As Navy Commander Abhilash Tomy begins his road to recovery, AMRITA DUTTA in Ernakulam & SMITA NAIR in Goa recount a love affair with the sea that began as a child, the journey that brought him to the race, and the boat that fought against 80 knots winds. Out of hospital, Abhilash will head first to his vessel, to Thuriya.
What does a parent do when his child decides to climb onto a boat, embrace the rough seas and sail around the world? Lt Commander (retd) V C Tomy, 67, decided to keep score.
On a globe, the piercing blue of whose oceans is nothing like the grey fury of the real thing, he plotted the journey of his son Abhilash Tomy, as he became the first Indian to circumnavigate the world alone in 2013, without assistance and without halting anywhere. “Every day, I marked where he had reached. This is where he started, from the Gateway of India in Bombay,” he says, tracing the long, wavy line he had drawn on it with a pen as he sat in his house in Ernakulam, Kerala. “And that’s the route, the Pacific, Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope….”
The sea is not visible from this house, but the eye is always led back to the intricate geometry of sails, masts and sterns. On the walls are framed images of ships and boats, including a watercolour of the sailing boat INSV Mhadei, on which Abhilash left from Mumbai in 2013. Mounted on the wall is a ship’s wheel, salvaged from the now destroyed passenger streamer HMHS Rohilla, which was a gift to Tomy.
There is a newer and shorter line on the globe, representing Abhilash’s second shot at sailing around the world. This squiggle takes a deep plunge into the Atlantic from the French coast and then disappears at a spot in the treacherous southern Indian Ocean. “That’s where his boat ran into a storm. This is the accident spot,” he says.
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Here, about 3,200 km off Perth, Abhilash’s sailboat Thuriya ran into savage winds on September 21. For nearly four days, the 39-year-old Navy Commander was stranded in a boat that had been dismasted, immobile from a back injury and unable to reach a spare satellite phone. “There was no way of contacting him. We couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat,” says the father.
On Friday afternoon, three days after he was rescued by the French vessel Osiris, Abhilash was moved from a hospital in Amsterdam Island to the INS Satpura. “He is walking now with crutches. He is much better, though he is very disappointed at having been knocked out of the race,” Captain D K Sharma, PRO, Indian Navy, said.
The ship, Sharma said, would first make its way to the Thuriya, which is 100 nautical miles south of the island. Deep sea divers of the Indian Navy, guided by Abhilash, would try to retrieve his valuable gear and personal belongings from it. “The sailboat cannot be lifted onto the ship. We will have to decide how to bring it back,” he added. “We can’t leave a child behind, can we?”
Abhilash was working on the deck when the storm hit. In about 70-odd hours, it was battered thrice. The last two times turned it 360 degrees. “It went inside the water and out. The mast broke. Abhilash scurried inside, and that was what saved him,” said Sharma.
It has been hard for the family, but Tomy says he wouldn’t ever wish to hold his son back. “I pray for him, but I don’t worry. You should not control your children. Let them be free birds,” he says.
“You may think I am a brave man, but all I wanted to be was to be a free man.” In a TedXtalk he gave soon after the first circumnavigation in 2013, Abhilash spoke of what draws him to the sea.
What made him seek out a second, more difficult adventure? “When you have achieved a certain degree of success over the impossible, you want to challenge yourself again,” says his wife Urmimala Abhilash, an illustrator of, among many things, children’s books. “There was also the history of this race, which he has read since he was a teenager,” she says, over the phone from Goa.
That story — of the terrifying power of the sea and human endurance — has been a part of seafaring lore for decades. In 1968, nine men set out to circumnavigate the world non-stop in the Golden Globe Race. Of the last four men in the fray, one abandoned the race and sailed away inspired by an epiphany on the sea. Another, Donald Crowhurst, racked by a mental breakdown, threw himself aboard and died. Only one, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, made it — the first human to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and alone.
Read | Who is Abhilash Tomy?
