Lounge Exclusive: Commander Abhilash Tomy’s second wave
14 min read.Updated: 13 Jan 2018, 08:35 AM ISTNeha Dara
Abhilash Tomy was the first Indian to complete a solo, non-stop unassisted circumnavigation of the globe in 2013. He is preparing to do it again this Julywithout modern technology
Bobbing on a sailboat somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, Commander Abhilash Tomy learnt he’d failed his exam in navigation and communication with the Indian Navy. When he returned to Mumbai in April 2013, becoming the first Indian to complete a solo, non-stop, unassisted circumnavigation of the globe, his friends ribbed him endlessly. How did he find his way around the whole world, they joked. Tomy’s explanation was simple: He knew how to navigate with the modern equipment and top-of-the-line GPS the boat was equipped with, just not the old-fashioned sextant or barograph that no one uses any more.
Well, he will need to use them now.
In July, Tomy, now 38, will attempt to sail around the globe again, as a participant in the 50th anniversary of the Golden Globe Race. It was during the Golden Globe Race in 1968 that Robin Knox-Johnston became the world’s first solo non-stop circumnavigator. The 2018 race is to be a recreation of that historic first one. Participants will only be allowed to use equipment that was available to Knox-Johnston at the time (with the exception of safety gear).
Though 50 years have gone by, the number of people who have accomplished the feat in this time is still very small. About 4,833 people have reached the summit of Mt Everest; 536 people have been to space; but only about 200 have ever sailed around the globe solo, even fewer non-stop. Sailing, on the other hand, Knox-Johnston, now 78, tells me over email from his home in Portsmouth, England, has changed tremendously in this time. Boats are lighter, stronger, faster; navigation and weather prediction are more accurate than ever before with satellites; communication is top-notch.
However, as far as the 23 skippers from 14 countries participating in the Golden Globe Race 2018 (GGR2018) are concerned, none of this will matter. They cannot use carbon fibre to build their boats, rely on navigation satellites to plot their route, or get the latest weather updates. During the 10 months the journey will take them, they can only communicate with the outside world when the radios they carry come in range. “Their biggest challenge," Knox-Johnston writes, “will be to keep going on."
“There are so many temptations to withdraw, you are tired, an important sail has split and it is a big job to put it right. But I would say to all of them, keep going," he adds. At age 67, Knox-Johnston completed a solo circumnavigation for the second time. He’s delighted the race is taking place: “I think we look for anniversaries as excuses sometimes, but nice to see this one being used in this manner."
The explorer’s urge
Tomy’s 151-day record-setting journey was a sequel to Sagar Parikrama 1, during which Captain Dilip Donde, now retired from the navy, became the first Indian to sail around the world, with four stops in Fremantle, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; Port Stanley, Falkland Islands; and Cape Town, South Africa. Both the journeys were important for the navy, a way to reaffirm India’s pride as a sea-faring nation.
The history of exploration is full of romantic quests like the Sagar Parikramas—from the Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, Reinhold Messner’s quest to climb Everest without oxygen, to Percy Fawcett’s doomed obsession with finding a lost Amazonian civilization, so movingly portrayed in the 2017 film The Lost City Of Z. Messner calls this fascination the urge to “murder the impossible". Legendary Himalayan explorer Eric Shipton had written about his obsession with puzzling out the “blanks on the map" that still existed in the early 20th century. While such blanks are harder to find today, the open sea remains something of a final frontier.
When Donde arrived in Mumbai in May 2010 after completing Sagar Parikrama 1, the then vice-president Hamid Ansari described his journey as a long-awaited first and an important moment in the history of a nation. He applauded the courage and initiative of people who attempted seemingly impossible feats and inspired the nation.
I had written about both the Sagar Parikramas extensively, coming to know the two skippers over time, and even sailing with them from Goa to Mumbai before they set off on their grand adventures. Their reasons for attempting the voyage were always simple, “Someone needed to do it, why not me?" But I have always wondered if there was more.
Eager for round two
The navy celebrated Tomy’s voyage in 2013 with a grand ceremonial welcome at the Gateway of India in Mumbai, where the then-president Pranab Mukherjee, navy chief admiral D.K. Joshi, and many others were present. Ending his speech that day, Tomy had joked, “Can I go back for another round?"
Five years later, he is on his way to do exactly that. Unlike the first time, when he sailed in the 56ft Mhadei, a modern boat with the latest in technology and facilities, this time he will sail in the smaller and slower Thuriya. Much like the race itself, Tomy’s boat is a homage to Knox-Johnston’s achievement. It is a replica of the Suhaili, the boat in which Knox-Johnston had sailed around the globe. Interestingly, Suhaili was also built in India, at a boatyard in Mumbai.
