New Delhi: Ayesha Lobo, 16, heads for the sea every Saturday and Sunday afternoon—not to swim, but to sail. The teenager’s passion has inspired her father and younger sister to take up the sport as well.
“After my board exams, I’ll start practising for the Olympic trials,” Lobo says.
She is among a small but growing number of competitive and recreational sailors across India, from coastal Mumbai to landlocked cities such as Hyderabad and Bhopal.
As the Mumbai International Boat Show begins on Thursday, sailing clubs and fans are hoping the event will raise awareness of their favourite pastime—and possibly raise corporate sponsorships. An official with the Yachting Association of India estimates that the country has just some 200 enthusiasts.
After decades of being alone on the water, sailing gold medalist Shakeel Kudrolli hopes the tide will turn. The founder of a marine equipment company and a youth sailing foundation, Kudrolli has devised a five-year plan that tries to mimic golf’s growing appeal with wealthy Indians; his roadmap relies on increasing interest in sailing among children and convincing companies to sponsor competitions and other sailing-related activities.
“We have to capitalize on the economic boom,” says Kudrolli, a lawyer-turned-sailor who won India’s first gold medal for sailing at a 1981 championship in China. “You have to commercialize the sport, make it self-sustaining.”
Kudrolli’s Aquasail Youth Sailing Foundation provides certified coaches to clubs in Hyderabad, Bhopal and Mumbai to train children. It has also imported a Rs2.5 lakh Laser Pico vessel, a boat designed for children. Certified by the UK-based Royal Yachting Association, it will be demonstrated at the boat show in Mumbai.
Across the country, similar efforts exist. In Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, started five years ago, has begun visiting schools and parents with presentations.
Sailing instills discipline even while allowing children total freedom, says Ashok Thakkar, commodore at the association. “Out there in the open seas, if you are not cautious, you capsize,” he says.
It is a message not lost on the corporate sector, which has begun to turn to the sailing schools and clubs for employee programmes.
In Chennai, Cognizant Technologies and ABN Amro Bank have signed up for lessons. By Thakkar’s estimate, more than 2,000 employees, the bulk of them from Cognizant, have been trained.
Goa Yachting Association vice-president Hakim Sabir identifies two key hurdles sailing must overcome to spread in India: Indians are not inclined toward water sports and sailing is expensive.
At Mumbai’s Colaba Sailing Club, which produced Ayesha Lobo, fees will be raised this year to Rs 4,500 for 10 sessions, each lasting three to four hours.
In Tamil Nadu, state officials plan to recognize and support sailing as a sport by offering grants. “Hopefully, state support will lead to corporate backing,” Thakkar says.
At the Secunderabad Sailing Club, perched on the banks of Hyderabad’s Hussain Sagar lake, patrons, too, are hoping for state support to hold more competitions and increase access. The club includes 32 children, including two handicapped children, and commodore Suhiem Shaikh wants to start a sailing school soon. He says sailing, though, is still not a spectator sport and the clubs are largely exclusive because of high membership fees.
The Yachting Association of India, the national sailing organization, has set up a school in Bhopal, and plans two more in Chandigarh, near Sukhna Lake, and in Uttaranchal, at the Tehri dam. It is seeking a sponsor to help it establish a school in Mumbai.
The association’s Sailing Development Committee chairman Cyrus Heerjee is now looking at the Mumbai boat show for much-needed visibility. “Hopefully, after the event, awareness will grow even further, ” Heerjee says.
Ideally, says Yachting Association joint secretary general Ajay Narang, India should have one sailor for every kilometre of its shoreline. With a coastline stretching over 7,104 km, that’s a tall target.
But Kudrolli, pointing to the popularity and ubiquity of sailing overseas, says he is hopeful it will spread to the masses. “Sailing is not an elite sport,” he says. “Business houses have got to realise that and exploit it.” For now, his hopes are pinned on youth such as Ayesha Lobo, who asks friends overseas to bring her the costumes required for sailing because she cannot find them in India.
“My friends in Singapore sail every day for four hours,” says Lobo, who has competed internationally three times. “I get to sail twice a week.”