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.)

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.)   

INSV TARINI RETURNS TO GOA, CIRCUMNAVIGATION DONE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

INSV Tarini has returned to Goa completing its voyage of circumnavigation.

The sail boat, belonging to the Indian Navy, had a crew of women.

This is the first time a crew of women from India has completed circumnavigation in a sail boat.

According to a recent statement from the navy, the vessel reached back on May 21, 2018. It had embarked on its voyage from Goa, in September, 2017. The voyage spanned 254 days; the Tarini covered over 22,000 nautical miles.

On arrival back in Goa, the Tarini was received by Defence Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman.

“ During the course of her voyage, the vessel met all criteria of circumnavigation,’’ the statement said. According to it, the required criteria include crossing the Equator twice, crossing all longitudes and touching all the three great capes – Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The expedition was executed in six legs with halts at five ports – Fremantle (Australia), Lyttleton (New Zealand), Port Stanley (Falklands), Cape Town (South Africa) and Port Louis (Mauritius).

The Tarini’s crew comprised Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (who was skipper), Lt Cdr Swathi P, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt S. Vijaya Devi, Lt B. Aishwarya and Lt Payal Gupta.

The Tarini is essentially a copy (with a few modifications) of the older INSV Mhadei, veteran of two circumnavigations. Like the Mhadei, she was built in Goa, at Aquarius Shipyard.

The latest circumnavigation too is part of the navy’s Sagar Parikrama program. Earlier in Sagar Parikrama, Capt Dilip Donde (Retd) had completed the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian in a sail boat while Cdr Abhilash Tomy did the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian.

For more on the Sagar Parikrama program and articles related to sailing, please click on Sagar Parikrama in the categories section of this blog.

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

2018 GGR / THURIYA IS OFF TO EUROPE

File photo: Commander Abhilash Tomy KC with the Thuriya at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa; just before the boat’s launch in August 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thuriya, the sail boat in which Commander Abhilash Tomy KC will attempt his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), has become Europe-bound. She left Kochi for Rotterdam, aboard a ship, on Friday, March 30.

The boat is scheduled to reach Rotterdam in Netherlands on April 26. From Rotterdam, the boat will be taken to Medemblik, a Dutch town famous for its sailing events. Here the Thuriya’s mast would be refitted and some final work on the boat as well as purchases relevant to the circumnavigation ahead would be done. Abhilash will be in Netherlands by then along with either his team manager, Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) or Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard, which built the Thuriya. The plan is to depart Netherlands for UK on June 1. Abhilash has to report at Falmouth by June 11. Thereafter the team would move to France for pre-race inspection and training. GGR begins from Les Sables-d’Olonne on July 1, Abhilash said. Incidentally this seaside town in western France is also home to another famous race – the Vendee Globe yacht race, held once every four years.

The Thuriya’s passage aboard a ship from Kochi is a slight departure from plans disclosed earlier. The process of registering her in India entailed paperwork that was more complex than anticipated. She was the first sail boat being registered under new rules framed by the Mercantile Maritime Department (MMD). When there is no precedent that can be easily followed paperwork takes time, Abhilash had said when contacted in the third week of March. The Thuriya’s journey out from Goa – the pattern of it – also added to the paperwork needed. Had she sailed out to Europe on her own, procedures would have been simpler. But with boat and Abhilash required to report in UK by June 11, there wasn’t enough time to do a long voyage. She had to be shipped across; something that was anticipated months ago, except the distance got longer and the port of exit changed.

Early August 2017, when the Thuriya was floated at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa, expectation was that she would in due course – after her mast was fitted and sea trials were done – sail to Cape Town and be shipped from South Africa to the UK. That was subsequently altered to a ship-out from Kochi. According to Abhilash, any port on the Indian west coast would have sufficed but Kochi had a vessel scheduled to depart at apt time. Consequently the pattern of Thuriya’s journey out from Goa became one of first being trucked to Kochi and then, heading to Rotterdam in Netherlands aboard a ship. Such passage for a boat built in India, made the paperwork time consuming.

The Thuriya; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot, This picture was taken soon after she was floated in August 2017 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There were suggestions to register the Thuriya overseas. That would have meant less time chasing documents. Abhilash did not want that. Given the boat was built in India, he felt it should be registered under the Indian flag. “ The boat is now registered in Mormugao,’’ he said on Saturday, March 30. Mormugao is home to Goa’s main port.

The Thuriya had her mast fitted in December 2017. From then till almost mid-March 2018, she underwent sea trials locally, Abhilash said. One limitation in these trials was that strong winds were missing. Abhilash had to make do with the weather conditions available. Trials done, the little boat had her mast removed for the journey by truck from Goa to Kochi and onward shipment to Rotterdam.

