Meet the Indian Navy’s Lt Cdr, Abhilash Tomy-the first Indian to have completed a solo non-stop unassisted circumnavigation of the globe. Nice! Wait, solo non-stop unassi-what? Yeah don’t worry, it took me quite some time to grasp the idea too. Basically, this means he went around the globe, solo, without the use of an engine and without stopping. The rules? Start and end at the same point, cross all longitudes in the same direction and cross the equator twice. Further, he could not use any propulsion, nor seek assistance enroute.
I had the good fortune of listening to the story first hand, when Mr Tomy spoke at the annual day function of a company I was working with. I try to write about the most captivating parts of the expedition, as best as I can.
He set sail on the mission, titled Sagar Parikrama 2, in November 2012, on his boat called Mhadei. “One good thing about a solo circumnavigation is that you don’t have to worry waking up early morning and going to office.” The tasks leading up to the departure left him quite exhausted. He was seen off by a huge crowd, many came with cards, gifts, books, etc. Taj sent pizzas while NatGeo Traveller India came with 100 copies of their November issue. The Navy made sure the send-off was grand. He crossed the home port and the mouth of the Mhadei river by day 2. And this is when Abhilash finally engaged the autopilot and got some shut-eye.
He was seen off by a huge crowd, many came with cards, gifts, books, etc. Taj sent pizzas while NatGeo Traveller India came with 100 copies of their November issue. The Navy made sure the send-off was grand. He crossed the home port and the mouth of the Mhadei river by day 2. And this is when Abhilash finally engaged the autopilot and got some shut-eye.
It’s the word ‘solo’ that’s scariest. 180 days or 4320 hours of not having anyone to talk to. No one to share your fears and celebrate your feats with. Such solitude has been known to cause dangerous hallucinations amongst adventurers. Abhilash had grasshoppers, sparrows and dolphins that would ocassionally keep him company. He spent Diwali of 2012 on board, lighting a stove to keep up with traditions and eating some pre-cooked Halwa.
Perhaps a sort of comfort was the availability of internet. He kept his online journal updated and stayed in touch with friends and followers. While online conversations are not the most helpful, they were some rescue from complete solitude. He began his day with meditation. Also, books, comics, and specifically, Nat Geo issues helped pass the time.
To a layman, the feat itself sounds impossible. The technicality of the numerous difficulties that he faced cannot be fully understood. Winds and waves were not always favourable. Sometimes they thrashed the boat about like an angry Goddess, things got thrown out of their place. And sometimes, they were so calm that using them to propel the boat forward seemed impossible. Some days were bright, and sunny, demanding 3 or 4 baths a day. Some were damp, and cold, not allowing him to bathe for days together. This meant he managed to sleep in broken intervals- constantly on the lookout for threats and opportunities thrown by nature.
Provisions dwindled fast. Someone had gifted him a box of butter cookies, which were all gone by the first 15 days. Bananas, potatoes, cucumbers and cabbages made a disappearing act too.
On a particularly exhausting day, the 11th of January 2013, he had to climb the mast to set free the rogue line that had parted. He had specialised climbing gear for the same, but the task proved to be a tall one, forcing him to harness his spiritual strength as well. The view from the top made him even more aware of his solitude.
Drinking water became scarce – during the last leg, he discovered that the onboard reverse osmosis plant had failed and a diesel leak had contaminated his stored water and was left with only about 15 l of water for the last 15 days.
On a voyage such as this, Abhilash had no option but to be quick in conjuring up innovative solutions to his problems, sometimes even placing trust in superstitions. Someone had told him that the grime on his body must be regularly washed off to keep up the speed of the boat. Strangely enough, every time he had a bath, he seemed to be blessed with good velocity.
When the generator seemed dysfunctional, he remembered that a mechanic had once advised him to check the temperature of the lube oil. Sure enough, he found the fault with the cooling system and got it fixed. Another time the generator kept shutting down, Abhilash learnt he could fix it by cleaning the sensor.
The drinking water problem was partly reduced by resorting to smart conservation, as well as rainwater harvesting. He did laundry by tying clothes to a line and throwing it into the water and letting it get dragged along.
However, not all solutions were this simple or fun. Abhilash was forced to raise and lower the sail often, to keep up with the weather conditions and keep the sail in one piece. He was used to doing this with a crew, but on this voyage, he had to do it by himself. “Hoisting 100 kilograms over a seven storey building on a hot day with your bare hands can leave one terribly exhausted”
A rousing reception
The last leg was from Africa to India. The path was fairly well laid out and the boat crossed Madagascar and then Mauritius, with a sea that Abhilash describes as “washing machine conditions”
After going past the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Maldives, and several other checkpoints, the Mhadei sailed back into Mumbai’s port on 31st March, 2013. She had covered 23,100 nautical miles and finally returned home. Abhilash was given a grand welcome by a huge crowd, which included then President Pranab Mukherjee. He became the 79th sailor, globally, to have achieved the feat. He had created maritime history and naturally, accolades and recognition followed.
On landing, Abhilash’s first words to his commander were “Sir, can I go for one more round, please?”
I must admit, most well-written blogs and articles cannot do justice to the feeling of having sailed for those 6 months. Thus, I strongly encourage detail seekers to head out to Abhilash’s blog- Sailing on Wings to follow the journal with periodical entries of the voyage.