Short, hour-long cruises on Goa’s Mandovi River, are packing in tourists by the deck full. The seated cruise chugs up the river, to the strains of Bollywood music and a cultural package of Goan dance routines, which are done on a makeshift stage in front of rows of plastic chairs. For domestic holidaymakers, keen to pack in as much as one can on a short holiday, the Mandovi cruise boats are a must on the tourist checklist.
The Goan riverside and water experience is diversifying a lot more. Private yacht charters, the big luxury experience, are slowly but surely finding takers. With more yachts making their appearance on quaysides here, there is a lot more to choose from. “People, especially domestic visitors are not yet aware that a laidback, completely private and exclusive yachting and sailing experience is possible in Goa, that allows small groups to charter a yacht,” says Himanshu Jain, who manages the George Duglas Yacht Sailing Charter company for its Russian owners. With 12 boats, which include speed boats and four yachts — two French made Lagoons (44 ft and 35 ft) and two Bayliners — the company has since November 2011, diversified from renting luxury villas to boat charters. Equipped with cabins, and staff, the yachts take around 10 to 20 people on day cruises, sunset cruises, two-hour cruises, island hopping or overnight stays. “It gets affordable if the cost is split amongst a large group,” says Jain, who has had even student groups from Symbiosis pooling in for a two-hour luxury cruise along scenic backwaters. Jain plans to throw in underwater treasure hunt cruises, which are likely to go down better with Russian and European clients that now comprise 60 per cent of his sales.
The scenario is slowly changing though. Indian corporates are opting for the yachting experience to host unique launches, reward executives, host private parties etcetera. Yachts are also gradually becoming a great favourite for celebrating anniversaries or family occasions. Advertisements and film shoots are regular takers of yachts. Recently, actor Akshay Kumar hired the yellow and white Ciao Bella yacht, for a four-hour private party to celebrate father-in-law Rajesh Khanna’s birthday with a trip around the Goa coast. When he did, the brand new 2012 model 42-ft Squadron Fairline yacht had just begun its operations for the O Hotels, Candolim. “As an add-on service for our guests, the yacht is doing very well, with mainly businessmen and celebrities chartering her,” says Mario Nazareth, sales manager for the hotel. Gourmet meals with a private butler service are some of the trimmings thrown in along with the submersible swim platforms, and state-of-the-art navigation systems. Though its two Volvo Penta engines can go up to 26 knots an hour and has a fuel tank capacity to do 350 nautical miles, which can take a Mumbai-Goa run — it has for the time being limited itself to runs up to Karwar and Vengurla.
Unlike the George Duglas yachts, the Ciao Bella finds more takers from among the domestic market. Executives and CEOs from Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore are the main customer base for the Lady M —the luxury French made Lagoon yacht that is selectively hired out by the Milestone Hotel Group, owners of the Goa 360 and Mykonos Blue boutique hotels in North Goa. The three-cabin catamaran is hired out for Rs 25,000 an hour, minimum two hours, which is the standard yacht hire rate here, though negotiations are possible with some companies. “We are a bit selective while renting out the yachts, as people don’t know much about yachting etiquette in India. Some rules that we follow are no footwear on board, no smoking and no food in the stateroom,” says Mamta Sharma, Executive Director of the Milestone Hotel Group. Yachts come with on board with small pantries, but most luxury yacht operators prefer to take pre-cooked meals for guests. At the Seven Star hotel, The Lalit Resort and Spa, the late Lalit Suri’s yacht the M V Blue Diamond is now moored off the property’s private beach, and chartered out to guests from the hotel and other neighbouring hotels. At Rs 18,400 an hour, guests prefer the sunset cruises or dolphin cruise trips along the coast.
