In 2006, when Dilip Donde — then a commander in the Indian Navy — was chosen to go around the world in a boat, as part of the Sagar Parikrama project, his foremost task was to find someone who could guide him on this adventure. Donde travelled all the way to Gosport, Hamsphire, in the UK, to apprentice with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail around the globe solo, nonstop. Donde set sail from Mumbai on August 19, 2009, and successfully finished his trip on May 19, 2010, becoming the first Indian — and 190th human — to complete a solo, unassisted circumnavigation of the globe under sail. Many oceans have been crossed since then.
Last month, Donde’s sailboat, Antara, made a quiet splash in the waters at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, having finished one of her first long voyages, on the route between Goa and Mumbai. Antara, an Indian-built, Dutch-designed sailboat built in Goa, is also India’s first personal craft which has been registered with the Directorate General of Shipping as a vessel that is certified to sail anywhere in the world for pleasure and personal use. This makes Donde the country’s first circumnavigator who doesn’t want to “sniff the winds” alone anymore. “Sailing with people will be the new challenge,” he says.
Donde, 52, and his partner and first mate, Sucheta Jadhav, 53, launched Antara on November 1, and are inviting people from all walks of life to experience what it’s like to sail beyond national waters. This is an experience that, the duo imagines, “just about anyone who wants to learn and enjoy sailing on the high seas”, would enjoy. This doesn’t mean that those who sign up will get formal training and a certificate; what they can expect is to be actual sailors, instead of mere passengers.
Donde’s contribution to Indian sailing is best understood when one realises the enormous responsibility he has faithfully steered, for close to two decades, of putting India in the global circumnavigation circuit. With his salty sailor’s humour, Donde battled budgetary constraints thrown up by bureaucracy, built a navigable vessel from scratch, trained himself under the best circumnavigators and boat makers, and finishing a solo round-the-world trip. He’s also mentored a new generation of naval officers, including the all-woman team of INSV Tarini, to circumnavigate under a sail.
“This is not a dolphin (sighting) boat,” says Donde, as he steers Antara in Goan waters, “and certainly not ‘champagne sailing’ (where groups of tourists are offered champagne on board vessels sailing at a leisurely speed). She is designed to go deep into the oceans.” Jadhav, also a sailor, has trained in the ocean endurance-testing Clipper Round The World Race, and also expertly manoeuvred a boat “after being hit by a whale”. She believes the “time has come” for the idea that sailing on the high seas can be an activity for anyone.
In a country with no marina, no yacht-building industry, and the belief that sailing is an “elitist activity” rather than a “skill set”, Donde and Jadhav say their efforts with Antara are to build “a new sailing culture, one which is not competitive or certificates-driven, but (is about) the absolute rawness of going to deep sea for nothing but sailing.”
Finding an audience in India is the first challenge, says Jadhav. “We want to nudge the sailing enthusiast to do a bit more adventure, sail out of the harbour, maybe go into the sea for a whole day, far away from land, sail to another country, or circle the Indian peninsula, but, most importantly, to sail with a circumnavigator as your skipper,” she says. One of the charter trips on offer, for example, is a five-day trip to Lakshadweep. “Even the way one manages the ropes can decide how journeys shape up. We are looking now to share all our knowledge,” she says.
Donde, who looks like a sailor even on land, hopes that Antara will become a platform for future adventurers. He says “Through the last two decades, no matter where I went, I only got one question: you have convinced us about sailing. Now tell us where civilians can actually enjoy raw sailing beyond the harbour?”
“There is a thrill in going away from land, to stop in the middle of nowhere and measure perspective,” he says, “But there is a general fear of the sea. I would tell people, come and sail, figure it out for yourselves, the weather and the winds will teach you.” Sailing, he says, requires preparation to the point where “you are paranoid about safety”. But this eventually readies you for the worst doldrums and squalls. During his circumnavigation, Donde’s sailboat “almost looked possessed” as it entered the ferocious Southern Ocean with a torn sail — and it was his preparedness that helped him to tackle it with patience.
Antara’s launch comes when there are protests across Goa and other southern states against the building of marinas for yachts. “They (environmentalists) have good reason to be cautious. Ecology is precious, but sailboat design is environment-friendly. We sailors are not supposed to use engines, and we carry our trash back and don’t pollute. Also, look at the economies across Europe which have used nautical tourism to see themselves through difficult times,” he says.
“This boat is my effort to break stereotypes. We are a land-starved nation, so why not use our oceans for recreation? There is no traffic, you can stop anywhere, snorkel or swim, watch migratory birds, stare at bioluminescence, listen to whale sounds or just learn to read the winds,” he says.