VICE ADMIRAL MANOHAR AWATI (RETD) / 1927-2018

Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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.

File photo / INSV Mhadei; at berth in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

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.)

ABHILASH TOMY RESCUED

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; this photo was taken at the time of Thuriya’s launch in Goa in 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, who was injured badly after his sailboat, Thuriya, was rolled and dismasted in a severe storm in the Southern Ocean, was rescued earlier today (September 24), reports in the Indian media said.

Upon reaching Thuriya’s location, the French fishing patrol vessel Osiris dispatched a team (with stretcher) in a small boat, which successfully shifted the injured naval officer from his sailboat to Osiris. Abhilash is conscious but tired and dehydrated, a media report quoting his father, P.C. Tomy, said.

According to an update on the Golden Globe Race (GGR) website, at the time of the rescue both Indian and Australian maritime reconnaissance aircraft were circling overhead. Weather conditions were favorable. A radio briefing was held between the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre on Reunion Island, a doctor at I’lle Amsterdam (an island in the southern Indian Ocean not far from where Thuriya was) and the master of the Osiris before the French crew proceeded to the Thuriya in inflatable Zodiac boats to assess Abhilash’s condition and administer first aid.

India’s Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, has tweeted that Osiris will take Abhilash to I’lle Amsterdam. He is expected to reach there by September 24 evening. Later, INS Satpura – one of two Indian navy ships dispatched to the Southern Ocean following news of Thuriya’s dismasting and serious injury to Abhilash – will take him to Mauritius, the tweet said. I’lle Amsterdam is part of French Southern and Antarctic Lands, an overseas territory of France. I’lle Amsterdam has a good hospital with X-ray and ultrasound equipment, the GGR website said.

Thuriya and Abhilash were participants in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. Ahead of storm in the Southern Ocean, Abhilash was placed third in the race. Following the dismasting and severe back injury, Abhilash was unable to move and confined to his bunk in the Thuriya. At the time of writing, details of the injury were not known.

According to the update on the GGR website following Abhilash’s rescue, Gregor McGuckin, the Irish sailor and GGR participant who was sailing towards Abhilash’s coordinates despite his own vessel being rolled and dismasted, was still 25 miles west. Gregor was attempting to motor-sail to Abhilash’s help under a small jury rig and with neither self-steering (he has to hand-steer) nor properly working engine. He was in contact with reconnaissance aircraft and although not in distress has requested for a controlled evacuation, a decision commended by race organizers given he has 1900 miles of Southern Ocean to tackle in a damaged boat and at the present juncture, has rescue assets close by.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on Abhilash, Thuriya and GGR please scroll down or select from this blog’s archives.)

INDIAN NAVY AIRCRAFT SIGHTS THURIYA

Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean; mast broken (This photo was downloaded from the Twitter handle of Indian Navy and is being used here for representation purpose only.)

An Indian Navy P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft has located Commander Abhilash Tomy’s sailboat, Thuriya, in the Southern Ocean, reports in the national media said today (September 23).

It may be recalled that the vessel was rolled and dismasted in a recent storm. Abhilash had subsequently reported severe back injury and inability to move around.

He has activated the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and efforts have been underway to locate and rescue him. Thuriya and Abhilash were participants in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) entailing solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat. It was Abhilash’s second such voyage. In 2013 he became the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat.

Reports quoting an Indian Navy spokesperson said that the naval aircraft saw Thuriya adrift in the Southern Ocean, its mast broken and hanging alongside.

Further the official website of GGR informed that Australian authorities have dispatched an executive jet to the coordinates of the stricken boat. The aircraft will also overfly the boat of Irish skipper and GGR participant Gregor McGuckin, which too was rolled and dismasted in the storm. Notwithstanding an unreliable engine (likely due to fuel being contaminated when the boat was rolled and dismasted in the storm), loss of self-steering (he has to hand-steer now) and finding that the spinnaker pole he used to improvise a jury rig was bending in the strong wind, Gregor is attempting to motor-sail his way to Abhilash. The two are only 80 miles apart, the latest update on the GGR website said. Also expected to head Abhilash’s way is Estonian sailor and GGR participant, Uku Randmaa, who was 400 miles west of both Gregor and Abhilash.

Additionally, the French fisheries patrol vessel Osiris is heading to help Abhilash. Osiris has medical facilities onboard. Although he cannot move around and appears confined to his bunk due to the back injury, Abhilash has confirmed to race organizers that he can move his toes. In first responder circles, when assessing injury, the ability to move one’s body extremities is usually taken as a positive sign. Abhilash has indicated that he may need a stretcher when help arrives. Quoting Abhilash’s latest message to race organizers, the GGR website informed on September 22 (as an update to what it reported earlier the same day) that he can move his toes but is feeling numb and cannot eat or drink. The grab bag containing more emergency communication equipment remained difficult for him to access.