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC is the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation. His team manager for 2018 GGR, Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) is the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation. Ratnakar Dandekar’s Aquarius Shipyard has the distinction of building three sail boats headed for circumnavigation – INSV Mhadei, INSV Tharini and the Thuriya. The 2018 GGR is a repeat of the original GGR of 1968 (with same technology levels replicated), which saw Sir Robin Knox-Johnston of UK do the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. The Thuriya is a replica of the Suhaili, built in Mumbai and sailed by Sir Robin in the 1968 GGR. For more on the 2018 GGR and Thuriya please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/ For more on Sagar Parikrama and the original circumnavigation voyages of Dilip Donde and Abhilash Tomy please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2013/10/27/sagar-parikrama-part-one/

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

2018 GGR / THE THURIYA GETS READY

The Thuriya when she was floated in August 2017; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Thuriya, the sail boat that will carry Commander Abhilash Tomy KC in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), will have her mast fitted in December.

The boat, based on the same design that Sir Robin Knox-Johnston used for his solo nonstop circumnavigation in the first GGR of 1968, was built at Aquarius Shipyard in Goa and floated in August 2017.

The GGR involves solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. Sir Robin was the first person to do such a solo nonstop circumnavigation. Suhaili, the boat Sir Robin used, was built in Mumbai.

The Thuriya is currently in Goa. Aquarius, the yard that built her, had earlier built the Mhadei and her sister vessel, the Tarini, too.

In 2012-2013, Abhilash had become the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation aboard the Indian Navy’s INSV Mhadei.

His team manager for the 2018 GGR is Captain Dilip Donde (Retd), the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation.

“ We did a dry run of the mast installation at the yard to figure out the placement of deck gear. After that, we took off the masts and kept them aside. We will do the final installation of the mast in December seaward of all the bridges on Mandovi River,’’ Abhilash informed last week. Being seaward of the bridges for mast-installation was the case when Mhadei was built at Aquarius, too. Sail boats may be small. But their masts can be tall and the road bridges over the Mandovi don’t have adequate clearance for such sail boats to pass through, below. The mast is therefore fitted closer to the river’s estuary, past the bridges. Aquarius on the other hand, is located upstream.

According to Abhilash, the team also did a trial of the jury rig on the river. “ Jury rigging is the use of make-shift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand, originally in a nautical context. On square-rigged sailing ships, a jury rig is a replacement mast and yards (a yard is a spar to which a sail is attached) improvised in case of damage or loss of the original mast,’’ Wikipedia explains. “ We will be doing formal trials sometime this week after all the communication equipment and electrical systems are installed,’’ Abhilash said.

Incidentally, the Thuriya has to be free of modern digital communication and navigation devices. Besides circumnavigation, the second GGR’s quest is to sail around the world at the same technology level as prevailed in 1968.

Meanwhile, the engine trial has been done and the team is satisfied with the result. The engine on a sail boat is typically used for maneuvering within harbors. Races impose strict conditions on how they may be used, including sometimes, cap on amount of fuel permitted.

“ Sea trials will happen in December after the mast is installed,’’ Abhilash said.

Major sponsors to support the voyage are awaited. Few events showcase adventure in the true sense as sailing around the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat with electronics capped at 1968 level.

Abhilash is the only participant from India in the race.

For more on the Thuriya and the 2018 GGR please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/08/11/2018-golden-globe-race-ggr-meet-the-thuriya/

For more on solo circumnavigation please click on Sagar Parikrama under `categories’ in the side bar of the blog.

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

2018 GOLDEN GLOBE RACE (GGR) / MEET THE THURIYA

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Commander Abhilash Tomy KC, the first Indian to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat, gets ready to do another solo nonstop circumnavigation in his new boat, the Thuriya.

Nearly fifty years ago, in 1968, the first Golden Globe Race (GGR) had produced the first man to complete a solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat.

That person – Sir Robin Knox Johnston – was also the only participant to finish the race. His boat, the Suhaili, was made of wood and built in Mumbai.

Many entrants didn’t make it past the Indian Ocean. One skipper, who deceptively hung around in the Atlantic, was never seen again. Only his empty boat was found; he is believed to have committed suicide. Then there was the French sailor, Bernard Moitessier in his 40 foot-ketch made of boiler steel, the Joshua. He could have given Sir Robin a fight to the finish but instead, opted to continue circumnavigating and eventually drop anchor at Tahiti, sailing a total of 37,455 miles in 10 months. The 2018 GGR seeks to recreate the ambiance of the original; 30 solo sailors, including specially invited participants –  will attempt solo non-stop circumnavigation on sail boats equipped with technology no more modern than what was available in 1968. The race will start from Falmouth in UK on June 30, 2018, and being circumnavigation, eventually end there. Talking to this blog, the evening his boat for the 2018 GGR, the Thuriya was launched at Aquarius Shipyard on Goa’s Divar Island, Commander Abhilash Tomy said, “ I am not allowed to have a computer aboard. I can carry a typewriter.’’

