Three boats, three men, and the Indian history of one of the world’s last great adventures.

Solo by Nikhil Eapen; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

Cape Horn is a jagged spit clothed in grass, at the confluence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is the very tip of South America, on Chile’s Hornos Island, populated only by a caretaker, his wife and their three children. Apart from a lighthouse, a chapel and a single tree, the island has a memorial for sailors: it consists of a sculpture of an albatross and a Spanish verse by the poet Sara Vial. I am the forgotten soul of the dead mariners who passed Cape Horn, goes one of the lines.

The Horn sits deep in the Southern Ocean, 55 degrees south of the Equator, in what sailors call the no-god-zone. [1] For ocean circumnavigators, the Horn is an Everest, a rite of passage—one of the most dangerous places to be at sea. Sailors who round the Horn win the right to wear a gold hoop on the ear that faced the Cape at the time of the crossing. They also earn the privilege of dining with one foot on the table. [2]

Ocean circumnavigation in a wind-powered yacht is extremely dangerous. When sailors disappear beyond the horizon, they encounter unimaginably treacherous winds, tides, and storms. Going solo raises these stakes. It is one thing to face the forces of nature and quite another to face them alone. Some sailors return to fame and glory; some don’t return at all.

Yet, each journey inspires audacity in someone else, somewhere else, to build a boat and set out on their own quest. This is the story of three boats that were built on the western coast of India—that is, three boats, three men, and one race that straddles time, technology, and the whole span of this planet.


n 1969, having rounded the Horn on a boat named Suhaili, crafted in the Bombay docks, the British pioneer Robin Knox-Johnston cut a fat slice of his aunt’s fruit cake and wrote, in his logbook: YIPPIE!!!!

During Johnston’s historic journey, the boat’s radio stopped working, its sails tore, the steering broke, the hull leaked, the mast ruptured at the joint. Suhaili had been battered by storms—waves as tall as 100 feet crashed on deck, winds upwards of 55 knots pummelled the sails.

Today’s boats are fixed with GPS devices that can beam live locations to a receiver every 30 seconds. Sailors can talk on the phone and send email. They receive weather reports, navigation advice and pictures of their children. They can Skype their doctor in case of illness or injury. They will likely get rescued if they happen to run into trouble.

But only about half a century ago, locations were still being calculated with a sextant, the sun, and the stars. Sailors could only transmit messages via single-sideband radios, so nobody knew of their positions unless they were reported in. They couldn’t call a doctor.

Still, there are some things that haven’t changed since Johnston’s trip. The customary rules of circumnavigation are the same as they’ve been for years. Start and finish at the same port. Traverse all longitudes in the same direction and rely only on the forces of the wind and sea for propulsion. Round the three great capes of the southern hemisphere—the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn. Travel a distance at least equal to the length of the equator, and cross it at a minimum of two points.

Even now, rounding the Horn represents the pinnacle of achievement. In 2010, Dilip Donde, an Indian Navy commander, celebrated by opening a can of rasgullas and offering it to the god of the sea. Then he kissed Mhadei [3] his 56-foot sailboat, muttered “We made it babe, congratulations!”, dripped sugar syrup on her deck, and sobbed like a child.

Donde’s steering stopped working during a brutal storm in the Southern Ocean. When that happened, Mhadei swerved directly into the swell. When she climbed a wave at a dire angle, Donde feared that she’d be thrown on her back. If he had let go of the defunct steering, he’d have fallen into the icy water, 1400 kilometres from land. 

He just about managed to run back to the cabin to collect his tools to fix the steering. Imagine the sight—the bearded navigator frantically trying to collect his scattering tools as the frothy, churning ocean throws his boat this way and that. He lived to tell the tale.



or sailors, thinking about boats begins with thinking about a log of wood. “I saw her start as a log in Bombay in 1963,” Johnston told a journalist about Suhaili, “and slowly grow into the boat she is.” In the early 1960s, he lived in a flat on Naoroji Gamadia Road in Bombay’s Breach Candy with his wife Sue. Their daughter, Sara, was born in the city. For four years, as a merchant navy officer, he shuttled people, cargo, and mail on the British India Steam Navigation Company’s Bombay-Basra liner.

