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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tropic of Capricorn

The boat and I strode across the Tropic of Capricorn on 27th of November soon after rendering the evening report signifying a departure from tropical to sub tropical climate. That means no more tropical revolving storms, cyclones and hurricanes- only something worse called fronts.
But it was the 25th of November, when the first signs of a chill set in, that flying fish first made their appearance on the deck.  It is always a sure indicator of an inhospitable sea. Ever since, we have been having four to five all over the deck everyday and I have been throwing them overboard. It appears they suffer from poor night vision because that is when they usually get trapped on the deck. Thankfully they don’t leave an awful smell behind. I have been advised to cook and eat them. I sure would have if they were sardines or mackerels or tuna.

Trade winds picked up in intensity and lashed at us between 25 and 30 knots till 28 Dec with a well defined cyclicity. Winds would freshen in the afternoons and drop off into the teens by morning. Waves would easily rise to about 3-4 metres made steeper by undercutting currents. Each wave the boat would slam into would send shivers up its spine.  Sailing upwind in these conditions is not a pretty experience . When a 23 ton home does that and you are the lone occupant, you are a bit worried. Its worse than an earthquake- there is no end and no escape. The only thing that seemed to help was to slow down the boat so that she would not jump off the waves, rather just eased herself down the slope. On the plus side, there was enough wind for the wind generator to take almost all the electrical load of the boat. The diesel generator, which is usually run for about four hours a day to charge the service batteries, needed to be run just half an hour in two days.huge swell
And yes, there is a correlation and reverse correlation between baths and wind speed- either I have a shower in a calm and wind would soon pick up, or there is enough spray to bathe me each time I am on deck when it is windy. DSC_4816
I remember the last time I saw a real human face, but that memory too is fading. It was sometime before crossing the Equator. A Sri Lankan fishing boat that was perhaps 10 miles away from us pulled up for a closer look. I wonder at their coquettish curiosity that makes them burn so much fuel and in the end all they do is ask for a stick of cigarette. Here is what they usually look like (this picture was taking earlier this year while rounding Dondra Head)- nice way to hang out, I would say. But when you are alone in a boat and something like this pulls up just metres from you, it sure does leave you a bit jittery.
Check out this video of taking a reef in 30 knot winds. Nevermind the swell…

Good news- We are on twitter- follow me @abhilashtomy
Changes to the Blog-
-Feedburner has been activated . All you need to do now is leave your e-mail id in the right window and every post will land in your e mail fresh off the Skipper’s desk.
-Video bar has been added on top left. Browse videos anytime now!
Up Next- Fronts

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Trade Winds

22nd November, the day of the last post, saw no winds. We were becalmed and I took the opportunity to take bath. It was only then that I realised that my skin was not dark because of tan but because of grime. Lynn says, the boat would move faster only if I washed off the weight of grime everyday. Somehow, there is a correlation - each time I have had a shower at sea, the boat has come out of its sluggish sloshing and gathered speed with a determination. No wonder sailors are a superstitious lot. Thank you, Lynn.

The Mhadei and I found the trade winds that very noon and almost two hours later, we were scudding alone at a healthy speed of 8 knots upwind despite the reef on the main. As usual, the onset was announced by gathering clouds. That day our southward plunge started and we were on our way to the Tropic of Capricorn and from there to the eastbound highway. We have been eating away latitudes ever since hitting the trades and as I write this, I am almost in the same latitude, albeit south of the Equator, as Mumbai.

The nights have been cloudless though and stars have come out in strength. Ever since the passing of Dewali, the moon has been waxing and nights have become lit with so much moonlight that I wished it was night all day long.

Things have been going on pretty well with the boat but for the generator which was continuously dogged by low oil pressure warning. I spent considerable time trying to find out the reason and it was certain that the lube oil was not the cause for we had only recently serviced the generator. Nevertheless, I checked the lube oil level which was well within limits. After much deliberation, I remembered the words of the mechanic from Laurenco Marine who had mentioned that lube oil could lose its viscosity if it became too hot and pressure might drop. That forced me to check the cooling system and sure enough, there lay the fault! After that, it was just a matter of minutes before the problem was resolved. Its working well now, as if we are not sailing at all but it was a Sunday in harbour.

