Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

“ Swimming is my passion. I am happiest in the pool,’’ Pravin Gaikwad, 55, said.

The doctor though is best known as a runner; he is also a triathlete. His parents hail from Devgad in Maharashtra (the same Devgad that is famous for its strain of Alphonso mango). Pravin is the youngest of six children. He was born and brought up in Mumbai. His father worked at Ciba Geigy. His mother was a housewife. The family originally lived in Chembur; then shifted to Ghatkopar. Ghatkopar had a swimming pool and Pravin – then a sixth standard student – began frequenting it. The youngster went as part of group of dozen boys or so but in due course, most others dropped out. Pravin continued.

Those days, swimming pools used to have their own swimming team. When he was in the ninth standard, Pravin was taken into the pool’s team. Training became systematic. In competitions that followed with teams from other swimming pools, he won a prize in the 25 m-butterfly stroke. By the time he was pursuing studies at the tenth and twelfth standard levels, Pravin was winning medals regularly at swimming competitions. At medical college which followed, he became captain of the college swimming team. However when he completed his MBBS and enlisted to do his MD, swimming had to take a back seat for work load was high.

Pravin and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati; from a SCMM gone by (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

After completing his MD, in 1988, he joined Sterling Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai and moved that side. By now Pravin was married to Arati, a fellow doctor who, incidentally, had also been his student. When the Gaikwads arrived in Vashi, it was the early phase of Navi Mumbai’s growth. Vashi and other suburbs in the region were hardly the well-developed residential areas they are today. For a pool to swim in, they had to go all the way to Belapur, where the local YMCA maintained one. For eight years, Pravin worked at two hospitals in Navi Mumbai. Then in 1996, the pediatrician started his own clinic in Nerul. The Gaikwads moved to Nerul, staying first at an apartment near the local railway station, eventually moving to a proper house in the center of the fast growing township. Meanwhile the commitment to swimming continued. One of the housing societies in Nerul, Sailesh Towers, has a swimming pool. The Gaikwads headed there first. For a brief while in between they shifted to the swimming pool at the D. Y. Patil sports complex nearby; then they returned to the pool at Sailesh Towers. In 2007, Pravin resumed participating in swimming competitions (short distance ones) earning podium finishes for nearly three years.

Sometime in 1998, the Nerul Gymkhana started to organize annual cycle races. The Gaikwads were regular podium finishers in their respective categories with one year being particularly notable for the podium finishers included not only Pravin and Arati but also their children and Arati’s father. “ It was indeed a proud moment for the family,’’ Pravin said. In 2010, Arati’s brother Atul, asked her to participate in an adventure sports race in Pune called Enduro. It was a mix of cycling and hiking. Pravin, Arati and Atul registered as a team in the forty plus age category; their team aptly named Fortified. They were podium finishers at the event in all the years of participation, in 2011, 2012 and 2013 as well.

On the Kharghar Hill road (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

On Parsik Hill; (from left) Asutosh Roy, Pravin, Vijay Kalpati and Arati (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Like Mumbai earlier, Navi Mumbai too is an area blessed with enough nature to make a sports enthusiast happy, yet steadily losing that bounty to the incessant march of townships, roads and traffic. Vashi, Nerul, Belapur – they are all accessed after a sea crossing from the Mumbai side. Once you cross so, you see looming in the neighborhood, like a long wall, the stretch of Parsik Hill running north-south from Mumbra towards Belapur and Kharghar. Simply put, Navi Mumbai has quick access to both the sea and the hills. Not many places are privileged so. On the edge of Belapur, overlooking Kharghar is a wonderfully located road. It snakes its way up from near the Mumbai-Pune highway to villages at the top of the seasonal Pandavkada waterfall. An early morning visit to this ascending road – some five kilometers long one way – would yield a collection of runners, walkers and cyclists. There are other such roads frequented by walkers and runners in Navi Mumbai but this is the prince of it all. Locally, it is called Kharghar Hill Road. In 2011, the Gaikwads were out walking on this road when they met two runners – Surya Buddhavarapu and his wife Sudha, both of them, members of the group: Navi Mumbai Runners (NMR) – who suggested that they get into running. Until then, the Gaikwads had done the occasional run. They hadn’t ` taken up’ running. We use the term ` take up’ deliberately for Pravin is by nature and grooming, a diligent pursuer of what he decides to do. He believes in systematic approach and committed preparation. “ At school, I wasn’t very intelligent or anything so. I was hard working. Studying medicine may have strengthened further the need to work hard and my faith in that approach. I have also read somewhere that if you keep on doing something, then you will be amazed by what you achieve,’’ Pravin said. He speaks with care; there is little impulsiveness and much that seems to hark of thinking through his responses.

Arati in contrast, is a spontaneous person. She likes fun. Born in Maharashtra’s Dhule’s district and living since the age of two in Mumbai, she readily concedes that her approach to life is very different from that of her husband. She prepares and trains but not as devotedly as Pravin. And she isn’t above taking her chances at races, prepared or not, settling often for the satisfaction of completing a race as opposed to chasing a personal best timing or being on some trajectory of improvement.  An element of fun is eminently acceptable. “ I have always been interested in nutrition and fitness,’’ she said. Shortly after the couple moved to Nerul, she bought a bicycle. “ The attitude was that you should be active, both of us were regular walkers’’ she said. At the time she bought the cycle, Nerul was a quiet place with only a bus stop where long distance buses halted, for link to Mumbai. “ We shifted to our current residence 10 years ago. The cycle travelled everywhere with us,’’ she said.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin (lemon yellow T-shirt); from one of the editions of the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

