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Salute India's Greatest Sailor!

April 29, 2023 18:12 IST
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Retired from the Indian Navy, his passage in the Golden Globe Race wasn't easy.
Although he kept himself in the basket of race leaders, the position revealed little of what he was actually enduring.
Shyam Menon captures the drama of Abhilash Tomy's incredible solo voyage across the world.

IMAGE: Abhilash Tomy crossed the finish line at 0446 UTC, his second time solo non stop around the world. All photographs: Kind courtesy ggr2022/twitter

Over four-and-a-half years after a storm in the Indian Ocean left him badly injured, Abhilash Tomy has finished second in the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR).

According to the event's live tracker and Facebook page, he crossed the finish line at Les Sables-d'Olonne in France after completing the race's mandated solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the planet, at 04:46 hours Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) on Saturday, April 29, 2023.

The race was won by Kirsten Neuschäfer of South Africa. She reached Les Sables-d'Olonne at 19:44 UTC on April 27, 2023.

The 2022 GGR had got underway on September 4, 2022. As of late April, of the 16 sailors who commenced the race, only three were left in the main race category. Two stood pushed to the Chichester Class. The rest had retired.

This included two major accidents -- a case of a boat sinking in the Indian Ocean in November 2022 and another of a boat rolled and dismasted in the southern Atlantic Ocean in April 2023.


The first among the 2022 GGR participants to reach Les Sables-d'Olonne after a full circumnavigation done, was Simon Curwen of England. He had led the race by a considerable margin for much of the voyage before the need to repair his boat forced him to deviate to coastal Chile, relegating him to the Chichester Class (sailing with one stopover) of the race. With that he stopped being one of the contenders for a podium finish in the main GGR, which requires solo, non-stop sailing.

However, Simon caught up with the competitors who had gone past him during that halt in Chile, overtook them and finished ahead of all in the early afternoon (10:38 UTC) of April 27, 2023.

IMAGE: Kirsten Neuschäfer became the first woman to win a round the world race.

By evening the same day, the winner of the 2022 GGR, Kirsten Neuschäfer of South Africa, reached Les Sables-d'Olonne becoming in the process, the first woman to win a round-the-world race by the three great capes across the solo/crewed and solo/non-stop categories. She is also the first South African sailor to win such an event.

Her voyage as part of the 2022 GGR was remarkable not just for the quality of sailing she showed but also the rescue of fellow GGR participant, Tapio Lehtinen.

The rescue happened in November 2022. Lehtinen's boat suddenly sank in the Indian Ocean forcing him to transfer to a lifeboat. Neuschäfer was awarded the Rod Stephen Seamanship Trophy by the Cruising Club of America for the rescue. The intervention, also fetched her time-credit in the race, as compensation.

Two things set the GGR apart from other races involving circumnavigation of the planet. Given it has the flavour of a retro-sailing event, some aspects of the technology permitted for the race have been pegged back to what prevailed a few decades ago.

Second, a non-stop voyage around the planet takes a massive toll on both sailor and boat. This is where Abhilash's story becomes special.

In 2013 he had become the first Indian to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation in a sailboat (INSV Mhadei) as part of the Indian Navy's Sagar Parikrama project, conceived and overseen by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati.

A few years later, in 2018, he had participated in that year's GGR only to end up with serious injury to self and his boat (Thuriya) dismasted, following a severe storm in the southern Indian Ocean.

But he fought his way out from that reversal of fortune; he underwent surgery and rehabilitation and eventually got back to flying and sailing, the activities that defined him as a naval aviator and one of the all-time greats of Indian sailing.

He then signed up for the 2022 edition of the GGR and returned to the race with the Bayanat; the boat was named after his main sponsor for the voyage, a company from the United Arab Emirates specialising in AI-powered geospatial intelligence.

IMAGE: The Golden Globe Race 2022.

Now retired from the Indian Navy, Abhilash's passage in the 2022 GGR wasn't easy. Although he kept himself in the basket of race leaders, the position probably revealed little of what he was actually enduring.

He knew the sea, the challenges pertaining to weather and maintaining the boat. But in 2022, there was a new ingredient in the mix -- his mind still living the memories of the September 2018 accident.

It was clear to those tracking the 2022 race and reviewing videos posted from the periodic rendezvous with sailors at check points that Abhilash was battling anxiety in the portion of the GGR leading to the southern Indian Ocean, where in 2018, he had been battered by a storm. This was vindicated by his admission (in communications with the race organisers) of a peace finally found after he got past the site of the 2018 accident.

Thereafter, it was a different Abhilash. His worries from that point on, seemed mostly about addressing the needs of his boat which kept developing a litany of complaints. But he responded creatively and found solutions for the problems without resorting to a stopover for repairs. He improvised with what he had aboard.

This approach kept him alive in the main, competitive segment of the race featuring solo, non-stop circumnavigation. Amidst this struggle, he coped with his old injuries acting up as a consequence of long hours of work, steering and maintaining the boat.

What reached Les Sables-d'Olonnes on April 29, should therefore be a package of Abhilash and Bayanat that captures single handed sailing over an extended period of time. Saturday was the 236th day since commencement of the race.

IMAGE: Abhilash Tomy during the GGR 2022 race.

A summary of the race would be incomplete without a picture of the finish. A circumnavigation is a hell of a lot of distance covered, long enough for people to be separated by vast margins at sea.

Yet by the time, Abhilash and Kirsten Neuschäfer entered the Atlantic for the second time in their long voyage (this time on the way back to Les Sables-d'Olonne), it was clear that a tight finish was on the cards.

Around the equator, the distance between the two had reduced considerably. At times, they seemed almost parallel to each other on the race's live tracker. Eventually, Kirsten finished first, Abhilash placed second. For most observers, given a whole planet circumnavigated, both represent endurance sailing at its best.

Finally, like some who watched the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia finding the desert the film's real hero, the actual hero of GGR is the sea -- its known tendencies and its unpredictability. None -- not even the world's best sailors -- are spared.

Nothing captured the sea's effect on a race and those tracking it, as well as this comment posted on GGR's Facebook page after the world was informed of Kirsten Neuschäfer being seven nautical miles from finish and without wind to push her on: 'All of us on the YouTube live chat are pointing hairdryers, leaf blowers out windows and waving towels and beach blankets towards coastal France!'

By afternoon, April 28, the situation must have felt similar for Abhilash and his fans too. He was expected at Les Sables-d'Olonne that day but thanks to prevailing weather conditions, the ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) stood revised to late morning April 29.

Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Mahipal Soni/

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