Here is a short video of sailing in trade winds
Enter video caption here
Next up- Tropic of Capricorn

Thursday, November 22, 2012

21 Days

wind 20 nov correctedSoon after crossing the Equator we were fortunate to have wind and current assisting us in making an a quick eastward passage. The speed was good and there were days on which we did anywhere between 170-190 miles against the planned average of 150. Meanwhile, a cyclonic circulation was brewing south east of us around a closed isobar. My aim was to sail East of it, and having passed it make use of the trade winds to sail southward. So far, the plan has worked out despite the fact that winds have died down east of the circulation. But it is only a matter of time before we catch up with the trade winds which has been predicted to hold more than 25 kn winds within itself.

The sun, meanwhile, has considerably worked up its intensity. Its rays are so scorching that one might feel it would pierce through skin and body and come out the other way. Body hair is showing tell tale signs of bleaching- it has started turning golden brown in colour.  The beard has grown beyond the point where it pokes my own skin. The heat is almost stopping the brain from functioning and I do need take more naps to cool it down. Sunburn is much more severe when you are at sea because of all the reflections of sunlight around you. On my part, I still refuse to wear sunblock preferring instead to wear clothes with high SPF value.

190px-The_Story_of_PhilosophyI thought I would read a lot in this voyage and I do like reading. Instead of choosing books myself, I asked a few of my reliable friends to contribute, so that the library I would carry would be more of a radio station than a collection of songs. I tried reading the moment I cast off and was over my sleep deprivation but somehow it did not catch on. What I could read turned out to be Tinkle comics and almost two years of Nat Geo issues that the ACK media team had gifted on the day of departure. Almost after ten days, I found what would be a safe bet for me anytime, anywhere, any weather- a book called One Hundred Years of Solitude. Having read that in a matter of two nights, I moved on to The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I find it incredibly engrossing and way different from other books I have tried to read on the subject. It has also sparked a desire to read Voltaire when I get back.

As I write this, there is another Indian Navy sailing vessel called the Sudarshini which is sailing on a voyage to South East Asia, She is a barque rigged tall ship forming a part of the Training Squadron. You can read her skipper’s blog here..

Next up- Trade Winds

Almost knocking on the doors of trade winds, I have covered about 2500 nautical miles in 22 days at an average speed of 5knots. This includes the days I was becalmed.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sixth Time Shellback- Crossing the Equator

_DSC0004After 15 days of solitude, whale and dolphin sightings, weaving through fishermen’s minefields, squalls and days of being becalmed, we crossed the Equator at 0505 hrs India time on the 16th day of November 2012 about sixteen miles east of E080deg longitude. A short distance before the crossing, the boat paralleled out, sailed some distance along the Equator and was blessed one last time by the Northern Hemisphere with a mild shower. Soon after that we officially crossed over to the other hemisphere where there is more sea than land, less wars and even less politics, where the wind blows the right way for all the wrong reasons, concocting the worst oceans of the world as it blows its way relentlessly with confidence in itself. From now on, my world is guaranteed to be lived upside down.
_DSC0023This has been the Mhadei’s seventh crossing in three years. We celebrated with liqueur gifted by Swaati. The first swig went to the Oceans and to Lord Varuna, the second to the boat and the remainder was equally distributed amongst the crew. On my part I drew a little of the ocean out of itself and preserved it for her in the same bottle.