As per information on the GGR website, Australian authorities are also repositioning a search and rescue plane to Reunion Island to assist with the rescue efforts; this is in conjunction with the Anzac class frigate HMAS Ballarat, preparing to leave Perth for the area where Thuriya is. The Indian Navy has already sent INS Satpura and the tanker INS Jyoti to the southern Indian Ocean, where Abhilash is.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please scroll down or select from archives for more on Abhilash, Thuriya and GGR.)        

2018 GGR UPDATE / THURIYA ROLLED AND DISMASTED IN STORM, EFFORTS ON TO RESCUE ABHILASH TOMY

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

Efforts are on to rescue Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, participant in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), after his boat, the Thuriya, was rolled and dismasted in a severe storm in the Southern Ocean.

According to information available on the GGR website, the incident has left Abhilash injured.

In a communication to race organizers on September 21, he said that he has a severe back injury and cannot stand up. At that time the Thuriya was 1900 miles south west of Perth, Australia.

In a subsequent update on September 22, GGR has quoted Abhilash confirming activation of the emergency beacon (EPIRB). The boat’s external YB3i unit continues to provide tracking information but the power line to the boat’s batteries has been damaged. The update which said Abhilash is on his bunk in the boat, said that he was using the portable YB3 texting unit – which is a back-up – for messaging.

The boat’s primary satellite phone has been damaged. There are additionally an aviation hand-held VHF phone, a second satellite phone and a second YB3 unit in Abhilash’s Emergency Grab Bag.

The Thuriya, soon after the boat was launched last year; view from aft. At this stage her mast wasn’t fitted; that happened later(Photo: Shyam G Menon)

But he cannot reach it given the state he is in, the update on the GGR website said.

Last reported on this blog, Abhilash was in fourth position in the race. He had subsequently improved to third position. Besides Thuriya, the powerful storm rolled and dis-masted the Hanley Energy Endurance, the boat in which fellow GGR participant, Gregor McGuckin was sailing. However Gregor is otherwise alright and following emergency repairs, was slated to sail towards Abhilash’s coordinates. He was reported to be 100 miles south west. Another GGR participant, the Estonian sailor Uku Raandma was also in range; he was reported to be some 450 miles away from Thuriya.

According to the media, the Indian Navy and Australian rescue authorities have swung into action to rescue Abhilash.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For more on the 2018 GGR please scroll down or select from archives.) 

2018 GGR / RACE PASSING THROUGH INDIAN OCEAN

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

The 2018 GGR, which began July 1 from France, is now passing through the Indian Ocean, albeit way down in the southern hemisphere. The race with technology levels pegged back to what prevailed during the 1968 GGR entails a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. It is adventure, refined.

More than two months since the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) commenced from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France, the race leaders are past Cape of Good Hope and Madagascar. They are well into the Indian Ocean; the region they are in qualifies to be Southern Ocean. As of September 13, 2018, they lay far out at sea in the southern hemisphere, south-south west from the Indian peninsula.

Among the world’s great capes, the next one for them to rendezvous with is Cape Leeuwin, Australia. Well past this cape at Storm Bay in Hobart, Tasmania, the participants will have a brief meet up with race officials and media. According to race rules, the participants will pass through a `gate’ and drop all sail on the boat if it is safe to do so. The entrant may moor, anchor, motor or drift but may not re-cross the gate to continue to Cape Horn until at least 90 minutes has elapsed. During this time when the nonstop, unsupported character of the race will continue to remain intact, the participants can pass on any photos, films, letters they may have. They will also have to display their `safety pack’ for inspection. The pack – it contains a portable GPS chart plotter – is meant for use in emergency and a broken seal (indicating the pack was opened) denies the participant any official ranking in GGR or GGR trophies. He / she can however continue in the event under `Chichester Class.’ Further instances of stopping anywhere or breaking the seal of the pack, will disqualify the participant from the event, altogether.

As of mid-September, of 18 sailors originally participating in the 2018 GGR, seven had retired from the race while one stood relegated to Chichester Class. Commander Abhilash Tomy KC of the Indian Navy – he is the sole participant from India and only invitee from Asia – was among those still in the race. At the time of writing he was in fourth position. He had made some significant gains in the preceding days. The race leader by sizable margin was Jean Luc Van Den Heede of France. He was followed by Mark Slats of Netherlands, Gregor McGuckin of Ireland and Abhilash in that order.

The 2018 GGR features solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. It is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968, which produced the 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. The 2018 edition is unique for pegging technology aboard participating sail boats, to the same level as in 1968. No digital devices have been permitted. Navigation is done using a sextant. Abhilash is the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. The 2018 GGR is his second attempt at solo nonstop circumnavigation. For the race, Abhilash is sailing in the Thuriya, a replica of the Suhaili built in Goa at Aquarius Shipyard (for more on the Thuriya please click on this link:  https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/).

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

SKIPPER’S TAKE / FIRST CIRCUMNAVIGATION BY A CREW OF INDIAN WOMEN

Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

On May 21, 2018, after 197 days at sea and 254 days away from home, the first Indian all women-crew to circumnavigate the globe returned to Goa. This article is based on a conversation with the skipper of INSV Tarini, Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi.  It gives an idea of the countdown to circumnavigation and how the voyage actually unfolded, out at sea.

