is 41. He is a writer who lives in Noida
THERE WERE always four of us in the open boat. It had a single mast, and three sails – the main sail, the gib (or the fore sail) and the spinnaker (the balloon- like sail you might have seen out towards the front of a boat). We had a shortened tiller that was made specially for me and a seat that was fixed on the starboard corner, from where I sat and helmed. The seat was fashioned out of a fibreglass rally-car seat. It had a four-point harness to keep me in place and to free my hands. We had hydrographic charts, two sighting compasses, a couple of flashlights, a GPS device and a radio to communicate with the back-up boat. Each of us had a dry bag that contained some warm clothes for the night, some fruits and bottles of water. We had lifejackets, used only as pillows. And we had our cellphones. We didn’t have any cabins, or bunks, or a loo. We had Umaji Chowgule, who was the only experienced sailor on the boat. He told me later that he had decided that it was going to be my trip, so he’d helm as little as possible.
There were no comforts on board, and yet, a comfortable feeling enveloped us. We were sure of ourselves on the boat; we knew what had to be done. Each of us had our histories that had got us to this point, and our futures that will take us in different directions, but it all somehow got left behind as soon as we entered the boat. Boats can do funny things to you. That one step (or, in my case, that slip, hop and slide) into the boat is a decisive moment. You get in, take your positions, give the boat a once-over, feel the ropes, shove your bags under the thwarts and you are no longer what you were before you stepped in. The boat becomes a body and you somehow silently mingle and become its soul.
We talked about a lot of things. Sailing gives you plenty of time to talk. But while we had one eye on the conversation, one eye would always be on the tell-tales to see what the wind was doing. And when one looked up at the tell-tale, the other would trim the main sail a bit, or reach out for the gib sheet and trim the gib sail into a good shape. When one looked at the GPS in the dead of the night, the other would shine the flashlight on the sails to warn other boats about our presence. When one looked at the charts to figure out where we were, another would estimate our speed; and when one sighted a lighthouse, all the others would start counting the seconds to figure out the signature of the lighthouse.
Because we were travelling downwind, we often used the spinnaker sail during the days. Setting up the spinnaker is a fair amount of work, which is fine, because you are looking for ways to keep yourself busy on a long sail. You have to tie the head of the sail to the halyard and hoist it up. Meanwhile, the boom for the spinnaker (a small pole, called a ‘guy’) is set up and one end of the spinnaker, the tack, is tied to it. The third end of the sail, the clew, is tied to a sheet (ropes) used to trim the sail. The spinnaker on this boat has rubber-bands all around it, so that it’s easy to set it up. When everything is done, you yank the sheets of the sail hard and as the sail unfurls, all the rubber-bands snap and you hear a ‘pop’ as the sail takes shape. It’s amazing how excited and child-like we all got when it came to popping the spinnaker. ‘Who’ll pop?’ ‘You pop,’ ‘No, the honour is yours this time,’ ‘I’ve done it before, now you pop.’ Like I said before, a boat can do funny things to you.
One step on board (in my case, a slip, hop and slide) and you’re no longer what you were before you stepped in
I remember speaking to some naval officers before leaving. ‘From Mumbai to Goa?’ they’d say. ‘That’s easy. Just get out of Mumbai harbour and take a left turn.’ It’s been a left turn like no other. Because every boat has its magic. That’s why I am not recounting the dolphins, the barracudas, the sea snakes, the fishing nets, the coastline, the virgin beaches, the fishing villages, the cliffs and the ports we saw along the way. The eight-day sail was really special because when I slid into the boat, I was no more disabled. I was simply ‘crew’. And I await the day when India treats its disabled citizens like crew.