The last time I used a typewriter to author an article was way back in the early 1990s. Ever since, it has been the computer. And for the last several years, a computer with Internet connection, making instant reference to a world of information, possible. If forced to, I can still type an article on the typewriter. But the nature of thinking and forming sentences, the layering of a story, the ability to correct and revise on the go – all that will be different. Experientially, a journalist of the typewriter age is different from one of the Internet age. Experientially, today’s sailor working from sail boats supported by electronic devices is different from a sailor of 1968, who had none of these devices for back-up. What makes the 2018 GGR doubly difficult is that while the participants of the original GGR could equip themselves with the technology of their time, many among those heading for the 2018 GGR will need to abandon comfort zones they got used to and acquaint themselves with boats bereft of high technology.

Abhilash with the Thuriya at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa; just before the boat’s launch (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Abhilash was born in 1979. He belongs to the generation in India that grew up with computers and Internet. During the 2012-2013 solo, nonstop circumnavigation he accomplished on the INSV Mhadei – the first by an Indian – he had onboard the modern sloop (built by Aquarius), access to Internet and email, electronic maps, GPS and satellite phone. These are either absent or strictly regulated and meant for use under specified circumstances, in the 2018 GGR. According to the race website, every participant will get a standard Race Pack that will include a stand-alone satellite tracking system which the skipper cannot see but will be used for web tracking updates; a two-way satellite short text paging unit that will connect to race headquarters for 100 character-reports twice daily and a sealed box with a portable GPS chart plotter for use only in emergency. Denied access to modern technology, Abhilash will estimate his position at sea with a sextant; use printed navigation charts to plot his passage and gauge the submarine features of his neighborhood and rely on VHF and HF radio transmitters to communicate. In fact, so total is the clamp down on technology that even devices with inbuilt GPS like digital cameras, mobile phones and electronic watches are disallowed onboard in the race. Managing with the recommended alternatives is easier said than done.

Contemporary naval officers and sailors master the sextant during their training days. Thereafter it recedes to being an instrument you should know how to use; it isn’t what you use on an everyday basis for navigation, which is the stuff of computers and electronics. Abhilash, who is a naval aviator, will need to get used to the sextant again. And not just get used to it; he requires being good at it for it is all that stands between him and drifting off course in the world’s vast oceans. Further there is the question of which natural co-ordinates, usable with a sextant, the weather on a given day will allow sailor to see. Not to mention – don’t lose the sextant on small sail boat, no matter how harsh the sea. Speaking of which, no Internet onboard means no detailed weather reports from the outside world as well. Information on weather that is available as broadcast to mariners on HF and VHF radio will be the only reliable source. You can discuss weather conditions with passing vessels and fellow racers. But such meetings at sea are few on a circumnavigation route with much Southern Ocean involved. Getting weather from team managers will be unwise as it could be considered ` route-ing’ using information which is not generally available to the public. “ If the race management so decides they may give weather data to a specific boat, group of boats, or all boats. This would mostly be as a warning and not for improving performance,’’ Abhilash said. Challenges exist with the HF radio, the most easily comprehended of which is that unlike a telephone call that reaches intended person irrespective of where he / she is, radio communication is interactive only if both caller and receiver are available around their radio sets to connect. In planet of different time zones, this is not assured all the time. Similarly, the race has assigned a limit to how much fuel – for onboard engine – can be carried. The quest is to free up circumnavigation from its modern gadgetry, restore a touch of retro to it and make the ambiance match what the competitors of 1968 coped with. Doing so, you get a firsthand taste of what Sir Robin Knox Johnston and Bernard Moitessier accomplished. At the 2018 GGR, electronics are more with those overseeing the race from shore. The participants’ passage is monitored via satellite using these electronics. If things turn ugly and unmanageable at sea, Abhilash can open the sealed GPS onboard to determine his position. Doing so however, disqualifies him from the central category (the solo nonstop category) of the race. Onboard will also be a radio beacon; its activation indicating a given boat has most likely been abandoned.

The Thuriya‘s launch ceremony in progress; Abhilash on the boat’s deck (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Thuriya touches water (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The evening of August 7, 2017, the Thuriya stood suspended by two cranes, inches above the Mandovi River’s water, let in at the drydock of Aquarius Shipyard. Every 15 minutes or so, a thundering sound – resembling that of an approaching helicopter – could be heard; it was the sound of trains passing by on the nearby bridge across the Mandovi. Aquarius is an unassuming yard predominantly making boats for the Indian military. It also caters to orders for boats from Indian state governments. The yard shot into limelight building the Indian Navy’s iconic sail boat – INSV Mhadei. A sloop, based on a Dutch design, it took two naval officers around the world on two separate circumnavigation voyages. The first was Captain Dilip Donde (Retd), who executed the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian. The second was Abhilash, who accomplished the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by an Indian. There are few boats around that have done back to back circumnavigations plus trans-Atlantic races and other voyages, as the Mhadei did. It is a testimony of her build quality and the care with which, former skippers like Dilip and Abhilash treated her that she did both these circumnavigations without any major problems. Aquarius later built a second sail boat for the navy, INSV Tarini, which is identical to the Mhadei and as of August 2017, was expected to depart shortly on the first circumnavigation of the world by a crew of Indian women. Despite tendering process that rewards the lowest bidder, Aquarius took on construction of sail boats because it is a demanding task. While most of us get carried away by the speed and flight of motorized craft, they are generally more forgiving of error in design and construction because the brute power of the engine compensates for such shortcomings (unless the idea is to build for a specific purpose, like very high speed to set a record). Harnessing wind is a different ball game. Here design and build quality genuinely matter; room for error is less. “ Making a sail boat is more challenging,’’ Ratnakar Dandekar, who owns Aquarius Shipyard, said.

