THE INDIAN WEST COAST, ON A KAYAK

Kaustubh Khade and Shanjali Shahi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kaustubh Khade hasn’t rested on his laurels.

In February-March 2015, he had successfully paddled his kayak from Mumbai to Goa. A journey of modest proportions, that trip was actually stepping stone to a larger plan he had in mind.

India ranks twentieth worldwide in terms of total length of coastline. At almost 7500 kilometers, the Indian sea coast – spanning Gujarat to West Bengal – is longer than the Himalaya up north, which nevertheless grabs more attention as home to snow and ice, mountaineering and military strategy. Despite the long coastline, water sports are yet in their infancy in India. In the lead up to Kaustubh’s Mumbai-Goa sea kayak expedition, he had read Joe Glickman’s book `Fearless,’ about paddling around the coastline of Australia. Something similar hadn’t been done in India. If it is to be done, isn’t it best done by an Indian? – Kaustubh reasoned. That was the thought with which he embarked on planning the smaller Mumbai-Goa expedition, which served both as an accomplishment by itself and also a laboratory to perfect measures for a bigger trip. He commenced the Mumbai-Goa trip on February 14, 2014 and completed the 413 km-journey by sea in 14 days of paddling (excluding rest days). The details of the trip can be accessed on this link: https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/mumbai-goa-on-a-kayak/)

Casting off from Vengurla, Maharashtra (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Kaustubh returned from the Mumbai-Goa kayak expedition in early March 2015. A year later in March 2016, he quit his job signaling commencement of preparations for the bigger project – kayaking down the coast of India from west to east. For two reasons, this project was split into two separate phases – the west coast and the east coast with the west, spanning Gujarat to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) being taken up initially. The first reason was that the ideal seasons for paddling on both these coasts are different and not contiguous. It is difficult to stitch together a seamless journey from one end to the other. Second, as he found out and the event organizer entrusted with the project, Meraki, advised him: sponsors who would anyway have a tough time warming up to a kayak project may be even more reluctant if they found the overall journey to exceed 7000 kilometers. It isn’t just water sport that is in its infancy in India; so is, sponsorship for adventure sports. You can’t confront hesitant sponsors with a major project they can neither fathom nor connect in turn to India’s predominantly sedentary market. It appeared better to divide the large project into two and seek support for the first half – the west coast bit. From March 2015 onward Kaustubh started training for the project, which entails a significantly greater amount of paddling compared to Mumbai-Goa. The new expedition also acquired a shape, different from the earlier trip.

Among those who had worked on planning the details of the Mumbai-Goa expedition was Kaustubh’s girlfriend, Shanjali Shahi. They met as colleagues at AppsDaily, one of the companies Kaustubh worked at. Shanjali is interested in cycling. Together they floated the idea of Kaustubh paddling along the coast by sea and Shanjali shadowing his journey on land on her bicycle. It isn’t as simple as it seems – left alone, a cycle is faster than a kayak. An expedition featuring both would need patience and coordination. Although she knew cycling and was interested in it, Shanjali didn’t have much experience doing extended trips. Not long after Kaustubh resigned his job, Shanjali followed suit. Soon thereafter, the two cycled to Goa via the coastal route, avoiding the main highway. It gave Shanjali an idea of multi-day trip and what lay in store. Not one to stay content with a Mumbai-Goa bicycle trip, she enlisted for a supported cycling trip from Manali to Leh in the Himalaya and completed it. Another element of difference in the new expedition was in terms of accompanying support crew. On the Mumbai-Goa trip, Kaustubh had engaged a motor boat to follow his kayak at a distance. His mother travelled in the boat, while his father tracked their progress on land in his car. All three teams met every evening. It was done so to keep the first expedition a family affair as well. Needless to say that whole expedition was funded by Kaustubh and family. This time, there would be no parents. There would be Kaustubh kayaking at sea, Shanjali on a bicycle on land and with her, a support vehicle bearing essentials for her trip and Kaustubh’s. A key player in this altered arrangement would be the driver of the support vehicle. They needed somebody to drive Kaustubh’s car who wouldn’t just be driver but someone who buys into the expedition and anticipates its unfolding needs, risks and urgencies. The driver had to be an enterprising, sensitive individual. They interviewed a few candidates and finally settled on Nitin Kotawadekar.

