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Freedom from fear: A life-threatening experience

Friday, 15 August 2014 - 5:15am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

On the 68th Independence Day, we present the theme Freedom from fear. We kick off the special stories with a first-person account by Abhilash Tomy, Commander, Indian Navy. He is the first Indian and the 2nd Asian to circumnavigate the globe, solo, non-stop, unassisted and under sail

If you look at it the way I do, fear doesn't exist in itself. It is a mental reaction to a perceived threat. In a normal environment fear as an emotion helps a person to prepare himself for safety.

But what if you are faced with conditions that are life threatening and what if those conditions continue not for days or weeks but for months at a stretch without relenting?

In 2011, I sailed from Cape Town to Goa spending 33 days at 5000 nautical miles alone. When I had accepted the Navy's proposal to skipper a boat around the world solo and non stop, I more or less knew what I was getting into. I knew that it would be about constant sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, a bare life of privation, extreme climate and weather and even more extreme solitude and that it would take superhuman effort to pull it through.

I would have to endure it for almost half a year without taking anyone else's help and make it back to land in one piece. If things went wrong in a very bad way, I would probably be facing the worst nightmare ever faced by man — waiting for days for rescue in a rubber dinghy fighting off cold and starvation and loneliness in a storm in the middle of an ocean large enough to swallow all the landmass of the planet.

My first solo voyage held an invaluable lesson — that it was all a mental game. Winds were gale force in the first few days and things were naturally going wrong all around me. My mind was welling up with all disastrous emotions imagining the worst that could happen. That was when I realised that if I had to survive I would have to control my mind first. That is what I did over the next few days and it slowly started working. When I landed after 33 days of solitude I enrolled myself for meditation classes, which opened up a completely new vista.

The voyage saw me facing some very worrying situations in the boat, most of which were life threatening. Seas would build up in storms and waves would tower over five-storey buildings. Temperature and the barometer would drop like a stone as cold fronts hit at an alarming frequency. Winds would top at 70 knots, enough to blow the roofs off the top of houses. Towards the end I even ran out of water and had to do with 15 litres in 15 days. But then I had understood the real nature of fear and how to deal with it. I had realised that fear never really existed, that it was produced inside the mind and that with constant practice it was possible not to feel fear at all. I put the new learning into practice in the five months that I was at sea.

I felt no fear.

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