Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Girdhari Lal Yadav calls himself an accidental athlete. He never played any sport in school. He was never interested in one. But joining India Navy in 1986 changed his life. After falling in love with sailing, he took up the sport, and went on to represent India in Asian Games and World Championships, winning several medals.
After retiring, he became a coach in Bhopal. He is in charge of the India's first sailing school that came up in Bhopal. Finding local talent, invoking an interest in common people towards sailing has been one of the key areas where he had worked hard. One of the results of his hard work reflected in the bronze medal that 16-year-old Harshita Tomar won it at the 2018 Asian Games. It was Yadav who had spotted her and worked hard with her to take her to the podium in Jakarta.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, we spoke to Yadav about sailing, and tried to learn the basics, understand the technicalities and also decode what makes it a sport where human body is fighting the nature.
Can you speak a little about the history of sailing in India?
As far as Indian history is concerned, Cholas had great naval power. They were traders so they used to operate in sail boats as engine boats were not there. In modern sailing, which is yachting, it was brought by the Britishers, just like they brought cricket. They used to play cricket to pass their time. Similarly, sailing was also brought by them. In Nainital, Lucknow, Bhopal, they established sailing clubs. Some clubs are still running in their names, like the Bombay Royal Yacht Club. In Chennai, there is Madras Royal Yacht Club. They established many such clubs all over India. However, these clubs were established mostly in the coastal areas. Near the sea.
When did India start pursuing sailing as a sport? When did we become serious with sailing?
After Independence, the Yachting Association of India was registered under Society Act to support sailing. When sailing became a part of Asian Games, we started taking part. We have taken part in all Asian Games except one. We have won medals in every Asian Games we have taken part. We have won the world title three times. As far as awards are concerned, in water sports, we have maximum number of Arjuna awardees and two Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awardees. We have come a long way since our start. Now we are looking for results. Earlier, sailing was limited to coastal areas in India. I had started after joining the navy. But if you will look at the medals we have won at the last Asian Games, they have been won by the sailors who are between 16 and 24 years of age. What it means is that youth is coming forward and taking interest in sailing.
Tell us more about yourself. How did you start sailing?
I started sailing after joining the Indian navy. I am a sportsperson because of Indian Navy. All the credit goes to them. After joining the navy, I got the opportunity and I grabbed it with both my hands. Luckily, I came in contact with the legends of sailing of that time like Farokh Tarapore, Homi Motiwala, Commander Mahesh. Our coach used to be Commander Mongia. These people supported me a lot. When I joined the navy, and I started sailing, my age was around 26. I joined India Navy in 1986 and started sailing in 1995, after almost nine years of joining the service. I am an accidental sportsperson. I have never played a sport in my school. But in the navy, I fell in love with sailing and got people who kept on motivating me. Slowly, I came to competitive sailing.
In 1995, I put my feet for the first time in the boat. It took me three years to win a medal in Nationals. The year 1998 was a golden year in my life. We won the National gold medal. It was the first gold for me. The navy had a strong team. Whoever won the Nationals, was a guaranteed winner in Asian Games.
My first international medal was a bronze, which I won at the World Championship in Goa in 2002. In 2004, won a gold medal at Asian Championship. Again, a gold medal at Asian Championship in 2006 followed by a Silver medal at Asian Games.
Can you tell us about Nationals in sailing?
Every year Yachting Association of India organises championships. In this championship, all classes of races take place. Sailing has ten classes " Laser, Laser Radial, 49er, 29er, 720, 420 and others. So every team is preparing for a specific goal. YAI does four ranking events in a year and on its basis, the national squad is picked.
How far has India come in water sports today?
Sailing has improved a lot. Earlier, the sport was limited to defence personnel and the rich people. Because it is a very expensive sport. I was also able to pursue the sport because Indian Navy supported me. However, in the last ten years, sailing has come out of the coastal regions and spread in plains. In 2006, Madhya Pradesh sports minister Yashodhara Raje Scindia helped establish the first national sailing school in Bhopal. The best part is that the opportunity was given to common people. Still, we follow the same ideology. Hyderabad Yacht Club has followed our blueprint. Same in Pune and Bangalore. In Bangalore as well, sailing is happening in lakes. Bhopal is the only sailing school but in other cities, clubs have used the same pattern as Bhopal, which is to bring more youth participation. We are targeting kids as young as ten years old. When a kid has time in his or her hand, they improve. Harshita Tomar is the result of that effort. She was 16 when she became an Asian Games medallist. I started at 26. I had limited options and now the changes that are coming in sailing, it has now become like hockey.
Harshita Tomar. Reuters
Earlier, the boats were very slow. Today, the boats are fast. The area of the boat has increased, you need more strength. Movement has increased in sailing, like hockey. The boats have become very fast today. You need time to learn, adjust and perform.
How do you spot a young talent in sailing?