Suhaili was built at Colaba Workshops on the southeastern tip of the city. It was owned by Philip Bragg, a Briton who had stayed on after Indian independence. The workshop employed a handful of carpenters who worked on multiple projects: they built yachts, boat frames, bulkheads, and undertook repairs.

Johnston gave Bragg the design of a Norwegian sailing lifeboat, and 15 months to build it. Suhaili’s first log was a 25-foot teak log from Melghat. This was the piece of wood that made her keel, the wedge-shaped longitudinal section running through a boat’s centre, around which the wooden hull is built. (Johnston paid the customs officers ₹20 to let the log into the dock after hours.) [4]

Teak: a wood whose fibrous barks peel into long strips that lift at the ends. Its sandpaper-like leaves are chewed every winter by moth larvae, leaving behind a delicate leaf skeleton. In the monsoons, the tree blooms with white flowers. Once properly seasoned, its wood doesn’t crack, shrink, or bend easily.

The world didn’t simply sail to India for its great markets: it also came here to have boats made.

For centuries, the shipbuilders of the subcontinent coveted this wood for their best boats. Indian Ocean sailors had discovered centuries earlier that the monsoon winds blew predictably between certain latitudes: from the southwest in the first half of the year, from northeast in the second half. Navigators could now hoist their sails and proceed in the direction of the prevailing wind and return home six months later, assisted by the contrary wind. By the tenth century AD, most of the transcontinental cargo in the region went by sea rather than land.

The world didn’t simply sail to India for its great markets: it also came here to have boats made. The Arab boum—a medium-sized sailing vessel—that sailed the western Indian Ocean along the coasts of the Gulf, Sindh and East Africa was likely designed and constructed in teak in the shipyards of Malabar, Konkan and Gujarat. From the sixteenth century, the Portuguese built large teak ships in the naval yard in Goa, which they regularly sailed on the Atlantic voyage home.

About 200 years later, swathes of India’s teak forests along the west coast were razed to power the rise of Bombay’s thriving shipbuilding industry. It was led by a family of Parsi shipwrights, the Wadias. Over 150 years, the nine Wadia men built 291 ships of wood and sail: 170 warships for the East India Company, 34 for the Royal Navy, and 87 merchant vessels.

In November 1963, Suhaili began its life half a mile from the Wadias’ historic boatyard. By the 1960s, the boats made in Bombay—trawlers, lifeboats, dinghies, fishing boats—were typically powered by diesel engines or oar. Few people knew much about wind-powered boats. Centuries after the heyday of the Age of Sail, the quality of workmanship varied, too. The team of Suhaili’s carpenters included an old hand who valued precision, and a young man who was quick and rushed.

“The carpenters at Colaba Workshops were fantastic but they lacked a mathematical reference line,” said Sheri Bamboat, a former employee and owner of XS Marines, a boatbuilding firm. [5] “People just gave the drawings to the carpenters and said, Yeh follow karo.’ Whether they understood the intricacies of the drawings was another thing.” Progress was slow because the carpenters worked on multiple projects. (Foreman Abdul, an erstwhile wrestler, was always apologising for the men assigned to Johnston’s boat being sent off to work somewhere else.)

After many tribulations, on 19 December 1964, Munira Yusuf, the wife of the Kuwait Consul broke a coconut on the bow of Johnston’s 32-foot sailboat. Her name was painted in Urdu and English. [6] A motley crew of carpenters prayed. After the ceremonies, the boat slipped into the murky waters of Bombay. Later that evening, Johnston steered Suhaili away from the harbour and watched the sunset with a few friends.

A year later, Johnston, accompanied by his younger brother and a colleague, finally kicked off the journey for which Suhaili was built: a voyage to England. Johnston was now the full owner of the boat, after two others who had invested in her construction sold him their shares.

When he reached his home country, he found it in the grip of an ocean sailing frenzy. [7] In March 1968, The Sunday Times newspaper announced The Golden Globe Race, offering a trophy and a cash prize of £5000 to the first person to sail single-handed around the world, non-stop.

