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Last Updated Monday November 23 2020 07:12 AM IST

This Indian Navy sailor holds secrets of all seas

Anantha Krishnan M
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This sailor holds secrets of all seas Come July 1, sailing sensation Cdr Abhilash Tomy of the Indian Navy will set out on his next mission on board his brand new sailboat Thuriya. Photo: ELWJ Photography & Team Abhilash Tomy

Bengaluru: He is at it again. Sailing sensation commander Abhilash Tomy, 39, of the Indian Navy. On July 1, he set out on his next mission on board his brand new sailboat Thuriya. It will be his second solo circumnavigation of the globe in a non-motorised sailboat.

Cdr Tomy had cruised into history books on April 6, 2013 when he became the first Indian (and 79th person in the world) to complete a solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation under sail on INSV Mhadei (Sagar Parikrama-2 mission).

He had set out from Mumbai on November 1, 2012 and was received by the then president of India Pranab Mukherjee on his return. This rare feat fetched him a Kirti Chakra.

Track Abhilash Tomy as he participates in the Golden Globe Race

This time, Cdr Tomy is participating in the 30,000-mile Golden Globe Race (GGR), being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s successful completion of a similar voyage in 312 days between June 14, 1968 and April 22, 1969. Sir Robin was the first person to sail solo and non-stop around the world and incidentally, there was an India connection to his feat: his yatch – Suhaili – was built in Colaba in what was then called Bombay.

Cdr Tomy has set himself the ambitious goal of breaking Sir Robin’s record, and has already reached Les Sables d'Olonne ahead of the GGR flag-off. There are 18 skippers in the race set to be flagged off on July 1. Cdr Tomy is among the five special invitees and the only sailor from Asia partaking in the GGR.

Cdr Tomy’s mentor and another sailing superstar of the Indian Navy, Capt Dilip Donde (Retd), will be his base manager for the GGR, tracking every move of Thuriya from his home. Capt Donde (Retd) holds the record for being the first Indian to do a solo circumnavigation of the globe (with stops) on a sailboat (INS Mhadei), in 276 days, in 2010. This was part of the Indian Navy's Sagar Parikrama-1 mission and he had covered 21,600 nautical miles then.

Sir Robin and Cdr Tomy

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Sir Robin (L) and Cdr Abhilash Tomy (R) | Photo: ELWJ Photography & Team Abhilash Tomy

When Sir Robin met Cdr Tomy and other skippers who sailed into Les Sables d'Olonne for the GGR, there were many interesting lessons the challengers received from the been-there-done-that man.

“When Robin came to my boat Thuriya, he was curious to know how many days I would take to complete the GGR. I looked at him and said 311 days, which is one day less than his voyage,” Cdr Tomy told OnManorama from France, during an exclusive chat session.

“I am sure that Robin was thrilled and surprised by my answer. Robin commented that I was young and ambitious. I believe the challenge is to create new benchmarks. I thought Robin was old and jealous…” Cdr Tomy said, bursting into laughter. He sobered down quickly to admit in a serious tone that meeting a legend like Sir Robin was inspiring.

While signing off after the meeting, Sir Robin surprised everyone by singing a line from yesteryear Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam: Zindabad Zindabad, Ae Mohabbat Zindabad… originally sung by Mohammed Rafi.

The philosophy

“The GGR recreates in the closest way possible, the magic of the original race, and Sir Robin’s presence helped our cause further. The emphasis is not on technology and its management, but on seamanship and a direct experience of sea. This Spartan philosophy is in keeping with my own view that a lot can be achieved with very little,” says Cdr Tomy.

Starting from Les Sables d'Olonne on July 1, the skippers will go south till the Cape of Good Hope, continue sailing eastward in the southern hemisphere across the international dateline, and pass the Cape of Horn to start sailing north in the Atlantic Ocean for the final leg.

Thuriya, a replica of Suhaili

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Cdr Tomy during Thuriya launch in Goa | Photo: ELWJ Photography & Team Abhilash Tomy

Thuriya, Cdr Tomy’s 10-metre-long sea companion this time, has a design similar to Sir Robin's sailboat Suhaili. Built by Ratnakar Dandekar's Aquarius Shipyard in Goa, Thuriya will carry supplies consisting of specially prepared food items, and fresh water in the limited space on board.

