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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

Saturday, February 9, 2013

One Hundred Days of Solitude

It took about two days for the boat to span the short expanse of the Atlantic between the Horn and Falkland Islands. While the passage was hastened by strong breeze, it made me count every moment of it. Well before the sunrise of on the 28th of January the boat suddenly spun out of control and unlike other times this was not a case of the autopilot going into standby mode. Winds suddenly shot up to 40 knots and more with gusts frequently crossing 55 and the boat went out of control thrice before I decided to go for a sail configuration I have never tried before- a heavily reefed mail with a part furled stay sail. It seemed to work well. All of a sudden she made light of the six and eight metre swell and generous breeze and became a well behaved lady all over again. In fact, below decks she was as steady as a rock and one could not tell the fury that raged outside. Ironically, I began to enjoy the day because the sun was still up and there was no trace of clouds in the sky. Despite the chill in the air, the sun gave out warmth and the thermometer began to register temperatures above 10 degrees in a long while.
In the afternoon the RT crackled and I could hear out someone calling out to “Indian sailing vessel”. It turned out to be a British C130 which flew out of its way to exchange customary pleasantries. They carried out three low level flypasts – one aircrew to another, one wing to another- and the beast displayed its low level flying skills and waggled wings to draw attention. The Mhadei in turn bobbed about in the free ocean in acknowledgement. As night settled I tried inching closer to land and sight Port Stanley before heading into the vastness of the Atlantic. Sadly, winds shifted and I was forced to shape a course that took me 60 miles west of Falklands.
falkland flypast
The boat from C 130 and vice versa
Passing Falklands brought me memories of the short visit I had made to the islands to help Cdr Donde with his stopover during his solo circumnavigation. It is a topography of wind swept terrain whose trees have been blown away by gale after gale, a land whose population boasts more than 700,000 sheep, many varieties of penguins, seals, sealions, dolphins and various wildlife, where the soil of peat catches fire and is used as such in ovens as fuel, a place that is littered with road signs reminding motorists that penguins and sheep still had right of way. Its remoteness can only be gauged by the solitary LAN Chile flight in and out of the islands each week, a fact that led me to conclude that crime rate would peak on Fridays so that criminals could fly out on Saturdays. It was only when I visited Port Stanley that I came to know that crime was a word that was confined to dictionaries amongst its 3000 odd inhabitants. I did take time off to tour the Falkland Islands battlefield guided by a Captain from the Royal Army  and after Cdr Donde’s departure I made use of the long wait for the next outbound flight to take off to Sea Lion Island for a day’s stay. Flying FIGAS (Falkland Island Government Air Service) was an experience in itself with a landing in an island called Bleaker and, thanks to the intervention of the governor’s wife, a sortie in co pilots seat of the Islander.
Sea Lion
The 5th of February of 2010 was spent in the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, a day when the governor’s wife invited me home for tea. Two days later, I gifted myself a visit to Pablo Neruda’s home in Santiago, the La Chascona that was built for his secret lover Matilda Urrutia.  In 2011, I was back in the South Atlantic celebrating the day on board the Mhadei on our way to Rio with a crew of four. Special on the menu was freeze dried ice cream dowsed with single malt followed by an excuse from middle watch. Then I was not the skipper yet. A week later I was in Rio on a tram to Corcavado to pay visit to the Redentor. Two years later, I was back in the South Atlantic celebrating my 34th birthday at 34 degrees West with another packet of freeze dry strawberry ice cream. It only got better this time because being the sole crew I had access to an Apricot crumble, fresh apples, kheer, halwa and many more delicacies in addition. The boat celebrated the day with a 24 hour noon to noon run of 205 miles and the sun stayed out for two days in a row travelling across a cloudless sky. Greetings came from all time zones of the world spread evenly between the 4th and 5th and many came in verse. Some wished me in their time zones, some in my own time zone and many mistakenly wished me on the 4th because of the time travel across the International Date Line.
neruda redeemer
La Chascona and the Redentor
apple (3)
Fresh apples after 3 months at sea- courtesy Clea
By the 9th of February, we had completed one hundred days of solitude at sea. The boat and I had sailed more than 15000 miles by that day, rounded two out of the three great capes and met the challeneges of all three oceans as well as, if not better than, any other boat or crew. Despite minor set backs and misadventures along the way, the boat and skipper are as lively as the sea. At the time of writing this blog, we are in such state of preservation that if the navy were to ask me to continue sailing eastward to the Horn for another rounding I would gladly accept the order as if it were a reward. But first I need to pop up north for a while to warmer seas and have my first shower in more than three fortnights.