When it came to a boat for the 2018 GGR, Abhilash made three notable decisions. First, he decided to build the boat in India, at Aquarius. He knew the yard would do a good job. Besides, the earlier two circumnavigation voyages had ensured that he, Dilip and Ratnakar, became a fine team. They understand each other well. For boat to sail, the organizers of the 2018 GGR had provided participants a variety of designs to choose from. They included Westsail 32, Tradewind 35, Saga 34, Saltram 36, Vancouver 32 & 34, OE 32, Eric (sister ship to Suhaili), Aries 32, Baba 35, Biscay 36, Bowman 36, Cape Dory 36, Nicholson 32, MKX-XI, Rustler 36, Endurance 35, Gaia 36, Hans Christian 33T, Tashiba 36, Cabo Rico 34, Hinckley Pilot 35, Lello 34 and Gale Force 34. One suggestion Abhilash received was that he buy a secondhand Saltram 36 and refit it to the retro norms of the 2018 GGR. This design of boat – originally called Saltram Saga 36 and designed by Alan Pape – is a classic long-distance cruising yacht. It is double ended (the fore and aft taper in similar fashion) and sturdily built. However locating good secondhand boats of said design overseas and then refitting them is both time consuming and likely, expensive. If the refitting is to be done at Aquarius, the boat would have to be sailed in from abroad, refitted and sailed to UK for GGR. If the refitting is done overseas, you don’t get any of the cost advantages attached to work done in India. The next option was to go in for fresh construction. So for second major decision, Abhilash resolved that the boat he would sail in will be a replica of the Suhaili. “ It was the only boat I could build in India and I was keen to sail a boat built in India. I had a conversation with Don McIntyre from race management. He said that for any other design, the construction would have to happen from the original mould. The only leeway was for the Suhaili replica, which could be built, brand new,’’ Abhilash said. The Suhaili’s design is called Eric 32; it was drawn sometime in the 1920s by William Atkin. The third decision was more personal. Abhilash had always wanted to own a classic sail boat. Few boats in circumnavigation are more classic and steeped in the discipline’s history than the Suhaili. Abhilash decided that he would be the owner of the new boat. By Indian standards, owning a boat costs a lot of money. Ever helpful, Ratnakar started constructing the boat for Abhilash in 2016, using his own funds. As the boat neared completion, Abhilash liquidated some of his investments and partly repaid Ratnakar; the idea is to repay fully in time. At around 5.56 PM on August 7, the blessings of the Gods sought, the cranes gently lowered the Thuriya and she kissed water for the first time.

The Thuriya; crane slings being removed after the boat has been floated (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

All boat designs strike a compromise between stability and speed, depending on the purpose for which the boat is being acquired. So far, the bulk of Abhilash’s sailing has been on the Mhadei, which is a sloop, based on a design called Tonga 56. The Mhadei offers stability but she also offers adequate cruising speed on long voyages. Her hull made of wood core laminate; she has one tall mast and two sails. To the lay person beholding her, she has the sleek lines of a modern yacht. Her cabin with angular windows, rise prominently from the deck.  She is not double ended; her aft ends in an angled chop. She has a bulbous keel, laden with lead to act as counterweight in the event of capsize. “ The Mhadei is a big sail boat. She has lot of space within. If you load the boat, the percentage weight difference is less. Thanks to its high volume, it can ride down a wave at decent speed. Her upwind performance is also good. You can sail well into the wind,’’ Abhilash said. On the flip side, her sails are big and it is near impossible for a lone sailor to change the mainsail. Being a big boat, breakdowns are also tough to handle.

The Thuriya is a ketch. Much smaller, her Eric 32 design is roughly half the length of the Mhadei and her cabin sits sunk into the deck, rendering the cabin’s external profile almost invisible from far. The smaller size of the Thuriya made her trickier to build, Ratnakar said. She will have shorter masts. But against the sloop’s single mast, the ketch has two and between them they offer three sails. This doesn’t mean the sail area is greater; what it means is that the ketch is capable of harnessing the wind more precisely for greater maneuverability. The Thuriya’s hull is double ended and visibly squat. This aspect of the Eric 32 relates directly to design inspired by Norwegian fishing boats and which Sir Robin consciously chose when it came to the Suhaili, for his priority in the 1968 GGR was a stable, safe boat. Speed is not the forte of Eric 32; the Suhaili is a slow boat, as would most likely be, the Thuriya. Unlike Mhadei, which has two steering wheels on deck, the Thuriya is steered using a tiller. “ I prefer a tiller over a wheel. You can sit and steer the boat. Besides the tiller’s connection with the rudder is direct, unlike in the case of a wheel, which entails gears and transmission,’’ Abhilash said. Compared to the Mhadei’s two electronic and one wind driver autopilots, the Thuriya has one wind driver autopilot, donated by its manufacturer: WindPilot. Below the waterline, the Thuriya has a relatively straight keel needing less draft. The boat’s overall dimension is perfect for solo sailor venturing long distance; it is a compact ecosystem with everything at hand.

