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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.