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Dilip Donde on Greypower, a boat he sailed with his mentor, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, in a transatlantic race in 2015.
Dilip Donde on Greypower, a boat he sailed with his mentor, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, in a transatlantic race in 2015.

Sausages, stews and other sailing secrets

The first Indian to circumnavigate the Earth solo under sail relates his mid-ocean adventures with raging seas, curious whales and a rebellious cook

When Admiral Arun Prakash goes for his morning swim in the Arabian Sea off Goa—where he lives—he is troubled by what he does not see. “I don’t see a single Indian!" exclaimed the admiral, former chief of naval staff, during the Goa literature festival two months ago. “There are tourists, but no Indians."

That sums up the uneasy relationship Indians have with the sea, despite the fact that it laps at 5,700km of our coastline. We don’t swim, surf or sail, which is why the 2009 voyage of Commander Dilip Donde, the man Prakash cleared to be the first Indian to circumnavigate the Earth solo under sail—becoming only the 175th person ever—was particularly remarkable. When I first listened—riveted—to Commander Dilip Donde, 48, narrate bits of his epic voyage, he made particular mention of how, despite the naval chief’s go ahead, he first spent a couple of years navigating a naval and civilian bureaucracy completely at sea, so to say, with the demands of circumnavigating the planet. He talked of officials who asked him: “Why do you want to do this in the first place?"; and “if your boat has an engine, why don’t you use it?"; and of the absurd conditions they tried to force on him, such as requiring his 27m mast to be foldable so it could pass under bridges. It was, he was to write later, easier to navigate the menacing Southern Ocean than it was South Block.

Eventually, after setting many early precedents—convincing the bureaucracy, working with a Goan boat-builder to construct the Mhadei, the first such boat ever built in India, becoming a rare Indian who sails open oceans instead of safe harbours—Donde set about his formidable task. He survived violent squalls in the Indian Ocean (“the wind suddenly goes from 5 knots to 35, there is no time to shorten your sail and your boat feels like it could keel over"); towering swells (“a three-storey wall of water coming at you every few minutes for 10 hours") and epic storms in the Pacific; torn sails, broken steering, and desperation. “There was terror, there were moments I was convinced I would not see the next day," said Donde. “Anyone who says he isn’t scared is either lying or stark, raving mad." Of course, there were times of indescribable joy—still, starlit nights under immense skies, the rare privileges of visits from curious whales, dolphins and seals, swimming buck naked in the sea (although that moment was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a naval ship)—and strange experiences: imaginary visits from distant comrades and other hallucinations.

Before the voyage, Donde told his mother he might not come back. “She said, ‘That’s okay, if you have to go, go doing something worthwhile.’" She researched calorie requirements and preservative processes to figure out the right food, after experimenting over almost two years. So, it came to be that in the South Atlantic, Donde ate his mother’s lime pickle and sabudana khichdi.

And this is why Donde features in this column. I was curious about the food he ate on his lonely trip, some of it supplied by his mother, some freeze-dried, many snacks and the rest cooked by the mariner, who—as it emerges—is an excellent cook. Indeed, in The First Indian, Donde’s book about his great voyage, he writes often about his reluctant, rebellious cook and often recalcitrant crew. He is, of course, talking about himself, a droll approach to the tedium and challenges of a long, lonely ocean crossing.

Donde maintained a blog while he sailed, updating it via a satellite link. Indeed, he was sailing when he wrote to me, beginning the email with this: “Samar, my apologies for not replying earlier. Was getting ready to sail. Now crossing Mangalore 40 nm (nautical miles) to our East." Donde is now training three young female naval officers, chosen to be the first Indian women to circumnavigate the Earth under sail. His globe-circling days appear to be over—at least on behalf of the navy. I don’t know if he will take another shot, or if he can, considering his expedition cost the taxpayer about a million dollars. But sail he will. I can only say to Donde what he wrote in my copy of his book, “Fair winds and following seas."

The doodhi, meat stew. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
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The doodhi, meat stew. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

Commander Donde’s ‘doodhi’, meat stew

Serves 3

Ingredients

2-inch piece ginger

1 tsp pepper

2-inch stick cinnamon

5 pieces clove

7-8 peppercorns

0.5kg doodhi (bottle gourd)

3 large tomatoes

1 large onion (optional, I didn’t add it)

1 large potato

1 large carrot

1 small red capsicum

1 small yellow capsicum

1 tbsp vinegar

500g mutton (or pork or chicken)

(You can add any vegetables you like except beans, brinjal, pumpkin, cabbage or ladies’ fingers)

Method

Cut the vegetables into 2-inch chunks. Make bite-sized pieces of the meat. Put all the vegetables (except capsicum), meat and whole spices in a pressure cooker with enough water and pressure-cook on medium heat for four whistles. Reduce heat and wait for another whistle, then switch off and wait for the pressure to dissipate. Remove the meat pieces and blend the other ingredients in a food processor. Heat the gravy, add the meat pieces. Let it cook for 10 minutes, add salt and vinegar (if it’s too sour, add a teaspoon of sugar). Add chopped capsicum as garnish before serving. Add croutons, chilli flakes or freshly ground pepper if you wish. Serve hot. Eat the stew by itself or with fresh bread of any kind.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

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