Abhilash Tomy: The mariner who sailed five oceans

Without an iota of doubt, every child on this planet at some point in time in his life must have surely fantasised about being a sailor. Reading up on the voyages right from Ulysses as he escaped the sirens, to the great explorers like Vasco da Gama, Columbus or even James Cook. History is replete with instances of sailors, who caring not for the towering waves or the gale-abound sea, charted their own course and created history. But then, as the child grows up, such fantasies are quietly buried in the hustle-bustle of life, and the sailor in almost all of us meets a silent unknown death.

But there are some, who through serendipity and sheer will don’t let that sailor die. They let him grow and become one themselves. The story of Commander Abhilash Tomy of the Indian Navy is tale of glory, adventure and one helluva trip. The recipient of the Kirti Chakra (the second highest gallantry award in India) hardly needs an introduction.

Just to reiterate, Wikipedia says this about him, “the first Indian, second Asian, and seventy-ninth person to complete a solo, unassisted, non-stop circumnavigation under sail.” The audacity and the achievement of Abhilash’s trip can be gauged from the fact, that he happens to the 1st in 1.2 billion people, the 2nd in some 4 Billion, and 79 in some 7 billion individuals inhabiting this earthAbhilashTomy _3.

In a matter of 151 days, he single-handedly changed the perception of Indian mariners. For long, India has been a port of call for the world, but Indians have seldom undertaken an audacious or adventurous voyage out in the seas. By rounding the three capes, Abhilash has brought glory and respect to his country.

But this journey has not been solely about accomplishment and achievement, it has also been one of self-discovery. As Abhilash candidly admits that those 150 days of solitude has changed his forever; his perceptions, beliefs and notions. It is a sort of an enlightenment of another kind.

Yet, all this success, awards, accolades, has not changed the man. Abhilash is still the simple man who gives an inspiring TED talk, warms up to you in the hotel lobby, accepts your request to connect on Facebook, and then continues to indulge you now and then with messages and thoughts. He is candid, honest and straight, with no air, save the one he exhales.  Though, his biggest apprehension in the initial days was how to cope with the sudden interest and attention, he seem to have adapted well. He is now giving lectures, inspiring kids, having books printed on him, rubbing shoulders with who’s who of India and yes itching to be back on the seas again.

In a free-wheeling interaction with Shashwat DC, Cdr. Abhilash Tomy shares his experiences, his awakening, and his realisations. Beyond this, he also shares some not so known things about the mission, like for instance, how many days did he go without a bath in those 150 days.  To know more about his mission, do visit the blog that he maintained while sailing the high seas (http://www.sagarparikrama2.blogspot.in/). Since the mission is the basis of this interaction, it will also help you find relevance in the interaction. Excerpts:

Where is Mhadei right now?

She has just left Cape Town and is on her way back to India with a new skipper and new crew.


Do you miss the boat?

Yes, of course! She is a superb boat and having spent so much time with her I do tend to personify her. We have been through some very bad, very interesting and very memorable experiences. It is difficult to be away from the boat and you have this constant itch to go back, take her away from her present skipper and sail her around the world once again.


INSV_MhadeiWill it ever sail again, say circumnavigate the world?

Yes. If looked after well she can be sailed for decades


One of the objectives, was reading somewhere of the mission was to “Save the Planet”, how relevant is that mission according to you?

“Save the Planet” was not really a mission of Project Sagar Parikrama. A friend used my Facebook page to generate awareness about the planet through the voyage. Notwithstanding that, it is true that human populations are rising to unmanageable levels. This has been putting a lot of pressure on the planet, especially because of the sheer number of people seeking material prosperity.  When I set off on the voyage, one of its conditions was that I could not take any assistance. I could carry all that I needed but nothing more could be brought in during the voyage. The boat being rather small, there was only so much that I could get on-board.

 In the middle of the ocean, where there are no shops or ATM machines, you learn to live with what you have. You conserve and you innovate so even garbage is reused. I had only so much fuel for producing electricity. Instead of increasing the capacity of fuel tanks I added equipment to the boat that could harness the wind and the sun. This, along with miserly use of electronic equipment, so considerably reduced the consumption of fuel that I had enough to go around the planet four times. Maybe more.

