Abhilash Tomy, 39, is tall and muscular in a way that only a body that works hard in real life, and not in a gym, can be. He moves with confidence, smiles easily, speaks softly, yet appears more like a modern guru or life coach than the champion sailor he is.
Meet Commander Abhilash Tomy of the Indian Navy, who was awarded 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 battlefield. He put India on the map of adventure sport when he successfully completed a solo circumnavigation of the globe. He will soon take part in a tougher circumnavigation, as one of the five sailors invited to take part in The Golden Globe race that marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first solo nonstop circumnavigation by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who began in 1968 and completed in 1969.
I can’t make you understand what I feel when I am out there. It is absolute unadulterated freedom. Solitude is the need to be free.
The race is tough because the participants are mandated to sail boats with the same technology and equipment that was used by Sir Robin in 1968: no GPS, no electronics, no satellite communication, not even a digital watch. “I have to do celestial navigation,” says Tomy, with a smile that indicates he can’t wait for the journey to start. “I can’t make you understand what I feel when I am out there. It is absolute unadulterated freedom. Solitude is the need to be free.”
Tomy’s inner philosopher emerges when he tells you that, after just a month, he would have been happy to not have any technology-enabled connection to the world. “It is a state where you start seeing your mind as a separate entity, distinct from you.” This, he says, is not a physical state, nor is it a mental state or feeling, and is released when you are away from all external stimulation. “From the moment you wake up, there is a stimulus and there is a response. These, teamed with experiences, affect all our decisions. On the boat, all this takes a back seat; you adjust the sail if you have to, and then you are alone with your thoughts. You get a lot of time, there is no pressure, no guilt; once you handle survival, it is all you.”
Strength, he says, is on display to combat a challenge and lasts just as long as the challenge does. This needs a certain kind of mind, and you project yourself into the future. Obviously, solo sailing is fraught with constant stress. “You have to get your mind under control, decide what input is important and then react. This happened to me when I did a solo sail from South Africa to Goa while training in 2011. I had a fight with a superior and sailed in an agitated state of mind, the wind picked up, the sail tore, the autopilot packed up, and something or the other went wrong. I soon realised that I had to get my mind under control to begin with,” he recalls. So that’s what he did and the sailing became smooth.
This is not his official training. Tomy is constantly in a state of self awareness, and training his mind and soul, as it were. “No one teaches you what to do when you are angry. A form of meditation [for me] was repeating a sound, I did that for hours, and that was a wonderful experience.” Those 32 days prepped him for the 150 solo days and the impending race, too.
Tomy is now so immersed in sailing solo that he does not think about the destination anymore. “I realised that if you don’t think about the destination, the sailing is even better. Once, I reached Brazil, and did not feel like leaving the boat.” He sounds spiritual, but insists he is not.
Sailing solo and introspecting has changed him in many ways. His romantic relationship has been many nautical miles apart, so far. “You need to find someone who supports you,” he says, too shy to reveal the name of his lady love. Closest to his mother, Tomy still took time before telling her about this riskier race. “I didn’t tell her when the invite came and I started building the boat. I told her in mid-2017 when Malayala Manorama wrote about me and I was sure she would read about it.” She, however, is confident of her son’s ability as much as he is. “I changed the definition of success,” he says.
He is now putting the final touches and testing the boat he has built himself. It’s a major achievement. But, while the body adapts to the boat, to the sea, what about the mind? Does he fear sinking, or being marooned? “No,” he says, softly, yet firm as steel. Tomy claims he has found his needs and wants being fulfilled as soon as he expresses them. “The boat happened, a consultant came from the Netherlands, but didn’t charge me, someone just gave me a camera when mine conked off… things just fall into place… lots of small small things fall into place.” He is grateful for all the support, and reluctant to share that he put in most of his own savings into the preparations for this race. Money is very important, he admits, but it is not everything. He appreciates the simplest of things most of us take for granted. “Fresh water to rinse my mouth or to bathe was a luxury,” he remembers. It was the first thing he truly appreciated after his last sailing saga.
Day-long sails gave way to overnight ones, then week-long ones. Once ready, Tomy will ship the boat to the Netherlands, assemble it and carry out rigorous checks. He will carry freeze-dried food, a medical kit and other essentials that the 1968 boat had.
Tomy will be away at sea for nearly 300 days this time, but there is no time limit for this race; the first one to complete the course wins. After a series of pre-event sails in June, the official race will begin on July 1. He is the first Indian, and only the second Asian, to participate in this race. “You need all the skills humans have for circumnavigation, to cross the set checkpoints, and to finish.” It’s not about the destination, but the journey. What then? Surely he won’t circumnavigate the globe on a boat again? He will trade the sails in for wings, says the Navy pilot with a smile. “I want to fly around the world.” The sky awaits this sailor, who talks to the sea.