Abhilash was invited to take part in the Golden Globe Race 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of Knox-Johnston’s feat. But this time, the sailors had to take a step back from the digital to the analogue. The 18 skippers who took part could not use any technology invented after 1968, including the GPS. “He wanted more glory, he wanted more challenges,” says Indian Navy Commander (retd) Dilip Donde, mentor and manager of Abhilash’s mission. “He had to navigate the Thuriya communicating with heavenly bodies, learn to navigate with a sextant. Even I used it 25 years ago.”
Saying Abhilash turned to libraries and the Internet to brush up on his learning, Donde, a trailblazer in Indian navigation, calls him “very focused”.
The name of the vessel was suggested by Urmimala. “If you read the Upanishads, it means the fourth state of consciousness, the ‘thuriya avastha’. Just before you achieve Nirvana, you enter this stage of complete awareness. I felt he might be able to attain that state,” she says.
On July 1, among those present to see the Thuriya and Abhilash off, at Les Sables-D’Olonne, France, was Knox-Johnston, who Donde and, through him, Abhilash, have known for a few years. When the legendary sailor stepped onto the Thuriya, he was curious to know how many days Abhilash would take to finish the race. The Brit had taken 312 days. The younger seafarer looked at him and said, “311”.
Abhilash was a child when the sea called.
With his father serving in the Navy police, the family moved from one coastal town to another. Once, his mother, Valsamma, looked down from their second-floor balcony to see Abhilash bobbing in the backwaters on a raft of thermocol.
He and brother Anish grew up around sailing clubs, and nothing could drag the elder sibling away. “Abhilash must have been in Class 2. We were posted in Kochi. After school, he would rush to the sailing club, put on a lifejacket, jump into the dirty water of the backwaters,” says Tomy. Soon, he was dragging small boats to the backwaters, and convincing the sailing club manager to give him lessons. “By the time he was out of school, he was a competent sailor,” recalls the father.
Later, Abhilash qualified for engineering and medical colleges, the parents say, but chose to enter the naval academy.
Tomy recalls the competitive streak in his son. “During his training, he had to travel from Bombay to Lonavla. All his friends took the train. He was on a sports cycle, but he reached before them. He has always wanted to be one up, and ahead of the race.”
Read | The Race of a Lifetime
Valsamma, however, has another image of her first-born, as a quiet child, always buried in books, mostly happy to stay at home, lost in his own world. “I had no idea he had these dreams,” she says. When he announced his decision to sail the world alone in 2013, unlike her husband, she revolted. When all else failed, he got Admiral Manohar P Awati, who was the first to push the Indian Navy to navigation, to Ernakulam to convince her. “Valsamma didn’t relent. He had to come down a second time and she finally said yes,” says Tomy.
Abhilash’s Golden Globe adventure, though, remained a secret to his parents. “When the boat was built, a Malayalam newspaper printed a small story about it. That’s when we came to know,” the father says. “You know Malayalis are famously dismissive of adventure. They say, what is so great about sailing across the world? Even a fisherman can do that,” adds Tomy, with a booming laugh.
Two sextants, two radio VHF sets, 300 litres of water, and 1,000 ready-to-eat meals, apart from the dried fish and banana chips that were shipped by his parents to France. These were among the things on board the Thuriya as Abhilash set off. Also with him were three books, Upanishads by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Seamanship and Seafaring by Knox-Johnston, and a novel beloved of Kerala, Gabriel García Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. “He makes it a point to read it once every year,” says Tomy.
Besides the adventure, Abhilash has always been drawn to the solitude a man finds on the sea. “I have always believed, ever since I knew myself, that a man who does not love solitude can never be in love with his own freedom,” he said at the TedX event.
His father is aware of the challenges of those solitary days. “The first thing to do would be to set the course of the sailboat, change the direction of the sail to that of the wind. He has to cook his food, wash his things,” he says. When at home, one of his indulgences is waking up late. “On sea, he cannot sleep like us. Sailors allow themselves to get into a drowsy mood for about 10-15 minutes. Then they get up, check the safety of the sailboat and the course and wind direction, and doze again,” says Tomy. When they return home, it takes about six months to return to a normal circadian rhythm.
