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8-min read

Ahoy! Set sail in India, the water is good

You don't have to be super-rich to get into a boat and just coast along.

Abhishek Raghunath |

Updated:September 12, 2009, 4:44 PM IST
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Ahoy! Set sail in India, the water is good
You don't have to be super-rich to get into a boat and just coast along.
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India is a sailor’s dream. 7,600 km of coastline, plenty of natural harbours, calm waters for the leisurely sail, a bit of stormy water for the adventurous. Plus innumerable lakes and rivers. But the only ones who know about the beauty of its waters are the Navy, a few cruise ships, oil rigs and fishermen. And a handful of enthusiasts who keep popping into the water every sailing season.

The rest of us gripe about how sailing is only for the likes of the Mallyas and the Ambanis with their luxury party yachts. Sure, few can afford that kind of life. But there is a lot that those of us not on the rich lists can do.

Like getting into a small boat with a few chosen friends and just coasting along with the wind in your hair and the spray in your face.

“Sailing is a great family hobby. You enjoy it best when you have your wife and kid with you on the ocean,” says Zia Hajeebhoy. She knows how much fun a family can have on a boat. That was where she met her husband, Shakeel Kudroli, the first Indian to win a gold medal in an international sailing event (Enterprise Class, Asian Championship ’88, China). They run Aquasail in Mumbai, one of the first Indian companies to sell leisure boats and offer training.

Ninety five percent of sailing around the world is leisure sailing, the market Kudroli is looking at widening in this country. “The only way sailing can pick up in this country is if there are options for all kinds of people,” he says. “We offer people the ability to get on to a boat, get the experience, see that it is a safe sport. There are people who want to learn the sport, others want an adventure and there are people who see it as a lifestyle option.”

The sailor’s life

There is no age limit. If you’re in decent physical shape, you can hoist a sail.

Ask the Duttas, all three generations: General S Dutta (74), Colonel Gautama Dutta (43) and Upamanyu (12). The patriarch won his first competitive title in 1956. “I studied at the College of Military Engineering in Pune. That was before the National Defence Academy (NDA) was established. I was sailing a Wagtail at the time. The first time I took Gautama on a boat, he was six or seven months old,” the General laughs.

Gautama Dutta joined the Army and retired as a colonel to start a leisure boating company, Marine Solutions. He also coaches kids in Mumbai. The children are in good hands: He is a former national champ and Asian medallist. Upamanyu, his son, carries on the family tradition, with two titles this year: The National Championhip and the Inland National Championship. He’s sailed around South Asia and loves to sail around Mumbai. (Sailors always have exciting tales. We ask Upamanyu to tell us one. “I was sailing in Lankawi, Malaysia, when a storm came. The boat capsized and I fell off. I couldn’t right it since the wind was too strong and I had to be towed back,” he says, matter-of-factly. “What about you?” We mumble something about falling off a windsurfing board and quickly change the topic.)

Vikram Shroff, executive director, United Phosphorous, is a first generation sailor. He began windsurfing 10 years ago, then took up boats. He takes his Hobie Cat (a small catamaran) out off Juhu Beach, Mumbai, whenever he can. Juhu doesn’t have the best lifeguard facilities or boating facilities. The sailing community rebukes him for sailing there without back-up, but he couldn’t care less. “It’s the only place in Mumbai where you can find peace. I see a lot of Juhu from the Hobie Cat and there’s no one honking on the sea. The fishermen are there, and then there’s me.”

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It isn’t just about family traditions and obsessions. There are signs that people are looking at sailing as a lifestyle option.

Shirish Barwale, director, Mahyco Industries, learned the ropes at Aquasail. He got married this year and went honeymooning in the Caribbean. “Instead of just sitting on the beach with a drink in my hand as I would normally do on a holiday, we went sailing. We would head off into the water in the evenings on Hobie Cats. Since it was the Caribbean, the water was stunning. It was surreal, as if we were in a movie. Very picturesque. We used to watch the sunsets and once when the wind died down, it was just me and Pragya [his wife] waiting in the boat because there was nothing else we could do. It was beautiful.”

People who left the sport are getting back to it too, like Prakash H. Khatiwala (70). “I used to sail 25 years back, but I got busy running my chemical business and forgot about sailing. Then I was at a boat show a couple of years back and decided to get back into the water. I had a boat custom-made for me and now the wife and me sail every Sunday. We started in January this year and are eagerly waiting for October so we can get back on to the water.”