In April 2011, Pravin reported for a NMR organized-run on the Kharghar Hill Road. He ran up and down the hill comfortably; he didn’t pause anywhere to drink water. Arati joined in at the next such run, sometime in May. According to the Gaikwads, NMR helped nurture and bring out their potential. Swimmers, they also noticed the difference in running. “ Running provides social context,’’ Pravin said. That was remarkably different from the secluded cocoon of immediate world that is the predicament of swimmer in water. What running provided was relevant for the Gaikwads. Besides, as Pravin pointed out, by then Arati was also running well. At the first formal running event they participated in – it was at the Borivali National Park in August 2011 – both husband and wife ended up on the podium. Slowly a new ecosystem grew. The occasional podium finishes they got encouraged the doctor-couple to run, while in NMR, they had a motivated group of people to train with who were also quite egalitarian in their perspective. To this Pravin added his characteristic twist – always the devoted student, he read up on running and researched the sport on the Internet. This was blended with his tendency to push himself. I always wanted to challenge myself. The human body has considerable reserves – these were among sentences that cropped up regularly in our conversation with him. He credited that approach to his medical training. In the medical profession, one is always learning about what the body was designed to do, what the body has wrecked, how that happened, how the body repairs itself and what the body has in reserve. Pravin graduated from the early short runs to the half marathon and on to the full marathon. His transition was smooth. “ If you are a good swimmer, you don’t fight with water. You glide through it. You can do the same with running,’’ he said. All this was alongside busy days at the clinic. In 2012, the two doctors travelled to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala so that Arati could do a short course in problems concerning adolescents, at the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Now she also works with Pravin at the clinic devoted to children’s health. “ We would as pediatricians love to influence the lives of the adolescents we work with by acting as role models directly or indirectly, by motivating them to inculcate healthy food habits and healthy lifestyle with physical activity playing some role in their lives,’’ Pravin said. In November 2016, the Gaikwads were part of a group of eight doctors who conducted sexual health workshops in Dahanu tribal schools. “ We hope to do many more workshops and empower our adolescents to take the right decisions for a healthy life and a better future,’’ Pravin said.

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Arati at the Javadhu Ultra (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Life with a swimmer brought Arati seriously to swimming. She was no stranger to water and swimming. In her childhood her father had packed off his children to the pool at Shivaji Park, Dadar, so that they were acquainted with the basics of swimming. But with no proper coaching at that time, it was at her swimming sessions post-marriage that she genuinely learnt. After Pravin started going out for runs, he used to tell her that she should experience it at least once. “ He knew I would be interested. Upon trying, I found running doable. On my first run, I didn’t stop anywhere,’’ she said. She was able to complete a 21 km-half marathon in two hours, forty five minutes. Although she had the distinct feeling that she would be able to run well, she took a back seat. First of course, was her nature, which was partial to being less systematic; it was more organic and less deliberate or driven. “ I am not very focused,’’ she said. Arati for instance loves her sleep; Pravin being endurance junkie can do with much less. Pravin spends on equipment, researches what bicycles to buy. She doesn’t. Second, as she put it, “ in a family, both people being equally dedicated to running can be a problem!’’ They have two sons. She confessed to being secretly happy with the occasional injuries Pravin picked up through running, for it kept the endurance junkie at home with family. At times her happiness showed. “ He would quip: you seem to be happy with my injury,’’ she said laughing. For most of her races, Arati trained alone. Her first formal half marathon was at SCMM, the result of an event registration gifted by Pravin. After three years spent running half marathons, Arati moved up to the full marathon. “ There is a world of difference between half and full marathon. I want to try running 42 km without formal training, without the tension of going through a systematic programme. I am a different personality, he is a different personality. I cannot be like Pravin,’’ she said. Yet notwithstanding this core disparity in their individual nature and personality, the Gaikwads participated together in several events. In 2013, Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) chose them as the running couple of the year with Pravin and Arati being additionally declared second runner up in individual awards for the male and female categories.

Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads

Pravin; from a half marathon at Durshet (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

It was his endurance cast through long association with water that provided the basic substratum for the runner in Pravin to stand on. His competence in swimming has grown to encompass both the confines of a pool and the openness of the sea. He has been a participant in sea swimming competitions with podium finishes at some. With running also added and cycling known, the triathlon beckoned. Both Pravin and Arati have participated in and completed triathlons in India. In April 2015, the couple participated in the Pune Triathlon with Arati winning in her category in the sprint distance and Pravin finishing second runner up in his category in the Olympic distance. In December that year, they also participated in the Maharashtra State Triathlon in Sindhudurg emerging winners in their respective categories. “ I can do the half Ironman, that shouldn’t be a problem,’’ Pravin reckons, “ a full Ironman will require devoted training; maybe in two to three years’ time.’’ Their passage through these disparate sports, all sharing the common thread of endurance hasn’t been without its moments of anxiety.

In Nerul, not far from the town’s Ayyappa Temple, is the small bicycle shop run by Inderjit Singh Khamba. He worked for many years in the training and development line; then quit his job to begin something on his own. He loves technical stuff. The first business he ventured into was assembling computers. Currently he is fully into selling, building, maintaining and repairing bicycles. Inderjit knew that the bikes he built were only as good as they performed. So he started going for rides on them, acquiring thus a background in cycling. One of the people who dropped by at his shop was Pravin. As their mutual familiarity grew Inderjit asked if Pravin and Arati would be interested in participating in a 180 km-Veloraid, which Inderjit had taken part in twice before. It was a team event. Pravin hadn’t cycled such a long distance before. So they went out for a test ride and with the outcome looking promising, the Gaikwads said yes.

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

From Veloraid (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

According to Arati, they were a team of six cyclists. The Veloraid was from Yeoor Hills to Tansa Lake and back. During training sessions, they had been on a section of the route before. On the day of Veloraid however, it rained and there was mud on the road. Roughly six to seven kilometers before Tansa, on a downhill section of the route, Arati tried to avoid a pothole and went off the road. “ I was ahead and heard something like the sound of a tree cracking or crashing,’’ Pravin said. Inderjit was behind Arati; he saw the accident happening. According to him, Arati’s perch on her bicycle wasn’t perfect; the handle bar was too close to her body. This meant, the slightest jerk while steering the bike, translated into major variations at wheel level. “ Into the descent, there were a few S-shaped bends on the road. Two things happened. First, Arati gathered speed on the descent. Second, there was an arc-shaped portion on the road’s edge, where the tarmac had totally weathered off. The wheel of her bike entered this portion and didn’t climb back up. Instead, the pothole’s edge guided it off the road,’’ Inderjit said. Arati was hauled up from the hillside, some eight to nine feet below the road. “ I was in a daze. I didn’t know what was happening,’’ she said. While she escaped with minor injuries, her helmet was a statement of what could have been – it was split open down the middle. She had a cut just above the eye, a cut on the chin, bruised elbows and knees and overall body pain from having had to be pulled up. Post-Veloraid, it took her a long while to recover from both the strain to her torso as well as the overall shock, a side effect of which was weight loss. The Gaikwads’ return to cycling has since been careful. On his part, Inderjit, noticing the mismatched positioning of the handle bar on Arati’s cycle, has built Arati a new bicycle. “ I will resume running, cycling and swimming when my body feels ready for it,’’ she said. About 10 days after we met her, Arati was among those who successfully completed the half marathon at the 2017 SCMM. It wasn’t the best of timings but true to her nature, she appeared content and happy.