The sea has reshaped Abhilash in other tangible ways. “To him now less is more, that we don’t need so many things to survive. When he comes here, even if it is hot, he doesn’t switch on the fan,” says Tomy, recounting how during his last adventure, Abhilash survived 15 days with less than 15 litres of water.
To both parents, this son who has outgrown the confines of a middle-class existence remains a slight mystery. “I never thought he was this strong a person. But he speaks of sailing across the world as something very simple,” says Tomy.
“He is always prepared to take on such challenges, anytime,” says wife Urmimala. “But I don’t think I am any longer,” she adds with a wry chuckle.
The sailor has, fortunately, escaped any major damage to his body. “With a bit of rest, he can recover. And my guess is he will come back to sailing,” says Donde.
“No matter what, nothing defeats him. It still has not defeated him,” adds his wife.
In the Navy, Abhilash works as a maritime reconnaissance pilot. That remains the final frontier to conquer. “I am sure he is already making new plans. You do know what he wants to do next? He wants to fly around the world,” says Tomy, breaking into a smile.
Around the world on a boat
American JoshUA Slocum was the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. In 1895, he set sail from Boston on his boat Spray, and completed his voyage in 3 years. He wrote about his journey in Sailing Alone Around the World
In 1968, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the Golden Globe Race, in which nine men tried to circumnavigate the world alone, unassisted, and without making any stops. He was the first person to achieve this feat
Naval Commander Dilip Donde became the first Indian to circumnavigate the world alone. He sailed on the INSV Mhadei from Mumbai in August 2009 and returned in May 2010. He made 4 stops
In November 2012, Abhilash Tomy set out on the Mhadei for a solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. He became the first Indian to complete the feat on March 31, 2013. He took 151 days
In September 2017, an all-woman Indian crew led by Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi travelled the globe on the Indian Navy’s second sailboat, INSV Tarini. They completed the voyage in May 2018
In 2018, to mark the 50th anniversary of Knox-Johnston’s circumnavigation, the Golden Globe Race organiser attempted to restage the historic race. Eighteen sailors set off on July 1. The condition was they could not use any technology that was invented after 1968. That meant sailing without modern technology and the benefit of satellite-based navigation aids
Abhilash Tomy was third in the race when his Thuriya was dismasted. As of Friday, eight people remained in the Golden Globe Race; 73-year-old Frenchman Jean-Luc van den Heede was in the lead.
‘Inside boat, he was safe’
On Septmeber 20, a satellite phone conversation between Dutch sailor Mark Slats and Golden Globe Race founder and chairman Don McIntyre, predicting a 60-70 knot gust, boomed straight into a home in Goa. Ratnakar Dandekar, the son of a naval architect, and the man who built Commander Abhilash Tomy’s vessel Thuriya, imagines it to be the moment when the wind system developing in the southern waters hit him.
Relaying the weather warning, McIntyre called it a “nasty short one”, a “gust shooting up from south westerly direction and forming right behind”, telling Slats “there is no point running north or south”. Later, McIntyre would repeat the words to Abhilash, adding, “It’s building above you.”
Dandekar, sitting in the west coast of India, had been tracking the wind patterns of all the 18 Golden Globe sailors since July 1, when the race started, keenly studying the damage to each sailor’s boat who quit the race (10 have quit so far). “The storm was coming, you could see it for two days,” says the 51-year-old. “If the forecast itself was 60 knots, the actual one would be much bigger. The sea herself was confused.”
Abhilash was dismasted the next day, with the Thuriya “doing a 360 degree”, meaning a complete roll, surrendering her masts, and bringing the sails down on a two-year expedition, which started in Dandekar’s boat-building yard on Goa’s Divar island. It was at Aquarius Shipyard Private Limited that the only other two open-sail Indian forays into circumnavigation had also begun, and Dandekar, an instrumentation engineer by vocation and a boat maker by lineage, admits that till the last, he believed the Thuriya would ride the storm.