The first time I crossed the equator was in 1999. We were cadets onboard the Krishna on our way to Madagascar. There was a ceremony where the commanding officer was arrested and presented at the court of Lord Varuna. One by one, he along with officers and ships company, were judged in the Lord’s Court and meted out with punishments that varied from lifting 27 kilo shells to a generous swig of “SomRas”-  a concoction of sea water mixed with various spices. In return we were gifted a certificate that I still preserve to this date.
Whereas by Our Royal concession We decree that Our Trusty and Well Beloved Cadet Abhilash Tomy has this day entered our domain and has been rightly and duly initiated with all form and ceremony as Our subject on board Indian Naval Ship Krishna.
We do hereby charge all Sharks, Whales, Eels, Dolphins, Gollywogs, Pollywogs etc. to abstain from eating, playing with or otherwise maltreating his person.
And we further direct all Sailors, Mariners, Soldiers, Globetrotters and Landlubbers who have not crossed the Equator of Our Royal Domain to treat him with respect due to one of Our royal subjects.

Given at Our Court on the Equator this Sixteenth day of October 1999
in longitude 64 degrees East
in the presence of Lord Varuna

Commanding Officer

The sailing continues to be good. We tried heading eastward as soon as we had crossed the latitude of Kanyakumari in the promise of more generous winds. The attempt was made three times before giving up under light winds and uncharacteristically strong swells that would display its force by throwing the boom and the sails with it in all directions. Heading south seemed a more prudent option considering the preservation of her mast and rigging. Luckily though, that did turn out to be a good decision, for not only did the wind back giving us a south eastward course as we crossed the 2nd parallel, we also found a southward current that merged with the eastward flowing equatorial current. All in all, the boat is managing about 8 knots in a beam reach with 11 knots of wind. If the current winds and predictions prevail I should be keeping my appointment with Cape Leeuwin in early December.

Heading southward in this season is lengthening the day gradually making it unbearably hot at times. Clouds are far and few in between and the little bimini we have on the boat holds the sun back only as long as it is in the right elevations. There are short spells of light drizzles but they do little to cool the temperature. The heat is throwing up so much sweat all around that I am seriously considering the option of taking another bath.

Meanwhile, across the planet, Cdr Donde was visiting France to see off the Vendee Globe round the world solo race after which he sailed on the historic Suheili with the legendary Sir Robin Knox-Johnston to the UK. The Suheili, unknown to many of us in India, was built in Mumbai. She created history when she became the first sail boat in human history to sail around the globe solo, non stop and unassisted. Sir Robin was at the helm.

Here is what Wiki has to say about crossing the line- a must read for all Pollywogs.
Here is another blogger that has been keeping track of this voyage. Read about her take on this link
Here is a brief video of a walkaround on the deck in 10 knot winds.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Shoebox is Empty

13-11-12-2000-sagarparikrama2-1The Captain of a warship had given me a gift wrapped shoebox a day before I left harbour. When I opened it at sea, I saw that it contained an enormous number of butter cookies which tasted so delicious that I would make meal of it at times. The shoebox is empty now. So are the bananas and potatoes and cucumbers and cabbages. Fresh provisions are dwindling and all I am left with are some apples, oranges and tomatoes.

_DSC0008Fresh provisions somehow seem to have replaced themselves with a lot of bugs though. I can’t find names for them and there are many!

The boat has been sailing pretty well since the last post on Sunday. We crossed the Indian peninsula and the decision to head closer to land and towards Palk Bay seems to have paid off. That area kept up with its reputation and winds picked up to a breeze of 15 knots and more at times. We have been cruising along ever since at speeds bottoming at 6 knots. Yesterday was a good day because we did 145 miles in 24 hours- almost thrice of what we were averaging in the lulls.

On the flip side, it has been squally and it promises to remain so. That has robbed me of some sleep. More often that not, I am waking up at odd hours shortening sails and riding out 25 knot guts. The sun has been blanketed out for most part of the day and it is all very gloomy. The sea is short and the swells are making good work of flapping the sails every now and then.

IMG_3070DSC08370Passing Sri Lanka reminds me of the only time we had called at Colombo. The year was 2009 and the Mhadei had just been inducted into the navy. That had been her first oversees port of call. We had sailed in to carry out some work on our sails that had come from North Sails, New Zealand. Sri Lanka, unknown to many of us, boasts of the world’s largest North Sails factory. It was a pleasant trip with pleasant memories and a learning experience for us as first time crew. She had evoked so much curiosity that she made friends of almost all who came in touch with her.

