mentioned earlier, stage 13 therein spans 1372 kilometers.

With stage 13 done, only two stages remain between Amit and finish line.

The race ends in Vladivostok on August 17.

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

VEDANGI’S QUEST / AUSTRALIA DONE, NEW ZEALAND ON, CANADA NEXT

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Vedangi Kulkarni and is being used here for representation purpose only)

Having completed the opening Australian chapter of her journey, Vedangi is now cycling in New Zealand. Up next is Canada.

Vedangi Kulkarni, who is attempting to be the fastest woman cyclist to go around the planet unsupported, has completed the initial Australian leg of her journey.

At the time of writing, she was cycling in New Zealand. She reached Wellington on August 11.

Vedangi had commenced her journey in Perth on July 17. In Australia, she covered 5631 kilometers from Perth to Brisbane before flying to Wellington.  During the Australia leg, she lost roughly five days to stomach ailment and work related to securing visa for the stages ahead.

“ She is now happy and doing well. She has recovered from that bout of ill health and her performance has been improving,’’ Vedangi’s father, Vivek Kulkarni, told this blog on Sunday (August 12). She is expected to cover around 1000 kilometers in New Zealand, starting in Wellington and eventually ending in Auckland. How the journey pans out on a daily basis is Vedangi’s call as cyclist proceeding unsupported and making her own decisions. Once the New Zealand segment is completed, she will proceed to Canada. Her documents for this leg are in place. The lingering visa problem pertains to the Europe section of the journey, which follows Canada. It is being addressed, Vivek said.

According to him, Vedangi had her bicycle serviced in Adelaide and Brisbane. “ Whenever she finds a good service center, she avails the opportunity to get her bike checked,’’ he said.

From the New Zealand section of the journey (Photo: courtesy Vedangi Kulkarni)

As per information available on Vedangi’s website, her journey of 18,000 miles (approximately 29,000 kilometers) will be attempted in four stages. The first stage covered Australia and New Zealand. The second stage was expected to see her cycling across Alaska and Canada but will now most likely be Canada alone with Vedangi putting in the additional distance required in Canada itself. The third stage spans Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia. The fourth and last stage covers China and the trip back to where she started in Australia. Given the fact that all required visas cannot be applied for and obtained well in advance, the exact route of Vedangi’s expedition has to stay open to adjustments as her journey progresses.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

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

2018 TRANS-SIBERIAN EXTREME / THE TEST BEGINS

Trans-Siberian Extreme route indicated in dots on the expanse of Russia. Photo: courtesy Team Amit Samarth

At the end of nine stages Amit Samarth soldiers on rock steady. Six stages remain. As he logs mileage longer than what he endured at RAAM, he knocks on the doors of new experience.

For a real estimation of what the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme means, one needs to appreciate the vastness in the adjoining image.

Those dots linking the route of the race from Moscow to Vladivostok signify a long journey.

That perspective is only one half of the picture.

You have to also factor in the requirement to cover that expanse in 25 days on a bicycle.

The 15 stage-race spans 9100 kilometers, multiple time zones and a variety of weather and terrain conditions. At the time of writing, the race was past stage 9. Another six remained. The trans-continental sprawl of Russia hit home when the Ural Mountains was crossed in stage 4 and the cyclists transitioned from Europe to Asia.

In Russia; cyclist and support crew from Nagpur: Devnath Pillai (extreme left), Amit Samarth (second from left), Chetan Thatte (second from right). Photo: courtesy Team Amit Samarth

Amit Samarth, the maverick doctor from Nagpur has hung in there finishing every stage diligently, typically placed fifth in a field of six cyclists at an average speed of 25.7 kilometers per hour. In the distance cycled so far, there have been four stages in excess of 500 kilometers; stage 3 was around 693 kilometers long, stage 6 and 7 were both around 619 kilometers while stage 9 was 557 kilometers long. So far the top three positions at the end of each stage has switched around between Russia’s Vladimir Gusev, Pierre Bischoff of Germany, Michael Knudsen of Denmark and Marcelo Florentino Soares of Brazil. Stage 7 was noteworthy for Gusev pulling out over medical issues. He was back for the next stage. The rules of the race allow a participant to leave the race twice and continue in a minor classification. The sixth cyclist in the fray is Patricio Doucet of Spain.

Amit’s progress has been steady so far. The only aberration appeared to be a time penalty he got (along with Marcelo) for a navigation error in stage 3. Amit is the first Indian to participate in Trans-Siberian Extreme. If he successfully reaches the finish line, he would be repeating what he did last year in his maiden participation at Race Across America (RAAM) – complete yet another monster race in his very first attempt. “ He is doing good,” Devnath Pillai, currently part of Amit’s support crew in Russia, said.

Photo: courtesy Team Amit Samarth

Between Amit and completion lay the fact that the second half of the race in Russia is uncharted territory for the Nagpur based-cyclist. His previous longest race is RAAM, which at around 4800 kilometers is just a shade over half the distance involved in Trans-Siberian Extreme. In an earlier conversation with this blog, Amit had mentioned that whatever unfolds beyond this mark in terms of how his body and mind behaves, would be new experience for him. To his credit, he seems to have managed the race well so far.

According to those close to Team Amit Samarth, sometime in stage 10, the racers will exceed the length of RAAM in terms of how much they cycled since start in Moscow. What should further engage those tracking the progress of the 2018 edition is that most of the shorter stages have already been done. Looming ahead are a couple of truly long stages exceeding 1000 kilometers; stage 13 for instance spans 1372 kilometers (that’s more than the distance by road from Mumbai to Chennai). Stage 10 from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk will be the first 1000 kilometer-plus stage. “ Fortunately we have a day off after that. It will help if he pedals through safely today and tomorrow. All the cyclists are tired. It’s their mental frame that’s going to take them to the finish,” Devnath informed early morning, Sunday (August 5).

The 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme will conclude in Vladivostok on August 17.

Update: Amit Samarth has completed the 1094 kilometer-long tenth stage from Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk. The latter is one of the largest cities in Siberia. Interestingly, when the race started in Moscow on July 24, the six cyclists in the fray were two and a half hours behind India in time. At Irkutsk, they are two and a half hours ahead. As of Tuesday (August 8), five stages remained in the 15 stage-race with the thirteenth stage being a very long one.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on information available from Team Amit Samarth and the Facebook page of the race.)  

NISHANTH COMPLETES 2018 TRANS AM BIKE RACE

Nishanth Iyengar, soon after finishing the 2018 edition of the Trans Am Bike Race. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Fifty six days after he started out from Astoria on the US west coast, Nishanth Iyengar has reached Yorktown.

Bengaluru-based cyclist, Nishanth Iyengar has completed the 2018 Trans Am Bike Race.

Checked at close to 8.30 AM in India on Sunday, July 29, the race’s website informed that it was roughly six hours 40 minutes since Nishanth reached Yorktown, the finish line of the race. Trans Am is a self-supported race across the United States. Riders don’t get support vehicles and support crew. You are on your own. The route spans from Astoria in Oregon on the Atlantic coast to Yorktown in Virginia. It is approximately 4300 miles (6920 kilometers) long. The 2018 edition of the Trans Am Bike Race began on June 2nd.

