Indians sail off in a voyage of discovery

Off the Mumbai coastline, the signs are of a country finally setting sail, although progress remains slow
Sailing home: approaching the Colaba shore of Mumbai, the historic Taj Mahal Palace hotel to the right

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A visit to the Defence Services Sailing Club on the eastern fringes of New Delhi is a depressing experience for sailing enthusiasts, not to mention environmentalists.

The club premises are spick and span, and the dinghies are neatly stacked on their racks. But what was once an idyllic spot on the banks of the Yamuna river, a tributary of the Ganges, is no longer the place for a dinghy race or a pleasant evening sail. The Yamuna, its waters reduced by irrigation dams and polluted by greater Delhi’s 22m people, has become an open sewer and the club is now rarely used for its intended purpose.

Such inland setbacks, however, do not tell the whole story. Far to the southwest, on India’s busy west coast, yachting enthusiasts and investors in the marine leisure industry say there are signs that the country is finally beginning to emerge as a yachting and boating destination.

The industry is still “extremely small”, says Aashim Mongia, managing director of West Coast Marine Yacht Services in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. “But the market is growing steadily at 10, 12, 15 per cent a year.”

There are so far no large, modern marinas in India, and only about four luxury superyachts in the country owned by Indian tycoons.

But the number of smaller boats moored off downtown Mumbai’s Colaba district – where the waterfront is dominated by the three historic edifices of the Gateway to India monument, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and the Royal Bombay Yacht Club – has risen noticeably in the past five years.

Shakeel Kudrolli, a competitive sailor who founded the Indian Marine Federation and the yachting company Aquasail, says he senses substantial “latent demand” for yachting and sailing among increasingly wealthy and sports-orientated Indians.

“From a commercial perspective, we’ve had 20,000 people sail with us in the past four years, so the desire to go boating is obviously huge,” he says. Aquasail now has 80 boats of various sizes – including 40 at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Goa – and arranges activities from sailing lessons and charters to corporate outings.

The sport was given a fillip this year when Lt Cmdr Abhilash Tomy of the Indian navy became the first Indian to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted, around the world.

“It’s starting to happen,” Mr Kudrolli says of Indian sailing, citing a couple in their 70s trained by Aquasail, who have just decided to fly to Croatia for a holiday afloat.

Yet the fact that the couple chose the Adriatic rather than the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean points to some of the obstacles that stand in the way of India’s leisure marine industry.

Both the physical and regulatory infrastructure needed to sustain marine sports are noticeable by their absence and even the two new marinas that are planned for Goa have been blocked by the western state’s government.

The terrorist assault on Mumbai hotels in 2008 – in which the attackers arrived in south Mumbai by inflatable speedboats – had already led to official security restrictions on night sailing. Then the government classified yachts as luxuries, and sharply increased customs duties this year for imported boats.

“There’s a lack of vision, there’s a lack of infrastructure, a lack of clear-cut policy and regulation,” says Mr Mongia, bemoaning the fact that yachting is considered “an elitist, rich man’s sport”.

He urges the government to emulate southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia that have welcomed sailing and yachting as a boost to their tourism industries. “That entire area is buzzing,” he says. “The tourism market would benefit hugely out of this, it would benefit the entire coastline.”

Except in the Andaman Islands, near the Burmese coast, even visiting yachts are few and far between in India, and circumnavigators have for years stopped in Galle in Sri Lanka rather than risk the horrors of Indian bureaucracy. “Yes, they find that India is too much of a pain,” says Mr Mongia when asked whether that is still the case.

Some sailors insist that the problem is as much cultural as bureaucratic. “What is required is less lazy people, who are willing to use the boats they have bought,” says a frustrated Bharat Kewalramani, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, who was one of the first to import yachts to the city in the modern era, and remains one of its keenest yacht racers.

“The one thing that everybody forgets is that we have the most fantastic wind. Mumbai is just an enormous harbour,” he adds. “But there’s a huge problem of culture. Guys here spend a couple of hundred grand on a boat that they don’t use.”

Mr Kudrolli of Aquasail suggests that one reason for the limited usage of boats is that India’s shortcomings, including the absence of marinas, did cause disappointments for “early adopters” of the sport.

“There were several things that didn’t fall into place,” he says. “They probably didn’t realise there are many other factors [beyond the boat] that make boating enjoyable. You need to be able to go to a place, another marina, and spend time with friends.”

When the first new marina is finally developed, it should have a positive effect on the whole business of yachting. “Once there’s a good test case of building a marina, there are many people prepared to invest,” Mr Kudrolli says.

As with so many businesses in India, patience is essential. It is likely to take years before sailors and marine industry pioneers can make the most of India’s obvious natural advantages, including its long coastline. “There is a huge, huge potential out there,” says Mr Mongia. “Unfortunately, it’s not being tapped.”

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