Search This Blog

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Living in a Boat and Flying Planes

 Sailing Solo Around The World? Shambhavi Mahamudra Can Help | Isha Sadhguru

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.”

Friday, April 16, 2021

In Solitude, Where I am Least Alone

When the nation-wide lockdown was announced in response to COVID 19 I was acutely aware that even if the logistics of providing for 1.3 billion people in their homes could be managed there would still remain the problem of mental health because many were wading into unfamiliar territory. Not so for me, nor for any of my colleagues in the Navy who are regularly sequestered in metal ships and submarines for weeks. Perhaps there are huge lessons to be learnt in how we deal with isolation and the kind of individuals we will be when we come out of it. 


In the February of 2010 I landed on an island of twenty square kilometres with a population of two, no roads and a topography so ravaged by winds that trees refused to take root. As we taxied, a sign-board announced its name in red- Bleaker Island- making me wonder if it had anything to do with the isolation suffered by its inhabitants. A year later I was to spend twenty five days in a sail boat cloistered with another soul as we made our way from Rio to Cape Town. I had a first hand experience of the peculiar loneliness that one feels in the company of another, the loneliness that comes from running out of things to talk about.


At Cape Town I dropped off my crew, made a pilgrimage to Robben Eiland where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years and as winter approached we set sail for Goa. It was the middle of the year and I was alone in my little boat. An easterly breeze helped us at the outset but when the Cape of Good Hope was rounded it freshened into a gale trying to push us back, with the help of the Agulhas current, into the Atlantic. The air was made bleaker by its dampness but what exacerbated my condition were the problems that beset us. The gale shredded a sail and a batten cut lose and made its way into the sea. I lost both of them forever. The generator and autopilot too went on strike. The days got bleaker as they passed and I struggled between my duties as lookout, cook, navigator, sail trimmer and  a quartermaster rendered sleepless without a functional autopilot. It did not help either that I was afflicted with nausea with my stomach trying to find a solution to the multi dimensional problem of sea sickness by retching. Those four days had broken me mentally and I wasn’t sure if I could carry on for another thirty days and make it to India. Everything all around was going wrong and I was angry and desperate because a lot hinged on the outcome of this voyage. 


Something had to be done. It was important that I set my own house in order first so that I could perceive things as they were. I set about chanting dispassionate sounds with a solemn voice over the next two days till the mind slowed and eventually stopped reacting to outside cues. I could decide what to feel, and I decided to feel peaceful. As if on cue, the storm outside stopped being stormy and despair was replaced by a stoic resolve that comes after a glimpse of the profound. It had now become simpler to be where I was, which was the present, and continue to remain there until I reached where I had to be. This transition from loneliness to solitude was a seminal experience that I built upon till it was time for the big voyage of 2012.


On the 1st of November that year, my life turned a chapter. The Indian Navy  was about to help me realise my childhood dream of sailing around the world. I was casting off to be more alone than any other Indian had ever been and for even longer than one’s imagination would permit. I was to be so alone that it was akin to draining this country of all its people, land, roads, buildings, rivers, forests and everything conceivable and to stand in its geographic centre dealing with a biweekly ration of cyclones. It would be bleaker than Bleaker, and even more remote. It was to be solitary confinement, with the exception that I had not only volunteered but also was looking forward to it, and it was with profound relief that I let go of the lines that tied my boat to the shore and sailed out into a cyclone that waited outside the harbour. Unlike the previous instance, I was better prepared this time.


In the next five months I sailed around the world alone. The voyage itself was well documented in blogs and media. People noticed the equatorial heat, the fickleness of doldrums, the certainty of trade winds and the magnificent Great Capes of the Southern Hemisphere. The vicious gales of the Southern Ocean reminded them of the age old adage that there were no rules south of the forties, no laws south of the fifties and no gods south of the sixties. They saw how the boat and I were battered by storms and calmed by lulls, how we were chased by whales and dolphins and albatross, how in the tropics flying fish would kill themselves by flying into the boat and how I survived on rain water after diesel mixed with drinking water. They met the people I met - the sailor off Isla de los Estates on Erica XII, the pilot onboard an RAF Hercules close to Bleaker Island and the Chinese watchkeeper of MOL Distinction in the trade winds. And when I arrived, they saw the grand reception that the Navy had arranged at the Gateway of India, and how the story of the voyage was recounted. What they did not see though, was the mind that emerged after being subject to such solitude.


