On board the Mhadei: the voyage ahead - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 19 October 2012

On board the Mhadei: the voyage ahead

Top: Dilip Donde and Abhilash Tomy, guru and chela, pose together on the eve of Tomy's epic voyage

By Ajai Shukla
On board the Mhadei, at INS Mandovi, Goa

Even the most hard-boiled sailors believe that it takes an unusual, and somewhat eccentric, person to circle the globe in a sailboat, dealing single-handedly for months on end with the capriciousness of the wind, the waves and the weather. Three years ago, Commander Dilip Donde, a naval officer, became the first Indian to sail solo around the world, making his epic journey in a 56-foot, Indian sailboat, the Mhadei. On Nov 1st, Donde’s former crewmember, Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy, will set sail from Mumbai on an even more hazardous voyage: a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

Less than 80 humans have completed such a passage. Compared to this, more than 525 humans have travelled to space; and some 500 mountaineers summit Mount Everest during an average climbing season.

Like no other sport, solo sailing pits a lone human against the elements, with the dice loaded heavily in favour of nature. The inflexible conditions that govern a solo, non-stop circumnavigation require Tomy to traverse at least 21,600 nautical miles (or 40,000 kilometres) under sail, without any form of engine power, with no halts, starting and ending at the same port, and crossing the three great southern capes: Cape Leeuwin (Australia); Cape Horn (South America); and Cape Agulhas (Africa).

The Mhadei, sailing into Cape Town on Dilip Donde's circumnavigation in 2010

I sail out on the Mhadei in Goa, as Donde and Tomy carry out a pre-voyage check. They are clearly a comfortable team, chattering constantly yet giving each other respect and space. Donde the veteran is a grizzled greybeard, tanned and fit, with an easy laugh that lights up his face. Tomy is 33, at that magical cusp of life where youth has married experience and confidence. Lithe, powerful, alert and yet strangely calm, he glides barefoot around the Mhadei like a gazelle on steroids.

It is hot and still outside Goa, and Tomy scours the sea with a weather eye. “There’s some breeze,” he calls to Donde, pointing to a patch of sea that appears darker than where we are. We head there and the Mhadei’s sail billows as it catches the wind.

The calm Goa sea will be a distant memory as Tomy heads south across the Indian Ocean, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn to the longitudes south of Australia and New Zealand. This is the dreaded Southern Ocean where there is no land to stop the freezing trade winds, only Antarctica a couple of thousand miles away. The trade winds push forward a sailboat, but also pile up the ocean into forbidding mountains and valleys of water. Through this grey landscape Tomy will steer the Mhadei, a speck in the bleakness that must somehow keep afloat.

Mhadei sails past the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS York, near the Falklands Islands

Donde inexplicably smiles as he describes sailing the Mhadei through the Southern Ocean, rolling and pitching in an unending succession of 20-foot waves that are almost as tall as the main mast. One moment the boat wallows in a trough, with 20-foot walls of water on either side; seconds later the boat crests the wave, providing a view of unbroken ocean. And then it drops sickeningly into the next trough with the sailor wondering whether it can ever climb out.

What about seasickness, I ask queasily. “The only way to avoid being sea-sick is to remain sitting under a tree,” says Tomy, pokerfaced.

* * * *

The saga of the Mhadei has been the story of four unusual men. It began in the imagination of one of the navy’s crustiest old salts, Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati, who, from his retirement home near Pune badgered successive naval chiefs about the need for the Indian Navy to achieve the Holy Grail of sailing: solo circumnavigation. In 2006, Admiral Arun Prakash gave the green signal, allocating a Rs 6 crore budget and asking Awati to mastermind the project. The navy sent out a call for volunteers.

Enter Commander Dilip Donde, a diving expert posted in the Andamans, who had sailed only recreationally. He claims he volunteered to “be a part of the project” but, since he was the only volunteer, ended up as the skipper.

“I broke the cardinal rule that I had been taught since I was a cadet: never volunteer! Why, I don’t know. Maybe, at 38, I faced an early midlife crisis. Or maybe it just sounded like a fun idea,” he laughs.

