Viewing Mumbai from a sail boat gives a new perspective on the city
It was with some anticipation that I booked the historical Mumbai Harbour sail boat tour offered by the Mumbai-based Raconteur Walks. Apart from the seriously cool quotient of going sailing in the Mumbai Harbour and the prospect of a pleasant evening out doing something different and adventurous, I felt that it was also a chance of connecting with the city’s past and perhaps understanding its present.
It was Mumbai’s natural harbour and deep water port that brought in the first Portuguese ships in the 1530s. As more cargo-laden ships came in with the subsequent British takeover, shipping, warehousing, finance and insurance industries sprung up to cater to their needs, making the city prosper. These businesses continue to shape businesses and life in the city even today. Without its harbour, Mumbai may still have been a cluster of seven swampy islands.
One April evening we took a basic motor-propelled taxi boat from the private docks opposite the entry to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Colaba for the mid-sea transfer to our Seabird class sailboat. Invented specially for sailing in the Mumbai Harbour in the 1920s, these small boats have an open deck, have no motors and are powered solely by sea winds while being steered with a rudder. I know it is difficult to grasp the significance of these words while reading but, believe me, they dawn on you with absolute clarity as you set sail towards the vast open seas. It’s thrilling but if you do not know how to sail, you would do well to make sure that you have a good boat captain. Ours, Viraf Heerjee, had represented India at the Asian sailing competitions and was a national sailing champion.
We set sail at a brisk pace once the captain unfurled the sails and checked the equipment. Making way through the busy harbour, our guide and founder- CEO of Raconteur, Viraat Kasliwal pointed out the many naval ships, huge cargo boats and the leisure boats of the rich and famous docked at the port with the Gateway of India towering over them. We could also see Prong’s, the Indian Navy run lighthouse built in 1875. It is among the three lighthouses in the Mumbai Harbour area.
A little distance from the harbour, Kasliwal pointed us to the conical pointed spires of the Afghan church built by the British in 1842 in what is now Colaba. The church was built to commemorate the dead of the First Afghan War and the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul. Till as recently as the mid-20th century, a ship coming in from the sea would see the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the spires of the Afghan church as the only prominent landmarks.
As we ventured out further into the sea, we could see the islands of Elephanta, Karanjia and Mandwa, the last made famous in the new and old versions of the movie Agneepath. This is the village where the film’s protagonist, Vijay Chauhan sought revenge from villain Kancha for wrongly framing and murdering his father. Seeing the island from the boat, it becomes easier to understand just how Mumbai’s seas and geography inspired the film’s story line.
It is interesting to pass lesser-known Mumbai landmarks like the unused Dolphin Rock lighthouse, built in 1856 to steer ships safely to the harbour. Then there is the Indian Navy managed old heritage site of the Gun Battery on Middle Ground isle, about 300 metres from the Gateway of India. It was built by the British in 1682 to curb piracy. A little further on, we sailed past the heavily fortified Oyster Rock island, owned by the Indian Navy. The fortification is also visible from the Sassoon Docks, among the oldest docks here. Kasliwal said that it was a treat to see the navy exercising in the harbour or conducting short races and competitions for its sailors at times.
With the sea gently rocking our boat, we just drifted for a while and sat listening to the strains of soothing music playing in the boat, enjoying the breeze on our faces and views of the Mumbai coastline. No one spoke for a while. It was indeed a rare moment in Mumbai when one couldn’t hear the myriad noises of the city that never sleeps. We tried to savour it while it lasted.
I fancifully asked Captain Heerjee if we could sail in the boat to Goa or other far-off shores. He took my question seriously and said that he knew someone who heroically sailed to Malaysia in a similar sailboat! That sailor apparently ran into a storm which filled his boat with water. So, for the next few days, he ate, slept and sailed with water. We had no such heroic streak. After being soaked wet in sea sprays during the two-hour tour, as the sun began to set, we turned from the still in use but unattended Sunk Rock lighthouse, about three kilometres from the Gateway of India.
As we approached the Harbour, the diminishing light from the sun made it possible to imagine other evenings from an era gone by. Sailor’s hearts must have gladdened as they spotted the light from the Mumbai Harbour lighthouses, signalling they were close to home.
Kasliwal saved the best story for last. In April 1944, there was a massive explosion at the Bombay docks when the freighter SS Fort Stikine, carrying over 1,400 tonnes of explosives, exploded, killing over 1,000 people.
The ship was also carrying a secret cargo of 31 crates each containing four gold bars weighing 12.70 kg each. As the ships exploded, the gold rained all over the harbour and the city of Bombay. That gold is being discovered even today. As recently as 2011, Gammon India employees building a dredge found gold bars from Stikine near Victoria docks. Who knows what more taking a sailboat tour might yield.
Weigh Anchor: The Mumbai Sailing Tour starts from the private dock entry opposite the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, at Apollo Bunder, Mumbai. The tour lasts 1.5 hours, starting at 7.30am, 8.35am, 3.30pm and 4.45pm. It costs Rs 2,500 per person, including taxes.
Identity proof and address proof along with a scanned copy of the same on mail.
Address: 61-A Embassy Apts, 46 Nepean Sea Road, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400026.
Contact:+91-9820025496, +91-9769187580; mumbaiwalkingtours.com
What To Wear
Sunscreen! Also, expect to get wet. Bring a change of clothes in a waterproof bag if you plan on changing afterwards. Or else, wear shorts or trousers in material that dries easily. Get a cap if you are worried about salt water in your hair.
It’s a young dynamic start-up that started about 2.5 years ago with the idea of offering tourists and Mumbai buffs opportunities to experience Mumbai in richer and more unique ways, going beyond guidebooks. It has done over 2,200 tours with more than 15,000 guests from across the world including some legendary names like world famous director-producer Steven Spielberg and eighttime academy award-winning music composer Alan Menken. It offers 12 walking tours, city tours by car, open air bus tours, cycling tours, sailing and flying tours.