Up Next- Three crossings of the Atlantic

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Around the Horn

A representation of the Horn- Urmimala
"The geography of the sailor is not always the one of the cartographer, for whom a cape is a cape with its longitude and latitude. For the sailor, a great cape is both very simple and extremely complex, with rocks, currents, furling seas, beautiful oceans, good winds and gusts, moments of happiness and of fright, fatigue, dreams, aching hands, an empty stomach, marvelous minutes and sometimes suffering. A great cape, for us, cannot be translated only into a latitude and a longitude. A great cape has a soul, with shadows and colors, very soft, very violent. A soul as smooth as that of a child, as hard as that of a criminal
~~Bernard Moitessier~~~
Sometime in September last year when I was asked to finalise the exact dates of passing cardinal marks, 26th of January seemed a possible date for the rounding of the Horn. But as any yachtsman would know, sticking to the exact ETA at the end of almost three months in a wind driven boat is a task that is next to impossible. The Mhadei, however, would have it no other way and after crossing the International Date Line on the last day of last year, she decided to round the Horn on the Aquarian date of the 64th anniversary of the Republic Day of India, the 225th Australia Day and the 35th wedding anniversary of my parents. At 01: 45 PM in India and 03:15 on the deck watch, the Mhadei carried me across the longitude of Cape Horn twenty miles to its south marking the end of our passage through the Pacific, through the Chilean SRR, and of Leg Three and crossed us over to the Atlantic, into Argentina’s SRR and into Leg Four of the voyage. A moment later I hoisted the national flag on the backstay which was followed by the flypast of albatrosses and cormorants and a steam-past of smiling dolphins. The flag was a happy flag to be fluttering free in fresh breeze so far away from mainland India and its colours contrasted well with the dark shades of the sea and sky. The waves literally chanted lines from the national anthem- उच्छल जलधि तरंग (chanted by the waves of the Ocean).

flag at cape horn
Flying the Flag- a mile south of Cape Horn

A little after crossing the longitude and the flag hoist, I gybed and headed towards Cape Horn for a closer look and I went as close as a mile and a half. But it lifted its veil of fog and low clouds only briefly- enough for a glance but not enough to make a good picture. The Horn wanted it to be a moment shared only between the two of us, I presume. In that instant, the Cape spoke to me through the words of Lynn
My name is Horn
Come shake my hand
And say hello to me
I welcome all who pass me by
With open arms and stand
Because I know they must do it
Because I know they can
Do not fear me

Drink deeply from the waters
That lap across my feet
Your thirst is quite unquenchable
Your spirit incomplete
My name is Horn
Come take my hand
And let me cool your heat
Do not hide from me
Drape a shawl across my back
The one with colours three
The breeze will catch its gentle flow
To set those demons free
My name is Horn
Come hold my hand
And rest a while with me

The Horn behind a veil of fog and clouds
More celebrations were in tow – DFRL helped me prepare kheer and a packet of biryani for lunch which are luxuries given the fact that I have been out at sea for so long and considering the circumstances I am accustomed to now. In keeping with my promise, a bottle of Desmond Ji agave was opened and the Sea of Hoces was offered a generous swig which immediately seemed to soothe its nerves and calm its waves. The next swig went to the boat and the rest was equally divided amongst all crew that mustered on deck. Offended at not being offered anything  the Horn tore the genoa and claimed a camera when the boat crash gybed and the main sheet entangled with a Go Pro.

