A boat on Nainital usually means one of two things: either a swan-shaped plastic contraption with cycling pedals, being propelled by grinning tourists taking selfies, or a more elegant wooden long boat being rowed by a local Kumaoni, with grinning tourists taking selfies. The first weekend of November was different. After 32 years, this tal (lake), the most famous in Uttarakhand, saw boats with candy-striped sails setting out to win a trophy. There were plenty of grins and selfies, but also a fierce competitive spirit.
The Governor’s Gold Cup Sailing Regatta was held from October 31 to November 2, a historic event of sorts. After the exit of the British, the boat racing tradition here gradually fell into decline, until it stopped altogether. The boat house remained, more as a place for tourists to grab an evening drink than for sailing. But local yacht owners, such as the proprietor of Naini Retreat, the resort where we stayed, recently got together to revive the main reason for which the Nainital Yacht Club was set up in 1910 — it was one of the highest sailing clubs in the world, at an altitude of 2,084 metres.
This regatta was an initiative of the yacht owners, Uttarkhand Governor Dr. Aziz Qureshi and the state tourism department. The host team, Nainital Yacht Club, did not make it to the final race, but its team members cheered the finalists along. The atmosphere was electric. The two finalists, the Army and the Navy, had four boats each — an amazing sight it was, their eight sails rushing over the sparkling lake waters, while the green mountains rose all around. The mini-yachts used for the race were constructed during the early 1900s by Linton Hope, an English naval architect and yachtsman. He built these little beauties, called ‘Linton Hope Half-Raters’, especially to suit the conditions of the Naini lake. The only other place in the world where this type of boats can be found is the Royal Norfolk & Suffolk Yacht Club in England.
On the morning of the final day, we gathered at the boat club, which has a large deck, perfect for viewing the race. Made entirely of wood, the club has a certain old-world charm about it. Men and women, dressed up in their Sunday best, chattered over the endless supply of food and drinks — a very English affair. A hint of breeze ruffled the lake surface, which glimmered like a thousand diamonds under the sun. The tiny yachts with their colourful sails made the whole scene resemble a picture postcard.
The first race of the morning saw the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association team finish third and the host team in fourth position. The final race between the Army and the Navy was flagged off by the Vice-Admiral of the Indian Navy. The Navy yacht crews seemed to have a way with water — wind conditions change constantly on the lake, requiring great skill with adjusting the sails — and they led from the beginning. The Army was almost neck and neck, though, and all pulses raced on the viewing deck as the Kumaon Regiment Band played the background music.
The Navy won the regatta. The prize distribution in the evening, with the boat club all strung up with lights, was a magical end to a great contest, in which the real victor was the sailing tradition of Nainital. The cherry on the cake? Next year, said the Governor, this regatta will go international.