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Legend & Legacy : 45 Years of Maritime History Society

In the realm of heritage and history, 45 years may seem but a fleeting moment. Yet, in these four and a half decades, an institution of international significance was birthed, nurtured, and matured into its remarkable stature today: the Maritime History Society (MHS). The inception, evolution, and resilience of MHS mirror the indomitable spirit and maritime consciousness of its luminary and grand sire, the late Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati, PVSM, Vir Chakra.

I beheld the legend for the first time ever during the Asian Games of 1982, where he served as a mentor for the Sailing Segment of the games. It wasn't until 2007, however, that I would have the honour of meeting in person, this larger-than-life titan. A scholarly paper on the Anglo-French Battles in the Bay of Bengal was the catalyst that eventually led me to the helm of the MHS, a position I held with a deep sense of ownership from 15th May 2015 to 20th August 2021.

As I compose this tribute aboard a train bound for Mumbai, my mind unfurls the memories of Admiral Awati's steadfast dedication to the Maritime History Society. His journey to reach MHS events would commence at the crack of dawn, at 4:30 am, from Vinchurni. Unyielding and tenacious, he would traverse to Pune to board his cherished Deccan Queen. Upon arrival, the liaison sailor wouldn't dare to lift the Admiral's modestly weighted bag. Instead, a spirited porter would be hailed, a man who knew he would be rewarded generously for his service. Such was the grandeur of our founder, a man whose every action painted a picture larger than life, a testament to his legacy.

The drive to promote sea-mindedness, with a phraseology I later adapted to maritime consciousness, was driven by an academic vision of Late Professor B Arunachalam and wholeheartedly reinforced by Admiral Awati. The outcome was nationally evident when at the Maritime India Summit 2016, 10% of the Maritime History literature on display came from MHS!

As MHS charted its course on the vast ocean of Indian maritime history, we encountered a tempest in 2018. The society lost three of its stalwarts within a year. The untimely demise of Professor Sachin Pendse, a dear friend and fellow scholar, left a void in our hearts and our research projects. Admiral JG Nadkarni, a founding trustee and the inspirational force behind my authorship of "Timeless Wake," embarked on his final voyage, depriving me of a significant source for my nautical knowledge.

Yet, the loss of Vice Admiral Awati shook our society to its core. I remember vividly the moment I handed him the first copy of "Sagardhara," the inaugural MHS Newsletter. His parting words to me that September day in 2018 continue to resonate powerfully, "Johnny, you have transformed my vision into reality!" This affirmation from such an esteemed figure was an honour I carry with pride. His voyage into the eternal seas commenced on 3rd November 2018, bequeathing us a rich legacy and an immense responsibility to carry his vision forward.

In honour of the Admiral's profound love for the indigenous shipbuilding traditions of India, our next initiative was titled "Kalasagar." This was an artistic tribute, a tapestry of our maritime heritage woven with vibrant hues and masterful strokes. The following year witnessed the creation of remarkable masterpieces by both professional and amateur painters. Each artwork was a testament to Admiral Awati's enduring influence and our unwavering commitment to preserving and promoting our maritime heritage.

Despite this turbulence, my time at MHS was a remarkable journey of personal and professional growth. The society offered a rich soil for me to cultivate my skills as a researcher, a guide, and an educator. The subsequent three years were spent vigorously rowing towards global recognition, and indeed, MHS's influence began to ripple across oceans. The pandemic could not dampen our spirit; instead, it served as a catalyst for our digital transformation, breaking a 14-year bureaucratic impasse. With our robust online presence, a dream turned into reality - the first ever National Maritime Heritage Conclave in November 2020.

On 30th September 2021, I took my final steps, in Navy Whites, out of the Noorbhoy Building, leaving behind a treasure trove of stories, memories, and a society that had grown from a decrepit site to a sprawling two-floor establishment in the heart of Fort, Mumbai. Today, I navigate new waters, teaching new learners, yet a part of me remains anchored in the archives and artefacts of MHS, one of which proudly bears my name etched from a ship I commanded in 2001 - 2002.

As we celebrate the 45th Founders Day, the smile of our grand sire, Admiral Awati, encourages us from the celestial seas. We are the torchbearers of maritime consciousness, our sails filled with new blood and spirit. It is a special honour that Cdr Abhilash Tomy, KC, NM IN (Retd) has recently become the first Indian to get a podium finish at Golden Globe Race 2022. In GGR 2018 the Grand Sire tracked Abhilash with great enthusiasm and was silently praying and pushing to see the recovery post the knockdown of Thuriya.

Here's to the memory of the titans we have lost, and to the future that we continue to shape, in honour of their legacy. विरासत जगाये समुद्री चेतना! [May Heritage Awaken our Maritime Consciousness!] Sam Noh Varunah


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