“courage is knowing it might hurt, and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same. And that is why life is hard.” — Jeremy Goldberg.
I had a cheap basic phone in those days, but the phone had a special ringtone for all the sailing contacts I had to make sure that I never miss a race or a chance to crew with someone good. My weekends were all about racing boats. But, if the call came from Sandeep, you knew you were about to get in trouble doing something crazy or amazing and this was one of those winters.
Sandeep called with a simple ask; do you want to go sail to Lakshadweep? Oh hell, why not was my answer. I have a very bad habit of not asking details when someone comes to me with a sailing proposal and that is how I now find myself sailing in the Golden Globe Race 2022.
I received no details for a few days and then there was simple instructions- pack your bag with sailing stuff and a few good clothes and land up at Uran and so I did. What I found was a boat that had been heavily beat up and did not have a keel. The boats lift-up keel had fallen off in the last race Sandeep had taken the boat to.
The SEABIRD was designed by Morgan Giles in 1920 specifically for sailing in Bombay harbour for the Royal Bombay Yacht Club.
The SEABIRD is a 21 foot Gaff rigged boat. Originally the boat was made in Burma / Malbar teak with a clinker hull construction.
Next, I was sent on a task to scavenge a pulley system for a keel and then find a keel I could get a trace from to build a new keel. Details of what happened and how I found one, I will take to the grave with me and don’t need to be pubic knowledge or maybe I will do it when someone pays me for a tell all book one day. We got the pulley system made and the keel was just a 1 ½ inch thick sheet of iron that we cut into the shape of the keel. No shape to it, it was just a block of metal right there, bigger than the size of the keel box. Before the start of the race we had to cut out a piece of the keel box and hammer the keel down. You can call it ingenuity or call it madness, you choose.
Next task was to get the boat to the start line. A 1,514km journey in a lorry with the driver and cleaner for company. This was one of the most epic road trips ever. We had the boat in tow and our friend Rakesh who I will introduce later used his government issued ID to pass off as an government official to escape toll fees all the way, we had some fights when people questioned the authenticity of the ID but as far as I remember, we never paid a rupee. That journey took us three nights of non-stop driving by the driver and cleaner loaded with opium. They were so high, I remember them saying that they couldn’t feel their feet. We even started a brawl somewhere at a roadside restaurant. I don’t remember much, I was too drunk. We were racing other trucks on the mountain passes with a boat in the back with a driver who was high as a kite.
After reaching, we had the boat lifted into the water and to no ones surprise it was taking on water. With no one in sight to help guess what I did? I mixed underwater 2-part epoxy with my hands and put it on the places where the water was coming in with. No need to guess what happened next- rashes all over the body. Luckily there are great boat builders in the area, and they were able to come help later and fix the big leaks, the small leaks we just had to live with.
Before I start the race let me introduce you to the crew. Sandeep Mhatre was our skipper- the best sailor I know, but also the most dangerous. I will crew for him any day. Rakesh- he had sailed before but not as much and in his full-time job was a bartender. Jolly Thomas, the sponsor… he spoke a little English and Malayalam and had never sailed before, smoked cigarettes that didn’t have a bud and was mostly useless except for maybe putting his own picture upfront on every newspaper after the race for having done absolutely fuck all on the boat.
The race was flagged off in proper military fashion- a 2NM start line for 8 boats. Nothing notable happened on the first day except the fact that we got food catered from Taj Malabar, that found its way back into the sea via our bodies next morning. Most of the first night we were bobbing around and didn’t make a lot of progress. The wind came around 3 in the morning and we raised our spinnakers to sail downwind. You can see in the picture that we didn’t have a spinnaker pole; it was 3 long pieces of bamboo lashed with plastic rope. It was time for me to sleep but not a lot because the next moment I remember, I was woken up by a yelling Sandeep to tell me to go on deck to take off the spinnaker as the sea state had changed dramatically. So, I asked for a lifejacket to go on deck and we realized we only had carried 3. Sandeep was kind enough to give me his being the skipper he took on the danger. I went to gather the spinnaker and at the same time Rakesh instead of letting go of the halyard started pulling the guy which meant I was flying in the air. We did not have clip on harnesses, mine was just the main halyard tied around my waist in a bowline. That was a lucky escape, but the ordeal wasn’t over. In that sea state it was very difficult to steer the boat. I was constantly trimming the jib as we went down the waves to make sure that we were getting squared up, it had to be precise. I remember doing that for hours and not once did we come close to a capsize. It was my finest hour.