The Laser phase

Bruce Kirby was originally a journalist.

He worked with the Ottawa Journal and later, the Montreal Star. Having gained competence at sailing during his childhood and youth, he represented Canada in sailing at the 1956 Olympics, finishing eighth in a field of 24. Two years later, he tried his hand at boat designing. His designs worked well. In 1965, he moved with family from Montreal to Chicago and assumed charge as editor of a magazine called One Design, which would later become today’s Sailing World. Around this time, he was asked by a friend in Montreal to design a boat, compact enough to be transported on top of a car. The result was – the Laser; it hit the market in 1971 and proved useful to popularize sailing.

According to the website of Bruce Kirby Marine, there are an estimated 182,000 Laser boats worldwide. The model’s success inspired Bruce Kirby to resign his position at the magazine and become a full time sailboat designer. One of the highlights of the Laser is that it has strict one-design class rules, meaning a boat – today’s or older – is near similar, allowing for distinction in performance to be narrowed down to sailors’ competence. The Laser has a presence in India’s sailing scene. Over 40 years after the model first hit the market, it was on a Laser that Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi learnt the fundamentals of sailing. The location was Visakhapatnam, home to the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command.

Hailing from Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, Vartika did her BTech in aerospace engineering. In 2010, she joined the Indian Navy. “ I joined the navy because I liked the idea,’’ she said. The navy trained her to be a naval architect. At the back of her mind, she wished for a taste of the sea. Upon being commissioned as a naval officer, her first appointment was at Visakhapatnam. Selections were on for the inter-command sailing competition. It was open to women as well. “ Among women officers around, I was junior and relatively free. So I availed the opportunity,’’ she said. That was her introduction to sailing. It included a brief spell of training in Mumbai; all of it more or less restricted to the immediate need at hand. One weekend in Visakhapatnam, she decided to head to the navy’s sailing club and try out a Laser boat on her own.  The staff ashore showed her some of the knots she would use, fitted her out in a life jacket, put her on the boat and pushed her out into the water. She capsized multiple times that day and had to be eventually rescued and brought back to shore. But something engaged about sailing. For one, a sail is not much different from the wings of an aircraft; something she had studied in college. Although their respective axis is different – one is positioned vertically, the other horizontally – both harness wind energy provided you know how to do it. The following weekend, she returned to the club to try out the Laser again. Gradually, over several such visits, she learnt how to sail the boat.

The Mhadei; seen from inside the Tarini. They are sister vessels, near identical to each other; Mhadei being the older. This photo was taken in Goa (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Atlantic with Mhadei

By this time, more than a thousand kilometers away on the Indian west coast, Goa had become home to a small boat with a giant reputation. In a fleet of vessels ranging in size from aircraft carrier to small boats, the INSV Mhadei should be among the smallest vessels in the Indian Navy’s possession. But she had completed two circumnavigations. Thanks to her the Indian Navy had the distinction of having done solo circumnavigation and solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat. Besides the two circumnavigations, the Mhadei had done several long voyages in the Indian Ocean area, particularly across the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. She was also a regular participant at the annual Cape to Rio yacht race, the longest such intercontinental race in the southern hemisphere. In 2014, when the Indian Navy sent out a signal seeking volunteers from among its women officers for the Cape to Rio Race, Vartika did not hesitate to sign up. She was selected to be part of the Mhadei’s crew on the return leg from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Cape Town in South Africa. This was her first open ocean voyage.

For sailor coming aboard the Mhadei, skills honed on a Laser in Visakhapatnam, open ocean voyage in the Atlantic was an eye opener. When it came to the Laser, it was all about the basics of sailing in protected environs, not far from land. In contrast, the Mhadei in the ocean was a case of several subjects – ranging from the nuts and bolts of a yacht to sea conditions and atmospherics and how the yacht behaved through it all – converging. She was a world by herself. For Vartika, that initiation in the Atlantic was rough but the journey it promised, attracted. “ I continued to volunteer for more expeditions on the Mhadei,’’ she said. The call for women volunteers had always been part of the agenda at Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy’s circumnavigation project. Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd), who played a major role in imagining and implementing Sagar Parikrama, had told this blog in an interview in October 2013 that he wished to see the project present India its first woman circumnavigator. When the signal seeking volunteers for an all women crew to do circumnavigation appeared, Vartika didn’t hesitate to grab the opportunity.