The Thuriya; view from aft, notice the small cabin, tiller and wind driver autopilot (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the flip side, a small boat cannot take a lot of weight and when you load it, the boat tends to slow down. “ The slower the boat, the more you need to carry because your voyage becomes longer. That’s an equation I will need to manage,’’ Abhilash said. Measured for length, the Thuriya is smaller than a modern 40 foot-marine container. From the bridge of a big ship with sizable real estate of deck stretching before it, small boats are difficult to notice. In their writings, sailors on small boats have highlighted the David-Goliath relation they tackle at sea, in world of ever growing ship sizes. Not to mention, the hazard of cargos and containers floating around after they fell off unnoticed from ships. Asked if the small size of the Thuriya and her lack of electronics added that much more pressure on solo sailor maintaining a watch at sea, he said that for most part the 2018 GGR’s circumnavigation route is still devoid of busy traffic. “ For example in the voyage on Mhadei, after crossing Sri Lanka, the first ship I saw was two and a half months later at Cape Horn. The next was one and a half months later, off Mauritius,’’ he said. Watch-keeping (staying awake, alert and on the lookout) requirements go up in and around shipping lanes and one problem is – ships are no more serious with watches as they used to be.

A special invitee for the 2018 GGR, Abhilash has rich experience in sailing and now, a boat. What he may be in short supply of is – time to get everything ready for the voyage. In the run up to his last circumnavigation, he had taken to living in the Mhadei to get used to the boat. Given shortage of time, it may not be possible to do that with the Thuriya. What he was certainly in short supply of at the time of writing this article was – sponsors. Between now (August 2017) and a month and half before commencement of the 2018 GGR, he needs to fit masts on the Thuriya (for which she has to first move past the low Panjim bridge to berths downstream from Divar), put her through her paces at sea, get a sense of her behavior, sort out teething problems, sail her to Cape Town on her first long voyage (and probably his, mimicking GGR norms), load her on a ship to the UK from South Africa and report as per schedule to the race organizers for formal introduction of boat and her skipper. Getting a sense of the Thuriya on the water is important for two reasons. First she is a ketch; there will be an element of transition to do from Abhilash’s previous experience on a sloop to handling a ketch. Second, the Thuriya is a replica of the Suhaili with one distinct difference. The Suhaili was made of teakwood. Repeating such construction in 2016-2017 would have been terribly expensive. The Thuriya is therefore made of wood core laminate, like the Mhadei. This makes her stronger and lighter. “ She could be a livelier boat,’’ Dilip, who will be the manager of Abhilash’s team for the 2018 GGR, said of the boat’s potential behavior on water. The use of wood core laminate for making a replica of the Suhaili is permitted by the race organizers. Going by the details available about participants on the race website, the most widely chosen design appeared to be Rustler 36, followed by Biscay 36, Endurance 35 and Lello 34. At one point in the run up to 2018 GGR, there were four Suhaili replicas planned, Abhilash said. As far as he knew, the Thuriya alone remains in the fray.

Expeditions go retro in a quest to relive original purity. Such instances are rare. Success in one’s time by all means possible, using everything that minimizes error and possibility of setback, is the dominant character of adventure in our crowded, competitive times. In mountaineering, alpine style climbing is an attempt to be light on the environment and also feel the challenge closer. But climbers still use the latest gear. Once in a while, in a documentary film of climbers from the past with contemporary climbers enacting days gone by, one sees the retro touch fleetingly. You could argue free soloing is retro because climbers dispense with gear altogether. But that isn’t retro; it is more defying risk. A whole expedition in retro style – that would be very rare although the rising aversion for consumerism has begun triggering a return by humans to simpler times. And as the sextant would show, simpler times are not exactly simple; they entail much work. I asked Abhilash if there are any trends emergent in the world of sailing, to go retro. According to him, current trends are all towards more and more expensive sailing. People aspire for costlier boats and yachts. Races are also getting more expensive. It is the full on, jazzed up version that sells. That said, retro allows sailing to be less expensive. It is also more challenging and given that, it may remain a niche pursuit by the adventurers among us.