Pravi and Arati with Arati's brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they used to participate in (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin and Arati with Arati’s brother, Atul. From one of the Enduro races they  participated in as a team (Photo: courtesy the Gaikwads)

Pravin’s diligent training continues. Those who train with him say that he is very disciplined in his approach. He is strict in training schedules and adherence to proper diet (if he is running at a location away from home, he often brings along food suited to the diet he is observing). While training, if he is supposed to meet a certain target on a particular day, he will make sure he does, Mani Iyer, who has trained and run with Pravin, said. As combination of doctor, keen runner, triathlete and someone who reads to know more, his friends consider him well informed on the subject of running and endurance sport. An approachable person, he is known to offer tips to others on how to improve their performance. At the same time, even during his training hours, he remains available to patients. He is capable of running and discussing a medical case on the phone at once, friends who know him well, said. Pravin’s personal best in the full marathon so far, is 3:38, registered at the 2017 Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM). He has also done ultramarathons – he did the Javadhu Hills Ultra in Tamil Nadu in 2016 (Pravin was first runner up in his age category, while Arati who ran the shorter 25km-event was first runner up in her age group), the annual Mumbai Ultra and in 2012, a dawn to dusk run in Navi Mumbai organized by NMR. “ I don’t want to run many events. I would look at perhaps a full marathon, an ultra and a triathlon every year,’’ he said. In terms of events overseas, he has his eyes on the Boston Marathon and The Comrades in South Africa. No matter what the event, he would like to prepare diligently for it. On that, he is clear.

Personal Best (Pravin):

10km – November 2016, Navy Run – 43:50

21km – December 2016, VVMM – 1:38

42km – January 2017, SCMM – 3:38

Personal Best (Arati):

21km – February 2014, Thane Hiranandani – 2:02

42km – January 2015, SCMM – 4:48

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)            


Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen C. M (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Bengaluru’s Clarence Public School has a reputation locally in sports.

Years ago, a seventh standard student with affection for running, jumping, throwing – in short, all that qualified to be the active school life – found himself on an excursion to Bannerghata, a little over 20 km from the city. By then his interest in sports had already harvested a collection of trophies – “ you know, the small ones indicative of everyone’s school days’’ – displayed at home. The student group was headed to Tulips Resort. En route, they stopped for a rappelling session. Hariprasad, the instructor, went beyond rappelling and showed some primary climbing moves and techniques to the students. Later, at the resort, there was a challenge to climb a eucalyptus tree; the prize was a box of chocolates. Praveen C.M bagged the prize. Intrigued by the boy’s natural talent, Hariprasad made him climb a couple of trees around. That paved the way for Praveen reporting to Yavanika, a state agency dealing with youth services and empowerment. Yavanika managed a 15 m-high plywood climbing wall on its premises, the only such wall in Karnataka state at that time.  “ At a certain point, the wall was eight feet wide. In that width, we had four top ropes; in the portion of the wall below the top roped climbers, others bouldered. And of course, there were the belayers. It was congested but managed well. Looking back, I feel those were the days when climbing actually grew in Bengaluru,’’ Praveen said. We were at a coffee shop on the city’s MG Road. Close by was a branch of Canara Bank. In the days Praveen discovered climbing, his father worked as a head clerk at Canara Bank.

On his second visit to Yavanika, Praveen found a state level climbing competition underway. He said he wanted to try one of the routes. Indulging the school boy’s request, the organizers put him on the climbing route for women. The youngster topped it. Muniraju, who was a good climber then, saw this. He asked Praveen to climb again. Soon thereafter, Praveen began frequenting the wall and climbing with Muniraju. In the first state level competition he attended following this phase, he finished third in his age category. In the next zonal competition he placed second. By 1998, he was at his first national level climbing competition, held at New Delhi on the old wall of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the apex body for matters related to mountaineering and sport climbing in India. “ I still remember the crux on the climbing route in that competition. It was a move requiring considerable reach; it was at the third or fourth clip. Of the eight minutes available to climb, I spent seven figuring out what to do at this point. Eventually in desperation, I jumped for the next hold but couldn’t make it. It was a move that was tough for short people,’’ Praveen said. He is a well-built climber of modest height.

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen, climbing in Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

That issue of inadequate reach would survive as fuel to navigate his way through climbing. It triggered two responses – first, in due course, it forced Praveen to be a dynamic climber on sport routes, resorting to lunges and leaps wherever he was challenged for want of reach. Second, it made him notice an often overlooked aspect of climbing – route setting. In India, a country with relentless rat race, the popular instinct of any alpha male is to shape environment according to his convenience. When it came to climbing routes, they were typically designed to showcase the climber who did it. In the outdoors for example, bolting wasn’t an inclusive art that took into account different body sizes and climbing styles. What’s the fun in climbing if it is to merely have rat race endorsed and one’s failures magnified? The route at the national competition intrigued. On the one hand, Praveen was encouraged by the fact that he had reached the third or fourth clip; on the other hand, his progress thereon was challenged by a move, he thought, was rather unfair given his shorter reach. It impressed upon him the importance of route setting as an art. It seemed the heart of sport climbing’s capacity for challenge and enjoyment.

Soon after his first national competition, Praveen joined the group of climbers being trained by Keerthi Pais. The group was called `Manav.’ It was a tightly knit group, perhaps too tightly knit to be easily accepting of newcomers. “ It took me almost a year to be trusted and counted,’’ Praveen said. But the persistence was worth it for the climbers Keerthi trained, turned out to be good. It was also an interesting time in India’s sport climbing map. The north zone was dominant; their climbers were ahead of the field. Keerthi was set to tilt the balance. “ The first medal for Manav – this one within the state – was won by Geetha,’’ Praveen said. Slowly, the group made its presence felt at the nationals through such climbers like Karthik, Archana and Vatsala. Keerthi’s group trained with commitment. Praveen recalled his life from that phase; those were the years of transitioning from Clarence Public School to Bengaluru’s National College. He stayed 18 km away from the climbing wall used for training. Those days, the city’s nascent metro rumbling overhead every few minutes near where we sat on MG Road, was not even a plan on the horizon. Buses to town from where he stayed were not many; certainly none very early in the morning. He left home at 4 AM and waited on the main road nearby for a lift. Sometimes the travel was managed in one vehicle all through to town. At other times, it was a series of lifts availed. The objective – report at the wall by 5.30 AM for the morning training session. Once training was finished, he went to college straight from the wall. College over, he returned to the climbing wall. The evening training session lasted till around 7 PM. He reached home by 9 PM. “ Buses plying on the route home would be packed with people. After a day of climbing at the wall, I would again be hanging on to something, except it was on the footboard of a bus. The routine was such that I didn’t know night and day,’’ Praveen said. He trained almost every day at the wall.

