The First Indian

India’s Phileas Fogg-The First Indian to sail the world solo

I come from a family of trail blazers. Right from my grandaunt, Geeta Godbole who was India’s first female pilot to my great grandfather, Dr Shivajirao Patwardhan who was a Padmashri awardee, a freedom fighter and also a social reform visionary who founded what remains till date India’s largest leprosy ashram- I have a very impressive lineage.

Having said that nothing less than the extraordinary will do when it comes to being considered an achiever in my family. And that brings me to my second cousin, Commander Dilip Donde from the Indian Navy who is the first Indian to sail the world solo. During his solo circumnavigation in which his days on water where 157-he faced life threatening situations on a constant basis. Just one example of this was when his steering broke in 9 meter high waves with the nearest land over 700 nautical miles away. However he triumphed over all to come back victorious and sail home to set another record for the Indian tricolour.

Commander Dilip Donde

On the eve of the release of the paperback version of his book-“The First Indian” I present here some selective and interesting questions that I have asked him. For the full story you have to read the book which is available on all online stores as well as all the major brick and mortar ones including Crossword in Mumbai, Pune and Goa. It is also available in Kitab Khana, Mumbai and Literati, Goa.

My tete-a-tete with Dilip Donde below

1) How many days were you at sea total?
I was at sea for 157 days. My trip, including the port stops, lasted exactly 9 months from 19 Aug 09 to 19 May 10.

2) What are the 4 places you stopped at?
I stopped at Fremantle, Australia, Lyttelton, New Zealand, Port Stanley, Falkland Islands and Cape Town, South Africa.

3) Did you ever fall unwell or get any injuries while on the boat? How did you deal with that?
Minor cuts, bruises, blisters and calluses are common and a daily affair on a boat and don’t count for injuries. Other than that I managed to stay clear of injuries. I did suffer from tooth ache a couple of times as a big cavity opened up in my molar the night before departure from New Zealand and I didn’t have time to get that fixed till crossing the Pacific. At times when the tooth ache became unbearable I would stuff some cotton soaked in clove oil in the cavity.

4) Did you ever feel lonely with no human contact for so many days? How did you deal with that? Did the bird or animal visitors help with dealing with the loneliness?
I never felt lonely as I never considered myself alone. My boat, Mhadei, was my constant companion. It was a voyage of discovery for both of us. The marine and avian visitors were always a welcome sight.

5) We know you are a dog lover and some of your friends had suggested that you take a dog along to accompany you on this trip? Did you ever seriously think about it?
Yes I thought about it but I was too worried about the dog getting seasick and messing up the boat.

6) Lot of sailors talk about feeling closer to God or experiencing spiritual experiences while out at sea for long periods and alone. Did you ever experience anything like that? Specially when feeling low or when facing some technical snag on the boat?
One a trip such as this you get to see nature in all its glory and moods. It makes you realize how insignificant you are in the overall scheme of things and thus can be a very humbling experience. As to your emotions, you go through a whole spectrum of emotions, sometimes in a span of a single day. You just learn to take everything in your stride and take things as they come. There really isn’t a choice.

7) You have mentioned that you encountered pirates? Where was this and how did you deal with it?
Thankfully it turned out to be a false alarm. I was moving at about 6 kts in moderate winds a few hundred miles from the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. I saw a large fishing trawler, more like a ship, on my Port (left) side. After a while it moved ahead of me and took up station on my starboard (right) side and I saw something being lowered from its stern. There had been a number of reports of pirates high jacking such trawlers, using them as mother ships and then using skiffs (small boats) to carry out attacks. Thus my first thought was that I was going to be attacked. I couldn’t have moved any faster so was totally vulnerable had I been attacked. I called up the naval operations centre and explained the situation to them. There wasn’t much they could do about it as the nearest Indian naval ship was some 400 nm away and of little use. I told the duty officer at the operations centre to assume that I was high jacked and press the panic button if he didn’t hear from me in the next two hours. Luckily after a while I could see that the ship was actually lowering large fishing nets and not skiffs with pirates. That was a big relief. I waited till the ship disappeared over the horizon before calling the operations centre again to cancel the alarm and tell them that I was fine. Thus ended one of the many heart in the mouth moment on the boat.

8) I know that your mother was a big supporter of your effort all the way and amongst other things also made some experiments with food preservation etc to make sure you got to eat all your favourite food on board. What did she send with you on your trip? And what was your staple diet on board?
Mhadei does not have a refrigerator so you can only carry canned or dried food. You do carry some fruits and veggies but they don’t last beyond a week at best. There is plenty of physical work to be done on board so one needs to ensure good nutrition while cooking in a moving boat isn’t the easiest of tasks. The good part is the availability of a cooking gas range, pressure cooker, kitchen utensils etc. I had carried a variety of food on board, including rice, lentils, canned meat, pasta, oats etc. I would cook whatever best I could depending on how badly the boat was being tossed around in the sea, my mood and the state of tiredness.
My mother experimented with food for two years before I started my trip. She came up with ready to eat Poha, Khichadi, Suji Halwa, Sabudana Khichadi etc, none of which had any preservatives but could last for a couple of months. All I had to do was open a packet, add the amount of water marked on it and wait for a while or heat up a bit. It was delicious, wholesome and most importantly easy to cook in the worst of sea conditions.

9) We know you are a bachelor-is there any girlfriend we should know about? Pls tell us about some memorable female attention you got whether in India or out of it. 🙂
You already know her! She is drop dead gorgeous, shapely, extremely strong, a wild spirit yet very responsiblewith a mind of her own and bit of a celebrity. I have known her from the time she was conceived and seen her grow into the fine lady she is. We have shared moments which cannot be put in words. People turn green with envy when they see the two of us together and we love that. She is my girl and absolutely the best. She is the Mhadei!
With a girl like that on my arm, Homo Sapien Females had no time for me. They would instead ignore me and fawn around my girl.

On this lighter note, more answers from Commander Dilip Donde next week. Meanwhile pls inbox me if you have any questions for him and I promise to get him to answer some of the best ones 🙂

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2 responses to “The First Indian

  1. Why didn’t he take his dog?….. 😦 poor dog, missed out on all the fun he could have had. Inspiring blog.

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