“I last had mangoes when I lived in Breach Candy. Theek hain, theek hain,” he nods, eyes closed, relishing a flavour last tasted four decades ago.
Today it’s an accepted norm that a circumnavigator has to round the three capes (Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn), a norm Sir Robin set being the first to sail solo, non-stop around the world, between June 14, 1968 and April 22, 1969 in a Bombay-made (it was not Mumbai yet) yacht named Suhaili.
In Mumbai for the Maritime History Society lecture on ‘Ocean Sailing’ to throw light on those 312 days he sailed Falmouth to Falmouth, and of anecdotes of how a mayor’s scheduled haircut delayed his official reception, or his underwater shark photography, he is appreciative of Indian Navy’s circumnavigation aspirations with circumnavigator Abhilash Tomy.
He spent the better part of Tuesday navigating through the city, where he worked between 1961 and 1964, looking for curios at Chor Bazaar, trekking between congested stalls at Crawford Market (he recalls his vegetable shopping days in 1961, when he would walk “all the way from Yellow Gate”) and picking Iranian delicacy at Britannia And Company at Ballard Estate with Indian Navy’s circumnavigator Commander Dilip Donde.
Walking to the Ballard Estate building of Mackiinnons, his merchant agents when he worked with British India Steam Navigation Company, he is impressed to see “not much has changed, except the spaces were quiet open”. The two sea-bells Ekma-11 and Egra-1911 are still at the entrance, a last reminder of the old days.
In 1964, his stint over, he decided to sail back home to United Kingdom, in a self-made ketch, with his brother and a friend. Experts from Indian Ocean Exploration, an independent government body, helped in setting the weather and wind schedule. An Atkins William boat design was purchased, and tweaked a bit. The position of the mast was changed to get “better bounce”.
“A very intelligent woman with a well-made home would have easily moved into my deck,” he chuckles of his “basic design”.
Artisans and craftsmen worked for months on his boat at the Colaba Workshop “which still exists”. “Strangely, I recall the only bad artisan. They called him Kaka. We always had to redo whatever he did. The supervisor was a man whose last boat was in the 1930s a Dragon racing boat commissioned by the Tatas. There was another craftsman, a big wrestler named Abdul,” he says. “The police those days would not allow the 25-foot log of teak to be ferried across the city during the day, and customs at the port where the workshop was would knock it off by 6. I did not negotiate. I just gave customs Rs 30. You may call it a bribe. I would not,” he winks.
He saw the Central Province teak, which shaped Suhaili, on his visit to Melghat reserve near Nagpur this week.
Suhaili had many “angles to her naming”. Suhaili is the direction the wind takes to a star that gives the direction of England. He refuses to be fooled by “fake nautical instruments” of today.
He sailed out of Bombay days before Christmas of 1965. Just before he left, he had to work for the customs at Murud Janjira to help them track gold being smuggled via the sea route.
“I am leaving for Murud tomorrow. I recall it as the most scenic space off the state’s coast. I never found any gold, the fishermen had already fished it,” he chuckles.
He says, “Bombay always has this bustle I miss sometimes. Those days nothing was imported. Everything could be found in lanes and bylanes. In that sense, not much has changed,” he says as he strolls on streets of old Bombay. “In a way it’s reassuring,” he says.