Pointers of what was to become of me at the end of the isolation emerged within a month. The first week was spent in forgetting land- both its trappings and the exhaustion one carries from having to ready a boat- as you realise that you have become a little self sustaining planet.  I had also lost the sense of time because there no longer existed a need to synchronise mundane chores to the convenience of others but this I regained by the second week. By the third week I realised that I wasn’t dressing to conform to an image, or to an occasion, but to what was necessitated by convenience and that made clothing optional. It took me four weeks to see the freedom that came from not having to form opinions, of having to worry about the opinions of others and of the constant necessity to impress someone else, or outthink and out manoeuvre them.  


The storms began as soon as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn which coincided with the first appearance of the brown albatross. The first storm, which seemed like the gale at the Cape of Good Hope, shook me. Powerful winds heaped mountains of water on us but it was not the force of the passing storm that made me afraid but the memory of the previous one. I got used to this, because once you understand that fear is a projection of your mind it can be controlled and experienced in the manner you want. Even without that understanding, it is the faculty of human mind that it can endure what it can’t change. The mind, in that world devoid of stimulations where everything was the same every day, learnt that forgetfulness was a powerful and natural ally. I could no longer remember what yesterday was like, or the day before or any other day right until the first day of the voyage, and whatever memories I had were fragmented without time stamps or had to be recalled from a written journal. I, for one, existed only at that moment. The mind that was unstimulated by the outside environment turned inwards and becomes reflective. Life’s philosophical questions that need long periods of contemplation are best engaged in such uninterrupted solitude. In the absence of society, products of belief systems broke down. In the absence of transaction, money lost its meaning. In the absence of society hierarchy broke down. There was no way of determining one’s position in the order of things and, therefore, death, which in a way of speaking is a cessation of relationships, became non-existent. Without death, the conventional idea of god necessitated a replacement. When one hasn’t spoken at all, one has stopped lying and, by extension, one becomes sinless in solitude because there hasn’t been anyone to sin against. Without sin there was no guilt, and without guilt and conversation I started to see things as they were because my highest and only moral obligation was to be truthful to myself. That is how I lived for five months. It was in that time without the burden of memory or expectations that I was free.


 We celebrated two New Year’s Eves as we crossed the International Date Line, rounded Cape Horn on 26th of January 2013, crossed the Prime Meridian on Valentine’s Day, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in a storm, dodged a cyclone off Madagascar, sailed past Mauritius on their National Day, ran out of water before Syechelles, recrossed the Equator on the day of March equinox and were back in Mumbai on Easter Sunday. There was a tremendous reception arranged by the Navy at the Gateway of India as thousands gathered and the President of India flew down to mark the end of the voyage. 


 It was interesting to be thrown among people. Was it a coincidence that I re read “Moby Dick” about that time and my attention was drawn to these lines : “Here was a man some twenty thousand miles from home, by the way of Cape Horn, that is - which was the only way he could get there - thrown among people as strange to him as though he were in the planet Jupiter; and yet he seemed entirely at his ease; preserving the utmost serenity; content with his own companionship; always equal to himself. Surely his was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that.”





Monday, May 27, 2013

The Resurrection of Dragonflies

By the time we were on the throes of crossing the Equator for the second time the sea had undergone a metamorphosis: the youthful, inquisitive and godless ocean of the south had grown older, wiser and bored in these latitudes, its faith reaffirmed by the repetitive act of washing the shores of the land of a million deities. The reversal continued unabated in all manners and it was never more evident than when the dragonflies came to life on their own as if by an act of resurrection in the latitude of my grandfather's home much before it was Easter Sunday. I also deferred clearing the mess in the boat more out of deference to the evident display of the reversal of entropy with full faith in the ability of things to find their own way back into order. 

