The wind and the water and you

For a coastal city, one surrounded by water on almost every side to boot, Mumbai has surprisingly few options for the ordinary citizen to enjoy its bay and the ocean. Most people are content to dip their toes into the water at Girgaum Chowpatty or Juhu Beach, or do the occasional beach day at the Madh Island or Gorai stretches or hop on a noisy boat coughing diesel fumes to Elephanta Island.

But there’s far more fun to be had in within easy reach, if you know where to look.

You can sail, kayak and even windsurf in the waters around the city. It’s a great way to get far away from the noise and pollution of the city: it’s just the elements and you (and your loved ones, if you choose). While windsurfing and kayaking would need you to be reasonably fit, a sail can be enjoyed by anyone, from young children to elderly grandparents, and without breaking the bank.

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It’s only a few years ago that I first discovered the joys of Mumbai’s harbour, when I went sailing with a group of friends to watch the sun set. But I was curious to know what it felt like to actually actively sail a boat rather than be a passenger, so I signed up for a Discover Sailing session with Aquasail, a company that rents out boats and teaches people to sail.

It was a still, smoggy Monday afternoon at the Gateway of India pier when I climbed aboard Storm Rider, a small-keel boat, for my 90-minute class. My instructor, Agamy, handed me a pair of gloves and a helmet before explaining the basics of steering a boat: as with driving, always keep your eyes straight ahead, but unlike in a car, “turn the tiller left if you want to go right, and you turn it right if you want to go left.” He then ran me through a couple of drills by pointing out various vessels around us and asking me to steer the boat towards them.

I had to keep reminding myself of the counterintuitive navigation, and then there was the matter of getting the feel of the vessel: it wasn’t particularly large, but it was bigger than anything I’d ever attempted to steer before. Surprisingly, though, it responded to the smallest touch; just a little push of the tiller to either side made the boat gently turn in the opposite direction.

Soon enough, a slow breeze picked up. It was a welcome respite from the sultry afternoon sun beating down on us. I expected us move with the breeze at our backs, filling our sails. But Agamy explained that a boat goes fastest when it sails perpendicular to the wind. Before I could begin to wrap my head around that, there was more to learn. As the surface began to ripple with the passing gusts of wind, he taught me how to turn the boat and how to quickly cross from one side to another as the main sail swung across with each turn. (Agamy and his assistant Sushant were handling the sails, which I could see was lot more complex than using the tiller.)

How long it would take for me to be able to sail the boat on my own, I wondered. “You can take it out yourself after 10 hours of training,” Agamy said. It took me longer to learn how to ride a cycle, I thought to myself. By the end of the class I was confident enough to be able to bring the boat in close to the Gateway all by myself — or at least, with only me working the tiller and my teachers doing the hard work with the sails!

As I disembarked, I was already planning my next visit.

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There are many clubs and associations that offer courses for those interested in learning how to sail. Each outfit emphasizes its desire to get as many sailors out on the water as possible, which is why they create a suite of courses that people can sign up for based on their preferences and conveniences.

The most famous is the Royal Bombay Yacht Club (RBYC), the oldest sailing group in the city. Unlike most other clubs, you must be a member to use its facilities. Cyrus Heerjee, vice president of the club, said that children as young as eight can learn how to sail. “The club offers a beginner two-month course on the Optimist class of boats for children between 8-15 years which costs ₹4,000 per month,” he says, while and advanced course costs ₹8,000 per month; there are courses for adults too.

Zia Hajeebhoy, one of Aquasail’s founders, says that they have a variety of boats, to ensure that “we can find the right boat for the right age and the right level of fitness,” with the goal being to provide people with access to the water and show them that sailing isn’t difficult and is completely safe. Aquasail’s introductory courses start at ₹8,500 and can go up to ₹42,000, depending on the level of sailor and the hours required.

Most clubs offer flexible timings that allow students to complete their courses at their convenience. Some choose to go sailing every morning while others choose to do so every weekend.

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If you’d rather kick up your feet and enjoy the sea breeze, then there’s plenty to choose from. Hire a boat for a few hours to catch up with friends, celebrate a birthday or even host a family get-together. Boats are available for two to three hours, and the cost depends on the size of the boat and the number of people; rates are higher on the weekends but, on average, a two-hour sunset cruise for six people works out to between ₹3,000 and ₹4,000 totally.

You can get more creative, too. Ms. Hajeebhoy said that when parents come to her to plan a child’s birthday, she recommends taking them to her Alibaug centre to spend the day trying activities like sailing, kayaking and wind-surfing. It’s a fun way to introduce the kids to the water in a safe environment and guarantees a good time.

Jimmy Nadar of the Gateway Sailing Club organises beach parties in Mandwa, where guests can dance the night away on the sands before retiring to one of the waterfront properties that Nadar has tie-ups with. “Guests reach Mandwa by 5 p.m. and the music starts by about 7 p.m. Then they spend the night in one of the hotels, and enjoy a breakfast the next morning before returning to Mumbai.”

Those who want a more immersive — not literally — sailing experience can charter a boat to places up and down the coast, even to Goa. But as Ms. Hajeebhoy and Mr. Nadar both warn, a longer voyage requires a certain mindset. “You have to live like a sailor,” Ms. Hajeebhoy says. “You can’t have hour-long showers on the boat.”

Published in The Hindu (Mumbai Edition) – December 2017

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