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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