‘My back spasmed, I couldn’t use my right leg and navigation lights failed’: Abhilash Tomy overcomes obstacles to create history in 8-month long boat race

Cdr Abhilash Tomy compared his mere presence at the Golden Globe Race (GGR), to Jamaica sending a luge team to the Winter Olympics – an unlikely guy from India dipping into ocean racing, a preserve of the Western sea-faring behemoths. “There are more yachts in Les Sable d’Ollone (the seaside French town where the race ended) than in all of India,” he would note after reaching.

Yet Abhilash, 44, completed the GGR, a non-stop, unassisted, round-the-world race of boats fitted out only with 1968 technology, finishing second to make maritime adventure history for India on his boat called Bayanat. It was a herculean effort considering the race had started over eight months back. Only 3 of the 16 participants who started out in the September 4, 2022 edition lasted the distance. South African Kirsten Neuschafer, the only woman to start, finished the winner ahead of Abhilash.

Over the last week, the lead changed twice. And the marathon race created a stir as one of the closest oceanic odysseys, as the duo dealt with storms and more wretchedly doldrums or low winds that can leave you bobbing and drifting without the wind beneath the sails in the middle of any of the three navigable oceans.

“I’m happy to be back with my boat. The Bayanat brought me back. I was happy to complete, and leave behind the stigma of losing a boat,” Abhilash would say on his second successful attempt, after the first had ended in a traumatic accident in 2018.

Abhilash had been cruising back in the 2018 edition before being battered by a storm in which he broke his back and needed rescuing from the sea. It led to surgery, when he could hardly walk, and two titanium rods were inserted in his spine, plus a bunch of vertebrae fused before he could get steady again. He would learn to walk, fly naval planes and return to his first love, sailing. Yet, crossing the spot of accident had been traumatic this time around.

“Until crossing that spot, my jaws and shoulder were tight. It’s only after crossing that point that I relaxed, but realised I was carrying mental problems from that accident,” he said. Asked if he had exorcised the ghosts of 2018 after completing the GGR, he quipped, “Now I have new ghosts.”

But his travails had started even before he began this time around. With three weeks to go, the Bayanat had suffered a collision with a mammoth ship and Abhilash had raced against time to get the boat ready with repairs worth 50,000 euros meaning he had to ration his other needs: like dropping the idea of kitting out a weatherfax, a handy tool to be updated with the vagaries of nature.

In the course of the race where he suffered two knockdowns, Abhilash had to deal with a ripped main sail, salty water triggered electric system failure and a broken wind pilot. Three entrants, including the one-time leader Simon Curwen, would be forced to retire after their self-steering mechanism failed. Abhilash in an epic DIY hack, sawed the toilet door and anchor to repair to overcome the same problem.

“When I couldn’t use my navigation lights was also when my back spasmed and I couldn’t use my right leg the next few days,” he recalled, of literally dragging his right foot around and curing himself with medical advice received over radio.

Other tales of fortitude included surviving on one cup of water for over 2 days, boiling rice in sea water.

The race rules also state that you are not informed of your relative position and it was only after Cape of Good Hope that he guessed he might be second. “But I didn’t know who was first.” His father Tomy Valliar, from Kochi, had said, “We only hope he finishes, standing doesn’t matter. Otherwise he’ll make himself a boat again and set off!”

Abhilash Tomy The Bayanat gets ready to sail.

The niche race was closely followed on a WhatsApp group of around 500 Abhilash fanatics, with daily updates as they rode along the emotional rollercoaster from different parts of the world. His biggest support was wife Urmimala, mother of two children – Vedaant and Abhraneal. “This is the first time that anyone from Asia has a podium in a round the world race,” he proudly said. The retired veteran would receive a video message from the Chief of Naval Staff, who had chaired the rescue operation back in 2018.

Hundreds lined the riverfront at Les Sables d’Ollone to welcome Abhilash after his eight month non-stop circumnavigation. “When you see people cheering and treating you like a hero, you start thinking you are a hero. And you get the courage to go back to the next adventure,” he said humbly.

Asked how he felt on returning to land, he would laugh and say, “Exhausted and 20 kg lighter. I need to rest for 3 days till I race again.” He would also joke about GGR curing him of his medical issues. “My acidity is gone. In 2018, cholesterol was gone. And before that when I did the Sagar Parikrama in 2013, I used to have hearing issues which got sorted!”


  • Adam Gray

    Adam Gray is an experienced journalist with a passion for breaking news and delivering it to the masses. With over a decade of experience in the field, he has covered everything from local stories to national events, earning a reputation for his accuracy, reliability, and attention to detail. As a reporter, Adam is always on the lookout for the next big story, and his dedication to uncovering the truth has earned him the respect of his peers and readers alike. When he's not chasing down leads, Adam can be found poring over the latest headlines, always on the lookout for the next big scoop. Contact [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *