From a broken spine to a broken auto-pilot, Cdr. Tomy sailed through it all to complete the Golden Globe Race

Commander Abhilash Tomy (Retd) returned to India in triumph after creating history as the first Indian to complete the Golden Globe Race on May 18

Updated - May 20, 2023 05:43 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2023 09:21 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Commander Abhilash Tomy (Retd) 

Commander Abhilash Tomy (Retd) 

Five years ago, he came back to India on a stretcher and went home in a wheelchair, having suffered life-threatening injury in the middle of the Golden Globe Race. On Thursday, Commander Abhilash Tomy (Retd) returned to India in triumph after creating history as the first Indian to complete the race, a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe without any modern technological aids, recreating sailing in the 1960s.

“This time, I had the dream team and it is because of them that I was able to do it,” he told journalists after being felicitated by the Navy on Friday. He finished the GGR 2022 in the second place after a gruelling 236 days alone at sea in a sail boat. South African sailor Kirsten Neuschafer took the first spot, becoming the first woman to win the race.

Also read | The Golden Globe Race explained

“Three weeks before the start of the race, my boat got damaged, and everyone thought I would be disqualified. But with the support of the team, I was able to fix it and get in the race,” Cdr. Tomy said. “I learned that I needed a good team to support me. So this time, I had exactly the team I had dreamt of. I had a fantastic designer from the Netherlands, who helped me set up the boat. A team manager from the U.S., along with my family and a brilliant sponsor.”

‘Most innovative repair’

Cdr Tomy sailed the last 10,000 miles after fixing a broken auto-pilot with a piece of wood from the anchor. “I think the toughest thing for me was when my self-steering broke close to Cape Horn... I remember I called my race organisers and informed about it to them. They in turn called my wife and told her that his second chance is over. Because a lot of people retired after their autopilot failed,” he narrated. “I immediately removed my toilet door, made a spear and fixed it but it also failed. I was left with a thought of what to do. I then cut my emergency radar and fashioned a spear out of it, but it did not fit. Then I finally took out a piece from the anchor and fixed it to the autopilot. From there, I sailed 10,000 miles. This was the most innovative repair I have done and I did not lose the race.”

The invitation-only race had 16 participants from 11 countries, and started on September 4, 2022 from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France.

Cdr. Tomy was unable to fulfil his long-cherished dream in the 2018 edition of the GGR when he suffered a severe back injury after the mast of his boat Thuriya broke, due to extremely rough weather and sea conditions. It took three days and a dramatic global effort by the navies of India, Australia and France to rescue him from the middle of nowhere. 

Surviving a broken spine

Recounting those tough moments, he said, “I got stuck in a storm because my name was written on it. When the boat capsized, I got separated from it, but I was holding on to the mast, and when the boat straightened I was on the top of the mast. But suddenly, I plunged from 5 to 8 metres height, resulting in a fracture in my spine, lying in the boat for three days before I was rescued. It all happened in the most remote corner area of the earth.”

He was stranded in the south Indian Ocean, approximately 1,900 nautical miles (nm) from Perth, Australia and 2,700 nm from Kanyakumari. Cdr. Tomy was in the third position out of 11 international participants, and had sailed over 10,500 nm over 84 days before the incident knocked him out of the race. 

On those three days at sea awaiting rescue, he said, “When I had an accident and I had nothing to do for three days except to wait for rescue, I was already making plans for the next race. I was figuring out which boat to buy and sponsorship for the next race. It was always in my mind and I was not willing to give up.”

In the surgery that followed, five vertebrae were fused into a single piece and two titanium rods were fixed to his spine. Cdr. Tomy began walking on crutches, did physiotherapy, and then started kickboxing to help regain his balance. He was back on duty and at sea in six months. In January 2019, he quit the Navy to focus on GGR 2022.

Recreating 1960s sailing

Participants in the GGR are required to sail around the world, single-handed and non-stop passing through the three Capes — Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, Cape Leeuwin in Australia and Cape Horn in Chile. The uniqueness of the race is that boat designs and technology newer than 1968 are not permitted; hence, the use of Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite communication and navigational aids are forbidden on the 30,000 mile journey. The sailors have a satellite phone and emergency locator beacons to be used for medical emergencies only.

The historic race is being conducted by Sir Robin Knox Johnston of the U.K. to commemorate the world’s first solo non-stop circumnavigation undertaken by him in 1968, onboard the Indian-built boat, Suhaili.

To his credit, Cdr Tomy is the only Indian to complete solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 2012-13 onboard the Indian Naval Sailing Vessel (INSV) Mhadei covering 53,000 nm miles under sail. 

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.