When Lt. Commander Abhilash Tomy returned to India on April 6 this year, the Indian Navy became the only one in the world to officially do solo circumnavigation and solo non-stop circumnavigation. Here's the story of Sagar Parikrama.

Early July, 2013. It was raining heavily in Goa. The white yacht; sails furled, looking a tad tired from her voyages, bobbed gently at the mooring in Vere. This is Mhadei’s story.

London. 1948. A bombed-out Europe was trying to reconstruct. For the 21-year-old Indian officer, newly commissioned in the then Royal Indian Navy, it was a good time to be there attending a course at the Royal Naval College. He was feted everywhere he went, simply because in the eyes of the English, the Indian Army had fought well in the defence of Empire. India had become independent, but there was no bitterness towards the country; in fact, great things were expected of her. It was also hoped that the proposed Republic would stay within the Commonwealth. One day, out on a walk in the city, the officer bought a book from a footpath bookseller somewhere near Charing Cross in west London. It was Sailing Alone around the World by the American sailor Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to do a solo circumnavigation. He did that over three years, with adequate stops, between 1895 and 1898.

Returning to India, the officer had a great career in the Indian Navy. He was awarded the Vir Chakra and eventually retired as Vice Admiral after holding many distinguished posts including Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command. “From 1946 to 1983 I was busy being a good officer,” Vice Admiral (retd) Manohar Awati said, laughing, in the Indian Navy Watermanship Training Centre (INWTC), Mumbai.

Post retirement, in the early 1990s, Awati, who was passionate about sailing, had approached leading companies to sponsor an Indian solo circumnavigation project. The estimated project cost then was roughly two crore rupees; one crore for the boat, the rest for the voyage. Except for some interest shown by Godrej, Awati’s appeal to corporate India fell on deaf ears. At the same time, mountaineering was finding support from private patrons. “The Indian mind is not naturally sea friendly,” Awati said. He wrote to the Chief of Naval Staff. No luck there either. The risk involved in sailing solo caused trepidation. Then, in 2005-2006, Admiral Arun Prakash, who had been a cadet under Awati and had become the navy chief, responded. Awati proposed a revised budget of four crore rupees and one condition: that the boat be built in India. Within two months the navy chief secured defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s approval for six crore rupees. The navy sent out an ‘India General’ — a signal to all hands — seeking volunteers. The book Awati bought 58 years ago in London was, at last, coming alive in an Indian edition of solo circumnavigation — Sagar Parikrama. But even within the navy this was easier said than done.

Three sail boats from the Indian armed forces — Tarangini, Samudra and Trishna — had sailed around the world earlier. But they don’t qualify for pure circumnavigation under sail as they could use the diesel engines aboard and their routes did not exclude straits and manmade canals. Besides, Awati’s Sagar Parikrama project was going to be solo. That made a huge difference. Although the Indian Navy has a tradition of sail boats, short-handed sailing or sailing with less than the full complement of crew was not a practice. The navy’s voyages were typically team efforts and the purpose of sailing in the curriculum was to forge team spirit. That made solo circumnavigation, requiring sustained personal sustenance at sea, a major leap in mindset and skill. Look landward and you see this in mountaineering, where the bulk of ascents by the Indian armed forces are full-blown assaults by large teams.

Sailing in days preceding engines or norms by sports bodies, Slocum first crossed the Atlantic. He travelled from North America to Gibraltar in Europe where he was warned of the pirates in the Red Sea. So from Gibraltar he sailed down the Atlantic, touched Brazil, went onward to the Strait of Magellan near Cape Horn and west into the Pacific. He sailed against prevailing winds.

Commander Dilip Donde loved to sail. He had been the First Mate on INS Tarangini. He is a clearance diver as well. Donde was stationed in the Andamans. He was in Mumbai on a sailing assignment when the officer tasked with finding a candidate for Sagar Parikrama asked if he wished to volunteer. Incidentally, this officer had been Donde’s diving instructor and knew his abilities well. “I just volunteered, just jumped in,” he recalled. Then, the fullness of what he had got himself into dawned. There wasn’t anything in the sailing he had done so far that had prepared him to be a solo sailor of such long distances. He spent a few days with Awati, gauging the depth of his new project, and then commenced building it up from scratch.Transferred to INWTC in Mumbai so that he could execute the project, Donde found a resource person in Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to do a solo non-stop circumnavigation. Donde met Sir Robin in the U.K., worked alongside him for six weeks and sailed with him from the U.K. to Spain to help him prepare for an upcoming voyage. In the process, he got a ringside view of the solo long-distance sailor. For design, the navy approached the Dutch firm, Van de Stadt, among the best boat designers in Europe. In India, after due government procedures, the Goa-based Aquarius Fibreglass was awarded the contract to build the boat.