From left: Ratnakar, Abhilash and Dilip enjoy a photo session onboard the Thuriya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The 2018 GGR has parameters to differentiate finishers and provide a semblance of winner. Besides the Golden Globe trophies, Golden Globe plaques and total prize money of 75,000 pounds for distribution, those finishing before 15.00 hours on April 22, 2019 will receive a Suhaili trophy and refund of their entry fee. Anyone making a single stopover or forced to break the seal on their portable GPS chart plotter can remain in the race but will be shifted to the `Chichester Class’ (named after Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966-1967 in his ketch, the Gypsy Moth IV, became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the globe from west to east, via the three great capes; he made one stop at Sydney). They will get Chichester trophies provided they finish within aforesaid deadline on April 22, 2019. Anyone making two stops will be disqualified. “ In 1968, only one person finished GGR and he was the winner. In a race like 2018 GGR, you are a winner if you finish,’’ Ratnakar said.

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

COUNTDOWN TO CAST-OFF: THE STORY OF TARINI BEGINS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The Indian Navy’s all-woman crew gets ready for a mid-August commencement of their circumnavigation trip

“ I am from a place surrounded by land and mountains. So, this is a dream come true for me,’’ Lieutenant Shougrakpam Vijaya Devi said.

Not far from the room she was in at the Ocean Sailing Node (OSN) of INS Mandovi, Goa, was the Mandovi River and further downstream, the estuary where the river met the Arabian Sea. Lieutenant Vijaya Devi, from the Indian Navy’s education branch, hails from Moirang Santhong Sabal Leikai in landlocked Manipur’s Bishnupur district. A post graduate in literature, she picked up sailing during her training days at the Indian Naval Academy in Ezhimala, Kerala. Good at handling Laser class boats; she was among those who participated in a selection process to be part of India’s first all-woman team of sailors attempting a circumnavigation in a sail boat. Lieutenant Vijaya Devi made the cut. She was selected. Late July 2017, she was one of five women officers at OSN (a sixth – Lieutenant Aishwarya Boddapati – was away for her engagement), busy getting everything ready for cast-off on the much awaited voyage.

Captain Atool Sinha, Officer-in-Charge, OSN, wanted the team to be all set by August 10. “ We are as per schedule for a mid-August departure,’’ he said. The voyage will have four stops – Fremantle in Western Australia, Lyttelton in New Zealand, Port William in Falkland Islands and Cape Town in South Africa.

Goa, late July 2017; five of the crew members of INSV Tarini on the deck of the yacht. From left: Lt Payal Gupta, Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal, Lt Sh Vijaya Devi, Lt Cdr Patarappalli Swathi and Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The idea of Sagar Parikrama was originally put forth by Vice Admiral Manohar Awati (Retd). To date, the project has seen the first Indian to successfully circumnavigate the globe (Captain Dilip Donde [Retd]) and the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe non-stop (Commander Abhilash Tomy). In interactions with this blog, Vice Admiral Awati had said that an Indian woman circumnavigating the world was always part of Sagar Parikrama. The navy got around to addressing this task once the solo non-stop circumnavigation was done.

Early December 2015, the INSV Mhadei – the Indian Navy’s sailboat with two circumnavigations and several long voyages to her credit – was tasked with a short trip. She was to proceed from her home base in Goa to Karwar; pick up materials needed for the upcoming February 2016 International Fleet Review (IFR) in Visakhapatnam (Vizag) and return to Goa. The iconic vessel had as its crew four woman officers – Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, Lieutenant (now Lieutenant Commander) P. Swathi, Lieutenant (now Lieutenant Commander) Pratibha Jamwal and Sub Lieutenant (now Lieutenant) Payal Gupta. While Payal joined later, Vartika, Swathi and Pratibha had been the Mhadei’s crew since April 2015. They had started off their tenure by training in the basics of sailing at the navy’s facility in Mumbai followed by theoretical training in seamanship, communication, navigation and meteorology at Kochi. Following these stints, they had been at Goa, sailing the Mhadei, improving their sailing skills and getting to know the boat better. Besides supervised sailings and monitored ones, they took the boat out by themselves for short trips in the vicinity. In the initial phase, the all-woman crew was trained by Dilip Donde, a Commander then.

Goa to Karwar is a distance of approximately 40 miles by sea. Around 15:00 hours on December 8, the all-woman crew – with Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi designated as skipper – sailed the Mhadei out from Goa. Next morning 9.30 hours they reached Karwar. After picking up whatever was needed for the IFR, the Mhadei commenced her return leg to Goa on December 9, at 14.30 hours. December 10, 11.00 hours, the crew had the boat safely back in Goa. This voyage was executed fully by the all-woman crew; the first time they were completely in charge of the Mhadei. The second such voyage with all-woman crew handling the craft happened on the return from IFR, back to Mhadei’s base in Goa. This leg of the journey was also Lieutenant Vijaya Devi’s first outing in the boat at sea. In August 2016, the OSN was set up. Among other functions, the onus of training the all-woman crew for circumnavigation, rested with OSN. Following their return from IFR, the crew then took the Mhadei on a trip to Mauritius. This was followed by a trip to Cape Town and thereafter participation in the annual Cape to Rio Race. Two members of the woman crew, Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi and Lieutenant Payal Gupta, were included in the navy’s team for the race, which was led by Captain Atool Sinha.

