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Abhilash Tomy Challenges The Oceans Again

March 06, 2023 13:24 IST
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'When I crossed that point where I had the accident, I felt light and that was a very physical experience. I felt something leave me.'
Shyam G Menon chronicles the voyages of that incredible Indian sailor, Abhilash Tomy.

IMAGE: Abhilash Tomy on his boat, Bayanat during the Golden Globe Race 2022. Photograph: Kind courtesy Golden Globe Race/Facebook

On February 18, 2023, Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy moved past Cape Horn, re-entering the Atlantic more than three months after he exited that ocean on his voyage east to circumnavigate the planet as part of the 2022 Golden Globe Race.

The race, which entails a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat, began on September 4, 2022 from Les Sables-d'Olonne in France.

At the time of writing, Abhilash was in second place; he was well past the Falkland Islands and almost level with race leader Kirsten Neuschafer of South Africa.

The race update of March 2, 2023 (posted on Facebook) which mentioned that Kirsten was caught in a windless bubble, said, 'The two leaders should emerge from the barometric swamp at approximately the same latitude and less than 500 miles apart laterally.'

On March 3, both Abhilash and Kristen were on the same latitude (35 degrees south) with the latter ahead by a thin margin.

On March 5, Kirsten's lead was a bit more; it's a measure of how dynamic things are.

Besides the challenges associated with long distance sailing, the Golden Globe Race features select technology levels pegged back to what prevailed in the first race of 1968, in which Sir Robin Knox Johnston of the UK had emerged the first person in the world to accomplish a solo nonstop circumnavigation.

The Golden Globe Race is a retro-sailing event.

A second shot at the same race

For Abhilash, his 2023 passage via Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, was the second time so.

In 2012-2013, the former naval officer (he was a pilot in the navy) had become the first Indian to essay a solo nonstop circumnavigation in a sailboat as part of the Indian Navy's Sagar Parikrama project.

Conceptualised by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, Sagar Parikrama had seen the first solo circumnavigation by an Indian (Commander Dilip Donde), the first solo nonstop circumnavigation and the first circumnavigation by a team of Indian women -- all in indigenously built sailboats.

In 2018, when the second edition of the Golden Globe Race happened (the race hadn't been held after the first one in 1968), Abhilash was a participant.

Hailing from Kochi, he had always wanted to own a boat and so ahead of the race, he had the ketch Thuriya built at the Aquarius Shipyard, Goa.

The boat was a replica of the Mumbai-built Suhaili, in which, Sir Robin Knox Johnston completed his circumnavigation.

Previously, Aquarius had built the Mhadei and Tarini, the bigger sailboats used in Sagar Parikrama.

IMAGE: A rescue boat from the shipping vessel Osiris evacuates then Commander Tomy. Photograph: Kind courtesy Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The 2018 Golden Globe Race commenced from France on July 1 that year.

Roughly two-and-a-half months later, news broke of the Thuriya rolled and dismasted in a severe storm in the southern Indian Ocean (the world's oceans falling in those latitudes are collectively called Southern Ocean).

The accident left Abhilash badly injured, limiting his mobility.

Irish sailor Gregor McGuckin, a fellow competitor in the race, made a heroic effort to reach Abhilash despite his boat damaged in the very same storm.

Eventually, Abhilash was rescued on September 24 by a French fishing patrol vessel that took him to I'lle Amsterdam, part of French Southern and Antarctic Lands.

An Indian Navy ship picked him up from there.

On return to India, Abhilash underwent surgery followed by rehabilitation.

He got back to sailing and flying.

The 2018 Golden Globe Race was won by Dutch sailor Jean-Luc Van Den Heede.

According to Wikipedia, out of 18 entrants, one didn't start and 13 retired during the race of who five were dismasted. Five participants completed the voyage.

The third Golden Globe Race was set for September 2022. Abhilash signed up to participate.

Wikipedia's page on him says he took premature retirement from the navy in 2021, to focus on preparations.

Raising resources, finding a boat -- all this would have been tough given a world impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not to mention -- money already spent for the unsuccessful 2018 attempt.

Abhilash's participation in the latest Golden Globe Race was officially disclosed in March 2022 at the Dubai Expo.

As per a report dated March 22, 2022, available on the Golden Globe Race Web site, Abhilash purchased a Rustler 36 in France, and named it Bayanat.

It was the name of his sponsor -- Bayanat, a G42 company specializing in AI-powered geospatial intelligence.

The now UAE-registered boat was previously raced in the 2018 by Philippe Peche with PRB sponsorship (he retired from the race on August 25, 2018 due to a broken wind vane and put in to Cape Town).

IMAGE: Abhilash Tomy's yacht Thuriya abandoned in the Indian Ocean. Photograph: AMSA

In his Facebook post confirming participation in the 2022 Golden Globe Race, Abhilash provided a synopsis of the 2018 accident and explained why taking part in the 2022 race 'is a big thing' for him.

Excerpts: 'After 82 days we were lying in third position when the storm overtook us. My boat was dismasted and destroyed, and I suffered a huge fall which left me with multiple spine fractures.

'And with pretty functionless legs. The remoteness? Couldn't have been worse. The Antarctic was the nearest continent. We were exactly between Australia and South Africa, and south of India.'

After his rescue and arrival in India, an MRI revealed fractures in the spine.

Two days later he was operated upon. Titanium rods were inserted in his spine and five vertebrae were fused into one.

'My legs were so badly off that I had to learn to walk again. But I did learn to walk, and then got into a cockpit and got back to flying, and sailing!

