| Michael Burtt on board the Sagar Durga Indus: The legacy of the ancient mariner. Picture by Amit Datta
It began as a dream to sail around the world. Devi Mitra had planned and trained for it over a period of nearly two decades. But before he could set sail, when everything was ready, the septuagenarian died. Now, it’s up to his friend and fellow enthusiast to live out the dream.
Mitra, a former mining engineer, had conceived of the mission in 1984, at the suggestion of a colleague at the Virginia Community College, USA, where he was teaching. Although Mitra had never sailed before, the challenge became his reason to be, when he returned to his Manoharpukur Road residence.
He bought more than 100 books on sailing and pored over them, drawing inspiration from the stories of struggle and triumph and learning about the finer points of sailing. He mapped his nautical route and purchased top-notch navigational equipment. He took a trip to San Francisco in 2001, where son Shankar is based, and enrolled in a vigorous sailing course. Last year, he began work on his boat, the 40-ft-by-24-ft fibreglass Sagar Durga Indus, at Kidderpore.
On November 11, 2003, the 76-year-old died in a south Calcutta nursing home, just when it seemed that he could set sail, any day. The dream, however, hasn’t died with the ancient mariner. An American friend, 60-year-old Michael Burtt from Boston, who had been helping with the boat, will now undertake the journey.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity. By inheriting the boat, I inherit Devi Mitra’s dream,” says Burtt, who built a boat over eight years, and then sailed across the Atlantic, not so long ago. “My family had a summer house on the East Coast. I had my own boat, and I’ve been sailing since age four,” smiles the bearded man, who has practically set up home in the big orange boat basking under the November sun, on Orphangunge Road.
“He’s the right man for the job, and I’m glad that he’s carrying on the legacy,” says Prakash Sha of Cleghorn, the builders of the Rs-20 lakh Sagar Durga Indus.
“Mitra called it Indus in honour of an Indo-US partnership, because he was an American citizen. Ironically, the boat couldn’t be registered in India, so it was done from the US. The procedure was almost complete before the tragedy. And now, Mike will sail it.”
Burtt, who spends his free time fashioning belts by knotting ropes, was roped in by Mitra when he heard of the sailor’s prowess and past experience. The Aurobindo devotee came to India seven years ago at the request of his guru, and has spent the last three years working with an NGO in Nadia. “In 2000, when there was flooding in the area, I made boats for people to travel around, for relief and aid work,” he recalls.
Although Burtt is keen to sail, “hopefully early next year”, when the boat will be in sailing condition, he will be doing things his way. “I won’t be alone, like Devi was going to be. I know my limitations. I’m fully capable of managing, including running around, but I’ve done it before, and it’s no fun. Having people is better. And I definitely won’t be taking the Red Sea-route, which is what Devi was planning. I want to avoid the political situation in the area. I’ll probably go via the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic, and through the Panama Canal.”
And so, a collaboration between a Calcutta boat-building company and an American sailor continues to keep alive the dream of one old man and the sea.