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Snake boat races in Kerala get their own champions league

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Kerala’s famed snake boat race lost most of their charm last year because of catastrophic floods. Heavy rains in first half of August threatened to repeat it again this year. But the God’s own country somehow escaped the nature’s fury this time and though delayed, the boat race season in now on its track, which normally kicks off every year with historical Champakulam Boat Race on the Moolam day. But there was lot more in store this year.

Kerala’s all-famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race got an added feature this year when Champions Boat League (CBL) was flagged off at Alappuzha amid the star presence of batting legend Sachin Tendulkar, gifting the country its first such water sport formatted on the lines of IPL cricket. Pallathuruthi Boat Club were the proud winners of the Nehru Boat Race. Thus they won the first race of the maiden CBL.

Nine CBL snake-boats raced ahead with rhythmic rows of oarsmen cheered by an enthusiastic crowd along the banks of the sprawling Punnamada lake in this coastal city, splashing blue waters in a spirited competition. Pallathuruthi Boat Club, Alappuzha won the 67th Nehru Trophy Boat Race and topped the first round of the Champions Boat League (CBL), as the pioneering three-month sporting event got off to a racy start in the sprawling Punnamada Lake at Alappuzha on 31st August. Winner of the first race, whose CBL name is Tropical Titans, earned nine points, clocking 4.25.83 minutes to cover the distance of 1,050 metres. Tropical Titans were followed by Coast Dominators (United Boat Club, Kainakary: 4.28.40) and Raging Rowers (Police Boat Club) 4.29.84, securing eight and seven points, respectively. Mighty Oars (NCDC, Kumarakom) finished fourth with 4:30:28, having made it to the final CBL heats of the inaugural round. 

Kerala’s Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran and Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac give away the 67th Nehru Trophy to Pallathuruthi Boat Club, Alappuzha, at Punnamada Lake, on August 31

Earlier, Tropical Titans finished first in the first CBL heat. The second heat saw Mighty Oars and NCDC winning, while the last heats saw Police Boat Club emerging first. The five other CBL teams are Backwater Warriors (Kumarakom Town Boat Club), Punnamada Boat Club, Backwater Knights (Village Boat Club), Pride Chasers (Vembanad Boat Club) and Thunder Oars (KBC/SFBC). 

Being organised by Kerala Tourism, the CBL, with nine teams, features 12 rounds of races slated across Saturdays till November 23. The boat league was inaugurated by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the presence of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. The next round on September 7 will be held at Thazhathangadi, near Kottayam, 25 km from Alappuzha. The CBL was originally slated to begin on August 10, but got rescheduled owing to heavy rains that wreaked havoc across the state. Billed as a game-changing initiative, the CBL seeks to professionalise Kerala’s largely scattered snake-boat races, while commercialising them without losing the conventional spirit.

The schedule goes thus after the September 7 stage: September 14 (Karuvatta, Alappuzha), September 28 (Piravam, Ernakulam district), October 5 (Marine Drive, Kochi), October 12 (Kottappuram, Thrissur district), October 19 (Ponnani, Malappuram), October 26 (Kainakari, Alappuzha), November 2 (Pulinkunnu, Alappuzha district), November 9 (Kayamkulam, Alappuzha), November 16 (Kallada, Kollam district) and November 23 (President’s Trophy Boat Race, Kollam). The top CBL winner of every leg is entitled to Rs 5 lakh, followed by Rs 3 lakh and Rs 1 lakh. While all participants are entitled to a bonus prize of Rs 4 lakh per match, the three-month boat league has prize monies totalling Rs 5.9 crore that ranks CBL India’s fourth-highest paid in all sports. 

The boat league’s inauguration was marked by water adventure sports like jet ski flyboard and paragliding. The crowds on either side of the sprawling Punnamada lake cheered in frenzy today as Sachin Tendulkar was invited to speak. As the batting legend began his address as the chief guest of the function with a smatter of Kerala’s Malayalam language, the response from the onlookers went even louder. It was again so when the 46-year-old Bharat Ratna awardee concluded his 11-minute talk with the words ‘Nandi, Namaskaram’ (Thanks, Greetings!).

Cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar on a float carrying Kathakali dancers and Champions Boat League trophy ahead of the inaugural function of the three-month sports event in Punnamada Lake of Alappuzha

Dapper as usual, though this time with his shirt not tucked into his trousers as if in accordance with the general Malayali style, globe-trotting Tendulkar said, “Whichever part of the world you go, if you speak about boat race, the first name you hear is always Kerala.” To the famed Mumbaikar, CBL marks the turn of a new leaf in the history of Kerala’s boat races. “I have led teams where the players’ number totals 16, while it is around 100 in a boat race! That requires tremendous understanding between the members and skills of coordination from the part of the captain,” added the massive run-getter, who has a long string of cricketing records to his credit. “It is more so, considering that most of the rowers aren’t exactly trained athletes. It’s their passion that makes them fit to be competing here.”

Hailing the gender equality in the boat races, Tendulkar said, “I see a lot of women rowing the boats here. It’s very encouraging. Women are not just to manage kitchen. A healthy woman at home means a healthy family. That happens only when you venture out of your home and bond well with the public at large.” Tendulkar noted that the “love and affection” from the people of Kerala has always had a distinct appeal whenever he visited the state during his cricketing days or after. “Kerala is just back on its seat after the monsoon floods,” he noted. “My prayers to all the families who lost their dear ones in the tragedy (at the start of this month).” Earlier, Tendulkar’s entry into the CBL inaugural venue had its fair share of glitter when the icon was taken on a round of the starting point on a boat that had over a dozen Kathakali artistes dancing in colourful costume.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan interacting with cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar  at the inaugural ceremony of Champions Boat League,  at Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha

The Kerala CM hailed the pioneering boat league as an event that reinforces the spirit of unity among people. Kerala Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran hailed the CBL as an eminent product that will help the state brighten its four months of off-season from June marked by monsoon rains. “Tourism provides Kerala with 10 per cent of its GDP. We plan to raise the sector’s contribution to 13 per cent in a couple of years,” he added.

Kerala Finance Minister T M Isaac Thomas noted that three years have gone into the conception of the CBL for the boat league to eventually roll out. “Today, if you see a new wave of professionalism and spirit in the races, it is courtesy the CBL,” he said. Kerala Tourism Secretary Rani George said the CBL is hopeful of conducting auctions that will earn the event new owners who can run the teams more effectively. “Already, CBL is a government-owned company,” she pointed out. Kerala Tourism Director P Bala Kiran said the CBL has begun getting new sponsors. “We are optimistic of finding more number of them once the boat league is on track,” he added. Interestingly, so much is how round Champions Boat League that organisers have even put tickets for the events which are available online as well.

Kansai Nerolac Paints, a key sponsor of CBL, said the company found it great to see the traditional sport of boat race gain “a fresh colourful look with international standards”. “Our long-standing association and commitment with Kerala, strengthened over the years with our wide presence across the state, marks this important association,” said Peeyush Bachlaus, AVP (Marketing) of Nerolac. Start of CBL overlapped with the 67th edition of Kerala’s most illustrious boat race named after the country’s first Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. An annual feature here since 1954, the event was christened Nehru Trophy in 1969, five years after his death.

Have you ever been witness to a snake boat race in Kerala? How was the festive atmosphere? Share your experience with us in the comments section below.

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