The INSV Tarini (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

In the meantime, upcoming circumnavigation in mind, the navy had placed an order with Aquarius Shipyard (formerly called Aquarius Fibreglass) for a new boat, identical to Mhadei and based on the same Tonga 56 design by Dutch designer Van de Stadt. Once the all-woman crew reassembled after the sailings to Cape Town and participation in the Cape to Rio Race, they were assigned to oversee the construction of the new boat at the yard, as part of getting to know the boat that would eventually be their floating home for months during circumnavigation. On February 18, 2017, the new boat, named INSV Tarini, was inducted into service. She is identical to the tried and tested Mhadei, save upgradation in electronics (natural given the eight years that separate the two boats), some additional storage space and ergonomic improvements for better crew comfort. Dr Pratima Kamat, Professor of History at Goa University, had been associated with the naming of the Mhadei. According to the crew, her studies and writings inspired Tarini’s name too. Mhadei is the boat deity of the Mandovi River in Goa. Tarini draws her name from Odisha’s (formerly Orissa) Tara-Tarini temple in the state’s Ganjam district. The word Tarini means boat, it is also Sanskrit for saviour. There are also sculptural similarities between the Mhadei and Tarini deities.

In the world of boats, identical build does not however guarantee identical behaviour to the T. The materials used while constructing have to taste water and settle in. Every boat must be sailed in, tested and have its initial teething problems sorted out. A sense of its responsiveness must be had. For that, on March 3, 2017 – incidentally the anniversary of the Mhadei’s first sail too – the Tarini’s all-woman crew took her on her first voyage, a Goa-Mumbai-Goa trip. This was followed by Goa-Porbandar-Goa. Now it was time to try her out for rough sea conditions. The seas of the southern hemisphere can sometimes be a handful. The Tarini made for Mauritius. In July, she sailed back to Goa with the incoming south west monsoon; an act not as easy as it may seem in the imagination, for sailing with the wind without being totally at the wind’s mercy, requires skill. “ In downwind, the sail trim and boat’s feedback are less obvious than upwind. So one has to be very careful about keeping the boat balanced,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, Tarini’s skipper, said. The later voyages of the Mhadei and all the voyages of the Tarini have been overseen by the Goa based-OSN. It is the OSN that will be nodal to upcoming circumnavigation too. On July 28, both the Tarini and the Mhadei were berthed alongside each other at the navy’s boat pool in Verem, Goa. One was a veteran of over 125,000 nautical miles sailed, two circumnavigations, 16 crossings of the Equator, six crossings of the Prime Meridian, two crossings of the International Date Line and a couple of Cape to Rio races, including the last one in which she surpassed her design speed to emerge one among a few boats finishing the race – all of this, in eight years of her existence to date. The other, was her younger twin, on the threshold of her first circumnavigation, the first leg of which would be from India to the seas south of Australia.

Sagar Parikrama continues; Mhadei seen from Tarini (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ That will be the first time as a team, we sail east on a major voyage. So far, we have always headed west,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi, said. Between the two – sailing east and sailing west – there are some differences. When you sail west, you mostly sail against wind and ocean currents. This is tough on the boat as it is getting constantly pounded. When you sail east, you sail with the wind and ocean currents. “ However during our first leg to Australia, we will have to sail against the wind and that would mean much pounding. After Australia, we would be entering the southern ocean that’s known for some of the roughest seas in the world. They say: beyond 40 degrees south, there is no law; beyond 50 degrees south, there is no God,” she said. Several weeks beyond Australia, past the Pacific Ocean and at the tip of South America, lay Cape Horn. In all of sailing, Cape Horn commands respect for it takes good sailing skills to traverse this stormy portion of the planet. Further at sea, it isn’t storms alone that worry. For a sail boat, windless days – those famous doldrums – can be as challenging as days with plenty of wind and waves. So just how well prepared is the navy’s all-woman crew?

One reason for the Mhadei heading west more often than she did east is that part of her refit used to happen at Cape Town. That’s where a lot of the maintenance work on her sails and masts get done. Go through the chronicles of this little boat and you will find Cape Town mentioned affectionately. Sailing westward with Cape Town among ports of call, therefore made sense. But south west and west are also good for training. The trips to Mauritius have served to an extent as introduction to the very northern periphery of the southern ocean. “ Besides, the Cape to Rio Race is ideal for training new crew,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi pointed out how the Cape to Rio Race tested sailing skills on a smaller scale (as compared to circumnavigation); the dimension of a trans-Atlantic crossing. “ We got an opportunity to see all the sails of the Mhadei being used. We also changed sails in rough sea conditions,’’ she said. The longest the all-woman crew has sailed yet is 44 days. “ That,’’ Lieutenant Payal Gupta said, “ approximately matches the longest stretch of sailing at sea we will tackle on the circumnavigation.’’ According to Lieutenant Commander P. Swathi, although the crossing of the Pacific Ocean and Cape Horn to Falkland Islands beyond may appear the longest stretch of circumnavigation for any layperson staring at the atlas; that is not the case for an Indian circumnavigator starting off from the country’s west coast. It is the first leg to Australia that is the longest bit. “ But then the best of estimates in terms of how many days you need to tackle a given stretch, go for a toss if you face bad weather or windless days,’’ she said. Then she recollected reflectively something Captain Dilip Donde, told them from his experience: you can prepare and prepare but then one day, you must cast off prepared to face what comes your way. “ I think we are all excited about the upcoming voyage,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. Her colleague Leiutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal added, “ If you add up all the sailings we have done since reporting for duty as all-woman crew, it is just a shade short of the length of a circumnavigation.’’ The real deal, now beckons.

