Monday, April 27, 2015

Sailing In the Backwaters

Joe Nejedly makes boats and, through the Ernakulam Sailing Club, is trying to inculcate a culture of sailing in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Joe Nejedly by Mithun Vinod; Joe Nejedly and his wife Karen with the Samudra Cup; a GO catamaran

For the Samudra Cup boat race, Joe Nejedly decided to take part with his wife, Karen. It was the first time he was doing so. The boat was a catamaran. There were six other competitors. The event took place on a sunny March afternoon in Panangad, 12 kms from Kochi. A swift breeze was blowing. They set out. While Joe as the helmsman, handled the outrigger, Karen kept an eye on the sail.

A catamaran is a difficult boat. Since it has two hulls, it does not turn easily. “You have to adjust the sail at the right time to make it turn,” says Joe. “If you don't do it correctly, you can get stuck. But Karen did everything right.”

In the end, the couple won the cup. On the shore the people clapped. They included several members of the Ernakalum Sailing Club (ESC), of which Joe is the President.

At the courtyard of the backwaters-facing club, one can see different types of boats with their multi-coloured sails. These include the Topper, Enterprise, the Laser, and the Optimist which costs Rs 70,000. Through his company, Praga Marine, Joe makes cheaper versions of the Optimist for Rs 30,000 for the children to learn sailing. Joe also makes catamarans called the GO-Cats. “GO stands for my sons Gregory and Oliver,” he says. “They are very easy to sail. Catamarans do not capsize easily.”

Joe also imported second-hand Toppers, the most popular class in the world, from Britain at Rs 1 lakh each. “It is ideal for India where we cannot afford to use expensive boats,” says Joe. Unfortunately, he had to pay a steep duty of 80 per cent. “These are sailing boats for kids,” says Joe, with a pained smile. “I am trying to develop a culture of sailing. But the taxes made it a huge investment for me. This became a discouragement for me.”

Nevertheless, things are happening at the sailing club. About 60 children have been trained so far in the past few years. Two of them, Prince Noble and Manu Francis, represented Kerala at the recent National Games held in the state.

They did pretty well,” says Joe. “They are the sons of the local fishermen and come from poor backgrounds. But they have shown a keenness to learn. Middle-class children have many options, like cricket, badminton and tennis.”

Also, education is the primary focus for children in India. “For sailing you have to spend between four to five hours at the weekend,” he says. “Parents are unwilling to spare so much time for sailing. But it is such a beautiful sport.”

Asked to describe its charms, Joe says, “You are essentially harnessing the power of the wind, to make you move forward. And that is so exciting. You are one with nature. And there is nobody around to disturb you. I always encourage people to leave their mobile phones behind on the shore.”

Sometimes, the weather can get very rough. Joe attended the world championships in Wales in 2014. The competitors were sailing in 30 knots of wind, two miles out at sea, with huge breakers. “It was incredible to watch the skills of the sailors,” says Joe. “Frequently, the boats capsised, but they would right it and get on once again.”

There has been action in Kochi, too. The Ernakulam Sailing Club has hosted three national championships. During the last championships, held in December, 2012, there were 62 participants from all over India. Future plans include a Topper Grand Prix in May, as well as an invitation regatta where all the boating clubs in Kerala will be invited.

Joe, incidentally, is of Czech origin. His father, Josef, came to India before the second world war, settled in Coimbatore, and became a successful businessman. Josef got married to a British woman called Audrey whom he met at Lahore.

Joe was born at Coimbatore, but did his schooling and college in the UK, where he developed an interest in boats. “I love India,” he says. “I cannot imagine staying in any other place. And thanks to the backwaters, there is immense opportunities for sailing here.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)    

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