71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle

71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle
Abhilash Tomy at his home in Goa
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Indian Naval officer Abhilash Tomy, 39, had a miraculous escape at mid sea in late September while participating in the round-the-world Golden Globe Race. The solo sailor drifted in the seas for three days after his boat 'Thuriya' was hit by a deadly storm . He was rescued after an operation involving several overseas agencies and was finally brought to India on a naval ship in October. The intrepid sailor had suffered severe back injury in the ordeal. The commander, who is now recuperating, recounts the moments when 'Thuriya' was caught in the violent storm and dismasted in the South Indian Ocean on September 21 and his long wait for rescue as he lay incapacitated in the boat.

September 21. The sea was nothing like I had seen earlier. The waves were lashing my boat from both sides with a vengeance even as I struggled to control the boat.

The wind was expected to blow at around 100 kilometres per hour and the waves expected to rise up to 10 metres. The wind, however, blew at 150 kilometre per hour and waves were as high as 14 metres. A wave crashed into the boat unexpectedly. I heard it roar and the boat’s bow was high in the air, almost at a 110 degree angle! I clung to the sail mast. The next wave covered the boat and me.

Even before I could spat out the salty water, the next wave crashed into the boat. The boat was perpendicular to the sea and I was perched on top of it, trying to cling to the sail mast in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.

71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle
When rescuers found Thuriya.

Presently, the boat returned to its original position but I was still on the sail mast. I was trying to slide down the sail mast to the dock when another wave lashed the boat. I thought I was thrown into the sea but my boat Thuria did not forsake me. Not for nothing do we sailors love our boats like a lover.

My wrist watch was tangled in a piece of rope on the sail mast. I felt like my hand was being pulled out. I could not lift my other hand to release the tangle. I hung like that for several seconds. I thought I would never be freed unless my hand broke. But miraculously, my watch strap got cut and I fell on my back to the boat. I hit the boat several times as it bobbed in the powerful waves.

I had no idea what was in store for me over the next 71 hours.

Golden Globe Race

71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle

This is my first impression of my ordeal as I try to write from my house after a surgery to treat my back injury. When I set sail from Les Sables d’Olonne harbour in France on July 1, I was proud to be the first Indian to circumvent the globe in a sailboat with no external support and without any stopovers. The 18 participants of the Golden Globe Race were allowed only basic amenities available to a sailor 50 years ago. My boat, Thuriya, was 32 feet long and 11.5 feet broad.

I circumvented the earth in 151 days in Indian Navy’s famous mission, Sagar Parikrama 2. INSV Mhadei, the sailboat used in that mission, had sophisticated features including GPS and electronic display board and weather forecast for the next 16 days. Thuriya, on the other hand, had only one compass and a map for navigation. Thuria was only half the size of Mhadei. I had to rely on stars to steer the boat in the right direction. I had to tune into the region's weather forecasts and stay clear of dangerous areas. I could think of nothing but sea and sea winds. I had established a bond with the sea when it suddenly wounded me.

Accident and rescue

After I fell on my back to the boat, I got up and walked into the cabin. I ignored the numbness on my back. The boat was devastated by the waves. The wind generator conked. The diesel tank leaked and the diesel got mixed up with the drinking water. The objects in the kitchen were strewn all over. The navigation board was thrown off.

71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle

I sat on the ground to rearrange all these. When I tried to get up, I could not. I could not even feel my back. The fall from the sail mast had injured me severely. I crawled on to the bed and used the emergency messaging system to alert the organisers of the race. Then I fell down. The sea was still rough. The broken sail mast hit against the boat with each lash of the wave.

Alone at sea

I was in a solitary reach of the Indian Ocean, around 2,700 nautical miles (5,020 kilometres) south of Kanyakumari. Even the fishing boats avoided the route. But I was sure that someone would come for me. That could take weeks though. The only thing I had to do was to lay still with a calm mind. You might wonder how I could stay calm in such a situation. I will tell you how.

I am a navy officer. I fly the navy’s Dornier surveillance aircraft. We undergo training every six months to prepare us to deal with any emergency. I will tell you just one of the manoeuvres we do.

71 hours at sea: Commander Abhilash Tomy recounts his epic struggle
Commander Abhilash Tomy's father, Rt. Lt. Commander V C Tomy (left).

I would be dropped in a solitary stretch in the sea in full pilot gear. I had to wait in the rough sea for a rescue helicopter which could take several days to come. I am used to spend time in the sea until a helicopter crew spots me. I have also received training in rescuing stranded people.

Those sessions made me confident. I returned home safely only because of my experience as a naval officer and a sailor who had seen the sea in its various manifestations.

I was half-conscious on board Thuria when they came for me. I had stretched out to grab a pack of ice tea and vomited whatever I drank. I have been lying like that for 71 hours.

My rescuers called out from the outside. They were three, from the French ship Osiris. Theirs was the first human voice I had heard in a long time. They brought me back to land and life.

Tuesday is Navy Day. I joined the Indian Navy following the footsteps of my father, Rt. Lt. Commander V C Tomy. Whenever I don my uniform, I am filled with patriotism. The waves still beckon me. I want to venture into the sea again once I recover my health.

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