The Indian Navy’s most decorated and accomplished sailor, Kirti Chakra winner Commander Abhilash Tomy, is fighting the battle of his life. On the bleak Southern Ocean, somewhere between India, Antarctica, Africa and Australia, Tomy is lying alone on a sailboat, incapacitated with a severe back injury after a furious gale and giant waves rolled his boat over and ripped off its main mast.
With communications fading and rescuers still far away, Tomy’s latest message reads: “Can move toes. Feel numb. Can’t eat or drink. Tough to reach grab bag.”
Three days ago, Tomy was at third place in the Golden Globe Race (GGR) – a solo, non-stop sailboat race around the world. But on Friday, one of the howling storms that the Southern Ocean is known for transforming his challenge from sport to survival. Dismasted by a 130-kilometre gale and 40-foot-high waves, something slammed him to the floor. Tomy’s survival instinct made him crawl into the sailboat’s tiny cabin, where he activated an emergency beacon that beamed round the world.
Two days later the storm is abating, though the ocean is still heaving and a gale still blowing. But there is now a glimmer of hope for Tomy. In a multinational rescue effort that illustrates how sport can bring nations together, ships and aircraft from India, Australia, France and even Tomy’s competitors are racing to his rescue.
On Sunday morning, an Indian Navy P-8I Poseidon aircraft, flying from Mauritius, spotted the Thoriya– Tomy’s tiny, 36-foot sailboat. Indian Navy frigate INS Satpura and fleet tanker INS Jyoti are racing to the site, but cannot reach before Monday night. An Australian warship, RANS Ballarat, has sailed from Perth, but will reach only on Tuesday. A French fishing vessel (Osiris), with a doctor on board, is heading for the Thoriya. And Tomy’s nearest GGR rival, Irishman Gregor McGuchin has put aside the contest to come to his rescue. McGuchin’s sailboat suffered equal damage, but the Irishman was spared injury.
Australia’s Navy Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, summed up the spirit thus: “I’m crash sailing one of my warships to rescue Commander Abhilash Tomy... His yacht is dismasted, 2,000 miles south-west of Perth, Australia. His last communique was: ‘yacht rolled, dismasted, severe back injury’. Weather is 70 knots winds and 14-meter seas. My ship will depart in 2 hours and it’s a 6-day journey in treacherous conditions. We will find your man.”
Meanwhile, a tweeted message from the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, assured Tomy: “We’ll get you out of this crisis soon.”
Sweltering tensely as the drama unfolds is Tomy’s new wife, Urmi, a Goa-based graphics designer. They were married in April, just three months before Tomy embarked on this hazardous, six-month voyage, where separation would be total.
That is because the Golden Globe Race 2018, which commemorates Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s historic first-ever solo, circumnavigation of the globe half a century ago, allows only technologies and equipment available to Knox-Johnston. That rules out satellite communications and the internet, allowing only vintage, high-frequency radios. Only for emergencies is modern equipment allowed.
The dismasted sailboat, Thuriya, spotted on Sunday morning by an Indian Navy aircraft, flying from Mauritius
“Abhilash has done long voyages before, but we remained in touch through satellite phones and internet chats. The separation on this voyage has been tough. But all that matters now is to rescue him unharmed”, said Urmi.
Underlining the unpredictability of the elements, competitors some distance behind Tomy and McGuchin, now face a similar ordeal. “A second storm has been building for several days and is forecast to overrun them within the next 24 hours, bringing the potential of 30-45 feet swells for 48 hours,” says the GGR website.
Meanwhile, the lucky race leader, Jean-Luc van den Heede, is approaching Tasmania in a different weather system. The day Tomy was being mauled by the storm, the Frenchman reported: “Quiet sunny day. Lunch on the terrace! What a change!”
The GGR started from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France on July 1. They are to round the five Great Capes – Cape Agulhas (Africa), Cape Leeuwin (Australia), South Cape (New Zealand) and Cape Horn (South America) – before finishing at the start point. This involves sailing 30,000 miles, of which Tomy has sailed over one-third.
The GGR website describes the race as follows: “To create a unique ‘Retro’ non-stop, solo, around the world yacht race, in the image of the original Sunday Times Golden Globe that draws sailors back to the Golden Age of ‘one sailor, one boat’ facing the great oceans of the world.”