Basically, there is very little understanding among people about sailing. I faced many challenges when I started off as a coach in our water sports academy here in Bhopal. We organised summer camps here. We wanted kids to enjoy. We also did talent hunts, told kids this is a sport which you can join. We started getting responses after 2011. The summer camps we do today, we see kids between 300 and 400 attending the camp in Bhopal. In these camps, we see what interests the kids. The minimum requirement in sailing is that you should know how to swim. This is a water sport. The kid should know how to swim. If the boat flips in the middle of the water, the kid should not panic. Swimming gives you that confidence. You start not to fear the water. We also check how good a kid is at observing things. How much is their grabbing ability, learning power etc.
In sailing, you have to fight against nature. You have to get used to all elements of nature " water, air, other elements in your surroundings. You need a sharp mind for that. We observe these things at the camp. It takes a minimum of one year for them to learn balancing and technical words which are used in sailing, the angles etc.
For kids up to 15 years of age, there are Optimist class boats. They start training in these boats.
What are the angles that you were talking about?
There are different angles in sailing. If the wind is blowing from behind, in sailing terminology, it is called Run. That wind is browning from behind the boat in sailing, it is called Run position. But in a race, you are also returning and will be facing the wind. So against the wind when the boat is sailing, we call it Beat. In this, you cannot directly sail opposite to the wind, so you set the sail at 45 degree angle and surge ahead. So that we can cut the wind. This is also done to get the power in the sail.
Can you explain the different boats?
At an early age, as I told you, all over the world, Optimist class boats are used. When the budding sailors mature mentally and physically, they are divided into different classes. In India, we are using 29er (double ender), 420 (double ender) and Laser 4.7 (single ender). These boats can be easily handled by 16 to 17 years olds.
More the sailing area, more will be the power in the boat. The boats are designed in a way that they can handle in any conditions.
As they go to senior level, the Laser 4.7 converts into Laser radial for women's, and Laser standard for boys. The kid who was sailing in 29er, will go into 49 er (men), 49 er fx (women).
One cannot participate in different classes?
No, it is not advisable also. Like in 49er, you need coordination, crew and help. Their body should behave like a single body, then only the boat will move. It is not possible to switch every now and then, you cannot perform.
In India we are focussing only on these classes (as mentioned above), where we can do well.
Can you explain how races happen? What are its rules?
Racing rule of sailing describes how races will take place. A race committee is appointed before a race. Race's starting point is one or two kms away from the shore. The course of the race depends on the wind condition. How big a fleet is decided by that. For 49er, only the windward and leeward course is decided. With Laser and 470, the trapezoid course or triangle course is decided. Basically, an air balloon is left on the water as a mark. The race committee makes a start line and then there are mark number 1, 2 and 3 and so on, described in the instructions, which you have to follow. The championship is not decided by one race. A sailor is told beforehand how many races are going to happen. So, a sailor has to make sure the level of performance is not dropped, and is consistent for a course of five days or so, to make sure he or she is on top.
How does the points system work?
Suppose 10 races took place in the championship, then points from all the ten races will be counted.
The races are divided into four of five days?
Not more than three races in a day. That's the rule. The sailor with the least number of points, wins the championship.
The one with the lowest points wins?
Yes. Suppose there are fifty boats in the water. They race together. There are no rounds. No qualification takes place that you keep shortlisting sailors. These fifty boats will race in 12 races. Their result will be counted at the end of each race. For example, Boat A finished first in one race, in the second race, it was again first and went on to finish first in the remaining ten races as well. So its point will be 12. One point for finishing first, two for finishing second. The sailor with minimum points is the winner. Suppose, the other racer finished 12th in the first race, so he or she is already lying behind. Hence, the one with the lowest points, wins the race.
There are some exceptions in the rules. If there is a boat failure in middle of the water, there is a provision that your one race, where the boat capsizes or some minor accident happens, the point from that race can be excluded. Because that score can jeopardise a sailor's championship for no fault of his or her. This is a water sport and sometimes nature also has it say. This rule is keeping that in mind. At least two such races can be discarded, your ten best races are counted. A jury is there which monitors the racing rules being followed and the sailors are not using any illegal means to generate speed.
MP water sports academy players with Girdhari Lal Yadav (in white, extreme right). Special arrangement
What is the most difficult challenge in sailing?
Sail is the engine of the boat. While sailing, we are fighting against nature. Nature is always unpredictable. As a sailor, you have to tackle the natural forces, like wind, wave, tide and sometimes you may face stern water. Today, with technology, we know many things beforehand. But the main challenge is still tackling high wind and big waves. Handling of boats becomes difficult as waves are faster and sharper. Balancing becomes a task when the waves come from the sides and from the front. You have to be physically fit all the time. You cannot lose energy levels. Observational skills come into play here. The sailor needs to see if the waves are coming, from where they are coming, calculate when it will hit the boat. That understanding is important. This comes only by practice. My personal experience is that whenever big waves are coming and wind speed is high, it is the biggest challenge for a sailor. If the wind wave is more than 25 knots, you need muscles, you need power, physical endurance to handle the boat. Technically, you are very strong if you are able to sail when the wind is slow. When the wind speed increases, then both your technique and strength come into play.
How does the sailor control the sail?
In Laser, you sit and sail. In 470, there is a two member crew, the one who is standing is at trapeze so that maximum leverage is gained, and the other one is sitting. In 49er, both sailors are at the trapeze. These are different boats, with different designs and hence, different ways to control the boat. The sailor wears a harness which is attached to the mast through the trapeze, so that they can balance the boat well, using height and weight.