The previous year, Francis Chichester, a London bookseller and sailor, had circumnavigated the world with a single stop in Sydney. Johnston watched on TV as Chichester landed in Plymouth after 226 days at sea. He wanted to go one better: sail around the world without a pit stop. There were others who had the same idea.

But Johnston needed to build a sailboat capable of the venture. He wrote to 52 companies for funds, but to no avail. As the rejections piled up, a voice in his head said: Go in Suhaili. It was too small and too slow for a voyage as treacherous as the Golden Globe, but it was all he had.


n August 2009, Dilip Donde’s inbox was full of bon voyage messages. One particularly special one was signed ‘RKJ.’


You will be very busy just now I know, so l will keep this short. 

I just want to wish you all the best for the forthcoming voyage. It has been a pleasure being involved and watching how the project has developed. It has been a greater pleasure watching your growing confidence. You have reached the point where it is time to go. So go with confidence and the supporting thoughts of all of us who have got to know you. 

Remember – You CAN do it. 

Jai Hind 


Donde hadn’t heard of Robin Knox-Johnston until three years earlier. They met for the first time near Portsmouth in 2006. Donde was there to work as Johnston’s apprentice, as part of his preparation to become India’s first solo circumnavigator. At a boatyard in Gosport, and under Johnston’s supervision, Donde would help reassemble Grey Power, a 60-foot carbon fibre sailboat, for the Velux 5 Oceans Race. Then, the two men would sail it together to Bilbao, Spain.

I learnt a lot about sailing from Robin. But more than sailing, I learnt a lot from him about life.

Dilip Donde on Robin Knox-Johnston

For three weeks, from half past eight in the morning to seven at night, usually without a break for lunch, Donde did whatever he was asked to do: sand the boom, [8] fit equipment, mark the sails, paint the hull. One day, a water maker came in the post. Johnston asked Donde to install it. I’ve never seen a water maker in my life, Donde said.

Neither have I, Johnston told him, but there should be a manual inside.

“I learnt a lot about sailing from Robin,” Donde told me. “But more than sailing, I learnt a lot from him about life. He taught me a lot about attitudes. He taught me a lot about personal relations. We were making a lot of silly mistakes, but this guy would never lose his cool.”

Earlier that year, at a sailing rally in Mumbai, the director of Sports and Adventure Activities of the Indian Navy had mentioned the force’s plans to sponsor a solo circumnavigation. Donde had not hesitated before asking whether he could be part of it in some way. The director took his curiosity as a desire to enlist. So, Donde was selected as the man for Sagar Parikrama, as the Navy called the project. His solo voyage would have four stops: Fremantle, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; Port Stanley, Falkland Islands; Cape Town, South Africa.

A few months later, Admiral Arun Prakash secured in-principle approval for the circumnavigation from then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee. A sum of ₹6 crore was earmarked to sail the loop in an India-built boat. The Navy would buy the boat designs, supervise construction, facilitate training, import the sails and equipment, coordinate logistics, and monitor the voyage.

It was an idea whose time had finally come. For decades, Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, a 1971 war hero, had been petitioning the Navy to sponsor a solo circumnavigation. As a young cadet in London in 1948, he had come across adventurer Joshua Slocum’s autobiography, Sailing Alone Around the World. Since then, he wished to see an Indian undertake and complete the journey. “He (Awati) kept badgering Naval headquarters, ‘We must do it! We must do it!’” Commander Mohan Narayan (Retd), former curator of the Navy’s Maritime History Society, told me. 

When Donde went to train with Johnston, he still didn’t have a sailboat. Every now and then, his colleagues in the Navy sent him questions about it—the design, the materials to use, the fittings. An overwhelmed Donde took these questions to his mentor. One evening after work, Johnston told him: “I built my boat with Indian craftsmen in the 1960s. If I could sail non-stop around the world in those days, why do you even think you can’t do it?”



couple of years after the Portsmouth apprenticeship, in February 2008, Donde received a call about wood. A Goan boatbuilder named Ratnakar Dandekar was on the line. The Navy had commissioned him to build Donde’s boat. He had ordered seasoned red cedar logs from a Mangalore sawmill to craft a 56-foot sailboat of Dutch design. Once the logs arrived at the yard, he had them cut into planks to craft the hull. But now there was a problem.