Nishanth is someone who loves self-supported bicycle touring. Although Trans Am is a race, Nishanth is understood to have approached it as an opportunity to tour and know the US over a two month-break from work, he had. On a video of him reaching the finish line at Yorktown, available on Facebook, he parks his bicycle (a Surly Long Haul Trucker) and settles down for a photo saying, “ no flats, no nothing…..and it worked!’’

Nishanth was the 64th finisher of the 2018 race. He took 56 days, seven hours and seven minutes to ride across the US.

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

ROHAN MORE: GEARING UP FOR A NEW CHALLENGE

Rohan More (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2017, Rohan Dattatrey More was selected for the year’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. The Pune based-swimmer was well into a series of long distance swims when the award was announced. In February 2018, he wrapped up the Oceans Seven challenge. He had bagged marathon swimming’s Triple Crown earlier. He now dreams of taking a shot at the Olympics; the open water swimming event therein. At the time of publishing this article, Rohan worked with Infosys.

The word asthma is derived from the Greek term for panting.

In regular life, panting and asthma are very different.

Asthma is a medical condition; it affects the airways and can make breathing difficult. Doctors are known to recommend swimming for children suffering from asthma. Information available on the Internet says there is no evidence yet to prove swimming is better than other exercises in this regard. Preference for it appears founded on a few factors. First, swimming is one of the best exercises. It is particularly noted for its low impact on joints.  Second, when done with proper technique, the strain of swimming is handled without recourse to panting. You settle into a rhythm, inhaling above water and exhaling in it. There is also the general perception that the moist respiratory environment of swimming is less of a trigger for asthma than dry ambiance. Third – as one doctor this blog spoke to put it – exercise and outdoors are broadly deemed to be good for growing a healthy immune system. When you encourage a child suffering from asthma to take up swimming, you are hoping that its immune system is strengthened while its respiratory system gains from gradual passage through exercise-induced stress and adaptation. The overall benefits of acquiring improved lung capacity through swimming are seen to outweigh risks like exercise induced-asthma.

From the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Rohan Dattatrey More is the only child of his parents. Born 1985 in Pune to a father who served in the police and a mother who was a housewife, Rohan attended Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya in the city. He suffered from respiratory problems. The doctor recommended sports and athletics, particularly swimming.  “ I started swimming from around four years of age,’’ he said, end-June 2018 at his apartment not far from Pune’s Senapati Bapat Road and Symbiosis College. His mother, Vijaya, who accompanied him to his swimming sessions, appears to have been a major influence in how Rohan’s early years in swimming evolved. Rohan swam at the S.P. College swimming pool; it was of Olympic dimension. He was an introvert; metaphorically a lot like Sunk Rock, the lighthouse mounted on a pier and located some five kilometers out at sea from Mumbai, a city of thickly packed buildings. Compared to the cheek by jowl living conditions of Mumbai, Sunk Rock seems a lonely outpost; a pillar of a lighthouse jutting out from the sea. Those days, many swimmers from Pune used to head out to Mumbai for attempting the distance swim from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. Vijaya, asked around if ten year-old Rohan could attempt it. The resultant trip to Mumbai with three day’s practice at Juhu beach, ahead of race, was Rohan’s first experience of the sea. Armed with those three days of familiarity with the sea, the ten year-old successfully swam the distance from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. “ I had to get used to the dynamics of open water. But I didn’t worry about depth. Once you know you are a good swimmer, you don’t fear depth,’’ Rohan said of his first major tryst with open water swimming.

Five years after Rohan’s Sunk Rock-Gateway of India swim, the first section of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway would open, reducing the time taken to travel between the two cities. The road to Pune from Mumbai passes through Khopoli. With an elevation of approximately 200 feet and located at the base of the climb to Lonavala and Pune beyond, Khopoli is gateway to the hills. The Amba River originates in the nearby hills. At the point where this small river meets the Arabian Sea, is Dharamtar, now an upcoming port. For Rohan, the next logical progression after his Sunk Rock-Gateway of India adventure was to try the annual Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. It is 35 kilometers long. He trained with emphasis on greater mileage.  On land, 35 kilometers is less than a marathon. The average amateur runner in Mumbai completes a full marathon in under-five hours. Progression in water is a lot slower. Given the longer distance involved in his next objective and the fact that swimming takes time, Rohan had to be prepared for an early morning start – in the dark hours preceding sunrise – if called for. He obtained special permission from the pool authorities in Pune and trained at night to get used to swimming in darkness. Vijaya accompanied him to the pool for these training sessions.

Crossing the Cook Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

This phase in his life also represented another transition. Ever since he started frequenting the pool, Rohan had developed into a strong, competitive swimmer.  Swimming around three kilometers every day, he was good enough to merit podium finishes at district level competitions and represent Pune district at state level competitions. He specialized in 100 meters and 200 meters backstroke. Post Sunk Rock, as he aspired for Dharamtar-Gateway, the drift in training moved from short distance swims to long ones entailing endurance. The concept of endurance entered the frame. In December 1996, an eleven year-old Rohan successfully completed Dharamtar-Gateway, covering the 35 kilometer-distance in seven hours, twenty nine minutes. At that time, he was the youngest swimmer to complete the annual challenge. “ By now I realized that I liked open water swimming. Unlike in the swimming pool, you see no boundaries at sea. It is open on all sides. I like that,’’ Rohan said.

Human life however isn’t as barrier-free as the sea. Geographically, Pune is part of Maharashtra’s `Desh’ region, plateau situated at higher elevation from the sea coast. Apart from some lakes and reservoirs, it offers no scope for open water swimming, certainly nothing comparable to the sea gracing the Konkan coast far below. Dharamtar-Gateway done, Rohan returned to training at the swimming pool in Pune with occasional forays to larger tanks. As he grew older, he graduated from representing Pune district to representing the state in swimming; he was also member of the state water polo team. When he reached eleventh standard, the fabled Great Wall of India went up – studying for exams and focus on academics. The years went by characterless; swimming reduced to recreational swimming. He studied engineering at the Government College of Engineering, Pune and secured a job with Cognizant Technology Solutions, a leading IT company with operations in India. For the next five to six years he worked in Pune, a visit to the pool or an occasional bout of football was all he did to break the monotony. Dharamtar-Gateway seemed distant memory.

Crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

In 2013, Cognizant transferred him to Abu Dhabi, a city blessed with Persian Gulf for coastline but too hot for working person to find adequate hours for swimming in the sea. “ I explored Abu Dhabi as best as I could. But in six months I ran out of places to explore,’’ Rohan said of his predicament. He hit the gym with two friends. That soon dwindled to just him. He then started to swim at a pool, apprehensive alongside that the swimming too would die like the gym visits did. But a video of the English Channel he chanced to come by changed things.  An old itch returned. Back in 1996, when he returned from Mumbai after the Dharamtar-Gateway swim, Rohan had picked up a new fascination – the English Channel. He had heard the name mentioned in the Dharamtar-Gateway swimming community. He complemented that by reading up about Indian distance swimmers; among them – Bula Choudhury, the swimmer from West Bengal who swam the English Channel twice in 1989 and 1999. For almost seventeen years all that curiosity and research had stayed locked up in the head. Now, in the moneyed urban expanse of Abu Dhabi, the small voice of adventure and open water swimming beckoned stronger.

