HTLS 2019| Will to survive trumps the sea and its violent emotions: Tomy
Within a few minutes on September 21, 2018, Commander Abhilash Tomy’s 32-feet long boat Thuriya was knocked down by waves as tall as a six-storey building – flinging the then 39-year-old out to the water before he only just managed to hang on to one of the two masts. In the following moments, he fell from a height of nine metres and broke his spine – the beginning of a three-day nightmare that ended with one of the most anticipated rescues of recent times.
Tomy, speaking at the 17th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2019 on Friday, gave details of the harrowing moments that abruptly ended his participation in a race around the world but thrust him into the spotlight for surviving an ordeal that tested the limits of human endurance.
He also said he is raring to get back on the sea.
“When the boat turned upright after the second knockdown, my wrist was stuck on wires connecting the mast. At one point, the strap of my watch broke, and I fell nine metres on a piece of aluminium called the boom. Then I fell to the deck on my back. I cleaned up some of the broken equipment, but half an hour later, I could not stand,” said Tomy of the moments that turned out to be the point when he broke his spine in four places.
Tomy was participating in the 50th edition of the Golden Globe Race, using a boat that was a replica of Robin Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili – the winner of the first edition in 1968. The Thuriya was only equipped with technology that existed in the 1990s.
After 82 days at sea, his yacht lost its mast in a storm. Tomy was in third position at the time in the race, which began with 18 participants.
Severely incapacitated, he survived only on ice tea. “I had massive amounts of hiccups… I tried to vomit, and that controlled my hiccups. I secured myself on the bunk where I kept drinking ice tea, vomiting, and sleeping,” he said.
But was he scared? “I don’t feel fear when I am in the sea. It is people who scare me,” he said.
Tomy said while being stranded, his thoughts would often go to his wife, Urmimala, who was pregnant at the time. “I thought about the stress that she would be going through. I wanted to be with my child when he or she was to be born.”
When a rescue team – a coordinated effort of four nations – finally reached him, his first thought was that he was hallucinating. “After 48 hours of sleep deprivation, hallucination is common. When I heard the knock, I thought this could be a hallucination and I must be prepared for that. But then they were there, [real] people — and I told them you are like angels to me,” he said.
The first team to reach him was from a French shipping vessel, Osiris, which had been close to his location and responded to his distress message.
However, after his return to land, he still had to face an uphill battle in recovering strength in his body. “After the accident I had to learn to walk again. I was so weak that brushing my teeth felt like spending an hour in the gym,” he said, adding: “But it was a good year of recovery. Exactly one year later, I was back kayaking. Every part of my body hurt except my spine.”
The incident in 2018, the sailor added, gave him a new perspective. “For so many days then, I survived on so little. When I came back, I realised life was excessive. In that sense, the sea gave me perspective,” he said.
Tomy said that he now plans to participate in the 2022 edition of the Golden Globe Race – and, to his delight, he said, his wife and mother have given him the green signal. “Maybe some day I will also fly around the world in a light aircraft,” said the navy man who is posted as a maritime reconnaissance pilot in Goa.
“The navy has taught me that it is the will to survive that matters. They don’t teach you how to have the will to survive but you learn,” he said.
Tomy became the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe onboard his boat Mhadei - solo, non-stop and unassisted in 2013. He was awarded India’s second-highest peace-time gallantry award, Kirti Chakra, for the feat. He has sailed more than 52,000 miles in his naval career spanning 18 years.