The voyage continued on expected lines and I was greeted by light to moderate head winds that forced us to plough eastward toward the Maldivian Islands south of the Equator and then towards Socotra, Istanbul and Gwadar north of it. The continued trouble with water meant that I had to sail a fast course towards Mumbai eventually bringing my solitary existence to an early end. I would avoid working my body by day to conserve whatever fluids there were within it and plan all work, including tacking and working the sails, for the night. Water would be measured out to the millilitre to avoid wastage and I could not but help sympathise with the millions of farmers and housewives all over the world and their condition during droughts. In the evening of 31 March when I crossed the first set of buoys while entering the harbour of Mumbai I had so well succeeded in my endeavour at conservation that I was still left with two bottles of water.  But then even if the voyage had extended beyond that date, I had imagined a contraption comprising the pressure cooker and some plumbing to distill water out of the sea and continue on the voyage for as long as cooking gas lasted. 
A vessel at harbour mouth

First sighting of land after Staten Island

It was evening by the time I arrived at the outskirts of the harbour. A cruise ship was headed out with promises of dolphin sightings and a naval helicopter buzzed about me to take pictures of the last moments of the voyage. The exhilaration of entering our names into the history books was also diluted with the sadness that comes when good things come to an end, but then the latter feeling had been the more overpowering of the two because I had not set out to create a record or bring back a trophy but rather for the experience of it all. In the last one hundred and fifty days I had fallen in love with the sea and with the boat that had carried me around the globe whose portholes offered me a window seat view of the most magnificent and life like motion picture I would ever see in my life. It had been a most interesting voyage, one that was not undertaken alone but in the company of hibernating grasshoppers and dragonflies, curious whales and smiling dolphins, loyal albatrosses and even more loyal fans. We had happily dealt with the absence of a chopping board, the inquisitiveness of Sri Lankan fishermen, the death and resurrection of dragonflies, suicidal flying fish, bone chilling cold, ghost icebergs, foggy sunless months, the terror of land sightings, solitary human voices in the middle of the ocean, hallucinatory dreams, desiccating heat and come back to tell exaggerated tales of it all.

By the time I crossed my office building by the harbour, night had already fallen. Cdr Donde came out to greet us in an inflatable along with Ratnakar and Alam and other colleagues from the office, one of whom carried popcorn and chilled soft drinks. An hour after crossing the first set of buoys I had entered the naval dockyard and tied the boat alongside a warship where almost all the admirals and other senior officers of the command had gathered to witness the event. It had been a low key affair because it was not yet time to tell the world about my arrival. It was, therefore, not marked by cannonading gun salutes, parading military columns or dancing girls but by the popping of two champagne bottles, many warm hugs and two men in white uniforms steadying my wobbly sealegs with firm helping hands. One of them had been the C-in-C of the Western Naval Command, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, who had seen me off exactly 150 days earlier at the Gateway of India. He proudly remarked, " You have turned geography into history. Very warm congratulations."

Another round of private celebrations continued on the boat with three cans of beer that had inadvertently gone around the world and pizza that came from our host ship. It lasted well into the next day until we abandoned the gathering because the hosts had run out of beer at the unearthly hour of 1 o'clock in the morning. It was only after I stepped on land proper, travelled in a non wind driven device, deposited myself in a firm bed inside a concrete room and switched on the air-conditioning that I finally understood that from now on I would have to live a life in concrete buildings among landlubbers whose language I had forgotten.

That was how the solo voyage around the world had come to an end with a resurrection on the Easter Sunday of the 31st of March followed by the first step on land on All Fool's Day on the 1st of April. For six days after Easter Sunday I moved about men in disguise and passed time getting my passport stamped, devouring raw fruits and vegetables, giving interviews as if I was still at sea, appearing suddenly in front of colleagues who had given me up for dead (or at least someone who had been forced to cross over to the other side of the world) and confusing online fans with misleading reports because an element of surprise had to be maintained till 6th of April when the President of India and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces would come to accord a "ceremonial reception" to the skipper and boat. The ploy seemed to have worked well because on the 5th of April when Guo Chuan, the Chinese circumnavigator, entered Qingdao with his boat the international media thought that the Mhadei and skipper were still at sea and becalmed. I had a mail from Sir Robin warning me to clear the confusion and I promptly posted a picture of my stamped passport on the Facebook page of the boat to prove my arrival on the 31st of March. 