From training days; some of the all women-crew with Capt Dilip Donde (Retd) (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

On September 10, 2017, the much awaited circumnavigation by women officers commenced from Goa. There were six crew members aboard. Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi was skipper. Her team included Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal (from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh); Lt Cdr Patarlapalli Swati (from Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh), Lt Cdr Aishwarya Bodapatti (from Hyderabad, Telangana) Lt Cdr Vijaya Devi (from Kwakta Santhong Sabhal Leikai, Bishnupur district, Manipur) and Lt Payal Gupta (from Dehradun, Uttarakhand). Pratibha had her first sailing aboard the Mhadei on a run from Goa to Port Blair. In 2015, she became part of the all women crew. Swati had her debut in open ocean voyage in 2014, on the Cape Town-Goa sailing leg of a Mhadei returning from the Cape to Rio Race. Aishwarya joined the crew on their second training sortie – from Goa to Mauritius – aboard the INSV Mhadei. Vijaya Devi has been a podium finisher among women at yachting and Laser boat championships. She became part of the crew in December 2016. Payal joined the crew on the team’s first independent sortie from Goa to Karwar; she also took part in the 2016 Cape to Rio Race. The crew’s training had started with various courses on basic seamanship, navigation, communication, meteorology and basic boat handling taught at the navy’s training schools in Kochi and Mumbai by Cdr Abhimanyu Patankar and Cdr Abhilash Tomy. That was followed by hands-on training aboard the Mhadei under Capt Dilip Donde (Retd). The team’s first independent sortie was from Goa to Karwar. Later the team sailed with Dilip to Visakhapatnam for an International Fleet Review. At Visakhapatnam, Dilip disembarked and the all women crew sailed the Mhadei around the Indian peninsula, back to Goa, on their own.

INSV Tarini (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Tarini enters the frame

Goa’s capital Panjim, is adjacent to the Mandovi River. Upstream from the riverine jetty where the navy’s sailboats are berthed, is Aquarius Shipyard, which built INSV Mhadei. While the all women crew trained on the Mhadei, Aquarius was building an identical sister vessel. This new yacht was to be the all women crew’s vessel for circumnavigation. Having the boat under construction in Goa itself was a boon for the crew; they could go over to the yard and see it assume shape. It is important familiarization given circumnavigation entails months of stay aboard a boat, which is all that stands between you and the ocean. Knowing your boat properly is essential for long voyages. “ I was with the new boat right from the time her keel was laid,’’ Vartika said. Another advantage of construction happening nearby was that some of the crew’s suggestions – related to ergonomics – could be incorporated in the design. On February 18, 2017, the new boat was inducted into the navy as INSV Tarini. The crew took her out on trial runs to Mumbai and Porbandar followed by a longer voyage to Mauritius. In addition to acquiring skills and getting boat in place, there were a few other details too to be addressed. When you are at sea, your boat is everything. As your floating home, it must be looked after well and kept in fine fettle. There is plenty of work to do on a boat tackling long voyage. This work engages the upper body adequately. But given the human being needs a surface to walk on to engage the legs and walkable surface area is limited on a sailboat, the lower body runs the danger of wasting. Ahead of voyage, the crew trained to improve and sustain their lower body strength.

Planning and preparation are very important for the success of a voyage, Vartika said. By the time they cast off on circumnavigation, the crew knew their boat well. Thanks to the sorties they did together, they also knew each other well. One of the less highlighted angles of expeditions is coexistence. While expeditions definitely mean the relief of getting away from life as we know it, they brew their own stress. Despite best efforts to stay on good behavior, stress can make people abrasive and fragile. In daily life there are multiple avenues to destress. Such options reduce on an expedition. On a mountain side, you can take a walk perhaps. What do you do on a boat? “ Our training for the expedition began in 2015. The idea of subjecting the entire team to a long training experience was to not only learn about sailing the boat but sail it together. This aspect was going to be as important as the sailing itself especially when sailing for long duration,’’ Vartika said. According to her, initially, adjusting to each other’s lifestyle was tough for the crew. Living together and seeing each other’s faces in seven meter by five meter living space, 24 x 7 made them quite vulnerable to each other’s emotions and actions. Amid this they were required to tackle all that nature threw at them. “ My training at sea with others of the crew helped me become more receptive towards the rest and also look at the larger picture. Our training phase helped me understand the crew better and be in sync with their nature and reflex towards any given situation,’’ she said. The team took to circumnavigation only after they were convinced that they were ready for what lay ahead. Circumnavigation of the planet by sea is punctuated by the three capes the route passes through and the challenges posed by the Southern Ocean. The three capes are Australia’s Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn at the tip of South America and Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

The all women-crew of INSV Tarini with the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

The Southern Ocean

Located at 32.03 degrees south latitude Fremantle is a port city in Western Australia; it is part of the Perth metropolitan area. The Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama, in its version of circumnavigation with stops, has traditionally had its ports of call at Fremantle, Lyttelton, Falkland Islands and Cape Town. For the Tarini and her all women crew, the first leg from Goa to Fremantle was initially slow progress. Two weeks out from Goa, as the boat crossed the Equator, a challenge loomed. The trade winds in the southern hemisphere blow in from the south east. That was also the direction the Tarini wished to proceed. To harness the wind, the boat therefore sailed at an angle – in south-south west direction. But that course had to be endured for 20-22 days before favorable winds appeared and course to Fremantle had. The course correction to Fremantle occurred at around 32 degrees south latitude. In this phase there were winds of over 45 knots with accompanying wave heights of 5-6 meters. Thus welcomed to the Southern Ocean, the Tarini proceeded to a 12 day-halt at Fremantle, during which time it underwent minor repairs, maintenance checks and stocked up for the next leg of the journey to Lyttelton in New Zealand, a port town that lay further south on the map at latitude 43.6 degrees. “ This was a short leg. But it was in the Roaring Forties,’’ Vartika said of the voyage to Lyttelton. The Roaring Forties refer to strong westerly winds found in the southern hemisphere, generally between 40 degrees and 50 degrees south. It was one of the reasons why the Tarini got a good check-up at Fremantle. These are not seas you take chances with.

