May 01, 2007

Abandon, Ship

I’m floating on my back, in a blood warm-sea. Land is a thin smudge on the horizon. There’s not a sound to be heard except the stray seagull, and the watery patpatpat of the swell against my body. A voice yells my name. I raise an ear out of the water; Kedar, leaning over the rail of the Rosa, is demanding that I turn over and swim for the camera. Damn. Duty must be done. I flip over, and execute a few energetic freestyle strokes.

Rosa is the first recreational yacht ever listed on the Register of Indian Shipping. For those that know and care about these things, she’s a Gazelle (a design by the American naval architect Colvin), a bit under 60 feet, and uses a Chinese-style “junk rig.” She has been built a few miles away, in the yard of Kyondo Syokai Marine, in the backwaters of Fort Cochin. Dr John Crabtree, expat Brit, co-founder of the group, and skipper on this sail, says she’s more than ninety per cent Indian with just a few imported parts.

We had hit Cochin the previous day, grouchy as hell after waking up at dawn for a flight that was eventually more than an hour late. After a leisurely coffee with Dr John (as most people seem to call him) and Arun Louis, COO of the group and son of the other co-founder, the hospitality and real estate tycoon T M Louis, we learn that our plans—an overnight cruise and a picnic on a remote beach—had changed. The pre-monsoon winds make the water a bit choppy at night, and seeing as Kedar and I were landlubbers with not much more than a few ferry rides and white water rafting jaunts between us, John decides not to take a chance on us getting seasick. Instead, we drive down to the boatyard at Mattencherry, one of the oldest quarters of this old town, and get a guided tour of the rather grandiose-sounding Malabar Yacht Club. Sneezing through the faint hint of pepper in the air (hey, it’s the Spice Coast, and this is where them spices have been leaving our shores from for centuries), we walk through the rather beat-up boatyard, where a yacht is up for repairs, to the jetty, where Rosa bobs, sparkling white, with a big red star on her bows. John shows off the boat (GPS! Satellite radio! a hook to dangle mobile phone from! and yes, a large, traditional compass too), and tells us about the company.

From what I gather, he made his pile in the Gulf, met his wife there too, and after a bit of soul-searching, he decided to get into the yachting business in India. He scouted around for partners, and found an ideal fit in Louis Senior. After all the groundwork, the registrations and permissions, the land buying, the hiring of young trainees, they launched Rosa, and spent the 2006-07 season fine-tuning the boat and their business strategies, and doing the hard job of selling the concept to Indian tourists. Not much success so far—most of their customers have been holidaying westerners—but he’s optimistic of turning that around. The company has interesting plans: three more boats on the water soon, incorporating all the little refinements that last season taught them; cruises to Lakshdweep (with one boat based in the Islands); boats leased out to other operators along the coast; a proper, methodical sailing training programme that will get its graduates an international certification; and so on. John hasn’t had much luck with getting local lads keen to sail—his current trainees are from Tamil Nadu and Lakshdweep—but the boatyard and the resort are staffed from around the neighbourhood.

We head off to the company’s resort, Michael’s Land, at Kannamaly, about a dozen kilometres from Fort Cochin. The place is practically an island (it’s actually a peninsula, but connected only by a dirt track that’s just about cycle-worthy), about 10 acres in all, surrounded on three sides by placid backwaters. We’re met off the main road, where it kisses the lagoon, and ferried across in a small, canopied outrigger canoe, its outboard motor’s gentle coughing only a wee bit louder than the swish of prow cutting through the water.

Smiling staffers welcome us at the jetty, and our bags are whisked off to our rooms before we remember to lift them off the boat. We stroll down the coconut grove, to the small row of bungalows.

We meet John’s wife, Fumiyo, and over beer, prawns cooked Japanese style, and appams and stew, we chat some more. We decide on an early night, to get the most sailing we could out of the morrow.

I’m asleep ten minutes after dinner, and (this one’s for the books!) am up before dawn, wandering the shore, taking pictures in the soft light. At the far end of my perambulations, I see that Kedar has found an even better spot, where the sun picks golden flecks out of the ripples, and several boats have obligingly stopped in just the right spot. Swine.

