Dignity through sports is the motto that drives Suheim Sheikh, founder and president of the Yacht Club of Hyderabad, discovers SOHINI CHAKRAVORTY
If you cannot use terms like tacking, jibing, rigging, trimming and heeling in the same context then it's time you had a word with Suheim Sheikh. The founder and president of the Yacht Club of Hyderabad gives sailing lessons to school children at a boat jetty along the banks of Hussain Sagar in Sanjeevaiah Park.
He started sailing on the waters of the Hussain Sagar Lake in his early teens and went on to become the youngest commodore of the Secunderabad Sailing Club. “Right after I had participated in my first national championship in Mumbai, the lake was completely covered with weeds. There was no water in sight. It was then Osman Sagar (popularly known as Gandipet) became a spot for sailing,” he says. When N.T. Rama Rao became chief minister, the lake was finally de-weeded and became suitable for sailing again. The de-weeding machines couldn't do the job, Suheim explains. “It was NTR's idea to bring in villagers to manually pull out the weeds, which worked and also provided employment to the villagers.”
While he studied at IIT Madras Suheim continued to sail during his summer vacations. He participated in a number of national championships and won several accolades. “Two years of full-time sailing, I realized that I had no money and concentrated on my software engineering career and started my own company, SDG Software Technologies.” After a 12 year gap, he sold the company and took up sailing once again.
“The sport has given me so much that I decided it was time to do something for the sport. The Hussain Sagar Lake is an international location for sailing. But due to lack of infrastructure and accessibility, it has remained an elitist sport,” he says. Mainly patronized by the Indian Army and Navy, sailing clubs have high membership fees. “Hyderabad has a very low number of sailors and it is because children are not coming forward to learn the sport. Sailing needs to be taught at the grassroots level in order to promote it. Moreover, it is easier to teach children as they learn fast,” he adds. It was with his idea that he started the Yacht Club of Hyderabad and took an initial group of five children from government schools under his wing. “I decided to provide the infrastructure and buy the boats and in this regard Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA) has been particularly helpful. They immediately allotted the 60-year-old jetty. Even though it was in shambles, it was a good start,” he recalls.
It was also around that time that Suheim came up with the idea of a Monsoon Regatta with the support of the Indian Navy, HMDA and private sponsors. “Any form of recreational sport will remain elitist,” he says. “Championships create a sense of aspiration and the children have something to look forward to.” With three successful regattas in the past, he is ready to host this year's Monsoon Regatta in the first week of July. The Regatta is also tied in to the campaign to save the lake.
“The colour of the lake water has progressively turned black due to algal growth and pollution,” says Suheim. “The whole world dirties the lake and we blame the government. Unless you have a playground there won't be any sport. We need to clean the lake to continue sailing.”
“Dignity through sports” is the credo that this coach believes in. “Look at Carl Lewis, P.T. Usha, Sergey Bubka — they all came from impoverished backgrounds. Sportsmen come from extreme background. Their circumstances make them so passionate,” says Suheim, who has now about 15 students from government schools. The budding sailors have also participated in numerous national championships, the World Championship in Argentina, the Asian Games and the Optimist Sailing Championship in Malaysia.
While natural talent and immense motivation drives these children from underprivileged backgrounds, parental interference hampers the training of privileged children, feels the coach. “Parents these days are very confused,” he says. “They want their kids to do many different things and in the middle of the course they will come up with excuses like a birthday party or visiting relatives and stop the continuity of the course. Inculcation of sports is a serious activity and one has to make sacrifices for it.”
Though sailing has become more popular in the past three years, corporate sponsorships are still elusive. Most of them are reserved for cricketing bodies, says Suheim. “Investing in cricket is a simple and unimaginative policy. Corporate companies need to have the courage to sponsor sporting individuals and non-cricket teams and understand the dramatic potential in such ventures. A government can build a stadium but it cannot be expected to run the stadium.”
Even the Yacht Club of Hyderabad has a Rajnikanth story to narrate. He was 13 years old when Suheim Sheikh discovered him working in the park. “When I asked him if he was interested in sailing, his eyes lit up but I warned him that he can't go back to cleaning the park,” recalls Suheim. The young sailor is now one of the stars of the club and has participated in numerous nationals. He is ready to teach two students from Delhi Public School. Many more children like Rajnikanth coming from different government schools have found a common passion in sailing. Off water they are a riot, says their indulgent coach, but when out on their boats, dressed in their white Yacht Club of Hyderabad t-shirts, nothing matters other than sailing. “Sometimes, their problem is reaching the club. They walk for about 30 to 40 minutes to reach the location. We are trying to help them out with ground transport,” points out Suheim. And what do they most like about sailing? They chorus, “Capsize!”