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Travel & Discovery

Snake Boats Of India

René and Edith are still in India, where they have sailed most of the western coastline and are staying in the city of Cochin on their beloved classic sailing yacht Alondra. Edith, now 5-months pregnant, and René are working on the maintenance while enjoying the vibrant and frantic culture of this majestic yet almost impossible to live in country.

Just below the port city of Cochin, where the Volvo Ocean Race was held in December 2008, a vast inland waterway area is created. The popular means of transport there is the ‘snake boat’, a 100 to 120-foot long wooden canoe. Once a year, mega-snake boats meet for the National Championship. René and Edith found out all about this magical race.

“More than a hundred?” I ask again, doubtfully. “Yes, sometimes 115 men row!” the man replies as I look at the over 40-metre long and 1-metre wide colossus on our side.

What strikes me the most about this snake boat, is the perfection with which it is made. It is incomprehensible how such a streamlined and sturdy boat can be put together with only a hammer and a chisel. Every 70 centimetres there are cross-connections between the rafters which later serve as seats for rowers.

Originally these long snake boats were used for warfare. These stretched canoes can not only take many warriors with them, but they can also achieve great speeds and engage in combat with each other. Now, 300 years later, there is still a battle on the water. And here in Kerala, it is the event of the year. The very best boats with the very best rowers are allowed to participate and enjoy great fame.

While there are more races during the year, Alleppey is the most important one. Months of preparation precede the event, and bets on the final 19 boats are promptly closed. For weeks the media keeps an eye on everything and everyone, and the national newspapers are full of the daily happenings on everything around the race. Edith and I decide we’re going to join the craziness and travel to where it happens, Alleppey.

“Yes, come in! You should even look into my office!” says a somewhat chubby man proudly while he leads us into his castle-like house. Yes, if they are rich in India, then they are really rich! The house looks more like a palace, and the office resembles a ballroom, and I doubt if the owner ever sits or works here. The walls are filled with prizes, jars metres high, and photos of Arun’s snake boat. Arun is in the wood trade. Owning the boat earned him even more prestige and respect. With a lot of love and even more money, a racing miracle is treated like a true champion. This Formula 1 boat has its own house and maintenance team and is treated with oil and attention.

Amazed at the apparent fame, I ask who the rowers are. “Well,” Arun nods weightily, “that is a very important job for me.” Weeks of discussions precede the assignment to the rowing club. Only the best are allowed to compete for Arun’s favours, and after numerous discussions, tactical oversights and politics, they finally get chosen for the event. Then follows a period of heavy training, and finally comes the day of the race to determine success or disaster.

Two days before the start of the race Edith and I are watching several snake boats exploring the two-kilometre course set out in the main channel. Closely followed by anyone that has a press card. Every rower, 113 per boat, is profiled in the press with intrigue.

And then the day of the race is upon us. Everyone who is anyone in Cochin’s society is there. Hundreds of thousands crowd the banks with police boats, or whatever passes for that, making the chaos complete. Arun confidently strides into the floating stadium along the track, stared at by the crowd, shaking hands with ministers, escorted by the ever-helpful police force. Edith gets another wink, and, like a true ruler, he gets one of the very best places in the house together with his family.

I am aboard a friend’s speedboat to watch the whole thing from nearby. Edith has managed to get a place on the TV tower, a perfect spot to watch the race. Right in front of me, the first boat is already sinking. There is no panic. Police boats shoot up and drag the colossus with its crew to the shore. Hundreds of spectators, often up to their waists in the water, empty the boat in minutes. The rowers, wet, climb back aboard and continue on their way.

Just when I’m starting to get used to the craziness around me, the starting gun goes off. Arun’s crew row wildly, and within seconds the snake boats spray through the water. In the middle of the boat, drummers indicate the cadence, and the captain and helpers whistle and shout at their men. Water splashes up metres high. The crowd goes insane and screams at the top of their lungs. I can already see the headlines in the newspaper.

The two boats per heat sprint towards the finish. Rowing two kilometres doesn’t seem to bother the men. The cadence remains remarkably tight, the drummers never give in, and the captain screams until the last metre because only glory awaits at the finish line. A few boats sink here and there, but the spectators on the side have no mercy. Whoever loses can count on wrath, and the winner is applauded. The owner is respected. At the end of the day, there is one champion who takes the trophy home to impress his friends and guests.

It wasn’t Arun’s day today. His champion has ‘only’ reached the quarterfinals. In the corner of my eye, I can see him heading for the exit, unaccompanied, followed by his family. A small, somewhat fat man with a boat. No victory or glory today. I take a last lukewarm sip of beer, and Edith quietly remains behind in the abandoned TV tower. Another incredible Indian day
is over…

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