India’s Phileas Fogg-Part 2

Commander Dilip Donde

Commander Dilip Donde

India’s Phileas Fogg-“The First Indian” to sail the world solo…On the eve of the release of the paperback version of his book, “The First Indian” -the tete-a-tete with Commander Dilip Donde continues into this week…

10) Did you face any life threatening experiences while on board? How did you deal with it?
I lost count of those long back. The times when I almost got swept over the deck by the waves, when ropes lashed about threatening to break my neck, when my steering broke in 9 mtr high waves and winds over 100 kmph with the nearest land over 700 nm away, when my autopilots gave up with New Zealand 2000 nm behind me and South America 3000 nm ahead……the list can go on and on.
After a while a life threatening experience becomes a matter of perception. When you are dealing with one you are so focussed on surviving that you don’t think of anything else. It is only when you are done with it and havetime to introspect that you realize that it was a life threatening experience. But then you are still alive so, you learn from it, put it behind you and move on.

11) Please tell us about how you were greeted on shore at all the ports enroute. Was there any really memorable reception that you got?
Each port was different and memorable.
I entered Fremantle in a howling gale. We tied alongside with some difficulty after taking a few knocks on the pier. The boat’s deck was a mess of uncoiled ropes that I had been using in quick succession while coming alongside on my own. It took some time for me to sort out the immigration and customs formalities inside the boat. That done, I came on the deck and found it absolutely tidy with all ropes coiled and in their proper places. Surprised, I looked up and faced Jon Sanders, an Australian sailing legend who holds the record for three back to back solo circumnavigations. (The last I met him in 2014 he was on to his ninth one). Jon, who didn’t remember meeting me earlier, had quietly tidied up the deck because he rightly believed that I must be very tired and could do with some rest. I was touched!
I entered Lyttelton early in the morning and was to be met by our agent at the harbour mouth. The ‘agent’ turned out to be Capt Peter Rea, a 73 yr old veteran sea captain and sailor, born in Jabalpur during his father’s tenure with the British Indian Army. As he helped me get the boat alongside, between questions about India and Jabalpur, I was greeted with the Sikh war cry of ‘Bole so Nihal, Sat Sree Akal’ by some 20 odd Sikh families with the 90 yr old mother of our soon to be hostess Ms Winsome Dormer joining in the chorus.
I entered Port Stanley a day earlier than expected and slipped in the harbour a little past midnight. The next evening our agent, John, an ex Para Commando from the Royal Army took me to the local pub. As we entered the noisy and very British pub, John in his booming voice made an announcement that we had in the pub a solo sailor who had rounded the horn two days back. There was absolute silence for a few seconds followed by cheers and congratulations. I don’t remember buying a drink that night. The next day, very early in the morning, we sailed out of the harbour and were escorted in by HMS York of the Royal Navy. We reciprocated by doing a sail past in the harbour and showing off!
I had sailed with the South African navy earlier and had friends in their sailing team. They sailed out on their yacht to escort me in the harbour. It was almost like coming home!

12) Please tell us a bit about your protégés -Tomy and a lady who I believe will be the first Indian lady to sail around the world solo.
Abhilash Tomy joined me in Mar 09 to help me with the project as till then I was working entirely on my own. He became by sailing buddy, lone shore support crew, manager, sounding board and much more rolled into one. In the process he kept learning, so when it was time to raise the bar and plan a solo nonstop circumnavigation he was the best and only choice. As things unfolded, he more than lived up to the confidence reposed in him which is a matter of immense pride and satisfaction for me.
I am still looking for the First Indian lady who will sail around the world solo.

13) When you left initially, you knew you were going on a voyage from which you possibly may not return. How did you prepare yourself psychologically for this?
I had volunteered to do the project without giving it a second thought, which meant that I had promised the Navy that I will do it notwithstanding the odds. In a way I had gotten myself in a one way street with no intention or option of turning back. There was only one way to go, which was to try and give it my best shot. I never dwelt on the outcome, not even on the day I completed the trip. As to psychological preparation, between boat building and other preparation, there hardly was any time for all that.

14) As far as your book cover is concerned we know this is one time that the much hated word “selfie” actually came in use 🙂 Pls tell us a little bit more about your book?
I took two ‘selfie’s’ through my entire trip of nine months. One is on the book cover! I don’t remember hearing that word in 2009. I had to set up my DSLR camera on a tripod and used a timer to take the photo. It doesn’t show on my face but I was very worried about the tripod falling down and smashing my fancy camera.
When I finished my trip in 2010 and got a little time to pause and look back, I realized what a fascinating time I had lived through in the past four years. They were the most action packed years of my life and some of the things that happened had already started appearing unreal to me. There were so many plots and subplots in the story which needed to be documented and available for people to read before my memory started fading. The Indian Taxpayer had generously, albeit inadvertently, funded my trip and had a right to know the end result of their hard earned money. On a lighter note, I got tired of telling the story to so many curious listeners so decided to pen it down once for all.
It took me four more years to write the book as there were too many things happening. Abhilash had to do his nonstop circumnavigation and Mhadei’s future had to be secured. Both had supported me unflinchingly through my project and I owed it to them. Short on time and more importantly on peace of mind to write, I took a two months vacation and holed myself up at a friend’s place in snowbound Canada during the winter. That helped complete half the draft. The rest was completed in the UK, in a sort of ‘voluntary solitary confinement’ at Sir Robin’s home. That done, The Maritime History Society agreed to publish the book and Ms Arati Rajan Menonagreed to edit the book pro bono because she liked the story. The book is already in its second edition and has been converted into a ‘talking book’ for the benefit of the visually impaired.

15) And looking back on your solo circumnavigation what was the highest point and the lowest point of your voyage?
Perhaps we will let that secret remain between me and Mhadei!

16) Who is the one person without whom this voyage would not have been possible?
That would be the boat builder, Mr Ratnakar Dandekar of Aquarius Fibreglas PvtLtd who built the strong and reliable Mhadei. If not for that, I wouldn’t have been around to write this. What is more creditable is that this was the first sail boat he built, with no precedence or domain knowledge in the country. He is thus by all measures the ‘unsung hero’ of this adventure.

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