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Praveen (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

In 2000, Praveen secured top honors in the junior category at the national climbing competition held in Darjeeling. With Keerthi’s wards beginning to perform well, it was now increasingly evident that the center of gravity in competitive sport climbing was shifting to Bengaluru in south India. Sport climbing was small in the country but its aficionados had a rather even geographic spread. In 2003, Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, organized an open sport climbing competition – the first time it did so. The small annual event would grow to be a much loved one, held without break thereafter for over a decade. It became the seed for the 2016 IFSC World Cup held in Navi Mumbai. The geographic distribution and prevailing status of sport climbing in India was clear in the turnout of the competition’s initial years; climbers came from Delhi; Bikaner, Darjeeling, India’s north eastern states, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Davengere and Bengaluru with Bengaluru as rising powerhouse.

Around the time Praveen won his first medal in the junior category at the national climbing competition, speed climbing made its debut. In 2001, at a competition (not the national one) held in Delhi, Praveen won in both lead and speed climbing disciplines. From roughly the next year onward he proceeded to become a regular fixture among toppers at the national climbing championship. According to him, he placed first for 16 years in one discipline or the other, including in one or two years, first place across all three disciplines – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering. Praveen said he does not view these disciplines as disparate and instead sees them as interlinked and synergic. Helping this embrace of all three disciplines, was the solution he had evolved to compensate for his physical size in climbing – his affection for dynamic moves. In his years in competition climbing, Praveen has represented India at international climbing competitions in several places; among them – Malaysia, China, Macau, Korea, Indonesia and France. His most recent appearance at the national climbing championship was in 2015, where he placed second in bouldering, fourth in lead climbing and qualified for the final in speed but didn’t take part. The names you hear as he recollects his years as a competition climber spans the who’s who of Indian sport climbing – Mohit, Karthik, Pranesh, Prashant, Norbu, Ganesh, Ravinder, Archana, Vatsala, Shanti Rani, Dasini, Kala, Vaibhav, Mangesh, Sandeep, Aziz, Tuhin, Somnath; all names that strike a chord with anyone who has known the sport in India for a while. He has also noticed how the larger environment in which the sport nestles, has changed.

At work, setting up a route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

At work, setting up a bolted sport climbing route on natural rock (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Recalling the time when potential candidates for an Indian team headed to compete in Macau were shortlisted and training was underway, he said, “ if I finished climbing a route, I would think of how I can make you do that route. Each person used to think of helping the other build competence. Such bonding is much less at present. The team spirit has faded although we have strong individual climbers,’’ he said. Distractions have also multiplied. With everyone competing to attract sponsorship, social media has become important. The emphasis is on advertising oneself, not climbing. In the process, you have more and more attitudes and impressions / illusions of self to deal with. “ I never had a sponsor. As part of a national team, yes you got the support of whoever sponsored the team. But as an individual climber, I never had a sponsor; there was nobody for the long haul,’’ Praveen said.

There were also other trends, which Praveen touched upon as he reflected on the nearly two decades he has been in climbing, 16 years of that as regular topper at the national climbing championship. In Indian competition climbing, he said, both authorities and athletes have gone wrong in equal measure. “ When you go abroad to compete in an international competition, you are initially overwhelmed by what all you have heard about foreign climbers. You may also be a bit rattled by first impressions. But on closer look and after climbing with them at a competition, you come back realizing that you can bridge the gap. You also set for yourself what must be addressed to bridge the gap,’’ he said, adding, “ a big problem is – in India, we don’t invest long term. We support sports from event to event or we support an individual for one event expecting the world from him or her. When we don’t get that performance immediately, we say the person has failed; we discard that person and take someone else. That is not how it should be. Support must be sustained and long term. The result of this erratic approach is that by the time we manage to get back to an international competition, the overseas climbers have progressed by leaps and bounds from where they were when you first met them. They have a continuous calendar for competing and systematic training to back it up. We don’t.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

“ The other thing is we don’t strive to make a good impression. Making a good impression is important for an athlete’s self-confidence. If let’s say, your home federation is so indifferent that they send you to an international competition in ill-fitting dress or don’t adequately back you up in paperwork, support and facilities, you automatically come across to event organizer and other competitors as disowned by your own people. Why would anyone else then give you a damn? That should not be the case. In one of the international competitions organized years ago, I remember, each overseas competitor had a chauffeur driven car for the ride from Delhi to the venue, some 380 km away. The Indian team went to the local bus terminus in Delhi, boarded a regular state transport bus, ate at dhabas along the way and reached the venue. I am not demanding special treatment; all I am saying is – if you don’t respect your athletes, none of them will respect you in return. Rather sadly, in the competition climbing set up in India, the ones who count the most are the judges. It must be appreciated that the people who create a competition are the athletes and the route setters. One climbs; the other challenges the climber with climbing routes. That is the basic competition climbing ecosystem. Judges intervene, when you have a tough decision or choice to make. Theirs is perspective meant to provide clarity in crunch situations. When imagining sport, it should be the sport and its ecosystem first, only after that, how to decide outcome. Please remember – if athletes are not there, none of the others will be there.’’

According to Praveen, athletes too have their share of emergent faults. The old dedication in training has become less. The bonding between athletes is less. Earlier, climbing was in focus. It was the only thing that mattered. Now, climbing as sport struggles to preserve its priority for athlete, in the growing matrix of smartphones; social media, fame and head-strong attitudes. Success goes to the head too quickly these days. Praveen is among those who felt disappointed by how the Indian team fared at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. He believes that the attitude of some of the athletes and the impact that had on training, played a role in the outcome. An angle often discussed by rock climbers and sport climbers is whether the IMF with its greater familiarity of mountaineering, has what it takes to empathize sufficiently with sport climbing. Praveen said that in all these years, he came across only one senior official at IMF, who grasped the nuances of competition climbing and understood what support the athletes were looking for. Yet for all its flaws Praveen believes it is still the IMF that is best placed to manage sport climbing matters. Internationally, sport climbing moved out from the erstwhile umbrella body for all types of climbing (the UIAA) and formed its own distinct federation (the International Federation of Sport Climbing – IFSC). In India, there have been suggestions to mimic this move domestically. “ The problem in anyone trying so here is that, as yet, I have no reason to conclude anyone else has a better agenda than the IMF or will be different,’’ Praveen said.