In the last Ice Age, when sea level was far lower than today, England wasn’t an island. It was connected to France in continental Europe by a ridge. As the ice cap receded, two instances of flooding are supposed to have eroded and submerged the ridge. The resultant 560 kilometer-long body of water between France and England, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, is now known as the English Channel. The Channel varies in width from 240 kilometers to 33.3 kilometers. The narrowest part is called Dover Strait. Among the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it is also a magnet for endurance swimmers. Nobody quite knows how the imagery around the Channel as an objective in swimming, commenced. Some accounts (available on the Internet) mention the case – albeit unconfirmed – of a captured Italian sailor who escaped swimming the distance in 1815. Nobody knew if this was correct or not. The question lingered, likely engaging the fancy of those with the bend of mind to try. The first recorded successful unassisted crossing was by Captain Mathew Webb of England. On August 25, 1875, he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. The swim made him famous. He licensed his name for merchandising and participated in exhibition swimming contests and stunts. He died at the age of 35 while attempting a swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below North America’s Niagara Falls. The first Indian to successfully cross the English Channel was Mihir Sen; in 1958, he swam from Dover to Calais in 14 hours, 45 minutes.

From the swim across the Catalina Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Not long after he saw the video on the English Channel, Rohan researched the topic of swimming across the channel, further. Given most channels targeted for crossing feature currents, tides, marine life and maritime traffic; not to mention marathon swimmer’s need for nutrition and hydration along the way, crossings are done with the aid of a support vessel. Rohan emailed eight to nine English Channel-pilots. They would be the ones managing the support boat guiding a swimmer through. In January 2014, one of the pilots replied informing of windows available in the period spanning July-September. Rohan settled for July 2014. Against the generally recommended two years of preparation, he had six months to get ready. Around January 20, he started training for the attempt in Abu Dhabi. He was a curiosity at the pool. Nobody from Abu Dhabi had trained in the city to cross the English Channel. Rohan persisted. Regaining three kilometers – his old benchmark in daily training – wasn’t a problem.  The difficulty began as Abu Dhabi’s summer unfolded.  It was very hot. By the end of March, Rohan was getting muscle spasms. His right arm wasn’t holding up well. The situation wasn’t making sense for another reason too. The English Channel is characterized by cold water, just the opposite of conditions in Abu Dhabi. Amid this, in April, Rohan had to rush to Pune as his father suffered brain-stroke. While in Pune, he continued to train at Tilak Tank in the city.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

By May, he was managing four kilometers at his training sessions. He also availed acupuncture treatment for the right arm. According to Rohan, the credit for solving the issue goes to a local masseur. He returned to Abu Dhabi from Pune with the massage oil the masseur provided. It helped ease the pain. One problem remained on the English Channel front – he had to do a six hour-swim in water temperature of 16 degrees centigrade to qualify. The evidence must be submitted to authorities, a fortnight before one’s Channel attempt. There was no way he could do this in Abu Dhabi. So Rohan resolved to do the qualifier in England. Two major angles were thus reserved for addressing in Dover – getting acquainted with the cold waters of the English Channel and executing the qualifier. He needed enough days on hand for this. The last obstacle Rohan had to cross in Abu Dhabi was getting leave from office. A new boss had taken charge and he wasn’t appreciative of so many days required to attempt crossing the English Channel. In matters of this sort, you cannot dialogue with those lacking empathy for the subject. Rohan’s work in Abu Dhabi revolved around a client located there. Luckily, Rajesh Narayanan, a senior official at the client’s office, understood the attraction for English Channel and the need for adequate time to do the crossing. He agreed to Rohan being away for that long, prompting in turn the sanctioning of Rohan’s leave from his own office. On June 19, Rohan left for England. None at home in Pune were told of his plan to attempt crossing the English Channel. As far as they were concerned, he was away in England on work.

Rohan and his mother, Vijaya, after Rohan’s swim across the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Sonia & Martin welcome you to their family run Victorian Guest House – so goes the introduction to Sandown Guest House on its website. In Dover, Rohan found accommodation at Sandown. From April 15 till the end of May, he had been swimming four hours daily in Abu Dhabi. He also put in two sessions of eight hours each and two sessions of seven hours each. As he stepped into the waters of the English Channel, the cold temperature hit him. “ It was a Friday. After five to ten minutes in the water, I had a headache, my forearms were paining and after I came out, I was shivering. I ran from the beach to the hotel, downed cups of coffee and still I was feeling cold,’’ Rohan said. Weekends at Dover, Channel swimmers from elsewhere in England arrive to train. Thanks to Martin, Rohan got an opportunity to meet them. The interaction helped. That Saturday he swam for five hours; by Sunday he had touched six, which also served as qualifier. On July 14, he informed his pilot that he was ready to avail a window for the crossing.

After one call to start on July 19 aborted at Dover harbor owing to sudden onset of bad weather, Rohan commenced his swim on July 25 at 10 PM. There were hiccups en route. He had to change his goggles while in the water. Anticipating a swim largely in daylight he had brought along dark goggles. Now in the darkness of night, he could see nothing. “ I was blindly following the light on the boat. That light was all I could see’’ he said. While still in water, he traded his goggles for clearer ones. The hours went by. In open water swims the swimming is rarely in a straight line. The course changes with weather, maritime traffic and sea conditions, including currents and the movement of tides. The English Channel swim is typically in the pattern of `Z’.  Around the tenth hour of swimming, Rohan had a pain killer. By the eleventh hour, he could see the French coast. But the sighting was one thing. Reaching there took another two to two and half hours. He accomplished the crossing of the English Channel in 13 hours, 23 minutes. Against the distance of roughly 36 kilometers to cross, that day his crossing entailed covering 48 kilometers.  Once on land, he accessed a phone and informed his parents who had no idea of his attempt, that he had crossed the English Channel. “ I could swim the English Channel because I was a free person. I had nothing to prove,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Molokai Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

While researching English Channel, he had stumbled upon the challenge in open water swimming called Oceans Seven.  In fact, before leaving Abu Dhabi for England and the English Channel, he had booked an attempt to cross the North Channel in August. The North Channel is the coldest of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. The relevant swimming association in Ireland wrote back advising against Rohan’s planned attempt of the North Channel as it is cold and demanding. There should be adequate rest between a crossing of the English Channel and attempting the North Channel. “ They said your money is safe. You will have your chance. But train and come back,’’ Rohan said. Not one to sit idle, he therefore booked a slot to cross California’s Catalina Channel in September 2014. “ Catalina is easier than the English Channel. Water temperature is warmer and the currents are less powerful,’’ he said. The main challenge in Catalina is – sharks. The crossing is therefore attempted at night. All the lights on the boat are switched off.  Swimming so is a peculiar experience. There are two glow sticks on the pilot’s boat, which swimmer follows loyally. There is one glow stick attached to swimmer for those on boat to track. There is also one safety kayaker in the water, keeping a watch on swimmer’s progress. While this may seem simple enough, accounts of open water swimming available on the Internet, speak of swimmer’s bobbing position in the water and the equally bobbing predicament of boat and its lights, as potential cause for swimmer to feel disoriented. For the Catalina Channel crossing (and every channel crossing thereafter), Rohan’s mother accompanied him on the trip. The swim played out well; he completed the crossing surrounded by a herd of dolphins. The time taken was 10 hours, 17 minutes. By now, Rohan was firmly locked into pursuing Oceans Seven and Triple Crown, another challenge in open water swimming made of the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