Team Tomy says the name of the boat is derived from the Upanishads, which describe Thuriya as a state of pure consciousness, or the background that underlies and transcends the three common states of consciousness.

The construction of Thuriya began in March 2016 and she was launched in August 2017 at Goa. Later, Cdr Tomy took Thuriya for sea trials in the Arabian Sea and she travelled by road to Kochi before finally being shipped to  Medemblik in the Netherlands in March this year.

The boat was fitted with a new suit of sails there and on June 5, Cdr Tomy sailed her through the North Sea and the English Channel to Falmouth, England for preparatory activities ahead of GGR.
“And to sail close to history, Thuriya was moored on the same pontoon as two other iconic boats, Sir Robin’s Suhaili and Sir Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth IV. Isn’t it something inspiring?” asks Cdr Tomy.

On June 14, he had set off from Falmouth to Les Sables d’Olonne as part of the SITRAN challenge along with 16 other boats.

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Photo provided by Indian Navy

“I was the only person to sail this leg solo, although crew could be carried. It was a friendly race. Thuriya is now being moored at the famous Vendee marina ahead of the race. She is at peace. Calm. Cool. Composed,” says Cdr Tomy.

Interestingly, four people had intended to make a replica of Suhaili, but only his attempt succeeded, he adds.

“The rules of GGR-18 allow only classic production boats of between 32 and 36 feet to participate. At least 20 production boats should have been built from the same mould for a boat to be eligible to race. However, an exception is made if a new boat is a replica of the Suhaili. And, I am the only one who did it,” chuckles Cdr Tomy.

Thuriya has an overall length of 32 feet, with a waterline length of 27.5 feet. Her beam is 11 feet long and draft (min depth of water required to float) is 5 feet. Her freeboard (height of gunwale above sea level) is between 2 feet and 4.5 feet, while she has a displacement of 19,500 lbs (8,845kg). The sailboat is made of wood core laminated with epoxy and fiberglass. Thuriya has a sail plan (jib-head with all sail area) of 726 sq ft.

“The William Atkins-based design for Thuriya ensures her survival in violent short seas. She is a very good boat for very bad seas,” added Cdr Tomy.

Fried prawns, fish, chips, books and more…

Born in God’s Own Country, it is but natural for Cdr Tomy to be partial to seafood. For the voyage, he is carrying ready-to-eat food from India.

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Photo provided by Indian Navy

“Yes, loads of food. Freeze-dried food that we normally carry on expeditions. Lots of cans of tuna, sardines and sausages. I also have rice, snacks and special fried fish and banana chips from my mother. I am carrying about 1,000 ready-to-eat-meals,” he says.

Medicines are being supplied by Medical Support Offshore (MSOS).

When tired of sailing, what will Cdr Tomy do? He will tune into short wave radio stations if he feels like listening to some music. “The GGR rules permit only cassettes and a tape player and not iPods and the like,” he says.

If he is not in the mood for music, he will turn to one of the books he is carrying. “I am carrying three books this time. Upanishads, written by our second President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan; 100 years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Seamanship and Seafaring written by Knox Johnson, which was signed and gifted by Sir Robin,” says the champion sailor.

Mother was furious about the trip

Cdr Tomy says his mother had come to know about the GGR from an article in Malayala Manorama daily.

“I remember it was on a Tuesday that she learnt about it from Manorama last year. I knew she would be furious. That’s why I did not tell her about my plans in advance. At the end of the day she’s like every mother,” he laughs.

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Photo provided by Indian Navy

His mother is a little worried, but her reaction wasn’t as extreme as the last time he had gone sailing around the globe. “I am sure she will be proud when I hit the shores on my return,” he grins.

Cdr Tomy was born in Chethipuzha (near Changannacherry in Kerala), and his parents — Lt Cdr Valliara Chacko Tomy (Retd), 66, and mother Valsamma Tomy, 60 — are settled in Kandanadu in Ernakulam.

In France, many are already comparing Cdr Tomy to the legendry sailor Eric Tabarly. He finds this overwhelming.

“Eric Tabarly was a legend, a father figure for the sailing community in France. Many who met me are comparing me to him. I have heard a lot about him and read very inspiring sailing tales,” says Cdr Tomy.