On the subject of a vigorous domestic calendar for competition climbing, he welcomed more competitions including those driven by prize money. A series of local competitions (instead of one zonal competition), strong zonal teams and all of it feeding into a national championship or a rolling series of national competitions felt wonderful to his imagination. I asked if hypothetically, leagues – on the lines of what is happening in other sports with teams composed mostly of local athletes and a few foreign athletes to improve standards, made sense. He was supportive of the idea of a league but not as supportive of foreign athletes because the gap in climbing competence between here and overseas is at present, significant. Too glaring a gap and support for domestic athletes may wither. “ What makes greater sense for me is spending the money you have for these fancy competitions, on excellent training overseas. That way you bring up the quality of local talent and reduce the gap in competence before featuring any league with foreign climbers alongside. I have a dream in sport climbing. One in which, India has a good sport climbing team that athletes wish to get into and to do so, they compete in the sport. Once they are in the team, they should feel they are part of it and that they are set to perform well. I say this because I experienced the pain. Aside from the ecosystem Keerthi created which I was fortunate to be part of, I didn’t have a dedicated coach or a sponsor despite being on the podium at the national level for 16 years,’’ Praveen said.

In Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

From Badami (Photo: Jyothy Karat)

Some time back, Praveen decided to address the old questions he had grappled with about climbing routes. He went to do a route setter’s course in Kazakhstan but on arrival there, found that the course had been cancelled. However he helped out with the Asian youth championship in climbing, which Kazakhstan was hosting. The competition’s route setter was impressed and invited him to join the route setting team for a competition in Korea. Following this stint, he did his international route setter’s course in Iran. For the two stints of work he had to mandatorily put in thereafter as aspirant route setter, he worked with a competition in Indonesia and later in May 2016, as part of the route setting team for the IFSC World Cup in Navi Mumbai. Some years ago, he also floated a company – Sportclimbing India. As of now it builds climbing walls; it is also distributor for Flat Holds, a Swiss manufacturer of climbing holds and Discovery, the Korea-based manufacturer of climbing walls. Additionally, he is training a team of climbers from Badami, Hubli, Davangere and Chitradurga. According to him, they are good, strong climbers who should soon be securing podium finishes. He is training them at his own expense.

Now 31 years old, Praveen hopes that at some point his climbing wall / holds business and the team he is grooming, become synergic; that a mutually complementing ecosystem in climbing, forms. Asked why he did not explore a regular job in some other more predictable, stable field, Praveen said, “ I was so much into climbing that I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t have a back-up plan.’’ There have also been forays into other branches of climbing. In 2015, Praveen had embarked on an expedition to climb Mt Everest. He was on the mountain when the devastating earthquake of that season struck Nepal killing thousands, including damage and casualties at Everest Base Camp. The expedition had to be aborted. The seed for this digression from sport climbing into a mountaineering expedition came from a little known trip in 2012. According to Praveen, that year, a 10 member-team composed of eight army personnel and two civilians and led by a civilian – Keerthi Pais – had recorded the first ascent of a rocky peak called Zambala on Ladakh’s Siachen Glacier. “ I was the only one who climbed all through. It is now a bolted climbing route at altitude,’’ Praveen said.

Sixteen floors up, Praveen’s tryst with climbing continues.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Details of competitions are as recollected by the interviewee. All the photos used in this article are taken by Jyothy Karat. They were provided for use with this story, by Praveen.)     


Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Grant Maughan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ I am just trying to fill my time with life and keep it all interesting’’

Grant Maughan, 52, is among the top endurance athletes and adventure racers in his age category worldwide. A seafarer from Australia, he took to running rather late. But in the time since, he has run nearly 60 races including some of the world’s toughest ultramarathons (a few of them several times), a clutch of triathlons and a much smaller number of marathons. He is also into surfing and mountaineering and loves to ride long distance on his motorcycle. In August 2016, he was joint winner in the 333 km-race of La Ultra, held in Ladakh (for that story please try this link: 

This interview, done by email in October, was triggered by Grant’s penchant for a packed calendar in running, in particular the July-September 2016 period when he completed the Badwater Ultramarathon in California in sixth place overall, completed La Ultra in record time in Ladakh, completed the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado, did a solo self-supported crossing of Badwater (from Death Valley to Mt Whitney Portal, pulling a trolley filled with supplies) in record time and completed Spartathlon, the famous ultramarathon in Greece. Why does he follow a packed schedule? Does it always work? What is its impact? Grant explains in this Q&A:    

Is the packed calendar one saw during July-September 2016, a regular pattern for you or is this stretch tad unusual?  Can you explain what drives you to do this?

It has been a regular pattern over the last couple of years; mainly because there have been a bunch of events I wanted to participate in and they happen to be around the same time. Last year, I had a similar schedule with Keys 100 in May, Ronda Del Cims (Andorra Ultra Trail) in June, Badwater in July and UTMB in August, finishing with Spartathlon in September. My main reason for doing this is that I love to race and cannot wait to spread events out over years. So I just get in and do them.

From the Leadville Trail Invitational (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Leadville (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Some people argue that the other side of maintaining a packed calendar is that you may not have optimum performance at every event you participate in. Is this true? If it is true, does that matter to you?

I would imagine this is very true. I have felt tired and worn out in many events that I probably could have performed better at. However, sometimes I am more intent on seeing if I can get through this sort of grueling schedule as an endurance event within itself. Some people do a Grand Slam in the US containing a number of tough 100 milers. I think my self-made Grand Slams are way tougher. I certainly like to do as well as I can at any event. But I always say that I don’t go out looking for the podium. I prefer to put in a performance that I can be proud of.

Would you say you were fully recovered from each event for the races you ran in the 2016 July-October period? What are the consequences of poor recovery in races of this magnitude? How do you handle it?

