NISHANTH COMPLETES 2018 TRANS AM BIKE RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE GREAT SOUL OF SIBERIA

Something told me this book will be good. It turned out to be fantastic window to a corner of Siberia and its famous resident, the Siberian Tiger.

I don’t know what made me buy this book.

I just knew it will be good.

The book was about the biggest member of the cat family and it was set in Siberia, a part of the globe that must have fascinated every school student who liked geography.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Sooyong Park is an award winning documentary film maker who has devoted more than two decades to studying and filming Siberian Tigers.

His book The Great Soul of Siberia gives you a ringside view of seasons spent tracking and observing the big cat in Siberia, including some incredible close encounters.

It is written with much compassion for the book’s main protagonist, the Siberian Tiger – its magnificence as an animal; the reverence it is given by the native people in Siberia’s south eastern corner and its endangered status courtesy hunters, poachers and the pressures its natural habitat faces. Probably because he is a documentary film maker, who as part of filming studies his subjects, Park’s writing is engagingly visual and moves like a story. The science and statistics of research are there. But they do not deprive tiger of life or leach the magic from Siberia. Park keeps nature wholesome and intact; his descriptions make the landscape he is in, come alive.

The author goes about his narrative at a relaxed pace, slowly building up momentum. The first quarter of the book is largely devoted to sketching the natural environment in which the tigers live. At this stage, the book’s tigers are mostly the stuff of pugmarks in the sand and informed speculation around scenes of prey killed. It is valuable education, providing reader an understanding of how the traces it leaves are used by researchers to build a picture of the animal in question and what it may have been up to. For a couple of chapters, the tigers of The Great Soul of Siberia remain ghosts. Then, commencing with one extended stake-out in wilderness, waiting to photograph and document the tiger, the book barrels into a story spanning three generations of a tiger family. Doing so, it provides reader insight into the behavior of tigers, what each of their actions mean and how genuinely intelligent these creatures are compared to the assumptions in our head. The author’s love for the tiger and his compassion for it shine through without it ever resembling the caricatured compassion that our comic books and animated movies award wildlife.

Here you see tigers as they are, you see a feline family’s fight for survival in nature under duress. It is a tragic story. You also see what life as documentary film maker in wilderness, really means. Sooyong Park takes you into the minute details of a stake out – how they last for several weeks, the many restrictions it imposes on photographer waiting to see the elusive tiger (you have to make sure that no sign of your presence in terms of sight, sound or smell is there locally), the toll it takes on person and the reward in learning it brings even when your  cameras are smashed by tigers that have learnt to detect and destroy them, even when a tiger nearly lands inside your bunker.

This book is pure love for subject and it shows.

Buy it; read it.

For me, The Great Soul of Siberia was another one of the gems found on the shelves of Modern Book Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

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

INDIAN TEAM FOR 100K WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP ANNOUNCED

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Six Indian ultra-runners will take part in the 30th IAU 100km World Championship to be held on September 8, 2018 at Sveti Martin na Muri in Croatia.

The runners selected are Vikash Malik, Lt Cdr Abhinav Jha, Sandeep Kumar, Lallu Lal Meena, Binay Kumar Sah and Suman Kumar Mishra, a recent press release from Athletics Federation of India (AFI) said. This is the first time an Indian team will participate in the 100km World Championship.

According to the statement, earlier in June AFI had invited applications from Indian nationals to represent the country at the championship. The cut-off time for men in 100km was nine hours 45 minutes and for women, 10 hours 45 minutes. Ultra-runners who had completed a 90km race in the past one year were also eligible for selection against cut-off time of eight hours 30 minutes for men and nine hours 30 minutes for women. 115km for men and 100 km for women, done at a 12 hour race, was also considered for section criteria.

A total of 42 applications were received. Out of them, Vikash Malik, Lt Cdr Abhinav Jha, Sandeep Kumar and Lallu Lal Meena met the cut-off time while Binay Kumar Sah and Suman Kumar Mishra were considered for the team on the basis of their timings, which were very close to the selection criteria set by AFI, the statement said.

Update: We spoke to Anjali Saraogi, ultra-runner based in Kolkata. She confirmed that she will also be participating in the 100km World Championship. That will take the total number of Indians running at the event to, seven.

