The Sea and I

Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy,an Indian Navy aviator,is set to be the first Indian to sail solo non-stop around the world.

Written by Smita Nair | Published:March 31, 2013 2:17 am

Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy,an Indian Navy aviator,is set to be the first Indian to sail solo non-stop around the world. Smita Nair tracks his incredible journey— his depleting food stocks,the climb up the boat’s 25-metre mast and why he was upset as his boat rounded the Cape Horn

Four days after his boat was flagged off from Mumbai’s Gateway of India on November 1,2012,Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy realised he had forgotten to pack oyster sauce,his preferred ingredient for stir-fry vegetables. Days later,as he headed towards Cyclone Nilam,his definition of “misery” was the absence of a chopping board,which meant the vegetables went “whole” into the pan. “You see,for me,the voyage is about letting go of my needs,” says the 34-year-old Indian Navy officer.

Not that he could have had it any other way. A solo,non-stop circumnavigation meant he could return to Mumbai only after he clocked a distance of 21,600 nautical miles,sailing south of the Great Capes—Cape Leeuwin,Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope—crossing the equator twice as he covered the circumference of the Earth. As he completes his five-month-long voyage,titled Sagar Parikrama 2,on the 56-foot-long INSV Mhadei (he clocked almost 22,000 nautical miles in 150 days) and comes home to Mumbai,where a presidential welcome awaits him,Abhilash Tomy will become the first Indian and probably the first professional aviator to cover three oceans—Indian Ocean,South Atlantic and South Pacific—unassisted and non-stop.

“I had packed 50 cans of soft drinks for 180 days and they ran out soon,which means one after every fourth day proved to be very,very special,” says Abhilash,a maritime reconnaissance pilot with the Navy. But longing for cola was the least of his concerns.

So far,there have only been 78 people around the world who have sailed solo and returned to tell the tale. Also,when he crossed the 10,000 nautical mile mark non-stop on January 9,2013,he became the first Indian to do so.

***

With no land in sight for long spells,Abhilash says the unpredictable nautical life was like surviving in “washing machine conditions” as his bobbing boat kept pace with cyclones,currents,squalls,trade winds (they are his “jinx”). He had to pull 100 kilogrammes on hot days with bare hands as he hoisted and dropped the sail (at times,thrice a day),and sometimes had to avoid 5,000-mile-long nautical obstacle courses.

The oceans introduced themselves soon enough. He hit his first gale at 30 knots in the first month of the voyage. The water purifier packed up in the first leg,while the fresh water got contaminated before he crossed the equator the second time. While the “working grime” kept his skin tanned,the growing beard kept poking the weathered skin. His “naughty-cal” beard—as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston,the world’s first solo non-stop circumnavigator puts it—has its set of admirers. “I guess half the women I know love the beard. The other half wants me to get rid of it. My guess is,the first half love me as a sailor,the other love me as a pilot,” he says.

On many days,his idea of survival was poring over weather charts to look for “fleeting safe corridors through the Indian Ocean’s doldrums” or drinking the fresh water he used to rinse his utensils after his stock of drinking water got contaminated. From taking bath in sea water at six degrees (“foolish decision,utterly foolish”),to touching 58.5 degrees south in the foggy South Pacific (possibly the farthest any Indian sailor has touched under sail) to a nagging headache on Valentine’s Day,the sea had its share of surprises. The only constants: the changing sky and his longing for popcorn and chocolates.

On many days,when he was tired of packaged food,he would boil potatoes with sea water. Drinking just one litre of water,he lost around two kilos every week in the first month. “My legs have gone weak,I realised that on the return journey,” he says on Gmail chat.

His boat’s genoa,the head sail,which stitches the boat to the mast,paid its obeisance to the icy might of Cape Horn with a four-inch tear. It finally shred into pieces after a 130 kmph wind tore it off at the graveyard Cape,the Cape of Good Hope. For days,he had to climb up the 25-metre cold mast,with the boat moving at a speed of 30 kmph,without anyone to winch him up. On his voyage blog,Abhilash uses an aviation metaphor as he compares the fluttering of the shredded sail to the sound of “an approaching aircraft”.

The loner that he is,Abhilash says he did not feel the need for distractions. “I was never bored and could sit thinking and doing nothing for hours,” he says. Still,he did have re-reading sessions of the “all-weather book” One Hundred Years of Solitude,followed by Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy,Maxim Gorky’s The Mother and Black Swan,another “quasi philosophical book”. And sometimes,Tinkle.