I had been looking forward to spending the six days that intervened the actual arrival and the official reception because it would offer a gradual acclimatisation  into the world of landlubbers. But even by the 6th of April I had not let go of the sea within because I refused to find sleep without the lullaby of the boat's rolling or eat without the freedom to gulp the vast open seas and sea winds or drink water without the smell of diesel in it or urinate without seeing the width of half an ocean at my feet. I also realised that I had left a big part of myself at sea which was confirmed by the weighing scale at 11 kilos. In between the chaos of interviews I found the time to make a five minute short video along with a couple of friends with highlights on the voyage, accept an ring of gold from a fan for rounding the Horn and buy accessories for my new MacBook. It was a delightful experience to move about the sea of humanity that was Mumbai and watch everything about me as if it were a movie that would never get over. That was the kind of solitude and sense of detachment that I had felt even amongst people. 

I was only too happy when the 6th of April finally arrived because here was my  last chance to sail solo for the last time for I was certain that after I would leave the helm it would need the efforts of an entire crew to keep her sailing even from coast to coast. We cast off before the sun was up and disappeared beyond the limits of harbour to hold a position to its south. In the light breeze I put the boat into the wind, had a hearty breakfast of fresh fruits, cleaned the toilet, showered, dried myself in the open and instinctively went off to sleep. It was such a delightful day off Mandva away from the cacophony of all sorts of calls and noises that I lost track of time as is the won't in a solitary existence and I refused to head towards the notional finish line off the Gateway of India for the same reason that I had set out on the circumnavigation. An immense array of sailboats had gathered to sail me in which included Major AK Singh of the Trishna fame who had been awarded a Kirti Chakra for his efforts to skipper her around the world on a crewed voyage with many stops years ago. By the time I was knocked back into my senses I had to push the throttle all the way forward and it had become increasingly difficult for the yatchs and dinghies to keep pace with the Mhadei. The boat and I finally crossed the finish line at the appointed time three hours after noon which was followed by an overhead flypast by the President of India in an Air Force Mi-8. Fifteen minutes later when I was mooring the Mhadei alongside a pontoon at the Gateway of India, the President had already taken his post under the monument along with the Governor of Maharashtra, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command. I marched up to him wearing a white tee shirt, blue jeans and red shoes to make report completion of the voyage. In reply he wore a happy and proud face and welcomed me ashore on behalf of the 1.2 billion people of India. 

All Yours! The video that we put together while I lived in purgatory. 

Next up- Life on Land

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sun Race

equatorThe route from Africa to India is well laid out and all that one needs to do is hop from island to island not unlike ancient navigators and their pilots who relied on the same wind to propel their ships that fills my sails today. The first to pass was Madagascar, an outrageously beautiful island that had been the first country I had visited outside of India when I was still a cadet with pockets brimming with Malagasy Francs that had suffered the natural effects of abnormal inflation. Further east, within sniffing distance, is the Mascarene Archipelago whose volcanic islands and banks and shoals have been in a constant state of slow dance, appearing on one hand and disappearing from the face of the ocean on the other mimicking the movement of scales over millions of years. My route took me through an imaginary gate formed by the main island of Mauritius and Rodrigues and when I was still east of Corgados Carajos on the 11th a Dornier from the National Coast Guard of Mauritius gave fly past. I could tell that the bird was happy to see its pilot in a boat at sea. The next day Mauritius celebrated its National Day and I was still transiting past the outlying Mauritian island of Agalega when I decided it was a good occasion to celebrate one of the three packets of pop corn that I had discovered after an exploratory streak in the boat.