The first landmark to cross on this leg was Cape Leeuwin. The Tarini enjoyed good winds till the Great Australian Bight, that massive arc on the southern coastline of Australia, you see on the map. Then the boat got stuck in a big high pressure weather system that was forming in the area. According to Vartika, such weather systems; more precisely the frequent birth and demise of weather systems, is characteristic of the Southern Ocean. It is a zone of tireless churn. Thanks to this, the seas here appear confused. You can have instances of short-lived calm with little wind above deck and choppy waters below, all at once. Both Dilip and Abhilash had faced rough weather in the waters off southern Australia during their circumnavigation voyages. Forewarned of the high pressure system, the Tarini skirted it; that’s what sail boats moving under the power of wind do when beset with obstacles made of the same energy driving it. The tactic worked. It was a smooth passage. Not long after they tackled this weather system, while sailing through the Tasman Sea, the Tarini’s crew had their first glimpse of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis). “ It was a memorable experience,’’ Vartika said. Twenty five days after she left Fremantle, the Tarini neared Lyttelton. The actual entry to harbor was delayed, thanks to the shifty weather changing gear again. The 12 days (that was standard duration for the Tarini’s scheduled stops) halt at Lyttelton was well used to check the boat and replenish supplies. Ahead lay the longest phase of the journey – the crossing of the South Pacific Ocean and the dip to as south as it gets during circumnavigation: at almost 56 degrees south, the tip of South America; Cape Horn.

The Pacific Ocean is a huge expanse of water. It represents 46 per cent of the Earth’s water surface; it is bigger than all land combined. It is also the stuff of human heritage for humanity’s migration to lonely islands tucked deep in these parts have to be fantastic narratives in ocean crossing. Especially when you consider what boats and navigation technology, people living centuries ago, had. On the world map, a line east from Lyttelton to Cape Horn would appear straightforward with a gentle southern tilt. But that’s not how voyages in the Southern Ocean pan out, particularly that of a sail boat dependent on wind. As Tarini left Lyttelton, there was news of several weather systems forming in the southern latitudes. Those advising caution included a couple on a sail boat journeying east to west and who were reaching New Zealand from Falkland Islands. Given the general direction of Cape Horn and the weather systems ahead, it was once again imperative for sail boat to dip south to skirt these systems and then proceed east. After some days spent sailing south, the Tarini found favorable winds for the passage eastward. The breeze was steady and the going, good.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The approaching storm

According to information on the Internet, South Pacific weather – traditionally described as tropical with its northern latitudes close to the equator being warmer than those farther to the south – has been impacted by global warming. The official rainy season may end up dry and the dry season, wet. The region’s hurricane season – November to April – isn’t as reliable as before. In 1997, Hurricane Keli became the first South Pacific hurricane of June. Close to January 2018, it became evident that there was a major storm brewing in Tarini’s path. Preparation of boat and crew for rendezvous with the weather system commenced days in advance. The movement of the storm’s frontal system was studied on a daily basis and plans devised on how best to avoid it. The Chilean weather agency provided regular updates; the Tarini’s crew also kept Chile’s maritime rescue coordination center updated on the boat’s daily position. This was in addition to the weather data and updates provided by the Indian Navy. All this, along with daily observations of weather from the boat, sufficed to give skipper and crew a fair idea of what lay in store and how to proceed. They started preparing themselves and boat for the worst.

Vartika commenced her preparations, checking every detail of the boat, making sure that nothing, which could possibly give away, was loose. All potential sources of water ingress were sealed and all underwater valves closed a day before the storm was predicted to hit. Laptops and phones aboard were charged following which, power was switched off to sockets and equipment consuming much electricity. Hours before the storm, the batteries aboard were charged so that the generator wouldn’t have to be operated during the storm. Skipper and crew then discussed how they should stay ready at a personal level. They decided to keep their life jackets on and stay hooked (clipped in) to the boat at all times. All winter gear and foul weather gear was kept accessible for use. Meanwhile the temperature dropped to sub-zero and there were frequent hailstorms. The wind and the sea rose quickly and the barometer level dropped. “ There used to be squalls. The wind, blowing at 30-35 knots would suddenly speed up to 45 knots. Adjusting the sails accordingly became frequent,’’ Vartika said. The main sail-area was dropped to the last reef to prevent the boat from getting overpowered. Some mornings, there was snowfall. Safety drills were memorized and shore authorities, informed. On a sail boat, the crew takes turns being on watch. Those not on watch rest, cook or address various maintenance jobs. Typically, two crew members are on watch; each watch lasting four hours. As the storm drew closer, the number of people on watch was raised to three and the duration of watch shortened to two to preserve quality of response. They worked wearing harnesses with slings attached that kept them tethered to the deck.

