For the Samudra Cup boat race, Joe Nejedly decided to participate with his wife Karen. It was the first time he was doing so. The boat was a catamaran, and there were six other competitors. The event took place on a sunny March afternoon in Panangad, 12 km from Kochi in Kerala. They set out with a stiff breeze behind them, with Nejedly as the helmsman handling the outrigger while Karen kept an eye on the sail.
A catamaran is a difficult boat. Since it has two hulls, it does not turn easily. “You have to adjust the sail at the right time to make it turn,” says Nejedly, president of the Ernakalum Sailing Club (ESC). “If you don’t do it correctly, you can get stuck. But Karen did everything right.” The couple won the race.
In the courtyard of the club that faces the backwaters, there are different boats with multi-coloured sails. These include the Topper (imported price Rs 2.70 lakh), Enterprise (Rs 2.70 lakh from Praga Marine), Laser (imported price Rs 8.50 lakh), and Optimist Racing Boat, which costs Rs 80,000 to import. Through his company Praga Marine, Nejedly makes cheaper versions of the Optimist for Rs 30,000 for children to learn sailing. He also makes catamarans and calls them GO-Cats. “GO stands for my sons Gregory and Oliver,” he says. “They are very easy to sail. Catamarans do not capsize easily.” Praga Marine’s GoCat Sailing Catamaran costs Rs 1.50 lakh.
Nejedly imported second-hand Toppers, the most popular class in the world, from Britain for Rs 1 lakh each. “It is ideal for India where we cannot afford expensive boats,” he says. Unfortunately, he had to pay a steep duty of 80 per cent. “These are sailing boats for children,” Nejedly says. “I am trying to develop a culture of sailing. But the taxes make it a huge investment for me. ”
Around 60 children trained at the club in the past few years. Two of them, Prince Noble and Manu Francis, represented Kerala at the recent National Games in the state. “They did pretty well,” says Nejedly. “They are sons of local fishermen and come from poor backgrounds. But they have shown a keenness to learn. Middle-class children have many options like cricket, badminton and tennis. For sailing, you have to spend between four and five hours every weekend. Parents are unwilling to spare so much time for sailing. But it is such a beautiful sport.”
Asked to describe its charms, Nejedly says, “You are harnessing the power of the wind to make you move forward. You are one with nature. And there is nobody around to disturb you. I encourage people to leave their mobile phones behind.”
Sometimes, the weather can get very rough. Nejedly attended the world championships in Wales in 2014. The competitors were sailing in 30 knots of wind, two miles out at sea, with huge breakers. “It was incredible to watch the skills of the sailors,” he says. “Frequently, the boats capsized, but they would right it and get on once again.”
There has been action in Kochi too. The ESC has hosted three national championships. During the last one in December 2012, there were 62 participants from all over India. Future plans include a Topper Grand Prix in May and an invitation regatta where all the boating clubs of Kerala will be invited.
Nejedly is of Czech origin. His father Josef came to India before the Second World War, settled in Coimbatore and became a successful businessman. Josef married a British woman, Audrey, whom he met at Lahore.
Nejedly was born in Coimbatore, but did his schooling and college in the UK, where he developed an interest in boats. “I love India,” he says. “I cannot imagine staying in any other place. And thanks to the backwaters, there are immense opportunities for sailing here.”