He had his favourite Kingfish curry on Saturday night. Finally.

He had his favourite Kingfish curry on Saturday night. Finally.

Abhilash Tomy is back home in Porvorim, Goa. He has sailed round the world. Twice.

Sujan DuttaUpdated: Tuesday, May 23, 2023, 08:21 AM IST
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Abhilash Tomy is back home in Porvorim, Goa. He has sailed round the world. Twice. He berthed at Les Sables d’Olonnes (LSO) on France’s Atlantic coast on April 29 after sailing non-stop for 238 days and 14 hours, the first Indian and Asian to do so.

Now 44 years old, Abhilash took voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy in February 2021 in the rank of Commander. Shortly after berthing his yacht, the Bayanat, at LSO, Abhilash contracted Covid 19. That put him in isolation and further weakened an exhausted body. It also disrupted planned programmes to welcome him.

He weighed upwards of 90 kilos when he set out on Septmber 4, 2022. He was less than 70 kilos when he returned.

On a first call the morning after he had returned to Porvorim, his wife Urmimala requested for him to be excused from an interview. “He is jetlagged,” she said.

FPJ decided to make allowances for the gentleman who has been around the world solo. However, the morning after he had had the Kingfish Curry he sounded ebullient.

Tomy epitomizes soldiering and seamanship in a generation being born into artificial intelligence where swimming, too, is taught in online classes. He is an aviator who flew Dornier 228 maritime reconnaissance planes for the Navy. Yet he chose to enter the slowest non-stop voyage in the world without the aid of modern engines and navigation equipment — such as the GPS without which we can scarcely find the way from India Gate to Connaught Place in New Delhi.

What did he read on the voyage?

“I carried four books,” he told me. They were George Orwell’s “1984”, a take on totalitarianism, Alexandre Dumas’ French classic “The Count of Monte Cristo” in which Edmondo Dantes takes revenge after being wrongly punished as a young sailor, “Dombey and Son” by Charles Dickens that describes the life of a shipping company owner, and “I Am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj, a spiritual work first published in 1973 that examines existential philosophies. Tomy had read the book thrice earlier.

Solitude can do that to people — make them read books, for those who do not know. No Netflix, no smartphone, no Facebook, no Twitter, Instagram or YouTube. Not by force, but by choice.

“I like solitude. I look forward to it. I don’t have to deal with it,” he said when I asked him how he “dealt” with the lonesomeness of sailing solo.

That must be tough on family and friends. In an earlier interview, his wife, Urmimala, a professional illustrator, had said: “Being with him means knowing when to let go.” I asked her about it after Abhilash’s return.

“When you are married to someone whose ambitions and aspirations transcend the boundaries of mundane requirements, you come to an understanding that holding on to them or caging their spirit would not benefit them or your relationship in any way. You have to honour their space and let go when the time comes. To me, that is being in love.”

She and Abhilash met in 2013 through a common friend who was writing about his first solo circumnavigation.

“He was intrigued by how I could creatively render his experience which I was inspired to do,” Urmimala recalled. She shares an illustration of the INS Mhadei, his first boat from the Indian Navy. (We are carrying it with this column).

The statistics of his latest voyage are all over the Internet. He had a podium finish, second after South African Kirsten Neuschaffer.

Less than three weeks before he was flagged off, on August 15, 2022, the Bayanat, his boat met with an accident. It hit a Dutch-flagged vessel in the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain, its bow broken. It was at the time being sailed by one of his support team who was absorbed in reading Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s book, “A World of My Own”.

Knox-Johnston, an 84-year-old British sailor, was the first person to do a solo circumnavigation and is chief patron of the Golden Globe Race. Abhilash had read the book a few times and there were of course similarities in Knox-Johnston’s experience and his own.

A dissimilarity is what he would recall. At one point during his voyage Sir Robin had to “caulk the hull” — fix a leak – on his yacht by stepping out. He was attacked by sharks. He stepped back in and shot them.

“I did not have a gun and I did not shoot sharks,” said Abhilash.

The greatness of Abhilash’s voyage lies not only in the physical feat of it but in overcoming his own fears after an accident in the South Indian Ocean — the remotest part of the world with the nearest coastline in Antarctica — that dismasted his boat in a terrific storm. He was at the time 82 days into the voyage of the 2018 GGR. It is painful for a mariner to lose a boat. He was rescued 72 hours after being injured and first being evacuated to the French territory of Amsterdam Island.

Back in India, he went through surgery in which five of his vertebrae were fused into one and a titanium rod inserted. He had to learn to walk again.

There is a YouTube video from LSO in which he describes that experience of sailing through the point in the South Indian Ocean: “Crossing that point where I had that accident made me feel very light. I could see that there was another person inside (me) who was struggling. Till then my jaws were tight, my shoulders were tight, my thigh muscles were tight. I didn’t know it at first but once I crossed that point and when the body relaxed, that’s when I realized I was carrying, you know, a lot of problems from that accident.”

In his just concluded voyage Abhilash carried with him 60,000 calories of food, mostly from the Defence Food Research Laboratory. The rations included pre-cooked chicken biryani, paneer, freeze-dry food (to be had after adding hot water), peanut and cashew nut. He would cook rice if he felt like it. A sextant, the stars and the sun were his navigational aids.

What next?

“I’m wondering”

(Sujan Dutta is a journalist based in Delhi. He tweets from @reportersujan)

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