Wind in their sails: Girls, kids, the middle-class are taking to the sea
New sailing clubs and schools are opening up across the country, from Goa to landlocked Madhya Pradesh, redefining what has so far been a rich man’s sport.more lifestyle Updated: Mar 10, 2018 22:44 IST
Dripping wet, her suit frayed at the edges, Harshita Tomar steps on to dry land to make history. She’s 16, wiry, and hails from small-town Hoshangabad in land-locked Madhya Pradesh, an unlikely bet for a sailboat race. But she’s just navigated her Laser 4.7 craft past 13 competitors along the Pondicherry coast, to victory.
The event, Sailing the East Coast, is no less historic. It’s the first regatta (a series of sailboat races) in a town that didn’t even have a sailing club six years ago. Over Republic Day weekend, however, 50 sailors from India, France, Sweden and the US wrested with local tides and winds to popularise the sport in a country with two coasts but practically no sailing culture.
“We hope the regatta gets the world and locals to see Pondicherry as the ideal sailing destination that it is,” says SV Balachander, treasurer of the Pondicherry Sailing Association.
India has had posh yacht clubs for almost two centuries - the Royal Bombay Yacht Club is 172 years old – but now fresh winds are blowing in. Sailing clubs, schools and associations are being set up to rid the sport of its image as a pastime for rich brats and old men. It’s being redefined as an activity for kids and the middle-class.
In Amaravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, efforts are on to create a marina for yachts, sailboats and cruise boats in the Krishna River. Sailing camps have been held in the state’s coastal town of Visakhapatnam. Along the west coast, the local yacht club in Navi Mumbai hopes to offer sailing lessons, while 15-odd companies offer classes off the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
In the lakes of landlocked Bhopal and Hyderabad, the activity determinedly targets another demographic — promising kids from underprivileged backgrounds, get education, nutrition and training to sail competitively, with exciting results.
“Ten years ago, no one outside of the old clubs had access to sailboats,” says Shakeel Kudrolli, a lawyer and sailor who set up Aquasail with his marketer wife Zia Hajeebhoy in 2007. “Today we have 80 boats across Mumbai, Raigad and Goa and have given 40,000 people sailing experiences.”
Sailing is tricky. The boats are powered entirely by wind. Every breeze or passing puff of air must be harnessed. Two boats, side by side, may experience different conditions, adjusting their sail’s height and direction accordingly, so regattas are especially unpredictable.
“We have probably the best conditions in the world: warm weather and water – imagine sailing in Europe in 6-degree cold – a long coastline and predictable wind conditions,” says Kudrolli.
But, as more of India is realising, where you train matters. Our west coast is calm, safe and well inhabited. The east is the wilder sister – a deeper continental shelf, complex tides, bigger waves, strong currents and cyclones. Sailors love it, as do surfers, kite surfers and windsurfers. Here navigating your craft is more complicated.
Tomar, who trains at the National Sailing School in Bhopal’s still Upper Lake, reached Pondicherry a week in advance to make the most of the on-sea experience. “I’m trying out for the Asian Games in August. This is great practice.”
India has hosted regattas since at least 1830. But access to waterfronts was reduced after Independence, clubs restricted membership while the licence regime made it hard to procure equipment. The Army and Navy dominated the scene, giving the leisure activity a competitive spin. But with new institutes and clubs, there’s hope that top talent will come from modest backgrounds, as it does globally.
At the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad, Suheim Sheikh, coach and president of the nine-year-old yacht club, has been training children of farmers, labourers, auto-drivers and waiters for free.
The club’s Naavika programme coaches girls, two of whom, Tungara Mahboobie and Lakshmi Nookarathnam, have been showing promise .
“We’re aiming to train 100 girls,” says Sheikh. “If you don’t have a large group of participants you don’t have competition.” He believes it’s possible to replicate the programme across India. “The perception is that this is a rich man’s sport. But access to water is less expensive than building a stadium. We started off with three boats; we now have 80.”
Aurofilio Schiavina, Pondicherry resident and member of a citizen’s action group PondiCan, says developing sailing helps ensure that everyone benefits from the new money and new interest in the region. “We saw it with surfers,” he says. “Kids of local fishermen took it up four years ago and are now part of a global community of surfers. There are no caste or social barriers. We want that with sailing.”
In Navi Mumbai, coach Malav Shroff competed in the Olympics in 2004. There are plans to train tribal Agri and Koli youngsters who already spend time on the water. Bhopal’s sailing school is showing results. Tomar is among a few who have been winning national championships.
There are rough waters ahead before India takes to sailing in any significant way. “To win at the Olympics we need at least 1 million sailors, not the handful we have,” says Aquasail’s Kudrolli. “Around the world, competitive sailing makes up just 2% of the activity, the rest is leisure sailing, people on sailboats with families and friends.”
He believes we’ll make more sailors with commerce than competitive training. “It’s still expensive to own your own sailboat,” he says referring to prices for a beginner-level vessel that start at Rs 1 lakh. “But corporate lessons and weekend classes get more people to experience what so many generations haven’t.”
If you can afford a boat, there are infrastructure issues. In the Mumbai harbour, there’s barely any place to moor it. Our coasts lack basic development, let alone full-fledged marinas. There’s also the stubborn misconception that a sailboat is luxury party yacht. “So many people want to drink on a boat,” says Kudrolli.