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Not one to rest on his oars


THE FRENCH flag still flies over the secluded villa. In the island that is still a British colony, the edifice is a slice of history all of France is sentimental about. There are enough reasons to be, for it was home to Emperor Napolean Bonaparte in his last days at St. Helena.

The isle's solitary situation, surrounded by the vast stretch of sea known as the South Atlantic, was a welcome stop for Col. A. P. Singh. The said ocean can be stormy, a veritable graveyard of ships, including the Titanic. But for these seamen, on an expedition from Bombay to Balboa in Panama, the sailing to St. Helena was serene. The schooner then passed on to the Ascension Islands.

For any intrepid sailor, the call of the sea and its salty spray have been irresistable. The reflections of Lord Tennyson's Ulysses must have made a lasting impression on the Corps of Engineers officer: I cannot rest from travel...How dull it is to pause, to make an end. To rust unburnished, not to shine in use.

Not surprising then that Col. Singh embarked on expeditions criss-crossing the globe and lived to tell the tale. One of the first cruises he set out on, could well have been his last. On the 1977 voyage from Bombay to Bandar Abbas, Iran, they took a break in Dwaraka, with Karachi as their next destination.

Lying not far from the Pakistani port was the island of Gwdar. While that strip of land looked anything but menacing, the inhabitants around it sure were. The waters abounded in sea snakes, over 90 % of the species being poisonous, their venom far more lethal than those on land. One false move on Albatross, their 18-foot Seabird class boat and the slimy creatures would have crept all over them.

Theirs was the first visit by an Indian team since the 1965 war. All too conscious that the Indian army didn't rank too high on the popularity charts in Pakistan, they were however overwhelmed by the hospitality extended by a sailing friend, who owned a five-star hotel in the city.

On the last leg of that trip, they approached the Strait of Hormuz. The reception committee wasn't exactly waiting for them with open arms. They had their mouths open wide instead. Larger than life itself was a school of sharks, their perilous presence enough to chill more spines than several screenings of `Jaws.'

If you thought that these cannibalistic carnivores were the worst they encountered on the high seas, come again. On other travails, whales were sighted that could gobble up not only men, but boat, supplies, equipment, et al.

In the Malacca Straits, the busiest seaway in the world, disasters could have been man-made with the risk of collision between boats and ships pretty high. On a round-the-world trip, they faced nature's fury in all its malevolent might. Fifty foot high waves tossed their boat about as they were caught in a 36- hour storm close to the Cape of Good Hope.

Communications, carried out through HAM radio, were totally cut. To make things worse, no diplomatic relations existed between South Africa and India on account of the apartheid the former practised, forcing the marooned sailors to head for Mauritius.

For Col. Singh, experiences in sailing have been varied. The first transcontinental voyage in 1984 was from Gosport, United Kingdom to Bombay for acquisition of a 37-foot sloop of the Swan Class, considered the Rolls Royce of seacraft. Ports of call included the Channel Islands of Alderney and Guernsey, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, Crete, Port Sudan, Aden, Salalah and Muscat. After some modifications, it was named Trishna.

His travels by Trishna have become the stuff of legend although the experiences have been varied. On the 1994-95 trip that he skippered from Bombay to Singapore was the first ever lady officer of the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Dipanita Das. Among an otherwise all male crew, this could have caused problems right from privacy to delegation of responsibilities. But the cruise was silken smooth.

Craft he has sailed include the CBK, an Indian designed boat, the OK Dinghy, Enterprise, Fireball, Lightning, Seabird and Laser. Backing his sailing skills are relevant academic qualifications too.

Courses/training he has undergone include seamanship, celestial navigation, communication at sea, underwater diving, snorkelling, meteorology, navigation at sea, seamanship and survival at sea from the Royal Corps of Transportation, Gosport, U.K., in addition to ocean sailing at the Joint Services Sailing Centre in the same city.

In January 2001, he qualified in the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Race Management written test for International Race Officers conducted at Dubai. Col. Singh competed in almost every National championship from 1974 to 87 in every class perhaps, winning several silver and the OK Dinghy (Bombay 1980) gold medals.

International level participation includes the South Asia Yachting Regatta (SAYR), Secunderabad, 1976, SAYR, Trincomalle, Sri Lanka, 1979, the OK Dinghy Open Invitation Asian Regatta, Bombay, 1981, the European Fireball Championships, Dublin, 1982, U.K. Open Fireball championships, Torbay in the same year, picked for 1986 Seoul Asian Games and the first Commonwealth Regatta, Bombay in 1987.

Yachting events call for tremendous organisational abilities. Interestingly, he has conducted national meets alone and sometimes with one or two others. Col. Singh has accompanied the National Optimist teams as coach-cum-team leader for the European Open Championships at Lake Neusidal, Austria, July, 1986, Irish Open, Dublin, August, Irish Open (at the oldest sailing club, The Royal Cork Yacht Club, established in 1728) Cork, 1999, IODA World championships at La Coruna, Spain, July 2000, (where 63 countries and 257 sailors participated, a record in any class) and the U.K. Open, Portsmouth, August.

His diary notings were used extensively by Dom Moraes for a book titled Trishna. Col. Singh himself contributed a couple of articles for the book, `Adventure in uniform - Land, Sea and Sky (UBS Publishers, 2000).'

Honours have been conferred on him by the handful. Starting with a sailing blue from his alma mater, the National Defence Academy at Kharakvasla in 1971, he got the National Colours from the Yachting Association of India (YAI) in 1997. In 1988, he received the Order of Merit from the Ocean Cruising Club, U.K.

Col. Singh was made an honorary citizen of the City of Baltimore, USA in 1986. The YAI's Best Yachtsman of the Year trophy was his in 1987. Honorary memberships include those of the Royal Engineers Yachting Association, U.K. in 1985, for life at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Bombay in 1987 and the Bombay Sailing Association.

As an army officer, the accolades he cherishes most could well be the Sena Medal he was decorated with twice and the Vishist Seva Medal (VSM) by the President of India in the Republic Day parades of 1978, 1987 and 1996 respectively.

A. JOSEPH ANTONY

Hyderabad

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