Golden Globe Race 2022: How Abhilash Tomy healed himself to make history

He became the first Asian with a podium finish in any ocean race

44-Abhilash-Tomy Master of the sea: Abhilash Tomy is the only Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo and unassisted.

The 15th century Château Saint-Clair and its imposing Arundel tower watch over the Les Sables-d’Olonne channel on the French Atlantic coast. Built as a garrison by Louis XIII, the castle currently houses a sea and fishing museum. And, on the tower is the old lighthouse. During World War II, the Nazis used the tower as a vantage point on the Atlantic Wall. Sporting venues can hardly get more historic than this. And the Golden Globe Race 2022 threw up a historic result to match the host city.

On April 27, South African Kirsten Neuschäfer finished first to become the only woman to win any ocean race, and then Abhilash Tomy―the only Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo and unassisted―came second and became the first Asian with a podium finish in any ocean race.

On April 29, the tower sported the regulation French tricolour, but the castle was a rare sight―all three flagstaffs on the ramparts flew the Indian flag. All in honour of a sailor coming up the channel. He looked thin, haggard and sunburnt, and there was quite some silver in his beard. But to those who knew him, the cheeky smile was the same, maybe a wee bit brighter than usual.

When Abhilash was feted on the Golden Globe Race stage, the enormity of his achievement was all around him. On stage was the crushed fiberglass nose of a Rustler 36 yacht, painted blue and white. On stage was the retired Indian Navy commander in a dark beanie. And around him were pontoon after pontoon of yachts of all models and vintage.

The beanie

“One pontoon in Les Sables-d’Olonne has more yachts than the whole of India,” Abhilash told the crowd, encapsulating the challenges faced by blue-water sailors in India. Then, he pulled off the beanie and shared its story. In the 2018 edition of the Golden Globe Race, Abhilash’s yacht―the Goa-built, India-flagged SV Thuriya―was rolled over and dismasted in a storm on September 21, 2018. As the storm battered the yacht, Abhilash hung from the mast by his watchstrap, before it broke and smashed him on to the deck, breaking four vertebrae.

Tomy’s boat, Bayanat. Tomy’s boat, Bayanat.

The French fishing patrol vessel Osiris rescued him and ferried him to Île Amsterdam, an overseas territory of France with a research station. At least three friendly navies were involved in his rescue then. The Mauritians helped with the reconnaissance flights, the French sent the Osiris and the Australians dispatched the frigate HMAS Ballarat.

On the island, the researchers and medics became close friends with the marooned sailor. “They gave me many gifts, including this beanie,” he said. “I promised them that if I ever set out on a circumnavigation, I will wear this at the start and the finish. It was too hot here to wear this at the start, but I have worn it at the finish.”

From Île Amsterdam, he was brought home by the INS Satpura and went under the knife very soon; titanium screws were used to hold his spine together. And, then the long road to recovery. So, when Abhilash stood up on the stage at Les Sables-d’Olonne, it was proof of his own indomitable will and a testimony to the brotherhood of the seas that took care of one of their own.

The Rustler’s bow

From being bedridden in 2018, to retiring from the Navy and making a second bid at GGR 2022 was a close affair for Abhilash. Golden Globe Race founder Don McIntyre told the media, “So Abhilash comes back and says he wanted to do 2022 GGR. But there was no sponsor. We spoke all the time, and I didn’t think (Abhilash) was going to make it. I really didn’t think so. It was a lost cause!”

On March 22, 2022, Dubai-based Bayanat announced its support for Abhilash at the Expo 2020 Dubai. The boat would be a Rustler 36 eponymously called the Bayanat, it would be UAE-flagged and its hull number would be 71―the UAE was formed in 1971, and 2021-22 was the nation’s golden jubilee.

The GGR Village would open in Les Sables-d’Olonne on August 21 and the race would flag off on September 4. Abhilash had six months, barely.

With the yacht in place at the last moment and with no time to test it, Abhilash set out for the two-day qualification passage―the SITraN Challenge, from Gijón in north-western Spain to Les Sables-d’Olonne―with a two-member crew. And then disaster struck again.

The GGR website said Abhilash was doing well and in the lead with eventual SITraN winner Damien Guillou, when the Bayanat collided with a Dutch-flagged bulk carrier on the morning of the second day. The website said. “The yacht’s bow needs serious composite work… Abhilash has taken the mast off for a complete rig check, and has a team coming from Belgium led by Dutch designer and builder Dick Koopmans.”

With most of Europe on holiday and with a €50,000 repair staring him in the face, Abhilash came back from the brink, helped by Team Bayanat, Team GGR, and the good people of Les Sables-d’Olonne.

So, on the day he finished in Les Sables-d’Olonne, there was the damaged bow waiting on stage to remind everyone of the journey that started from the brink and went around the world.

Perhaps, amateur radio ace and weatherman Peter Mott said it best. From his base in New Zealand, Mott runs Passage Guardian―”a global (free of charge) safety service for recreational cruising yachts conducting ocean passages”. THE WEEK reached out to Mott to talk about Abhilash, whom he had shepherded through lonely waters. But Mott declined as he was on the road.

Yet, he said this on Facebook, and that said it all: “For several months through until power problems aboard his yacht Bayanat prevented the use of the HF radio, I provided daily Global Maritime Distress and Safety System weather (reports) and relayed ship-to-shore messages to Abhilash’s family and shore team.

“For me, Abhilash is the guy you want to have around when things break. He has experienced more than his share of technical issues with the boat, much of it due to heavy weather in the Southern Ocean.

“Yet Abhilash’s sheer determination and creativity enabled him to keep the boat sailing and finish in a very respectable second place.

“I will go out on a limb here and say that no other sailor I have known, having experienced the problems Abhilash has been confronted with, would have even completed the race let alone come in second.

“Well done, Abhilash, job done!”