Definitely not fully recovered. However I find that doing these tough races back to back helps keep me on some fitness plateau. It allows me to keep going. If I stop too long in between events, then I seem to lose some fire. So it’s better for me to keep on attempting challenges. Generally, poor recovery is outlined by sickness from immune system breakdown, lethargy and / or injury. I have had great success with keeping my crazy schedule, but like anyone, I have occasionally suffered bad flu type of sickness, which I could also associate with a heavy travel schedule, flying and not getting enough rest. My immune system has been definitely tested but I think I would have also gotten sick at times, racing or not. Generally, if I get sick, I stop all physical activity and try to nurture myself with good diet and rest.

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod Trail Invitational (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Iditarod (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

This blog is familiar with La Ultra including its 2016 edition. Its 333 km-segment, which you ran and completed in record time (along with Jovica Spajic), is a demanding race involving distance, a range of temperatures and above all, altitude. How tired were you after that? How long did it take for you to recover?

That was a tough race. No doubt about that. Just the distance alone with no other factors would be enough to require a long rest period afterwards. I felt beat down after the race but not to the point of not being able to continue my schedule. I think the incident on Khardung La when I got pulmonary edema slowed me somewhat but I didn’t feel any residual effects that would make me stop. When I got to Leadville, Colorado, I felt tired for want of sleep. My body actually felt okay but I knew I would feel fatigue during the race. I was determined to take it easy and just make it through. Eventually during the race my body seemed to come back alive somewhat and I managed to do a sub-24 hour finish. I think during this whole period from July to September I didn’t recover at all but just maintained a level of fitness and health that allowed me to pull it all off. Now after Spartathlon, I am taking a few months off from running (or impact at least). I will maintain a fitness base by doing other things like biking, swimming and other outdoor activities.

Grant, during Badwater 146 mile solo, self supported crossing he did in the days after the 2016 edition of La Ultra (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Grant, during Badwater 146 mile solo, self supported crossing he did in the days after the 2016 edition of La Ultra (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From the 333 km run at altitude in La Ultra you moved to Leadville and then, the Badwater solo crossing, which you did, pulling a trolley laden with the supplies you need, all the way from Death Valley to Mt Whitney Portal. While physical recovery is one thing, how do you handle your mind, moving from one demanding experience to another? What happens to your mind in the middle of any of your endurance events? Does it speak, rebel or does it switch off?

I don’t have any issues with my mind on these types of things. In fact, part of my mind is looking forward to all the pain and suffering of trying to get through to the end. I think I get this type of strength from being a loner, a hard worker and deep thinker. Like anyone I have my moments during these events when I ask myself: why am I bothering to put myself through this type of purgatory? But it’s usually fleeting and is always overridden by other parts of my mind urging me to go on and complete the job at hand. Other times, the mind just switches off. I seem to have the capacity to do that, sort of like a self-imposed meditation.

From Marathon Des Sables (Photo; courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Marathon Des Sables (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

People always ask what I think of out there and I tell them that I think of many things and sometimes, absolutely nothing. I believe that the toughest thing for some people while trying to finish an ultramarathon or such events is the time. When they look at the watch and realize they may be out there for another 10, 15, 20 hours or more, I think that is the hardest part for some to accept; the actual measurement of time and how much longer they need to keep moving and feeling uncomfortable. It happens to me sometimes. But I can just shut off my mind to let the time go by. I can do this driving or riding a motorcycle long distance. I can drive across a country non-stop without a problem by just shutting off time perception to deal with the boredom of holding on to the wheel or handlebars, hour after hour. It is similar to working at sea, when you are crossing a featureless ocean for weeks at a time. The horizon is just a line with the sky and water. I believe seafaring has really helped me do long distance endurance events.

From Spartathlon (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Spartathlon (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

You had posted on the Internet that your 2016 Spartathlon experience was quite trying. You went into the race unwell and then endured some really hard moments. Can you tell us what happened? Do you suspect that your packed race schedule may have had something to do with your condition ahead of the race? Is Spartathlon reason enough for you to rethink your affection for packed schedule?

I actually wasn’t looking forward to doing Sparty. I ran it last year and wasn’t that impressed with the course; smog filled Athens and then industrial areas. When I got out into the country, I thought it would be pristine but it was garbage strewn and that really disappointed me. Last year, I turned up tired from another heavy schedule and battled through it even though I had run that distance before in the Coast to Kosci race in Australia in under 27 hours. This year, I again turned up after my crazy amount of races and felt tired of course but additionally, the day before the race, got swollen glands and tight larynx that made swallowing very painful. On the morning of the race I had a lot of mucus and felt very under the weather. I knew I shouldn’t start and should go back to bed but as happens, the vibe makes you want to have a go anyway. I figured on taking it easy and really didn’t have a choice. I wanted to quit so bad at the 50 mile checkpoint and at 100 miles but for some reason left the checkpoints before my saner side could take over. In the end I finished, passing many runners on the last big mountain range before going down to Sparta like last year, but my overall pace was slow. It was a very miserable experience getting through the race. I just didn’t feel like being there but I like to finish what I start; so I made myself go on.

In such physical states, time does seem to get elongated. An hour seemed like ten. So I really needed to put my brain to bed during the race and shut it off from reality. I can’t describe how relieved I was to stop at the finish line. Spartathlon is not a race you should finish a heavy season of events with. It is a fast, long ultra with no-compromise time cut-offs along the way. Sometime in the future, I may like to turn up there fresh and fit and see what time I can pull of when in a better physical state than the two times I have run it.

From Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - UTMB (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

From Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – UTMB (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

What are you seeking in all this? Is there anything you seek from universe through what you endure? Given you have experience of mountaineering, seafaring and love surfing and riding motorcycles, not to mention good enough at music to be a one man band, what do you describe yourself as?

Some people have described me as a renaissance man. I like that. I enjoy many variables in my existence. I think it keeps me alive and kicking. I also like the hybrid nature of all my hobbies. I feel they cover a wide span of things. I think of myself as a doer. I like to try new things and become competent at them. I don’t feel I am searching for anything or running away from anything. I am just trying to fill my time with life and keep it all interesting. I am very curious about many things and like to see the world in colour; not black and white.

Training, pulling a tyre (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

Training, pulling a tyre (Photo: courtesy Grant Maughan)

How do you relax after your races? What do you do to unwind?

I am as good as anyone at lounging around, drinking a beer or eating chocolate while watching movies, playing guitar or just looking at the sky.

