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Meet Abhilash Tomy, the first Indian to complete solo circumnavigation

It’s the hour of midnight. Lt Cdr of Indian Navy Abhilash Tomy is up and about – in his boat. He is attempting to become the first Indian to complete solo circumnavigation. That means there is no shared watch or sharing of other duties or people to talk to; that means having to do it all yourself; that means waking up every 30 minutes… tracking the weather, checking the boat, reading and then sleeping again for exactly 30 minutes. Before waking up again and going through that same routine over and over again – like clockwork for 150 days… 3600 hours… 216000 minutes.

Of course, sometimes, he would wake up to winds blowing at 130 kmph and waves topping 30 feet. That would make him forget everything and concentrate on the job at hand. But that was part of the bargain -- trying to accomplish something that no Indian had ever managed before was not going to be easy. But as someone once said, ‘Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.’

But that’s not all. Being on a boat for 150 days can do many things to you. Imagine just for a moment, not being able to have a ‘real’ conversation with someone or no social interaction. It’s much tougher than it sounds -- if you are not convinced try doing that for one day. And then there is the challenge of nature.

Abhilash

Abhilash Tomy became the first Indian, second Asian and 79th sailor globally to circumnavigate the globe, solo and non-stop on 31 March, 2013.

There were storms, there was the heat and lastly, there was the biting cold. Sometimes, Tomy did not take a bath for days at a stretch, and sometimes the temperatures forced him to bathe thrice in a day. He tried trimming his moustache and beard with his battery operated razor, but halfway through the 23,100 nautical mile journey, the battery died. Tomy had to spend the rest of the journey with overgrown hair, and an ‘irritating’ long-beard.

During the last 10 days of his journey, Tomy discovered that the water tank was so severely contaminated that he could not even discharge it into the sea. Many sealed water bottles had leaked, and some of them had begun to show signs of contamination. He almost ran out of water, but did not stop at any port during his entire journey called Sagarparikrama II.

“On 19th February, as I was sailing from South Atlantic to India, the wind was above 70 knots. It was as if a supremely powerful god was holding the boat by the tip of the mast and was shaking it vigorously. All I could do was to hang on to the winch. It was the first time I prayed. I knew I had to complete this journey,” says Tomy describing one of the toughest moment in his 150-day voyage.

Abhilash’s prayers were answered. He became the first Indian, second Asian and 79th sailor globally to circumnavigate the globe, solo and non-stop on 31 March, 2013.

The boat INSV Mahadei began her journey with her sailor from Mumbai on 1 November, 2012, and returned to a rousing reception, attended also by President Pranab Mukerjee. Their first destination was Cape Leeuwin in Australia. They brushed past the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and the Maldives before finally returning home. The total distance covered was 23,100 nautical miles.

But was Abhilash’s journey anything like Life of Pi? No. There were no tiger, no chimp—not a single soul to give him company. “There were no grasshoppers, the dragon flies were all dead and the sparrows have gone missing,” he wrote on his blog in November. It took him 10 days to realize that he was completely alone on his voyage. However, he never felt alone. For Abhilash, the 150 days of solitude was complete bliss. Besides the work related to the boat, there were books, e-mails from his friends and colleagues and also the cooking he had to do for himself.

"I used to begin my day in the yacht with meditation. I used to check the weather report regularly and prepared myself for the worst. I would sleep for half-an-hour, wake up, read, check the boat and take a nap again,” he says.

Being the only Indian to have completed the journey wasn’t his only feat. There were many proud moments for him, and the country. One of them was when he hoisted the Indian flag as he rounded the Capehorn--crossed the Pacific Ocean and entered the Atlantic on the 64th anniversary of Republic Day, which was greeted by a flypast of albatrosses and a steam-past of smiling dolphins. “It was one of my proudest moments,” he said.

Dolphin

There were no tiger, no chimp—not a single soul to give him company. He spent his time watching the dolphins.

But there were some bizarre moments too. “Due to frequent changes in time zones and the consequent necessity to readjust clocks, on the 28th of December, when I woke up, all the clocks were showing wrong time.

“I had to maintain three time zones- UTC, IST and Zone Time. To do that, I had to use as many instruments as I could which included GPS time on the electronic chart, two clocks, my mobile phone, laptop, a partly serviceable wrist watch and the INMARSAT phone. The local clock read 10:00 am which meant that I was a couple of hours late for rendering the morning report—that was like reaching the airport two hours after your flight had left. It took me almost half an hour to gather my still drowsy wits and decide on the time because I wasn’t too sure which clock to trust,” he recalls.

In the end, though, he got it right. Ask him when he became interested in the sea, he says, “forever.” Well, that love affair is just getting started.

When he landed back on shore, his feet were trembling. He couldn’t walk. But, he didn’t mind taking another round. As soon as he landed, Abhilash asked his commander, “Sir, can I go for one more round, please."