Two men and a boat — India’s Team Sea Sakthi races in Monaco but for a local cause

While India is shifting to electric cars on road, a group of Coimbatore students thinks electric boats are the future of Tamil Nadu's fishing community.

The Yali boat, prepared for the Monaco Energy Boat Challenge | Photo arranged by Sowmiya Ashok
The Yali boat, prepared for the Monaco Energy Boat Challenge | Photo arranged by Sowmiya Ashok

A few weeks ago, a group of engineering students from Kumaraguru College of Technology, Coimbatore, weren’t even sure if their 310-kg energy-efficient boat would stay afloat; if its nuts and bolts would remain intact at sea at all. Today, Yali — named after a mythical creature — is in Monaco to compete in an international energy boat challenge with participants from 22 countries.

The boat, with its white rudders, a lithium-ion battery, a small solar panel, and a cockpit, was built in less than 10 days. “Our first question when the crane dropped Yali onto the water was whether it would float or not,” recollected Swaminathan C., a second-year Mechatronics Engineering student at KCT. He spoke to ThePrint from the ‘Garage’ – an automotive research forum inside the campus — a day before the team left for Europe. The forum is where students build electric cars and bikes and race them at the national level.

Swami is one of two pilots who will ride Yali this week when ‘Team Sea Sakthi’ becomes the first Indian team to participate in the Monaco Energy Boat Challenge (MEBC). The tournament kicks off on Monday. Organised by the Yacht Club de Monaco, the MEBC gives participants an opportunity to develop ‘alternative propulsion systems’ using only clean energy sources to ‘power the yachting of tomorrow’.

The competition is deceptively simple: Participants construct sustainable and innovative boats and pit them against each other. India, Indonesia, and China are the only three Asian countries participating this year. Three categories of innovations enter the competition: Solar, energy, and open sea. The Indian team will participate in the energy category, one of the races involves riding the boat in circles for three hours as an endurance race. The other is an obstacle race where participants have to steer the boat around conical barriers, or simply race against teams from other countries.

The genesis of Yali

Four months after Team Sea Sakthi’s journey began, Yali was ready to be packed up and shipped off to Monaco. The team’s Instagram account, late on Thursday posted photos of the boat in Monaco while the members were in transit at the Dubai airport. After reaching France, the team then proceeded on a bus to Monaco. It was a frenetic four months right up to the very end.

Last December, two KCT students – Mohan R. and Anandh B. – tried their luck and applied for the MEBC. Responding to the calls for sending in their design, the duo followed the 100-page technical document sent to them and submitted a software rendering of their energy boat. When they were selected — a momentous occasion, as India had never been selected before — 200 students from KCT applied for various positions to make up Team Sea Sakthi. By February, 14 members were enrolled. “The idea was to have a diverse team of students,” said Sanaa Mohammad, lead management and operations.

Team Sea Sakhti | Photo arranged by Sowmiya Ashok
Team Sea Sakhti | Photo arranged by Sowmiya Ashok

Swami, however, described just how stressful things got in early May when they had to meet the deadline to build the boat. It had to be shipped by 11 May. “We were aiming to have built the boat by April second week, but a lot of the components we needed like lithium-ion batteries and the propulsion systems had to be imported,” he said. “We received everything in a five-day bracket between 25 and 30 April and set to work. It was really the first time many of us were even seeing such components.”

While the team worked day and night to meet the deadline, Swami’s colleagues joked that he had an additional task of putting on weight to be eligible. The thin, young man had to weigh at least 60 kg while wearing all his safety gear to ride safely in the cockpit. “I weigh 60 kg now,” he told The Print, while Sanaa teased: “He has been eating more in the weeks leading up to the competition.”

It was 9 May when they took Yali to sea for the first time on a test ride. That morning, the team gathered at the Seamen’s Club, Chennai Port and watched the crane deposit the boat on the water. Mohan R., the lead mechanical systems in-charge and the other pilot, successfully manoeuvred the boat – with its white rudders, an electrical battery, a small solar panel, and a cockpit – for 200 metres. He was greeted by cheers and hoots from the rest of the team members.

“The beauty is that neither of the two pilots even knew how to swim before preparing for this competition. They had never been this close to the water before,” said Sanaa. In fact, all 14 members of Team Sea Sakthi belong to landlocked villages, towns, or cities of Tamil Nadu. “The boys had to go to Cochin to get their powerboat licence, which involved being buoyant in the water for 12-15 hours daily!” added Sanaa.

Swami recollected the time in Cochin as a constant feeling of being afloat. “Even theory classes were taught on a boat out at sea. One second you would be asked to operate the boat, the next, they would have thrown you into the water,” said Swami. “You have to remain buoyant without panicking and splashing around.”


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Eyes on broader goals

Sanaa spoke of the broader ‘cultural aspect’ that the project is rooted in. “Tamil Nadu comes from a rich marine heritage, and we are participating in this challenge on behalf of the fisherfolk of the state,” she said. “When the team built this boat, it was with a social aspect in mind, one that would help the fishing community. “During our research, we found that one lakh fishing boats in Tamil Nadu relied on conventional fuel like petrol and diesel,” she added.

To address this, the team has some plans in mind. “After the competition is over, we want to redesign the boat in a way that makes it useful for normal fishermen. We want to design the motor instead of importing it,” Sanaa said. “India is making a move from conventional to electric cars on the road. Given that the country is surrounded by water, maybe it’s time to make a move towards electrification of the water transport sector as well.”

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)