Massive breakfast ingested, we head off to Matencherry, where the crew are scuttling around tightening whatchamacallits here, loosening thingummybobs there; and then we push off from shore. The motor takes us out of the harbour (moving under sail is discouraged by the port authorities) past massive dredgers, peppy pilot boats, passenger ferries and all manner of fishing boats. As we pass the famous Chinese fishing nets, my pulse has slowed down to Buddhist monk standards, and I am lost in thoughts of pirates, three-masters and the bounding Main... but I am jolted out my reverie by the ear-splitting klaxon of what seems like a bloody floating skyscraper behind us. It is one of the dredgers that work constantly at keeping the shipping channel navigable, imperiously demanding that we gedoutttheway now.

In a bit, we’re past the mouth of the harbour, nothing ahead of us but distant ships at anchor... and Africa. To my great delight, we twice pass encounter dolphins, far closer than I’ve ever seen them before, despite many alleged dolphin spotting rides. They do not do any spectacular breaching, and they disappear before I can get my camera focussed, but it’s still a major thrill.

We shut off the engine, the young rookies get the sails up, and we change course to sail South, parallel to the coast. There isn’t much wind, but John is optimistic about it picking up. A fishing boat is to meet us out at sea later, so that Kedar can take some pictures of the yacht in full sail from a distance. We drift along at the nautical equivalent of walking pace. One of the lads tells me of his ambitions: to learn to sail, to eventually get a job in shipping, and to get over “this vomiting.” He is shortly, and copiously, sea-sick, and spends most of the rest of the day looking quite miserable.

We’re not getting much wind at all, so I decide to take a swim. (Another option is a spot of angling, but we have no fishing tackle.) The sails are adjusted so that we’re holding our position relative to the sea floor. Ropes and floats are trailed off from the stern, because there’s a distinct current pulling in to the shore. I’m briefed about holding on to the ropes and getting towed behind the boat, and then I jump in. It doesn’t take long to realise that a half-knot’s worth of current can stretch pool-learned swimming abilities to embarrassment point, so I latch on to the ropes and let the boat hold me in place.

Until, of course, Kedar demanded those pictures.

It’s early afternoon now, and the sun is blazing. I am helped back aboard, and shortly after, we reverse direction, heading back North. We learn that the fishing boat’s owner had made extortionate demands for his services, so negotiations had, um, floundered. Visions of cold beer and chunky sandwiches evaporate (the boat was to also deliver our lunch, since we’d set out much earlier than was routine, before the restaurants had opened), but John comforts us with promises of a spread waiting for us at the jetty.

The much-hoped-for wind is also a no-show, so we sail back at the same sedate pace. I am badly sunburnt by then, so I sprint for the ACed comfort of the office the moment we dock. After the promised meal, I attempt to shower off the salt, with not much success: the plumbing is, er, basic.

As we head back to the airport (to find that our flight is, sigh, two hours late), I tot up the score. Cons: Bad sunburn. Lousy shower. Pros: A lazy day on a real, kosher yacht! A swim out at sea! And dolphins!

I’m ahead of the game.

The Information

Konda Syokai’s operations are grouped under a baffling array of names.
Costs: The sailing will set you back Rs 2000 per person for a five-hour cruise, including lunch and beverages on board. Should you want to stay at Michael’s Land, it costs Rs 2000 a night for a comfy double room, ACed, with attached bath; breakfast included, and other meals by arrangement. The resort is pretty secluded, so if you’re the type that needs proximity to the noise and the fleshpots, you should stay elsewhere.
Sailing + Stay Package: includes airport (Kochi) pickup and drop, a night at the resort, and sailing on either day, with a bit of sightseeing on land as a paid extra on the other day. The room will cost you Rs 1500, including breakfast, and the sailing, with lunch, Rs 2000 per person.
There are also overnight cruises available by arrangement, with a beach picnic down the coast, at Rs 4000 per person, requiring a minimum of three passengers. Yachts are available for longer cruises at Rs 12,000 per day, for up to six passengers.
Tips: The crew will give you anti-histamines; take them before the sail if you are at all prone to motion sickness. Take a swimsuit. And, as my peeling skin will tell you, do not forget to slather on sunblock, and take it with you if you plan to swim and need more for after you get out of the water.
Getting there: The resort is a twenty-minute drive from Fort Cochin (add an hour for the airport leg). The Malabar Yacht Club (where the sailing trips start) is five minutes from Fort Cochin. Detailed directions available online.
Contact: Michael’s Land: +91 484 2282899. Arun Louis (for sailing): +91 9349247899. Email: admin@kondosyokai.com. Web: www.kondosyokai.org

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2007.

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