For the month after Catalina, Rohan had booked an attempt at crossing the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. Also known as Kaiwi Channel, the waters here are pretty deep, plunging up to 2300 feet below the surface. Rohan elected for a swim commencing at night. He felt it would be good to labor in water during the night and be ready for the pleasure of landfall by the morning sun. That proved to be a miscalculation. “ The night went by and quite a chunk of the following day as well,’’ he said laughing. On October 26, he accomplished the crossing in 17 hours, 28 minutes of swimming. It was late evening when it ended. For most of us, big projects are above all an invitation to be aware of the associated risk. Distance; depth, ocean dynamics, marine life – they all hit us, do jigs in the brain. Rohan said he takes note of risk but doesn’t dwell on it unnecessarily. Even in the context surrounding an imminent channel crossing, where other swimmers are also present, he said he does not latch on to conversation about risk. He would much rather listen to training tips or positive aspects around the attempt and discover things as they unfold. “ It is the pilot’s job to take me to the destination. My job is to follow the boat. Beyond a point, it is not my business to worry about current, wind speed and tide,’’ Rohan said.

Crossing the North Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

After Molokai, Rohan rested for a month. He resumed training in December 2014. In March 2015, Rohan wound up his work in Abu Dhabi and returned to India. 2015 was to be a busy year. In June he completed the Manhattan Island swim and bagged Triple Crown.  “ My focus that year was on the North Channel crossing. It proved to be brutal,’’ Rohan said. His research indicating potential battering in the channel separating north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, Rohan concentrated on strengthening his core muscles as best as he could. The reason was simple. Open water swimming is primarily a mind game.  However as regards its engagement of the human body, the bulk of the work is done by the core.

According to Rohan, out in the cold waters of the sea, it is only a matter of time before swimmer loses sensation of his extremities. The arms and legs keep working mechanically driven by commands from the brain. Sometimes, in the depths of a long distance swim, it becomes utterly tough to keep the body horizontal in the water. The legs begin to tire and cave in. To counter this, the core has to be strong. Rohan concluded that if all this punishment was due in the North Channel, then, he better work like mad on his core. So in addition to swimming, he ran and cycled in Pune. “ I prefer to run on trails as that helps engage the core more than running on roads,’’ Rohan said. A typical mix of all three activities meant 10 kilometers of running, three hours of swimming and 40-50 kilometers of cycling – all in a day, including a portion of the night for completing the cycling. On weekends, he hiked that to 20 kilometers of running, 15 kilometers of swimming and 110 kilometers of cycling. This training regimen resembles a series of triathlons. Interestingly, for all this training, an open water swimmer like Rohan hardly resembles the typical triathlete in physical appearance. Ahead of a demanding channel crossing, swimmer may even put on weight for some amount of body fat is good insulation against the cold of the sea.

Induction as Honouree Swimmer Class of 2018, by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. According to published reports, Mihir Sen was the first Indian swimmer to be recognized so, in 1956, followed by Taranath Shenoy in 1987 (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

As with his English Channel attempt, Rohan reached Ireland a month before his shot at the North Channel. He used the time to acclimatize, get used to the cold water. Formidable as this training and build up to crossing the North Channel may seem, there is also one underlying truth in challenges around open water swimming. By now, Rohan was experiencing some of the proverbial wind beneath one’s wings that all human beings seek in life. As you progress through the challenges of Oceans Seven, the body begins to anticipate what it must cope with at sea. “ It knows what to expect in the next challenge,’’ Rohan said. And as that knowledge builds up, you work with a body more willing to respond than before. His preparations in Ireland started in July with swims in waters having a temperature of around 15 degrees centigrade. Given it rained in the mornings, early morning swimming sessions were cold. For the first week, he swam during the warmer afternoon; then shifted to cold mornings. Slowly he worked his way down to water temperature of 11-12 degrees centigrade. The North Channel features cold water and strong currents. “ Nobody attempts this channel crossing at night,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Tsugaru Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

On the day of his attempt to cross the North Channel, there were three swimmers – including him – in the water. While the other two started earlier, Rohan commenced his swim at 4.30 AM. Ahead was a third challenge besides cold and current, to tackle. Jellyfish are free swimming marine animals that are very intriguing to behold and painful when they sting. They usually have an umbrella shaped bell and trailing tentacles. The bell pulsates to provide propulsion; the tentacles are armed with stinging cells. Jellyfish is found all over the world from the surface waters of the sea to its great depths. The largest known species of jellyfish is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. They are residents of cold water. In size, those residing in the higher latitudes tend to be bigger. The bell of a Lion’s Mane can be as big as six to seven feet in diameter and its trailing tentacles can be up to a hundred feet long. The cold waters of North Channel are among places hosting the Lion’s Mane.  “ You see them along with Blue Moons,’’ Rohan said. The latter is likely reference to the much smaller common jellyfish, which is capable of limited motion and typically drifts with the current. According to information on the Internet, the common jellyfish has a weak sting that is just about felt while the Lion’s Mane can make its presence felt. Both are nowhere near the pain caused by genuinely toxic jellyfish. When you are swimming out at sea, any sting can worry. The important thing is to not panic. “ North Channel is where I saw the most jellyfish in all my swims,’’ Rohan said. His passage included a few stings to remember the swim by. Rohan completed the North Channel crossing in 12 hours, 46 minutes. Despite late start, he reached the other side before the other two swimmers did. It was August 8, 2015.

Japan is a stratovolcanic archipelago composed of 6852 islands. The largest island is Honshu; the second largest is Hokkaido located to the north of Honshu. Between Honshu and Hokkaido, connecting the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, is the Tsugaru Strait. September 2015 on Rohan’s calendar was reserved for attempting the crossing of the Tsugaru Strait. If the North Channel offers the coldest swim in Oceans Seven, Tsugaru offers the most powerful currents. Besides the current, there is one more thing to watch out for – sharks.  Rohan reached Japan two days before the scheduled date of attempt. It was to be on September 11 or 12, whichever proved ideal. Ahead of swim, he trained with a Mexican swimmer. On the day the swim was to start, the pilot asked Rohan which side he turned his face to, to breathe. Rohan found the question odd but he nevertheless replied: left. He completed the channel crossing in 10 hours, 13 minutes. “ I could have done it in eight hours or so. But for the last four hours I was at the same  spot, not making any gains due to the current,’’ he said. After the swim was over, Rohan asked the pilot why he inquired about the side swimmer turned to, to breathe. The pilot replied: that’s the side I should have the boat ladder on for you to grab and exit the water, should there be any hostile shark. The Strait of Gibraltar is the simplest of the Oceans Seven challenges. Rohan tried to book that for 2015 itself. “ But I didn’t have money,’’ he said.

