By the time I was off on my first circumnavigation in 2012 I had spent ten months living in the boat which was to take me around the world. A million dollar live-aboard yacht and a river in Goa perhaps puts an idyllic and romantic image in one’s head but the real reason why I made that choice was neither that nor was it the fact that I was training to spend six months sailing around the earth alone. I detested sharing a cabin in naval messes which were always short on accommodation. This is not to speak ill of the officers I have messed with. But when a doctor-roommate left a baby snake in a bottle on the dressing table and woke me up from afternoon sleep asking for a name to call it by, I thought I had had enough.
I said, “Dog”. Call it “Dog” and go and tell everyone to come and have a look at your new pet, “Dog”. There is enough to roommates to fill a book but I will leave it at that and come to the point where I passed orders to my Man Friday, Leading Seaman Mohammed Alam, to prepare the boat for my imminent move. Alam thought I must be joking or out of my mind but he did clean up the boat which was undergoing repairs after a long passages from Rio-de-Janeiro and Cape Town and I moved in lock stock and barrel. At the beginning it was like setting up a new home as I figured out where the clothes went and where the bags went and how the kitchen would be stocked up and where the shoes would go. I had to decide what fresh supplies I could get onboard and how to store them without refrigeration and without attracting pests. The bosun store was emptied of sails and lines as it became my meditation room, and I set up a hammock amidships where the boat was at its widest. By its swaying the hammock would provide some relief in the hot summers of Goa. Nets were set up on portholes to keep the mosquitoes out but the companionway had no such option. Either I could leave it open and suffer the companionship of little creatures or completely board it up and suffer the heat. It was the latter I chose over pestilence most of the time.
One might imagine that the rains would have brought relief but it only got worse because humidity rose and all the hatches and portholes leaked droplets of rain into the boat and everything was damp all the while. The swell that came in from the Arabian Sea made its way through the bay and the harbour mouth and rocked the boat. It did little to help matters and I wondered if a room mate with pet snake was a better idea. One day, the valve below the black water tank gave way and three hundred litres of sewage flowed into the bilges. It took an entire day to clean and sanitise the boat. That evening when I attended a dinner at a senior’s place after putting on copious amounts of perfume I overheard his wife complaining how much her infant son evacuated his bowels. Perhaps he was a sailor, I wondered. Two days later I hosted friends onboard for dinner and their son composed a clever but un-repeatable couplet on what had transpired a couple of days ago. The incident of the black water tank besieged me with a yet to be named phobia and I started using the shore toilet often. One evening I left the boat with a towel and soap for a shower but when I tried to cross over from the pontoon to the jetty they moved apart and I fell through the space in between them. I had to save myself, of course, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the towel and soap either. I swam under the pontoon in the darkness and made it to the transom of the Mhadei where I put her swim ladder to use for the first time. That incident put in me the fear of boarding boats. Now, I have two yet to be named phobias.
Winter had a settling effect. The river flowed quiet, the north easterlies pushed humidity away and temperatures settled lower. I would often finish the day’s work and sit with a drink to watch the catamarans decked out with shining lights and tourists glide past. They would venture as far as the harbour mouth with loud music and a DJ whose job it was to herd people on to the dance floor for which he would tell a joke as he crossed my boat. I found it funny at first but its repetitiveness eventually got on my nerves to such an extant that I wanted to petition the government. Probably thats what forced me to into spending evenings and late nights in dysfunctional light houses and ramparts of forts.
I stayed in the boat when we sailed to the President’s Fleet Review at Mumbai. After rehearsals in the morning I could spend the rest of the day gazing at the skyline of Mumbai as lights appeared one after the other appreciating how good it was not to be stuck in traffic. Those were a good ten days. When we anchored at Ettikkulam Bay I stayed onboard as the permanent anchor watch. My crew had found accommodation at INA but when they would report onboard in the mornings I would organise diving and swimming competitions and a hearty meal onboard. There would be days when I would fly sorties with 310 squadron. During the sail to the South East, the marina manager at Phuket impressed by an Indian flagged yacht paid a visit and talked about about Cathay pilots - that they lived on yachts and flew planes. Big deal, I told him, because that was what I too did.
But barring isolated bragging rights, it was a spartan life of privation compared to a naval mess. There was no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no fans and no help with cooking and cleaning and no civilian bearer to fix my uniform. Electricity and water were rationed because the batteries had to be recharged and the water tanks had to be filled. Life wasn’t easy but it was good. By the end of that year I had put considerable distance between myself and shore life. The boat offered a certain kind of peace that could be had only in the absence of office commutes and municipal decrees. After a long day when the workers would swarm out of the boat I could hear a familiar silence which one would feel when you shut down the engine after setting sails and pointing the boat towards an uncrowded horizon. Truly, “I learned how little a person needs, and not how much.”