The designs had recommended using wood with less moisture content than what they had on hand. The Mangalore logs hadn’t been seasoned properly. Moisture escapes slowly from wood, and when it does, it starts to warp or deviate from its flat state. The deformity wouldn’t be noticeable in the beginning, but a year or two later, perhaps as Donde was halfway around the globe, the warping cedar logs might cause a leak.

For the Navy, there hadn’t been much to choose from. An assessment team surveyed four boatyards in the country. Two of these were based in Kochi: one had made sailboats before, the other hadn’t. The experienced one seemed very busy with other projects. The owner of the rookie yard looked at photos of the designs, pointed to the boom, and asked what its purpose was.

The owner of a third boatyard appeared shady—he offered a kickback to Donde if he were given the order. Then, there was Dandekar, who had never sailed, never built a sailboat and hadn’t been commissioned by the Navy previously. He ran Aquarius Shipyard on an island in Goa’s Mandovi river. When the tenders were sent out to the four yards, only two responded. Aquarius was picked because its bid was substantially lower.

This lack of choice was unsurprising. For half a century since Suhaili’s trip, sailing had been restricted to the armed forces, affluent pockets of India’s coastline, and a handful of cities with lakes. To innovate, the yacht building industry needed more people to take up the sport. “The market hasn’t grown because the sport in India hasn’t grown very much,” Aashim Mongia told me. Mongia is the managing director of West Coast Marine Yacht Services, the firm that owns Colaba Workshops now.

Across the world, new construction materials and techniques had allowed builders to experiment with new hull designs that were previously either impossible to execute or prohibitively expensive. Research into hull forms, masts, ropes and sails led to boats becoming faster, lighter and stronger. There’s a big difference between the boats of today and the past. “It’s like if you had to drive one of those Fiats from when I was a kid,” Bamboat said. “Today, you’ll say the car is not going fast enough.”

Donde and Ratnakar spent the next two weeks asking around for a fresh batch of wood. When they couldn’t find a replacement, Ratnakar built a makeshift oven. He erected a shed in his yard and insulated it with tarpaulin. Then, he set up ten heaters and a large dehumidifier. The planks were laid on the floor to dry in this hot-box: they were secured to wood vices so that the timber wouldn’t bend.

Dandekar and his team took about six months to mould the dried planks into the hull. They reinforced it with fiberglass laminate, then painted it white, a shade so clear that you could see your face in it. The hull was then dropped gently, by crane, over an iron keel—the smooth flat blade that sticks into the water—that had been filled with eight tonnes of lead. It was a precarious operation: eleven bolts in the keel had to fit snugly into the holes drilled for them in the hull.

In late 2008, on a full moon night, Mhadei was floated in the Mandovi. Eight months later, on 19 August 2009, Dilip Donde turned around to wave goodbye to his four-year-old niece, who called out “All the best!” from her perch on her father’s shoulder. Then, he motored out of Mumbai and offered a coconut to the sea. After that, he sailed south.


fter Johnston rounded the Horn in January 1969, he pointed Suhaili north towards England. Because her radio was broken, nobody knew where he was, or even if he was around at all. In early April, he sailed into a busy shipping lane and asked an officer on a British tanker to pass a message for him. Two and a half hours later, his family received a phone call about his whereabouts: he was two weeks away.

Five of his rival competitors had already retired from the Golden Globe Race due to bad weather, accidents, or illness. In the Southern Ocean, Bernard Moitessier, a 43-year-old Frenchman, appeared to be catching up with Johnston. He had cut down the lead from nine weeks to two weeks and a few days.

But then the Frenchman decided not to finish. After he rounded the Horn, instead of heading north to England and wealth and glory, he continued east towards the Cape of Good Hope and finally dropped anchor in Tahiti. “I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul,” Moitessier wrote to the Sunday Times.