For Awati, though, this was deadly serious and he quickly enlisted the expertise of one of the world’s greatest sailors, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, a yachting hall-of-fame member who first completed a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 1968-69, when he sailed his Mumbai-built teak-wood boat, Suhaili, around the world in 313 days.

Donde was sent to the UK, where he worked with Knox-Johnston, learning from scratch about building and kitting out an ocean-going sailboat and sailing it single-handedly through the worst storms on the seas. In consultation with Knox-Johnston --- whose imagination had been captured by the project --- Donde framed the specifications for what would become the Mhadei.

“The Indian Navy was making a statement to the world. So we decided not to make the boat in steel; we chose high-tech fibreglass instead,” he says.

With a design bought from Dutch bureau Van Der Stadt, the navy had then to identify a boat-builder who could construct a vessel that would survive even a battering from the Southern Ocean. Big warship builders like Goa Shipyard turned down the offer as too small and commercially unviable. That was when an extraordinary shipbuilder, Ratnakar Dandekar, who was running a tiny shipyard called Aquarius Fiberglas Private Ltd, walked onto the project. The Mhadei had found its mother.

* * * *

 Left to Right: Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy, Vice Admiral MP Awati, Ratnakar Dandekar, Cdr Dilip Donde

We take the ferry to Divar Island, the whitewashed churches and convents around the Basilica of Bom Jesus peeping over a curtain of lush green palms. Here, in the shadow of the Konkan Railway bridge over the Mandovi River (called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka), Dandekar welcomes us to Aquarius Fiberglas.

“I can honestly say that I had no idea of what I was taking on when I contracted to build the Mhadei. But I just knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime project. No boat of this quality and endurance had ever been built in India. Today, while I am still a small shipbuilder, nobody questions my technological credentials,” says Dandekar.

Donde describes Dandekar’s embrace of the project, an enthusiasm that quickly swept away commercial considerations. Dandekar listens with a quizzical half-smile, apparently wondering why any of this should be surprising.

“The Mhadei is completely mine; I built it. When some work is required on this boat, I don’t need a tender… I feel a real attachment to this boat. Building the Mhadei has changed me as a shipbuilder, as a person and as a businessman,” he says.

The ferry to Divar Island, across the Mandovi. This river is called the Mhadei at its source in Karnataka and gives the boat its name

As we tour Aquarius, which now employs 84 workers compared to just 16 when it built the Mhadei, a special train carrying trucks to Mangalore on roll-on-roll-off wagons thunders over the bridge. I wonder: is the Mhadei a superbly planned project, or was it just blessed with worthy people?

* * * *

Now the next chapter of the Mhadei story, so far a saga of unalloyed success, will be written by Abhilash Tomy, who formed the shore support team when Donde went around the globe in 2009-10. Tomy, however, will have no shore support team; his will be a non-stop voyage. This increases the difficulty manifold, since everything that malfunctions must be repaired on board.

The Mhadei itself seems ready, a battle-tested veteran. Success, therefore, will largely rest on the skipper’s mental conditioning. “You can keep preparing for ten years. But you are only going to learn some things when you actually do it,” agrees Tomy.

The Mhadei is as sleek, high-tech and well-kept a sailboat as any I’ve seen. There are dual steering wheels, covered with Chamois leather to provides a grip even in the wettest, coldest weather. In front of the wheel is an array of instruments, including an automatic identification system (AIS), which tracks through satellite every ship on the seas, relaying its name, course, destination, vessel type, registration and crew. While much of the Mhadei’s journeys are through isolated seas, it does encounter other vessels at the chokepoints of the great capes.

Tomy recounts an incredulous radio call to Donde from a supertanker that was crossing the Cape of Good Hope in a driving storm and discovered on their AIS that a small boat, the Mhadei, was close by.

Supertanker: Confirm port of origin?

Mhadei: Mumbai

Supertanker: Confirm destination?

Mhadei: Mumbai

Supertanker: Confirm type of vessel?

Mhadei: Sailboat

Supertanker: Confirm crew?

