Navy officer who survived Indian Ocean storm during global race desires to go back to sea


NEW DELHI: Left immobile and incapacitated due to a severe back injury caused during a storm that hit his sailing vessel in the south Indian Ocean, Commander Abhilash Tomy who at that moment although lay helpless on his bed, believed that it would only be a matter of time until he is rescued. While he knew that he would have to discontinue the present race, he could only think of competing again in another similar event and knew that it was sailing which was close to his heart.

Commander Tomy, a 39-year-old Indian Navy pilot and a determined sailor, was the only Asian to have participated in the Golden Globe Race 2018, which entailed a solo circumnavigation of the globe in a non-motorised sail boat. The race which involves sailing for 30,000 nautical miles was flagged off from Les Sables d’Olonne in France last July. Last September, however, he was caught in a storm with about 15 metre high waves and strong winds in the south Indian Ocean. His boat was knocked down twice, including taking a 360 degree turn. Tomy was severely injured when he fell on his back on the boat’s boom and after a while with severe pain he was immobile on his bed.

Three days later on September 24, Tomy was rescued by French fisheries vessel and taken to Amsterdam and later by an Indian Navy ship to Visakhapatnam. In a conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his journey back, he said that “I am not going to stop here. Even now i am planning to be back in sea.”

Following his return, the navy gave him six months for recovery and assigned light duties to him. He has now been posted to the navy’s new Ocean Sailing Node in Goa, where he will contribute on sailing for navy personnel. He believes that the node will be good to help create better sailors and officers in the navy.

Tomy became the first Indian to do a non-stop solo and unassisted circumnavigation of the globe in 2012-13. He began his voyage on November 1, 2012 from Mumbai and had sailed on INS Mhadei for 23,000 nautical miles for 151 days. The navy thereafter decided to undertake more such expeditions. “There are almost 6000 people who climbed Mount Everest and 600 people have gone to space, but non-stop circumnavigators in this planet is less than 100,” he said.

Last year, the Golden Globe Race made a return after it was organised for the first time in 1968. The organisers had passed instructions that only 32 to 36 feet long boat can be used, when normally a 60-feet long vessel is needed for a circumnavigation. Another rule was that the participants could only use the technology that existed in 1968, which meant no use of electronic devices. However, a satellite phone and personal locator beacons among few other items could only be used during emergency.

Tomy who had his indigenously built boat, Thuriya, and only these bare means, liked the fact that he didn’t have a crew. “Sailing with a crew is like taking your in-laws to your honeymoon. I don’t like that very much,” he laughed.

The race began on July 1 with 17 participants. Tomy didn’t expect Indians to be there, because he “didn’t them to be there”. He however had some Irish fans cheering him. “When I was crossing the channel, the Irish fans were holding the Irish flag vertically. It looks like the Indian flag. They were pointing, we are cheering for you,” he said.

For the first few days, Tomy said he was not performing well in the race. He added that after sailing beyond the Cape of Good Hope he came from the 10th to the 5th position. But it was thereafter that he reached a “back end” of earth, almost 5000 km from India. It was in the south Indian Ocean when he was hit by the storm. “We were hit by a storm…10-15 metre high waves…I was knocked down. The first wave broke the boom. I went inside, there was a huge mess…there was gas leaking…lot of diesel leaking out…when i was on deck the sea was white…it is difficult to see those kind of seas,” he said.

“In the second knock down…i slipped out of the boat…I was buried underwater for 10-15 seconds. It was freezing cold…See was going up 15 metres…I fell on my back on the boom and then fell on the deck…after 45 minutes I realised that my lower back became stiff and could not stand up,” he added.

He sent a message to the race organisers, which read, “Rolled. Dismasted. Severe back injury. Cannot get up.” For three days, he only survived on iced tea.

The Indian Navy had deployed a P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and later the Osiris vessel rescued him. “People came on board and put me on a stretcher. I said to them that you are angels,” he said.

Now, Tomy said that he is working on his fitness and is 80 percent recovered, but eventually plans to return to sailing. “I had asked my wife that if I had introduced myself as an IT engineer would you have married me, she said no…she said ‘don’t play with words, if you are fit you can go’. My mother is of the same opinion. I am happy to have a supportive family,” he said, adding that he got married in April last year and only one month left for Netherlands to prepare for the race.

“When I was lying in the bunk, incapacitated, I was thinking of the next race, which will happen in 2022. If not the Golden Globe Race then something else…I am not scared of sea…I would love to go back again…The age of exploration all these were fuelled by sailors….to discover new lands. Its that spirit of adventure that has kept mankind alive…People who don’t sail should start sailing. If we have youngsters in our country sail, then character of this country will alter,” he said.

“I am certain that the navy would be thinking of ocean racing. That is a good way of training our youngsters in understanding of the sea. They will be much better naval officers. Probably if a woman wants to do a solo circumnavigation that field is open. To be the first Indian woman to do a solo circumnavigation,” he added.

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