Tuesday, September 29, 2009


There's seawater rushing up my nose, suddenly harsh and corrosive. My brain starts sending me danger alerts, reminding me that I have a nose, not gills, and I cannot breathe underwater. With the mask off, my eyes burn and I want to sputter and snort.
Instead I pretend like all is cool. Like I’m the cat’s whiskers and all that stinging water doesn’t bother me one bit. I swab a palm across my forehead as though wiping off sweat on a balmy summer afternoon, and look around at my teammates giving them the thumbs up.

All this time my brain been telling me I’m mad. It’s shrieking that I’m completely, utterly off my rockers; that I’m not supposed to be immersed underwater in the ocean and certainly not without my mask. Another part of my brain, the more logical one, is telling it to shut up. The regulator bringing oxygen to my mouth from the tank strapped to my back is still firmly in place, it says. ‘Stop being a chick’ it adds, sounding dangerously like an annoying colleague.

I slowly put the mask back on, tilt my head back and snort to clear it of water, and look to my instructor to see how I’ve done. She gives me the thumbs up and I can see she’s smiling. As she turns to the others, I give a smug nod to the jellyfish that’s been hanging around my shoulder. Minutes before, it’d been mocking me saying I had no business being here. I showed it, didn’t I?

To swim or to sink

When you’re learning to dive, the turning point between wondering whether you’ll be able to and knowing you will is the first time you take off the mask and let the salt water use your nose and eyes like a playground. This is when most people go gasping up to the surface, losing track of where they are and the equipment their life depends on. It's the part I was most skeptical about too. But get past this, and the rest just steps of a learning process. And getting past is easy if you can keep the urge to press the panic button under control, even every cell in your body is screaming in retaliation.

You'll discover, that the more annoying part is the way the compressed air from the tank dries up your mouth. Getting thirsty 12 m below the surface, surrounded by a crush of salt water and not quite able to swallow thanks to the big regulator stuck into your mouth, is more than a wee bit inconvenient.

It's a lifestyle

Staying at the Andaman Bubbles dive resort for the four days of the course, diving seemed more like a way of life than a sport. We woke early to get out while the tide was high and the sun still climbing the sky. By the time I came back in the evening I was too tired for anything more than a big meal and a night of sound sleep. Drinking and smoking are no-nos and everybody is fit and tanned, or on their way to getting there. The conversation revolves around the day’s dive, the conditions, the merits of the location, and the creatures spotted.

But before you're let into the water, there's the theory. Facts and figures about the underwater world and the principles behind the equipment that will allow you to navigate it. For the first time in the many years since college, I found myself studying along with breakfast so that I would be prepared for the day’s quiz.

For a holiday, it was quite hectic. I didn’t do the whole chilling by the beach, going for a swim then lying on a sarong and reading thing, and fell asleep two songs into the cool resort party I was invited to, live music be damned. But all worthwhile sacrifices for what I got in exchange.

Getting down and dirty

Once you get past the theory and get intimate with the equipment, you're finally allowed into the water. In the beginning, I felt graceless and bulky. I would either sink to the bottom, head down by the numerous weights tucked in my belt, or bob around on the surface, made buoyant by the air-filled jacket I was wearing. The mocking jellyfish was back, smirking translucently at me again.

The trick lay in figuring out that even the minutest change in the amount of air inside you can make a significant difference at a depth. When you're 12m below the surface at neutral buoyancy, (positive buoyancy makes you float, negative makes you sink, and when it’s neutral you’re a bit in water like an astronaut in zero gravity) swimming over a big boulder in your path is a simple matter of breathing deeply to rise up above it, and then exhaling to float close on top of the coral bed again.

All I remember after that is a vignette of moments that I will never forget. Like suddenly finding myself in the middle of a school of bright blue and yellow fish on my second dive, hundreds of them all around, above me, below me, beside me. Or shivering together in a huddle as the sunny sky slowly turned grey after our dive, and the boat crawled across an ocean that heaved and shook in rain that fell like heavy sheets. Till the clouds, suddenly exhausted, withdrew to let the sun back out, and two perfectly symetric rainbows made the day bright again. And then the most spectacular moment of them all – the ocean at night -- a completely transformed landscape full of bobbing, sleeping fish, and giant crabs skittering across the ocean floor. Holding the torch close to my chest to make the darkness total and then waving my hands in front of me so that the water came alive in a hundred thousand pin points of lights that swirled all around me (plankton baby, the fireflies of the sea).

But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times on Spetember 19.