Receiving the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award from Sri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Post Tsugaru, Rohan’s Oceans Seven bid slowed down for want of resources. In September 2016, he joined Infosys, among India’s biggest IT companies. He was based at their campus in Pune. Roughly two months later, in November, he successfully swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, polishing off the distance in three hours, 56 minutes. Not long after the Gibraltar swim, Rohan was selected for the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, India’s highest award in adventure. He got it in the `water’ category. The award fetched him Rs 500,000, precious input for realizing the last challenge in Oceans Seven – the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Also of help was the financial assistance Infosys provides staffers attempting a challenging objective, which Rohan availed. Up till then, he had sustained the channel crossings from his own funds and contribution from friends. At this concluding phase, besides the money he got from the national award and the assistance from Infosys, Tata Trusts pitched in to help. As with some of the other swims, he went a month in advance to New Zealand to prepare and acclimatize. Separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, Cook Strait has a reputation for being unpredictable and rough. It has strong tidal flows with submarine ridges running off the coast further complicating the flow and turbulence. “ The beginning of the swim is in generally warm waters.  On the day I swam, about two to three hours into the swim, the cold waters of the Southern Ocean arrived with the current. That really hit! It is a game changer. On the whole given the channel’s capacity to be rough, I would say, I was lucky to have a good day,’’ Rohan said. Cook Strait is noted for its marine life. It gifted Rohan plenty of dolphins for company. “ You feel good having dolphins swim with you,’’ he said. It was a fine way to conclude Oceans Seven.

In May 2018, Rohan commenced training for a new project. He wants to take a shot at the 10 kilometer open water swimming competition held at the Olympics. “ I am currently able to cover the distance in one hour, 58 minutes. I need to get that down to one hour, fifty or fifty five; in that range, to qualify,’’ Rohan said. Will he make it? Time will tell. Rohan’s training continues to be mostly at the swimming pool in Pune. He still has no long term sponsors.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Rohan in Pune. Time taken to complete channel crossings are as mentioned by the interviewee.)

“ SWIMMING HELPED ME CHANNELIZE MY ENERGY’’

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shubham Vanmali, 23, is a young swimmer from Navi Mumbai, currently attempting the Oceans Seven challenge in swimming. It consists of seven open water channel crossings worldwide. Shubham has done three, he has four to go. Earlier, he accomplished open water swimming’s Triple Crown – which involves crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and completing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Mid-June, Shubham was at his home in Nerul (a suburb of Navi Mumbai), setting up a business and getting a book authored by his parents to the stands. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

What brought you to swimming and how did swimming help you tackle the learning disability you faced as a child?

It started when I was seven years old or so and was diagnosed with asthma.

The doctor suggested that swimming may help deal with asthma; that was how I started swimming. The learning disability part came later. Nobody knew of it till I was in ninth standard at school. I was getting below-average scores. I was scraping through in exams. That was when the movie Taare Zamein Par released. It caught my parents’ attention; everything looked similar to my state – the spelling mistakes, I could answer the questions my mother asked me at home but I couldn’t write the same properly during an exam. She was like – this might be the case. We went to Sion Hospital and from there to Drishti Centre, where the results came positive. I had dysgraphia, dyslexia and from before, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  The diagnosis was an eye opener for everyone. My swimming was also getting affected by it. I wasn’t a good swimmer. I was quite average. My parents – my father played volleyball and my mother played kabaddi – had represented the state in their chosen sport. They were supportive. They never pushed me. They told me: keep swimming, you will eventually find your way. Even in studies, they didn’t push me.

For four to five years I meandered in swimming with no medals, not even a district level one. Then, I got a medal at the district level. That is considered late for a swimmer in India. Usually in swimming, if you don’t produce results in a couple of years, your parents change your sport. I don’t have a competitive nature. I used to enjoy water. I was a chubby kid. After I got that district level medal, my father started monitoring my diet and fitness.  In one month or so, I became really fit. I graduated from district to zonal level in swimming. Then they realized that as the distance to swim increased, the better I performed compared to others.  That was when we thought of open water swimming. It changed my life, providing me a huge amount of confidence. I had terrible stage fear. Now I have no problem talking to a crowd of people. Open water swimming changed my personality. If I had not come to swimming I would be still struggling with everything. That’s why I tell parents to get their children involved in sports. It will even help with academics because a child that is into sports is more alert.

Shubham with his coach, Gokul Kamat (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Could it have been any sport for you or was it the combination of swimming and water that worked well in your case?

It could have been any sport but I think swimming was perfect for me. It helped me channelize my energy. Plus swimming for ten hours plus is so challenging; it is very calming, quite like meditation – you are doing only one thing, you are not talking to anyone. That helped to calm me down.

Most people would consider swimming 10 or 20 laps in a pool as sign of endurance. You measure it in terms of kilometers and hours. Was there something about endurance which fascinated you, given as a swimmer you could have opted for the speed events if you wished to?

I used to wonder about that myself – I am not such a good pool swimmer but how come I became a good open water swimmer? Distance is not the difficult thing in this entire scenario. The ability to persist; sustain the pain for so long – that is the real challenge. There is a race in Bengal, which is a long one of 80 kilometers or so. But you swim with the current. As I see it, the real differentiator in open water swimming is not distance; it is the ability to sustain effort. The challenges you face in open water swimming range from current to sea creatures. There is jellyfish, there are sharks. A shark won’t do anything to you. But seeing a seven foot-shark below you in the water can mentally freak you out.

Cold water – that is another challenge. There is the issue of being in cold water for long. It is alright if you are in cold water for an hour. But maintaining body temperature for long and ensuring alongside that you don’t swim so fast as to tire and invite hypothermia – that is tricky. So distance is not the problem. Once you can swim at a stretch for six hours, your aerobic capacity is good enough to tackle long distances.  The game starts when it comes to sustaining this in open water, in the middle of the sea. The body has the ability to adapt. The game depends on where your head is in the equation.

You grew up in Navi Mumbai, a township that has at present, a small community of open water swimmers. The Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim is often featured in local media. Did the availability of this community help you in embracing open water swimming?

I did my first Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim in 2014. At that time, the community was not in place. I got into open water swimming because of my father. He had grown up reading about Mihir Sen and Taranath Shenoy. When he asked me whether I wanted to try it, I said yes. I was however imagining differently. When he mentioned English Channel, I said okay because I was thinking more of the chance to travel overseas. When I reached there, I understood what I was getting into! Besides my father who nudged me into open water swimming, what has helped me continue the sport is the global community of open water swimmers. It is so small and great at once; the people in it are amazing.

Young man and the sea (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Let me take you back to the boy with learning disability you once were. What sort of mind are we talking of here – is it a restless mind that requires a lot of stimuli like a sport perhaps, to calm down and focus or is there something in that state of mind which lends itself naturally to pursuits like long distance swimming?

