Three massive snake boats line up in perfectly parallel rows. Close to 100 players are on each of the 140ft boats raring to go. They can’t wait to show their best to the huge crowds gathered after two pandemic years to watch the final race of the Champions Boat League. For the players, this is the moment they have dreamed of since they were children and the one they have trained for relentlessly.
Public commentary in Malayalam is blaring across a packed stadium. The mood is tense. Race begins on the referee’s flag-off. In an instant, hundreds of men paddle down the scenic Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam and the water gives away a small huff. Screeching gets louder and the drumming intense as the wooden snake boats spring forward past the die-hard fans of the sport.
It is the boat clubs Tropical Titans, Raging Rowers and Mighty Oars that are racing to the finish line in the final race of the league. Tropical Titans — the Pallathuruthy boat club from Alappuzha — in many eyes is the tournament favourite. In this water regatta of 12 races that nine clubs took part in, Titans stand atop the points tally. But one must always expect the unexpected.
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The sight of Mighty Oars — the Nadubhagam snake boat — overtaking Titans in the last lap leaves the audience jolted by sudden burst of energy. Oars win the race, bathing in applause and gasping for breath. Throwing their hands in the air with tears rolling down their cheek, it is an emotional victory for them. The moment is commemorated with confetti and crackers and snapshots from eager photographers.
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Interestingly, it was on Nadubhagam boat that the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hopped on during his visit to Alappuzha in 1952 to watch the exhibition race. Enamoured by this sporting spectacle, on his return to New Delhi, Nehru donated a silver trophy, a replica of a snake boat, giving the sport a much-needed mileage. Today, the famed Nehru Trophy race in Alappuzha marks the inauguration of the league, drawing huge crowds.
A mind sport
People may have been surprised by the unexpected win, but the Oars always knew the finals trophy (known as President’s Trophy in Kollam) belonged to them. There were no shades of nervousness on the players’ faces before the race as camaraderie and calmness filled the air in their practice camp.
Each rower is playing two games when it comes to boat racing – the outerwater game that the fans can see, and the mental game that goes on in the players’ minds. The nature of the boat race, to cover a distance of 1-1.5 kms in less than five minutes, requires both significant abilities in aerobic (of endurance) and anaerobic (of stamina), and more importantly, mental tenacity.
Placement of the players is central to many strategies in snake boat racing. A different movement sweeps from the front to the back of the snake boat; not all players paddle on the same side or even for the same purpose. The coxswain sets the pace of the boat that everyone follows.
The seven rowers in the front, sitting at the elevated hood of the boat, twist their body from left to right and row on both sides. And so these players train to paddle using both hands. They try to find a rhythm wherein one stroke flows into the next.
In the middle of the boat, where more than 50 per cent of the players are seated, each are assigned a side, left or right, and they paddle repeatedly on that side. Nicknamed as “engine of the boat,” their collective effort gives the power to thrust the boat forward.
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The five-six oarsmen, including the team leader, standing at the flat, pointed end of the boat, using long paddles to slice the water unlike others, maintain the pace and oversee coordination. They have also got a knack for finishing the race, a huge responsibility, which can only be fine-tuned with experience. Typically, players situated at both ends of the boat are accountable for many key decisions taken mid game.
Majority of the players are from small villages spread across backwaters who have traditionally been associated with boat racing for generations.
A few are in their 30s; most of the others range from 20 to 25 years of age. Fuelled by passion and not financial returns, there is a trade off in dedicating your life to this sport. “ Vallam kali is in our blood. It is a lifestyle. A tradition. We have a strong relationship with water. Can’t imagine life without this sport. For instance, our trustee Jiffy mortgaged his house, raised loans, and risked everything to take care of us. Imagine how dedicated one needs to be that his own family suffers but Vallam should prosper. It takes a certain degree of sacrifice,” says a Jikki, a player based in Alappuzha.
The sport is also expanding to include a growing percentage of players from places such as Manipur and Kashmir who have expertise in canoeing and kayaking. Now at 25 per cent, there could be more going forward. “The coach identified me during a national-level canoeing race in Assam and asked me to trial for snake boat racing. I trialled for it, made the cut, and joined the team. It’s been four years since I moved to Kerala, I love the people and passion,” says one of the 12 Kashmiri players on the Oars team. Asked if he’s nervous, he says, “Fear only God, nothing else. Inshallah, jeetke rahenge! (if god willing, we shall surely win),” he says. And they did.
The sport demands rigorous and consistent training to avoid exhaustion and injury. If one doesn’t master the correct paddling technique, which often takes years of dedicated efforts, rowing can be hard on the body, especially muscles and joints. Gym training is crucial as it is a sport that engages the upper body – chest, back, and core. Many a times, before jumping into the boat and hitting the water, players practice the movement and correct their posture and techniques with assistance from coaches and experienced rowers.
Days follow a pattern in a sportsperson’s life, says coach John Varghese. “Running, time at the gym, one hour of rowing on water, another hour off boat to fine-tune techniques, and so on. The training also needs to be altered depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and their needs.”
Months of living alongside each other and training together have rendered a sort of sixth sense among the players, says Harris, a player on the team. To anticipate your team-mate’s next move, to step in and help when a player is lagging, to paddle with synchrony, can all be attributed to the deep understanding shared by the players. “No other sport has such a large number of people coming together. Say football or cricket, it is less than 11 people. Here, a group of 82 players who can act as one come together with a single-minded dedication to win. Where can you see such a thing?”
Once favoured by kings for warfare, then a community sporting event across villages, and now, with the intervention by Kerala Tourism, an extravaganza attracting domestic and foreign tourists alike. Kerala’s boat racing has truly endured and evolved with time without losing its lustre and rooted charm.