Once the ceremonials were dispensed with, I made calls to the three men who had conned me into undertaking this voyage with their boisterous talk, many tales and assurances- the godfather, Admiral Awati, the mentor. Cdr Donde and the boatbuilder, Ratnakar Dandekar- and congratulated them because each one of them is party to this successful rounding many times more than I am. Admiral Awati had a verse ready for the occasion
Ayyo, Tharavad of Valliara in the country of the Gods
Thy scion Abhilash sails MHADEI fair, over seas seven
Across the tempestuous ocean nether, from West to East
Past the great Capes
To conquer watery space
Of our Earth
To the greater glory of Bharat.
On the day we proclaimed a Republic, good and free
Twenty sixth of January two thousand one three
MHADEI and Man will pass the Horn
Many a gallant sailors nemesis and thorn
And show the flag to the rock and albatross
To say that Abhilash was there that day in
Celebration of a nation expectant
Of greater glory upon the seas, at the Horn
Eastward Ho! to Hope, the last, final mark
Before turning north into the Ocean Indian
And home to where it all began
On prime November the year before
Twelve and two thousand to complete
His tryst with destiny.
He, Abhilash, will then seek the blessings
Of the Almighty in the Tharavad
Of Valliara. So be it, says I who started it all.
Isla de los Estados
The weather cleared by next day and I woke up in the Atlantic to bright sunshine, rising warmth and a craggy island lying supine to the port as if it was consolation for not sighting the Horn. The charts called it the Isla de los Estados  and placed it in Argentina. On the other side of the horizon I made out a mast and I quickly called her on the radio to find out that she was called the Erica XII and that they were on their way from Ushuaia to Antarctica. The voice on the radio was that of a woman and listening to one after 88 days at sea reminded me of the aroma of fresh food, clean cotton linen and warm heated floors.

Erica XII

That is the story of how I rounded the Horn and became a Cape Horner. I will not have a medal on my chest to show for it, but you will know me because in keeping with the ancient traditions of mariners I will wear a ring of gold on my left ear ( a very special someone has already bought one) and keep my feet on the dining table during every meal.
Up Next- The Third crossing of the South Atlantic.

PS. Many people mistake the rounding to be the most difficult part of a voyage and liken it to the Everest of sailing but it is not so. It is never about the moment of rounding or the moment of sighting but the rounding itself is a significant milestone in years of effort and toil and at times a euphemism for it.

In the meantime a brave set of women adventurers from the Indian Army climbed the Mt Everest- the Cape Horn of every mountaineer. Many congratulations!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Another Pacific Week


“There are no laws beyond the 40s, no rules beyond the 50s and no god beyond the 60s.”
Egged on by some formidable winds we sailed so far south this new year as to touch 58.5 degrees latitude, farther south than any Indian has sailed so far alone or in company, as the deity knocked on the territory of godlessness. There was mild anxiety similar to all the firsts in my life- the first solo flight, the first solo sail and the first venture below the 40s. But whatever fear I had was unfounded because the sea is the same in every latitude, except that in the 50s its boiling rage is much colder. It is the sky that is different. With the sun refusing to set (as I infer from colour of the sky because I have not seen the sun itself in a while) the sky passes from the twilight of dusk to the twilight of dawn before it is day all over again and there is enough light all night that I can walk about the deck without a torch. It has been overcast ever since I remember stepping into the Pacific making me wonder how our forefathers navigated hereabouts without a heavenly body to shoot and fix their ships.
steering on christmasNavigationally, the fortnight saw the passing of a few important milestones. On the 09th of January I crossed the 10000 mile mark becoming the first Indian to sail that much distance solo and without any stops. A few more days later we passed Point Nemo, the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, making us more than 2000 miles away from any land to the East or West. In the morning of the 18th we passed the longitude of 108 degrees West, the ante meridian of the port of departure, Mumbai, marking the passing of the geographical mid point of this voyage.
But it is the Horn that will be a true middle point in every other sense because at this mythical cape we would have crossed two oceans, ended our southern transit, and commenced clawing upwards exchanging latitude for temperature and replacing the fear of ice with the far greater inconvenience of squalls lying in ambush. I will be making use of the occasion to thank the providential opening of the Drake passage forty odd million years ago which established the kinship of the Atlantic with the Pacific in the south – an event of such importance that this voyage would not have been possible without its occurrence. Past the Sea of Hoces where the Antarctic hangs like South America’s thought bubble I will commence the homebound journey and it will be home revolutions through familiar territory from then on.
And it will be home revolutions because the water maker has quit and I am left without any means of producing fresh water until I reach the tropics where every passing squall will be treated like  a reservoir. I have about 300 litres left, good enough to see me home safely but not in luxury. Baths are ruled out till I hit warmer climates because there is no provision to heat sea water and I suffer from an odour that has no name to it except an inescapable and nauseating feeling that I often encountered during my brief stay in Ratnagiri or while passing the Sassoon Docks of Colaba . Taking bath in a sea at 6 degrees towards the beginning of the year has possibly been the biggest misadventure in this venture and I must wait another month or more before the sea is warm enough. (The only and ignorable distinction that I achieved with this act of foolishness is that I have bathed in the waters of the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.) I have stopped rinsing utensils with fresh water anymore and if ever I do, I drink it.
UP Next- Rounding the Horn- the Everest of Sailing
PS- This blog would be incomplete if I were not to make a mention of Swapnali Dhabugade and her team. Sometime in October, she and Mugdha surprised me by travelling all the way from Mumbai to see the boat. We were in the thick of work and I could afford her only a couple of hours to explain things. She was so awed by the project that she has started an awareness program in Mumbai which aims at taking Sagarparikrama to schools.  She started off with a plan, a presentation and drafting in volunteers. In less that one month’s time it already seems to be on its way to becoming a resounding success going by the enthusiasm with which they have been greeted. Kudos to woman power!
about horn