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

THE `PHAW’ OF FOOTBALL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on July 15 with France taking home the trophy. We wait another four years for the event’s next edition. Bulbul Rajagopal is a final year MA student in Kolkata, the city she grew up in. Here she writes about Kolkata’s craze for football and the ambiance that prevailed there this world cup season. Bulbul is reporting intern and contributor at this blog.  

“ Gabriel Jesus! Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil might finally score…” groaned Tonoy Dutta as he scanned the screen hosting the group stage match against Costa Rica. Dutta, a student of class 12, was member of Dum Dum area’s Bondhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata. My quest to observe the city during the 2018 World Cup had led me to Kolkata’s outskirts where a local boys club was watching the match. Brazilian flags took much space in their club room, while the odd Argentine ones peeked out. Soon the arena was packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of the Brazil national team. Bathed in the glow of the TV, their faces appeared enlightened. Watching their yellow and green-flecked gods dance on screen, they sat in revered silence before their religion – football.

Scanning the band of boys and old men – the former playing hooky from school due to the heat but mostly because of the World Cup; the latter come out of the woodwork only for the game – club regular, Rajat Basak, noted my bemused expression and laughed. “ Those who don’t even know the phaw of football [phaw denoting the phonetic ‘f’ in the Bengali script] can’t resist the charm of the World Cup,’’ he said.

Every four years, the arrival of the FIFA World Cup envelopes Kolkata – a city known for its long flirtation with the game – in an all too familiar buzz. Kolkata’s obsession with the game’s international proceedings began with what the city calls the “magic of Pele.’’ In the 1970s, television sets were scarce in the city. Communal viewings where entire neighbourhoods huddled over one TV set in a household or two, or even a local club room, were common practice. In spite of this, the 20,000-strong crowd that greeted the Brazilian football legend at the city’s airport in 1977 was testimony to their love for the game. By 2017, Kolkata had played host to both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi — the latter’s visit drove 75,000 Calcuttans to swell the ranks in Salt Lake Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world.

The footpath leading to Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Preparation for the World Cup is taken very seriously here. It is almost ritualistic. The altar for warm-up is the highly popular Maidan Market, which houses a collection of roadside stalls stacked high with jerseys and flags linked to teams in the World Cup fray. The occasional shirt loudly brandished with the face of Messi or Ronaldo is almost as desired. In the lead-up to the more popular matches, which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina, frequent sights include parents inspecting the jerseys of favorite teams with their children, and school and college-goers rifling through the collection hoping for a decent bargain. This World Cup season, almost all store owners reported that their fastest-depleting stock were the jerseys of Argentina and Brazil. Being coveted items, these were priced the highest – about 450 to 500 rupees. For Aziz, one of the salesmen, a constant worry every season is the unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England, even Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out for internet updates and the original jerseys they see there. Then only do they come to us. As for myself, I am an Argentina fan,’’ he said. Asked for a reason, Aziz said laughing, “ because their jerseys sell the most.’’

Deep in the market stall upon stall catered to Kolkata’s football fever. Each hawker eyed every passerby beadily trying to guess which team they were loyal to in order to push their ware. Subhroneel Bose wove his way expertly through this maze. On acquiring a target, he studied the stock of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the number 10. Bose has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup. Time had made him an experienced bargainer. He came away grinning excitedly with a jersey for 180 rupees. “ I’ve bought it for my football trainer, he loves Messi. I’m a die-hard Brazil fan actually. It causes frequent clashes at home since my father is an Argentina fan,” the college-graduate said. Such arguments are a regular feature when the tournament rolls in. Tushita Basu fell in love with football following the matches she played with her father. On a bad day, watching a match together kept the blues at bay. Though the father and daughter started out supporting different teams – Brazil and Spain respectively – Tushita felt “with age I’m becoming more like my dad. I want Brazil to win this year.’’

