Prologue: Salt in my Hair and Sea in my Soul!

I am neither a mariner, nor a professional writer. So why have I chosen to write about the Four Ts, Taringini, Tarini, Thuriya, and Tomy?

Ever since the news of the deadly drama playing itself out far away in the Southern Indian Ocean hit the headlines in late September, I found myself totally immersed in the gripping saga of Tomy and his little ship, Thuriya. This while there was so much else happening of deep significance all round on the national, legal, and political fronts. Perhaps it is because indeed the sea is in my soul. Partly an inherited gene from the parent whose 107th birthday was on October 8. And partly grafted into my being, thanks to the mariner I love and have lived with for close on 57 years.

So Who Is Abhilash Tomy?

I know as much as anyone else who has followed Tomy on the internet – having met him quite by chance on the sidelines of a maritime seminar in Delhi a few years ago, when he spoke of his solo voyage around the world in the good ship Mhadei in 2012-2013. That first encounter was enough to make me a complete fan – fascinated by his disarming style, humility and sheer grit. I kept up with all his activities and his latest dramatic exploits.

Inevitably, the past few days have been nailbiting ones for all those who love the sea and those who sail her. Abhilash has hit the headlines again – for reasons not exactly of his choosing. His epic voyage, as part of the Golden Globe Race 2018, was tragically cut short while negotiating one of the most treacherous stretches of water in what is known as the Southern Indian Ocean. A violent storm (for which the region is well known) hit him and his fellow competitor, Gregor from Ireland; both were ‘demasted’, and their boats generally rendered unseaworthy. But Abhilash also sustained a severe back injury, and was virtually bedridden and barely able to respond to communication from the monitoring team in Canberra or the Indian Navy. We have heard that the Navy’s Stealth frigate has safely brought him to home base at Visakhapatnam – where he will no doubt be debriefed and will receive the best medical care, rest and recuperation.

But things could have so easily gone very differently – a risk that every sailor, man or woman, solo or team – understands only too well. And as was well said by one among the team of trainers, the critical factor is never to let your guard down, always respect mother nature, and take care of your boat – she will always take care of you! By now the world has shared the sense of relief that Tomy is safe, that his injuries are healing, and mentally he is all set to return to sailing as soon as he is fit.

We will say more about the induction of women into the Navy/ Armed Forces later. But it is important to flag the historic decision, taken in the early nineties, by a group of coursemates who had joined as cadets of the First Course of the Joint Services Wing in 1948. In a historic first, all three rose to head their respective services, Army, Navy and Air Force, in the 1990s.

But I digress – let us return for a moment to the Four Ts, and what makes them special enough to share this narrative.

The first of the Ts, Taringini, actually was launched in 1997 – while the second, Tarini, set forth on her Sagar Parikrama in 2017. It was quite revealing to listen to every one of the Tarini’s women crew members echo the hope that their successful completion of this circumnavigation would persuade senior decision makers in the service and the MoD, to seriously open up operational roles for women in the Indian Navy.

Like the depths of the unpredictable Southern Indian Ocean where the mighty winds of Lord Indra and massive waves of Lord Varuna humbled Tomy’s tiny craft Thuriya, but not the spirit of the sailor, the romance and the quest to test one’s mettle on the masts and sails of sailing ships is truly an ancient saga that transcends geographies and traditional boundaries. And the tale of the Tall ships – the small ships – and the sails that have faithfully taken these voyagers way beyond the normal, must be shared, precisely because it touches new frontiers of human imagination and achievement. There is a deeper mystery and magic to the story of a lone sailor called Abhilash Tomy, who considers himself a Sufi thinker, and his tiny boat Thuriya – meaning Hidden Consciousness – stranded over three thousand miles from known habitation.

Just as the skies and the challenge of outer space are no longer forbidden territory or unreachable, so too are the seas no longer the last frontier. Thanks to the continuing glamour of the ageless Big B – the whole country has seen our six gutsy and impressive women officers appear on KBC, as recently as September 28. Vartika, Pratibha, Swati, Aishwarya, Vijaya Devi and Payal, created a powerful impression – individually and collectively – as they recounted the story of their circumnavigation, or Navik Sagar Parikrama, braving mishaps and storms and heavy seas, and managing through it all to adhere to the tough requirements of international codes, and keeping their good humour and professionalism alive.

If Thuriya was named for a mystical element, so too was Tarini: the Goa built craft is named for a powerful Goddess who combined the strength of the lioness, the multi armed and multi faceted powers of Durga and Kali: who takes her name from the Odisha coast from whence so many of our ancient seafarers set off in similarly basic, almost primitive sailing ships, making their explorations to the hitherto unknown lands further to the east. The clip below captures beautifully the essence of seafaring and teamwork, and the psychological and mental toughness, that is required of those who would traverse and come through unscathed after 254 days at sea – with barely four stops.