It depends from person to person. In my particular case, I suspect I made my condition into an advantage. If I am doing something, I get easily distracted. My mind would be somewhere else. In open water swimming, an activity in which progress to destination is anyway time-consuming, if you sense every second go by – that can be crazy. I, on the other hand, was prone to being naturally distracted, thinking of other things in my head. That worked to my advantage.

Many open water swimmers from Mumbai begin with the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. You have done this a few times; you have also swum elsewhere in the world. How bad is the water quality here and how do you cope with it?

(Laughs) It is unfortunately something you have to put up with.

I look at it from a different point of view. Over here, swimming that distance is not a big deal at all. Believe me – it’s easy. I am the only swimmer as yet, who has done Dharamtar-Gateway in both directions. Somewhere in between, the tide helps you. I am not taking it away from anyone but Dharamtar-Gateway is kind of easy compared to other such swims. I had a hydrographer in my team; so I know what I am talking of. The tough portion of this swim is in the middle near an island, where the current changes. But you do it. The difficult thing is not the distance. The first time I did this swim, I told myself: I am not getting into that water ever again. The reason I swim it is for the mental part – the irritation of being in such water. The water is salty, conditions are humid and your throat feels nasty from the water going in. Your throat swells up and you have difficulty eating for a week after that. It hurts a lot. Mentally, the swim frustrates you. That training helps me in my swims elsewhere. Aside from the cold, waters elsewhere are a pleasure. The difference in pollution levels is huge. I swam around Manhattan in the US. The president of the local swimming association told me: let me warn you, one out of every six swimmers gets some bacterial infection because the city’s waste comes into these waters. I saw the water and I was like, this is nowhere near what I have swum in; so it’s not going to be a problem at all. So yeah, the difference is huge (laughs).

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

When did the Oceans Seven project start and what triggered it?

It started in 2014. Our first goal was the English Channel and later, the Strait of Gibraltar. We wanted to give these two a shot and then later, we got to know of the Oceans Seven. I wished to do all the seven. It isn’t for an award, it isn’t competition – it is just something I love to do. I love being out there and testing myself.  At some points of the journey, I have been close to the breaking point; even close to death. But the adrenalin rush keeps me going. So far I have done three of the swims involved. There are four more to go (for more on Shubham and the Oceans Seven, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/shubham-and-the-oceans-seven/).

Are you following a schedule?

We had a schedule for this year. But then, it has run into a problem because of my shoulder injury. We are currently in discussions with my doctors to find the best way ahead. We need to find out how long it will take to heal and then train my way back to the levels of before. Every time I return from a break, I have to work my way back up from zero. I have been in this situation multiple times. Swimming is a skill and you have to repeat a skill over and over again to drill it in. When you lose the feel of water, return to form is time-consuming. The time it takes to get back to where you were depends on your mental state. It is all in your head. If I am calm and focused, it takes me a month to reach the point where I can start working on my aerobic capacity again.

When you are on the verge of launching off into one of your long swims, what do you base your decision on – your physical fitness as ensured by the training you put in or how good you feel in the head?

It’s both. It’s both mind and body; I don’t attempt with a deficit in either. I don’t want to go in with the doubt: what if? I don’t go in half prepared and once I commit to a swim, I give it everything. Also remember – these channel crossings are a big deal for me. There is a lot of money involved in each of these attempts. My parents support me. I don’t have any sponsors.

What has been your experience with sponsors?

I understand the sponsor’s perspective of what I am doing – it is not a spectator sport. It is not entertainment. It is not something you would wish to watch on TV. However I am still trying to engage people.  For example, we have just launched a book in Marathi, to be soon followed by one in English. The sole purpose of the book is to help parents understand how to help their children should they be suffering from dyslexia. I hope that also puts the focus on what I have done so far, coming as I do from a childhood affected by dyslexia. With sponsors, you have to provide them a return on investment. Right now, if a sponsor invests in me, I have something to give back – I have my book, I have my YouTube videos, I have my Instagram account. Earlier, I had nothing to give back. But now, I do. Incidentally, India is known globally in open water swimming. People overseas know Indians as endurance swimmers.

The book in Marathi, written by Shubham’s parents, Deepika and Dhananjay Vanmali. Soon to be published in English as well, the book tells their journey with a child suffering from learning disability and at the same time, wishing to excel in sports. It also serves as a primer for those venturing into open water swimming, providing the contact details for relevant swimming associations here and overseas.

One of the things you notice nowadays is how Indians seem to fare better in endurance as opposed to disciplines demanding speed or qualities of that sort.  From where do you think is this fascination for endurance, coming?

Indians are good at enduring suffering.  We can endure a lot. We have been brought up that way. We know what struggle and pain is. That gives us raw material to work with when it comes to endurance sports. But having said that, I must add – we are making good progress in other attributes like speed.  There are good sports training facilities – a couple of them in Bengaluru for instance – which have come up. So I think the game is going to change.

What is the ideal sponsorship that works for you? Is it one entailing return on investment or is it something cast on the lines of a grant, wherein the burden of investment return isn’t there?

I would say I prefer a company that is looking for a return on investment. That gives structure to the whole deal. It makes it sensible for others also to get involved.

In the swimming you did so far, which was the most challenging stretch?

The swim around Angel Island, off San Francisco was quite tough.  The current here is so powerful that at some points I made no progress. I was swimming but not covering any distance. There was also the issue of being thrown off course and on one occasion I found myself being borne by the strong current towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were times when the team contemplated calling off the swim because I was well past the longest time taken for the swim. That is unusual for me as I am a fast swimmer – I hold the fastest time among Asians swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar; 16 kilometers in three hours, 16 minutes. The Angel Island swim was roughly the same distance but I had been more than seven hours in the water. Luckily I had trained earlier in these waters and knew when the current would change. I just had to hold out. Slowly the current changed and I ended up finishing the swim.

During all this I had no idea how much time I had taken. I would have my feed (nutrition offered from support boat, which must be had without touching the boat) but there wasn’t much conversation. There is no point asking for the time because if there is bad news in it, you end up getting very disappointed. It can shatter your morale.

Do you ever inquire about the time while you swim?

I generally don’t. I prefer not knowing what’s going on. You are sustaining so much pain and then suddenly you get some bad news, in an instant you will drop off.

From the Angel Island swim, off San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In the case of a marathon, it is very common to find runners looking at their watches to know the time while running. Why is it so difficult in the case of a marathon swim? How is exhaustion in long distance swimming, which engages the whole body, different from how you feel exhausted while running?

It is way beyond the conventional description of exhaustion.

After swimming long distance, you can feel every single muscle in your body hurting. While swimming, the water is so cold that you don’t get as much inflammation in the body as you would in warm temperatures.  You also don’t get the palpitation that runners do. We don’t end up breathing heavily as in running. What we feel is pain. It is an experience of pain because all the joints and muscles have been continuously working. Pain is what we cope with.

Have you tried to transfer the endurance you gained from swimming to any other sport within the family of endurance sports?

No. I am a bad runner. Anything other than swimming – I really suck at it.