The Brazil-Argentina divide is one that splits Kolkata in two distinct camps. It is a generational one that is marked by the rise of technology as well. Though Pele had once reigned supreme here, by 1986, with television sets proliferating, the next generation could witness Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the fanfare for Argentina was set in stone. Though a friendly rift highlighted by the characteristic banter the game demands, this is hardly the first football-related fissure Kolkata has seen. The formation of the historical football teams of Mohun Bagan and (subsequently) East Bengal are symbols of the partition the state underwent when it split into West Bengal and East Bengal. The former stayed with India, the latter came under Pakistan (East Bengal would eventually become Bangladesh). The heavy flow of migrants into Kolkata (then Calcutta) sparked crisis over refugee settlement, identity and communal tensions. However, the first taste of football-induced victory for the Bengalis had nothing to do with the state’s partition – it was Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment for the IFA shield.

An alleyway in the Santoshpur area (Photo: courtesy Srijan Mookerji)

Both India, specifically West Bengal, and Bangladesh find common ground in their support for Latin-American teams like Brazil and Argentina. Shahid Imam, an advocate at Calcutta High Court believed that the Latin-American circuit had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengalis: “ It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am a strong supporter of the Brazil team,’’ he said. Imam belonged to a football team made up of lawyers. The football tournament organized by the High Court has no age limit but is open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. Though it lasts only a day, “it is intense for those 24 hours,’’ the advocate said. The World Cup was a favourite among them as well with regular screenings conducted in the High Court Club tent, situated behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans since this team has been winning for quite some time,’’ Imam told me.

In my years here, I have noticed that unwavering loyalty is characteristic of the average Bengali football fan. For the past few World Cup fixtures, Brazil and Argentina – both loved by Bengalis – have either clocked out early on or come very close to victory only to be denied it (a greater loss, in my opinion). In spite of this, the city does not budge from its loyalty: the teams’ losses are taken in stride, fans mourn with them with equal fervour as they do when they win. 2018 was no different. With Germany heading home in the group stages itself and Argentina knocked out, Kolkata’s hopes rested on Brazil for the semi-finals. But this too, became dream dashed. A pall of silence shrouded the city, punctuated with the odd joke that Kolkata now had entered a state of existentialism. Alleyways and streets in the city were dotted with flags of blue and yellow. One in Santoshpur was a sea of Argentina flags and resident Srijan Mookerji dubbed it to be “as quiet as a tomb for now.’’ Setting these flags up is a locality-centric event. It happens almost in the blink of an eye. As I waded through the crowd and the waterlogged streets of monsoon, I frequently overheard that there was now no point watching the football matches. This happens every time. It is pointless to pay heed to such statements because as with all those years before; come the World Cup final and the city would shake itself out of collective sulk to huddle around the screen, sides reluctantly picked.

Kolkata boasts eclectic football teams of its own. The Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) is one of them. Almost all of its members are above the age of 40, the oldest being 54. Forty-four year old Sudipto Banerjee, club member and supporter of Germany since 1986, ensures that he buys the team jersey from Maidan every time around. So dedicated is Banerjee to the game that he and two of his teammates went to Russia for the group stage matches. Located in the titular Kasba area, KUTDC engages in football rivalry with the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “ This rivalry has been going on since my school days. But we play better and are older as well given ours is a pre-Independence club [set up in 1943],” he said. His club organizes screenings in the area as well, but mostly for the semi-finals and the final.

Kolkata sweetshop Balaram Mullick & Radharam Mullick partake in festivities around the World Cup with edible trophy, stadium and players (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

These local or para clubs are deep-seated in the culture of Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal. Belonging to different localities, they make their mark for the community in two primary areas: the yearly organization of Durga puja and small football fixtures and screenings. Peppered all over the city, each has its own band of resident loyalists. Bondhu Bandhab Club usually rents out a projector for the entirety of the World Cup fixture to screen every single match. This year, however, the club had saved up enough to buy a Titan Chrome projector of their own. Bright sunny days do not deter their spirits when it comes to projection, because inside their club room is a small LCD TV they can depend on. The club is open to all and about forty people watch the screenings on an average. During the final, the number easily soars to over a hundred.