At half past three on 22 April 1969, 312 days after he set off, Johnston sailed into Falmouth as a crowd cheered for him and his boat. “Where from?” asked a customs officer who had boarded Suhaili for a mandatory check.

“Falmouth,” replied Johnston.



t half past midnight on 19 May 2010, Dilip Donde pulled into Mumbai’s Naval Dockyard as the first Indian to complete a solo circumnavigation by sail. He passed Mhadei’s ropes to a 31-year-old Navy commander so he could secure her to the dock. It was a symbolic gesture because Abhilash Tomy would soon sail the Mhadei around the world himself. This time, he would do it non-stop.

Tomy’s exploits won him a special invitation to the 2018 edition of the Golden Globe Race, organised to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the original. He was the only Asian entrant among 17 sailors. All the boats resembled the crafts of the 1968 sailors. The rules, like the boats, were geared to imitate the modest means of the time: navigation by sextant, communications by radio, and no electronic autopilot. Fittingly, Donde and Johnston saw off Tomy on Thuriya from the starting point at Les Sables-d’Olonne, France.

Thuriya happened to be a replica of Suhaili. [9] Ratnakar built the boat for Tomy from red cedar, like he had done for Mhadei. Construction had been a scrappy affair: the hull was built first and Tomy imported fittings whenever he had the cash. (Dandekar told Tomy that he could pay him later for his services.)

On 21 September 2018, a Friday, Thuriya capsized twice after being struck by a storm in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, 3500km off the coast of Australia. The first time, the boat cartwheeled in the water. The damage was considerable: broken mast, plucked-out galley, a leaking gas casket and diesel tank.

The second time she capsized, Tomy held on to the mast, hoping he wouldn’t be thrown overboard. As the boat swung sideways, he slid down the 30-foot pole. Moments later, when the boat flipped again, he was hanging by his wrist at the top of the pole. Around him raged waves as high as 50 feet, spurred by gusty winds. For a moment, he thought about death. Then his watch snapped and he fell 30 feet: first, on the boom, and then on the deck. Half an hour later, he had to lie down after he felt the life leave his knees. For three days at sea, Tomy survived on iced tea, thinking about how and if he would be able to sail again. He couldn’t eat, he could barely move.

Before the start of the race, Tomy had sailed over 83,000 kilometres as a Navy officer. He represented India at the 2011 Cape Town to Rio race, the 2014 Spanish Copa Del Rey race, and the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Korea Cup. On that Friday in September 2018, he had already sailed over 11,000 miles to reach third place in the Golden Globe Race.

“I have had a lot of dreams where I was back in the boat, in the same storm. My mind is just trying to figure out what else I could have done to save the boat.”

Abhilash Tomy

Without computers on board, he studied the sea and sky for anything that would give him an advantage. He routinely checked sea temperatures to see if he could sail a current. As he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, he found a current with a temperature of 17 degrees, and headed south. When he checked later, the temperature had dropped to 14 degrees. “If it’s dropped to 14 degrees, that meant I’d lost the current,” Tomy told me, “It’s a different water body.” He headed north and found the 17 degree current again. He lost it again after half a day. And so it went.

In the original Golden Globe Race, two participants were in the reckoning even after Johnston had finished the circuit. One of them was Nigel Tetley. One midnight in May, in the North Atlantic, Tetley woke up to a hole in the hull of Victress. She was flooding so fast that it was pointless locating the leak. He picked up the radio, broadcast her final Mayday message and threw a life-raft overboard.

He dropped in the logbooks, sextant, chronometer, radio transmitter and climbed into the raft. Then, in the dark, a part of Victress got caught in the raft’s anchor line. As he cut the line, he shouted, “Give over, Vicky, I have to leave you!” As Tetley sat watching in the raft, the sea swept over the batteries of the Victress and the cabin lights went out one final time. [10]

Tomy didn’t have to abandon Thuriya in quite the same manner. On the fourth day after his injury, he was rescued by a French ship and evacuated on a stretcher. On a remote Indian Ocean island called Île Amsterdam, a doctor took X-rays of his back and put him on a drip. He was then picked up by an Indian Navy ship and dropped to Visakhapatnam. An MRI revealed his spine had been fractured at four different places. Thuriya had to be left stranded at sea.

