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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Across the Graveyard of Ships

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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.
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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
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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.
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La Chascona and the Redentor
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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