 There was not much by way of creature comforts. In particular, there were no air conditioners or fans. As it grew warm as I sailed along the Equator and temperatures almost touched 40degC I really did not have any means to make things comfortable other than taking frequent baths (almost once in three days!) and putting a piece of canvas on top of me to protect me from the sun. Having been forced to live like that, my body is so well adapted now that I do not switch on even a fan no matter what the temperatures are.

 The amount of water that I could carry was another constraint. A man on land uses about 150 litres of water each day. I could, on the other hand, carry only 900 litres of it when I started the voyage. I was using sea water for almost everything and that included doing the dishes, taking bath, brushing teeth, going to the loo, washing clothes etc. The consumption of fresh water was hardly 1-2 litres per day. Our planet can be saved only if we realise that even the things that we consider are free carry a price.


Your quick thoughts on climate change, global warming and rising sea levels, does it scare you?

 Climate change, global warming and rising sea levels (due to human activity) are all a result of the dominant species living beyond its means. Somewhere, I think, we have lost the plot and forgotten the basic purpose of human life.

 It doesn’t scare me, because I am sure the planet has a way of settings things straight and we are no match for its might.


It is said that when an astronaut comes back from a space mission, his or her perspective changes because of looking at humanity on such a small scale, the blue-marble-effect. Does a mission like yours also change you from inside, in terms of perspective, of nation, boundaries, race, religion or even region like Mallu-Mumbaikar?

Amul-Welcomes-Abhilash-TomyWhat an astronaut feels when he looks at the earth from space is the same feeling I get when I look at the stars from earth. You feel how insignificant you are, and how insignificant everything that you do is. Having spent five months away from human society, I had a chance to re-examine a lot of things that were indoctrinated since childhood. This included the concepts of guilt, religion, control, right, wrong, compassion, good, bad and all that. The changes that happened within me, therefore, had to do a lot at this level. For e.g., now that I am back, I don’t identify with the concept of “success” which was taught to me from a young age which included making a lot of money, fame and gathering awards. I also believe that good and bad and right and wrong are only conventions based on the collective experience of a society and there is nothing sacrosanct about it.

 There has been a marked change in my perception of things about me.


In your accounts on the blog there is very little mention of fauna, the whales, the dolphins and others. We have grown up with images of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab that imagery never came out. Except for flying fish and a few stray Albatross, did you make any close encounters with such magnificent creatures?

I was recently reading “The Long Way” by Moitessieur and I was surprised at the kinds and numbers of creatures that he ran into during his voyage. Compared to his voyage in 1969, mine was literally like sailing through a desert.

 Yes, I did meet dolphins and whales (I was chased by one in the South Atlantic) and albatrosses and cormorants and herons (?), and a few more varieties of birds close to islands. But definitely not as many as Moitessieur encountered during his voyage.


Through your posts, there seems to be an element of superstition, are sailors basically superstitious because of their respect and awe for the elements?

I guess early sailors were a superstitious lot because there was so much they could just not predict. Because of the human need for explaining anything that happened they possibly went looking for answers beyond what was rational.  I am not superstitious, but there is an element of our lives that cannot be explained by reasoning and logic and rational thinking. For that you invent the language of superstition.


Through these 150 odd days, how many times did you venture out of the boat into the ocean, to have a bath or something?

I never left the boat. It was not really a good idea to. But if I did it again I definitely would.


Well, how did you satisfy the nature’s call? I mean, polluting the sea, were you?

All organic waste was dumped overboard. That included human excreta. It is not really polluting the sea! Even fish do that. There is a difference between one man discharging sewage and an entire city discharging sewage into the sea.


In spite of being alone you were connected and equipped through net and phones, how adventurous would it be say with complete loss of connectivity like the ancient mariners did?

Personally, the only reason I needed connectivity was for weather prediction. If I did not have weather prediction in that manner, perhaps I would have needed some more sailing experience in the southern oceans before I set out. I would also have carried more provisions with me because the voyage would have been longer. So yes, it would have been quite a bit more adventurous.

 But at the same time one needs to remember that the oceans are still the same and so are her tempests. The essential nature of the sea has not changed, nor has that of a solo circumnavigation or a solo circumnavigator. I did use the internet connectivity to update social media pages and maintain a blog page and all that but in the end it was all a drain on me without contributing to me in any manner at a personnel level.


How many tubs of popcorn have you had post coming back? Are you really so crazy for it?reworked_mhadei

 I am not all that crazy for popcorn on land! But when I was out at sea and when it would get very cold and gloomy and depressing, it was always a welcome idea to roast peanuts or popcorn. I did miss it a lot when I ran out of it.


