Top: Dilip Donde and Abhilash Tomy, guru and chela, pose together on the eve of Tomy's epic voyage
By Ajai Shukla
On board the Mhadei, at INS Mandovi, Goa
Even the most hard-boiled sailors believe that it takes an unusual, and somewhat eccentric, person to circle the globe in a sailboat, dealing single-handedly for months on end with the capriciousness of the wind, the waves and the weather. Three years ago, Commander Dilip Donde, a naval officer, became the first Indian to sail solo around the world, making his epic journey in a 56-foot, Indian sailboat, the Mhadei. On Nov 1st, Donde’s former crewmember, Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy, will set sail from Mumbai on an even more hazardous voyage: a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.
Less than 80 humans have completed such a passage. Compared to this, more than 525 humans have travelled to space; and some 500 mountaineers summit Mount Everest during an average climbing season.
Like no other sport, solo sailing pits a lone human against the elements, with the dice loaded heavily in favour of nature. The inflexible conditions that govern a solo, non-stop circumnavigation require Tomy to traverse at least 21,600 nautical miles (or 40,000 kilometres) under sail, without any form of engine power, with no halts, starting and ending at the same port, and crossing the three great southern capes: Cape Leeuwin (Australia); Cape Horn (South America); and Cape Agulhas (Africa).
The Mhadei, sailing into Cape Town on Dilip Donde's circumnavigation in 2010
I sail out on the Mhadei in Goa, as Donde and Tomy carry out a pre-voyage check. They are clearly a comfortable team, chattering constantly yet giving each other respect and space. Donde the veteran is a grizzled greybeard, tanned and fit, with an easy laugh that lights up his face. Tomy is 33, at that magical cusp of life where youth has married experience and confidence. Lithe, powerful, alert and yet strangely calm, he glides barefoot around the Mhadei like a gazelle on steroids.
It is hot and still outside Goa, and Tomy scours the sea with a weather eye. “There’s some breeze,” he calls to Donde, pointing to a patch of sea that appears darker than where we are. We head there and the Mhadei’s sail billows as it catches the wind.
The calm Goa sea will be a distant memory as Tomy heads south across the Indian Ocean, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn to the longitudes south of Australia and New Zealand. This is the dreaded Southern Ocean where there is no land to stop the freezing trade winds, only Antarctica a couple of thousand miles away. The trade winds push forward a sailboat, but also pile up the ocean into forbidding mountains and valleys of water. Through this grey landscape Tomy will steer the Mhadei, a speck in the bleakness that must somehow keep afloat.
Mhadei sails past the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS York, near the Falklands Islands
Donde inexplicably smiles as he describes sailing the Mhadei through the Southern Ocean, rolling and pitching in an unending succession of 20-foot waves that are almost as tall as the main mast. One moment the boat wallows in a trough, with 20-foot walls of water on either side; seconds later the boat crests the wave, providing a view of unbroken ocean. And then it drops sickeningly into the next trough with the sailor wondering whether it can ever climb out.
What about seasickness, I ask queasily. “The only way to avoid being sea-sick is to remain sitting under a tree,” says Tomy, pokerfaced.
* * * *
The saga of the Mhadei has been the story of four unusual men. It began in the imagination of one of the navy’s crustiest old salts, Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati, who, from his retirement home near Pune badgered successive naval chiefs about the need for the Indian Navy to achieve the Holy Grail of sailing: solo circumnavigation. In 2006, Admiral Arun Prakash gave the green signal, allocating a Rs 6 crore budget and asking Awati to mastermind the project. The navy sent out a call for volunteers.
Enter Commander Dilip Donde, a diving expert posted in the Andamans, who had sailed only recreationally. He claims he volunteered to “be a part of the project” but, since he was the only volunteer, ended up as the skipper.
“I broke the cardinal rule that I had been taught since I was a cadet: never volunteer! Why, I don’t know. Maybe, at 38, I faced an early midlife crisis. Or maybe it just sounded like a fun idea,” he laughs.
For Awati, though, this was deadly serious and he quickly enlisted the expertise of one of the world’s greatest sailors, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, a yachting hall-of-fame member who first completed a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 1968-69, when he sailed his Mumbai-built teak-wood boat, Suhaili, around the world in 313 days.
Donde was sent to the UK, where he worked with Knox-Johnston, learning from scratch about building and kitting out an ocean-going sailboat and sailing it single-handedly through the worst storms on the seas. In consultation with Knox-Johnston --- whose imagination had been captured by the project --- Donde framed the specifications for what would become the Mhadei.