The Drake Passage is the body of water between South America’s Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica. It connects the southwestern part of the Atlantic Ocean with the southeastern part of the Pacific. For ships sailing between the two oceans, conditions will be rough in the Drake Passage although not as bad as they tend to be in the narrower and sometimes icebound Strait of Magellan and Beagle Channel. Besides for a proper appreciation of Cape Horn – something circumnavigators look forward to – a boat has to be in the Drake Passage. Geologically, this 800 kilometer wide-span of water (the shortest route from Antarctica to any other landmass) is significant. According to Wikipedia, till about 41 million years ago, the Atlantic and Pacific were not connected in the south. Antarctica was warmer than today and it had no ice cap. It was once the two oceans joined via the Drake Passage that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current commenced and the continent cooled significantly. In January 2018, roughly a week before the Tarini entered the Drake Passage, the storm hit her in the Pacific. The wind speed picked up to 70 knots. The waves were huge. “ For the first time, we felt scared,’’ Vartika said of the waves.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A wave to remember

The storm had the little boat in its maw for around 20 hours. On the Tarini’s deck, to the aft, are two steering wheels, one each on the port and starboard side. A sailor on deck steering the boat is exposed to the ocean ambiance through which, the boat is sailing. At one point in the passage through the storm, Vartika was at the wheel of the boat, when a huge wave rising up from aft crashed on the boat’s deck. Unlike a big ship, a sail boat uses the energy of wind to propel forward. It is a delicate equation for although nature provides the required energy, nature’s scale is humongous compared to size of sail boat. It takes little by way of excess nature to tip the balance and damage a boat or endanger a voyage. That’s why in the run up to storm, the sail areas were frequently adjusted and as the winds gathered speed, utterly minimized. As sensitive as sails to the wind, is a boat’s steering mechanism to the sea around. The sea is a lot of water; it is medium we underestimate for the force it can wield. Sailor on deck handling the wheel can sense through the steering column the fury of ocean being tackled. Unlike big ships, on a sail boat this feel is real. “ I could feel the power of the ocean on the wheel,’’ Vartika recalled. As the giant wave reared up behind Tarini and crash on deck was imminent, she shouted to the crew within to prepare for impact and get into `brace position.’ She let the wheel run free allowing the boat to naturally turn into the wind. If you fight the ocean under such circumstances and attempt steering, you risk breaking the steering column. As the boat turned into the wind, it slowed down significantly. The wave crashed on the deck.

Passing Cape Horn (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

The impact was severe enough to throw the crew inside, from one side to the other. On deck, Vartika was in the grip of the wave. “ When the wave hit I remember having one hand on the wheel to keep myself in place. But with water all around, for a few seconds I didn’t know where I was – on the boat or in the ocean,’’ she said. When the wave receded, Vartika found herself not at the wheel but close to the boat’s guard rail, half in, half out. Luckily her tether had held. Although the crew was tossed around, there was no major injury. The storm left its stamp in another way – the wave had crashed at a time when the door, which sealed living quarters from deck, was still tad open to allow passage for crew members. Result: everything inside got wet. Water entered the engine compartment too. It was a drenched Tarini sorely in need of sunshine to dry things up that sailed into Drake Passage and rounded Cape Horn, every sailor’s prized claim to fame on circumnavigation. It was a foggy day. The Indian tricolor was hoisted aboard to mark the moment. They were now in the Atlantic. Vartika’s thoughts were elsewhere. She knew the only point of completion in circumnavigation is when you are back where you started. Goa was still long way off.

Upon rounding Cape Horn, the Tarini sailed north for Falkland Islands at latitude 51.8 degrees south. A lot of repair and maintenance work awaited in the 12 day-lay over scheduled there. The boat’s engine had packed up in the flooding that followed the storm in the Pacific. Sail boats – including those doing circumnavigation under circumnavigation rules – use their engines to maneuver in harbor. With her engine gone, the Tarini was devoid of such power. At Falklands, this posed a new challenge. The crew somehow managed to make it to berth without using the engine and solely with the help of wind. Needless to say, getting the engine back to working condition was one of the things addressed at Falkland Islands.

At Falkland Islands (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

A feast of latitudes and then, a broken steering column

Leaving Falkland Islands, the Tarini made for Cape Town in South Africa. A distinguishing feature of this leg of the voyage is the passage through several latitudes. As the boat does so, the ambient temperature changes; from cold southern hemisphere, it grows warmer towards the tropics. Twenty five days after leaving Falklands, the crew reached Cape Town. Cape Town was a familiar port; some of the Tarini’s crew had been there previously while participating in the Cape to Rio race. Following another 12 day-halt, the boat departed on the last leg of its journey – the trip back to Goa. “ The wind was not supportive in the beginning but we managed to sail around Cape of Good Hope,’’ Vartika said.