Of Ships, Sails and the Making of Mariners

The first indigenously built ‘tall’ ship, Taringini, was conceptualised in the early nineties and finally launched in 1997 – built to a British design but in the loving hands of Dandekar at the Aquarius Shipyard in Goa, it is an invaluable part of the Indian Navy’s Training Squadron.

But the keel for the entire saga of training today’s sailors on masts and riggings was laid decades earlier by a small bunch of visionaries in the Navy, who were looking back in order to look ahead, into an era where the true mettle of a new generation of mariners, women and men, would be tried and tested as they learned their knots and ‘seawo[man]ship’, literally as they climbed the rigging as in the sailing vessels of a bygone age.

In the last 15 years Tarangini has set up a track record hard to match. She has participated in 13 expeditions, sailing over 188,000 nautical miles (348,000 km or 216,000 miles) and remaining at sea for over 2,100 days, visiting 74 ports in 39 countries and transforming young naval cadets into mariners.

“The value of sail training lies in its ability to foster the virtues of courage, camaraderie, esprit-de-corps and endurance – valued in the Indian Navy [indeed in any Navy or maritime force] for character building. Sailing platforms are suitable for exposing young officers to challenges at sea and imbibing ‘sea sense’. Whilst under sail, cadets improve their appreciation of the elements to improve their practical experience, and learn the critical lessons of survival in the face of all adversity” – especially in the kind of situation in which you may find yourself and which no one ever believes will come their way – precisely the challenges faced and overcome by Tarini and the huge storms described above, or in Tomy’s epic struggle with the worst sort of tropical storms known to humankind.

Fighting Colonisation – On the Seas!

As with much else in the saga of the seas and our maritime history, we also need to go back into our colonial era and the continuing story of colonial control over our waters, and indeed our colonised minds.

Looking at the achievements of our young generation of mariners through the prism of the colonial rulers brings its own set of perspectives – and this left a very strong impression on the mind of a young woman growing up surrounded by stories and legends of struggles waged to achieve independence from the Crown – on land as well as on the seas.

Letters and conversations with my own sailor father, the late Ram Dass Katari, who rose to become the first Indian to head independent India’s Navy from 1958 to 1962, left me in no doubt as to the sinister policies of the British Imperial power, which resisted allowing young Indians to have access to training as seamen who would be ready to take on an independent role in free India’s maritime force. It was only after a long and sustained struggle that he, along with a bunch of other boys from landlocked states across the country, was admitted and trained as a young cadet in the first seamanship training ship, the HMIS Dufferin.

In his book A Sailor Remembers, written just before he died in 1983, my father describes at length what it took a bunch of lads from many corners of the country – land lubbers for the most part – to develop sea legs, and to build a fledgling maritime marine. I would listen mesmerised for hours as he described with great pride and exultation the rigorous training schedules which would prepare them to become the backbone of the early merchant marine force.

These were the building blocks to move from surveyors and river pilots, into joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and eventually to go on to take command of the future Indian Navy.

I would have given anything to have been able to join the fledgling Navy in those early years of freedom – for a seven year old it really was the ultimate in patriotic aspiration! Alas, I was ahead of my times – a woman? In the Navy? Are you crazy – and all pleas to my father to “let me climb the rigging” were in vain.

So I contented myself with the voyeuristic pleasure of wild imaginings – and conversations with my father and his buddies. I love to hear them talk about how tough it was to stand watch through endless day and night watches on board. This is how they got to know the depths, the eddies, the flurries, the deceptive currents, chugging up and down the river on an old fashioned steam engine – with only the minimum technical and other fixes. He always maintained that it was these early years with rudimentary navigational and other aids, that taught him the valuable lessons of shiphandling, camaraderie and life in the Navy – in other words, life on the rolling sea – a home on the rolling wave.

I would sing songs and Naval ditties which my father taught me. But I never forgave him, nor the Navy, for not allowing a young girl – passionately in love with the sea – the white uniform – and all the magic of the sea air – the salt on my tongue – to actually become a mariner!

So I did the next best thing – fell madly in love with a man in white uniform, equally passionate about the oceans and everything about them.

I guess this was one of the factors behind my emotional involvement with our man Tomy, his ship Thuriya, and the intrepid young women of Tarini. Be it Tomy or the crew of Tarini, they all learned the basic lessons of survival, sailing the old fashioned way using the wind and the sails. They had perforce to show respect for those high waves as also for the tiny, taut and tightly designed vessels who provide home and shelter for months on end – riding the storms, the 15 foot high waves which crash on you and can apparently swallow you up – or as in this case of Tomy, snap your main mast – your ‘mizzen’ – and render you nearly unconscious and immobile.

'From Colonisation to Indigenisation: the Real Make in India Story' – Part 2 of The Four Ts follows here.