They are small, super-fast and technically advanced. Radio-controlled boats are slowly gathering speed among geeky students and professionals for whom building a boat is as exciting as racing one in a neighbourhood lake
In the heart of Odisha's Rayagada district, where 2,812 out of 7,584 sq kilometres of the land is covered by forests and 56 per cent of the population is tribal, lives a mechanical engineer whose hobby has been a source of amusement for the locals.
Made-to-scale version of Maharana's INS Chappal, complete with lights
and tiny details
In 1984, when Satya Brata Maharana was in class 10, his uncle, an instructor in the Indian Navy stationed at Behrampur, gifted him a model ship-building kit. To his uncle's surprise, he built the model in minutes. Twenty five years later, after establishing a successful printing business, Maharana thought it was time to bring back the boat. In 2009, after weeks of online research, he set up a small workshop in his garage, applying his engineering skills to build a precise-to-scale Radio Controlled (RC) boat.
SB Maharana's blueprint for The Mistral
"To get back to what I was passionate about, my business had to take a back seat. Building model boats is popular abroad, but in India, no one cares. I want to promote the trend," says Maharana over the phone.
The 40 year-old mastered the skill and built more than 14 to-scale RC boats (including models of ships like the INS Chakra), and set up a YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/adityagraphics) to display his work and share his expertise. "Within two years it became the most viewed Youtube channel in Asia, with more than one lakh views," he says.
Nineteen years younger, Akash GN shares Maharana's passion. When he was 14 years old, Akash signed up for the Cubbon Park summer camp in Bengaluru to learn the basics of making static and working boat models. Seven years later, the hobby has turned into what he admits is an obsession.
"Initially, I made one boat a year. But for the past two years, I have been making four or five a year. The biggest boat I have created is a metre long," says the engineering student.
Engineering students like him are Vinod Satwani's biggest clients. The owner of Jack's Hobby Store in Secunderabad delivers assembled, imported RC boats and materials to build model RC boats across India. "Every year, between 45 to 60 final year engineering students approach us for electrical parts, batteries and motors to build boats. Often, they create planes, helicopters and boats as part of their academic projects," he says.
Satwani also gets clients, who seek to relieve stress and enjoy the speed thrill by pursuing boat-making and racing. "Everyone from doctors to builders have been investing serious money and time into this hobby," says Satwani. "The Jindals have a huge farm house with a pool, close to Delhi, where they park such boats," he says about one of India's biggest industrial families.
The scope in India
Despite the spurt in online stores that offer all you need to build an RC boat, the hobby hasn't gained as much steam as building RC planes, helicopters, and RC cars. One reason could be a lack of information. Kushal Singh, owner of Mumbai-based India ATV store says curious individuals may have spotted model boats in hobby stores on trips abroad, and may want to pursue the hobby, but they are unaware of the presence of agents who retail special fuel, motors and spares in their own country.
Akash zeroes in on what could be another key reason -- the lack of water bodies where these boats can be test driven or raced. Finding a spot to fly RC planes is relatively easier. It's not surprising then says Satwani, that the boats are popular in the coastal areas of Kerala, Chennai and West Bengal.
Where to begin
Unlike aeromodelling hobbyists, who have local clubs to fall back on for discussions and tips, RC boat enthusiasts have to rely on Google. "I spend a considerable amount of time online, looking at ship and boat models, chatting with veterans on Internet forums. I have been lucky. There have been occasions when old timers have got back to me with detailed ship model-building plans," says Akash.
One such Indian forum that is popular with RC enthusiasts, including planes, cars, and trains, is www.rcindia.org. Veterans and beginners are constantly discussing specifications, details, the building process, raw materials used and the final outcome of their creations (with visual support) on the forum. Old hands like Maharana are happy to share valuable tips.
"A friend had an RC boat, and that got me interested. I looked up a few videos on YouTube, searched for design inspiration, and started my own building process. Seniors like Srikanth (an RC member) guided me," says 20 year-old Ghanshyam Patwa, a third year engineering student from Acharya Institute of Technology, Bengaluru.
"The idea of launching a YouTube channel was to promote the hobby and to enable students to watch the building process and learn from it. Students are more than welcome to come and sit in at my workshop, as long as they don't disturb me," adds Maharana.
The raw materials
Most beginners find it easy to start with imported model ship-building kits, motors, speed controllers and batteries available at several specialised hobby stores that have sprung up across the country. Individual styles emerge in the painting and styling of the finished product.
And yet, most model ship builders say Indian stores do not meet all their requirements. "Often, the electronic parts have to be imported from Hong Kong, the US or Australia. You can place an order online of course, and have them delivered to you in a week. Custom duties, however, are erratic," says Patwa.
The more experienced builders prefer experimenting with materials ranging from fibre glass, balsa wood and PVC sheets to thermocol to build the hull of their boats. "I buy wood, fibre glass and other basic building materials from local stores. Rayagada is one of the poorest districts in the country. So, if I can manage, no one else should have a problem," laughs Maharana.
The urban building junkies who may not have the time to manufacture and build boats, but wish to enjoy the rush of racing the machines, can check out hobby stores like India ATV (indiaatv.com) that import ready-to-race assembled RC Boats from the US and Taiwan. These are available for anywhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 35,000, and are also slowly finding takers in Indian markets, especially Mumbai.
India ATV also gives you the option of importing models of your choice from abroad. Their team of architects and designers can modify the boats according to your specifications. But for serious hobbyists like Patwa and Maharana, it's the drilling, hammering and carving that make it worthwhile.
"The assembled boats don't leave you with scope to use your imagination. You don't decide how your boat will look or feel," says Patwa.
Your guide to the RC Boat
RC boats are of two kinds: Those that run on Lithium batteries, and others run on a special model fuel mix (mainly methanol-based). The lithium batteries are available at hobby stores, and the fuel needs a mix of methanol and specific oil for lubrication (Satwani of Jack Hobby Stores is happy to help you figure the right proportion to meet your requirements.)
The fuel costs between Rs 300 and Rs 350 a litre, and 300 ml of fuel can give you a run time of about 20 minutes. Fully charged Lithium batteries give you about 15-20 minutes of run time. These boats can reach speeds of between 75 and 90 km/hr but the size and weight of the boat and the power of the motor/engine are factors to consider.
The engines used in these boats are water-cooled engines. If you want to buy an assembled RC boat, spares from US-based Cen racing are widely sold and are reliable.