What are your next plans?

The next few months will be dedicated to recovery of my body and immune system before 2017, when I hope to start another year of exploring, traveling and racing. I have applied for the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota in January (I did this event a couple of years ago). It is a winter race pulling a sled with mandatory survival gear in it. There are usually only three aid stations along the route, so you must carry a lot of fluids and calories. This year, they may be offering an unsupported class, which means you cannot stop at aid stations. I am interested in this. Then, in February I have the Iditarod 350 mile winter race in Alaska, which is a similar format though it also requires some navigation. I don’t have any firm plans after that but intend to keep busy.

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



Miho Nonaka after the last boulder problem at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Miho Nonaka after the last boulder problem at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kokoro Fujii after the last boulder problem at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kokoro Fujii after the last boulder problem at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Japanese secured four of the six podium positions on offer at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering, in Navi Mumbai on Sunday.  The men’s category was won by Kokoro Fujii of Japan, with second and third positions going to Tomoa Narasaki (Japan) and Alexey Rubtsov (Russia) respectively.  In the women’s segment Miho Nonaka of Japan finished in first place followed by Monika Retschy (Germany) and Akiyo Noguchi (Japan) in that order. Earlier, six athletes each from the men’s and women’s categories made it to the finals. Besides those mentioned in the podium finishes, others in the list of finalists were Rustam Gelmanov (Russia), Jongwon Chon (Korea), Jeremy Bonder (France), Melissa Le Neve (France), Sol Sa (Korea) and Katharina Saulwein (Austria). The semis saw some upsets. Among those who didn’t make it to the finals were Jan Hojer (Germany), Sean McColl (Canada) and Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain).  Being Sunday, there was a sizable audience at the venue and they cheered the climbers through the competition.

Following the Navi Mumbai World Cup, the top five athletes in terms of their ranking in the currently underway-2016 bouldering season were Kokoro Fujii (Japan / 255 points), Alexey Rubtsov (Russia / 242), Tomoa Narasaki (Japan / 218), Rustam Gelmanov (Russia / 216) and Jan Hojer (Germany / 168). The top five among women were Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain / 337), Melissa Le Neve (France / 258), Miho Nonaka (Japan / 254), Akiyo Noguchi (Japan / 212) and Monika Retschy (Germany / 172). As regards national team standings, Japan led the field with 793 points followed by France (712), Great Britain (612), Russia (424) and Austria (288). Interestingly in combined rankings (across sport climbing’s various disciplines) for the ongoing 2016 World Cup season, the leader in the men’s category by a wide margin was Sean McColl (Canada / 144).

Here are a few photos from day two of the recently held World Cup in Navi Mumbai:

day two-7day two-9day two-8

day two-1day two-12day two-15day two-6day two-18day two-13day two-21day two-17day two-16day two-20day two-14day two-25day two-29day two-19day two-22day two-23day two-2day two-4day two-5day two-30day two-26day two-10IMG_9903IMG_0059

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the photos used in this article were taken by him. He would like to thank Pravin Shinde for permitting the use of his camera for the days of the World Cup.)



Captain Joshua Slocum (Image: from the cover of his book)

Captain Joshua Slocum (Image: from the cover of his book)

The story of Captain Joshua Slocum stuns.

Over three years spanning 1895-98, Slocum became the first man to circumnavigate the globe alone. Hailing from Nova Scotia, he was a veteran sailor, his association with the sea beginning when yet a young lad. Slocum became a captain, even owning a ship in part. He appears maritime survivor in the classical sense. Once, shipwrecked in South America, he built a new vessel and sailed back to the North with his family. But he remained a man of sail and when the age of steam navigation dawned, Slocum’s relevance faded. That was when he saw the `Spray,’ rebuilt her and over three years, sailed the sloop around the world, alone. His book on the voyage, written with little drama, presents itself to the reader as an understatement. In 1909, aged 65 and now known for his solo circumnavigation, the captain embarked on another solo project in the Spray – exploring rivers in South America. He wasn’t seen again and was eventually declared dead as of November 14th that year. The oceans cover approximately 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface. They hold 97 per cent of the planet’s water. The total volume of our oceans is about 1.3 billion cubic kilometres and its average depth is 12,080 feet with a maximum depth of 35,994 feet. It is home to many species. Climate as we know wouldn’t exist without the oceans. The Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Earth’s land masses combined. The Southern Ocean, essentially the southern waters of the world’s oceans leading up to Antarctica, poses some of the harshest weather conditions at sea.

Yet Slocum, sailing alone, never knew how to swim.

London. 1948.

A bombed out Europe was trying to reconstruct. For the 21 year-old Indian officer, newly commissioned in the then Royal Indian Navy, it was a good time to be in London attending a course at the Royal Naval College. He was feted everywhere he went simply because, in the eyes of the English, the Indian Army had fought well in the defence of Empire. India had become independent. But there was no bitterness towards the country; in fact great things were expected of her.  It was also hoped that the proposed republic would stay within the Commonwealth. One day, out on a walk in the city, the officer bought a book from a footpath bookseller somewhere near Charing Cross in west London.

It was Slocum’s book `Sailing Alone around the World.’ 

Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Returning to India, the officer had a great career in the Indian Navy. He was awarded the Vir Chakra and eventually retired as Vice Admiral after many distinguished posts held including Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. “ From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,’’ Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati said laughing, this June, at the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Centre (INWTC), Mumbai. Post retirement, in the early 1990s, Awati, who was passionate about sailing, approached leading companies to sponsor an Indian solo circumnavigation project. Estimated project cost then was roughly two crore (twenty million) rupees; a crore for the boat, the rest for the voyage. Save some interest shown by Godrej, Awati’s appeal to corporate India fell on deaf ears. Same time, mountaineering was finding support from private patrons. “ The Indian mind is not naturally sea friendly,’’ Awati said. He wrote to the Chief of Naval Staff. No luck there too. The risk involved in sailing solo caused trepidation. Then in 2005-2006, a former cadet of his, Admiral Arun Prakash, who had become the navy chief, responded. Awati proposed a revised budget of four crore rupees and one condition – the boat should be built in India. Within two months the navy chief secured defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s approval for six crore rupees. The navy sent out an `India General’ – a signal to all hands – seeking volunteers for the project. The book Awati bought 58 years ago in London was at last, coming alive in an Indian edition of solo circumnavigation – Sagar Parikrama. But even within the navy this was easier said than done.

