The phrase ‘sailing through life’ has quite a different meaning for Vishnu Saravanan. He first went out sailing on the open waters of the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, at the age of nine, with his father Ramachandran Saravanan, a former Army man. Since then, the open waters have been his playground.
Unlike the leisurely images that the word sailing conjures in India, where it is still a niche activity, competitive sailing is a different beast altogether. The sport brings you closer to the elements and forces you to grapple with them. In the Laser Standard Class, a category in which Vishnu competes, sailors manoeuvre a 59kg boat using every ounce of their body weight. Sitting on one edge of the boat, leaning the torso at a ridiculously obtuse angle, with a band at the ankles catching all the weight and holding the sailors in place, they control the reins of the sail with one hand and steer the boat with the other.
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“Sailing is like a marathon, not a sprint,” says Saravanan over the phone. “We race over six days. There are two races on every day and each race lasts for about 50 minutes. It’s a long 50 minutes in the sun and the water and we have to focus a 100 per cent.”
Currently the highest-ranked Indian in Laser Standard Class at 57, Vishnu did just that to secure an Olympic berth. The 22-year-old finished second at the Mussanah Championships in Oman in April to make the cut for Tokyo 2020.
Saravanan grew up playing a variety of sports, from tennis to javelin throw. In fact, he was even selected for the junior nationals for javelin. Always a “fit guy”, as he puts it, it was only in 2018 that he realised just how fit he needs to be to take on a physical sport like sailing.
One of the biggest pressure points of his sport is endurance. “If you can hold a plank for 50 minutes you will be okay,” he laughs. Sailors use core and lower body strength to make sure the boat, powered by its billowing sail, stays as flat as possible. The flatter the boat, the faster it goes.
“Sailing puts a lot of load on legs, core, back and arms. We need extreme core strength to hang from a position. Stamina is very important also because you need to push on Day 6 just as hard as you did on Day 1,” explains Saravanan, who is a Subedar in the Indian Army.
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“All the joints – knees, back, ankle – have to be very strong and mobile. Back, knee and shoulder are the most common injuries in sailing. We always try to work on it. Sometimes we also need the anaerobic capacity to move and jerk quickly. So we do explosive workouts to get the fast twitch fibres firing.”
Even though Saravanan has been hard at work for the past few seasons, it was the pandemic lockdown last year that helped him get in the best shape to excel at the Mussanah Championship, which was an Olympic qualifying event. Saravanan, who was in Malta during the lockdown, had a three-week block of training where he did not go into the water at all.
“Each race is held over 12 kms, which is 24 kms a day. But in training we do about 33-35km a day,” he says. “When you sail for that long you only have time for recovery or light gym sessions. But during the lockdown I had so much time to concentrate on the physical work because I was always lacking in stamina. I lifted heavy weights and did proper workouts on the rowing machine.”
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One of the more extreme tasks Saravanan undertook was in April last year, when he tied himself to the back of a car and pulled it. “I did that to improve my back and core strength,” he said. “But the car was too light. My coach had to keep applying the brakes (to increase resistance). Maybe next time I can try it with an Army truck!”
Since sailing is anyway tough on the joints, athletes resort to non-impact cardio workouts like spin bikes and rowing machine. All of their cardio drills are done on sand, again to minimise impact. For a more functional exercises, sailors turn to the hiking bench. “It is for the legs, quadriceps and hamstrings,” says Saravanan. “That’s the position we are in on the boat, it’s a very painful position. You can barely do two minutes like that.”
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In an endurance sport like sailing, nutrition plays a vital role. Sailors burn up to 3,000 calories during a race day. “We have to eat double the number of calories,” says Saravanan. “Which means 6,000 calories a day, broken up into five meals.” And there’s no place for chocolates or sweets. “For recovery, we are told to eat red meat or protein shakes.”
Now back home at the Army Yachting Node in Mumbai, the Indian sailor is keeping a close eye on his diet. He has also built a gym in his house to make sure he doesn’t miss a day of training as the Tokyo Olympics closes in.
“I am still very young,” he said. “My speed is good, but a lot of my competitors are a lot more experienced than me. In reality, for this Olympic Games I just want to be in the top 50 percent and let the others take pressure. I’ll leave it to them to make mistakes; I’ll sail my own race.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.