Football does not pertain to Bengalis alone in Kolkata. Going against the dominant trends in the city was the majority of the Armenian community. According to Armen Makarien, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street favoured rugby over football, as the latter has been played in their home country for the last 130 years. “But we have a formidable U-19 football team, and we follow the World Cup closely,” he said. Makarien – an Iran-born Armenian – supported the Iran national team, while most of the community in the College favoured Spain. “Armenians come to Kolkata from all over Europe and Asia. They prefer to support the countries they come from and call home. There are hardly any Brazil or Argentina fans here,” he said. N. Gopi of the Calcutta Malayalee Samajam had made football-loving Kolkata his home for the past 45 years. He hails from the equally football-frenzied state of Kerala. However, Gopi belonged to a generation that had seen Kolkata’s craze for football in better days: “That traditional spirit of fanfare is fading now, I feel. Everything has become so commercialized. The old enthusiasm is lagging. The craze everyone sees now is only half of what it used to be,” he said.

Subhroneel Bose scouting for the perfect jersey at Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Partaking in the football celebration was a typically male phenomenon and for a city where football is famously equated to life, women and girls do feel overlooked in this regard. Historically, one of the ways the British integrated the sport into Kolkata was through the setting up of football teams in colleges that were modeled on British public schools. Though the odd women’s team exists in colleges and universities here, the attention they get is minimal compared to their male counterparts. Local teams geared for women are practically unheard of. Rahman, a college student and footballer believed that women’s football “faces a vicious cycle. If you pull up statistics, you’ll find that women’s teams earn far less prize money than men’s teams. The visibility is also low since it is treated as a ‘masculine sport’.’’

When Rahman first started playing football, the primary reaction was one of incredulity. She was often branded as an attention-seeker. “Sexism and cultural barriers discourage women from taking up the sport,’’ she said. Rahman was on the lookout for amateur women’s football clubs in the city to hone her skills. Tushita too had been at the receiving end for her interest in the game: “To this day, I have male friends who would rather discuss the World Cup with another guy who is absolutely uninterested in football than ask me for my opinion,” she said. According to her Bengali women are stereotyped into being singers and dancers; the only sport assigned to them is swimming. “Maybe, if schools started coaching girls from a young age and there are at least two academies invested in women’s football, the scenario would change,’’ she said.

However, Kolkata also houses a team that uses football as tool to banish such stigma. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, located in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata, is an organisation that fights for the rights and upliftment of sex workers. “Children of sex workers are stigmatized because of their mothers’ occupation. To counter this, we started the Durbar Sports Academy where football teams of U-13, U-15 and the second division thrive,’’ Chief Advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana, said. Avid World Cup fans, the children regularly watched matches in their club room with their trainers and coaches who explained team strategies to them. Their practice sessions at Baruipur drew the attention of local radio channel Red FM during the 2014 fixture; they organized an awareness programme called ‘Baruipur to Brazil’. For Jana who has seen numerous children being taunted and abused by others due to their mothers’ line of work, the progress these teams had made spoke volumes of how far they had come. They plan to integrate the teams with girls as well. In my interaction with the young footballers here, 18 year-old Milan Sarkar caught my eye. A player for the second division team, Milan was discovered by the Academy when he was nine years old; when a “footballer dada noticed me playing in a nearby field.’’ His mother was a sex worker and for the past few months, the family had been financially hard up. But Milan’s dedication to the game was impressive: “I work as a food delivery boy from 6:30 to 11 PM. I go for practice thrice a week,’’ he said. Practice for them started at 7 AM. It was not an easy feat given his schedule. However, the young right-back managed to see the positive side of the situation: “My shift ends just in time for the 11:30 match, those are the good ones, anyway,” he said. This year, both the U-13 and U-15 teams qualified for the I-League which shares the top spot in the Indian football system with the Indian Super League (ISL).

A section of the Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Even if the World Cup is a phenomenon that takes the city by storm only once in four years, football is a celebration enjoyed all year round. Come rain, hail or the beating rays of sun, there are very few entities deemed obstacles here in one’s quest to play football. Kolkata never faces a dearth of matches to participate in or even to simply watch from the periphery of its numerous playing fields. As the World Cup rolled in during the monsoon, numerous rounds of hot tea or pints and pegs of beer and rum were counted on by Calcuttans everywhere when matches proved to be nail-biting. With crowd favourites like Argentina, Germany and Portugal by way of Ronaldo knocked-out of this year’s fixture, an unusual silence pervaded the city. Entire stretches of roads had been painted with Messi’s face and club houses acted as shrines to Brazil and Argentina. Fanaticism has always been present in Kolkata and the decorations for the World Cup proved it. The tea shop and living quarters of Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra was doused entirely in Argentina colours, earning it local fame as ‘Argentina Tea Stall’. The reason was simple: love makes one do crazy things. The silence was merely the lull before the storm. Even if the preferred teams do not end up playing in the final, it was tough to pry the people here away from the screens because ultimately it is their love for the game that roars through the din.

