(September 28, 2023) What would you do if you were stranded alone on a yacht, in the middle of an ocean, with a broken spine, waiting for someone to rescue you? If someone asked me that question, I would have said I wouldn’t want to put myself in that situation even in my worst nightmares. But retired naval officer Abhilash Tomy is made of sterner stuff. About five years ago, during the Golden Globe Race 2018, the sailor found himself in exactly this situation, and do you know what he did for four days while waiting for a rescue team? “I was already planning for the next race,” laughs the sailor as he joins Global Indian for an exclusive interview, “After the accident I was waiting for a rescue. So, for four days I was nearly paralyzed. I didn’t know that my spine was fractured at that time, but I couldn’t stand. So, in my head, I was preparing for the next expedition. I was picking people individually, thinking this guy will prepare my boat, this person will be my team manager, and so on.”
While many thought that his return to sailing would be nearly impossible after this accident, Cdr Tomy – now with a titanium rod inserted in his spine – came back again for the third edition of the Golden Globe in 2022, and scripted history by finishing second in the race. Decorated with the Kirti Chakra, Nausena Medal, and MacGregor Medal, and distinguished as the recipient of the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, this sailor holds the historic distinction of being the first Indian to achieve a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe under sail.
I couldn’t move for the four days that I was waiting to be rescued, because I was in a lot of pain. There was a lot of hiccups and vomiting, due to which I couldn’t even sleep. I started planning the next expedition because I needed a distraction to stay alive.
But, what does sailing in the ocean alone feel like? “Well, it can get quite boring because sometimes nothing changes,” laughs the sailor, adding, “It can get quite intense as well – during the storms, waves look like mountains. However, between these two extremes, one can have moments when the dolphins are swimming with you, albatrosses are chasing you, and there are several flying fish all around you. It’s very interesting to watch them flying out of water to avoid being hunted by other fishes; and being hunted by birds when they do that.”
Born to Lieutenant Commander V. C. Tomy, the sailor always knew that he would be a part of the Indian military services. “My father was in the Navy, and I spent my entire childhood growing up in a naval environment. I always aspired to be in the forces since then,” says the sailor, adding, “Also, back then, I had a few experiences which set the direction for my life. One such experience was when I saw the sailing boats for the first time during an evening party at a sailing club. They were very mesmerizing. Another thing that really inspired me was a documentary on Trishna, the Indian Army Corps of Engineers’ yacht which was used for the first Indian sailing expedition around the world.”
These incidents inspired Cdr Tomy to read up more about sailing and do more research about it. However, it was an unfortunate incident that solidified his decision to join the Indian Navy. “One of the pilots, who took off from my father’s base met with an accident and died in a crash. It was quite unfortunate, but it inspired me to become a pilot. And the only place where you can do both flying and sailing is the Indian Navy. So, I ended up joining the forces.”
Sam no Varunah
After finishing his education, the sailor enrolled in the Naval Academy located in Goa, where he received his commission in the Indian Navy in 2000. Subsequently, in 2002, he successfully completed his flight training, becoming a qualified maritime reconnaissance pilot, specialising in the Dornier 228 aircraft. Cdr Tomy had quite a diverse career in the Navy as well – from representing India in several international events including the 2011 Cape Town to Rio Race, Enterprise World Championships, and Asian Sailing Championship, to shore support for Sagar Parikrama I, which was Navy’s first solo circumnavigation expedition.
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“In the armed forces, you’re always encouraged to take up some sport or the other. Several of my colleagues took up squash or tennis and stuff like that, and they really excelled in that. I was one of the few people who got into sailing. Soon I found myself in the Goan area team, and from there into the command team. Then I ended up representing India in various championships, including the ones in Qatar, South Africa, and Sri Lanka,” shares the sailor.
One thing led to another and the Cdr Tomy, who started his journey from smaller boats graduated to bigger ones. “My first experience of big boats was when one of the Volvo Ocean race boats came to India. I was appointed by the Indian Navy to manage it, and I met so many racers from across the globe there, it was quite inspiring for me,” he shares.
