Lonely, sailor?

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If you think people are sailing solo to get away from the world — think again, says Nergish Sunavala. Even at high sea you can’t escape Facebook

One-man show Dilip Donde on board the Mhadei

GOING SOLO had a different meaning in 1895 when Joshua Slocum became the first man to sail around the globe. While sailing the high seas, he was completely disconnected from the rest of the planet. And Penelope had a rather long wait to hear from Ulysses. Today, sailors blog, tweet, upload photos, talk on satellite phones and send emails. So what happened to the apparent seclusion of their existence?

Take 42-year-old Dilip Donde. In May, the naval commander became the first Indian to sail around the world solo. One morning during his 273-day voyage, Donde was enjoying a cup of coffee on the deck of his sailboat, the Mhadei, when he suddenly realised he was surrounded by whales, so close he could hear them snorting water. That night, people round the world read about the experience on his blog and looked at high resolution pictures of the whales.

“If you really want to experience travel you should travel alone and travel cut off,” says 81-year-old astronomer and veteran sailor V Radhakrishnan. He sailed two thirds of the way around the world with two companions in 1964, when navigation technology was far less advanced. On that trip, he had to rig up an autopilot using a small sail and ropes tied to the rudder. “Then [sailing] was in some sense purer,” says Radhakrishnan. Here is more for purists to frown at. Solo sailors have often kept food to basics, even though processed foods were first developed for sailors. Radhakrishnan carried sacks of rice because it was easy to cook and would last longer than bread or potatoes. Now he, like Donde, often enjoys dosas, pancakes, risottos, Thai curry and bhelpuri in the middle of the ocean, thanks to instant mixes.

Better navigation equipment, communication, sails, mast and rigging allow more people to consider solo voyages. But technology doesn’t take away from the danger. The Mhadei cost Rs 4 crore to build but Donde points out that GPS devices fail, leaving the sailor to pit his wits against the sea. Even though Donde has been sailing for 20 years, he was caught off-guard when his boat stalled while 40 foot waves battered her. Donde rushed to steer her back downwind — but she wouldn’t move.

RADHAKRISHNAN THINKS that 16- year-olds like Jessica Watson, who recently sailed solo around the world, are unlikely to have attempted this 50 years ago, but her courage, fortitude and seamanship can’t be praised enough, he says. The thousands who followed her on Facebook and Twitter agree. Watson and Donde also got in touch with each other occasionally, “Knowing there was another solo sailor nearby experiencing the same conditions was reassuring,” says Watson of their brief chats.

Donde on the other hand — reverting to a more familiar Captain Haddock type — says the storm was when he wished connectivity away. “You tell people you are in trouble but when you go and try to sort out the trouble, people [keep trying to] ring you up.” At some point Donde was forced to put his phone off and concentrate on the work at hand. No one could help him — he was all alone.

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