Eric Tabarly, onboard his iconic sailboat Pen Duick II had won the Transatlantic Race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island in 1964. Among the fascinating stories surrounding him, the one of him rejecting President de Gaulle’s dinner invitation is most memorable for the sailing community.

“His passion for sailing and his commitment to his boat were unsurpassed. He actually rejected the dinner invite over phone so that he could clean the exposed hull of his boat during low tide that day,” recalls Cdr Tomy with awe.

So are you still curious as to what Cdr Tomy is carrying on board Thuriya? In addition to tinned food, a suit of 13 sails, two sextants, two taffrail logs, two automatic watches, three trackers, two satellite phones, charts, three MF direction finders, two short-wave radio sets, a lot of communication equipment, four 10-kg gas cylinders, spares for the engine, about 300 litres of water and 140 litres of fuel.

“There is a major emphasis on safety, because of which we are taking a lot of safety equipment with us. This is almost four times more than what I carried in my last round around the world,” he says.

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Cdr Tomy with the now-famous replica of the 'vanishing' barometer aboard Thuriya | Photo: ELWJ Photography & Team Abhilash Tomy

The curious case of the vanishing barometer

Sailors’ tales are packed with adventure and anchored in excitement. There is one already associated with Thuriya too, and it revolves around a piece of equipment that is stolen, only to be found later, only to be stolen again!

This is the story of a humble barometer, originally belonging to a Cornish pub and part of Sir Robin’s first solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. A barometer is a yachtsman’s first warning when bad weather approaches.

“When Sir Robin set out on his solo he carried this barometer, and on his way to Falmouth for the start of the Sunday Times GGR in 1968, Sir Robin is said to have broken the barometer on board Suhaili. He later borrowed the 'Lovely Day for A Guinness' barometer hanging on the wall of the Chain Locker pub. During the ‘Suhaili 50 Sail Parade’ recently, Sir Robin returned a replica of the barometer to Chain Locker, but it ‘disappeared’ the same night from the pub wall,” says Cdr Tomy.

This sailor holds secrets of all seas Cdr Tomy and his mentor Capt Donde (Retd) at far end | Photo: ELWJ Photography & Team Abhilash Tomy

Interestingly the ‘missing barometer’ was found on board Thuriya by the GGR organisers. Cdr Tomy is happy that the iconic barometer replica will accompany him around the world. However, he’s not sure when it will do the vanishing act again!

Indian Navy is proud of the current mission

Navy Spokesperson Capt D K Sharma, a navigation specialist who has commanded the minesweeper INS Konkan and the Lakshya PTA Squadron, is thrilled over Cdr Tomy’s current mission.

“He has involved himself in this challenge in right earnest for almost a year-plus and has overseen the construction of yacht Thuriya from the word go. He has also trained extensively without the use of contemporary navigational aids and will be using the techniques which were in vogue pre-1968. With his zeal, resolve and passion for sailing I am sure he is going to come out with flying colours and make the nation proud,” says Capt Sharma, who has been serving the Navy for over 31 years now.

Cdr Tomy’s mission is sponsored by the Indian Navy, while Aquarius Shipyard Ltd and Goa Shipyard Ltd are other important supporters and sponsors. In addition, the communication equipment and emergency gear are being sponsored by Elcome. Windpilot has provided the autopilot, Decathlon has chipped in with his clothing, including all foul-weather gear, and Jellyfish Water Sports, the water maker.

“A lot of people have been helping. Giving discounts and waiving fees. Especially in the Netherlands. No marina charges anywhere. People giving 10 to 30 per cent discount, just because I am in the race. I am honoured,” says Cdr Tomy.

While in the race, Cdr Tomy’s position will be updated every three hours on the GGR website. There will be a weekly sound-bite from him as well. One-way text messages from him will also be up on the site, in addition to his page, handled by the media team.

Onmanorama too will be closely tracking Thuriya’s exploits at sea and we will get you updates on one of the most inspiring sailing expeditions of our times.

Postscript: Asked whether there is any threat from pirates while at sea, Cdr Tomy says: “No threat from pirates. Land is harassing enough and I want to escape!”

(The writer is an independent aerospace, defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)

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