Eighty two days into the Golden Globe Race in 2018, Abhilash Tomy found himself on the floor of his ship which was struggling to survive a storm that raged across the Indian Ocean.
His boat capsized close to the French Southern and Antarctic Lands and when it straightened, the sailor found himself hanging precariously from the top of the mast which was about 10 meters high. But a moment later, when another wave rocked the boat, he came crashing down, his back hitting an aluminum pole and he landing on the deck.
Abhilash did not think much of it at the time; he got up and started clearing out the wreckage. However, a few minutes later, he was wracked by pain and he found he couldn’t even stand straight.
Sure that he would not be able to continue the race, Abhilash called for rescue and lay down on the deck still for about three days – that is, when he wasn’t throwing up or hiccupping.
He drank cans of iced tea, chanted and focused on his breathing until a multinational rescue operation, which involved India, France, Australia and Ireland, finally saved him.
So what was going through his mind those three days? I ask.
‘Well, I had a lot of spare time so I started planning my next race. I thought, if I get paralyzed, I might try the Paralympics,’ says Abhilash.
Not one to give up on his dreams, the 44-year-old who had to undergo surgery and have a titanium rod inserted his spine, decided to take early retirement from the Indian Navy in 2021 to prepare for the 2022 Golden Globe Race.
Late last month (April) Abhilash became the first Asian to complete the 30,000 mile race, sailing across the world solo, non-stop and unassisted.
If the previous time he was forced to discontinue the race due to the injury, this time he took 236 days to cross the finish line on the UAE-registered boat Bayanat – the boat and Abhilash’s race was sponsored by an Abu Dhabi-based geospatial AI solutions specialist and provider of the same name.
LONGEST ENDURANCE RACE
The GGR, often described as the world’s longest endurance race that takes sailors around the five great capes, is a sort of throwback to the ‘golden age of solo sailing’. It recreates the first edition of the race, which was held in 1968, by following its decades old rules and regulations.
For instance, entrants compete on long keel boats with hinged rudders that probably aren’t even in production anymore. ‘And no electronics are allowed,’ says Abhilash. ‘GPS is not permitted for navigation as is electronic watches and mobile phones. Only the organisers have access to satellite internet and communication.’ Even single use plastic products, like bottles, couldn’t be carried on board.
‘Electronic autopilots were not permitted and if you don’t have an autopilot, you can end up with hallucinations in 48 hours of sailing. So you employ what’s called a wind vane self-steering – a mechanical device that senses the direction of the wind and manipulates the paddle under water which gives a steering course to the sailor,’ he says.
The race began and ended at Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.
This year, there were 16 entrants but only three made it to the finish line. Abhilash came second, after South African sailor Kirsten Neuschafer who became the first woman to win the race.
Abhilash’s achievement is remarkable considering the fact that just five years ago, Abhilash needed a walker to get out of bed. After the dramatic rescue operation in 2018, doctors in Visakhapatnam, in Southern India, informed him that he had four fractures in his spine. He was flown to Delhi on a special aircraft, where a team of neurosurgeons operated on him and fixed his spine with titanium rods.
But clearly his spine was always made of stronger stuff – in a mere two months, he flew to Delhi, alone, for a follow-up checkup, and the doctors declared that he had recovered about 80 per cent.
‘I underwent physiotherapy and gradually started lifting light weights. I also joined a kickboxing class to regain my balance and did Pilates for core strength. But I still couldn’t run.’
The physiotherapist advised that he should start by running in water in a swimming pool. ‘I started running for one minute, then ten minutes and gradually regained my muscle coordination. In six months, the navy cleared me to fly and sail,’ he says.
MASSIVE FUNDS TO RACE
Being in peak physical health is just one element of participating in the race. ‘It was a privately funded race so I had spent close to Indian rupees 40million of my own money,’ he says, of his first venture in the Golden Globe Race.
‘I had borrowed money, invested a lot of personal savings and signed up for the race. And then I reached a point where I lost my boat, and didn’t know if I would ever walk.’
But the former Indian Navy officer believes that no experience is intrinsically good or bad, and that it is up to him to give them meaning. ‘I believe in the philosophy that I give quality to what happens around me, and I decide what is good or bad.’
LIFE AT SEA
Just hours after the race in April this year, as I wait for the interview with Abhilash to begin on Google Meet, I catch a glimpse of a half-eaten croissant and a can of a fizzy on a table before Abhilash appears on the screen. Turns out, he had specifically requested for the ‘goodies’ on reaching land. ‘I am learning to walk again - I have a bit of a wobble because I have been at sea for so long. I am relearning to talk and frame sentences,’ he says, sipping his drink.
