Abhilash Tomy 2
Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy's 2023 journey was sponsored and supported by UAE company Bayanat, after which his boat was also named. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A storm brews in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Waves so high, they topple a lone sailor’s boat. A naval commander, who was out on an adventure – a solo, unassisted trip to circumnavigate the Earth.

This is the story of retired Indian naval commander Abhilash Tomy and his unquenchable thirst for adventure.

The story of the storm dates back to 2018, when brutal waves capsized the boat a 39-year-old Tomy was sailing, leaving him hanging on to the sail. As the vessel flipped back up again, he came crashing down, first hitting the top of the mast and then landing with a thud on the aluminium pole of the vessel.

The fall left him paralysed – his back broken in four places.

“My boat was completely destroyed and I had to send out an SOS. I was in the boat for three and half days, waiting for rescue. I was not able to get up, cook anything, drink any water. I was just surviving,” Tomy, who spoke to Gulf News on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow 2023, said.

But today – five years later – the 44-year-old former Indian navy officer is hardly put off by the idea of sailing, and that’s because the love of adventure crept into his mind at a very young age.

Swashbuckling sailors, living in books

He was eight or nine years old, when he would pick up large, discarded pieces of cardboard along the beach, turning them into barely functional rafts, as he tried to punt out to the sea.

As a 12-year-old, he wanted to run away from home, just for the thrill of it.

The son of an Indian Navy officer, he had devoured the books at the naval libraries, which were all seemingly filled with stories of heroes sailing the sea.

“I would read one book a day and I was so fascinated that when I turned 12, I told my mum that I am going to run away from home,” Tomy said.

His mum’s response: “Wait for a few more years. You can join the navy and have your fun.”

He finally did make it to the Indian navy, and in 2012 Tomy completed his first solo trip around the world.

The second time around, he decided to participate in the Golden Globe Race, which is considered to pose the longest, loneliest, slowest, most daring challenge for an individual in any sport.

What is the Golden Globe Race?
British sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the first person to sail single handed and non-stop around the world between June 14, 1968 and April 22, 1969. His voyage lasted just over 10 months.
Today, the Golden Globe Race, challenges sailors to complete a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, using technology similar to what was used when the first solo trip was completed. The boat has to be simple, and sailors can only use basic navigation equipment like a sextant on paper charts, a wind-up chronometer and a barograph.
The tagline for the Golden Globe Race: “Sailing like its 1968.”
Equipped with these basic tools, sailors set off from the Les Sables d'Olonne port in France, and have to sail south of the three great capes of the Southern Hemisphere – Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Cape Leeuwin in Southwestern Australia and Cape Horn in South America.
“You cannot stop anywhere, you cannot take anybody’s help,” Tomy said.
“You can anchor somewhere, but you cannot go alongside a dock or a mooring. It has to be unassisted. You can only take information after you start, or you can harvest the sea. If anybody comes to deliver something or even touches your boat, you are disqualified. So, when you set off you need to have everything you need for nearly 10 months. That includes around 800,000 calories of food, gas, a repair kit, navigational charts, spares … the list is quite endless,” he added.

When the storm hit

Tomy participated in the race in 2018, when he met with the accident that left his back broken.

“We were in the 82nd day of the race and met with this massive storm in the South Indian Ocean. There were three boats that got hit by it, we were in the middle of nowhere, exactly between Australia and South Africa. Antarctic was probably the nearest major landmass to that spot. We were thousands of miles away from any land. This storm destroyed two boats … mine was one of them,” Tomy said.

The SOS signal sent by Tomy led to a multinational rescue effort, but it still took three and a half days for someone to reach him. A French fisheries patrol vessel approached him and took him to Amsterdam Island, a small land mass in the middle of the Southern Indian Ocean.

There, they managed to stabilise him medically, and on Day 6 of the accident, the ship that the Indian navy had dispatched reached him, and transferred him to a hospital in Vishakapatnam, India, from where he was transferred to New Delhi for treatment.

On the 18th day, he had a titanium rod inserted in his back and five vertebrae were fused into a single piece. It cost him some level of mobility and flexibility.

“My muscles were completely gone, I just had fat and skin on my legs, I had lost a lot of weight. After two months of physiotherapy, the doctor declared that I was fit to return to work, but only for a desk job,” he said.

Six months after the accident, though, Tomy was apparently fighting fit. He was ready to return to the cockpit, as he was a pilot in the Indian Navy, but the medical fitness tests that pilots undergo in the navy can be gruelling, to say the least.

“You need to clear a lot of parameters to be able to go back to an aircraft cockpit. Once the doctor declared me fit enough, I had to do a lot of drills. In one of the emergency drills, they put you inside a cockpit and the entire aircraft is dunked underwater. You are blindfolded. You have to hold your breath and then unstrap yourself, feel your way from the cockpit out to the back, locate an emergency window and then escape. And you have to do this drill five times from the pilot’s seat, and five times from the co-pilot’s seat. This is followed by a storm simulation where you have to swim, look for your friends, gather them and try to survive, followed by a winching from a helicopter. The winching was tough because my spine doesn’t flex so it hurt a bit, but I cleared all that and went back to flying,” Tomy said.

He also wanted to return to sailing. His family, which has always been supportive, was once again standing with him. When his wife found out that he was planning to participate in the Golden Globe Race again, she simply said: “Do it by all means, but make sure you have a good team.”

That team included UAE-based Bayanat, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based geospatial solutions provider, which sponsored his race in 2022 and for which Tomy is now an ambassador.

“When I am racing, the rules for me are the same as what are being followed by all the other entrants. I had to have 1968 technology. I could not have any special communication with Bayanat. I could not use any of the platforms that Bayanat has. But in the background, what Bayanat did was that they developed a platform using AI to predict my position in the immediate future. Secondly, Bayanat was also able to track these boats, if the need comes, using satellites and this gave me a lot of comfort because I knew someone was watching my back. There was an added layer of safety over the pre-existing global maritime safety services,” Tomy said.

He participated in the Golden Globe race again in 2022 and came second, becoming the first Indian and even Asian skipper to win a podium finish in a round-the-world race.

A mental game

Talking about the experience of sailing across the world alone, Tomy spoke about how it was more of a mental game than a gruelling test of strength. It is also a great journey of self-discovery, according to Tomy, as the solitude of the endeavour can really force a person to look inwards and spend more time with the kind of person they are.

And now the question he always gets asked is: What’s next?

Having just finished his race last year, Tomy says it is too early for him to decide.

“You run a cross-country race that lasts an hour and you take rest for eight hours. I have just come back from the sea having spent 236 days, so I think I need to spend some time with my family and give them some stability. That’s my primary focus. But yes, I will be looking for races and more adventures,” he said.

Note: This story was first published in November 2023.