In the lead-up to the Croatia-France final, viewing parties and outings were the talk of the town. As luck would have it, my TV at home gave out a few hours before kick-off. I was not too worried. Kolkata – Jadavpur University to be precise – came to my aid. University screenings are common in the city, and the camaraderie they trigger well known. I was welcomed that night by a crowd of 200 college students, a few street dogs that frequent the area and the perfume of rum and beer that pairs characteristically with a football game. The constant drizzle did not dampen spirits. The cloth screen and projector were well-protected and banter was on the rise. When the weather turned worse, the usual grumbling was absent; the students merely opened a festoon of umbrellas and life went on. It was almost midnight in Kolkata when French team began their festivities, but the former was awake as well. It was not the victory the city was hoping for, and remnants of its love for Argentina and Brazil remained as their flags were still flying in some areas. That Sunday night was the last vestige of the city’s final hurrah before the waiting period of another four years commenced, Monday morning.

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. On her own relation with the game, Bulbul says: I do not actively support any team or club, but I enjoy studying the styles of play. Often, I am biased towards certain teams based on a few players, which would explain my irrational support for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup. Irrational, only because the team was running on the fumes of glory past and the lion’s share of the pressure was weighed down on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. Even while I study the game, I consider it important to look beyond the touchline, towards the people who observe football. To my knowledge, no sporting situation triggers banter as amusing as football does. The game has a history of friendly banter becoming ugly, even morphing into racism. But true ribbing in football is infectious and when done correctly, it is witty. I find it fascinating when minor arguments break out amongst people in this regard. I also thrive on the camaraderie that football offers and demands. I grew up in Kolkata and in my 22 years here, believe this city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

INTERESTING JULY

The start of the 2018 Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, July 24, Moscow. Amit Samarth is the third cyclist from left (Photo: courtesy Team Amit Samarth)

It is not always that you have two Indians attempting to circumnavigate the planet at the same time. July 2018 is lucky to witness that plus two other Indians engaged in long distance rides, one across Russia, the other across the US.

On Tuesday (July 24), the 2018 edition of the Red Bull Tran-Siberian Extreme got underway in Moscow. The roughly 9100 kilometer-long race – the route spans Moscow to Vladivostok – has six cyclists this year, one of them being the well-known Indian endurance cyclist, Amit Samarth from Nagpur. The Trans-Siberian Extreme is a supported race that is divided into several stages. Every cyclist has a support car with crew. The event is the longest bicycle stage race in the world. The race ends on August 17; the participating cyclists have to ride across Russia in that many days.

Some 24 hours before the 2018 Trans-Siberian Extreme commenced in Moscow, another Indian cyclist was starting his day’s ride at the town of Damascus in Washington County, Virginia, USA. Damascus is important in the context of American outdoors; it is known as Trail Town USA given the convergence of four trails there – the Appalachian Trail, US Bicycle Route 76, The Iron Mountain Trial and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Bengaluru based-Nishanth Iyengar is a participant in the 2018 edition of the Trans Am Bike Race, which is a self-supported ride of some 6800 kilometers across the US. In self-supported riding (also called unsupported at times) you are out on your own. There is no support crew.

Nishanth Iyengar (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Crazy Larry’s B&B / Cottage, Damascus, VA. No copyright infringement intended)

Nishanth started the race in early June. As of noon Wednesday, July 25, he was past the 6188 kilometer-mark and among four cyclists still on the road to complete the race. Nishanth had 513 kilometers left to reach Yorktown, the finish line of the race. According to information available on the Internet, this year 116 cyclists participated in the Trans Am Bike Race. At the time of writing 62 had completed; four – including Nishanth – were still cycling. The rest appeared to have pulled out at various stages. Nishanth is someone who loves self-supported bicycle touring. Although Trans Am is a race, Nishanth is understood to have approached it as an opportunity to tour and know the US over a two month-break from work he had.