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Tall Stick

It seems that the boat ran out of coherence with her luck when she time traveled back and forth at the Date Line because ever since she has been dogged by minor issues. It included running into two windless patches and a brand new data card for the charts of South America that tended to send the navigation system into indecision. While the former had a telling effect on the boat’s average speed in our crawl across the Pacific the latter ended up as a minor irritant necessitating the opening of the folio of paper charts for South America. What caused the matter of much adventure though was a rogue line that parted.
On the 11th of January in my time zone, which was a day that India had already spent, I woke up to see the easy stow in an unusual position with one of its holding lines parted and trailing in water. Another look at the mast confirmed that I was about to live through one of the most demanding days of this voyage yet. The main line holding up the easy stow had been pulled right up to the second spreader requiring a mast climb in the middle of the South Pacific to hitch and get the rogue line down. mast climb 6
I have never been up the mast at sea save once during her voyage to Colombo almost four years ago when we realised that we did not have a halyard to hoist the national flag of Sri Lanka. With a crew it is a simple business- you get into a harness which is tied to a halyard and the crew winches you up and gets you down and all you need to do is shout commands in a loud and clear voice. Solo sailors, though, usually use a mountaineering equipment specially adapted for yachts. It doesn't make things easy- merely possible. And then sailors usually wait for the exact day when they would want to climb with just the right amount of swell and just the right amount of wind to hold the boat stable. When our climbing gear arrived from Europe I had silently hoped that I would not have to use that equipment ever.
But what will be will be. With just one solo climb in harbour which was more apology than  practice, the 25 metre mast looked way taller than it was ever meant to be. Nothing helped- the winds were light and not enough to hold the boat steady even though a sail was hoisted and the swell at 3-4 meters was the usual leftovers of a South Pacific gale. It wasn’t the best day to go up but when you do not have a choice, procrastination is automatically ruled out as an option.
Going up all alone was a first for me. I prepared by brushing teeth (to enjoy my own conversations better), changing into some clean clothes (for you don’t want to be caught dead in some smelly ones), gulping a can of Red Bull and discarding all  outer layers of clothing. Rigging the lines took only ten minutes but it was only when I had pulled myself up a metre or so that I realised that it wasn’t going to be as easy as depicted in the video advertising the climbing gear. The travel to top took the better part of an hour and despite my crashing into the mast often it suffered no harm. It  in turn reciprocated with a coldness that burnt the extremities of my fingers.
It was exciting at the top. You could see a larger portion of the world although it amplified your solitude and you could finally ignore the flying of albatross that until now had been a distraction. It was colder and the mast tended to move at 30 kmph speeds because the boat’s rolling motion was exaggerated due to the height . An unexpected gift of the perch on top was that it put me in touch with my spiritual side because physical strength alone was not enough to keep me there and I invoked every god, deity and saint I remembered including, and chiefly, my own namesake. The only solace in the entire affair was a blue hole in an otherwise overcast sky that let some warmth through.
On my way up, the tail line that I carried got entangled in the radome and it was only after half an hour of struggle that I managed to free it, bend it to the rogue line and prepare for the descent which was a far greater struggle than the climb. Two days after the incident, as I write the blog, memory of the details is fading but what I do clearly remember is the message from the Chief of Naval Staff on the New Year’s eve that repeated in my mind through the adventure-
“Your mission continues to be perilous, requiring both physical vigour and resilience. There will be situations which will demand meeting challenges head on and calculated risks to an extant, beyond what one encounters in normal life. It is under these circumstances that your years of training and maturity will stand you in good stead and drive you forth to success.”
It scares me to watch the video at times but I can clearly see that I have come a long way from what I was when I had joined the Navy, hardly able to climb a stationary rope or swim across the width of a 25 metre swimming pool. I am sure we all have.
It is not as bad as it looks!
Up Next- Preparing for the Horn