The boat was designed to be the twin to Suhaili, the 1923 design ketch on which Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed to become the world’s first solo circumnavigator in 1968, and whose feat the Golden Globe Race was hoping to replicate. The 9.7-metre-long Thuriya was a two-masted sailing craft, with a taller main mast, a shorter mizzen mast, and 13 sails on board.
A decade ago, Dandekar won the tender to build the Navy sailing boat INSV Mhadei. When that boat went on to take not just one but two Indians around the world, including India’s first circumnavigator Cdr Dilip Donde and his protege Abhilash (in 2013), the passion was sealed. “I learnt wind patterns after the Mhadei, the currents, the way the sea builds cyclones, the pressure lifts and the way in which the wind and wave cut the voyage. The Thuriya is all those learnings,” he says.
After the Mhadei would follow the INS Tarini and then the Thuriya. Explaining the challenges in building the boat, Dandekar says, “Her shape was the most difficult. Unlike boats of much recent designs, we had to design her looking at the pre-1970 design school process. At that time, boatmakers took thicker wood and chiselled it off… no one bothered about ensuring lesser weight. Suhaili weighed 10 tonnes. I studied Sir Knox’s book, A World of My Own, to understand the details….” Then there was the challenge of fitting everything — the provisions, equipment and Abhilash’s 6-ft frame. The Thuriya itself weighs 8.6 tonnes. There was also the problem of funding. The project’s initial cost estimate was Rs 6 crore. After failed interactions with investors, Dandekar surprised Donde and Abhilash one day by declaring, “I will put in my own money to build the hull… I had the conviction that if the boat’s hull was ready, someone would come forward to fund the rest.”
Abhilash invested some of his savings, and raised money from well-wishers. The Navy also provided additional funding. It took finally one year and three months to put together the hull, engine and interiors.
Before she left for the race, Thuriya went on a five-hour sail using just the jury rig in Goa — temporary poles to simulate a situation of acute emergency when all sails are lost.
Confidence in Abhilash and in the Thuriya was why, for a long time after the buzz around the difficult sea, Dandekar and Donde initially didn’t lose any sleep. They were confident that the Thuriya would not fall and be upright and sailing.
Dandekar speaks about how, before the accident on September 21, the Thuriya, having sailed 10,500 nautical miles of the total 30,000 race, had already suffered one knockdown. Her mast had touched the waters, but she had bounced back swiftly. It was when the masts broke that she surrendered.
Dandekar talks of his shock at the text message from Abhilash’s wife informing them of the boat being dismasted. “We knew that in bad weather, she (the Thuriya) can outperform other boats… I guess we didn’t design for bad luck, but no one designs for bad luck.”
He adds, “It may not make sense now to keep repeating this but the Thuriya was knocked out by a wave which she could take. But I am now told the winds curved in from all directions, there was nowhere to go. The system built in three-four hours, it was that swift.”
Just a day prior to Abhilash’s accident, an African weatherman had said he had “never heard or seen” anything in the past 30 years like the gust forming at the time in the seas.
Referring to the manner in which the Thuriya leans or tilts, and readjusts her weight, Dandekar says, “She is designed such that she heels fastest. If you have very strong winds, you reduce speed. Knowing Tomy, he would have have taken all the precautions.”
He and Donde take hope from the photographs of Abhilash’s rescue, which show the Thuriya sailing calm on the waters, as if enjoying the southern sun. It was an affirmation of their firm belief that as long as Abhilash was inside the boat, “he was going to be safe”.
Dandekar recalls what Knox-Johnston told him in their first email exchange after the accident. Their bond cemented by the Thuriya and the boat that inspired her, he wrote to Dandekar, “Think ahead for Thuriya. Abhilash will be physically ok, the trauma will be there. But Thuriya needs to be brought back too.”