Next, we heard a thud and the look Sandeep’s face was of pure horror. Jolly and Rakesh had frozen, I know for a fact that they didn’t move an inch that entire day from their position. The gudgeon attached to the stern had broken off and the rudder was just hanging on by the pintle. This was the moment I asked Sandeep to turn back. We were just 16NM from land, but this is where I learned one of the greatest lessons of life. Sandeep doesn’t give up easily. No one gave him a chance to survive this race, his regular teammates said they wouldn’t go with him and one person said that we were not going to come back alive from this journey. Somehow Sandeep remembered that we had put on a normal household bolt latch on the lazarette and he used the eye of that latch to fasten a makeshift gudgeon- it lasted the entire journey.
The remaining days were fun downwind sailing. Sandeep and I would take turns to steer the boat with one hand and trim the spin with the other. When Sandeep was awake, I was sleeping and vice versa. Rakesh meanwhile took care of all nutrition and entertainment while lending a crucial helping hand in low wind conditions so Sandeep and I both could sleep. It was hardly any real sleeping. We would sleep at the bottom or the bilge of the boat which would perennially have an inch or two of water. Jolly’s job was bailing the water out which he would have to reminded to do almost all the time.
Oh, did I forget to tell you that the only means of comm’s we had was an ancient handheld VHF that was loaned to us by the Navy. It died on the first night. I think it was the third night that the naval vessel INS Kalpeni finally spotted us and boy was she a sight. We could see her sprinting to check on us from 8 miles away and the way she was cutting through the waves was a beautiful sight I will never forget. They transferred a new newer VHF set from the ship to keep in touch with us and kept an eye on us the entire way after that. The transfer of equipment happened via the bamboo spinnaker pole we had.
The sail to Kavaratti was uneventful after that. After we finished, we found ourselves drifting onto the reef. We only had a 2hp outboard that wasn’t of any help. Over the next two days the seeds of the GGR were sown in my head. I met the then Cdr. Dilip Donde who was building Mhadei to become the first Indian to sail solo round the world with stops.
The race back was undramatic till the day before finishing back in Kochi and maybe that was the day and night when we won the race. The second last day the storms hit again, we could see multiple waterspouts next to us. But this time the crew of Phalarope was determined to sail through to this without getting frightened. We sailed through it with Sandeep, Rakesh and I singing songs all the way and Jolly humming with us because he didn’t really understand much Hindi. Its only after the sea state calmed down that we realized that the chainplates had slipped. If you look closer in the picture, we didn’t have turnbuckles, it was plastic ropes that were holding the shrouds to the chainplates. I have no idea to date how we didn’t lose the mast because that entire day we were sailing upwind into huge waves.
We again made temporary repairs by nailing down the chainplate with some household nails that we had. That night we welcomed Rakesh’s birthday by surfing down waves towards the finish and we reached the finish around 4 am in the morning. We tried to enter Kochi harbor with our 2hp motor, but the tide was too strong. For some time, we held onto to marker buoy to not drift onto the beach, but it was dangerous as we could be blocking someone’s view of the buoy. So, we sailed back and got alongside INS Kalpeni to wait until Dawn so they could take us inside. The ships officers fed us fresh parathas which were the tastiest parathas I have ever eaten. This was when I took a moment to ask the Lieutanant on the ship when other boats had finished. I took the numbers and did a mental calculation and I knew that we had beaten all the navy boats by 16 hours. It was confirmed the next day at the debrief.
Just to top off what was already a crazy week in my life, I wore the wrong t-shirt to the prize giving and we were late and only Jolly went up on stage to receive the winners medal. It didn’t matter honestly. That was the best week of my life and I had achieved something very few people will ever dare to undertake.
This journey taught me a lot. From never giving up, to using everything at your disposal to making sure you keep sailing to preparing well so you don’t have to go through that again. I probably will use lessons from this race more than any of my other ocean crossings during the 200 odd days at sea during the Golden Globe Race.