This is about Abhilash Tomy. In a way, this is the story of the life of another Pi. Abhilash is the first, and currently the only Indian to have circumnavigated the globe solo and non-stop in a sail-boat. The magnitude of his achievement can only be comprehended once you know that while almost 6,000 people have climbed Mt. Everest, only 79 people have solo-circumnavigated the globe in a sail-boat, non-stop. Just a few days before his setting sail for this unique voyage, at an invitation of National Geographic Traveller, I had the unique privilege of having been taken around off the Mumbai coast by him in the now famous ‘INSV Mhadei’ – the sail-boat that took him around the globe. After his voyage, I chatted with this 34-year old eligible bachelor about Abhilash Tomy the person, INSV Mhadei, the voyage, and the affects of this voyage on him as an individual. Here’s the account.
Tell us something about yourself.
“Basically, I am a reconnaissance pilot in the Indian Navy. I hold the rank of a Lieutenant Commander. I used to be a part of the Navy’s shooting team. I have also done about a year and a half of competitive dinghy sailing. Amongst all Indians, I have the maximum offshore sailing experience, having clocked over 1,00,000 km of sailing. I love cycling, but hate driving.
I am originally from Alleppey (Alappuzha), but now our family is settled in Kochi. My father, now retired, was in the Naval Police. My mother is a home-maker. My younger brother, an IT professional, is now settled in New Zealand.”
What inspired you to go about this onerous feat?
“I have dreamt of it since childhood. I used to read a lot of sea adventure books. During my childhood, I had keenly followed the voyage of Trishna, the first-ever successful attempt to go around the globe in a sail-boat by an Indian crew. Subsequently, in 1999, I had followed ‘AroundAlone’ sail-boat races, in which, a woman was leading all along.
In March 2009, I got a chance to fulfil this dream, when I helped prepare INSV Mhadei with Commander Dhonde. This preparation went on till August 2009. Subsequently, I helped him during the boat’s stopovers in Fremantle, Christchurch, Port Stanley and Cape Town.”
Typically, what would preparing a boat entail?
“Preparation means ensuring the sustainability of the boat for a long voyage. It is about acquiring stand-by items like sails, ropes, and other parts needed to repair the boat in case anything fails. It is also about identification of supplies – what to carry, from where, etc. It means lining up 2-3 suppliers to build in redundancy, to address that off chance of supplies from one supplier going bad. It also includes training myself to operate, maintain and repair the systems. I have carried out 4-5 re-fits of the boat during the life of the vessel. The process was one of watching a re-fit, learning from it, and then doing it myself single-handedly.”
That’s a lot of preparation. What did you do about the sailing experience in differing sea conditions?
“In 2010-11, I sailed with Cdr. Dhonde from Goa to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We were a team of 4 – Cdr. Dhonde, Lt. Cdr. Gautam Khajuria, Chief Petty Officer Pankaj Kumar, and me. From there, Gautam and I sailed to Cape Town. And then from Cape Town to Goa, I sailed alone.
Then, in 2010, I sailed to Malaysia and Thailand with a team of 3.“
For the solo voyage, you were going to be alone on the boat for months. How did you prepare yourself for the loneliness at sea?
“Once it was decided that I would be setting out for this voyage, I was called to Goa. There, though I was entitled to a room in the Naval Mess, I decided to forego it. Instead, I chose to stay on the boat. So, from December 2011 till I set sail on 1st November 2012, I stayed on the boat.
This meant living without a fan, a washing machine, a TV or a fridge – in fact, all such things which we are normally used to and take for granted, were missing. During the monsoon months, I had even stopped getting water from the shore. Instead, I had started harvesting rainwater. I learnt to store vegetables without refrigeration. Stopped cooking or even boiling the vegetables and started having them raw to save time and effort.
I loved my time alone on the boat.”
Interesting. Tell us something about the actual expedition.
“I set sail on 1st November 2012 from Mumbai. Next day, Cyclone Neelam in the Arabian Sea welcomed me. It was rough, but also a blessing in disguise. The Arabian sea is a calm sea and your sailing speed here is painfully slow. But, thanks to the cyclone, I made good speed through most of the Arabian Sea. Around Kerala, there was no wind, and I was stuck there for a while. I crossed Cape Leeuwin (SW Australia) on 1st December. That’s where my first cold front hit me.”
What’s a cold front?
“A Cold front has similar wind speeds as a cyclone, but has a different reason of origin, and hence is classified as a different weather system. I was expecting to be in this weather system till I hit the Cape of Good Hope, that is, for the next 3 months or so. This weather system sinks a lot of ships and makes circumnavigation a huge challenge. My next 3 months were typically marked by 40-knot wind speeds. Even calm days (with wind speeds of around 5 knots) were marked by huge waves. Average water temperature was 4~7 Degree Celsius. Other challenges included hailstorms, threats of icebergs, low visibility, et al.
New year’s eve greeted me with a wind speed of 55 knots. In the middle of Pacific, a rope snapped. I climbed the mast in rocky seas to repair the rope. Sailor’s legend has it that below 40 degrees south, there are no rules; below 50 degrees, there are no laws; and below 60 degrees, there is no God. The lowest I went was 58.5 degrees south. At one time, I was just two sailing days away from Antarctica.
I rounded Cape Horn on 26th January, our Republic Day. Rounding it is considered tougher than climbing Mt. Everest. Almost 6,000 people have climbed Mt. Everest, but only 79 have rounded it as part of solo non-stop circumnavigation. This has made me the only Indian eligible to join the International Association of Cape Horners.
While crossing Falkland Islands, a C-130J aircraft accorded me the singular honour of giving me and my boat a low-level fly-past.”
What a story ! Then ?
“On 5th February 2013, I celebrated my birthday in the South Atlantic. In fact, this is the third time I was doing it. Earlier, I had done so in 2010 and 2011 as well. The 9th of February marked the completion of 100 days of solitude. I crossed the prime meridian on Valentine’s Day. And, on 19th February, I faced the worst weather of this voyage. Wind speeds were in excess of 70 knots. Though the speed is almost 2 times the speed of winds in Cyclone Neelam, the force felt was 4 times. When I was to enter Indian Ocean, the prediction was for 3 cyclones. Only one of them – Cyclone Haruna – became a reality. I dodged it and continued my sail. But, both my water tanks got contaminated with diesel. I was left with a mere 15 litres of water – less than a bucket. As an optimist, if all things went well, the remaining voyage was still at least 15 days.
I got lucky and found rain, and I managed to harvest another 15 litres of water. I crossed the equator on spring equinox (20th March) and reached Mumbai on 31st March. I stepped on the shore on 1st April. And, I still had 2 litres of water left with me.
On 6th April, the President of India gave me a ceremonial reception.”
Wow. How long was the voyage ?
“The total distance covered was 40,000 km.”
Fantastic ! Could you tell us how this journey has affected Abhilash Tomy as an individual?
“I have started to see the chase for material things as pointless. My patience levels have gone up tremendously. I don’t do much of talking to people any more. For me, the phone is now an irritation. And, since the Navy allows it, I have started sporting a beard.”