The Royal Madras Yacht Club (RMYC) is tucked away inside the Chennai Harbour. Its quaint blue and white structure holds more than a century’s worth of history within its peripheries.
Established in 1911 to promote sailing in India, this structure is now the base for a four-member Indian team which is set to represent the country at the World Championships in Newport, Rhode Island in October.
The RMYC is the only sailing club in India with a fleet of the J80 class of boats. The J80 Sailing Federation of India is also based in RMYC and this particular world championships will feature this type of boat exclusively.
The Indian sailing contingent balances their passion for sailing along with full-time jobs. Abhimanyu Panwar, the skipper, runs Sportifying India, a company offering sporting experiences in India; Sweta Shervegar, 2018 Asian Games medallist and homeopathic doctor; Captain Vivek Shanbagh, an airline pilot; and Arvind Subramanian, a product manager.
Panwar explains how the work is distributed in the contingent.
“I steer the boat. I have Shweta in front of me. Her job is to be the trimmer, or tactician. Moving forward, we have Captain Shanbhag, who’s going to be the dedicated crew (to) help with setting up the sails, and lastly we have Arvind, who’s the bowman,” said Panwar, the team skipper.
To put it simply, Panwar and Sweta are the brains of the team. Their task is to identify the water current and harness it to the boat’s advantage while Subramanian and Shanbagh are the team’s brawn. Their job is to draw, tie and release the ropes that control the sails.
The efficiency and speed of the crew decide the team’s fate - keep the ropes in shape - make optimal use of sails - win the race. This is particularly challenging given this unit has not been able to train together for very long.
The Indian contingent has a number of obstacles to negotiate with in the run-up to their Worlds campaign this year. A big one is conditions and acclimatisation.
“The conditions in Newport will be colder with heavy winds. The temperature, too, will be a challenge. But, because of the economics of this sport, (there are) only two places we could have trained,” said Panwar. India has a long coastline (7,516.6 km), distributed among nine states and four Union territories, but the popularity of sailing as a sport is far from what it enjoys in the west.
The tournaments are few and far between in the sailing calendar. Teams often fly to conditions similar to the competition venue. This gives them the ideal preparation for the event. But the Indian team was handicapped here as well.
Travelling to tournaments and maintaining their equipment is another woe. A single J80 boat costs Rs 30 lakh, and nearly 20 percent of that amount goes towards maintenance alone. Added to that is the charter cost for boats, insurance and expenses at the event.
An Indian J80 team competed in its first World Championship in 2019. Panwar was the crew with that team.
“We didn’t know how to set and tune the boat, much of which happens off the water. We didn’t have enough racing experience with top people. So, once you start competing with the best, you learn a lot of things from them,” Panwar recalled.
The learnings from the World Championship proved handy as the same year the team finished fourth at the Asian Championships in Japan. Subramanian and Panwar also competed in and won the first night championship in Mysore.
The duo hopes they can emulate such results in Newport, but want to remain grounded at the same time.
“Aim is to perform at the highest-level, and seeing the fleet size that we have, and the experience that we hold, I think top ten would be really good for us. I like to be a little more practical,” said Panwar.
Subramanian, making his debut with the team, is hoping for better. “I’m trying to be the optimist here because clearly, it’s 40 degrees out there, and here we are, practising, with the blisters on our skin, handling a day job.”
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