Then there are the outlanders, like Guido Bothe, an industrial designer from Germany. He first visited India 15 years ago. “I bought a Bullet motorcycle like most foreigners and drove around the Maharashtra coast. I was awed at the coast and was taken aback that there were no facilities for sailing. Four months later I went back to Germany and realised that all the people there are cold and grizzly. I decided I didn’t want to live there and came back to India.”

A student of industrial design, he used to manufacture surf-boards and boating infrastructure in Germany. He decided to get into the boating business in India and today, Chinkara Motors, founded by his wife, Shama, is one of the few companies in India that actually manufacture boats (Khatiwala’s boat was made by Bothe). He operates out of a workshop in Alibaug, south of Mumbai, churning out a boat every four months at a considerably lower cost than the imported boats other leisure boating companies sell. A 32-foot catamaran costs Rs 93 lakh.

Learning the ropes

The three sailing clubs in Mumbai, the Colaba Sailing Club, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and the Bombay Sailing Association spearhead the sailing lifestyle and programmes in India. They date back to pre-Independence times, when sailing was popular with the sahibs. When the British left, they took most of the sailing culture with them. These clubs, and a few others around the country, kept it alive. On the flipside, as with other remnants of the Raj, sailing came to be seen as a sport for the privileged, where the only way commoners could participate was via the armed forces.

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Yes, it is expensive. But it’s not just for the stinking rich.

You don’t have to drop a crore on a 35-foot yacht; you can share it instead. (Aquasail lets you ‘timeshare,’ i.e., if you know you are going to sail 15 days of the season, that’s how much you pay for).

Or just hire out a boat for a couple of hours, a process made easier if you join a sailing club. Getting in is not difficult: The Colaba Sailing Club charges Rs. 13,000 for a life membership plus a yearly charge of Rs. 2,000; Bombay Sailing Association charges Rs. 3 lakh for life; Royal Bombay Yacht Club is the most expensive with a lifetime charge of Rs. 6 lakh.

All the clubs run training programmes twice a year in October and March where they teach new members how to sail. You can learn the basics of handling a powerboat in two sessions, but getting the hang of a sailboat will take you at least 10 sessions. Once qualified, you can take out club boats and start sailing (with two professional seamen on board to help out).

Don’t live by the coast? No problem. There is quite a lot of inland sailing happening too. A few examples: Private companies that offer sailing at Khadakvasla, near Pune; the Secunderabad Sailing Association; a sailing school for youngsters at Bhopal; and Nainital’s yacht club.

Konda Syokai in Kochi, Kerala, offers sailing programmes and charters to experienced and aspiring sailors. They’ll sail with you to nearby places along the coast, or as far as Lakshadweep, the Andaman Islands or Goa. But Arun Louis, operations manager, is sceptical about Indians wanting to learn to sail. “Indians are very reluctant to enter the water. They prefer to go motorboating for day-trips. Most of our customers are foreigners who charter boats for day-trips or week long cruises.”

It’s true. India has a very active junior sailing scene, but the magic seems to wear off as people get older. Kudroli believes there’s a solution. “India won’t produce a single world champion until more people begin to sail. If we can get half a million people sailing for leisure, you have a component of guys who will take it up professionally. Sponsors come in and the sport itself gets a boost.”

See? You owe it to your country.

Where to sail

Mumbai, Maharashtra; Goa; Chennai, Tamil Nadu; Kochi, Kerala; Lakshadweep;

the Andamans; lakes and rivers in your city

When to sail

October to mid-May

Where to learn

Mumbai Colaba Sailing Club

Royal Bombay Yacht Club

Bombay Sailing Association

Chennai Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, Royal Madras Yacht Club

Cochin Malabar Yacht Club

Kerala Yachting Association

For more, check out the Yachting Association of India (yai.org)

Types of boats

Dinghy, a small boat, popular for training purposes. Approx cost: Rs 2 lakh

Catamaran Twin-hulled boat, used for both competitive and leisure sailing. Approx cost: Rs 7 lakh

Keelboat Mid-sized recreational sailing yacht, can cruise near the coast. Approx cost: Rs 40 lakh

Cruising Yacht Luxury boat that can handle the open sea. Approx cost: From around Rs 1 crore to whatever Mr Mallya has left over after buying Tipu Sultan’s sword.

Figures courtesy Aquasail.

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