Nautical week: French sailing champions catch the winds at Pondicherry

As a part of the Bonjour India 2017-’18 cultural exchange, Indulge catches up with the French sailing champions who are visiting the East Coast this week. 

author_img Nimisha Sara Philip Published :  19th January 2018 12:10 PM   |   Published :   |  19th January 2018 12:10 PM
Valentin Boyer

Valentin Boyer

As a part of the Bonjour India 2017-’18 cultural exchange, Indulge catches the winds of change to get up close and candid with the French sailing champions who are visiting the East Coast this week, to be a part of the international regatta. 

Bonjour India is an innovative collaboration between the two countries of merging creativity and partnerships. As a part of the cultural exchange, the ‘Sailing the East Coast’ event is set to host some strong anchors.

The coming week is an exciting time to be walking along the Puducherry coastline, where the seas and winds will witness sailing as a delightful water sport at its best. Crossing the national boundaries are a host of brilliant young French competitive sailors, hosted by the Puducherry Sailing Association (PSA) in collaboration with the French Embassy - Institute of France in India and the government of Puducherry.  

The East Coast waters are set to hold the regatta from January 25 to 28 with close to 50 competitors, including international award-winning sailors and a jury ranging from Brigadiers and Colonels of the Indian Army to Ajit Diaz, who was awarded Race Official of the Year 2017.

PSA has also gone the extra mile to open the waters to sailors and kids in collaborating with French Olympian and national laser team coach, Felix Pruvot, who will be conducting a coaching camp before the regatta from January 18 to 24. 

Hoist the sails!
The young award-winning French National team delegation that will be coming are Mael Garnier, Alexandre Kowalski, Leo Maurin, Ivan Scolan, Sofia Karim, Valentin Boyer and Clementine Bretagne.

First up, I caught up with the National Champion of France, 2017, Mael Garnier,  brushing up on my French language skills as I tried to understand what makes this 17-year-old balance his love for the sails and high school. 

He tells me, he has sailed as long as he can remember, starting off at the age of four, and one of his favourite sailing experiences was “taking part and winning in the world championships for the first time”, a dream he humbly recollects he thought “was impossible earlier”.

As I bring his attention to what lies ahead in his trip to India, he recognises the opportunity and proclaims his eagerness “to discover a new culture and the people sailing in India”. He goes on to acknowledge that “sailing on a new ocean with unknown sailors and unknown conditions will be a great test”. 

I also caught up with Sofia Karim, the silver medalist at the World Championship in 2017, on a Laser 4.7. We dwell on his inspiration to take up sailing as a sport, as the 16-year-old speaks of his love for the uncertainty and excitement that sailing brings.

“Sailing inspired me so much. For me, it is one of the best sports, because you play in the sea with the weather, the clouds, the wind, the seat effect, the current… That’s why everybody has a chance, and nothing is sure before you finish the races.”

Garnier elaborates, “It’s what I call a complete sport as it forces you to have a strong mind and physical aptitude on the water. For example, there is a lot of strategy or tactics, which need to be used, combined with physical training, especially in a laser.” 

A boat, he admits, is hard to handle in strong winds, and yet his favourite, as he explains, “You are near the water, so you feel a lot more sensation”. He hopes, though, to change his boat and go on to something faster like a moth, in the year to follow.  

To float one’s boat
The sailing enthusiast in me kicks in to try and understand the various sailboats, starting with the Optimists which, as the name suggests, is the first boat on which most children gain their confidence to learn sailing in. 

The International 420 Class Dinghy is a 2 crew mono hull and 420 is the length of the boat in centimeters, recognised by world sailing. The Laser 4.7 and Laser Radial, the difference between them being the length of the sail, is the most popular single-handed dinghy in the world.

Lastly, the classic Moth boats, a class of small fast singlehanded racing sailboats, will race for the first time in India during Puducherry’s Nautical Week.  

As I go on to ask Garnier about his future ambitions, and if he hopes to make a career out of sailing he elaborates, “I intend to do a job linked to the sea and precisely into construction of race boats to transfer my knowledge to find new ways to be faster in sailing.”

The young lad also hopes to “sail around the world and take part in the biggest competitions like Trans-Atlantic or Vendée globe on bigger boats.” 

Karim brings my thoughts to reality when he honestly points out the dichotomy most athletes go through. “But for today, I’m not sure that I can make enough money for a living just with sailing as a job.”

I encourage the young men to give our sailors advice and Garnier rightly says, “My advice: Go sail everyday if you want to be a winner, you have to find a way to do it.” He points out, “even if you come last in races, never give up and you will have to fight to win a place!” Karim seconds that and adds, “Enjoy sailing and learn from yourself while on the boat.” 

As we end our tête-a-tête, with great delight, Garnier lets me know, “This trip is an amicable and exceptional human adventure. It’s an occasion to make new friends, meet new people, discover a new part of the world far from Brittany, a new culture. So it will be successful and awesome, and it’s a good opportunity for me to improve my English too. I hope to share our passion and skills with other people through this stage and competition.”

Karim offers, “It will be successful, because we will exchange with you and you will exchange with us!” This same inspiration seems to resonate with the entire French national team of champions. As I speak with Alexandre Kowalski, ranked among the top young athletes and recently winning the J88 Class German Cup Champion-ship, he speaks of his excitement to visit India.  

“Sailing is extremely important for me, as it’s an opportunity for me to share our passion and our own experiences. Some friends of mine who went to India told me, “It’s beautiful” and “the perfect place to sail, it’s always sunny” — and that, indeed, it is. 

Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have one of the longest coastlines in all of Asia, and yet, our openness to water sports has only been in small pockets. The new initiatives thus hope to set precedents for the growth of sailing in the much-needed areas of sport and entertainment along our coastline.

For locals, in much the same way that surfing went on to transform and claim villages for itself too, the hope is for sailing to capture our winds and seas, over our minds and imagination. 

Speed round
A chat with SV Balachandar, Treasurer, Puducherry Sailing Association (PSA).

What inspired this collaboration? 
French, Indian and expat children were already learning to sail as a part of PSA. This idea was floated by members of the club and proposed to the French council.

What does PSA hope to achieve from the event? 
Bring awareness about the sport of sailing among residents of Puducherry. Increase participation from locals in sailing. We also hope this will start the process of maritime collaboration between French and Indian sailing communities. Also, we hope to establish Puducherry as a destination for French sailors. We can offer year-round good winds and weather.

What initiatives do you hope the government will take?
The Puducherry government last year sponsored 55 children from local fishing communities to undergo a week-long ‘learn to sail’ summer camp. We hope this will continue. With more children getting exposed to sailing, we hope to produce champions from Puducherry in the sport of sailing.

Sailing the East Coast, hosted by PSA Pondicherry Sailing Association, in collaboration with the French Embassy- Institute of France in India and the government of Puducherry, is on from January 25-28.