They stayed more than 100 nautical miles away from shore to avoid the powerful Agulhas Current that courses down the south east coast of Africa. Agulhas is speculated to be the strongest western boundary current in the world’s oceans; it is on the western boundary of the Indian Ocean. “ Despite the precautions we took, we could still feel the pull of the current,’’ Vartika said. The boat crossed Madagascar, taking a while – thanks to weather patterns – to strike the proper north east course to Goa. Then near Mauritius, a major setback occurred. The boat’s rudder slipped from its position and in the process the entire steering column broke down. The Tarini could no longer be maneuvered. The sails were lowered to keep drift in check. “ Every attachment of the rudder stock had broken down,’’ Vartika said.

At work inside the boat, repairing a malfunctioning sea water filter (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

At first the crew used muscle power to keep the rudder in place; then they lashed it in place with ropes and put their heads together to figure a way out. Twelve hours later, they had managed to partly operationalize the system. A boat like Tarini has two steering wheels. To partly restore the steering mechanism, the crew had to cannibalize parts from one of the steering columns to repair the other. The boat could now be steered to an extent. But it was restricted to one wheel and it was touch and go because they had to be very careful not to stress the fragile system by overloading. Sails had to stay down; progress was slow. They were 180 nautical miles off Mauritius. The crew informed higher ups in the Indian Navy of their predicament. They supported the crew’s decision to head to Mauritius. The navy flew in the parts required for repairing the Tarini, to Port Louis. Given the urgency, the parts were taken from the Mhadei; the Tarini and Mhadei are identical, sister vessels. Respecting the rules of circumnavigation, the work at Port Louis was kept restricted to the repair work at hand. Repairs done, the Tarini cast off for Goa. The slow progress from Cape Town, had however taken a toll. Rations were low. Fresh water was starting to deplete.

Home

Post Mauritius, the vessel was gripped by doldrums. Wind was hard to come by. The boat was crawling, moving very slowly towards her destination. As the Tarini was about to enter Indian waters, the Indian Navy dispatched one of its warships to welcome her in. But the little boat struggled to keep meaningful pace with the ship, powered by powerful engines. There was little wind around for Tarini’s sails. Eventually, the Tarini reached Goa on May 20, 2018. They stayed put at Mandovi Harbor for a day; the official flag-in happened a day later on May 21.

INSV Tarini (Photo: courtesy Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi)

For Vartika, the circumnavigation had been opportunity to see some of the theories she learnt in aerospace and naval architecture, put to practice. There was also the satisfaction of becoming circumnavigator despite beginning as utter novice in sailing. Not to mention the experiential impact of six people in a boat and a planet’s girth circled. There was no room to hide anything from each other. “ I became dead honest with myself and also with the rest of the crew. I think the best bonds I made have been at sea,’’ she said of herself and her team. Vartika does not hail from a military family. Nor was she a member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), among regular avenues to military and adventure for many young people in India. On August 14, 2018 – eve of Independence Day – the media reported that the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, had approved gallantry awards for the all women-crew of INSV Tarini. “ With the successful completion of the project, the navy would now be opening up opportunities to others also to participate in upcoming sailing expeditions. We are currently manning the navy’s ocean sailing boats at the Ocean Sailing Node in Goa and might take on training and preparing future crew for voyages that some of us who volunteer may also be part of,’’ Vartika said,

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

THE MERCY

This film poster was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

The Mercy is about a participant in the1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which produced the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. But it felt much more than a film on Donald Crowhurst. Besides the reality of single handed sailing, vastly different from life ashore, it was invitation to contemplate why we chase goals, how prepared we are for what we wish to accomplish and how apt the sponsorship models adopted for the same, are. The film is recommended viewing.

Hurricane Gilbert of 1988 is one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

It was the most intense hurricane till it was surpassed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Gilbert wrought widespread havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; it killed 318 people, damage to property was estimated at $ 2.98 billion.

The Cayman Islands, an autonomous British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean Sea, was among regions affected by Hurricane Gilbert. Cayman Brac is part of Cayman Islands.  In 1988, among other things, Gilbert damaged further an already damaged trimaran – 41 feet long and at that time, twenty years old – which lay neglected on the beach at Cayman Brac. Whenever the story of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (GGR) is told, the little known Teignmouth Electron is as crucial a player, as the Suhaili, which won the race essaying the world’s first solo, nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat or the Joshua, which upon getting back to the Atlantic traded its chances of winning for another half voyage around the world. Teignmouth Electron was originally built for Donald Crowhurst, the only sailor who didn’t survive the 1968 GGR. He faked a whole voyage around the world, from the Atlantic and back to it, while all along remaining in the Atlantic. It would be easy to dismiss him as a fraud. Behind every act of fraudulence is a story and such stories typically point to circumstances as much as they do to person.

