The call of the sea

Sailing was once an elite hobby but is now attracting a bevy of enthusiasts and first-timers, says Sushmita Biswas

  • Published 4.12.16

For Mumbai-based Shakeel Kudrolli, life’s a beach. A corporate lawyer turned avid sailor, Kudrolli, 55, quit the high-powered world of corporate law and set up Aquasail, a sailing solutions and training company that now has 80 boats of 10 different varieties. Kudrolli takes people sailing from three venues: off the Mumbai coast in Mandwa, Goa and around Mumbai harbour. “Our focus is to create experiences around sailing. Most of our customers are domestic. The aim is to get Indians to sail,” he says firmly as the wind ruffles his hair.

(Above) Former lawyer Shakeel Kudrolli set up Aquasail with wife Zia Hajeebhoy to get Indians to sail and now has an 80-strong fleet of boats, big and small; Photos courtesy: Aquasail

Similarly, Regan Rodricks of experiential travel company Blue Bulb reckons that sailing gives people the chance to explore the sea and simultaneously view the city from a totally different perspective. Blue Bulb organises sailing trips from September to May that start at the jetty near the Gateway of India, pass the Naval Base and go all the way up to the Dolphin Rock Lighthouse. Blue Bulb trips usually last about two hours and passengers get to sail either in a four-seater J-21, or a Macgregor, a larger boat with comfy interiors. Says Rodricks: “Even if you’ve lived in Mumbai your entire life, you’ve never seen the city until you’ve seen it from the sea. The sunshine makes the water glisten with a metallic sheen even as the wind blows gently.” 

Sailing was once considered a niche sport only for the rich and elite in India but it has now undergone nothing less than a sea change. Today, leisure sailing’s attracting a bevy of sailing enthusiasts and first-timers — and they don’t have to leave the country to get a taste of the sea. Indian companies, mostly in Mumbai, are taking would-be seafarers for day trips around the harbour or even further afield. “Sailing has always existed in India, but leisure sailing as a fun activity has become relevant and affordable and demand is slowly picking up,” says veteran sailor Captain Homi Manekshaw, who has done long-haul, endurance voyages in sailboats around the world. 

Ayesha Lobo gives certified sailing classes and accompanies her clients on sailing trips offered by her company Discover Sailing, which wants to make the activity “easy, fun and a safe experience”

Sailing as a sport can be categorised into two — endurance adventure sailing for seasoned sailors and recreational or leisure sailing which, is about short trips that don’t stray too far from the shore. So even rank novices can experience the joys of sailing by taking the leisure sailing packages from a clutch of sailing and adventure travel companies. 
The fact is that Indians are just waking up to their long coastline and now families that want a short outing are heading out to sea. The sailing season is from October to May and stops only during the monsoon when the sea is very choppy. “Geographically, India is blessed with a coastline, has warm weather and predictable winds, which make it perfect for sailing,” says Man-ekshaw, who has been on a wooden sailboat from Mumbai to Muscat and has even been stuck in a storm at sea.

A trip around Mumbai harbour is probably the hottest favourite for those trying out their sea legs for the first time. Here, newcomers can get their fill of the harbour dotted with lighthouses, naval ships and also the Mumbai cityscape. 

The slightly more experienced can also sail up to Mandwa near Alibaug, which is about a three-hour trip and involves being on the open seas for some time. Elsewhere in the country, there’s sailing in Goa and the harbours of Chennai and Visakhapatnam.

There’s also Mumbai-based Viraat Kasliwal, whose Raconteur Walks has been offering customised recreational and luxury sailing trips in Mumbai harbour since last year. Kasliwal adds to the thrill of being on the water by regaling passengers with stories of the harbour and islands off the coast and has two sails a week. The company has a partnership with the Colaba Sailing Club, which provides the boats and also seasoned instructors like Captain Manekshaw and another veteran, Cyrus Herjee. 

Johann Daniels of Jack and Hill Adventures got hooked to sailing and is now offering affordable sailing trips; Photo: Gajanan Dudhalkar

“We have done 65 sails already and our forte lies in regaling people with stories of the harbour and the islands off the coast,” says Kasliwal. A two-hour sail for a family of four costs Rs 1,700 per head (including water, energy bars and souvenirs) and can go up to Rs 1.5 lakh for the entire boat for 15 people (add-ons like food and cocktails cost extra).
Or take Johann Daniels, who set up an adventure travel company, Jack and Hill Adventures, in 2014 in Mumbai with the aim of getting Indians to break free from the daily grind. He started sailing four years ago and got hooked to it. “Our forte is that we offer sails on a shared seat basis instead of chartering the entire boat,” he says. His trips start from the jetty at the Gateway where guests are picked up in a dinghy and dropped off to the sailboat. “Sailing in the evening offers a visual feast at sunset when the cityscape is lit up,” he says.