The relentless trade winds had aided a quick but rough passage and the sea remained in a state that can best be described as washing machine conditions. Almost towards its end and only slightly north of Mauritius we entered the ITCZ where it rained “as if it were the  middle of the century” and I showered for the first time in the Indian Ocean on the return leg. As we climbed further up the ladder of latitudes, we studiously avoided passing too close to Nazareth and Saya de Malha banks of the Mascarene plateau, names that are not recalled fondly for I had run into their shallows due to logistic reasons on a similar passage from Cape Town to Goa two years ago. From there the island chain veers off towards Seychelles like a stretched bow but that is not where I was headed.
The Dornier flypast, National Coast Guard, Mauritius
Close to the banks, I ran into a providential day that suited well for attempting to rig up a new genoa because the trade winds were breathing out its last puffs of gust and winds slated to change north-westerly. My first choice had been the oldest sail in the suite- a spectra carbon genoa that was chosen over newer sails for its cut and weight and the fact that it could be easily furled. Moreover, when I had torn a dacron genoa at a similar place in an earlier voyage, it was this sail that I had turned towards for carrying me all the way back to India. Notwithstanding the  emotional attachment, it seemed to have been a costly mistake because midway through the evolution of rigging the sail I saw many gashes appearing on it as its strands withered away due to the severity of its old age and mould infections. I took off the spectra carbon and rigged a dacron sail in its stead in the rising heat and by evening when the sun was down the horizon the second packet of popcorn opened.

Soon winds picked up and under the influence of the north-westerly breeze we negotiated the trenches that divide the African Mascarene Archipelago from the Asian islands of Maldives which merge into Lakshadweep and then into the Indian sub continent. In the game of snakes and ladders we have been rolling our dice well because days of pouring over weather charts have resulted in the fortunate discovery of the existence of a narrow and fleeting corridor through the doldrums.We crossed it at that point where it was the thinnest and were out of it in a matter of twelve hours.
Crossing the Equator on Spring Equinox
This voyage, as any other circumnavigation, has more or less been about racing the sun through the southern hemisphere as it cleared a passage through the Southern Ocean in southern summers. On the 1st of November when I started the voyage, I had already allowed the sun a head start. While it had to travel only as far south as a little more than 23 degree South, I had to voyage all the way down to 56 degrees south to round the Horn. The difference between the sun and us had started narrowing quickly only once we hit the trades and were scudding northwards eating away all those latitudes. It was only when the heat began to show that I realised I had been gaining in the race after the sun on its northward transit and on the 20th of March, the day of Spring Equinox, when we finally caught up with the sun I allowed it to cross the Equator ahead of me out of respect for the rigidity of its habit. This time around, I was lavish with offerings of pop corn and Desmond Ji agave.
contaminated water
A sealed bottle of contaminated water
Unknown to me, there was another race brewing within the confines of the boat- one that would prove to be a minor crisis which could possibly become a reason for me to seek external assistance. On the 17th of March I discovered that the water tanks that still held about 200 litres of fresh water had been so severely contaminated that I could not even discharge it out into the sea for fear of setting off a marine tragedy. I took stock of the sealed fresh water bottles only to discover that many had leaked out and others had shown signs of severe contamination. The bottles that I could implicitly trust numbered not more than ten which at best could be stretched to last the same number of days in this weather. I let my exploratory zeal search the boat for any fluid that could be consumed and I came back with a packets of coconut milk, Red Bulls and life expired buttermilk. But then during the last monsoons when the boat was moored alongside at Goa, I had decided to harvest rain water on the boat instead of relying on a supply from the shore and I remembered having succeeded quite well at it. I rigged up the bimini and mainsail to trap water and managed a modest yet precious five to ten litres is passing light squalls and all of a sudden I had become a rich man with a lavish reservoir and twice the endurance as before in this heat. But it remains to be seen who outlasts whom and who wins the race to Mumbai- fresh water or the voyage.

The heat of March is unlike the heat of November because it is robbing me of sleep and incepting hallucinatory dreams that have been absent in the other two oceans. In the beginning of March the moon was still in wane and arm of Milky Way was so brilliantly visible that it could have possibly added to the lucidity of dreams. But by the middle of the month, the moon had started to wax and add to the heat of the sun by day and hide the Milky Way by night. Most of the while I would carry on with work like a zombie and any attempt at rest would make my head feel like a squeezed out towel.

