Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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


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Anonymous said...

Oh wow... what an amazing experience... far away from the random hourglass of metropolitan music, above and below and within the velvety fluids that roam the oceanic crusts, so thin!

Did that engine sputter into life instantaneously from its dreamy slumber or are we gonna get an article from you from Easter Island anytime soon!?