A most innocuous question under normal circumstances, but this query brought forth a few seconds of silence, then a big grin and finally a long response from the speaker. After all the person who posed the query was not seeking clarification in a flippant manner from an ordinary individual about his pattern of visits to slumberland. As the respondent explained how he trained himself to grab snatches of sleep when he felt that sea was calm and everything was under control and to wake up fully alert at the slightest hint of any change in external environment, the awe and admiration of the audience grew sky high. They knew that the person in their midst was an extraordinary individual, who had competed a solo circumnavigation of globe under sail, but few were aware of the challenges that such a expedition posed, even to such basic, yet, crucial activities as rest and sleep.
Meeting and interacting with Commander Abhilash Tomy of Indian Navy was an unforgettable experience for the officers of Kochi Custom House who were part of the audience on that day. Here was a person who was born and brought up in a middle-class household in Kerala but was fired up with a passion to excel in a sphere of his choice. After joining the Indian Navy, he was roped in for the Sagar Parikarma I project which involved circumnavigation of the globe, with four stops. He was a member of the shore support team for Commander Dilip Dhonde, who accomplished this task, after sailing for a period of nine months in May 2010. It was while he was involved in this project that Tomy set for himself the goal of performing a solo nonstop circumnavigation.
It was a truly remarkable effort. He started his first solo journey on November 1, 2012 from Mumbai and crossed Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans, besides rounding off Cape Leeuwin in Australia, Cape Horn in South America and Cape of Good Hope in Africa. He completed his journey of 23,100 nautical miles on March 31, 2013, a good 151 days after he had started. During the interaction in Kochi, he informed that he did not sight any human being for close to 130 days while on this incredible journey! He had to tackle gusty winds and huge waves, often rising to more than 10 metres height, a task he managed with finesse and ease. He survived on specially packaged freeze-dried food and at one point even faced a serious shortage of drinking water on account of leak in diesel tanks, which forced him to ration his intake of fresh water. By dint of sheer determination he survived this shortage and emerged triumphant.
In a tribute befitting his achievement, Tomy was honoured by Pranab Mukherjee, then President of India, at a special function organised at Mumbai on April 6, 2013. Otherwise, the nation was slow to wake up to the magnitude of what he had accomplished. He became only the 79th person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe, in addition to being the second Asian to do so, after Minoru Saito of Japan, who had completed this journey in 2004. It is only when the bare statistic that 4,833 persons have climbed Mount Everest since 1953 is mentioned that one realises how much tougher and more arduous was the odyssey undertaken by Tomy.
Tomy did not leave behind his days of adventure at the sea after this achievement. He enlisted for the Golden Globe Race 2018, which mandated use of vessels and equipment similar to that used by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in the original race performed in 1969. He was one of the 18 sailors selected for this prestigious race which involved sailing almost 30,000 nautical miles without use of satellite-based navigation aids or other elements of modern technology. He sailed off for this event on July 1, 2018 from Les Sables- d'Olonne in France along with the other top sailors of the world. Even as the nation was expecting to hear the good tidings of his success in the race came the shocking news that he had suffered serious injuries while combatting bad weather conditions in Indian ocean that resulted in his vessel 'Thuriya' being dismasted. Rescue efforts mounted by Marine Rescue Coordination Centre of Canberra with assistance from vessels of Indian, Australian and French navy met with success and he was taken on board the French shipping vessel 'Osiris' on September 24.
While waiting anxiously to know about the results of the measures mounted to rescue the Indian sailor, one's mind went back to the fate that befell George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two adventurers who had attempted to scale Mount Everest in 1924. They were part of the second expedition which was launched with the mission of climbing Mount Everest. They reached very close to the summit and the expedition leader had gone on record that he sighted both of them moving towards the top. However, they vanished after that and bad weather forced the expedition to return to the base camp shortly thereafter. In 1999 Mallory's body was found, which indicated that he had suffered serious injuries on account of a fall but did not give any conclusive evidence as to whether he had made it to the top before the accident. Doubts still linger whether the duo had scaled the peaks of Mount Everest nearly three decades before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary achieved this goal in 1953.
What is it that prompts adventurers like Tomy and Mallory to undertake such projects braving enormous risks to their life and health? They are persons with a resilient mindset who earnestly believe that they can face any challenge, survive all odds and emerge successful. I have a friend who once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. When I asked him about the experience he told me that all his battles were fought inside his head and those in the group who who made it to the top were the ones who conquered the demons that plagued their minds. It is true that each successful adventure gives a high or thrill to the person who performs it; the sense of achievement and exhilaration that follows is unbelievable.'One has to suffer a few hours of agony to enjoy the accomplishment of a lifetime' is the common refrain of this genre.
Apart from the sense of immense self-accomplishment, the ilk of Tomy has contributed substantially to the growth of human civilisation as well. Like the scaling of Mount Everest, expeditions to North and South Pole were undertaken by individuals with a sense of daring who believed in achieving the impossible through the unbeatable combination of hard work and mental strength. Their efforts have helped to increase the knowledge about the hitherto uncharted parts of the globe as well as to make our daily lives more comfortable.
Last but not the least, the achievement of Abhilash Tomy made one feel proud to be an Indian. Though it is disheartening to note that bigger and more popular Indian civilian awards than Kirti Chakra, the second highest peacetime gallantry medal, have not come his way, his efforts have opened the minds of millions of Indians about the potential of such activities. He may not have been successful in winning the Golden Globe race this year but one is certain that an adventurer like Tomy never gives up and each hurdle placed in his path would only end up strengthening his determination and resolve to bounce back stronger.
Abhilash Tomy has shown the path to his countrymen about the immense possibilities in the world of adventure sports in the international arena. It is up to the rest of the country to carry the torch forward to greater heights.
(Abhilash Tomy is recuperating after suffering an injury in Golden Globe Race 2018)
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)