Notes from a meeting with Abhilash Tomy before he set sail on his ill-fated Golden Globe race
I realised Abhilash Tomy’s inner philosopher emerges when he talks about mental and emotional strength, more than his obvious physical strength and training.
Solitude is his strength. In solitude he finds freedom, and focus. In his own words: “I feel absolute unadulterated freedom out there.” And smiles at me kindly when I tell him I can’t even go see a movie alone. He has driven a long distance on wavy Goa roads to meet me, leaving his most prized creation, his boat, behind for a bit. This was to be a quick coffee, but we end up chatting for hours. He has that effect on people. Speaking softly, deeply and firmly like his handshake, he makes you want to listen more. I met him without a questionnaire, and was planning to send him some later after an initial rapport was made. He ended up answering more than I could have hoped for. We stayed in touch. He shared insights into life, and life lessons, I shared bits of news and lame jokes, for months after the interview was published. Till he set sail.
As I sat glued to the internet the past few days scanning information about his well-being, I recalled our WhatsApp and phone conversations and felt positive that he will be found safely, and will recover his health soon.
I realised Abhilash Tomy’s inner philosopher emerges when he talks about mental and emotional strength, more than his obvious physical strength and training. That fitness, he told me, “is a state where you start seeing your mind as a separate entity, distinct from you.” But he said this is not a physical or a mental state or even a feeling, and it is realised when you are away from all external stimulation. “On the boat you are alone with your thoughts. You get pure time, there is no pressure, no guilt.”
The sea warrior, Commander Abhilash Tomy of the Indian Navy has been rescued safely in a massive international rescue mission. He has won a dangerous race against a serious injury, wild windstorms, a raging sea, and time that seemed to be moving too slow. He must have been in extreme pain and discomfort due to the serious back injury he reported. But he would not have panicked. That I am sure of, because Abhilash Tomy is no ordinary man. Tall, handsome and muscular, his greatest strength is not his obvious physical fitness, it is his mental and spiritual prowess.
I had spent time talking to him for what was to be a profile essay last year, but stayed in touch long after that, because that’s the kind of effect he had on me. His wisdom and depth is reflective of an old evolved soul. And his focus, modesty and earthiness is a lesson on what to do in case life throws you a challenge.
“It is a mind game,” he said, “first get your mind under control, and then react.” He knows what he is talking about. He told me how he once sailed from South Africa to Goa, while he was very upset about an argument with a senior and all that could go wrong did on the boat. Bad winds, a torn sail, and even the crucial autopilot packed up. It seemed that both the weather and the boat were just reflecting the chaos that was going on in his own head. So what did our Sufi-souled sailor do? He told himself to calm down. “I had to get my own mind under control to begin with,” he said. And once that wave was surfed, the rest of the errors were corrected thanks to his training.
Anger and agitation, he says, are the enemy. Self-awareness is the secret weapon. Tomy told me he calmed himself on choppy waters by meditating. As simple as that. He just repeated a sound continuously, till his breathing would normalise and mental chaos would calm down. I have tried it over the last few months, and a lot in the last few days as I waited to hear news of his safe rescue. It worked, mostly. I am sure it worked better for him even as he faced unspeakable danger out there. Getting worked up over a situation he cannot control is not something Tomy would do. He would have just calmed down, activated his emergency beacon, and waited patiently, trusting his peers, and the universe to reach and rescue him. Confidence, patience, and trust, are secret weapons in his arsenal too.
Does a sailor, who loves to be on the open water, not want to reach somewhere? “No,” he said sailing solo is better when he is not thinking about the destination. He sounded like a new age guru and I couldn’t hold back a silly question — Did he want to be philosopher, or a priest, when he retired?
"NO!" he laughed out, saying he is not even religious.
He also took all the accolades, the adorations, and the awards in a healthy respectful manner. He could differentiate between fair weather friends but does believe in paying forward and doing good quietly.
Abhilash Tomy has already been decorated with the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, India’s highest recognition for outstanding achievements in the field of adventure on land, sea and air, as well as the Kirti Chakra, awarded for exemplary valour, courage and sacrifice away from the battle field. He could have rested with the laurels, praise and awards that came his way after he first completed a solo circumnavigation of the globe. But that is not his style. He wanted to sail the ultimate race, a much tougher circumnavigation, without the aid of latest communication, and sailing technology. This was a dream he brought to life with his own hands. He built his own boat in Goa, with the focus of a meditative saint. “Things just fell into place, whenever I needed something, I was patient and it just came,” he told me.
"How?" I asked, ever the cynic.
“It just did, things have a way of working out,” he said softly.
"What about money, surely you need lots of that now?," I prod on.
“Money is very important, but it is not everything,” he is firm.
Funds for the race did work out eventually, but to Tomy, it is what money cannot buy that is most important. Like love. Handsome and grounded, he is a man in love, with his family, his sport, his uniform, his nation, and a very special woman. “You just know,” was what he said when I asked him how he knew he loved her. He shared what she means to him and how he has a plan for the future. I had promised him I will never make those conversations public.
What is public though is that Commander Tomy is one of the five sailors who were invited to take part in The Golden Globe race to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the world's first solo circumnavigation by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, and he has been found safe. He has united the sailing world in a way that no one else has in recent times.
The Golden Globe race is tougher now than it originally was. Because global climatic conditions have changed, and the original technology and equipment that are mandated here are not something a modern sailor is used to. It is a challenge at every level. It is probably akin to a surgeon operating solo in a war zone, with minimal equipment. It takes the best training, and even better presence of mind to pull through. And he has.
Tomy did not have access to anything that did not exist 1968. Think about it, out on the high seas, alone, with no GPS, no electronics, no satellite communication (except one for emergencies which he did activate), not even a digital watch. He, for one, was super excited to “do celestial navigation”.
I remember asking him if he was afraid, of his boat breaking down, his sail tearing, injury, or drifting never to be found?
“No,” he said. Focused and confident. I am sure he is still focussed. It was never about the destination for him, it was all about the journey.
I hope he recovers soon. I wish to meet him soon. I owe him a coffee, and an apology for the delay.
A version of this article was originally published in the Man Magazine of the Malayala Manorama Group
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