How does height and weight play a role? Can you explain more?
The area of the sail which provides power to the boat, you need a standard weight and height to counter it. If wind is pressing your sail from the other side, you are fighting against the wind force and balancing the boat. You need a standard height and weight to do that. When we are sailing against the wind the basic aim is to make sure that boat is sailing flat on water. The flatter the boat is on water, the more is the speed and weight plays a key role here also.
Can you explain more how we control the speed? How do we put the brake?
The power of the boat is sail. The more you trim the sail, the more you generate the power for the boat. When you depower the sail, that is to say if you are sailing at 45 degree against the wind, if you bring it down to 20 degree, the boat will stop. That is called depowering the sail and it will eventually stop the sail as there is no more power in the sail. The angles to increase or decrease the speed differ from boat to boat. The sailor is always on the opposite side of the sail, handling the boat.
Strength plays a big part. How does it work in sailing?
You have to face all difficult conditions. Weather will not remain the same. It is always changing. If wind is up to 25 knots, to balance the boat, you need to pull your body away from the boat, for that you need a lot of strength. Sailing is a sport when all muscles are working, at all times. Even in low wind, muscles are working. To counter the power of the sail, we need strength.
We word hard on kids who are starting out, on their back muscles, thighs, forearms, and of course, they have to be mentally very strong. Reason is that they have to be alone in the boat and make correct decisions in the shortest possible time. And if they have made the mistake, they need to come back and admit that this was the mistake. There is a reason sailing is very good to improve decision-making ability. Learning wind patterns, sail, boat, opponent etc helps you tackle such challenges.
What are the key decisions which the sailor takes during the race?
First of all, you have to start well. There are fifty boats and all of these boats will sail together. You have to start from the correct end, where the wind pressure is high and then understand the wind pattern and use it to your advantage. If you fall back off the start line, then you will not get the clear wind as more than forty boats are ahead of you. If you want to win the race, win the start first. If you win the start, you will be ahead of others. You are free to make decisions. But if you are stuck in a bunch then you have no option to continue. You cannot play for tactics.
There are sound signals to start the race. A warning signal goes before the start. That is an indication that the course is ready. The boats come to the starting line. Four minutes before the race starts, you will get another signal. In this duration, the sailors check the wind pattern, on which side the pressure of the wind is high, from where should I start. Then, you get the final signal that only one minute is remaining for the race to start. That is crucial for any sailor. In that one minute you have to maintain your position, be behind the line and get the best start.
How do we make sure wind, water, boat and human body are in sync with each other?
It only comes through your practice. Your boat, body and water should be in sync when you are sailing. As I said earlier, waves don't have a fixed pattern. Sometimes, they come from the front, sometimes from the sides. At times, they are very big and sometimes, they are very small. There are roller waves and there are choppy waves. The handling of the boat differs from wave to wave. A sailor can face any situation at any time.
In Bhopal, we train in the lake. The advantage here is that the kids are not afraid. The water is calmer in the lake. You learn fast in such water. The lake is surrounded by many buildings or hills. The wind direction is wayward so the kid learns about wind shift quickly. But in the sea, the wind pattern is different. If you are taking short wind shifts in a lake, you are taking long ones in seas. The other challenge there is to ride the boat over the big waves.
The smaller waves are called choppy waves, the bigger ones are roller waves or big waves. Balancing and handling is totally different in lake and sea. All of this comes through practice. That is why the kids who join our academy in Bhopal, I take them to Mumbai for training. So that they get used to the big waves and sea conditions. The other thing that needs to take care of is the tide. They need to position their boats when such tides come. This decision making is a part of tactics.
Is there any life risk in sailing? How big is the risk?
I don't think so there is so much risk. All sports have some sort of risk. When all of a sudden the climate changes, the sailors know they need not leave the boat, at any cost. They wear life jackets. The boats are also designed in a way that they will keep floating on the water. There could be a delay in rescue but the risk is minimised.
What do the sailors wear? Is there a particular gear?
It depends on the climatic condition. In Laser, there is a hiking short, which they wear. Thigh is used a lot in Laser. The hiking short is padded so that the skin is not damaged or cut. In 49er, there is a harness which is attached to the mast through a hook. This is to balance the boat. When we go abroad, we sometimes have to wear dry suits, as per the climatic conditions over there. If the temperature is below 10, dry suits keep the body warm. If the temperature is high, we wear wet suits. The sea water in Europe is colder than what you find here. Life jacket is mandatory in all conditions.
What is the right age to start sailing?
The right age should be between 10 and 12. The kid starts to understand. The mind can be developed for this particular sport. In sailing, you need to work hard on handling. This sport requires you to be mentally tough and technically sound. You need to know all parts. Decision making ability, confidence needs to be developed. It takes time.
How much time does it take for a kid to hone all skills?
I think six months to one year it takes, if the sailor is giving hundred percent. Those who are more attentive, they will be able to sail in one year. That is the reason, at our academy, we focus on kids who are 10 or 12. He or she can become a national champion in three years.