The crew of INSV Tarini. In front: Lt Cdr Vartika Joshi. Back (from left): Lt Cdr Patarapalli Swathi, Lt Sh Vijaya Devi, Lt Payal Gupta, Lt Aishwarya Boddapati and Lt Cdr Pratibha Jamwal (Photo: courtesy Indian Navy)

Late July, the sun played hide and seek in the monsoon grey-sky above Goa. Occasionally it rained. At the navy’s boat pool, the Tarini was a picture of serenity. She bobbed up and down gently on the Mandovi, at times straining at her anchor ropes; the Mhadei berthed alongside served as rim of protection. The interiors of the new boat were identical to her older twin. A box of machine tools sat on a table; the table’s edge sporting a heavy steel vice, both intended for any technical work the crew may have to do. The boat will be the all-woman crew’s home for several months as they sail around the Earth. “ If we set sail by mid-August as hoped for, then we should be back in India sometime in April 2018,’’ Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi said. For the duration of that time, it will be the crew’s responsibility to keep their floating home shipshape and in good condition. “ It is true that each one of us have our strong points. But at any given time two people will be on watch and the others may be resting. This is done taking turns. There is no way you can stay comfortable knowing just your strengths. Each of us must know everything about the Tarini; how to keep it running properly,’’ Lieutenant Commander Pratibha Jamwal said.

Bougainvillea is a plant seen in many parts of India, including Goa. It has flower-like spring leaves near its flowers. The plant gets its name from the French admiral and explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The plant, a native of South America, was discovered during a voyage of circumnavigation undertaken by the explorer. What makes the plant interesting for this account is that Bougainville’s circumnavigation trip also saw the first reported circumnavigation by a woman. Jeanne Baret, although enlisted as valet and assistant to Philibert Commercon, the botanist who named the colourful plant, is also known to have been his housekeeper and likely, mistress. Since women were forbidden on French navy ships at that time, she came aboard dressed as a man. In that guise, she became the first woman circumnavigator, modern history speaks of. A glance through Wikipedia’s list of circumnavigations is enough to tell you how few and far apart circumnavigation by women have been. After Jeanne Baret’s instance in 1766-1769, the list’s next woman is Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz of Poland who in 1976-1978 became the first woman to do a solo circumnavigation. Close on her heels is Naomi Christine James of New Zealand accomplishing the first solo circumnavigation by a woman via Cape Horn, in 1977-1978. A decade later, in 1988, you have Kay Cottee of Australia who completed the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by a woman. Compared to this, on the male side of seafaring, the first circumnavigation stands to the credit of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage over 1519-1522 (completed under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano following Magellan’s death in the Philippines); the first solo circumnavigation is accomplished over 1895-1898 by Joshua Slocum and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968-1969. Nearly 250 years separate the first circumnavigation and the first circumnavigation by a woman; that too, a woman who had to dress up as man to circumvent gender barriers governing entry to navy ships then. Circumnavigation is among the longest voyages out there. It is a test of skill and endurance. A team of Indian women setting out to circumnavigate the world will no doubt be keenly watched by nation and its navy.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Two of the all-woman crew, Lieutenants Payal Gupta and Vijaya Devi, are from the navy’s education branch. They looked forward to sharing their experiences at sea with their students. Years ago, when Sagar Parikrama was conceived by Vice Admiral Awati, this knowledge-sharing was to be among intended outcomes. Embedded in the mission was the goal to make stronger the Indian sailor’s comfort with voyages of long duration at sea. Captain Dilip Donde set a benchmark with the first circumnavigation by an Indian; Commander Abhilash Tomy set it higher with nonstop circumnavigation. The OSN seeks to build further on this track record. An all-woman crew is now set to embark on circumnavigation. It is a sign of sailing in India acquiring true dimensions at last, even as the sport continues to be a niche activity despite 7500km-long coastline. The sea is a great teacher. “ People and lives change at sea,’’ Captain Atool Sinha said. OSN, the organization he heads, aims to promote ocean sailing amongst naval officers. I asked Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi if the ` woman crew’ tag attached to the Tarini’s upcoming expedition and all the judgement and expectations that accompany it, weighed on her mind.

“ No, I don’t think about it. To the sea, gender doesn’t matter,’’ she said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. For previous articles on Sagar Parikrama please click on `Sagar Parikrama’ in the categories section of the blog.)