The Nullarbor Plain is part of the almost treeless, semi-arid to arid terrain of Southern Australia. It is located on the Great Australian Bight (a bend in the coastline) and has the Great Victoria Desert to its north. According to Wikipedia, many Australians consider crossing the Nullarbor as the quintessential experience of the Australian outback. A week before the start of the 2018 Trans-Siberian Extreme, on July 17, nineteen year-old Vedangi Kulkarni commenced her quest to be the fastest woman to cycle around the planet unsupported on a bicycle.

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from Vedangi’s website)

She rode out from Perth, Australia. By July 23 she was at Nullarbor and on the day, the Trans-Siberian Extreme commenced in distant Moscow, was due to cycle from Nullarbor to Penong, a distance of approximately 225 kilometers. Located on the Eyre Highway, Penong is a small town on the Nullarbor Plain. Vedangi’s entire trip around the world, from Perth to Perth, entails cycling a distance of around 29,000 kilometers.

Guinea-Bissau is a small country in West Africa with a coastline that faces the Atlantic Ocean. Off the coast of Guinea-Bissau – that’s where many of the sail boats participating in the 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR) were by July 25. The GGR entails solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. It is a journey that will take several months. Among the boats making their way down the long west coast of Africa, to the Cape of Good Hope and subsequent exit from Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, was the Thuriya skippered by Commander Abhilash Tomy KC. For both boat and skipper, ahead lay a long voyage.

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

The 2018 GGR began from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France, on July 1. The 25 days gone by so far is only a fraction of the total time circumnavigation by sail takes, particularly given the type of sail boat permitted under GGR. In the interest of purity and challenge, the 2018 GGR has pegged technology levels aboard participating boats to the same level as in 1968, when the first GGR happened. There are no digital devices, no mobile phones, no Internet with any of the participants. Satellite tracking for race organizers to know where in the blue expanse, boat and sailor are, is however there.

Media and social media envelop human existence now. In `Interesting July’ the digital buzz around participation was different for each of the Indians out there, testing their endurance. Team Amit Samarth had an active WhatsApp group going with frequent updates for followers. There were also updates on Facebook. Vedangi’s team had a WhatsApp group but one that kept pings to the minimum and information to the point. There have been updates on her Facebook page and Instagram account too. Nishant has been using Instagram to inform of his progress, those close to him said. Apart from this, there are updates on him by the race organizers on their Facebook page. For obvious reasons, the quietest of the lot was Abhilash. Sailing at 1968 technology levels with no Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp, he and Thuriya were a point at sea indicated on the GGR website. The updates were complemented by what each sailor radioed in about status and sea condition, periodically, the old fashioned way.

(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.)

VEDANGI’S QUEST / THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo has been downloaded from Vedangi’s website and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright violation intended)

A young Indian cyclist seeks to become the fastest woman to go around the world unsupported on a bicycle. She began her journey earlier today, July 17.

Vedangi Kulkarni has commenced her quest to be the fastest woman to circumnavigate the globe unsupported on a bicycle.

News of her upcoming project was in the media since last year. The expedition was slated to commence in June 2018. But owing to delay related to securing visas for some of the countries she would be passing through, the trip started only earlier today, July 17, 2018. Her father, Vivek Kulkarni, who is in Perth – the city that is the start and finish line of her circumnavigation – confirmed to this blog that Vedangi’s expedition has begun. “ She started her trip at midnight,” Vivek said.

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

Just before the start of expedition in Perth (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Wikipedia, the rules governing records in circumnavigation by bicycle were changed in 2013. The rules require that the journey should be continuous and in one direction (east to west or west to east); the minimum distance ridden should be 18,000 miles and the total distance covered by rider and bicycle should exceed the length of the Equator. The clock does not stop for any waiting time; for transit flights, ferries and the duration of such transit en route. Going by the Internet, the record Vedangi seeks to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014, aged 32 and fresh from losing her job, Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. She broke Juliana Buhring’s 2012 record of 152 days.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017, Vivek said. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. “ We have to be flexible as regards the route,” Vivek said. She plans to cover close to 200 miles every day. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on information available on Vedangi Kulkarni’s website, Wikipedia and conversation with her father.)