Donde spent months in Goa, closely monitoring the construction. Ratnakar Dandekar, owner of Aquarius, decided to execute the Tonga 56 design as faithfully as he could. In any voyage, the sailor is safe if the boat is safe. Dandekar’s contribution to Sagar Parikrama is, therefore, crucial. Yet, back then, Donde and he were learning as they went along with the construction. Building a sail boat was utterly new territory for Aquarius, fraught with challenges and weighed down by the emphasis on perfection. Once the INSV Mhadei was floated in Goa, Sir Robin joined the crew in an initial trial run. After a trip to Colombo, the Navy team sailed her short-handed to Mauritius, the first trip of its kind. Then Donde sailed her back to India, alone — his first solo voyage and a first for the country.

Donde went on to be the Indian pioneer. He embarked on his circumnavigation voyage on August 19, 2009, and returned on May 19, 2010. Donde proved to India that it could be done. An unassuming individual, his successful solo voyage around the globe with four halts seasoned the boat and the team behind Sagar Parikrama. The India-built Mhadei became the first Tonga 56 to complete a solo circumnavigation. The team’s confidence grew. Towards the end of Donde’s voyage, Awati had proposed upping the ante to a solo non-stop circumnavigation for next project. This, as per sailing’s norms, required the sailor to be unassisted in the physical sense.

Lt. Commander Abhilash Tomy, for long part of the Sagar Parikrama team, was an ideal candidate. A maritime reconnaissance pilot and sailing aficionado, he had been Donde’s support crew, meeting him at Fremantle, Lyttleton, Falkland Islands and Cape Town during the circumnavigation. Tomy was an active sailor from his training days at the Naval Academy. After commissioning as a pilot, he was selected to the navy’s shooting team but shooting’s target oriented approach failed to attract him. Twice he got lost — first at Jamnagar when he and a couple of others spent a night adrift at sea in damaged sail boats; the second time, in Mumbai, when a capsized boat couldn’t be corrected and the outgoing tide swept Tomy right out of the bay, into the outer sea where he floated till rescued. He had met Donde briefly a few times before but got to know him at a sailing event in Simonstown, South Africa, where Tomy won a competition. Later when the navy dispatched another ‘India General’ seeking an assistant for Donde in Sagar Parikrama who would also be stand-by, Tomy volunteered.

Sagar Parikrama’s big boat and longer trips initially challenged Tomy. He was frequently sea-sick. His first solo sail was a trip in the boat from Cape Town to India. He got sea-sick but realised that the solo sailor was the weakest link aboard and had better learn to function. Once back in Goa, he took to living in the Mhadei as a means to get used to what would be his new home. Then sailing out from Goa on November 1, 2012, he returned five months later as the first Indian to have done a solo non-stop circumnavigation. To his advantage, Tomy had a boat that had gone through its teething troubles and performed well. “Commander Donde’s voyage was tougher than mine,” he said. When you catch Awati, Donde and Tomy together, it is an ambience of informal talk, leg pulling and camaraderie shaped by Sagar Parikrama. In their blogs (http://sagarparikrama.blogspot.in/ and http://sagarparikrama2.blogspot.in/ written as they sailed) Donde’s style is easy and forgiving; the younger Tomy gets there as the voyage progresses.

The Indian Navy is the only one in the world to officially do solo circumnavigation and solo non-stop circumnavigation. Specific to the Navy, Sagar Parikrama’s impact may be threefold. First, greater interest in sailing in India (Donde has written a book, to be published soon) automatically means a bigger share than before in the civilian mind for the Navy. This is helpful for recruitment and goodwill. Second, the average Navy sailor imagines his theatre of operation in terms of his own country; the country’s immediate seas, his ship and given mission. Now there is a larger awareness brewing of oceans and weather patterns beyond. Not to mention, a proven example that Indians in a sail boat can endure what the seas throw at them. Third, solo circumnavigation is all about endurance. The typical sailor in our Navy considers 15 to 20 days at sea a long time. The circumnavigation voyages by Donde and Tomy lasted months. That’s proof of what is possible; it can inspire a change in mindset. “I want to see an Indian circumnavigate Antarctica. The conditions there would be trying — ice floes; icebergs, cold temperatures, high seas and winds,” Awati said, gazing seaward. For him, Sagar Parikrama is the beginning of a revolution, a revolution of mindset by the sea.