Five years ago, when Jean Claude Maillard decided to chuck his job as a Volvo dealer in France and spend the rest of his days sailing with his wife, he was worried about finances. But two days into their first sailing trip, he found himself confronting an unexpected problem: having his wife around 24 hours a day! “More journeys are wrecked because you can’t tolerate your partner than by bad weather,” Maillard says with a hint of mischief as he steps on to the Indian shore at the Gateway of India, Mumbai.
Maillard, 54, and his wife Marlène are in India as part of the Vasco da Gama Rally, which set off from Turkey on 10 October and ends in Kochi on Monday. Of the 30 participants sailing in 15 yachts, a few chose to skip the pit stop at Mumbai and head on to Goa and Kochi.
Setting sail: Rally organizer Lodewijk Brust (waving) on his yacht with his dogs Banjo and Yugo. Hemant Padalkar/Hindustan Times
In its third year, the Vasco da Gama Rally is organized by 71-year-old Lodewijk Brust, a sailor from Holland, and follows the route of the Portuguese explorer to reach India. Well, almost. “Da Gama had stopped at Calicut (now Kozhikode) in Kerala. We couldn’t find the place on the map because its name has changed. So we decided to go to Kochi instead,” says Brust, fondly called Lo by others. Brust has been sailing for 45 years now; 25 years with the navy and 20 alone.
Sailors from seven European countries—mostly retired naval officers who know no other way to live—are participating in the rally. Among them are Lo and Ian Broughton (62) from Great Britain. Broughton even flew aircraft for a few years after retirement but decided he liked the sea more. His blue eyes light up as he sips his beer at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and describes the beauty of both pitch-black and starry nights.
There are also a few people in the rally who were not in the navy and have had to extend themselves to cope with life at sea. Astrid Simms, a German married to Roger Simms, an Englishman, laughs heartily when she describes her family’s fights. “There’s nowhere to walk out to when you have an argument on a boat, so you just choose a corner and sulk there. Or if you’re really angry, you jump off,” says the 48-year-old.
The Simms have been sailing with two of their five children—17-year-old Jordon and 10-year-old Leah—for five years now. They used to run a day care centre in London till they decided, one fine day, to buy a boat and go sailing. They pulled the two children out of school and set off. But Jordon and Leah, the only youngsters on the trip, are not always happy with their unusual lifestyle.
In the early days, Jordon, then 12, missed friends, missed being able to run out on the street, missed being able to see the latest films. Even now, he’d give anything to trade places with his older siblings, who are in London. Leah, on the other hand, is more open to life at sea, of waking up in a different country every so often.
“We didn’t see the point of living to make money to pay bills,” says Astrid. “We wanted to see places, learn about cultures around the world, we wanted every day to be a Sunday.” While their children’s obvious unhappiness often makes them wonder if they did the right thing, Astrid says there’s also that flicker of rationality that tells her the rest of the world isn’t necessarily right. “My children in London are leading miserable lives with work, bills and drugs. These two, on the other hand, wake up to dolphin calls.”
Jordon admits that he loves seeing shooting stars at night; he has seen up to 20 a night. Besides, sailing is just 10% of the journey: The real journey begins at the marina of a new country as they savour the sights, sounds and smells of a place which was just a dot on the map back home.
So is the actual “being at sea” experience boring? “Never. There are so many things going wrong that there is never a dull moment,” quips Roger.