“The Indian Navy was making a statement to the world. So we decided not to make the boat in steel; we chose high-tech fibreglass instead,” he says.
With a design bought from Dutch bureau Van Der Stadt, the navy had then to identify a boat-builder who could construct a vessel that would survive even a battering from the Southern Ocean. Big warship builders like Goa Shipyard turned down the offer as too small and commercially unviable. That was when an extraordinary shipbuilder, Ratnakar Dandekar, who was running a tiny shipyard called Aquarius Fiberglas Private Ltd, walked onto the project. The Mhadei had found its mother.
* * * *
Left to Right: Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy, Vice Admiral MP Awati, Ratnakar Dandekar, Cdr Dilip Donde
We take the ferry to Divar Island, the whitewashed churches and convents around the Basilica of Bom Jesus peeping over a curtain of lush green palms. Here, in the shadow of the Konkan Railway bridge over the Mandovi River (called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka), Dandekar welcomes us to Aquarius Fiberglas.
“I can honestly say that I had no idea of what I was taking on when I contracted to build the Mhadei. But I just knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime project. No boat of this quality and endurance had ever been built in India. Today, while I am still a small shipbuilder, nobody questions my technological credentials,” says Dandekar.
Donde describes Dandekar’s embrace of the project, an enthusiasm that quickly swept away commercial considerations. Dandekar listens with a quizzical half-smile, apparently wondering why any of this should be surprising.
“The Mhadei is completely mine; I built it. When some work is required on this boat, I don’t need a tender… I feel a real attachment to this boat. Building the Mhadei has changed me as a shipbuilder, as a person and as a businessman,” he says.
The ferry to Divar Island, across the Mandovi. This river is called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka and gives the boat its name
As we tour Aquarius, which now employs 84 workers compared to just 16 when it built the Mhadei, a special train carrying trucks to Mangalore on roll-on-roll-off wagons thunders over the bridge. I wonder: is the Mhadei a superbly planned project, or was it just blessed with worthy people?
* * * *
Now the next chapter of the Mhadei story, so far a saga of unalloyed success, will be written by Abhilash Tomy, who formed the shore support team when Donde went around the globe in 2009-10. Tomy, however, will have no shore support team; his will be a non-stop voyage. This increases the difficulty manifold, since everything that malfunctions must be repaired on board.
The Mhadei itself seems ready, a battle-tested veteran. Success, therefore, will largely rest on the skipper’s mental conditioning. “You can keep preparing for ten years. But you are only going to learn some things when you actually do it,” agrees Tomy.
The Mhadei is as sleek, high-tech and well-kept a sailboat as any I’ve seen. There are dual steering wheels, covered with Chamois leather to provides a grip even in the wettest, coldest weather. In front of the wheel is an array of instruments, including an automatic identification system (AIS), which tracks through satellite every ship on the seas, relaying its name, course, destination, vessel type, registration and crew. While much of the Mhadei’s journeys are through isolated seas, it does encounter other vessels at the chokepoints of the great capes.
Tomy recounts an incredulous radio call to Donde from a supertanker that was crossing the Cape of Good Hope in a driving storm and discovered on their AIS that a small boat, the Mhadei, was close by.
Supertanker: Confirm port of origin?
Supertanker: Confirm destination?
Supertanker: Confirm type of vessel?
Supertanker: Confirm crew?
Mhadei: One man
Supertanker: Confirm crazy!!
Apparently, this brand of gallows humour provides comfort to lone sailors! I ask Tomy whether a wife or a girlfriend will be praying for him while he sails. “As a good sailor, the first thing you learn is not to tie a knot that you cannot untie quickly,” he shoots back.
Waiting for him instead will be his mother and his father, himself a former naval officer. Twice a day, Tomy will email a “sitrep (situation report) over an INMARSAT satellite link to naval headquarters in Delhi. If he needs to send video, or talk to someone, there is a bigger FB-500 fleet broadband system. But that is expensive and Tomy is very budget-conscious.
What’s to talk, he asks? Anything that goes wrong must be fixed on board. Inside the cabin is a small workbench with a vice, and spanners hanging below, stuck into a orange rexine organiser. In another corner is the galley, the navy’s grandiose monicker for a small gas stove. On the wall are plaques, presented by authorities in places like Cape Town, Fremantle (Australia) and Littleton (New Zealand), the ports of calls for vessels like the Mhadei.
After signing the Mhadei’s visitors’ book, I leaf back through previous comments. On Feb 21st, 2009, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had endorsed the ultimate compliment: “A nice strong boat to sail around the world!” All of us should pray that he is right.