PS: This post is dedicated to the patron saint of blogs and dogs!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reverse March

Cape Horn was that geographic point in this voyage from where the restoration of warmth was theoretically supposed to begin. But it was only in March when the boat was sailing through the Indian Ocean that the change became apparent. It was as if we traded all the latitudes on the same day because temperatures shot up almost overnight from a pleasant 20 degrees to an Indian 30 degrees. Sailing through similar latitudes in November last year I had taken the boots and sleeping bag and winter gear out so that they could be sunned before putting them to use, and now I am sunning them again so that I can pack them for good. Clothing has reduced to bare essentials and bathing has become a necessity from being a luxury. Following the tune of the reverse march, the sun shines brighter and deeper though days have shortened causing oils, chocolate, butter and dates to thaw and honey to flow more freely. Twilights are no longer the lingering inky blue affair they used to be in the Southern Ocean and the last of the albatross too stopped following the wake of the boat on the day when flying fish announced their appearance. In the Southern Ocean the invisible hand of drizzle, fog and dew would incessantly clean the deck and all metal fittings but in these latitudes that invisible hand no more follows the boat and the cold of steel is replaced by a white armour of salt encasing the hull making everything powdery and sticky to the touch. Going by the unwavering certainty with which this change has been happening, it would be quite logical if all the items in the boat that had found their way in to the floorboard in the Southern Ocean rearranged themselves automatically into their assigned shelves and drawers and if the dragonflies that have long been dead on the navigators desk woke up as if from a slumber and just flew away.
When the boat entered the Indian Ocean on 19th of February, the first navigational challenge that presented itself was the negotiation of the the Mascarene High which gave strong headwinds on a direct course from Cape of Good Hope to Mauritius. The other option was to sail as far East as possible sticking to latitudes lower than 35 degrees South until we hit the trade winds and made quick downwind leg till the doldrums. In the absence of a genoa the east bound leg had been slower than expected. We finally did a sharp left turn at 54 degrees East on the 3rd of March and made rendezvous with strong trade winds that carried us north at a scudding pace making us forget the loss of the genoa.

But its shreds managed to cling to the mast and fluttered in gale force winds with such rapidity that it almost gave the sound of an approaching aircraft. Between the 19th of February till the 6th of March I attempted almost 10-12 mast climbs to clear the shreds piece by piece with a pair of scissors. Finally when the winds abated in the early morning of the 6th I climbed the mast thrice by night before the genoa gave up and let go of its grip on the mast. Although that had been a big relief, it left me tired and reminded of the fact that my legs no longer retained the same strength they had set off with a little more than four months ago.

We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn for the second time in this voyage on the 9th of March- a date that was sandwiched between Women’s Day and Mahashivrathri. It was blowing a gale and the tight reach I was sailing made it look as if we had been cast off into a washing machine. As we approached the Mascarene Islands from the south, a merchant vessel by the name Mol Distinction appeared on the AIS with a dangerously close CPA (Closest Point of Approach). After I raised her on radio and she promised to keep clear of me, the watchkeeper and I started a conversation that curiously began like this:
Mol Distinction- “Request next port of call.”
Mhadei- “Mumbai.”
Mol Distinction- “Request port of departure”
Mhadei- “Mumbai”
Mol Distinction- “No sir. That was your destination. Request port of departure.”
Mhadei- “I repeat, port of departure was Mumbai.”
Mol Distinction- “Sir, then what is your next port of call.”
Mhadei- “Next port of call is also Mumbai”
MOL Distinction
It took a while to clear the confusion but by the time the conversation was over, the Chinese seafarer who was on watch was in awe of the Indian Navy and the Mhadei’s voyage so far. I am sure that similar conversations would have happened before between other non stop circumnavigators and passing merchantmen but I can also say with much certainty that the number of such conversations would have not exceeded one hundred in the history of mankind.
Up Nest- Island hopping
PS. The International Women’s Day was a good day for me to remember the various women whose contributions have no doubt helped this voyage.
- Isobel Rodrigues who gifted a bottle of bora pickles just before I departed from Goa. Not only have they lasted this long into the voyage, they also are the most delicious snacks in the Indian Ocean right now.
- Urmimala and Tosha who helped me with graphic design work during all stages of the voyage.
- Meera Donde whose Herculean effort in diligently sorting and packing food for the voyage saved me days of effort on shore and a mess of disarray within the boat
- Neha Dara who has religiously tracked the voyage through her monthly articles in the National Geographic Traveller (India)
- Clea Chandmal who single-handedly organised a major part of my diet for the voyage. Particularly, the passage through the Southern Ocean would have been a different affair but for the energy bars she made herself
- Dr Harshada Rama because of whose foresight I carried enough ayurvedic tonics and medicines for the voyage that has kept me away from all ailments all through the voyage.
- Swapnali Dabugade who invented a program to take Sagarparikrama to schools and educated nearly 2500 students from over 15 schools through the efforts of the team she inspired.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Across the Graveyard of Ships