Of the nine sailors in the original Golden Globe, only Johnston finished the circuit. The 2018 race organisers felt that their race would have more finishers. In the event, only five out of 17 participants managed to complete it.

Tomy sometimes dreams about that Friday in the Indian Ocean. “I have had a lot of dreams where I was back in the boat, in the same storm. There were no emotions attached to it—no negative or positive emotions. My mind is just trying to figure out what else I could have done to save the boat.” He plans to sail in the 2022 Golden Globe Race next September, and is currently crowdfunding for the voyage. “It’s there in the back of my mind,” Tomy said, “that I have to finish that thing.”



ohnston is a yachting legend. For three years in the 1990s, he held a world record for the fastest sailing circumnavigation. [11] He’s earned honorary degrees, maritime awards and was knighted in 1995. He’s now Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

His Bombay boat is also part of yachting folklore. In 1997, after 30 years of sailing together, Johnston donated Suhaili to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. She stood there as one of the permanent fixtures in a glass-roofed gallery called Neptune Court: leaning slightly on a block of blue plastic waves, sails raised, missing a captain at the helm. But then her wood started to dry and shrink; her seams began opening up. It is the fate of any boat taken out of the water. Johnston removed her from the museum, refitted her, and relaunched her in 2016. He had, after all, known her since she was just a log.

The Colaba Workshops in Bombay changed hands after Bragg passed away in 1984. The workshop continues to build and repair yachts. There used to be a photograph of Suhaili on the wall. “It’s my love for sailing that has kept us alive, but sailing has unfortunately not taken off,” Mongia said. “It pays the bills, but that’s about it. Is it going to make us millionaires? No.”

Dandekar went on to build Tarini, a Mhadei replica, for another historic voyage. In 2018, six women Navy officers became the first Indian women to round the world. [12] Skipper Vartika Joshi told me that Tarini was a “little faster” and a “little lighter” than her older sibling.

Admiral Awati, who was consumed by the idea of an Indian circumnavigation, passed away in 2018. He was 91.

Donde retired from the Navy in 2016. His new 40-foot boat, Antara, is the first privately-owned Indian sailboat registered to roam anywhere on the high seas. He wants to give people a taste of ocean sailing, and offers to take enthusiasts wherever they want to go. Antara is special to Donde, but she isn’t the 56-footer he rounded the three southern capes with. “If you give me a choice today about which boat I’d want to sail for a long time,” Donde said, “I’d go with Mhadei because those are probably the best years of my sailing life.”

Mhadei is docked in Goa. On her last ocean voyage, in 2016, she sailed to Mauritius with the all-women Navy crew. That year, to commemorate a decade of the launch of Sagar Parikrama, Donde, Awati, Dandekar and Tomy wrote letters to her. Tomy wrote the longest one. “Perhaps there is a tavern where sailors are united with their old boats,” he wrote. “I shall meet you there. And remember things we never told anyone.”

Nikhil Eapen is a journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour rights organisation.


I am grateful to everyone who patiently answered my questions over beer/phone/email/Zoom: Robin Knox-Johnston, Dilip Donde, Abhilash Tomy, Vartika Joshi, Sheri Bamboat, Aashim Mongia, Mohan Narayan, Sucheta Jadav, Michael Fisher.

I am grateful for these books and their authors: 

Knox-Johnston, Robin. Running Free: The Autobiography. Simon & Schuster UK;
Knox-Johnston, Robin. A World of My Own. Bloomsbury Publishing; 
Donde, Dilip. The First Indian. Fernhurst Books Limited; 
Nichols, Peter. A Voyage For Madmen. HarperCollins; 
Chaudhuri, K. N. Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean. Cambridge University Press; and
de Souza, Lynn. Mhadei: An Autobiography

Thanks to my family, who always read till the end.