Puducherry: “Surely this can’t be the right location,” I thought, as my cab took a sharp left into a small fishing harbour in the town of Puducherry. There were medium-sized fishing boats docked from one end to the other, all with Indian flags tied on top — a sharp reminder to how close we were to international waters. Fishermen were mending their nets, oblivious to the gravity of the event that had brought me to their haven.
I was at the former French colony to attend the inaugural Pondicherry Sailing Regatta — an Indo-French bilateral sailing event, hosted by Bonjour India.
I was expecting something different though. Yachts, sailing boats, well-dressed people… I was told sailing was the water sports equivalent of golf — a sport the majority in a country like India can’t afford. The wooden house, at the western end of the dock, which acts as the office for the Pondicherry Sailing Association (PSA) was anything but opulent. Around the wooden house were participants, repairing their boats, before they docked it for the day. Nothing about the PSA office was like what I had envisioned a sailing club to be.
There began the deconstruction of my popular culture-inspired perception of sailing.
A battle with oneself
“The sport is about balance. The balance of the mind and body. It is not just a race to beat others. It is about discovering your way,” says Mael Garnier, who was part of the French sailing team in Puducherry for the Regatta. It wasn’t until later in the day when I was taken into the sea, on a fishing boat, to witness the sailing boats in action, that I understood what Garnier was talking about.
Sailors spend hours in the sea battling the constantly changing nature. According to Colonel SK Kanwar, a jury member for the Regatta, a good sailor is someone who can understand the nature of the water currents or the wind direction faster than his/her competitors. While a good understanding of the nature is a prerequisite, a sailor should also be at peace with his/her surroundings, considering the time spent alone in the sea.
Listen: Colonel Kanwar explains the rules of Pondicherry Regatta
“There are two things that can happen — either you are ultra-competitive and you forget to pay attention to the nature. Or you are at ease; it is easy for that to happen when you are alone in a boat in the water, and you let the nature take you away from the destination. Sailing is a game of balance,” says Ivan Scolan, another member of the French sailing team in India.
The races are also designed to test sailors’ ability to navigate through nature’s obstacles. Often starting lines for the races are set opposite to the direction of the wind. The sailor has to rely on his/her understanding of the winds and the tides to navigate around the circuit.
“When the wind is in the opposite direction, sailors will try to create an angle with the wind and then navigate to the next check-point. What angle or what route they opt for will eventually have a say on the time. One needs to constantly make adjustments to the sail to come out on top,” explains Colonel Kanwar.
A sport, surprisingly, for all
“You can’t say sailing is cheap. But it is not expensive either,” explains Felix Pruvot, a former Olympian with the French national team, and coach of the French team taking part at the Puducherry Regatta. In France, according to Pruvot, small clubs ensure that people from all backgrounds have an opportunity to sail. “It is a part of our culture, so investing in sailing doesn’t look like we have wasted money,” adds Pruvot.
Watch: French sailing coach Felix Pruvot speaks on India’s potential as a sailing hub.
While it may be true in France, and other European regions, India is far from accepting sailing as a part of its culture. While sailing has always existed in certain parts — Mumbai, Chennai and Visakhapatnam have a history of sailing — it has never truly been a recognised sport or a leisure time activity in the country, partly due to the expensive nature of the sport. A beginner-level sailing boat costs between ₹1 and ₹2 lakh in India.
Surprisingly, though, India has taken part in sailing competitions six times at the Summer Olympics. This is largely due to the army and navy funded sports schools throughout the country. Some of the best sailing schools in the country are funded by the two. States like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have also started investing in the sport — National Sailing School, Bhopal (founded in 2006) is arguably the country’s best academy and has been producing world class athletes in the last few years.
According to Anil Sharma, teacher at NSS Bhopal and coach to India’s top sailor Harshita Tomar, India is yet to discover true stars in sailing. “In Bhopal, we have summer coaching camps to identify potential sailors. But we don’t have access to the sea there. All our sailing classes are on the lake. Imagine if we can coach people who are actually used to the sea, who are familiar with the tides,” he points out.
Janaki Balachander, professional sailor and a trainer at the PSA, agrees. She was part of team from PSA that conducted a training class, an initiative by the tourism ministry of Tamil Nadu, for 55 kids from the local fishing community in 2017. “You should have seen how quickly the kids picked up. It took me way more time to learn sailing. It was like they were born to sail,” she says.
An ocean of opportunity
Contrary to popular beliefs, not all sailing competitions are conducted in the sea. Large lakes or inland water bodies also make challenging circuits for sailors due to the constantly shifting wind currents. “In the sea, the wind patterns are more predictable. It’s usually towards or away from the land. In lakes, that is not the case. There are constant changes and you need to be really prepared. But major sailing competitions are often in the sea so one needs to practice in coastal regions,” explains Pruvot.
India, fortunately, has a perfect mix both inland water bodies and the seas. But while the geography is conducive, a lot remains to be done to improve the perception of the sport. “Very few people know about sailing. Even when I say to my friends or relatives about sailing, everyone thinks it is swimming. Nobody understands what sailing is,” says Harshita Tomar, India’s top-rated sailor and the winner of the Laser 4.7 category at the Regatta.
Watch: Harshita Tomar speaks on what India needs to do improve our athletes.
Tomar, who will be representing India in the upcoming Asian Games, is hopeful that more people will take up the sport in the future. “In Madhya Pradesh, we get a lot of support from the state government. They take care of our fitness, nutrition etc. Hopefully we will see more states do the same,” she adds.
With 10 medals at stake, sailing is an integral part of the Summer Olympics and is a sport that needs to be taken more seriously in India. The country needs more schools like NSS Bhopal to pop up and that to be followed up by good government interventions such as providing subsidies for sailing boats. But with the likes of PSA actively looking for ways to reform the sport, it is only a matter of time that India sets anchor with the very best in the world of sailing.
(The writer was in Puducherry on invitation from Bonjour India)