Did you watch movies on your laptop, of yes, which one?

 Many! Especially once it got cold. I can’t recollect the names well.


BTW, did you finish the Story of Philosophy on the boat, because post rounding Cape Leeuin you seemed very busy and caught up? Did you start reading on Voltaire?

Post rounding Cape Leeuwin temperatures dropped and it became increasingly difficult to read because you could not even turn a page. I switched to watching movies till I was back in better climes. Yes I did finish the book but I did not find it too interesting. I read only the biographies of the philosophers in it and not their philosophies.


You had wind-mill to generate power on the boat, how much units of power did it generate in total over the expedition?

I did not keep a tag on how many units of electricity I produced but on a normal load I needed about 10 Amps at 24 Volts (240 Watts).


The name of the boat tracker, was Mandar, how did the name come about? And were there other nicknames on the boat?

Mandar Karmarkar is a real world person. I would forward him my position every day and he would plot it on a Google map and post a snapshot on Google earth. There were no conversations when I was on the boat. So there were no need for names or nick names either!


You spoke about Genghis Khan’s army not bathing for ages, how often did you bathe in the oceans?

The longest I went without a bath was 50 days. That was from New Zealand till the end of the South Atlantic leg. Otherwise, I would bathe at least once a week on an average.


Have you got your Gold Ring in the Left Ear, now that you are a Cape Horner?

Yes, I have one!


Abhilash-Tomy-SagarParikrama-2-on-India-Yacht-Page-3When your fresh-water supply was spoilt, you harvested rain water successfully. Was it instinctive or were you prepared for it?

That is something any sailor would do. In my villages, we used to harvest rain water with a bedsheet and use it for all sorts of things including cooking. Before I left on the non-stop voyage, I lived in the boat and during monsoons I decided not to use water from shore. I would harvest rain water for all my use for almost three months.


You seemed extremely tired and spent as you were on your last leg of journey?

That was because of water shortage. I was left with hardly any water on-board and that affected cooking and hydration. There was a constant need to conserve because I did not know how long the voyage would last. Besides the rising heat did not help much.


 The message to you on the journey at a critical point was “Bash on Regardless”. Now that seems to be a pretty good motto even on the land and for every situation of life. What do you say?

Not on land. You can’t bash on regardless when you are on land. Land is full of people and they can be very unpredictable and take things too personally.


One of the things that you were disconcerted about was the sudden celebrity status, you come to term with it?

Yes I have, in my own way. I guess I was not well prepared for it at that time and tried hard to oblige everyone which left me very tired. Things have eased much now.


Keeping in mind your long journey and the fact that you are accustomed to long bouts of silence, do you think you will make a good husband?

I think marriage is unnatural.


In the journey, what according to you was the greatest luxury and the most irritating chore?

Solitude was the greatest luxury and the most irritating chore was having to respond to people who were seeking my attention on social media and chats etc.


Now, that we have a name in the record books; do you think the Indian Navy should still continue to fund such endeavours?

Yes. The Indian Navy has derived great value out of the project. It should definitely continue funding such ventures.


1980209_10152286267770041_1346699289_o (1)After spending years, in preparation and on the sea for this journey, will you be able to settle down to a normal 9-5 kinda life?

Having spent more than a year on land, I can tell you that it is a difficult proposition. My hands and feet are itching to get out.


If as a civilian, I wanted to attempt such a feat, how much would it cost me according to you?

Assuming you have enough experience, it would cost you about 2.5 crore to build a boat that will guarantee reasonable success. So you should be able to do a circumnavigation in about 2.5-3 crores. Of course you can cut short a lot but that would mean you compensate for it with your experience.


What do awards like Kirti-Chakra mean to you?

These are human things J


BTW, your look is a wee-bit similar to Captain Haddock, with all the beard at all. Are there any similarities with the colourful gentleman?

Shouldn’t you be replying to that?


Finally, if I was to ask you to pick just one moment on your momentous journey, which one would it, be?

Should be the first time I saw those sky scraper waves.


To know more about the historic journey, the trial, the tribulations and the success, order a pictographic book titled 151 from www.spentamultimedia.com/151.html  A must read for any person, who still has a child in him or her, and craves for those fantastical journeys through the seas….


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