“Building a new boat on an old 1923 design is much, much harder than building a cutting-edge new one," says Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius Shipyard Pvt. Ltd in Goa, where the Thuriya was built. I met Tomy and his two-member team, which includes Donde as his mentor and manager when Lounge was invited aboard the Thuriya (Tomy’s boat for GGR2018) for an exclusive preview sail around Goa.
“We had to redraw and reinvent to build a boat that can match everything thrown at new boats with the latest gadgets," Dandekar says. “I can’t risk the boat letting him down in even the smallest way." He knows well the kind of battering the boat will face during the voyage. His shipyard is where the Mhadei was built, and also the Tarini, on which India’s first all-women crew is currently attempting a circumnavigation with stops.
One of the team’s challenges was figuring out where to fit everything that is needed on the boat. The Thuriya is just 32ft, or 9.7m, long. It has two masts—main and mizzen—and its tiny deck is covered with coils of thick rope. “The boat’s size is both a good thing and a bad one," Donde explains. “A smaller boat is easier to sail. But she also gets tossed about more, tiring the sailor out," he adds.
But the biggest challenge, he says, is navigation. “GPS is a super luxury." I have to agree. Think about how much we rely on it these days. I used Google Maps just to find my way to this interview from my hotel 4km away.
“We’re so dependent on things," Tomy says. “That’s why I like the idea of this race, the idea of simplifying and going old-school. I think that once I get used to doing things the old way, I will find this much easier." I look to Dandekar and Donde as he says that. They wear sceptical smiles.
It is hard to believe it will be easier. Navigating without modern technology means using a sextant. The one Tomy is using looks like a complicated crossbow with many knobs and dials. To use it, Tomy has to hold it in his right hand, point it at the sun, and adjust the knobs and dials to find the angle between the sun and the horizon. Using that number and accurate time (measured on a mechanical chronometer from a Russian MiG aircraft bought from a second-hand market in Bhavnagar, Gujarat), he has to make a complex series of calculations. Without a calculator. Instead, he’s carrying a set of logarithmic tables. And he has to do this in a sailboat inclined at an odd angle, and pitching up and down on the sea.
It really doesn’t sound easier.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to it," Tomy says with a laugh. “And if there is one thing I learnt during Sagar Parikrama 2, it is that we don’t really understand our limits of endurance, and just how much we’re capable of, how adaptable we are, until we put it to the test."
Even with the aid of modern technology, circumnavigating the globe is a challenging task that few have managed. Sailors face wind speeds of up to 70 knots, and waves as high as 10m. If there is no wind, they can be becalmed for days. If there is no rain, they can run out of drinking water. Temperatures go down to 2 degrees Celsius, with gale-force winds adding to the chill. Everything they need has to be carried on board, from first aid to spare parts, and enough food to last the entire journey. They have to be sailor, skipper, mechanic, doctor, cook, cleaner.
Embracing the challenge
Which brings me to the question, why go back at all? I pose the question to Tomy several times and in several different ways over the two days I am in Goa.
The maximum I can elicit from him is “Why not?" Where others see challenges—in navigation, communication, storage—he sees opportunities to simplify, reduce, reuse.
Don McIntyre, the founder of GGR2018, when asked what going old-school would mean for the participating sailors, responded in an email, “Robin and the Suhaili had a tremendous inspiring influence on me as a young adult," he writes. “Like them, the participants in this race will have the absolute personal satisfaction of knowing that this is about them and their little boat achieving something incredible, through their own endurance, perseverance and endeavour. It is a challenge and voyage like the world has not experienced for 50 years and will surprise many."
There is no doubt that Tomy’s journey will inspire many, as the two Sagar Parikramas did before. Both Donde and Tomy have been invited to speak at schools, colleges and events across the country to share their stories. “People have told me that my story helped them find courage to do things they’ve always wanted to. They tell me: ‘If you can sail around the world alone, without help, I can surely go on that trek I always wanted to’," Tomy says.
Though the journey he’s setting out on will be full of difficulties, Tomy’s attitude is to approach it without expectations. It’s a philosophy that inspires those who interact with him. I try to catch him out on his equanimity, to check if he’s play-acting, by asking the same question in different ways. What do you hope to achieve with the journey? What are the amazing things you hope to see while you’re out there? What are you biggest fears? His answer never changes. “I’m going into this without expectations of any kind. That way I can be ready for everything, and anything is possible."
Not just a boat
One question I no longer ask Tomy is whether he will be lonely during the long journey. It is clear that he thinks of the boat as his friend and companion. I realize that sounds like something a person might say to sound correct, but I’ve seen Tomy sail the Mhadei and talk about it. To him the boat was a person he had a symbiotic relationship with. He was always fussing over “her", adjusting the sails, fixing things, making sure the ropes were neatly coiled, or simply tidying up. Even in the middle of a storm, he could find everything with his eyes shut.