Because you are a good swimmer, a triathlon wouldn’t attract you?

No, because the swimming part in a triathlon is very small. I may be able to do cycling. But running is a big no for me. I have my thoughts of doing something very extreme and pushing my body to the point where I wonder whether I can sustain it or not. There is much for me to explore in swimming. The number of swims I have done so far is a decent number as regards open water swimming projects. But in places like the US, there is a lot more to do. There are swims, which people have tried and failed. I want to try those swims; swims of the Angel Island sort.

Shubham; from the Catalina Channel swim. Swimmer can be seen in the water, kayaker keeps watch (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

You spoke of your shoulder injury. How did you get that?

The shoulder injury goes back to the Catalina swim in California. While training for that a tendon got pinched. I still managed the swim – it took me 10 hours, 42 minutes to do it. This was in 2015. After that I took a break for a year. I then went to attempt swimming across the North Channel in Ireland but that didn’t go as expected. After 13 hours in the water, I became hypothermic. My body grew bloated. We had a swimmer – he was a good friend – overseeing my safety in the water. I lifted my head to see ahead and noticed that only 3-4 kilometers remained to complete the crossing of the North Channel. But no sooner than I looked up, I blacked out. If you lose a body in the open sea, it is next to impossible to get it back. I started to sink. Luckily, my friend pulled me out in the nick of time. It was tough for him to do that because I had bloated up in the water due to excessive work and become heavy. I wasn’t in my senses for 30-40 minutes.  North Channel is the coldest of the channel crossings constituting Oceans Seven.

I took a break after this swim. I tried to attempt it again but the weather was bad and there was no good window of opportunity available. Once the break following the North Channel attempt got over, I resumed my swimming. But the shoulder injury came back. I swam Gateway-Dharamtar. I was doing well. There comes a time towards the end of this swim when the water becomes really calm. I swam fast at this stage. Then at a certain point, my shoulder made a cracking sound and thereafter it began hurting. I was now struggling to swim. I stopped using my right arm. I was set to finish that swim in five to six hours, which is a really good time for a distance of 35 kilometers. But I ended up taking seven hours. I was very disappointed. We consulted doctors. There were two tendons involved in the damage. To reduce the pain, I had to take an injection to the shoulder joint. That was the state in which I proceeded to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim.

At Cabrillo Beach, California (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

You mentioned how supportive the open water swimming community has been. What would you tell a fellow open water swimmer stepping out from India to try big projects like you did; is the presence of this community of fellow enthusiasts comforting?

It is comforting, very comforting.

When I went to swim the North Channel in Ireland, I was all by myself. The crew for my swim, who I had assembled myself, backed out at the last moment. So, there was this lady swimmer – her name was Ruth McGuigan, she was captain of the Irish water polo team – she agreed to be my crew. After I was pulled out of the water following that incident of hypothermia during the North Channel attempt, she took me home. She told her husband that I would be staying with them for a while till I recovered; they even told me to stay there in case I wished to explore the possibilities of a second attempt. I stayed with them for almost a month. They helped me a lot. They treated me like their own son. The water polo team she was part of, they were open water swimmers too. They went on to set a new record for crossing the North Channel in the relay format. Ruth helped me cope with my failed attempt at the North Channel. She told me that the next time I come to Ireland to try the North Channel, I should stay with her. The other incident was – there was this American swimmer who completed North Channel a couple of days after my attempt. He became a good friend. He told me that when I come to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim, I should stay with him. He took me in just like that.

We are tutored to define our world in terms of the coordinates of our origin; the language we speak, the place we hail from, the culture we belong to etc. How does it feel to have your world mapped in terms of a shared craziness, a shared passion?

It feels amazing. It is liberating (laughs).

I am really fortunate to have such a thing in my life.

I don’t take it for granted at all.

There are so many things I learnt doing this, than just swimming. For example, Steve Walker – the person I stayed with in San Francisco – is not just a successful swimmer; he is successful in life too. Steve has done six of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. He runs a few IT companies.  He used to drop me every morning to the beach. San Francisco is an expensive city to stay in. I would have gone bankrupt had I footed the bill myself. I used to travel to Steve’s office. It was an amazing place where people actually liked to work; they were willing to help. That is not the case over here in India. I learnt much from these visits. There was this club called South End Rowing Club in San Francisco; I was a guest there. There are not many Indian open water swimmers in San Francisco. The club was quite helpful.  There are very few instances in open water swimming when I found people being terribly competitive. There is competition but it does not get carried around everywhere.

I think part of the reason for this is that it is a community with a lot of grown-ups and consequently an element of maturity.  In the world of running, the ultramarathon crowd typically tends to be older than those running the regular marathon. It is the same in the case of endurance swimming. Looking back, maybe that’s also why a youngster like me got treated so well! You feel welcomed. It is a chilled community that does not tend to judge. Had it been composed of only young people, I suspect it would have been very competitive.

Shubham (far right) with his family; (from left) his sister Siddhi, who used to be a competitive swimmer in her school days, Dhananjay and Deepika (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page).

In India, swimming is still a niche sport. What do you think can change the trend and bring more people into swimming?

First of all – more swimming pools.

Second, it is not just enough to have swimming pools; you must have pools that you can train in.

At many of the pools we have, access is only for the members of that given club and the swimming is chaotic with people going up-down, left-right.  In contrast, a pool like the one at Fr Agnels in Navi Mumbai, where I train – that pool is meant for training. The swimmers swim in a circular pattern with each lane segregated on the basis of swimmer’s speed. It is not a pool to goof around in. It is one of the rare pools in India. We need more such pools to train in. Once that training environment sets in, the sport will pick up and we will begin producing better swimmers in the lower age groups. Right now what you are seeing is that a lot of swimmers come into the lower age groups but only very few sustain the effort to reach open category. Many fade away due to personal disinterest and disinterest caused by the environment in which they swim. We also need more experienced, educated coaches.  Further, openness to try counselors and psychologists will help. I have been going to a sports psychologist for years. She has helped me change.

Finally, we need more patience at the parents’ end. That can make a big impact. Indian parents lack patience. When you reach the tenth standard you are forced to focus completely on academics, you give up other interests. The thing is – once you take a break at that stage, it is difficult to regain the momentum. People try to get back after tenth standard, they find it mentally tough. And even if you succeed, you hit another wall in the twelfth standard, which is the next point of reckoning in academic terms.  I would prefer a flexible education pattern. I wish we could borrow from how schools and colleges overseas manage talent in sports. If you don’t start seriously at the college level in sports, it is difficult to build it up later.

Indians – parents included – are prone to ask: what will you get out of this? You have gone into open water swimming in a committed way. How will you answer the classic Indian question?

I know I will not get my bread and butter out of swimming. I am working on something else, which will address my need for income.  I swim because I love to swim, because I am passionate about it. Swimming has helped me be a person who can have a perspective in life.

Your personal preference is to keep your sport as your bread and butter or avoid doing so?

I would like to avoid having the sport I love as my livelihood. That would make it a job. I don’t want it to be a job.

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

2018 GGR / RACE COMMENCES JULY 1

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy and is being used for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.)