***

On January 26,as INSV Mhadei rounded the Cape Horn (the day also marked his parents’ 35th wedding anniversary),Abhilash did a surprise flag-hoisting that was followed by a “flypast of albatrosses and cormorants and a steam-past of smiling dolphins”. The photograph of this event,captured on his camera and which he uploaded on his Facebook page,got over 5,000 likes.

Cape Horn is a psychological mark,signifying the nearing of the end of the voyage. He says he went into depression after that. “One may not understand this,but it is like I have never been on shore. I realised then that the voyage was ending,” he says. Someone special had even got him a gold ear ring to mark the occasion (sailors who round the Cape Horn wear a gold ring).

“I used to be a racing sailor when I started off,so speed was everything to me. I was always in a hurry to get to the next port. So I would race towards the comforts of land—a proper bed,fresh water,fan,food. Not this time,” he says. The shredded genoa taught him patience.

And the strength to deal with long days of solitude. Speaking from his home in Ernakulam,Kerala,Abhilash’s father Lt Commander (retd) Valliara Chacko Tomy,61,says Abhilash’s yoga meditation in the moving boat must have stopped him from jumping off the boat. But it didn’t save his diary. “It had to go into the Indian Ocean. I had begun writing it from the day I started this voyage. It had my secret thoughts. But I could not have carried it around all my life—that would have been too much of a burden,” he says.

Sleep eluded him. Early morning on March 25,towards the end of his last leg,a severely sleep-deprived Abhilash dreamt of taking off on a Dornier and crashing it against a wall. “They have been dreams bordering on hallucination,” he says,adding,“I came out of it alive,so it was ok.”

He now wants to return to read Voltaire and maybe try paragliding.

***

IN 2007,it was Vice Admiral (Retd) Manohar Awati who came up with the idea of a solo circumnavigation. He convinced the Navy that for a maritime nation like India,it was a feat waiting to be achieved. And that’s how Indian Navy’s clearance diver Cdr Dilip Donde was chosen for Sagar Parikrama 1 and Goa-based boatmaker Ratnakar Dandekar was given the job of making the sail boat.

“It was a first for anyone in the country,so we used help from all possible quarters,” says Dandekar. The mast was from South Africa,the design purchased from a Dutch studio,and with a cost of Rs 4.25 crore,the first such sail boat was commissioned and named ‘INSV Mhadei’. In August 2009,Donde sailed the Mhadei around the world with four stops,with Abhilash chosen as the shore support crew. Abhilash would be stationed at Mumbai,Fremantle (Australia),Lyttelton port (New Zealand),Port Stanley (Falkland Islands) and Cape Town (South Africa) and help Donde stock up on supplies.

It was during one such stop in March 2010,sitting at a restaurant in Cape Town and nibbling over sushi,that Donde realised the next best thing to do with INSV Mhadei was a non-stop circumnavigation. He saw in Abhilash a logical successor. “He knew how to shape the sail to get the best speed,” says Donde. Also a listkeeper with Sagar Parikrama 1,Donde knew Abhilash’s meticulousness would come in handy. “He would keep checking. Keep drafting the plan,” he recalls.

Abhilash,who has clocked 1,300 hours on a Dornier,says,“When it comes to a plane,there is a common saying: 500 per cent on ground,50 per cent in air. That helped in this voyage. Prepare,prepare,prepare,before one actually takes off,” he says.

All this aviator precision threatened to come undone,because of one serious flaw—Abhilash couldn’t cook. “I knew his lack of cooking was going to be the first impediment. I asked him one day,‘How do you boil lentils?’ He went blank,” Donde recalls.

After the first Sagar Parikrama ended in May 2010,Donde and Abhilash took Mhadei on a race between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. At each phase between India,Mauritius,Cape Town and Rio and back,Donde groomed Abhilash from being a crew member to first mate,to skipper and finally solo after he handed INSV Mhadei to him at Cape Town. It was on that trip—from Goa to Cape Town and back—that he first tested his cooking skills. “I used to think cooking was magic or witchcraft. You put a lot of things in together and something totally new comes out. The first time I cooked for myself on the boat was when I was sailing solo from Cape Town to India,” he says.