Shanjali at Harihareshwar, Maharashtra, one of the team’s rendezvous points (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

With window for the west coast expedition identified as the period from November 2016 to February 2017, cast off was scheduled for November 2016. But as late as October 2016 no sponsor had come aboard. Sponsorship was critical. Kayaking the entire coastline costs a lot of money and Kaustubh’s rough estimate was that the whole west to east journey would cost around thirteen lakh rupees (Rs 1.3 million). That’s a lot of money. Eventually SF Watches, a line of watches made for adventure enthusiasts by the well-known Indian watch maker Titan, came aboard as main sponsor, picking up almost 80 per cent of project cost for the west coast. What worked was that SF was no stranger to kayaking. They knew the sport and knew how to leverage the sport for advertising mileage. The last major hurdle to cross was approval from security agencies. According to Kaustubh and as per the advice he obtained from those well placed in seafaring, a recreational kayaker out for sport does not need clearances from anyone to put his craft to sea. “ You don’t seek official approval to cycle from one place in India to another – do you?’’ Kaustubh asked. However, in practice, approval from security agencies dominating the coast helps given contemporary India’s growing obsession with security. With this in mind, before leaving Mumbai he ensured that word about the expedition was reached to state maritime boards and marine police down the coast. He also obtained a letter from the chief of the Marine Police in Mumbai.

Kayaking off the coast of Goa (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

The Indian state with the longest coastline is Gujarat. On the map, this length is deceptively hidden by the layout of the Gujarat coast which is curved in many places. As coastline for kayaking, Gujarat is tricky. This portion of the coast is strongly tidal creating powerful ingress and egress of water. In some parts, currents can drag a kayak off course. Winds can also be powerful, blowing a small boat off track. Further, some daily battling is inevitable because although you can cast off aided by the egress of a receding tide there is no guarantee that you will reach your destination riding the ingress of an advancing tide. If you reached in the middle of a receding tide, you have to battle your way against the current to access land and evening’s rest. On the average, Kaustubh kayaks at a speed of about 6.5 kilometers per hour. A thumb rule to follow would be that he shouldn’t be tackling any currents exceeding this speed. With all this factored in, including suggestions that he had best not cross some of the current ridden-gulfs in the area, Dwaraka was chosen as cast off point for the expedition. It seemed to add a touch of history too to the trip, steeped as the town is in ancient Indian mythology, not to mention its prominence in marine archaeology.

On November 14, 2016, Kaustubh cast off from Dwaraka. Two minutes later he was back ashore; he had been stopped by the Gujarat Police who couldn’t wrap their heads around a kayaker venturing into the sea. Familiar questions about permission – whether he has it, who gave it, why he is indulging in this madness – all returned to haunt. To convince local officials, Kaustubh looked around for an apt person to meet, finding him a drive away in Okha. Enter Harish More, Commanding Officer in Okha for the Indian Coast Guard. He saved Kaustubh’s expedition. More informed all his officers in Gujarat of the paddler on kayak making his way down the coast. Armed with More’s support, Kaustubh cast off from Dwaraka on November 17. Keeping him company in these parts was the occasional dugong. A medium sized marine mammal, the dugong is the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal; it is largely dependent on seagrass and is found in coastal habitats that support seagrass meadows. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the dugong as a vulnerable species. According to Wikipedia a highly isolated population of dugongs exists in the waters of the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch. These animals are 1500 kilometers and 1700 kilometers distant from their nearest brethren in the Persian Gulf and the sea around southern India, respectively. “ I freaked out seeing them,’’ Kaustubh said of his encounter with dugongs in the waters off western Gujarat. That was in the early days of the voyage. Ahead lay some 3300 kilometers of the Indian west coast.

Shanjali helps Kaustubh get his kayak ashore near Kapu lighthouse in Karnataka (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

From a technical point of view, the Gujarat coast was the toughest portion of the voyage for Kaustubh. To tackle the water current problem and to find the best points to cut landward for his daily rendezvous with Shanjali and Nitin, he used to keep an eye on fishing boats. “ Fishermen know the coastline well because they regularly go out to sea and come back,’’ Kaustubh said. On one instance, a fishing boat that passed him by and proceeded landward, returned to make sure that he was alright and able to find the right passage amid swirling currents. While Shanjali and Nitin traveled as a team of bicycle and car on land, their evening meet-up with Kaustubh required not only micro-mapping of roads along the coast but also some bit of mutual tracking of their respective positions in real time using the app `Life 360’ aka Friend Finder. Despite this, Gujarat was tricky because the coastline is rocky and beaches are few. Where there is no rock, a given beach may be steep implying undercurrents. You can hope for a landing spot based on data and arrive to find something quite different. Three to four times in Gujarat, Kaustubh crash-landed. He usually had two cell phones on the kayak – a smart phone with capacity for GPS and for reliable communication with his team on land, a life saver of an old world, sturdy Nokia cellphone. To set direction at sea, he used the compass on his watch, which had a GPS. He also had a couple of GoPro cameras aboard. Interestingly, although on this trip he was by himself at sea without anyone at hand for assistance, Kaustubh’s emergency response plan appears to have been frugal. Should the kayak capsize, he had decided that he wouldn’t try a roll to bring it back up; a roll being done with kayaker still seated in the vessel. Instead, he would get out of the kayak, flip it back into position and get back in. Should the kayak hit rocks and be damaged or something similar happen, his plan was to use that sturdy old world phone and call up the nearest Coast Guard office. For this, he carried with him the phone numbers of the nearest Coast Guard office for each segment he was paddling. Aside from this he had no emergency equipment; no emergency beacon for example.

