Exclusive: 'Will take at least a year to recover', says Abhilash Tomy

I am on a 'see-food' diet now, Tomy says


Q. You didn’t have much time to fit out and test the Bayanat before Golden Globe Race 2022 (GGR). The comforts were not all there. But then, you are not a person who is fussy about all this. In Hobart, you said a hatch was leaking and you were sleeping in wet-weather gear.

A/ (Laughs) There was not one leak, everything was leaking. My bunks were always wet and soggy. So, I used to sleep on the floor. And the floor was forever wet. My sleeping bag used to be so wet that you could wring out water from it. So, I used to always sleep in a raincoat.

Q/ And, you did not fall sick when all this happened?

A/ No, no, you don’t fall sick at sea (Grins). In fact, my health improves at sea. I do not have acidity anymore. During GGR 2018, I got rid of cholesterol issues. In 2013 (Sagar Parikrama 2), my hearing improved. So, the sea kind of resets me in a good way.

Q/ You were knocked down twice in the southern Indian Ocean this time. How did you protect your back and be safe in such rough weather?

A/ Well, this time I made sure I was not outside. I thought it is more important to protect myself than the boat. I did everything I had to and left the boat to steer itself. It was so important that I did not suffer another injury.

Q/ So, your back was largely okay this time?

A/ I did have an issue on January 26 because of an unannounced storm. There was no warning from GGR or any other source. It picked up slowly, and in no time it was 60 knots or so. Through a series of incidents, I lost my self-steering and I was left holding the tiller, steering the boat for some 12 hours.

Day turned into night. I had to switch on the navigation light, the compass light… I could not see the compass, and I could not see the wind vane without the navigation light.

And these are long-keeled boats, so the effort needed to steer is like rowing, not the two-finger steering (for light boats). You must hang on with both your hands and use your back to pull and push.

After 12 hours, my back packed up and it was quite bad. My legs stopped working. I was literally dragging my right leg around the boat for two or three days. So, I called up GGR and requested a call with a surgeon or a physiotherapist, and they connected me to my physio in Goa. He recommended some exercises and I was better.

Q/ These were simple exercises you could do on the boat, and were they effective?

A/ Yes, these were stretching exercises to relieve the muscular spasm. He wanted me to stretch my lower back, calf muscles… to relieve the spasm. And there was this exercise with a ball, where you roll it on the affected area. The recovery was more or less complete, because when the spasm is relieved, my back becomes ok. But it kept recurring.

When I was close to Argentina and Uruguay, I had to climb the mast, which is the toughest job on the boat, and my back packed up again. But I climbed the mast.

Q/ When you talk of physical challenges, gear failure seems pretty simple in comparison. What is this we hear about you using an anchor, a toilet door and other things to fix your boat? And you sewed a torn mainsail by hand! How do you manage to do these things?

A/ You make a plan and you just do it. You can abuse, curse, and do what you want, but at the end of the day, you don’t have a choice. Happily or unhappily, you have to do it.

Q/ About the problem with the self-steering gear.

A/ If you don’t have self-steering, in 48 hours you end up with hallucinations. During this voyage, when I was entering Tasmania, I had severe hallucinations. So, you cannot sail from Cape Horn to the finish line, which is almost 10,000 miles, without self-steering.

The self-steering gear has a vane on top and a paddle that goes into the water. My paddles kept breaking. I had only three spares. After my spares were used up, I crafted paddles from hatch covers, an emergency rudder, and eventually my toilet door. But they all broke. So, I dismantled my anchor and used the shaft. It held for 10,000 miles.

48-Abhilash-Tomy-with-Yannick-Moreau Shining star: Abhilash Tomy with Yannick Moreau, mayor of Les Sables-d’Olonne (to Tomy’s left), after finishing the race.

Q/ I hear they are putting you in the next ad for Dr Fixit!

A/ (Laughing) That is not a bad idea, actually! When I was back in Les Sables-d’Olonne, a lot of visitors came just to look at the self-steering gear and the anchor shaft!

Q/ Kirsten said she had to dive to clear the barnacles from the hull for a smoother passage. Did you have to do something like that?

A/ Only once, in the south Atlantic. I did not have wind for three days, so on the second day, I jumped in. There was not much to clear, so it was a small job. But it was very cold and my preparations were such that I did not have a diving suit or goggles, so it was tough to see underwater!

Q/ What was the temperature like?

A/ Around 10 to 15 degrees. And, if hypothermia sets in, your brain stops working. Your body loses heat fast. Let’s say I would be wearing three layers inside the boat at that time. So, I would take it all off, stand on the deck in my long johns and pour a bucket of seawater on myself to get acclimatised and then jump in.

I had fashioned a tool with a knife tied to a boathook, and used it to scrape off the barnacles.

Q/ How long were you down there?

A/ An hour or so, not too much. But climbing back was quite difficult because I had lost my ladder. So, I made this rope ladder by tying knots, used it to climb back.

Q/ I can’t imagine being in the ocean with no one for miles and miles around! How was it?

A/ It’s peaceful (grins).

Q/ I knew you were going to say that!

A/ (Grins) There is no uncertainty. No municipality decrees. No orders to take and give. It is fun!

Q/ And, your water supplies were down towards the end, yes?

A/ RO plants are not allowed on GGR boats, so you have to carry the water with you. Single-use water bottles are also not allowed. So, I had 270 litres across the tanks and four jerry cans. So, the ration was one litre a day, and you hope like hell that you can catch some water on the way. Before the equator, I managed to catch 40 to 50 litres. The Southern Ocean is stormy, so catching water is tough, because the sea spray contaminates all water you collect.

In the Southern Ocean I checked my supplies and realised that there was only about a litre a day left to finish the race. So, I started conserving water and cooking rice in seawater.

You soak rice in seawater and it absorbs the fresh water out of it and becomes soft. Then you drain the remaining seawater, add fresh seawater, and boil the rice. Then, with one cup of freshwater, I would wash the salt off the rice and eat it. I was down to one glass of water in two days and two cups of coffee every day.

Q/ When you finished in Les Sables-d’Olonne, you joked and said that the race is over and now Indians can go back to watching cricket. Does India’s cricket craze annoy you?

A/ No, not at all. The love I have received from my country has always been incremental. In 2013, in 2018 after the accident, and now…. One man cannot suddenly make India a sailing country. But as long as people are open to the idea, I am happy about that.

For example, the Kerala government included my efforts in school textbooks. Kids reading about it is wonderful, and in one generation we might have more sailors.

Q/ I am doubtful if people reading this will take up sailing!

A/ (Laughs) There is more to sailing than single-handed circumnavigation!

Q/ How will you adjust your body and mind to normal life now? Is there a protocol?

A/ I am on a see-food diet now. I eat everything I see. After all the canned food, I am craving fresh food and fruits. But, once in India I will consult a nutritionist who will check my levels and propose a diet. Then, the physio will recondition the body.

Q/ How long will all this take?

A/ It is anybody’s guess. It could take up to a year. I need to get used to people, too, and I am not joking. Then there is sleep. You go to sleep at 9pm and wake up at 10pm thinking you forgot to adjust some lines on the boat. Then you try hard to sleep and the same thing happens again.

Q/ Would you do this again?

A/ Personally, no. GGR is once in a lifetime, and not like the Olympics. I did this to erase the demons of 2018. Somebody said you will regret it if you do it or not. I’d rather do it and regret!

Q/ Last question. About your secret sail!

A/ (Laughs) There was no secret sail. I thought everyone was using it as a joke. There was one ingenious arrangement on the back of the boat, yes. But I found it a nuisance and did not use it for more than a day.