'Three-and=a-half years later, I am heading back into the same race that almost got me killed. Wish me luck!' he wrote.

IMAGE: A view from the starting point of the race at Les Sables-d'Olonne in France, September 3, 2022. Photograph: Golden Globe Race/Facebook

'I felt something leave me'

The 2022 Golden Globe Race started from France on September 4. As subsequent updates show, Abhilash's progress wasn't easy.

Notwithstanding weather conditions and complaints around information about the weather in the early part of the race, sailor and boat seemed mostly in good shape.

Except for one aspect -- there was mental stress.

A report dated November 9 on the Golden Globe Race Web site, said of Abhilash, 'His latest tweet suggests he is battling with the mind games of watching the leaders sail away and the others catching up.'

At that time, he was in the Atlantic, in fifth position overall.

Within the paradigm of nonstop sailing, the participants have a few check points to hand over film rolls and mail.

At the first such check-point near Cape Town in South Africa, Abhilash was a picture of frustration.

While he had his reasons, some wondered if the stress may be because he was headed to the Southern Ocean and the location of his 2018 accident.

Sailing solo is not simple. For the sailor, her/his boat is home at sea. The boat must be repaired and maintained well.

Else, consequences can be serious. As lone person doing all this and navigating, solo sailor must put in long hours of work, besides keeping watch.

It can cause sleep deprivation. Sometimes, the loneliness of long voyages can unsettle the mind.

In the 1968 Golden Globe Race, Donald Crowhurst had given the impression of circumnavigating while all the while remaining in the Atlantic.

The man was never seen again; only his empty boat was found.

At the other extreme was Bernard Moitessier.

Although leading the race, he lost interest and instead of returning to where the race started once he got back to the Atlantic, he did another half circumnavigation and dropped anchor in Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean.

IMAGE: Tapio Lehtinen, left, after being rescued by Kirsten Neuschafer and before transferring to the ship. Photograph: Golden Globe Race/Facebook

Past Cape Town, in the Indian Ocean, the 2022 Golden Globe Race saw its first major accident when Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen's boat sank.

Abhilash -- he was now among the race leaders -- and Kirsten diverted their course to help Tapio.

Kirsten effected the rescue; she was later awarded the Rod Stephen Trophy for Seamanship by the Cruising Club of America.

Because she diverted off course for the rescue, Kirsten also earned corresponding compensation in terms of time.

Meanwhile, the race steadily picked its way south, into the usually stormy waters of the Southern Ocean.

Drawing from their 2018 experience, the race organisers had advised the sailors to stick to certain latitudes in the Southern Ocean, in the interests of their safety.

Late December 2022, it was a different Abhilash that spoke to race organisers at the check point at Hobart Gate, Tasmania.

He said he was relieved to cross the point in the southern Indian Ocean where he had suffered the accident.

'When I crossed that point where I had the accident, I felt light and that was a very physical experience. I felt something leave me,' he was quoted in the race update.

According to him, from the start of the race till that point, he had been tense.

IMAGE: In this photograph posted by the Golden Globe Race, Abhilash had called up on February 5, 2023, to seek advice on failure of his wind pilot self steering gear. Photograph: Golden Globe Race/Facebook

Tired boats, determined sailors

At Hobart Gate, Abhilash was in third place. Simon Curwen of the UK, who had taken the lead pretty early in the race, was number one by a considerable margin.

However, a month later in the Pacific Ocean, things went wrong for Simon.

His boat suffered damage to its wind vane following which Simon was forced to sail towards Chile for repairs.

It relegated him to the Golden Globe Race's Chichester Class, named after Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966-1967 had sailed solo around the world with one stop.

This made Kirsten the race leader with Abhilash in second place.

But the Indian sailor had his share of problems brewing.

While in the Indian Ocean he had suffered a fall on his back.

Coupled with long hours of steering in adverse weather conditions in the Southern Ocean, his old injury started acting up.

He experienced 'back pain and numb limbs.'

Doctors advised pain killers. Abhilash decided to sail slowly and avail some rest. His worries didn't end there.

In the southern Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Chile, Kirsten and Abhilash had to tackle a big storm.

According to the race Web site, Abhilash thereafter informed of a failed wind vane pendulum rudder on his boat.

Options for repair onboard were limited.

Given he had been facing wind vane issues since the Atlantic, he had used up all his spare blades and had ended up cutting the boat's chart table and toilet door to make windvane parts.

Abhilash is said to have wondered whether he may have to seek repairs on land and thereby join the Chichester Class.

Eventually, he managed to do the necessary repairs by cutting a blade from the boat's main emergency rudder, the race Web site reported.

As for Kirsten, she suffered a broken spinnaker pole and could no longer fly her twin headsails.

IMAGE: A daily weather update put up by GGR on March 03, 2023. Photograph: Golden Globe Race/Facebook

Kirsten was first around Cape Horn on February 15, 2023. Abhilash followed three days later.

Both the boats have taken a toll from their long voyage.

Ahead of them lay the doldrums of the Atlantic and the north-south span of the ocean till France, while behind them third placed Michael Guggenberger of Austria has the advantage of a boat, still in good shape. It is an open race.

Meanwhile, Simon Curwen, despite a pause in Chile for repairs and relegated to the Chichester Class, has overtaken the Austrian.

As per Wikipedia, the 2022 Golden Globe Race started with 16 sailors.

By mid-February 2023, ten had retired.

Two were continuing in the Chichester Class.

Only four remained in the category of solo nonstop circumnavigation.

The coming weeks will indicate who the likely race winner is.

Shyam G Menon is a Mumbai-based columnist.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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