cape of good hope 2-2
Cape of Good Hope- from a previous visit
I spent the 19th of February between legs, rounding the Cape of Good Hope at a respectable distance and passing from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean to begin the home run.
Known as the Cape of Storms and the Tavern of Seas, it is at a point close to the Cape that the warm Agulhas current meets the cold Benguela current, where a gale is recorded every 36 hours if not less. It overlooks the Agulhas banks that extend the southern tip of Africa into a shallow plain under the sea above which a strong current flows towards the west. At times, when a front passes bringing strong westerly winds in tow the force of the wind and undercutting currents act in opposition to pile up waves as high as 100 feet with a steep leeward face- a phenomenon that can break the back of the strongest ship. It is also for this reason that sailboats sailing eastwards usually round the Cape south of the banks. On the 520th birthday of Nicolas Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer and mathematician who had formulated a heliocentric model of the universe, not only had I round the Cape but also conclusively proven the rotundity of the earth because I had intersected my own track that had started as a solo voyage from Cape Town on the 31st of April 2011 and meandered onwards to India in May to reach Goa in the first days of June, and thereafter voyaged eastwards this year to reach the same point on earth through west. I had thus, technically, become the second Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo and under sail.
feb blog
The last solo from Cape to Goa and the present one around the world
But it had not been an easy rounding for the Cape of Storms lived up to its name. On the 19th winds blew a steady 40 knots from the South West prompting me to keep the Cape as far to the north as possible. Winds regularly gusted to 50 knots and more and the swell stood at 8 metres by conservative estimates. We were already down to the last reef on the main and the stay sail was partly furled to reduce exposure. At one point, just hours after the rounding, a huge build up of clouds dissipated right astern of us sending in winds at 70 knots, pinning the boat to the leeward and bashing her without mercy. It hadn’t been the best of times to be out on deck let alone without a harness. All I could do was to hang on to the winch while the boat tried to right itself, which it did after considerable effort. Soon enough she was pinned a second time in the same manner but this time a wave seemed to have found the genoa and opened it just enough to allow it to catch the onslaught of the gust. In no time it opened further until it had a belly that was being expanded by the winds and it shook the mast and the boat along with it. In the words of the last skipper who had experienced something similar close to Australia, it was as if a supremely powerful god was holding the boat by the tip of the mast and was shaking it vigorously. That indeed had been the first time a prayer had come to my lips. Soon the genoa shredded putting an end to the misery and winds abated and steadied at the much milder 40s. That was the offering this cape took of me, in the same manner that it had scarred genoa after genoa in each west to east rounding of the boat.
The shredded genoa
One of the first congratulatory messages came from Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo around the world without stops or assistance. After a tour of India lecturing at IIT Kharagpur, followed by a naval audience at Mumbai and cadets at the National Defence Academy, he had just updated the list of people who had circumnavigated the globe solo and south of the three great capes and found that the list had swelled to 199 in the wake of the latest Vendee Globe. He wrote- “Thus, unless someone else creeps in from another source, of which I currently have no knowledge, the position of 200th on the list is the next one and waiting for you. Go for it!”
Negotiating the Indian Ocean is going to be the trickiest part of the entire voyage because all that I can see is a minefield of fronts, cyclones, currents, countercurrents, squalls, trade winds, shipping, fishing, piracy, doldrums, tropical heat, islands and banks forming a 5000 mile long obstacle course. It is like the Indian board game of snakes and ladders where each mistake can set you back by days if not weeks. The prospect of having to sail across the Indian Ocean without a genoa and the consequent slower passage on the home run appears daunting. But then, having sailed two-third around the world without a chopping board, and one third without pop corn, I am sure I can take this minor discomfort in stride and sail the last 5000 miles to get her back to the monument where it all started- the Gateway of India.

