For us Mumbaikars, the sea has often proved the perfect backdrop for photos with out-of-town friends. But when we find ourselves aboard sailing company Aquasail’s catamaran, the view is suddenly reversed. Three nautical miles into the sea (1 nautical mile equals 1.8km), the sunshine makes the water glisten with a metallic sheen, even as the wind blows gently. The skyscrapers, Gateway of India and The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel seem far away. As we learn the ropes about sails, hulls and wind direction, we imagine a kinship with the early sailors who’d chanced upon the good bay, or the Bom Bahia, as it used to be called.
October to May marks the sailing season in Mumbai. Geographically blessed with a coastline that spans 149km, and warm weather, the city is perfect for sailing. Yet, for long, the perception that sailing is prohibitively expensive deterred many from taking up the sport.
Breeze through the history
The first recorded sailing race in India was conducted on February 6, 1830, in Bombay. The Royal Bombay Yacht Club (RBYC), the first sailing club In India, was established by the British in 1846. “The Bombay Yacht Club was bestowed the title ‘Royal’ in 1876 by Queen Victoria and, hence, is known as the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. The tradition of sailing continued even after the British left India,” says Cyrus Herjee, general committee member of RBYC and commodore of the Colaba Sailing Club.
After Independence, sailing was accessible to the members of clubs, who were mostly among the elite, and those with an Army or Navy background (who could access the naval docks and learn the sport).
Apart from the RBYC, the city boasts of two other major sailing clubs: Bombay Sailing Association (opened in 1892) and Colaba Sailing Club (1936). For long, they were the only ones to promote sailing but remained members-only affairs, with membership fees running into lakhs (Bombay Sailing’s life membership costs Rs 8 lakh, while that of Colaba Sailing costs Rs 2.2 lakh).
So, for a long time, it remained niche. But things changed over the last decade with the advent of private sailing groups, which needed no memberships, and cost remarkably lesser.
The city has more than a dozen private sailing clubs — with Gateway Sailing Club, West Coast Marine Club, Aquasail and Discover Sailing being the prominent ones. These offer short-term courses, which are just a few hours long, or long-term, which go on for weeks and help you turn pro. The short-term courses are priced upwards of Rs 1,000, while in-depth courses cost anywhere between Rs 18,000 to Rs 62,000, depending on the level of expertise and the organisation conducting the course.“Anyone between ages eight to 80 can learn here, since our harbour is very safe,” says Herjee.Apart from training you, some groups like Aquasail can also help you buy a boat (if you can afford to shell out anywhere between Rs 50 lakh to Rs 5 crore).\
The sailors club
Most of the private clubs are run by people who were initiated into sailing from childhood, turned professional and have competed in championships.
Aquasail’s co-founder Shakeel Kudrolli (55) started sailing when he was 10 years old as a volunteer with the Sea Cadet Corps. He won a gold medal at the Asian Championship in 1989. In 2007, he and wife Zia Hajeebhoy (50) gave up their lucrative jobs, as a lawyer and a marketing professional respectively, to promote the sport. Now, they have 80 boats and conduct sailing sessions at three venues: off the Mumbai coast, in Mandwa, and Goa. Among other things, they offer the course as a corporate team building exercise, which finds lots of takers.
“We want to dispel the notion that sailing is a lot of hard work and very expensive. We also emphasise on safety with life jackets, walkie talkies on every boat, trained instructors and quality equipment. Absolutely anyone can join; you don’t need to know swimming either,” says Hajeebhoy.
Similarly, Discover Sailing was started in 2013 by sailing champion Ayesha Lobo (25), who started sailing at age 10 and has been the skipper for India’s only all-women sailing team. “I had to beg my dad to let me try it and eventually, he gave in. I started racing and won competitions in India and abroad in the optimist sailing dinghy, from the time I was 14-and-a-half years old (small boat used by kids). This progressed to racing a larger J24 sailing boat internationally and I started coaching others in sailing,” she shares.
With growing interest, the sea has also become a favourite venue for hosting occasions. “We have had people celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and even marriage proposals on our yachts,” says Kudrolli.
And there is something for the audience too; sailing season means each club has a packed calendar filled with races and regattas held over the weekend by each club. The Festival of Sails, which started in 2011 and was the brainchild of Colonel Gautama Dutta, architect Gyan Correa and yachtsmen of prominent sailing clubs, sees a combination of boats come together for regattas.
“It used to be an exclusive sport for club members, but it has now become accessible to all age groups. There are a lot more children sailing as well which is a good sign,” says Lobo.
Says Zia Hajeebhoy, “Sailing, as an activity, has gained practitioners as people are more willing to spend on leisure than before.” She mentions that the last four years have seen 30,000 people sail with them as compared to 2,500 people in their first year.
Experiential website Blue Bulb also admits that it gets a great response for sailing sessions: “Till six years ago, you had to know a member at the club and beg for an invite to go sailing. There was always a market for leisure sailing, it just needed a voice.”
Float your boat: A quick guide to the boats on Mumbai’s waters
Boats can be classified as monohulls (single hull or base of a boat), multihulls (dual hulls on the bottom and the side) popularly known as catamaran and even trimarans (three hulls). They are also classified as powerboats (vessel propelled by machinery or fuel), sail boats (propelled by wind and equipped with mast and sails) and row boats.
Dinghies: Smaller sail boats that are typically non-motorised. They are ideal for beach sailing; can be monohulls or multihulls.
Hobie Sea Kayak: Can seat two persons and is used for paddling on open waters of lakes and the sea.
Windsurfer:It is a board with a sail. You get different sizes of sail and boards depending on your level and for different wind conditions.
Kite surfer: A kite with a harness. If you can ride a bike you can sail this boat.
All (you need to know) at sea
* Keep note of the direction of the wind. It will determine the direction you will sail in.
* To manage the sail, keep loosening the rope until the sail fills with wind.
* If the sail starts flapping, tighten slightly and hold. A flappy sail is not a happy sail.
* A knot in sailing terms is a unit of measure of the speed of wind. One knot is equal to one nautical mile (1.852 km) per hour.
— By Aquasail
Where to sail
Call: 99876 81826
>> Gateway Sailing Club
Call: 99870 00004
>> West Coast Marine Yachts
Call: 2285 6127
>> Discover Sailing
Call: 09969 505083
>> Royal Bombay Yacht Club
Call: 2202 1880
>> Colaba Sailing Club
Call: 2288 2788
>> Bombay Sailing Association
Call: 2204 6466
>> Festival of Sails
>> Blue Bulb
Call: 3227 0033