Yesterday was Deepawali. It became more of a Holi when the day announced itself with a squall dissipating right overheard.  There was enough rain and I took bath- a good omen I would say. People later pointed out that it was more of an Abhyangasnana.. Breakfast was pre cooked Halwa that Defence Food Research Laboratories had supplied and did it taste delicious! I did not carry a lamp with me, so just lit the stove so that there would be some light. Happy Deepawali to one and all! May there be an abundance of light in your lives all year around.

Up next- Picking the Line. The Equator is only one and half day’s sail but I have other plans.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Dragonflies are Dead

10-11-12-2000-sagarparikrama2-1The dragonflies are dead and the sparrow and grasshopper are missing. I guess I have to do this circumnavigation all by myself now.
It appeared I was all alone when another bird flapped its wings and sat on the starboard runner. Wednesday evening passed in the company of this creature which shifted its perch as I moved about the boat. For a change, its fear was not infectious because I had a breeze and the breeze wanted to stay up and I wanted to eke out every bit of speed I could.
Thursday morning saw another windless spate. Friends have been sending in their wishes. Though they don’t seem to be doing any good, they do keep me in good humour. Swapnali sent the picture of a turbine and Badresh has promised to eat more beans. A passing ship rigged up a fan at its bow and positioned itself two hundred metres from my stern. Savitha sent a poem a poem from Sweden.
Wind On The Hill
No one can tell me,
Nobody knows,
Where the wind comes from,
Where the wind goes.
It’s flying from somewhere,
As fast as it can,
I couldn’t keep up with it,
Not if I ran.
But if I stopped holding
The string of my kite,
It would blow with the wind
For a day and a night.
And then when I found it,
Wherever it blew,
I should know that the wind
Had been going there too.
So then I could tell them,
Where the wind goes…
But where the wind comes from
Nobody knows.
(A.A. Milne)
It has been battle stations ever since the wind died. At first I took it casually hoping wind would catch up. By the second day I was worried and ever since it has been battle stations. A permanent lookout was posted whose only job was to lookout for tell tale ripples announcing the arrival of fresh breeze. Sails would be hoisted at the slightest hint and dropped before the swell could do any damage. With the A3 up, sleep became even less. A 3 knot breeze would be attended to with the same respect as a 30 knot gale.
I can now tell why early mariners were so superstitious. They needed to live with what was thrust upon them and there was nothing much in their hands once they were at sea. All they could do was wait and hope.
Friday was a different day. It saw the sea stir up a breeze that allowed me to chug along at 3-4 knots all day. I made some distance good and turned landward so that I could take advantage of better breeze in the Palk Bay, whenever I get there.
konk-malabarUrmimala meanwhile busied herself to give an illustration of what my position appears to her. She ended up producing another fantastic (she says it is still incomplete) illustration. She sees me passing the Malabar coast following the paths of traders who often visited for spices. It reminded me of an interesting message from a Colonel from Brazil who had visited the boat in Goa. He compared our voyage from Goa to Brazil as reversing the route of Cabral who accidentally discovered Brazil and South America while retracing the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India.

The law of averages will catch up for sure. There is plenty of winds in store up ahead but till then I wont mind the tail end of a cyclone.
Meanwhile here is a video on how to rig up the A3 in light winds all by yourself.
Rigging the A3

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Becalmed, but where is the chopping board?