Mhadei: One man

Supertanker: Confirm crazy!!

Apparently, this brand of gallows humour provides comfort to lone sailors! I ask Tomy whether a wife or a girlfriend will be praying for him while he sails. “As a good sailor, the first thing you learn is not to tie a knot that you cannot untie quickly,” he shoots back.

Waiting for him instead will be his mother and his father, himself a former naval officer. Twice a day, Tomy will email a “sitrep (situation report) over an INMARSAT satellite link to naval headquarters in Delhi. If he needs to send video, or talk to someone, there is a bigger FB-500 fleet broadband system. But that is expensive and Tomy is very budget-conscious.

What’s to talk, he asks? Anything that goes wrong must be fixed on board. Inside the cabin is a small workbench with a vice, and spanners hanging below, stuck into a orange rexine organiser. In another corner is the galley, the navy’s grandiose monicker for a small gas stove. On the wall are plaques, presented by authorities in places like Cape Town, Fremantle (Australia) and Littleton (New Zealand), the ports of calls for vessels like the Mhadei.

After signing the Mhadei’s visitors’ book, I leaf back through previous comments. On Feb 21st, 2009, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had endorsed the ultimate compliment: “A nice strong boat to sail around the world!” All of us should pray that he is right.


  1. Enjoyed immensely the 'expert' take - drama and all. The best on Mhadei, yet.

  2. “As a good sailor, the first thing you learn is not to tie a knot that you cannot untie quickly,". Love it!

  3. “Less than 80 humans have completed such a passage. Compared to this, more than 525 humans have travelled to space; and some 500 mountaineers summit Mount Everest during an average climbing season.”

    To this I would like to add … How many companies in this world have sent one of their permanent employees on a year long paid holiday to circumnavigate the world in a specially built company vessel? My little research on the net tells me that there are none. Even Cdr Bill King, UK Navy did it after his retirement.

    There have been 14 year olds and 79 year olds who have circumnavigated our planet earth solo. Some of them have done it multiple times. But they have done it by spending their own money. I consider this activity as a waste of time & money. Is too risky and does not benefit anyone anyway anywhere, anyhow.


  4. Now this is a lovely article. Love the "confirm crazy".

  5. Does any body need a faujipsychiatrist? I'm game for the next trip...@faujipsychiatrist@yahoo.co.in

  6. @RTU - Very perceptive observation! To be precise this activity & the blog post is wasted on you! Cheers!

  7. Ajai,

    It's Lyttleton.


  8. I have nothing against either “this activity” nor do I have any grudge against writer of the blog. In fact the blog is well written. I am against our Navy wasting 600 lakhs of rupees on an activity that does not benefit anyone except the lone voyager.

    Well how many people think like me? I would say most people think like me. Take the case of first Indian expedition to sail solo around the world on INS Mhadei. Once the expedition was approved the Navy asked for volunteers to head the expedition. Cdr Donde who did not have any sailing experience (only recreational sailing), a diver by profession, was the only volunteer for the expedition. That is just one out of 60,000 strong Navy! Even he says “ I do not know why I volunteered. May be due to a mid-life crisis I was passing through”. Mathematically that makes it 0.000016%. Thus more than 99.999% think like me.

    If you are a 13 year old or a 80 year old it does make sense to attempt the solo sailing as you would break a record if you succeed. If you are anywhere in between it doesn’t make any sense. You would be one of “also ran” I am told now a national highway goes up to Mt Everest! Young NCC teen age girls can now have a stroll to the top. So what’s great even if you are one of many. Navigating the seas have become child’s play with modern technology available, GPS (Global Positioning System), AIS (Automated Identification System, Radars, Echo Sounders, INMARSAT Satellite link and FB-500 fleet broadband system. That is why possibly a teenage girl like Laura Dekker could even think of attempting a circumnavigation all by herself when she was not even fit for a skipper's license.

