Commander Abhilash Tomy, who was the only Asian in the challenging Golden Globe Race, recalls his perilous solo voyage — when a storm left him incapacitated and his boat dismasted in the middle of nowhere — and his fortuitous rescue.
On September 28, I was evacuated out of Amsterdam Island in the deep south Indian Ocean by an Indian warship. It was only a week before that I was caught in a storm that left me incapacitated and my boat dismasted when I was taking part in the Golden Globe Race 2018.
In the original Golden Globe Race of 1968, nine men set off on their sailing boats to determine who would be the first to circumnavigate the globe alone and without stops. In a dramatic turn of events one sailor allegedly committed suicide by jumping off his boat and another decided to sail around the world twice in order to “save his soul”. Only one man made it to the finish line.
Tomy’s yacht Thuriya off Lanzarote, Canaries, on June 16. The Golden Globe Race of 2018 was a celebration and tribute to the original race which was otherwise never repeated. It demanded the entrants to sail around the world single-handed and nonstop on 32-36-foot-long, classic, long-keel production boats with hinged rudders using technology that existed in 1968, automatically ruling out the latest weather prediction software, GPS, electronic autopilots, electronic watches, chart displays and many such fruits of technology, which have made sailing a simpler activity. We had to navigate with a sextant and a wind-up clock, plot on paper charts and rely on radio broadcasts for weather updates which predict not beyond a day, all the while keeping watch with rudimentary equipment.
I made an appearance at the race as a special invitee with a 32-footer made in India along with 17 other entrants.
In all, we represented 13 nations. The race started on the July 1 from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, and we sailed through the Canaries gate before crossing the equator and sailing into the South Atlantic.
Attrition had set in soon after the start with Ertan Beskardes, Nabil Amra, Kevin Farebrother, Antoine Cousot and Philippe Peche retiring for various reasons and Are Wiig getting rolled over and dismasted in a particularly bad storm before he could round Cape of Good Hope.
Solo skipper Tomy’s yacht dismasted in the South Indian Ocean, 1,900 miles south-west of Perth. A rescue team from Osiris boarded the yacht and brought Tomy back on a stretcher.
When I entered the Indian Ocean in early September, I was comfortably placed fifth, sailing in a healthy boat with no one closing the gap behind me.
By September 21, when the storm hit, I had clawed my way up to the third place, with just a little over a hundred miles separating me from the second-placed Mark Slats and the fourth-placed Gregor McGuckin.
The sea was white
The storm that hit us was a particularly vicious one. We had adequate warning but it was so huge and fast-moving that we could not have outrun or sidestepped it.
Winds and sea had been building up all night and the weather went from bad to worse by morning. In preparation, I had lowered the mainsail and furled the genoa and checked the mast and rigging a day in advance. Although predictions spoke of 50-knot winds, what I experienced would have been no less than 75 knots, with waves at 12-14 metres. I hadn’t seen a sea like that before and as far as the eye could see no inch of water was any colour other than white. Winds changed from north-west to south-east in less than an hour, leading to mountainous cross waves. I had sequentially reduced my sails till I was sailing on bare poles and steering the boat myself. I tried to keep her on a safe course, but a huge wave knocked me down, splitting the mizzen boom in two.
Tomy recovering in a hospital on Ile Amsterdam. I went inside. The boat was a mess. The stove was hanging by its hose. I smelled the odour of gas leaking. After shutting the valve and putting the stove back in place, I went about clearing the mess and figuring a way to repair the boom. Thankfully, the HF (high frequency radio) was still working and I spoke with Mark and Gregor.
Mark said that he had not seen a sea like this while Gregor said he had just lost his mizzen mast. I told them about my situation and remembered that only a couple of days back we were talking about how this was the worst place to get dismasted, thousands of miles away from nearest permanent settlements.
I went out to hand-steer the boat again but within an hour or so of the first knockdown, there was another one. This time I clung to the mizzen mast and as it went down I slipped away from the deck. I held my breath as I was pushed underwater and for a moment I thought that I could finish this all only if I opened my arms and let go the mast. When the boat straightened, I found myself hanging on steel wire shrouds of the mizzen from where I fell onto the boom when my wristwatch broke.
I rushed inside the boat because I knew it would be a mess and I fervently worked to put things back in place. It was as if a giant had shaken the boat, leaving everything everywhere.
Something seemed to have struck the sight glass of the day tank, spilling fuel everywhere.
When I tried to stand up after working for about half an hour, I felt something wrong with my lower back.
Tomy, who suffered a serious back injury, was rescued by the crew of French Fisheries Patrol ship Osiris. It was too stiff and my knees seemed lifeless. It took great effort to stand up but every time I wobbled and fell. I lay down on the floorboards for a while, hoping that the back would get better with some rest and stretching, but that was not to be. Somehow I crawled and pulled myself into the bunk.
It was after some time that the boat rolled over and I lost the main and mizzen masts. A messaged beeped in the satellite texting device that Gregor had been dismasted. I replied with a text saying that I too had been dismasted and the back was injured.
Three days I spent immobile
I doubt if anything had prepared me for the next three days. I could not move about nor do anything to ease the agony of my boat which was still being battered by the storm even as it subsided. There was still a thought somewhere in my head that I might get better in a day in which case I would dog a jury rig and sail the boat to safe port. But when that did not happen I wriggled and crawled out of the bunk, picked up the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and activated it. I also sent out a text to the race headquarters that I needed a stretcher if someone came to rescue.
Nothing had prepared me for the three days I spent immobile. I tried to keep my mind blank, not thinking when rescue might come or what might happen. I lost track of time and date and I did not know if it was day or night. The only discomfort I felt was the constant and uncontrollable hiccups which caused me to choke on my breath. The only way to stop it was to vomit and when I ran out of things to vomit I made a mad crawling journey out of my bunk to reach out for cans of iced tea which I drank whenever I felt the need to vomit. I slept when the hiccups stopped and vomited to stop the hiccups.
The satellite texting device was losing its battery and I was in no mood to make another journey out of the bunk to the grab bag which had my second texting unit, satellite phone and air band VHF.
When the aircraft came overhead I texted race HQ about it in an attempt to convey that my faculties were intact and I was still conscious.
Even as I lay in bunk, Gregor was making a heroic attempt to close in on me in his crippled boat and jury rig. However, French fisheries patrol vessel, which sailed with full steam towards me, beat Gregor by 30 miles.
Gregor McGuckin’s yacht was also rolled and dismasted. Still he set up a jury rig and headed towards Tomy to rescue him. Her name was Osiris and she was named after the ancient Egyptian god of afterlife, the underworld and rebirth. I came to know that she was close to me only when I heard someone scream for permission to enter the boat. I told them they were angels.
True to my wishes I was evacuated in a stretcher. The next day Osiris was off Ile Amsterdam, an island in the French sub Antarctic territory. The physician Remy from the island injected morphine into me before evacuating to his facility on land where I was confined to bed for a few days while I was fed with saline and glucose through IV.
Gregor, who too was rescued by Osiris, planted a tree in memory of the first Indian and Irishman to be shipwrecked on the island.
“The most handsome shipwrecked sailor in the Indian Ocean,” as I called Gregor, was evacuated by HMAS Ballarat to Australia on September 27. It was on the same day that I walked on land after 88 days. I had crutches but I was so excited that I walked barefoot on grass and even approached a sea lion cub.
On September 28, the islanders spied INS Satpura on the horizon. They came to tell me that she was huge and looked serious. It sent a Chetak to pick me up and about an hour later my passage back to India began.
Source: Economic Times