On April 6, 2013, Commander Abhilash Tomy of the Indian Navy completed an epic solo circumnavigation around the world — a non-stop, round-the-world voyage in a small, Indian sailboat named Mhadei. At the finish of what was dubbed the Sagarparikrama, the then President Pranab Mukherjee received him at the Gateway of India, Mumbai.
Now, Tomy faces an even more hazardous challenge. On Sunday, he will set sail from France on the 30,000-mile Golden Globe Race, being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the world’s first successful solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation by the sailing legend, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Like in the original Golden Globe Race, no modern digital and satellite gadgetry is permitted for this race. Navigation and communications equipment, tools, and the boat itself, can only incorporate technology that was available to Knox-Johnston.
In 1968, nine skippers had started the race from Falmouth, UK. Only Knox-Johnston completed the challenge, taking 312 days — almost a year, alone at sea. This time, 18 skippers are starting from Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Tomy, now famous and a winner of the Kirti Chakra for peacetime gallantry, is a special invitee.
The Indian Navy officer says he aims to complete the race in 311 days - one day less than Knox-Johnston.
“During the Sagarparikrama (the first circumnavigation), I had used GPS-based maps and other satellite-based technologies. But at the Golden Globe Race, I have to make do with a compass, printed maps, and star and planetary movements. There is a solitary high-frequency radio set for contact. The size of the boat limits the water I can carry. Sir Robin had stored and used rain water and I will do the same. There is no help from the outside world throughout the race,” says Tomy. Sailors can carry satellite phones exclusively for medical emergencies.
The boats have outboard engines, but are allowed only 140 litres of fuel. Starting from Les Sables d'Olonne, the race route heads south till Cape Agulhas, at the southern tip of Africa.
Rounding the stormy cape, the skippers will sail eastward past Cape Leeuwin (Australia) and Cape Horn (South America). From there, they will sail north into the Atlantic for the final leg back to France.
A key element of Tomy’s quest is his sailboat, the 10 metre-long Thuriya, built to a design identical to Knox-Johnston’s famous boat, Suhaili, which was built in Colaba, Mumbai. Ratnakar Dandekar, who has built the Thuriya at Aquarius Shipyard, Goa, had also built the Mhadei — the sailboat on which the pioneer of Indian solo sailing, Captain Dilip Donde, Tomy and most recently a crew of Indian Navy women sailors earned their spurs.
But building a sailboat to an almost century-old design is a far greater challenge than constructing a modern sailboat. The 52-foot Mhadei had more space for miniaturised modern gadgetry, but it is far more difficult to accommodate bulky sextants, charts and older equipment on the 32-foot Thuriya.
The giant waves in the stormy Southern Ocean, toss around smaller boats more violently, slowing them down and increasing the sailor's fatigue.
However, Tomy has a team with which he is entirely comfortable. The Indian Navy and Aquarius Shipyard are supporting him officially. Dilip Donde, the first Indian to circumnavigate the world (albeit with stops) is overseeing the race as base manager.
At Les Sables d’Olonne, participating boats have had their safety checks. Tomy and his team are spending the rest of the week stacking up on food, stationary and toiletries for the coming months.
The boat will carry 1,000 "ready-to-eat" meals, including from the popular South India eatery, Mavalli Tiffin Rooms.
There will be 300 litres of water to tide over periods where it does not rain.
During the coming year at sea, Tomy will not be entirely out of communication. Those following Tomy's race will find three-hourly position updates on the Golden Globe Race website, along with a weekly sound-bite from Tomy himself. He can also post one-way text messages on the website.