    Of course hats off to people who continue to push themselves to the limit. I remember our course mate Anil at 57 years ran Pune Marathon and came second. A JCO came first. While returning home he told the JCO “Saheb Agle saal dekh loonga, ana zaroor!” Cdr Donde, you too are one a million. However please take care. We Lost Brig Varinder, our course mate. He suffered heart attack precipitated by a vigorous physical activity. We all are still grieving. His bhog ceremony was day before yesterday.


  9. I wish Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy the very best for this arduous expedition, though I am in broad agreement with the views of RTU as far as taxpayer funding of this expedition is concerned.

  10. Ericsson spent about 350 crores on a round the world sail boat race.it made sense to them. Why won't it make sense to the Indian navy to spend 5 lacs?
    This might just solve recruitment issues for the baby for the next few years

  11. @RTU, Debashish Mukherjee. While you are entitled to your views if one extends the argument a bit, why should the Services support mountaineering expeditions, Himalayan Motor Sports, Parasailing, Microlight Flying, Riding and so on. All of these are useless sports. In fact why don't we just do away with the sports and gym facilities that are presently available to the Services. Perhaps we could earn some revenue by erecting a few buildings on the sports fields and farming them out to BPOs, MNCs and others. Officers could gain valuable experience during their 2 months leave by working at these BPOs, at no pay ofcourse. Perhaps then we wouldn't be a drain on taxpayers money.
    Somehow RTU, I find your views typical of shortsighted army officers who tend to view the Navy as nothing more than an extension to the Corps of Engineers water-wing.
    Do you not find any prestige for the nation in the success of this expedition? Do you not think that this will inspire a spirit of adventure in at least a few some our countrymen. Its bad enough that Cdr Donde was the only one to volunteer, while others were more concerned about their careers and families. Perhaps it helped that Donde is a bachelor. Its not easy to put a family aside for months on end. Perhaps it could inspire a few to take to the sea, something that this country has sorely neglected.

  12. Love that quip " As a good sailor, the first thing you learn is not to tie a knot that you cannot untie quickly," Well said indeed.

    To RTU
    I agree that this expense is rather odd - funding the dreams of a few men - a few good men underscore good!
    However sadly enough I don't believe that anyone retiring from the Indian services could afford to pull this off.

    Indians by and large are timorous and I don't mean not brave - when it comes to red blooded bravery / bravura Indians can be both aggressive and courageous on the battlefield, in the markets, in business etc. What I would say is that few very few Indian kids get into something that can cost them their lives - other than speeding pop's car .
    Sea lore, aviation are missing from Indian kids diet of education and MTv blah blah.
    I got that from British Council Library where shelves were stocked high and deep on such stuff, but my family would have thougt me quite mad if I said that I want to jump into a boat and sail off into the blue assuming v of course that I could have found anyone to give me crew member status in that socialist country. Forget about outfitting my own boat - even a dinghy.
    Fortunately for me I lived in Calcutta and after ICSE I joined NCC air wing and began to go for gliding and then join powered flying. Just for that I got loads of talking to from all concerned neighbours , friends etc. However to this day I relish my flying which got cut short with the CFI and a student on a check flight crashing and dying. Not another CFI could be found across India. That is or was the depth of our great country' capacity. The gliding did continue as it was run by IAF.
    Long story short this is needed and does benefit the country - although I blanch at 4 crores Rs.

    This done I would think that the NCC , Sea Cadets should be funded say another 2 crores or more to buy many more boats 20 footers or more and start sailing clubs open to all to inculcate cold courage, individuality, independence of mind, indomitable spirit and a yen for moving of the beaten path.

    It is telling Vijeta was a flop.

  13. "To this I would like to add … How many companies in this world have sent one of their permanent employees on a year long paid holiday to circumnavigate the world in a specially built company vessel?"

    Year long paid holiday....My goodness........ of all the comments on this voyage, this by far is the most ridiculous.I guess you have not been to sea much under sail Any yachtsman would understand how incredibly difficult such a voyage is......as far as funding goes. it is with the approval of the government ....the one the taxpayers voted for. So what's all the fuss about.

    The very fact that that these guys even dared to think about and attempt such a feat in a nation of landlubbers is amazing....


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