As luck would have it my ethnographic field trip to Chennai got postponed by a day so I got to spend the whole of Sunday with my dear husband and our Abroozi. We’ve been living in Vizag for a year now and still have not been sailing at the sailing club. Let me explain, every base has a sailing club with Enterprise Class sailboats and Gemini dinghies with motors and a few jet skis. Any officer is allowed to bring their families to experience sailing around the Vizag channel. This is the main channel that leads out to sea, through which all the ships and submarines leave and enter the harbour. Here’s where I had my first taste of life to come.
Like many navies around the world, the Indian Navy supports the Sea Cadet Corps, open to any child above the age of 11. The Indian Sea Cadet Corps is in its 73rd year and is a non-military, non-governmental youth organisation, supported by the Indian Navy. Apart from sailing the Sea Cadets also play in a band and train in many water sports. Children who started as sea cadets have also won national and international laurels in water sports for the country. From India’s first gold medal in Sailing at the 1976 world championships to representing India at the Olympics in the same sport, alumni of this organization have contributed the country’s achievements in water sports. In an interview to the Indian Express in 2008, the founder G.S Ahuja’s son said, “Children from different age groups do different things. While the affluent ones are stuck with their play stations on Sundays, we encourage children, especially from lesser privileged societies, to join the corps and imbibe a sense of discipline,” said Ahuja.With more than 90% of schools lacking basic play ground facilities, let alone swimming pools, the Sea Cadet Corps with the help of the Indian Navy provides an invaluable skill set to young people, encouraging out door activities, access to facilities that would otherwise not be financially viable for most people to access. And on Sunday when my husband and I went sailing, I got to see the Vizag Sea Cadet Corps in action and have my first lesson in sailing.
The quote by Ahuja above would lead to you believe that the Sea Cadet Corp (like the NCC) is mostly comprised of children from the margins of society, those less financially well off. And from my observations yesterday, that would be absolutely true. I didn’t see one child there who could be from a Naval Officer’s family – those kids are too busy playing on play stations or watching cartoons on a Sunday to take advantage of a great privilege at their door step. What I love about activities like sailing is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what your daddy does, it’s all about your skill and your ability as crew or helm. Another great sight was the huge number of girls and all girl teams in the white salwar kameez. Yesterday, as I went for my very first experience in a sail boat, the young Sea Cadets were having their regatta. As the band was tuning up, the regatta participants were raising their sails, checking the rigging, their lines and tightening the Cunningham. So we took that opportunity, before the race started, to teach me a bit of sailing. My husband hasn’t sailed an Enterprise Class Dingy in 17 years, since his cadet days, but he was the perfect teacher and a master at the helm. And since we didn’t capsize at all, I’d say I was a pretty good student.
So here’s how he broke it down for me: He was the helm, sitting aft (back) controlling the big mail sail, it’s sheets (ropes) and the rudder (changes direction) and tiller (a leaver that controls the rudder). I was crew, sitting forward, in charge of the keel (a wooden structure lowered in to the water to improve the boat’s stability), the smaller Fore Sail in front of the main sail (and always to be kept on the same side as the main sail), controlling the fore sail sheets (ropes attached to the fore sail, controlling its movements) and co-ordinating quickly with the helm when tacking (changing the boat’s direction), shifting my weight to keep the boat from capsizing and of course, not getting hit by the boom. The boom is a large aluminum pole, horizontal to the water attached to the long edge/base of the main sail. It swings across the whole boat, over the crew as you tack. Tacking is a maneuovre where if you are sailing in to the wind, you change the direction of the bow (front) of the boat so that your sails are always in to the wind.
It was not a very windy day and we had to tack every 30 seconds or so in a narrow channel with very little sea room. On a large sail boat, out at sea on a long voyage one could be on a single tack for half a day. Anyhow, tacking every 30 seconds was great practice for me and generally not getting hit by the boom, I thought, was a huge success. No matter how much I’ve read about tacking I really didn’t get it, and if you’ve not sailed before then reading my description above you’ll not have a clue either. But after experiencing it, I now know exactly what it is and my role as crew. There were plenty of other terms like ‘sailing close to the wind’ that I only knew the theory of and finally got to see it in practice. I truly believe there’s only so much one gets from book learning. It will be a while till I graduate to helm – there’s plenty about that job that I have no idea about.
Despite Vizag channel being smelly with the ammonia plant and crowded with the two massive tankers being built on either side of the channel, lots of construction of jettys and coast guard ships, it was a serene experience to be gliding along the water powered only by the force of the wind, mother nature’s motor, and harnessing that power. After sailing about the channel for a good hour, we sailed back to the jetty just as the young Sea Cadets were about to set sail. I had a much greater respect for these young kids after I had experienced what they had been training to do. They were so confident and skilled, without fear. It’s easier to teach an old dog new tricks than it is to remove fear and anxiety from a human being. I’m glad I can still learn and it is very refreshing to learn a new skill. But at a young age these kids soak up knowledge like stale bread dipped in gravy.
This weekend is my second lesson, and I’ve already been given homework to familiarize myself with the rigging and parts of the boat. This is a new experience and I can’t wait to learn more. It’s been a while since I was so excited to learn something new. Without sounding too condescending, I ask you to think about when was the last time you learned to do something new?