The 1968 GGR is remembered in India because Suhaili – the sail boat in which, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the race – was built in Mumbai. Crowhurst was born 1932, in Ghaziabad. According to Wikipedia, following India’s independence, his family moved to England. Their retirement savings were invested in a sports goods factory in India. But the factory burnt down during the riots around India’s partition. Thanks to financial problems, Crowhurst was forced to leave school early and become an apprentice at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He subsequently served in the air force and the army. Eventually he commenced a business called Electron Utilisation which had among its products, a radio direction finder useful at sea. His attempts to sell this product and related presence at an expo around boats and sailing where Sir Francis Chichester (the first man to circumnavigate solo along the clipper route and the fastest circumnavigation till then) discloses plans for the 1968 GGR, form the opening scene of the film, The Mercy. “ A man alone in a boat is more alone than any man alive,’’ Sir Francis’s character played by Simon McBurney says. Colin Firth’s Donald Crowhurst is in the audience, listening.

A married man with wife and three children and a business struggling to stay afloat, he decides to participate in the 1968 GGR hoping to leverage his participation and the visibility it may bring, to rejuvenate his business. He builds a trimaran because it is capable of great speed. He also tweaks the design to accommodate one of his innovations meant to steady the boat should it capsize in rough weather. Stanley Best – played by Ken Stott – agrees to fund his participation in GGR; Rodney Hallworth – played by David Thewlis – comes aboard as press agent managing publicity. Until GGR, Crowhurst had only been a weekend sailor.  What unfolds in the race is even more desperate than the challenges he faced attempting to succeed at his business.

I first heard of Donald Crowhurst in 2013, while writing an article on Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy project that gave India its first solo circumnavigation in a sail boat (Captain Dilip Donde [retd]) and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation (Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; at the time of writing this article, out on his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR).  It was Captain Donde’s recommendation that I read the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Crammed with details from Crowhurst’s logbook, the book was not an easy read. Compared to it, The Mercy moves faster.  However, books tell stories more comprehensively and you feel that about The Mercy, which introduces you to a Crowhurst willing to risk it all without giving you matching insight into what made his character so. Equally taken for granted or relegated to backdrop is the sea. If the sea and its nature played a part in weekend sailor-businessman becoming even more desperate miles away from shore, then that evolution is not adequately conveyed by the film. The isolation, loneliness and work to keep home upon water floating, don’t come through although the general sweep of Crowhurst’s story gets told. That’s the film’s strength. In particular I could sense the pressure caused by his expectations, the ill finished boat and the publicity accompanying sponsorship model. Into the voyage, fiction gradually replaces fact in Crowhurst’s progress reports.

The 1968 GGR entailed circumnavigation starting in England and ending there. In era preceding GPS, Crowhurst’s periodic radio transmissions are all that family and support team in England have to go by. When Crowhurst’s fictitious report puts him near the Cape of Good Hope, Hallworth in his statements to media pegs him farther out to build a positive, adventurous image. The publicist’s enthusiasm isn’t agreeable with Crowhurst, who is banking on a finish in last place to spare him probing questions that may unravel his fraud. He goes into radio silence. Hallworth keeps the momentum going with invented reasons for radio silence and access for media to interview Mrs Crowhurst, which she dislikes. When Crowhurst commenced his sail around the planet, he was a weekend sailor in a newly built, untested boat with no assurance of winning the race, his business and house on land marked as collateral to sponsors underwriting the voyage. In the seven months that follow, his plight – combination of boat not up to the mark and his own limited experience as sailor – becomes clear. Instead of admitting failure, he starts to fake circumnavigation. At one point, his fake radio transmissions have him sailing at record breaking speed. Eventually as the mix of cheating and loneliness gets to him he loses his mind. He hallucinates, becomes deeply reflective. “ The end must come to all human experience and that alone is certain,’’ he notes.

In July 1969, the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned in the Atlantic; there was no sign of its occupant. Crowhurst is believed to have committed suicide. A film on a circumnavigation that didn’t happen, The Mercy – I felt – found its clearest moments in dialogue.  Towards the end of the movie, Rachel Weisz’s character, Clare Crowhurst, says the following and it should stay with us as reference point for our times, wherein few are content being themselves and there is imagery by money, media and marketing for use as currency to be larger than life. To the media gathered outside her house after news broke that her husband had possibly faked his voyage and was now missing at sea, Clare says: I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell or if he jumped as you are now saying. I would like you to rest assured that if he did jump, he was pushed and each and every one of you had a grubby hand to his back; every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a news stand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement. Last week you were selling hope, now you are selling blame. Next week you will be selling something else. But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father and I will still need my husband. I am afraid that doesn’t make a particularly good story – does it? But then I suppose the truth rarely does. In The Mercy Crowhurst is not entirely cheat. You see context and person. The 1968 GGR was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He donated the prize money he got to Crowhurst’s family.

Both the Suhaili and the Joshua were at Les Sable-d’Olonne in France, when the 2018 GGR commenced in July. Following the 1968 GGR, Teignmouth Electron was auctioned off. It changed hands a couple of times before ending up on that beach at Cayman Brac. According to information on the Internet, it continues to be there. In addition to the damage it suffered, some of its parts have been stolen by vandals. A replica built for use while filming The Mercy, survives. The Mercy was released some months before the 2018 GGR. A second film on Crowhurst called Crowhurst – starring Justin Salinger in the title role – has also released to good reviews.

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