In search of the fastest fisherman

A sense of urgency hangs about the boats moored at Elliot’s beach. There are 25 of them, gathered from Chennai, Thiruvallur, and Kanchipuram districts, side by side on the sand. It’s minutes before flag-off at the fibre boat race organised by Ocean Awareness and Association of Chennai Thiruvallur District Progressive Fisherman. Participating fishermen go over last minute checks, wiping off a spot of spilled diesel here; tightening a rope there.

Boat mechanic M Ashok calibrates the 10hp engine of the boat which G Palani and three others will sail. “The engine’s previous speed was quite low since it was maintained at a setting suitable for fishing. It has to be increased now,” says Ashok, looking up from the engine. Nearby, M Sudhakar and his fellow fishermen from Kottivakkam stand next to their fibre boat craning their necks towards the event’s stage behind Schmidt Memorial, where Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar just arrived.

In search of the fastest fisherman

“There are three boats from Kottivakkam participating in the race,” explains Sudhakar. “There will be four men in each.” The boats were shortlisted by organising an internal race in the area. “We organise one every year,” he adds. Just then, a passer-by chips in: “Kottivakkam is like Argentina in football matches. They always win.” Sudhakar grins, “We’re winning, yes.”

The boat’s speed is determined by its engine’s efficiency; but it all comes down to the man controlling the engine, for the speed to be harnessed well. He is called ‘Jackie’, the key player in the team. Jackie’s stamina is crucial to win the race,” explains fisherman P Sivakumar.

“Two people will press down the bow as it runs in the water; this is to further enhance the speed.” Sivakumar adds that the boats will cover a kilometre in 10 minutes on average. “When we go fishing, we take almost 20 minutes to cover the same distance.”

In search of the fastest fisherman

The mike blares an announcement: “The race is about to begin, will the participants be prepared?” Soon, the eight fibre boats participating in the first leg of the race — there will be two laps through which the top three will be selected — line themselves on the shoreline, their hulls ready to charge into the waves.

The organisers jog about with walkie-talkies giving instructions; drones hover above, their cameras taking in the goings-on. Participants shout out to their team-mates over the sound of the waves as they take positions. Twelve-year-old P Manikandan stands with his hands ready to push a boat into the water along with men much older than him. He’s not a participant though. “This is my chithappa’s (uncle’s) boat. My father’s is too heavy for the race.” He’s from the nearby Urur-Olcott kuppam and is part of an army of little boys who’ve come to root for their respective localities.

And then it begins: the boats tear into the water, lunging forward like a mammoth living creature. The men who control them, leap on-board giving the boats a muscle-exploding push so that they slip off the shore with a certain awkward grace. Within seconds, they resemble flecks against the blue expanse. We wait on the beach with our eyes narrowed — two referee boats float at a distance as markers; participants reach them and turn back.

The crowd becomes louder as the boats come closer — who is leading? “Dei it’s ours!” exclaims 13-year-old V Akash from Urur-Olcott kuppam. “I can see it. We’re going to win” It’s neck-to-neck. The men steer the boats with a madness that defies the waves. They soon hit the shore — seconds from one another. Neelankarai wins. Akash is disappointed. But he runs towards his kuppam’s boat; it doesn’t matter that they lost. The men are heroes in his eyes.

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