06-11-12-2000-sagarparikram2-1The first three days out of Mumbai was a dream run. There was wind on the quarter (for a change because I am known for my jinx with headwinds) and the course and speed were just perfect. We were quickly putting distance between us and the coast and in a couple of days time we were 300 miles away from Mumbai and the noise of shore and landmines of fishing nets.
Things began to change by the third day when it became apparent that Nilam was dying. The breeze slowly went down scale as I dug myself deeper into a windless hole. We did only 120 miles that day. I tried to keep up boat speed changing sails as often as I could. But even hoisting the 2000 square feet A3 did not improve things much. We have been becalmed the last couple of days.
Light winds offer a peculiar condition. Even with a mild swell, the sails thrash about and it becomes imperative that I take them off lest they tear before crossing the Equator.
_DSC0028Raising and lowering the main sail is never easy. You could ask anyone who has come for a day sail with us. Hoisting 100 kilograms over  a seven storey building on a hot day with your bare hands can leave one terribly exhausted. And I have been doing that something like three times a day on average. The genekar is something I have rigged only with a crew of three assisting me, but the last few days I have been doing that alone. With all this, I am managing a meagre 40- 50 miles a day. Hopefully things should change soon. As they say, wind can blow only in one direction in the North Pole. For me, its just a matter of time.
_DSC0020How badly are we becalmed? Here is an example. I woke up this morning to find a sea and sky that were merging at a horizon that was indistinguishable from one another. It was like living inside of a cotton ball. Yesterday the sea was so calm in the evening that there were stars in the ocean and you couldn’t tell which was was up and which way was down. Not a whiff of wind, not a ripple in the sea.
On the other hand, I have managed to catch up on sleep.  I also had my first bath in four days (in sea water of course!). The water maker, which is a bit iffy at the best of times, was tested and satisfactorily made “fresh” water after a bit of cajoling. I was subsisting on fresh fruits and vegetables till now but yesterday I took out some potatoes and boiled them. With the dried fish pickles that came from grandfather, the potatoes tasted well! Today morning was brown bread sandwich of peanut butter and banana.
Bad news though. It was only when I was trying to cut the potatoes that I realised that we have no chopping board on the boat. I will have to manufacture one now. On the flip side, I have an excess of one grasshopper, one sparrow and two dragonflies. Its just my bad luck that they don’t make for good chopping boards.
Meanwhile, Neha from Nat Geo sent in a link to the story she did on the Mhadei. Great pictures there and a great article… read on!
Maybe you should just buy a copy. Its well worth it.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


03-11-12-2000-sagarparikrama2-1One good thing about a solo circumnavigation is that you don't have to worry waking up early morning and going to office. I hear today is a Sunday.
The run up to the departure had left me fairly exhausted. We had about nine days in Mumbai but it was so hectic that any memory of Goa and the sailing to Mumbai was completely obliterated. On a good day, I would get about five hours of sleep. I was so well exhausted that I hardly realised how events flew by.
Departure finally happened on the 01st of November as per plan with a cyclone brewing in the eastern coast. There was an overwhelming crowd that came to see the cast off, and those who could not be there saw me off from afar with their wishes. National Geographic Traveller India came with the first 100 copies of their November issue. Many who received these copies came to me for an autograph on the page in which the Mhadei was featured. Taj sent a couple of pizzas that I relished for two full days after the cast off. There were many who came with cards and gifts of books but among them was a person I did not meet and whose face I might never know. Realising that he would not get access into the visitors area and a chance to meet me, he handed over a talisman to an officer in uniform. I have it safely with me and I will be taking it around the world. Whoever that person was, I would want to meet him when I come back.
DSC01802It was a welcome surprise to see Lord Varuna who came down in person to see me off with a wish of fair winds and following seas and a gift of conch.  Perhaps these terms have little significance to the modern day mariner but for a sailboat there is no better wish.
DSC01807The Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief finally accorded permission to my request to circumnavigate the globe. But before the lines were undone, he gave me a pair of binocculars and a sea cap, and wished that I would do the navy proud. Warships had lined up in column and men had formed up on their sides who raised their caps with slogans of “Victory to the Navy and Victory to Mhadei”. The CinC’s barge with the CinC and Adm Awati, two RIBs with Cdrs Donde and Patankar and Ratnakar, one boat full of press and two sailboats, one of them with Capt (Retd) Homi Motivala followed me all the way out of the harbour.DSC01909DSC01887
DSC01890By the fairway buoy, the main was set and when the last of the spectators had peeled off, a breeze trickled in and the engine was shut. The boat soon settled in sync with the familiar rhythm of the wind and waves. For the mild breeze her speed was not disappointing and I shaped a course away from the coast, away from land and away from the noise of daily life. By the night of the second day we had crossed Angria Bank and on the noon of the second day we were crossing our home port and the mouth of the Mhadei River.
It was only after engaging the autopilot after the fairway buoy that I realised how exhausted I had been. The last two days I have done nothing but sleep. Thankfully, there has not been much traffic and the wind was a mild and steady breeze from the north west. Cyclone Nilam, which I had hoped would give me fresh breeze, disappointed with a disappearing act. But then there are no complaints, for what could be good for me, might have wrecked havoc elsewhere.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