When I sail with him on the Thuriya, I can see that this is a relationship that is still developing. Unlike the Mhadei, he’s seen the Thuriya being built step by step. He knows each and every thing that has gone into its construction. However, unlike the Mhadei, which he had sailed 25,000 nautical miles even before his circumnavigation, he’s only now beginning to take the Thuriya out on short journeys. With seven people on board, the boat is crowded, so when the wind changes or he wants to shift tack, Tomy shoos his guests into the boat’s tiny cabin. Peering out, we can see him moving around the boat, figuring things out. He pulls at a rope, realizes it is not quite the one he wants, then tries another. Holding the tiller, he cocks his head, like he’s listening to something, and then jumps up to make another adjustment. Only when he’s happy are we allowed back on the deck.
When asked about how he’s preparing himself for the journey, Tomy says his focus is fixed entirely on getting the Thuriya ready. The navy has facilitated and supported the project in many ways, but progress has been slow due to lack of funding. “Last time, I had no idea how I’d handle such a journey. But now, I know more about myself. I know how long I can go without sleep, or food, or water. I know that even when I am sick or cold, I can will myself to move and do what needs to be done. So my preparations right now are all centered around the boat. There is still a lot to do to get her ready and present at the start line."
When I had sailed with him in 2012, Tomy had put me on night watch so I could get a small idea of what he experiences out there alone. I remember the rocking of the boat, and the sound of the water lapping its sides. Stars glistened in the sky above, and phosphorescence glowed in the boat’s wake below. I looked out for tiny bobbing lights that would give away fishing nets we needed to avoid. My mind was alert and clear of clutter. For a brief moment, I was able to grasp the enormity of the world we live in, and the utter insignificance of a single individual within it. For a moment, I knew my precise place in the world, and felt a strong sense of purpose. If so much self-awareness is to be found in a single night, what wonders will Tomy’s around-the-world-journey hold?
This, then, is a voyage for many reasons. It is a pursuit of glory, for the nation and the individual. It is a chance to prove that humans can prevail against the elements even without the aid of gadgets and tech. And it is, as well, a search for moments of perspective that inspire pioneers like Donde and Tomy to attempt even harder, more impossible feats.
To complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation during GGR2018, sailors must:
1. Depart from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France on 1 July, and return there approximately 260-300 days later.
2. Use yachts and equipment similar to what was available to Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968. Boats have to be between 32-36ft long, and be production boats designed before 1988. No modern materials like carbon fibre can be used in their construction.
3. Sail alone and unassisted (each entrant is permitted 140 litres of fuel to be used under restrictions set by the race organizers).
4. Not make any stops along the way; and pass through specific “gates" set by the race organizers. The most significant is the Storm Bay gate near Tasmania, where skippers have to lower sails and drift for 2 hours.
5. Cover a distance of 30,000 nautical miles, rounding Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn, and the Cape of Good Hope.
6. Not use any modern technology (barring safety equipment). That means no computer, satellite phone, watermaker, auto-pilot, electronic watches, etc.
7. Not use any satellite-based navigation, just a sextant, marine chronometer, barograph, and the like.
Watch and Read
Colin Firth stars in ‘The Mercy’, releasing in the UK in February, just ahead of the start of the 50th anniversary edition of the Golden Globe Race.
Firth plays Donald Crowhurst, an amateur British sailor who took part in and died during the first-ever Golden Globe Race. He was a 36-year-old businessman who decided to attempt a never-done-before feat, ill-prepared and in deep debt. Leaving behind a wife (played by Rachel Weisz in the movie) and four children, he left in a boat that soon sprung a leak. Rather than return and admit defeat, the fear of shame and bankruptcy drove him to fake log entries to make it seem like he was doing very well—in fact, well enough to win. Soon, he was depressed, worried about being found out, and in June 1969, 243 days after leaving Devon, he committed suicide by jumping into the Atlantic. His boat was found 12 days later, with the log with his actual positions, as well as his various recordings, which were used in a documentary about him titled Deep Water.
Of the nine people who’d started the race, only Robin Knox-Johnston finished. He donated his entire prize money of £5,000 (around Rs4.3 lakh now) to Crowhurst’s family.
Crowhurst had an Indian connection too; he was born in Ghaziabad in 1932.
A World of My Own: The first Ever Non-stop Solo Round The World Voyage
By Robin Knox-Johnston
A gripping personal account of an astonishing accomplishment.
Bloomsbury, Rs245 on Kindle
The First Indian: The First Indian Solo Circumnavigation Under Sail
By Dilip Donde
A wry and insightful account of an exciting journey by water, and the many challenges it posed.
Fernhurst Books Ltd, Rs475 on Amazon
51 Solitary Days At Sea Sailing Non-Stop Around The Globe
By Abhilash Tomy
A collection of Commander Tomy’s thoughts and photos from his extraordinary journey.