On a small boat in the middle of the sea, tossing about on the waves, salt dries on lips and the sun chars skin. There are no comforts here, but there’s a reverence for the wind that fills the sails and carries us homewards. Our little vessel is part of a grand old tradition, when men met the elements directly, without walls and cocoons to shield them. Their blood and sweat seeped into wooden hulls, becoming part of the lore of the vessels and the seas they sailed.
Despite being a product of the age of airplanes and cars, I felt the sea beckon and decided to make the most of my one chance to become a part of sailing lore. Even before I stepped aboard the Mhadei, I vowed to be a good sailor. No medicines to prevent sea-sickness for me, and treat me like part of the crew, I told the captain. He, a veteran of salt spray and changeful winds, accepted the extra pair of hands, though novice, willingly.
At the start of a journey
The monsoon was petering off, but it drizzled on the morning we were to start our 250-nautical mile journey from Goa to Mumbai. The day started early, with loading fresh supplies and luggage on board. As we cast off, Captain kept me busy, hauling in fenders and cajoling open stubborn sailors’ knots. Then it was off to hoist our sail, assisting the first mate. We huffed and puffed, pushed and pulled with our might; Captain shouting out his encouragement, telling us to speed it up.
By the time the sail was up, the shore was an indistinct haze, and the 56-foot-yacht was pitching up and down the metre-and-a-half swell. Caught up in my chores I’d had no time to notice the shore fade away or to feel sick. The wind filled the sails, tilting the boat 30-degrees, and our little vessel shot along the Western coast. The inevitable bout of seasickness struck and I upchucked my breakfast off the side; careful to do it downwind. Many a sailor has thrown up on the wrong side, only to have the wind hurl his stomach’s content right back at him.
Being sick is the easy part
Throwing up isn’t as bad as it sounds. You feel nauseated, you puke, and then you feel better. The key is to keep drinking water and eating, and keep up your energy. Take along lots of fruits; they’re the only things you’ll feel like eating. Avoid going below deck; the fresh air and the sight of the horizon helps you feel better. In fact, once I realised this, I took it to an extreme — refusing to go even to fetch sunscreen. No wonder then that I burnt crisp and, let me tell you, that isn’t pretty. Don’t take the sun lightly: the combination of the boat’s pitching and the heat has the effect of sapping your will. It also lulls you to sleep; just staying awake takes a lot of energy, but it’s worth the effort.
No land in sight
Forty hours on a small boat sounds like a long time. But being in the middle of the sea is an amazing thing: by plucking you out of the context of land that always describes you, it also takes you out of time. It’s easy to spend hour after hour just gazing at the waves with not a thought cluttering your head. At night too, I slept above deck, where I could see the sky overhead, and hear the waves lap the boat’s side.
The sky was an ever-changing canvas. Each time I opened my eyes, it reflected a different mood — mischievously dark, ethereally moonlit, and downright sombre and menacing.
I took on a night watch and found that it’s hard work. Though the monsoon is not over yet, fishing trawlers were out in full force. The boats are easy to spot — with their red and green lights — but it’s the nets strung between them, marked by tiny buoys, that you have to stay alert for.
Watch the wind
Morning dawned and the clouds hiding the sun were a godsend. Without the sun sapping all our energy, we felt like singing, taking photographs, and even considered cooked food. The sea was calmer and the wind steady, speeding us on our way. But out on the sea things can change very fast.
As we sailed under a dark cloud, the temperature dropped suddenly and a powerful gust of wind slammed into our sail, angrily knocking it about. Captain reefed in the sail quickly, and we sat anxious and quiet as he steered us to safer waters. The swell rose, and nearby trawlers seemed to disappear underwater each time a large wave hit. Then just as suddenly, the wind eased off and our boat righted herself.
Fair winds were ours again and we sped homewards, dreaming of warm showers and hot meals. The wind seemed to caress us, and the water sparkled in the light of the gentler evening sun.
But never take the wind for granted, I learnt. As the shore of Mumbai came into sight, the wind suddenly dropped completely. With home so close, the wind’s betrayal was a stiff blow to the heart. Amused by our downcast faces, Captain asked: “So sailors, you want to wait it out, or shall I turn on the engine?”
What do you think we chose?
The writer did get to become a tiny part of sailing lore as the first woman to sail overnight on the Mhadei. The boat and her captain, Commander Dilip Donde, are attempting Indian maritime history by sailing around the globe.