An Indian sailor who completed a gruelling 236-day solo race around the world with no technological support said he saw first-hand the devastating impact of climate change on our oceans.
“I have been to the sea three times in the past 10 years in attempted circumnavigations. I can tell you that the sea is changing for the worse,” Commander Abhilash Tomy, a retired naval officer, told The National soon after he finished second in the prestigious Golden Globe Race on Saturday.
“I had sunburn close to New Zealand, which is supposed to be cold. I have seen at least one cyclone a week, which is, again, strange,” he said, after sailing 236 days non-stop.
The boat, a Rustler 36, is an 11-metre UAE-registered boat called the Bayanat — named after the Abu Dhabi-based geospatial AI solutions provider, which sponsored the vessel.
It carried the race number 71 and the UAE ensign as a tribute to the Emirates’ founding in 1971.
Mr Tomy said he also saw albatrosses and flying fish in unexpected locations, a sign that warming waters are forcing species to hunt longer and at farther distances for food.
“Things are changing and it is not good,” he said.
The race, considered one of the world’s toughest, started on September 4, 2022, from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France, with 16 sailors from 11 countries. Only two of them have managed to finish the journey so far, with one contender still sailing.
Mr Tomy arrived back in Les Sables d’Olonne on Saturday, finishing runner-up to South African sailor Kirsten Neuschafer, the only woman to participate.
After being welcomed by his team at the finish line, Mr Tomy said he was “incredibly relieved”.
“This is the only time an Asian skipper has had a podium finish in any round-the-world race. I am happy to be the face of it,” said Mr Tomy, who also attempted the race in 2018.
His boat was battered by a violent storm in the Indian Ocean and he was left with a broken spine, which almost ended his sailing career. But the veteran sailor persisted, now with a titanium rod in his spine.
“After the accident, things looked a bit difficult and you got a lot of demons to fight. Bayanat has broken a big mental hurdle for me and I am grateful to them for bringing me back into the race.”
Sailing without technology
The treacherous 30,000-nautical-mile race around the world was the ultimate test of resilience and skill, as Mr Tomy had to battle his way through fierce storms and months of solitude, all while coping with significant damage to his boat.
Adm R Hari Kumar #CNS and all personnel of #IndianNavy congratulate Cdr Abhilash Tomy, KC, NM (retd) on making #India proud, finishing 2nd in the @ggr2022, the world's most gruelling ocean sailing race using tools & aids replicating the limitations of the first race in 1968. pic.twitter.com/LH2sqee84c
— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) April 29, 2023
The rules of the race meant he could only use 1968 technology such as a compass and navigation charts, so Mr Tomy had to calculate the angle and height of the sun and carry out a series of spherical trigonometric calculations to figure out his position in the sea. He also predicted the weather using a barometer.
“And that is just a normal day. But other days, you have a little bit of flooding in the boat, and water needs to be pumped out, or you have injured your back and cannot walk properly, or a boat has come off the spreader and you have to climb the mast.”
Staying the course
According to the sailor, his success was down to having the right attitude.
“You know, pulling back when you need to,” he said. “Pushing when you need to and the ability to work 26 hours non-stop followed by a good break and stuff like that.”
While there were days when he managed only an hour of sleep, he could take longer breaks when the sea was calm.
Life at sea meant that food and water were limited and could even run out.
“I had cooked chicken and pulses that lasted for eight months. But I was cooking rice, too. If I am running out of water, I had to learn how to cook without using water.”
Eight months at sea, he said, has helped him realise how little he needs to survive. “You realise one can lead a very Spartan life without AC, a fan or cars.
“If I have to repair or replace my guard rail or wind pilot, I cannot stop at an ATM and withdraw money. So, what you have and learning to live with it is very important.”
However, the most challenging aspect was not being able to connect with his wife.
“I missed talking to my wife. The rules [of the race] did not permit me to call her in any way. And I had to catch hold of ships and send messages as a one-way communication.
“And I always did. Just because I am doing the race, I do not stop being a husband, a father or son.”