First Indian on a non-stop solo circumnavigation of globe

Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy may not have a Richard Parker for company, but his voyage is no less exacting.

A six-time ‘shellback’ (you become a shellback on crossing the equator), the young naval pilot on a non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe — the first by an Indian — braved roaring gales, chilly weather and turbulent oceans to enter the last leg of his historic voyage in early February. But the Indian Ocean chose to welcome him with sudden gusts of winds up to 70 knots (130 km) that left a sail completely torn and irreparable.

“On my first day back in the Indian Ocean, it gusted all of a sudden and a sail I was not even using was torn,” Lt. Cdr. Abhilash said during an online chat with The Hindu. The torn sail, Genoa sail in marine lingo, nudges the boat on when winds play truant.

But fortunately for Lt. Cdr. Abhilash, there’s good current at the moment which helps him maintain good speed. He is also keeping a tab on Cyclone Haruna that’s gathering up off Madagascar, some 800 nautical miles away.

While a frayed sail threatens to slow him down, the resourceful seafarer is thinking up ways to tide over the issue to return ahead of schedule. It makes him a bit sad, though, that his vacation by himself is coming to an end.

Meanwhile, his parents — Lt. Cdr. (retd) Valliara Chacko Tomy and Valsamma — have faith in their son’s prowess and steely resolve. Days do not fade at Valliara House in Kandanad, near Tripunithura, until the duo anxiously checks out the two daily reports sent by Abhilash to the Naval Headquarters (NHQ), with copies to them. Mr. Chacko Tomy, a former naval police officer, keeps himself abreast of his son travels, marking the latest position of the barque on a table globe every night “so that the feat is understood by laymen wanting to know about the journey.”

Once when the morning report was unusually delayed, the parents grew anxious and called up Commander Dilip Donde, Abhilash’s mentor, who in turn contacted the NHQ, but soon, they got his mail with apologies for oversleeping. That, in fact, was a prudent excuse to pacify the worried parents. In the pacific, he had spent several days and nights without sleep and on constant alert at the wheel, when the sea swell was mountainous.

Initially, Ms. Valsamma had certain reservations about her son undertaking the voyage. Not that she doubted his ability to pull it off, but she would rather have him lead a peaceful, settled life.

The young Abhilash was studious, a tad reclusive and never keen on joining military service, though harbouring an unflinching passion for ocean sailing ever since childhood. “He got selected for medicine, engineering at REC, and the Navy, but opted for the latter on the advice of my friend, a naval commander. Had it not been for the Navy, he would not have been able to fulfil his dream,” beams Mr. Chacko Tomy.

Unlike Mr. Abhilash, his younger brother Aneesh, a software professional in New Zealand, is crazy about military and is still desperate to make a career in the armed forces. Mr. Abhilash’s reserve, love for books, and soft demeanour would make you wonder if it is the same person taking on such daunting missions. He’s quite unassuming, says Ms. Valsamma.

After joining the Navy in 1996, Mr. Abhilash hardly spent time with his folks. While at home on leave, he would never speak about the hard part of his job. He would be seen moving about with his camera, clicking away (an incurable shutterbug, he is.) or closeted in his room strumming up the guitar. I guess he enjoys solitude, says Mr. Chacko Tomy.

Mr. Abhilash does, indeed. His several conversations with The Hindu have invariably been peppered with remarks about the merits of being alone. One of the first things he did on the current voyage was to revisit his all-time favourite title, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the umpteenth time. He has just finished Black Swan, a book on philosophy, and is now reading Maxim Gorky’s Mother.

“Among his preparations for the voyage included stacking as many tomes as possible from various sources,” recalls Mr. Chacko Tomy.

Mr. Abhilash was savouring a tenure in the Andamans flying the Dorniers when his name blobbed on the naval radar, and he was handpicked from among four volunteers to provide shore support to Commander Donde, as he steered the boat Mhadei around the globe all alone to become the first Indian to do so.

Years later, the boat has become a part of Mr. Abhilash’s being. He took over as its skipper half way through the Cape to Rio ocean race some two years ago and literally made it his home, sailing solo on return, overseeing the sloop’s upkeep and training wannabe sailors in short spells.

Yet, it sprang some surprises, like when a line parted and the sails pulled up, he was forced to clamber up its mast amidst all the swell — something he never thought he would have to do — which left him badly bruised.

He needs to do that all over again now: to bring the torn Genoa down and assess the damage to the rest of the rig to chart his future course of action. “But I need winds less than 10 knots and calm seas to do that. Otherwise it becomes terrible working on top. The motion of the boat is amplified at the top. It would be one of the most interesting things I would have done on the voyage. Looking forward to it,” he says, flashing a smiley.

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