Once the two teams met up and a place to stay for the night was found, sponsorship related work took over. A bunch of photos and write-ups had to be dispatched to keep websites focused on the expedition, going. Sponsored expedition comes with its accompanying baggage of media responsibilities and media instincts. The daily photo dispatches is one. The other is, knowing that you have to dispatch photos by evening you look around for good pictures while kayaking, something a committed kayaker doesn’t always like to do. Quite frankly, media is a distraction. But then: no media, no sponsorship and no money, no expedition. Such is the modern paradigm for adventure. Amid the paddling, Kaustubh lost two smart phones at sea and had to replace them with new smart phones bought from wherever he landed. It added to expedition expense.

Kaushiq Kodithodi (left) with Kaustubh, just before their cast off from Payyoli in north Kerala. Kaushiq who owns Jellyfish, a water sports facility near Kozhikode, paddled for two days with Kaustubh (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

The Gujarat coast took a long time to get past. Unlike the peninsular portion of India which converges to Kanyakumari, the Gujarat coast is intensely folded. When you are a kayaker tracking coastal undulations, you go in and come out multiple times gaining little lateral distance on the map but quite a bit on the water. “ Gujarat took almost a month to get past,’’ Kaustubh said. One positive about these parts was that the water was sparkling blue. At Rajpara, Gujarat’s fishing villages abruptly ended. Here the sea was pronouncedly rough making him fear that capsize was imminent. But he managed. Kaustubh also remembered a day in southern Gujarat when soon after early morning cast off he saw a beautiful sunrise followed by a sharp change in the colour of water from clear to murky. The Maharashtra coastline was a repeat of what he had done on his previous trip. During that earlier Mumbai-Goa trip, he had covered the distance in 17 days overall; this time that stretch of the coast went by in 13 days. For Shanjali however, the Maharashtra stretch took more time to cover. This was one part of the whole journey where the coast was hilly introducing uphill and downhill segments to the roads she was cycling on.  Unlike in the other states, where it was routine for Shanjali to reach ahead of Kaustubh at their daily rendezvous point, on the Maharashtra stretch, it was largely a case of Kaustubh arriving first. At the beginning of the Karnataka coastline, Kaustubh’s oar broke. Luckily the kayak manufacturer – EPIC – on hearing of his planned expedition had supplied him a set of spare oars. He switched to using that. The remaining portion of the trip was relatively smooth save a bout of heavy winds in north Kerala and three occasions for concern, the first two of which dealt with problems on land for Shanjali.

Shanjali and Kaustubh; location – backwaters slightly north of Kochi in Kerala (Photo: courtesy Kaustubh Khade)

Kannur in north Kerala is notorious for its political clashes. The day the expedition reached Kannur, an incident of political violence occurred in the district. Next morning while Kaustubh paddled out to a sea free of politics, Shanjali cycled out to roads observing hartal (shut down) to protest against the incident. For Mumbaikar (resident of Mumbai) generally used to city that doesn’t sleep, the tension and uncertainty of Kerala’s hartal were unnerving. She said she was stopped by activists but allowed to proceed when they heard of the expedition. The second instance was in the union territory of Mahe, famous as a watering hole. Part of the larger union territory of Pondicherry on the Indian east coast, Mahe on the west coast is surrounded by Kerala’s Kannur and Kozhikode districts. For young woman on bicycle, the sight of drunken people on the road was scary. There was also an incident of pestering (Nitin had to sternly warn off the culprit) following which, Shanjali loaded her bicycle on the support car and resumed her cycling only after Mahe was done and over with. The third occasion for anxiety was on the southern Tamil Nadu coast past Kerala, where measures taken to prevent coastal erosion made the waters in that area turbulent with resultant insecurity for man on kayak.

On February 7, 2017, the expedition reached Kanyakumari. Kaustubh had paddled approximately 2700 kilometers out of the total length of India’s west coast. His fingers were swollen from all that paddling. It took him almost three weeks to recover from the toll the expedition had taken. Both Kaustubh and Shanjali are already speaking of the expedition’s second half – the Indian east coast. On her part, Shanjali would like to do a complete outline of India on her bicycle, including the mountainous terrain up north and the desert and marshland to the west. Kaustubh is also eying a trip by kayak to Lakshadweep from north Kerala, which if he attempts, would be the first time he is cutting across the sea as opposed to tracking a coastline.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Kaustubh Khade and Shanjali Shahi as well as a formal press briefing they did later in mid-March.)

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