Donde,who mentored Abhilash on every aspect of the voyage,recalls going to the DRDO’s Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore for Abhilash and picking a sample of everything. They sent him back saying they “never had anyone go for such voyages” and most of their food was for high altitudes. “Imagine,we were an anomaly there,” laughs Donde. Dehydrated food items were also sourced from New Zealand.

And some from a kitchen platform inside the fourth floor apartment of Riviera Apartment,Marine Drive. Much before the Indian Navy had shortlisted the boat maker for India’s first circumnavigation in 2007,Donde’s mother Meera Donde,67,the “kitchen manager” to both the Sagar Parikramas,was stuffing food in airtight containers and stocking it on a platform window.

“I kept them near the window,facing the sea breeze,to acclimatise them to sea conditions. I would open them after six months and eat it. Some things clicked,others didn’t. They were our experiments to handle the sea,” says Meera. It is her “thumb rule” of 400 gram of food that both the sailors adapted to on sea. So when Abhilash set off on his Sagar Parikrama,her kitchen experiments—two kilos of dehydrated poha and one kilo of dried prawns—were part of his list of food essentials too. Dead calories like chocolates were pulled out. “He would never cook,just munch on chocolates (if we had packed in chocolates),” recalls Meera.

On his birthday on February 5,all these efforts saw Abhilash celebrate with ice cream,apricot crumble,fresh apple,kheer,halwa and with DRDO-supplied roti and dal.

***

“He was always near a sailing club,” recalls his father of his son’s love for boats. Much earlier in life,Abhilash says he recalls a ship,but not the sea,from a childhood sailing episode. Then,one day,in sixth standard,he and a friend walked away with some thermocol pieces.

“Large ones. We just sculled out into the open sea,going out in our makeshift rafts,” says Abhilash. It was then,sailing on that reflective white boats,that the two boys dreamt of joining the Navy.

His father recalls a seven-year-old Abhilash putting on a life jacket and jumping into the sea near Katari Baugh,near the Cochin naval quarters. “He would come home soaking in dirty sea water and we would ask him to bathe in the compound before stepping in. He would repeat it the next day,” says Tomy. “A year later,he started taking tiny fibre boats out of the sailing club. He would go a little ahead and the small boat would capsize. He would repeat it every day.”

For Abhilash,the “idea of a sail boat” is the closest medium to feel the sea. “You need to see how a sail boat moves,with so much grace. There is nothing that can carry you this far into the sea and still keep you close to her. In a ship you are up so high above the water that it’s as if you never left the shore. That is not what going to sea is about. You need to have salt in your beard every moment,in your eyes,in your armpits,in your moustache,all the while like a fisherman.”

For his mother Valsamma,all this is still new. She knows her son as the expert quizzer,a “calm and quiet boy” who loved his books and whose mornings were always long hours spent inside the loo with a book. “But this,going around the world,is still new to me. Nobody who knows him well will believe it even now,” she says. She is waiting for Abhilash to visit them at their Valliara house at Ernakulam once he returns. She already has a menu for him: fish fry,tomato curry with coconut garnish,brown rice.

The last five months have been difficult for the couple. In a globe kept in their bedroom,the couple would wait for Abhilash’s position report tracked by the Indian Navy every day. On occasions,the report was sent by Abhilash at odd hours after midnight as he travelled latitudes. “We had an alarm which would wake us up and we would check the email. We would then plot the position and time on the globe with a marker. On two occasions,Abhilash slept off and the tracking was delayed. We suffered till we found he was safe,” Tomy says,adding,“It is a continuous line and its ink is slowly crossing the starting line.”

Sagar Parikrama 1

Cdr Dilip Donde,a clearance diver with the navy,sailed INSV Mhadei around the world (with four stops) in 273 days (he was at sea for 157 days),becoming the first Indian to do so

Sagar Parikrama 2

Lt Cdr Abhilash Tomy,a maritime reconnaissance pilot,sailed

the Mhadei non-stop and unassisted for 150 days,becoming the first Indian to circumnavigate solo.

INSV Mhadei

Named after River Mandovi,is of Dutch design,with the mast from South Africa,painted by experts in Singapore and overseen by a Dutch consultant. She has done 60,000 nautical miles in three years—probably the only Indian Navy vessel to do so. She is still six tonnes heavier than boats used by circumnavigators from other countries,but continues to give good distance.

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