The 2018 GGR starts on July 1. It entails solo nonstop circumnavigation. Commander Abhilash Tomy KC is among participants. Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR.

In a few days from now the 2018 Golden Globe Race will commence from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.

The race features solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat.

Among the participants is Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. GGR 2018 is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968, which produced the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat; the distinction went to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston of UK, who accomplished the voyage in the India built-Suhaili. For the 2018 edition of the race, Abhilash will attempt his second solo nonstop circumnavigation in the Thuriya, a replica of the Suhaili. The Thuriya was built in Goa at Aquarius Shipyard, the third sail boat for circumnavigation – after INSV Mhadei and INSV Tarini – the yard has built. In terms of design, the Suhaili – and thereby the Thuriya – is not a fast boat. In the 1968 GGR, the Suhaili had cut the image of patiently soldiering on. The boat’s design lays greater emphasis on stability and safety. It was the only design to complete the 1968 GGR, keeping aside the potential of Bernard Moitessier’s steel boat, the Joshua, which under the command of the maverick French sailor executed a splendid voyage but set a direction of its own (for more on the Thuriya, her design and why Abhilash chose this design, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/).

Last reported on this blog in April, the Thuriya was shipped to Rotterdam in Netherlands aboard a freighter, from Kochi. From Rotterdam the Thuriya proceeded to Medemblik to have her mast refitted, get some repair jobs done and to take on supplies. She then sailed to UK to participate in the Suhaili Parade of Sail at Falmouth. In the 1968 GGR, Falmouth was from where the Suhaili started her voyage and concluded it. From Falmouth the participants of 2018 GGR sailed in a friendly race – the SITraN Challenge Race – to Les Sables-d’Olonne in France. The race village there opened on June 16. The 2018 GGR will start around noon, July 1.

On Friday (June 22) Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) – the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation in a sail boat and Abhilash’s team manager for 2018 GGR – told this blog that the Thuriya’s safety inspection, mandated by race regulations, happened earlier that day. “ Everything went well. A few minor adjustments are required, that’s all,’’ he said. According to him, the Thuriya has performed well at sea, so far. Final adjustments and stocking of supplies will continue till close to departure. “ That is normal,’’ he said. All three members of Thuriya’s core team – Abhilash, Dilip and Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard – were in Netherlands for refitting the sail boat’s mast and other equipment, which had been dismantled for transport from India. Besides this, the boat was given coats of underwater anti-fouling paint and equipment-tweaks to bring her in line with 2018 GGR regulation, like not having telescopic poles for her sails. “ We had to convert that to non-telescopic,’’ Dilip said.

From left: Ratnakar, Abhilash and Dilip on the Thuriya, the day the sail boat was launched at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The work was largely done by Abhilash, Dilip, Ratnakar and Johan Vels, a former boatyard owner, who is known well to the team that has worked on India’s circumnavigation projects. Where more hands were required, the team hired external assistance accordingly. Ratnakar has since returned to Goa. Once the 2018 GGR begins and Abhilash and Thuriya are off on their voyage, Dilip will sail to UK in the Suhaili with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Thereafter he will sail with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to Iceland, Greenland and Northern Ireland before returning to Goa in September. As Abhilash’s team manager, he will have to be available for the race managers to contact anytime.

According to Dilip, the Indian Navy has supported Abhilash’s second attempt at solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR by providing a sizable portion of the funds required on loan-cum-grant basis. Besides funding from the navy, Thuriya and Abhilash were also afforded some buoyancy by gestures like the boat’s self-steering mechanism being gifted by its manufacturer and some of the onboard electronics being contributed by a Dubai-based company.

Rules of the 2018 GGR require technology levels aboard participating sail boats to be at the same level as in 1968. This return to purity in sailing is one of the challenges and attractions of the latest GGR. In the 1968 GGR, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat in 312 days. He was also the only finisher in that race. In the annals of modern circumnavigation, the voyages of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and the late Sir Francis Chichester (first solo circumnavigation via the clipper route in 1966-67 and fastest circumnavigator at that time; nine months, one day) are important. They provide reference points for countries pursuing circumnavigation dreams.

Both Dilip and Abhilash earned their place in the ranks of solo circumnavigators thanks to the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Besides gifting India its first solo circumnavigator and solo nonstop circumnavigator, the project recently saw the first circumnavigation done by an Indian all-woman crew. The sail boats used for all these voyages were built in India. Sagar Parikrama was the brainchild of Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd).

Asked what he felt about a product of Sagar Parikrama among those at the start line of 2018 GGR, Vice Admiral Awati wrote in, “   I think of how far we have come since the first Indian in an India built boat in 2009-10, my toils and travails during the previous quarter century to make it happen. I persisted because of a strange conviction that the sea and India had a very primeval, symbiotic relationship which had been one of the props of ancient Indian civilization, its contribution to a world community starting with the Indian Ocean. Such geographic advantage is not given to many people on God’s earth. And then we squandered it through a strange diktat based on the primacy of caste over the sea. For more than a thousand years we became – the elite certainly did – strangers to the sea. Someone else stepped into the vacuum and reaped the benefits of a sea based civilization, a sea based international order. We had to get back there. We had lost our sea legs. How do we regain them? We have to start from the top because this is an expensive business, getting the young back to the sea for their recreation and leisure in a big way. That was my thinking. My persistence prompted Sagar Parikrama; at least I think it did.

This photo has been downloaded from the Facebook page of Commander Abhilash Tomy. No copyright infringement intended.

And now after two solo circumnavigations, another by a team of six women, here is Abhilash poised to race solo around the world, once again in an India built boat against sixteen other stalwarts. The outcome will not matter to me. He will complete the race and help put India back a little more where she has always belonged, among sea based civilizations. So help me God. Besides mucking about at sea in a small sailing boat is always great fun, a tremendous learning process about the great natural forces which sustain Homo Sapien.’’

An iconic take-away from the 1968 GGR is the competition that happened between Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the Suhaili and the late Bernard Moitessier of France, sailing in Joshua. Although he started much after Suhaili and had the fastest time among the racers, Moitessier didn’t go back to England to complete the race. Instead, upon rounding Cape Horn and returning to the Atlantic, he continued eastward to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific beyond, terminating his voyage in Tahiti. He is said to have done this to protest the commercialization of long distance sailing. While there is a Suhaili replica at 2018 GGR in the form of Thuriya, there is no replica of the Joshua participating in the race. At ceremonies related to 2018 GGR at Falmouth, the Suhaili was joined by Joshua and Gypsy Moth IV, the sail boat Sir Francis Chichester used. All three boats were berthed on the same pontoon. In November 2015, when the new UK passport was launched, the Gypsy Moth IV was among heritage motifs selected to feature in it. An August 2017 report in Yachting & Boating World says that there are plans underway to have “ a second class of Joshua steel-built one-design yachts.’’ Both the Suhaili and Joshua are there at Les Sables-d’Olonne in the countdown to 2018 GGR. Also present is Pen Duick VI, one of the boats sailed by the late Eric Tabarly, the famous French long distance sailor.

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