Sagapraikrama 2 on Door Darshan National
Up Next- Trade Winds

Sunday, February 17, 2013

South Atlantic- 3X

It was somewhere in the South Pacific that I encountered an emergency of such great magnitude that it threatened to bitterly sour the second half of the voyage. I was running out of an essential supply of popcorn and all that I could do was to push the boat as hard as I could, reach Mumbai as early as possible and check into the nearest theatre for the earliest movie. Not underestimating the severity of the situation, the boat clipped along the entire width of the South Atlantic with an average daily run touching 180 nautical miles, twice breaching the 200 mile mark despite sailing with a torn genoa.
Although it had been my strategy to sail conservatively and escape the Horn as uncorrupted by the sea as possible, I had calculated the second half of the voyage at a limping pace to cater for all the damage that the boat might sustain. But when we made it around the Horn virtually unscathed it was time to put that extra sail up and have some stretch marks on it to show for a fast passage. Having crossed the Atlantic thrice and twice respectively, the boat and I were stepping into familiar territory. The Mhadei’s first crossing was during the solo circumnavigation venture of Cdr Donde and it happened in the same month in 2010. A year later, in January, the boat was racing from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro attempting its second crossing with Cdr Donde at the helm and a crew of three others which included yours truly.

My first mission after taking over as the skipper at Rio was to retrace the voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator who discovered Brazil when he sailed too far West in an effort to follow the wake of Vasco da Gama into Calicut and haul in a cargo of spices. Five hundred eleven years later, I set sail from South America to India, just as Cabral had, crossing the Atlantic and then clawing up the Indian Ocean.  The crossing of the Atlantic was attempted with Lt Cdr Gautam Khajuria as sole crew as we drove the boat across the ocean towards Cape Town through some severe weather that kept us occupied with upwind sailing conditions for the first three weeks out of four and becalmed thereafter. We tore the main sail only to replace it in an operation that lasted seven hours on the mast and thirteen hours recuperating, and sprang a leak in the propeller shaft that had us pumping out water every three hours for almost four weeks. The rest of the returning fleet fared much worse with one dismasting, one sinking, many broken spars, even more sail tears, and a lost rudder. All in all, it had been a sailing similar to that of Cabral five centuries and eleven years ago, with almost similar weather and similar strength of fleet, except that in doing so I left a track across the Atlantic that had almost begun to spell out my name. And again, like Cabral, everything about the voyage was pushed towards anonymity in the end. 
The 12th of February was a day of celebration on account of two occasions. It was on this day in 2011 that Cdr Donde had handed the boat over to me in Rio de Janeiro atop the Sugarloaf overlooking the Atlantic with two simple standard navy issue terms – “All yours”. More importantly, on the same day the boat had turned four in the Navy and crossed (coincidentally) the longitude of 4deg West in doing so. It was perhaps more than coincidence that she was inducted into the navy on the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and, again coincidentally, followed him centuries later to many of the places he had sailed to including Brazil, Falklands, South Africa, Mauritius, Australia and New Zealand. Two days later, on Valentine’s  Day, the boat and I breached the Prime Meridian for the fourth and third time respectively and entered the Eastern Hemisphere from the west. Valentine’s Day also marked the end of some intense lovemaking the sea had begun three days ago that had left love bites for posterity. Winds constantly pushed 50 knots with waves that rose easily to 20 feet and more. The boat could be brought under control only by reefing the mainsail to slightly larger than a handkerchief. Despite my best efforts sleep remained elusive for the three days and I woke up to a nagging headache on Valentines. Perhaps, that was the cue the sea had been waiting for.
The sea on 12 Feb

Up Next- Cape of Good Hope
cape of good hope-2