Solita, a wooden, Cochin-built yacht sailing since 1993 along Goa’s backwaters and islands was once, the luxury yacht plying the upper end luxury segment here, much before many of the super-rich bought their own beauties. “Nowadays, the market is definitely headed for speed boats and power boats, but the Solita has her fans, and we sail at least thrice a week,” says Sucheta Potnis, who runs Odyssey Tours and Travels with her Dutch husband, Hans Tuinman. Hire charges on the Solita are Rs 15,000 an hour, and many local industrialists or those with holiday homes here, prefer hiring the Solita for five days at a stretch, to avoid the hassle of owning their own boat. Former Air Force group Captain, Ranjan Bhattarcharya runs his Scaramanga Boat Service from Coco beach in North Goa, since he relocated here in 2008. “I don't see sailing catching on big time in India, but we are trying to bridge the gap.” He operates two speedboats and a sailboat built locally in Goa. A sailing catamaran, Moonbeam comes at Rs 7,000 an hour, with two non air-conditioned berths and a party catamaran comes at Rs 10,000 an hour. These boats are not in the luxury segment at all, but get hired out for parties a great deal. In the mid and non-luxury segment, the coastline offers a number of wooden dhows and sailing boats, even a couple of Kerala house boats, that offer classic sailing experiences, with non air-conditioned berths.
Like the Blue Diamond and Lady M, yachts sometimes start out as privately owned crafts purchased by their owners, but are later hired out selectively, via hotels and charter companies. Former Congress minister Dayanand Narvekar shortly plans to hire out his own second hand Sea Ray that he currently uses on private family and fishing trips. He also owns Rigour speedboats. His company, Golden Heritage Cruises, will begin hiring out the yacht and a couple of Rigour boats from next year. Meanwhile, he feels the state has to pursue its natural strengths to encourage yachting. “Goa requires a marina board,” he says.
Clearly, though, business is way ahead of infrastructure and laws. Hotelier and businessman Varun Sood says, “The laws in India are so outdated, that permissions to sail up and down the coast are near impossible.” Sood went through the trouble of buying a 75-foot Turkish wooden gullet schooner in the Black Sea, and having her sail two oceans to Goa. With 16 berths and a crew of six, the Jabuticaba could barely operate in Goa, due to lack of docking space in the much-in-demand jetties of the Mandovi river, already brimming with restaurant boats, casino ships, their motor launches and open deck tourist catamarans. Sood’s brother now operates the Jabuticaba in Thailand. Security concerns also restricted the Solita’s cruises to waters around Goa, though Odyssey Tours initially planned to run her for a week long Mumbai-Goa trip, with pit stops along small Maharashtra ports, to take in sea facing forts on the western coast. Yacht tours and cruises have come a long way from the initial distrust they were treated with, and in the past eight years, things have changed for the better avers Potnis.
But sailing enthusiasts and yacht owners still find the absence of a marina a big hindrance to expansion. A yachting station run by a Mumbai-based marina company is the only proper facility that can accommodate 20 yachts in North Goa, with power, water supply and berthing. Others make do with private wooden pontoons that require Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) permissions, or use old fishing jetties or anchor mid stream.Sailing and yachting enthusiast Umaji Chowgule, of the Chowgule Mining group, has plans to construct a marina in South Goa on the Zuari river, much after government initiatives to set one up in North Goa never got off the water.“Goa offers probably the best sailing location anywhere on the western coast of India, and has a lot of potential to become the boating capital of India,” says Chowgule. But actualizing that potential is not without its problems, as plans for marinas do impinge on traditional fisherman and Riparian Rights (Under the Riparian Principle, all landowners whose property is adjoining a body of water, have the right to make reasonable use of it) along its five navigable rivers and 555-km of inland waterways.
>> Rs 25,000 an hour is the standard yacht hire rate, though this can be negotiable.
>> Indian corporates opt for the yachting experience.
>> Private owners are renting out their luxury boats.
>> Skeletal infrastructure and outdated laws are a problem.
>> Need for more awareness about yachting etiquette in India.
>> Absence of marinas is an obstacle to expansion.