Silence of the boats: Champions Boat League keeps the community spirit alive and roaring
Under heavy rain, the sight of a snake boat moored along a stream and snuck away in the backwaters of Alappuzha (Alleppey) — quiet, almost holding its breath, and lying in wait for its next race — is a sight that’s portentous, spine-chilling and unforgettable.
Imagine the same boat — packed in with its complete team of up to 92 rowers, no less, along with their team captains on board too — and try and hold that for a quiet moment, in the pouring rain.
The fact of the matter is, every moment of calm silence with these boats can seem menacing, momentous and empowering — even if they’re resting in wait, for the rain gods to relent.
In a flash, it’s true that the boat itself — anywhere between 100 and 140 feet in length — can seem like a wild animal, poised and ready to pounce. It’s a sight that can get the hairs at the back of your neck to stand on end — and that’s a good thing, in this scenario.
Try and build a picture in your mind, if you will, of a typical snake boat racing team — all charged up, bristling with vigour, fully trained to be completely in order, and never out of sync for a single moment.
This is, after all, the biggest competition of its kind in this part of the globe. And the energies all around are as infectious, as they are invigorating.
Just as they’d be poised and ready at the starting line, waiting for the shot of an airgun — in the torrential downpours too, you’d see the teams sitting still, as motionless as you can expect, with bated breath and rows held aloft — waiting for the call for their next race...
In a league of its own
On a clear morning, the team spirit on board each boat gets you under your skin. At full clip, with every hand on board working at maximum strength, it’s the rhythm and chant of each team that you hold onto the strongest.
It’s a transfixing sight, of the striking of the oars on the water — all splashing in unison, with the same team chant held at each rower’s lips, like a shared prayer and war cry, all rolled into one.
The repeated blowing of whistles, and the driving beat held by the onboard drummers, makes for a frantic soundtrack to all the andrenalin-fuelled action that unfolds with each race.
The mood and tempo for the ongoing Champions Boat League was really set at its inauguration earlier on, in the last week of August.
As cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar stepped onto a floating boat, waving all around to an estimated 200,000 fans gathered on both sides of the waterway, leading up to the main stage of the tournament — the atmosphere was no less raucous and spirited than of any Indian Premier League match.
As it stands, the snake boat races bear with them the promise of a true world-class sporting event, and the tourney has been modelled on the IPL format.
Choppy waters, heavy rain
At the opening ceremony, pretty much all of God’s own country had descended around these waters, and the festive energy was hardly dampened by a few short, sharp bursts of monsoon showers.
(The showers were relatively short in comparison to the deluges that followed, and expected over the next weeks, going by official forecasts).
Over a few days of trials, fans got to witness the nine teams competing for the big trophy — all supercharged and stoutly spirited, with each team making its call known across the waters.
Each boat has teams of up to 100 rowers in all, and the unified splashes are swift, clipped and hustled to an extreme, rather than just rhythmic and graceful, as with rowing a kayak.
Immediately, one thing was clear — what the Champions Boat League has going, in no less terms is brute, raw, tremendous energy. And with every splash of the rows, the crowd only amplified the energy back over the waters, and into the rain-laden skies above.
For its debut this year, backed by the Kerala state government, the CBL has roped in nine teams in all, who first competed in the Nehru Trophy.
Based on their finishing time in the Nehru Trophy, nine of them proceeded to the League, even as government officials shared a larger vision of the CBL becoming an INR 150-crore event within the next five years, expectedly cashing in on live telecasts and sponsorship rights.
Talking finances, the Kerala government reportedly allocated INR 40 crore for the event, which will be held at 12 different venues across the state, with a forecasted revenue of INR 20 crore through ticket sales and sponsorships.
As for the prize money, the first place brings with it a cash bounty of INR 25 lakh, INR 15 lakh for the runners-up, and INR 10 lakh for the third place. By all accounts, the money is not a concern for the league to stay afloat.
Though, it’s the personal stories of the rowers, the trainers, and their livelihoods of choice — with rowing as a seasonal avocation, fetching them an estimated INR 1,000 per race — that continue to make inspiring stories.
Photo-finish in a steady drizzle
The names of the teams themselves are no less inspired than of any other league — and here too, you can expect legions of Knights, Warriors, Ninjas and so on.
By the third week of October, the team Tropical Titans seemed set to win the big final, notching up a hefty total of 98 points after the seventh round.
As with every race so far, there’s inevitably a photo-finish at the end of the 900-metre watercourse. As news trickled in about these results, a special mention was made to note that camera assistance was required for the judges to declare the runners up, Backwater Knights (second) and Mighty Oars (third) — with a difference of milliseconds between the second and sixth positions.
The Titans had emerged as victors in the race just prior to this one, held at the equally picturesque Muziris Heritage Waterfront, even as Raging Rowers and Backwater Knights came in second and third — in a race held despite a steady drizzle.
If the sweat glistening off the rowers’ backs wasn’t enough to get you all stirred up, the contrast of the rain drenching the boats only made the victory rounds that much sweeter.
The Muziris venue also served as a subtle reminder of Kerala’s other major cultural initiative — the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the next edition of which is set to be held in 2020, curated by Shubigi Rao. Until then, all eyes are on the Champions Boat League, to become the next big tourist attraction in the state.
The hosts are quite clear about turning these events into something of a cultural phenomenon. A race at Kottappuram, for instance, included a host of cultural programmes including Ente Keralam, a dance production by artistes from Kalamandalam as well as the ritualistic Theyyam art, and a Malabar-Arabic dance performance.
All in all, there’s much reason for cheer and celebration here, even if seen as emotional bursts to get over the deluges of the season. To be sure, they’re all closely watching the cyclone warnings going ahead — even as the practice runs continue full-steam.
Back at a training session, some of us were given exclusive access to interact with a few rowers, and their trainers. It’s one thing to realise the mixed backgrounds of so many of the rowers — from skilled workmen and labourers to professionals with full-time jobs, and even priests, all coming together for this event.
And, the promise of being a rower is rarely ever in the hope of making a pot load of money; rather, the passion is entirely fueled by a seasoned community spirit, even as most of the teams are funded by local groups — well-wishers, communal patrons, large families and even the neighbourhood churches.
Interestingly, there’s a healthy mix of North Indians in the fray, and amidst the strident traditional ‘vanchipattu’ poetry in Malayalam sung in perfect rhythm, you’re also likely to hear the occasional singsong calls in Hindi, and even in English.
On a lighter note, if you pay close attention, you’d get to pick up the names of some of the Hindu deities and Christian religous figures whose names the rowers beseech, in the heat of all the action.
More than a few of those prayers, you can be sure, are for the rain gods to relent.
The boat clubs at play
• Pallathuruthi Boat Club, Alappuzha — Tropical Titans
• Police Boat Club — Raging Rowers
• United Boat Club, Kuttamangalam, Kainakary — Coast Dominators
• NCDC/Kumarakom — Mighty Oars
• Village Boat Club Edathua — Backwater Knights
• KBC/SFBC, Kumarakom — Thunder Oars
• Vembanad Boat Club, Kumarakom — Pride Chasers
• Town Boat Club, Kumarakom — Backwater Warriors
• Brothers Boat Club, Edathua — Backwater Ninjas
Follow Champions Boat League on Facebook for updates, and check local timings for the final CBL race schedules. The writer was in Alleppey by invitation from the CBL.
— Jaideep Sen