Sailing around the world with zero assistance can take a toll on the body and the mind. ‘You cannot take any material help on the way – so if you run out of pencils to plot your position on the chart, you are not permitted to borrow a pencil (from a ship en route or from land) as you will get disqualified.’
How would the organizers know anyway? I ask.
‘Well, maybe nobody else will know but you will know,’ he makes it clear. ‘And when you are alone at sea, it keeps playing in your head. One gentleman in 1968 died by suicide because he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he had lied – there is a movie on him called The Mercy.’
Abhilash was relieved when he finally crossed the starting line at the recent Golden Globe Race because entrants can get disqualified even before it begins. ‘There were entrants who failed their medical checks - they had bought a boat, prepared it and then lost all the money.’
‘Solitude changes you in many ways,’ he continues, when we ask him about life at sea. ‘If you want to understand the world, you need to step away from it.’
‘Initially when you start sailing, it’s good … the frustration sets in at the equator because there is no wind there,’ he says. ‘And after that, again you get into the trade winds which are steady… But from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Horn, it’s craziness – it’s just storm after storm. Then there is light at the end of the tunnel because now you know that you are going for the finish. Everything works backwards as you climb up the ladder of latitude.’
Each day was as unpredictable as the weather it depended on. ‘Every 20 or 30 minutes, you have to check your ropes, the trim of the sails, and look out for other ships. You have to shoot the sun, take its parameters and do some calculations (twice a day). There is a lot of spherical trigonometry involved to determine your position. Then you take a record of the barometer to know whether a storm is approaching or what the weather is going to be like.’ There were also chat sessions between other entrants on HF radio. ‘There was a lot of help within the group.’
When he nearly ran out of food towards the end of the race, he survived on a concoction of rice, sugar and milk. ‘I had packed a homemade spicy coconut paste, prawns … The Defence Food Research Laboratory had sent 150 packets of food that included roti, chicken biryani, rice pulao, paneer and peas which would last for eight months. I also had cans of meat, high-energy snacks like cashew and peanuts.’ He also carried books with him – 1984, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dombey and Son and I Am That by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
LOVE FOR THE SEA
Abhilash was born in Kerala. His father worked in the Indian navy and so he grew up in Mumbai and Kochi with the sea for company. Key events like the first Indian circumnavigation by a team from the Indian Army Corps of Engineers on the yacht Trishna, left a lasting impression on his young mind. Although he cleared two of India’s toughest entrance exams for aspiring engineering and medical students, he decided to join the Indian Naval Academy instead – a decision few Indian parents recover from. ‘My parents counseled me, but they never forced me to do anything. They will express their opinion and give me advice but finally it’s what I want to do. Also, I have a lot of faith in my decisions.’
He went on to have a stellar career at the navy – he was captain of the Naval Academy’s team, participated in boat races and world championships in South Africa, Qatar and Sri Lanka and managed the Volvo Ocean Race when it first came to India in 2008. In 2013, he became the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo and nonstop and was awarded the Kirti Chakra by the Indian government.
But later, he hit a plateau. In January 2021, right before the deadly Delta wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, he quit his job at the navy – partly because he wanted to participate at the next Golden Globe Race, this time with private sponsorship.
The race wasn’t always smooth sailing – in fact, he was besieged by problems. ‘At one point, my self-steering broke down,’ he recalls. ‘It’s an aluminum piece which goes into water and that steers the boat. I had three spares but two of them broke. I thought the last one would last till the equator but even that broke at the wrong place - close to Chile, where the winds are so strong that you get pushed into land where you can easily get grounded.’ After several attempts, he solved the problem by dismantling the anchor, pulling out its top and putting it into the self-steering.
‘Also, I could not stay in touch with my family, which was a big cause of stress for me,’ he continues. ‘My son went to school for the first time and I didn’t know. Thankfully, when I had to go through a gate at Cape Town, my sponsors came out with a laptop and they did a video call with my wife and I saw my son in school.’
‘But if I didn’t do the race, the regret would have been stronger,’ he continues. ‘There was a lot of stress about survival, running out of food and water, the expectations of sponsors, wondering what families were going through. But in spite of that, it’s a very beautiful and spiritual experience. It’s unbelievable.’