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012- A Double Leap Year


20130101 nat geoWe weaved through the sub Antarctic islands of New Zealand in the hope of catching a glimpse of land before being hurtled into the vast desolate seascape of the Pacific. Far from sighting an island, I could not even see a cloud that could be attributed to the presence of land nearby. By the 30th of December we had passed New Zealand signifying the beginning of the third leg of this circumnavigation. The last patch of land had been left behind on our 4000 mile long passage across the largest water body in the world.

low res 2As I did so, I shouted a big hello to my brother and Mariette in Auckland, and to all the residents of Lyttelton whose acquaintance we had made during Cdr Donde’s stopover. Most of all I will miss the god-fatherly presence of our agent, Peter Rea, master mariner and yachtsman, and the good humoured Merve who had lent his yacht to see off the Mhadei as she left, and George from my hometown who has been working in LPC for over a decade. The “little town with a large heart” (as Cdr Donde calls it) is home to a very warm and generous people. It was here in New Zealand in 2009 that I had touched snow for the first time at Aoraki, and made use of the layover at Auckland during the transit back to India to visit the gun turret of the Achilles (which later became the first INS Delhi) installed at Davenport. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to visit a turret that had seen action in the Second World War in the Battle of River Plate against the Graf Spee and  later on in the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese. While Admiral Awati served on the old INS Delhi, I did so in the second ship of the same name. low res

Visit this link for more pictures of New Zealand.



Two out of three winters of the Mhadei’s short life has been spent negotiating a passage through the Southern Ocean. In the first year of her commission, she was skippered by Cdr Dilip Donde around the world on the first solo circumnavigation attempt by an Indian. In the second year, she found herself taking part in a trans-Atlantic Race from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro followed by a solo passage to India. 2011 had been the only aberration as she spent the winter resting in Indian ports after 60,000 miles of sailing. With plans firming up for a non stop solo circumnavigation, 2012 promised to be the most exciting year of her life yet. For that very same reason, the year held a special significance for all those associated with the boat and the project.

Two days after New Zealand we bid farewell to 2012 with the meagre resources I had on-board- a packet of halwa and the other half of a bar of Bourneville that had been saved from Christmas. Six hours later the Mhadei strode across the International Date Line for the second time in her commission and entered into the Western Hemisphere from its west causing a confusion in dates that was worse than the cacophony of unsynchronised clocks. A short lived 2013 was struck off the logbook and 2012 was raised from the dead to serve its last day again which it did begrudgingly. The bilge pump quit soon after I had made the first entry of the day in the log  and then the raw water pump of the generator disintegrated. I replaced both with on-board spares and was boiling water for dinner when the boat lurched throwing me across its width to the leeward and scalding me with hot water. When 2013 arrived again at midnight, I heaved a sigh of relief and made my first new year resolution- never to resurrect a dead year.

But the appearance of the new year so close to the 180th meridian did have its record side - I became the first Indian to welcome the new year before crossing over to the other side to become the last Indian to see off the old year; we had two new year celebrations; the first appearance of 2013 lasted only six hours which afforded me the unique opportunity of holding on to a new year resolution for the entire year of six hours. The question that vexes me though is the extra day that I have lived and  if I must advance my birthday forever by a day.

2013 was seen in by gale force winds that saw wind speeds picking up to 52 knots at one point. Here is a short video shot as India was ringing in the new year at midnight.

52 knots 





Wishing India a very happy new year!

The best New Year’s gift this year has been the article in Nat Geo Traveller India. Pick up your copy if you already haven't!

PS- After spending 64 days at sea covering more than 9000 nautical miles, Sagarparikrama 2 is into her third leg. 03-01-13-2000-sagarparikrama2-2You can also follow the progress of the voyage on Facebook ( or on twitter (@abhilashtomy). National Geographic Traveller India publishes a monthly article on Sagarparikrama2 which comes with some splendid writing and photography.



Next Up- Point Nemo