When Admiral Arun Prakash goes for his morning swim in the Arabian Sea off Goa—where he lives—he is troubled by what he does not see. “I don’t see a single Indian!” exclaimed the admiral, former chief of naval staff, during the Goa literature festival two months ago. “There are tourists, but no Indians.”

That sums up the uneasy relationship Indians have with the sea, despite the fact that it laps at 5,700km of our coastline. We don’t swim, surf or sail, which is why the 2009 voyage of Commander Dilip Donde, the man Prakash cleared to be the first Indian to circumnavigate the Earth solo under sail—becoming only the 175th man ever—was particularly remarkable. When I first listened—riveted—to Commander Dilip Donde, 48, narrate bits of his epic voyage, he made particular mention of how, despite the naval chief’s go ahead, he first spent a couple of years navigating a naval and civilian bureaucracy completely at sea, so to say, with the demands of circumnavigating the planet. He talked of officials who asked him: “Why do you want to do this in the first place?”; and “if your boat has an engine, why don’t you use it?”; and of the absurd conditions they tried to force on him, such as requiring his 27m mast to be foldable so it could pass under bridges. It was, he was to write later, easier to navigate the menacing Southern Ocean than it was South Block.

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