The strong tidal currents of the Arabian Sea barely move the green sludge that skirts the Gateway of India. Built in 1911 to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary, the Indo-Saracenic arch is crowded with tourists and pigeons. On April 6, 2013, at this Raj-era monument in Mumbai, former President Pranab Mukherjee joined Indian Navy top brass to welcome Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy the first Indian to complete a solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.
As he sailed ashore — his lanky 5’11” frame in jeans and red sailing shoes gingerly touching land after five months — Tomy became part of a remarkable canon of stories of heroism at sea. A 151 days after he left the twinkling lights of Mumbai to command his boat through molten seas of beaten silver, Tomy was escorted home with a good wind behind him and celebrations all around. The last leg of his 23,100 nautical mile-journey (40,000 kilometres) ended amidst an armada of boats and the acrid smell of gas from the turbines — a world away from the sharp, salty air and the endless empty horizon he had grown accustomed to. By becoming the first Indian, the second Asian and one among only 80 people who have circled the globe non-stop — more people have climbed Everest and been to space — Tomy joined the ranks of early explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook. A recipient of the Kirti Chakra, the nation’s second highest peacetime gallantry award for valour that year, he was also honoured with the prestigious Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award.
In a part-phone, part-email interview, after his rescue during the Golden Globe Race in September 2018, 39-year-old Tomy, now Commander, says he was a regular kid playing cricket and football before he found his sea legs. “I must have been six when my father took me to a sailing club. I was mesmerised with the many stacked hulls and dinghies on the hard and knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The Army’s Trishna expedition in 1985 was big news then. Almost all naval libraries were stocked with books on nautical adventures and I was impressionable.”
Tomy first stepped on a sailboat in the backwaters of Kochi, although he formally learnt to sail at the Naval Academy, Goa. “We used to launch the Enterprise a widely-sailed, two-man sloop rigged dinghy, from a little slipway into the Mandovi river. Later, I came to know that this was close to where Kunjali Marrakkar’s body was displayed by the Portuguese after he was guillotined.”
Before he chose to spend a lifetime listening to the wind drone through the sails like a Gregorian chant, Tomy was commissioned into the Navy as an aviator. “I flew Dorniers, but I had always harboured the intention to sail around the world since I was 20. I kept in touch with sailing through various championships in India and eventually shifted to big boats. My first break was sailing the Ericsson 1 from Kochi to Mumbai followed by a stint with the Volvo Ocean Race as the Yacht Services Manager for its Kochi stopover. As soon as the race began, I headed to Salalah to join Prof V Radhakrishnan (son of Sir CV Raman) from Salalah to Aden.”
Meanwhile, the Navy had launched Sagar Parikrama (2009), a daunting project that would have a naval officer sail the world alone on the 56-foot-long INSV Mhadei , a cruising sloop built of wood and fibreglass with two main sails. Cmdr Dilip Donde was chosen as skipper but he needed someone to assist him. “I volunteered,” says Tomy. “The first solo circumnavigation of the Navy was with four stops. Buoyed by its success, the Navy decided to undertake another solo circumnavigation but one without stops. I suppose I was the natural choice because of my experience. I had been waiting for over 10 years for this.”
Mhadei was chosen to be the boat on which Tomy would venture into the vast seascape. Another faithful companion was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude . “I was 16 when I first read it; I understood little but realised its value. Now, I read it at least once a year. If I were allowed only one book in my library, this would be it,” says Tomy, drawing attention to the first line of the book which is “a fine example of prolepsis with three tenses in one sentence”.
Although he doesn’t carry a talisman aboard, he does take along crucifixes, Ganeshas, rosaries, the Bible and the Gita gifted by friends and relatives. “One tradition I diligently follow is to have a very huge meal the night before departure,” says Tomy, his voice breaking into an easy laugh.
Tomy left Mumbai on November 1, 2012, and headed for the Southern Ocean. On his way from West to East (“the right way to circumnavigate”) he dodged fierce tropical storms, over 10-metre waves and a windspeed of over 100kmph to round the treacherous Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. The journey was accomplished completely by sail with stocks of freeze-dried, ready-to-eat food and limited water. Tomy learnt to rainwater harvest and use seawater even for cooking. With temperatures dipping down to 2 degrees Celsius, he carried a gamut of clothing from gaiters, gloves and boots to a checked lungi . “Best for the tropics,” he chuckles.
As the Mhadei sailed past forgotten outposts of empires, slicing through strobing moonlight and charcoal-dark waters, sometimes being tossed around, and, at others, gliding through a placid pond, Tomy had his share of incredible sights. “It was night and I saw two unusual yellow lights on the horizon. I wondered if it was a small vessel which had escaped the radar. It was the crescent moon rising, and what I saw were its two limbs which made their appearance before the rest. Another time, the sea was beautifully bioluminescent, and there were dolphins swimming ahead, like dragons with long necks leaving a trail of green.”
Incredible loneliness also played a part in the adventure. “Usually, I don’t have any thoughts beyond what is essential for keeping the boat going. I was trained to be a medic-cook-carpenter-electrician because there was only me. I was chased by whales and albatrosses, had mild hallucinations and lucid dreams. You never get more than a couple of hours of continuous rest. There’s unending work, and you’d be lucky to get six hours of sleep a day. If you go without sleep for more than 48 hours, you are sure to experience severe hallucinations.”
Tomy agrees that navigating by the creamy swathe of stars is more beautiful and less stressful than navigating with GPS. “You feel an intimate connection with the navigation equipment, the sextant and divider, even those hundreds of meaningless numbers that stare at you from the nautical almanac.”
Tomy also has the unique distinction of being the first Indian to welcome 2013 and the last Indian to see off 2012 when he crossed the International Dateline. At Cape Horn he raised the Tricolour on Republic Day, in a seconds-long ceremony captured on camera that has him and the flag drenched in sea spray. There’s also a story that he hurried through his last leg crossing the Equator a second time because he was short of popcorn!
Are we running out of challenges to conquer? “No. There is no conquest of anything outside of you, as clichéd as that might sound.”
Over these five years, Tomy has taken his experiences to youth, speaking about saving our oceans and the adventurous life the Navy offers.
Did he ever feel the weight of a billion dreams when he was chosen to go where no Indian has gone before? “Absolutely not. I don’t really think more than a small fraction really cares for anything beyond cricket. That’s a relief in a way.”