The Romance of Sailing: When living legends meet in Goa…

A few days ago, I met Sir Robin Knox-Johnston who was passing through Goa on the last leg of his Indian jaunt. Before you ask “Robin who?” Sir Johnston is an ISAF (International Sailing Federation) hall of fame yachtsman, a legendary sailor, and the first human being to have circumnavigated (that is, sailed around the globe) single-handed and non-­stop, way back in 1969, at the age of 29. He did this in his 32-foot wooden ketch in an era when navigation communications were not as advanced as today and when boats were not kitted with modern electronic equipment!

At 74, the evergreen Sir Robin is still globe-trotting and doing the public lecture circuit with great vigour. He had just returned after regaling students of IIT Kharagpur and cadets of National Defence Academy with stories of his adventures.   He was here with his local host and friend Shaurya Chakra (a national medal for bravery) Commander Dilip Donde, the first Indian to sail round the world – in 2006 – albeit halting at four ports en route.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (on the left) and Cdr Dilip Donde (in a red T-shirt) at Melghat Tiger Reserve

At a private dinner at North Goa’s Sinquerim Beach the two stalwarts (actually more, but more about them by and by!) revelled in nostalgia and relived the old world romance of sailing and exploration.  Sir Robin tells me that Suhaili, the boat in which he undertook the circumnavigation challenge, was named after “the south east wind in the Persian Gulf, where I was working a lot of the time on my voyages between Bombay and Basra.  My wife’s name was Sue, so it was also tactful!” Suhaili was made from teak at Bombay Dockyards. It was nearly 45 years back that he had landed in India; Bombay, to be precise, to get his boat built and stayed on for four years. His daughter was born in Bombay, he informs with pride. But when he sought to take his family back home to London on Suhaili, his wife sought a divorce. He remarried her after his return from solo circumnavigation, he reveals mischievously! Mumbai left an indelible mark on him and this time round, he confesses, he visited Chor Bazaar for old times’ sake. Not a very loquacious person, but chatty to the right degree and with a cheeky sense of humour, he lets me have a sneak peek into his eventful life.

Ever since he could remember Sir Robin Knox-Johnston wanted to sail the high seas. His place in the sun was assured when he won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race for circumnavigating solo. Adding to his repertoire, he penned his adventures A World of My Own which is counted as a classic, even today.  For him, the book was just a means to “pay him out of solvency” post the sailing trip.

What phenomenal courage must have seen him through the perilous adventure where he embraced turbulent latitudes and sleep deprivation, where fellow sailors fell by the wayside? I wondered. The answer, the sheer adrenaline of adventure, became somewhat evident when he said: “I wanted to show myself and the world that I was still young enough to undertake such an adventure again.” So even at the ripe age of 68 he took on the challenge of participating in Velux 5 Oceans race – the tour de force of the competitive sailing circuit. He named his boat tellingly, Grey Power. Sir Robin was the oldest yachtsman to participate and, after overcoming a few mishaps, stood fourth, along with his partner.

It was around that time the first solo circumnavigation project – Sagarparikrama – hatched on the Indian soil was reaching fruition. The hunt for the sailor had ended with Indian Navy’s Commander Dilip Donde. As luck would have it, the soloist came in contact with Sir Robin who took him under his wings. It was under his tutelage that Cdr Donde’s own idea and picture of what he wanted of a boat started taking shape.

Commander Dilip Donde is a quintessential sailor who reveals less and revels in his silence more. But what he does not reveal is eloquently articulated through his blogs that he maintained as he trawled the oceans over nine months in 2006. Incidentally, a book on his adventures and experiences is on the way, we are told, and going by his literary skills we have another nail-biting thriller waiting to unfurl.12_march1

The unassuming Commander shifts the spotlight on him and gives the credit for the feat, to the boat, INSV (Indian Naval Sailing Vessel) Mhadei, instead. Twice the size of Suhaili, this 56-foot schooner made of fibreglass was completely made in India, in a small boatyard in Goa. The boat, of which, Sir Robin, who took active interest in its making, is known to have said, “…a nice strong boat to sail around the world.”

Mhadei is testimony to the indigenous talent and the craftsmanship of the boat-builder. And that brings me to the third illustrious guest of the evening, Ratnakar Dandekar. Dandekar owned a modest boat-building outfit, Aquarius Fibreglass, on the heritage Divar Island. But Mhadei has changed that and his business is booming where recession has affected many others.

The name Mhadei was sheer happenstance and a word about it, at this point, is apposite. Vice Admiral (retd) Manohar Awati, the mastermind of Sagarparikrama project, was looking for an apt identity for the boat that would put India on the maritime history map. He is known to have recounted that when he was touring the jungles of Sattari at the base of the Western Ghats, he came upon several temples of Nau-devi, patron deity of the local community. The local people worshipped the infant Mandovi, called Mhadei, which had its source in the Ghats of Karnataka. Thus, Mhadei is worshipped as the River Goddess on which the Nau-devi plies her boat. What better name for a boat whose “journey” began in a boatyard by the Mandovi River, with its rich cultural and historical heritage!

When I say, half-seriously, to Dandekar that he should write a book on the making of Mhadei, he gently brushes it aside, saying he cannot write. “But I’ll say this, building the boat changed my life. Until then, I was a small-time boat builder with commercial interests. Mhadei changed everything. It is not just a boat; it was my higher calling in life. There hasn’t been a boat like this before and I doubt there will be another. Mhadei is the one and only…”

Mhadei stood the test of time through the months that Cdr Donde sailed on it. In fact, it was here in Goa, by the Mandovi jetty, that Mhadei remained parked during its preparation and trial phases, before it set out on yet another epic voyage in November 2012.

Even as you are reading this, Mhadei is sailing the high seas, and, in fact, has entered the Indian Ocean on its last lap of solo non-stop circumnavigation under the stewardship of Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy. Just that day of the dinner, Tomy had received a congratulatory note from the legend.  Abhilash Tomy shares it in his blog: “He (Sir Robin) 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!”

Words of encouragement that will certainly see the naval aviator (Tomy wears several hats!) “sail through” the rest of the voyage.

The one thing that both Cdr Donde and LCdr Tomy banked on to pull them through the vagaries of the voyage was books. But when the wind Gods played treacherous or unpredictable, which was often, there was no time for reading. Says Cdr Donde: “While the turbulence and storms could be tricky it was the doldrums that one dreaded because that is when you are stuck and boredom is quick to sneak in.” On one such occasion he opened Sea of Poppies and admits to “not being in the doldrums any more”.

The author of the much-acclaimed Sea of Poppies Amitav Ghosh, was also present at the dinner that day! One of India’s most celebrated authors, Ghosh has deep knowledge of maritime history. The writer has a pad in Goa’s heritage town of Aldona where he spends nearly six months in a year, writing. It is from here that two of his Ibis trilogy tomes have taken shape. That day, it was fascinating to watch him interact with the legendary sailors and trade notes on aspects as varied as the lascar lingo or slave trade or ancient routes of maritime trade and so on.

These sailors truly belong to an uber-exclusive club. Only a few thousand have scaled Mount Everest, fewer still have gone into space, but those circumnavigating the globe are a handful few.

Little wonder, then, that as we parted ways, Amitav Ghosh said admiringly: “These are the real travellers.”


Padmaja Parulkar is a green blogger and avid bird-watcher. She veered away from full-time journalism to travel.  A die-hard lover of Africa, she is currently based in Goa).