Three sail boats from the Indian armed forces – Tarangini, Samudra and Trishna – had sailed around the world earlier. But they don’t qualify for pure circumnavigation under sail as they could use the diesel engines aboard and their routes did not exclude straits and manmade canals. Besides, Awati’s Sagar Parikrama project was going to be solo. That made a huge difference. Although the Indian Navy has a tradition of sail boats, short-handed sailing or sailing with less than the full complement of crew was not a practice. The navy’s voyages were typically team efforts and the purpose of sailing in the curriculum was to forge team spirit. That made solo circumnavigation, requiring sustained personal sustenance at sea, a major leap in mindset and skill. Look landward and you see this in mountaineering, where the bulk of ascents by the Indian armed forces are full blown assaults by large teams.

Commander Dilip Donde (Photo: Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy)

Commander Dilip Donde (Photo: Lt Commander Abhilash Tomy)

Commander Dilip Donde loved to sail.

He used to be the First Mate on INS Tarangini. He is a clearance diver as well. According to Wikipedia, the clearance diver “ was originally a specialist naval diver who used explosives underwater to remove obstructions to make harbours and shipping channels safe for navigation. Later, the term grew to encompass more naval underwater work.’’ Donde was stationed in the Andamans. He was in Mumbai on a sailing assignment when at a function where the navy chief was present, he was asked by the officer tasked with finding a candidate for Sagar Parikrama whether he wished to volunteer (incidentally this officer had been Donde’s diving instructor and knew his abilities pretty well). Donde did exactly that. “ I just volunteered, just jumped in,’’ he recalled. Then, the fullness of what he had got himself into, dawned. There wasn’t anything in the sailing he had done so far that prepped him to be a solo sailor of such long distances. He spent a few days with Awati, gauging the depth of his new project to dive into it, and then commenced building it up from scratch.

If there is one thing about clearance divers, used to doing work underwater themselves, it is that they don’t mind muddying their hands. Solo sailing values this trait. Transferred to INWTC in Mumbai so that he could execute the project, Donde found a resource person in Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to do a solo nonstop circumnavigation. Donde met up with Sir Robin in the UK, worked alongside for six weeks and sailed with him from the UK to Spain to help him prepare for an upcoming voyage. In the process he got a ringside view of the solo long distance sailor. Now Donde had to make his boat. Vessel matters; humanity’s first recorded circumnavigation was the product of one ship, from four, surviving intact.

Three hundred and seventy six years before Slocum’s voyage, in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan sailed out from Seville, Spain, seeking a westward passage to the spice-wealth of Asia. He crossed into the Pacific Ocean via the Strait of Magellan, both names, his legacy. The Portuguese explorer was killed in the Philippines, before completing his journey. The expedition lost two ships, a third was damaged. The fourth – the Victoria – with 18 survivors aboard, led by Juan Sebastian Elcano, returned to Spain completing the first known circumnavigation. Thereafter up until Slocum, the story of circumnavigation is without any particularly riveting milestone save the magnificence of travel, hazards of long voyages, nations trying to repeat the feat of Magellan’s crew, men dying from disease and men losing their lives to other men as the impetus for many ocean journeys was commerce and commerce meant competing and confronting to own sea lanes and profitable landmasses. During this period the Drake Passage was found, Martin Ignacio de Loyola became the first person to circumnavigate in both directions, William Dampier became the first person to circumnavigate thrice and Dolphin became the first ship to survive two circumnavigations. While Louis de Bougainville, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe had to do so disguised as a man, the voyage of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev managed something more than just circumnavigation; they sighted Antarctica. One circumnavigator, during this period, arguably brought home a scale of sailing, seafaring and exploration not seen before – Captain James Cook. Our idea of the Pacific owes a lot to Captain Cook’s journeys. What’s the Pacific alone when people have sailed around the world? – You may ask. Remember this – you can put all the world’s continents in the Pacific and still there will be more sea than land. That’s a measure of the world Captain Cook brought to public attention. Slocum however, stripped circumnavigation of imperial ambition, politics and expedition. He took it to the realm of lone man and the sea. In Chapter 2 of his book, he announces his plan with crushing ordinariness, “ At last the time arrived to weigh anchor and get to sea in earnest. I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon, I weighed anchor, set sail and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter.’’ 

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

According to the list of solo circumnavigators available on Sir Robin’s website, for almost four decades after Slocum’s voyage in 1895-98, there wasn’t anyone successfully finishing a solo trip. From one voyage in the 1930s, it gradually rises in frequency each decade. In 1966, Sir Francis Chichester sailed the Gipsy Moth IV around the world with just one halt – Sydney (I remember, when I was a child, my paternal grandfather read a book about this voyage. It was borrowed from Thiruvananthapuram’s British Library). It inspired a new Holy Grail – circumnavigating solo and nonstop. In 1968 Sir Robin did just that in a legendary Sunday Times sponsored-race, the subject of Peter Nichol’s book ` A Voyage for Madmen.’ For the one man who finished the race and another who could have had he wanted to, their boats were as crucial as their own skills at sea.

“ The sort of boat I wanted for a round-the-world voyage would have to be seaworthy and easy to handle. She would also have to be robust, and not at all complicated, and as I wanted to make a fast passage she would have to be long on the waterline, since it is upon length here that the theoretical maximum speed of a hull is dependent. She would also have to be ridiculously cheap to construct as I did not have a lot of money to spend. This, of course, is what every prospective boat owner is after: the impossible for the ridiculous.’’ – Sir Robin, in his book: ` A World of My Own.’ Money remained a problem and Sir Robin eventually raced with the `Suhaili,’ a wooden ketch built earlier in Mumbai, when he was posted there. She was hardly the swift vessel a race around the world demanded. But she was sturdy, capable of steady sailing.

Almost four decades later Donde, having volunteered for the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project, expected as much from the boat in his thoughts. She must be reliable – a safe vessel to sail in. She had to be “ idiot proof’’ – Donde’s description for how forgiving she had to be to the first time circumnavigator’s potential mistakes. Only next did other parameters matter, speed being one, for which she could be long. The navy approached the reputed Dutch boat designing firm -Van de Stadt, explained their need and secured the rights to build a model called the ` Tonga 56,’ a 56 feet-long sloop that was essentially designed for charter trips. Alongside, the navy also dispatched a team to short-list competent boat yards in India, where the vessel may be built.


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