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.)

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.)