The Ultimate Dream: Sailing around the world in 151 days

Thursday, 19 December 2013 - 12:32pm IST | Agency: DNA
Lt. Cdr. Abhilash Tomy, a reconnaissance pilot with the Navy and the first Indian to navigate the globe solo and non-stop, talks to Pooja Bhula, about the highs and lows of his 151-day journey at sea...

Were you expecting the Indian Navy to give you this opportunity?
I eagerly awaited a chance, but although my training started almost three years ago, Sagarparikrama II (the non-stop circumnavigation voyage) was never planned. Pictures of a circumnavigation boat-race I’d seen in 1999 triggered my interest in sailing. Soon, I entered small boat-races in the Navy, and by 2008 I was sailing the seas. The opportunity was to come sooner or later, and when it did, I was on top of the world!

Was the training very different from the actual journey?
Training entailed sailing to Mauritius, Colombo, Cape Town and other places with Cdr Donde, and assisting him as on-shore support during his solo circumnavigation. Initially I would get really seasick—throwing up food, then bile, and when nothing was left, blood. You can’t help it. You feel like avoiding food and water, but can’t do that for long. This time, I didn’t suffer seasickness at all. That’s how it is. Everytime you return to sea, your experience just gets better and better.

Did you see a lot of marine life?
Close to Australia, it’s albatross (oceanic bird) territory–first the brown ones flock and further ahead, the white. The way they glide in the air, without flapping their wings, would make any pilot envious. Near the South Pacific oceans dolphins and whales visted Mhadei (name of the yacht) and me, and closer to the equator, the boat was swarmed by suicidal flying fish that I had to throw out.

Was it anything like Life of Pi? Was it lonely?
Well, loneliness often pushes sailors to commit suicide, and like Pi, sailors do hallucinate, very often they think people are boarding the boat and helping them out. While, I never hallucinated when awake, towards the end of the voyage, I started having weird dreams whenever I shut my eyes. And they seemed very real. Like Pi, I did come across glowing waters in different oceans too, when scooped they look like bulbs. About the solitude, it was great, I didn’t miss a thing. In fact, after a point, your memory fades when you're at sea for so long. Unlike land, it has no objects to feed your memory, so your mind stops inventing new ones and you even forget what you did yesterday or some time ago. That’s why writing the blog (sagarparikrama2.blogspot.in) helped.

How did you prepare before going?
New equipment was installed onboard and spares were stocked for everything. Power could be generated through solar panels, a wind generator and the engine. I carried  medicines, monthly supplies of over 15 kilos of food. Water was stored in tanks, bottles and an RO plant. Clothes included a few lungis and shorts, and several warm clothes. But the key is preparing don all hats, that of an electrician, engineer, cook, carpenter, plumber, media person, you name it...

That’s a lot of work, what was your routine?
Get up and meditate, drink hot water, eat breakfast, send the first weather report by 8 am, walk around the yacht to check whether repairs were required, send an observation report by 12 pm, have lunch and call it a day by sunset. On lighter days, I read books--100 years of Solitude being my favourite, I read it every year--and watched movies. Going to the loo has to be planned a few days in advance considering the layers of clothes you wear in the cold, bathing wasn’t a routine affair either. In hot regions, your hair turns golden and skin peels off. Adjusting with the ship’s movement you easily lose weight, and constantly working with your hands ensures that your upper body becomes strong. But your legs grow weak as the yacht is just 17 meters long, and you don’t get to walk much.

Did you do anything special for Christmas or New Year's?
A couple of times I made rudimentary pinacolada, virgin of course!, and fried canned sardines for dinner.  Christmas eve was perfect with mild breeze, I put on music, cooked some freeze-dry vegetables, washed it down with Mirinda and savoured half a slab of Bournville saved for the occasion. Before crossing the International Date Line, I  was the first Indian to welcome 2013, and reaching the other side I became the last Indian to bid farewell to 2012. So Mhadei and I celebrated the new year twice.

Tell us about the best and most notorious waters you encountered...
Close to Saya de Malha Bank the weather was beautiful with cool air and calm seas. Once you cross the Tropic of Capricorn, it’s terrible. In the middle of South Pacific, I once climbed the mast to disentangle the lines. The ascent took an hour and the descent was scarier. Another time, the genoa tore as we neared Cape Horn. And towards the end of the voyage, water in the tanks (200 litres) and bottles got contaminated with diesel.

Any unforgettable moments?
When a whale almost three times the size of Mhadei, followed us in the Atlantic. For those few minutes I prayed for it to leave. I had another lovely moment near Isla de los Estados in Argentina—I saw a ship after 88 days and when I contacted it on radio a woman answered. It was a woman's voice! (huge grin)

Has the experience changed you?
Yes, I started noticing a change after a previous excursion, from Cape Town to Goa. I stopped accumulating things. Now my room is spartan with two tables and the bed, I’ve gotten rid of most equipment, including the fan. And after this voyage, I’ve stopped craving meat; I’m happy eating veggies and fish.

At 34, you’ve already sailed around the world, what do you look forward to now?

Another go at circumnavigation, I can’t wait to get back to sea.   

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Yacht Name: Mhadei
Sailed From: November 1, 2012 - March 31, 2013
Route Taken: Mumbai, South of Australia, New Zealand, Cape Horn,
                        Cape of Good Hope and back to  Mumbai

Total Distance: 23,100 nautical miles
Awards:
Kirti Chakra & Tenzing Norgay National Award


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