Immediately after the Volvo Ocean race, the sailor got an opportunity to be a part of a sailing team from Oman to Yemen. Post this project, the Navy asked Cdr Tomy if he would like to do a nonstop around the world. “And, I said ‘Of course, why not?’ For training, I sailed from India to Brazil and back. I went with a crew of four people, and I was number two in the crew. On the way back I became a skipper and from South Africa to India I sailed alone,” shares the sailor, who soon after embarked on a nonstop circumnavigation in 2013, becoming the sole Indian and the second Asian to achieve this remarkable feat. Upon his return, a ceremonial reception was given by the President of India, Dr. Pranab Mukherjee, at the Gateway of India on April 6, 2013.
Sailing close to the wind
Passionate about sailing, Cdr Tomy continued to take part in a few offshore racing tournaments in various places, including Korea and Spain. “But, I was looking for something bigger.” It was around this time that the Golden Globe race was announced. “I sent my name and they immediately sent me an invitation to take part in the 2018 edition of the race,” shares the sailor.
And how did he prepare for that? “Well, frankly there wasn’t much of preparation. In 2018, I built a boat in India and took it to the Netherlands. I was struggling for money, and because of that, I was not able to do much training. So, the only sailing that I did on the boat was probably one week of sailing. However, building up my boat was quite something. I spent a lot of time making sure that the boat was well set up – so, that kind of became my training,” laughs the sailor.
Unfortunately, that expedition ended with the sailor getting severely injured. But, remember how they say, ‘Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor’. “I couldn’t move for the four days that I was waiting to be rescued, because I was in a lot of pain. There was a lot of hiccups and vomiting, due to which I couldn’t even sleep. I started planning the next expedition because I needed a distraction to stay alive,” shares the sailor.
Full steam ahead
The 2022 Golden Globe Race began on September 4, 2022, in France. Sixteen people took part, but only seven managed to get past a very tough point in the race called Cape Horn. So, what gave him the courage to attempt the Golden Globe race again in 2022, after going through a horrible accident? “I think anybody in my shoes would’ve done the same thing. You’ll never find a pilot or a sailor or a race car driver, who had an accident, never do this again,” says the sailor, who adds that his family has been the biggest support during the tough times.
“People think that I did the second navigation by myself, but the truth is one needs a lot of support. And for me that was my
family,” shares the sailor, “When I was rescued people didn’t know whether I’ll be paralyzed for my life or be able to walk again. My wife was pregnant back then, and incredibly stressed. So, for her to understand my passion, and let me attempt the race a second time is very brave. The same goes for my parents.”
Talking about the preparations for the 2022 race, the sailor says, “I really wish I could prepare. The main difference between 2018 and 2022 was that I had a sponsor in 2022. But, I found a sponsor quite late. So my preparation time was cut short. I had only one-and-a-half months to prepare the boat. And, when I started preparing the others were ready with their boats and sailing across the northern South Atlantic.”
Looking ahead, the sailor – who is also the author of the bestsellers ‘151 Solitary Days at Sea, Sailing Non-stop, Around the World‘, ‘Kadal Ottakku Kshanichappol‘, and ‘Journey to the Edge of the Earth‘ – has some big plans. “It’s been just a few months since I am back. However, I am now thinking that I’ve sailed around the world alone, and that’s quite easy, I want to make it more difficult by taking people with me,” laughs the sailor, who is currently working with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on its manned space mission, Gaganyaan, advising on recovery of astronauts at sea.
Awards and Decorations
- Kirti Chakra 2013 (Second officer in the Indian Navy to be awarded KC)
- Nau Sena Medal 2019
- YAI Offshore Sailor of the Year 2009, 2013, 2018
- Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award in 2012
- Only Indian in the International Association of Cape Horners
- MacGregor Medal for Military Reconnaissance 2013
- CNS Commendation 2009
- National Maritime Foundation Award