From Here I Must Walk Alone

It has been a fantastic run up to the departure. People have come out in numbers with support. Almost every day I have had friends and strangers drop in with books and icons for the voyage. The more pragmatic ones kept us supplied with cool water, cakes, drinks and what not. My grandfather did his bit from his remote village in sending pickled dry fish. Admira Awati’s wife, and my adopted mother, sent bottles of ghee. Clea almost loaded me up with dehydrated veggies and other stuff to last the entire voyage. DFRL Mysore singularly contributed more than half the food that will be needed for the voyage.

gaurav shinde in san friscoWishes have come pouring in from everywhere corner of the planet. The overwhelming number of phone calls and messages became too much for me to handle and I had to put up a notice apologising. Gaurav Shinde, who aims to be the first Indian to race around the world in a Clipper boat, had paid visit at Goa. A month later, he sent in his wishes from San Francisco from a sail boat. A young German boy who came aboard at Goa sent his wishes in a hand made postcard asking me to take it around the world and post it back to him when I get back to India. He signed off with a “Jai Hind”. Yet another naval friend, who is on the verge of retirement, called up to tell that it seems like a chapter out of the story books she has read in her childhood. A senior colleague in my  office has decided to grow a beard to show solidarity with the project.

DC_NIK7Urmimala, a cartographer in her own right, gave expression to her emotions on paper and came up with some fantastic illustrations. She had almost made up her mind to fly down from Delhi and visit the Chatrapati Shivaji Museum to see a miniature model of the boat but was disheartened when she came to know that it had been shifted out since the last PFR. Friends that I have made have started having dreams of the boat with such regularity and lucidity that I fear they must be more concerned for me than they care to admit. Some of my friends have refused to be at the Gateway on the 1st of November because it would cause them too much emotional turmoil to see me off.

DSC_6988Vishal Sharma, who had sailed with us to Malaysia, took leave to come to work on the boat and prepare her, something for which I will always be grateful. The person who proved to be the most important and the most useful also turns out to the be most humble and the most unsung- Leading Seaman Mohammed Izhar Alam. He has singlehandedly kept the boat in good order during my absences and looked after her as if it were his own. Since the time he joined the boat, he has grown tremendously because of all the hard work he has put in. It is as if the term “Man Friday” was coined for him. I could not have asked for a better assistant ever.

DSC_6964Cdr Donde worked to prepare the boat, even harder than he had prepared for his own voyage. Not only did he get his hands greased and dirty, he also doubled up as a manager and staff officer, handling appointments and the much dreaded paper work. Ratnakar left all his business to dedicate almost five working days for the boat and its preparation. Cdr Donde’s mother, Meera, saved nearly a week of my time by sorting out all food that had arrived from different corners of the earth.

This has not been a one man show. I have mentioned only a few names but there are many many more. Those who could not contribute physically have sent in their wishes. It is heartening to note the amount of confidence people have in the boat, the Project and the Indian Navy. Adventure, definitely, is alive in the heart of every Indian.

But from now on, I must walk alone. It will be a solitary passage, but never a lonely one. You will get to hear from me at a lesser frequency than you have been and at times there will be stretches when you might not hear from me at all. In those times, do remember that I am possibly having a very good time!