Ahmed Abdul Basith: Yachting’s elder statesman sails into the sunset

From Hussain Sagar’s barren shores, he almost single-handedly conjured up what became the country’s capital of inland sailing.

To Major Ahmed Abdul Basith, man and material management meant making the most out of the minimal. A natural leader, tactful to a T, he connected with higher-ups just as well as he reached out to the lowest in the army’s regimented hierarchy, inspiring the best from everyone he brought on board.

By A. Joseph Antony

Sadly, Hyderabad, the city of his birth, hardly noticed sailing’s elder statesman leave quietly for the Elysian Fields. Tributes from his loyal followers were touching, bearing testimony to a much-loved man. “He was a grand one-man show of the EME Sailing Association (EMESA) in the 70s and 80s. But his contribution to Indian sailing was no less,” Lt. Col. Deepak Dikhit (Retd.) reminisced.

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“Sailing in the Olympics was perhaps something that just happened in his busy life. Once it was over, he got on with promoting sailing. It wasn’t like, ‘You know when I went to the Olympics…’ It was done and dusted. He gave back to the sport more than what he might have got out of it,” added the many –time wind-surfing champion.

Major Basith’s early endeavours are elaborated upon by Col. Dikhit. “With problems in importing equipment, he first built five Enterprise boats at the EME Workshop in Bangalore, where even making a chair would’ve been objected to, the set-up being primarily for making military hardware. In the Secunderabad Workshop, he began building the OK Dinghy craft.

“All kinds of spar, mast, boom, blocks, cleats, jam-cleats, D-shackles, mainsheet travellers and even sails followed rapidly. With plans to host the OK Dinghy Nationals in 1975, he got books on wood, visited timber dealers, plywood and paint manufacturers to get the right stuff for his requirements. From that maiden edition was born the Hyderabad Sailing Week, held every year subsequently but for the Covid crisis last year.

To mark the 1976 Military College of Electronics and Mechanical Engineering (MCEME) Corps Reunion, he instituted the DEME Trophy to promote sailing among its officers. Not one to let any opportunity slip by, he capitalised on the impetus to conduct the second OK Dinghy Nationals and the South Asian Yachting Regatta (SAYR), all three in the span of a month ! Backing his efforts entirely was Gen. Bobby Dutta.

From left: Major A.A. Basith, Lt. Tehmasp Mogul, Captain Soli Contractor and V.P. Singh at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Basith and Contractor represented India in the Flying Dutchman class in sailing. (Pic: Newsclick.in)

When the Enterprise Nationals were held at the National Defence Academy (NDA), Major Basith motivated Dikhit and M.P. Jaggi, then young students initiated into sailing by Brigadier Jagdish Singh at the College of Military Engineering, Pune, to pursue the sport further. When the young duo was posted to Secunderabad, he would pick them up after their classes, brief, teach and set them sailing.

“From him I learnt to gauge the wind, estimate its strength and judge the shifts. His training continued on tactics, starts, tuning, ‘covering’ when ahead, ‘breaking cover’ when trailing and the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU) rules. After the last boat returned, he’d do a post-mortem of each performance—mistakes, rules infringed, cheating on penalty and what have you,” Col. Dikhit remembered.

If the trainees got late, he’d buy them dinner or take them to his house, where Mrs. Basith (Kitty Maam) would have food ready, even at short notice. He ensured the students were spared from classes during events, not penalised for attendance shortage, when he wasn’t even in the MCEME.

On one occasion, he got an external exam and term break rescheduled, simply to enable Brig. K.S. Saini (Retd.) and Col. Dikhit take part in the 1977 Enterprise Nationals in Goa. Other course officers and their wives were not too pleased !

With no official certification regimes in place, he’d groom his wards on the job, from the very rudiments to its complex rules. One quite accomplished in this regard was Lt. Col. M.P. Jaggi (Retd.), who under Basith’s tutelage became sailor, measurer, boat builder, Race Officer (RO), National Judge (NJ) and Event Organizer. Down the decades, Jaggi fulfilled each role with distinction and authority.

In 1981, a year before the Delhi Asian Games, Major Basith entrusted with equipment and measurement responsibilities, visited England, where Col. Dikhit was pursuing his Masters degree at Cranfield. In that pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era, the pedagogue’s letter reached his pupil just in time for the airport pick-up. The duo would then visit experts in various classes of boats, since some of their offices couldn’t be reached by phone. In the one-bed room flat that Dikhit and his wife had at the institute, Major Basith would sleep on the floor at night.

It was most memorable for the OK Dinghy and Windglider teams, of which the hyperactive Hyderabadi was coach-cum-manager in the 1982 European circuit. With help from Commodore Pestonji, posted at Bonn as Naval Advisor, Basith bought an old Audi and a trailer that carted boats and gliders of the four-man squad comprising Dikhit, Major General M.S. Pillai (Retd.), late C.S. Pradipak and A.K. Singh. With these he’d drop off a team in one country and pick up the other from another !!

In Kiel, the International Windglider Association (IWA) President informed them of an Olympic Training Regatta at Long Beach, with the discipline set to make its maiden entry in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. After completion of the competitions, Basith drove Dikhit to the IWA office in Amsterdam for a wild-card entry.

 Despite there being no money, leave, US visa or time to arrange them in India, Basith declared Dikhit would go. A signed application to the DEME would sort out the leave, while Dikhit was to borrow money from his Cranfield college-mates. Thanks to Basith’s appeal to the IWA President, free hospitality for Dikhit was arranged at Long Beach.

On returning to Frankfurt, Basith put on his Olympic blazer. He walked into the US Consulate that fine morning, where without even an appointment, he got Dikhit’s visa before lunch ! In the afternoon, the British visa was arranged without ado, for Dikhit had been a student there a year before. That night, Dikhit took a train to London and Basith returned to India.

“That was Ahmed Abdul Basith— really a lot more than just an Olympic sailor–a man for all seasons, a sportsman, a sailor, a coach, a manager par excellence, a race officer, a boat builder, a team-person, a facilitator, a friend and above all a great gentleman,” concluded Col. Dikhit.

A. Joseph Antony is a Hyderabad-based sports journalist and author of ‘My way–The biography of M.L. Jaisimha’ (Amazon, Apple Books). Previously, he was a Senior Assistant Editor with The Hindu in Hyderabad.

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