Photos courtesy Andrea Blasco

on the waves

On a small boat in the middle of the sea, tossing about on the waves, salt dries on lips and the sun chars skin. There are no comforts here, but there’s a reverence for the wind that fills the sails and carries us homewards. Our little vessel is part of a grand old tradition, when men met the elements directly, without walls and cocoons to shield them. Their blood and sweat seeped into wooden hulls, becoming part of the lore of the vessels and the seas they sailed.

Despite being a product of the age of airplanes and cars, I felt the sea beckon and decided to make the most of my one chance at becoming a part of sailing lore. And so, even before I stepped on board the Mhadei, I vowed I'd prove to be a good sailor. No medicines to prevent sea-sickness for me, and treat me like part of the crew, I told the captain. He, a veteran of salt spray and changeful winds, accepted the extra pair of hands, though novice, willingly.

At the start of a journey

The monsoon was petering off, but it drizzled on the morning we were to start our 250 nautical mile journey from Goa to Mumbai. The day started early, with loading fresh supplies and luggage on board. As we cast off, Captain kept me busy, hauling in fenders and cajoling open stubborn sailors' knots. Then it was off to hoist our sail, assisting the first mate, himself a bit of a novice. We huffed and puffed, pushed and pulled with our might; Captain shouting out his encouragement, telling us to put our hearts into it.

By the time the sail was up, the shore was an indistinct haze, and the 56-feet-yacht was bouncing up and down in the metre-and-a-half swell. Caught up in my chores I'd had neither the time to notice the shore fade away nor the opportunity to feel sick. The wind filled the sails, tilting the boat 30-degrees, and our little vessel shot along, up the Western coast. The inevitable bout of seasickness struck and I upchucked my breakfast off the side of the boat; careful to make sure I did it downwind. Many a sailor has thrown up on the wrong side, only to have the wind hurl his stomach’s content right back at him.

Being sick is the easy part

Throwing up isn’t as bad as it sounds. You feel nauseated, you puke, and then you feel better. The key is to keep drinking water and eating, so that you keep up your energy. Take along plenty of fruits on your first long sailing trip; they’re really the only things you’ll feel like eating. Avoid going below deck; the fresh air and the sight of the horizon helps you feel much better. In fact, once I realised this, I took it to an extreme – refusing to move even to get my sunscreen. Consequently I burnt crisp, and let me tell you, that isn’t pretty. Don’t take the sun lightly: the combination of the boat’s pitching movement and the sun overhead has the effect of sapping your will. It also lulls you to sleep, just staying awake takes a lot of energy but it’s worth the effort.

No land in sight

Forty hours on a small boat sounds like a long time. But being in the middle of the sea is an amazing thing: by plucking you out of the context of land that always describes you, it also takes you out of time. It is easy to spend hour after hour just gazing at the waves with not a thought cluttering your head. At night too, I chose to sleep above deck, where I could see the sky overhead, and hear the waves lap the side of the boat.
The sky was an ever-changing canvas. Every time I opened my eyes, it reflected a different mood – mischievously dark, romantically moonlit, and even downright sombre and menacing.

Like a good sailor, I took on a night watch, and it was hard work, I’ll have you know. Though the monsoon is yet not officially over, fishing trawlers were out in full force. The boats themselves are easy to spot -- with their red, green and yellow lights -- but they travel in clusters, and it’s the nets strung between them, marked by tiny buoys, that you have to keep your eyes peeled out for. You don’t want to go over a net and risk having it entangled in your propeller or rudder.

Watch the wind

Morning dawned and the clouds hiding the sun were a godsend. Without the sun sapping all our energy, we felt like singing, taking photographs, and even considered cooked food. The sea was calmer and the wind steady, speeding us on our way. But out on the sea things can change very fast. As we sailed under a dark cloud, the temperature dropped suddenly and a powerful gust of wind slammed into our sail, angrily knocking it about. The boat tilted further, nearly 40 degrees to the right, and Captain rushed to the sail, reefing it in quickly. The boom swung in the wind, making the sail snap out a groan each time, and we sat anxious and quiet as Captain steered us to safer waters. The swell rose, and nearby trawlers seemed to disappear underwater each time a large wave came by. Then just as suddenly, the wind eased off and our boat righted herself.

Fairs winds were ours again and we sped homewards, dreaming of warm showers and hot meals. The wind seemed to caress us, and the water sparkled in the light of the gentler evening sun.

But never take the wind for granted, I learnt. As the shore of Mumbai came into sight and we saw the lighthouse marking the city’s southern-most point, the wind suddenly dropped completely. With home so close, the wind’s betrayal was a stiff blow to the heart. Amused by our downcast faces, Captain asked: “So sailors, you want to wait it out, or shall I turn on the engine?”
What do you think we chose?

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times

Photo courtesy INS Bitra