On the other hand, there’s Ayesha Lobo’s Discover Sailing that aims to promote sailing as “easy, fun and a safe experience for everyone”. Lobo’s the captain of India’s women’s sailing team and also offers certified sailing classes to anyone interested in this sport. Lobo accompanies her clients on the trips, sharing her sailing adventures and inviting amateurs to try their hand at steering the boat. Currently, she has a fleet-size of six sailboats and does six sails on weekdays. 

The sea has also become a favourite venue for hosting parties and events. Most of these sailing companies organise trips to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, pre-wedding parties and other special occasions. Says Aquasail’s Kudrolli: “We can handle 100-150 people at a time.” 

Aquasail has a 3,000sqft sailing centre in Goa at the Grand Hyatt Hotel’s Bambolim beach with a boat park for dinghies, sailboats and equipment. While Kudrolli is the domain expert, he’s assisted on the marketing front by his wife Zia Hajeebhoy. Discover Sailing and Jack and Hill Adventures too organise customised sail packages for birthdays and weddings.

Regan Rodricks, whose Blue Bulb experiential travel firm does sailing trips around Mumbai, feels one must see the city from the sea; Photo: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Large companies too are increasingly introducing sailing programmes as a team-building exercise. Kudrolli’s passion for sailing is a draw among professional jetsetters, schools and families who come to spend time on his boats for a day programme. He has worked on employee engagement programmes and beach sailing carnivals in Mumbai and Goa. Says Hajeebhoy:  “We have developed sailing as a team-building activity that fosters team-spirit and strategic thinking. Different people play different roles — the captain, the navigator, and the crew all work together to make sailing happen.” Discover Sailing also does team-building programmes for companies in Mumbai. 

The sailing companies are also trying to promote the concept of regattas for companies, especially over weekends. Regattas, where a number of boats compete against each other, are great events for popularising sailing and more are being held on weekends. Aquasail and Lobo’s Discover Sailing too organise regattas for companies in Mumbai and Goa.
The boats for these sailing expeditions range from small dinghies that are ideal for open-sailing and beach-sailing all the way up to multi-hulled catamarans. Sailboat lengths generally range from 20ft up to hundreds of feet. 

Some of the top picks include the smaller J-24, Beneteau 7.5, a 25ft yacht often used for bigger corporate events. There’s also the Beneteau 34.7 that comes with a kitchen, cabin and open deck, and the Leopard 44, a luxurious sailing catamaran with three bedrooms that can accommodate bigger groups of up to 18 people.

Then, there are the smaller boats that can seat four people like the J-21 and come with a weather-protected cabin with basic storage, and the slightly bigger Macgregor that comes with a bigger cabin with leather interiors.

Viraat Kasliwal’s Raconteur Walks is looking to launch sailing trips from Goa and Chennai by next year

Almost all the sailing companies are now keen to expand. Kudrolli wants to replicate his Goa sailing centre model and take it to the Lakshadweep and the Andamans. Lobo of Discover Sailing is pushing to popularise sailing on the east coast in Chennai, Rameswaram and the Andamans in the coming months. And Kasliwal is in talks to launch sailing trips in Chennai and Goa by next year. Rodricks wants to up the thrill element by organising more regattas in Mumbai harbour in January 2017.

Like any other sport, sailing is an art which needs to be learnt and practised. Most of these companies offer tailor-made sailing lessons for first-time sailors and sailing enthusiasts. Lobo, who’s a certified sailing instructor, has courses for kids and adults. The course includes not just sailing lessons, but also a certification from the Yachting Association of India that allows you to sail all over India and Asia.

Aquasail’s range of courses includes basic exploratory courses like one-day sailing (priced at Rs 8,000 for a four-hour training experience) to two days’ (Rs 15,000) sailing.

There are a few stringent rules for sailing which everyone must follow. “Safety is of paramount importance. So, one must understand the perils involved. It is always fun to learn how to handle the main sail, sea currents and wind direction. You just have to listen to your sailing instructor and trust him. Also try to enjoy the solitude when you are in the waters,” recommends Manekshaw. 

So, what are you waiting for? Get on to a sailboat and feel the brisk sea breeze in your face.