150 kmph winds, 14 metre-high waves, this beast was something else, says sailor Abhilash Tomy
“The deep sea was scary as hell. It was so, so bad. That sight, it was something I had never seen before in my life,” said champion sailor Commander Abhilash Tomy over satellite phone from Île Amsterdam, a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean, in his first interview after being rescued from the remotest place on Earth in the southern Indian Ocean on Monday.
The 39-year-old is now recovering from a back injury he suffered while negotiating a deadly storm that left his yacht, SV Thuriya, crippled last week. He was participating in this year’s Golden Globe Race (GGR), a circumnavigation race involving solo participants, and which bars the use of modern technology.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Thursday that he spoke to Tomy. “Every Indian is praying for his quick recovery. I also compliment the teams that were involved in his rescue.”
Reconstructing some of the most terrifying moments of his 70-hour ordeal, Tomy said he was working on the Thuriya’s deck on September 21 when powerful winds knocked down his boat, leaving it tilted at a 110-degree angle and sending its mast under water.
“It was scary as hell. When the first knockdown happened, I was swept off my feet. I fell down to the mast and put my hands around it. I got swept outward to the tip of the mast. And then a few seconds later when the boat straightened, I found myself hanging from the top of the mast,” said Tomy, non-stop hiccups interrupting his conversation with this reporter.
“The hiccups haven’t stopped since the mishap. I have some problem in speaking because of that,” said Tomy from a tiny medical facility at Île Amsterdam, a 55-sq km island that is part of French territory in southern Indian Ocean.
The first knockdown was only the beginning of a nightmare that would test Tomy’s endurance and willpower for the next three days, with the entire country praying for his early rescue.
As Tomy fell from the top of the mast, his hand got entangled in a wire rope. “My watch got entangled in it. I was hanging by one hand.”
“I felt my wrist would crack. Then the watch strap snapped and I came crashing down to the boom attached to the mast on the deck,” he said on Thursday.
It was the first of four knockdowns, with the last being the deadliest.
Tomy said he had a warning of winds of 100 kmph, along with 10-metre-high waves.
“But this beast was something else. The wind speed was more than 150 kmph and there were 14-metre-high waves. The sea was so bad that there was not an inch of water that was not white. There was sea foam everywhere. Every millimeter of water was ripped up by hurricane-force winds,” said the decorated sailor, who has sailed more than 52,000 miles in his naval career spanning 18 years.
The winds and waves were becoming more powerful with every passing moment.
“I had to take off every sail on the boat. The wind was so powerful that I couldn’t steer the boat. I tried every trick in the book. Nothing worked. The storm was not letting the boat move in any direction. The boat was 90 degrees to the wind. I was not able to align it with the wind to reduce impact. It was something I had never seen before in my life,” he said.
A falling barometer indicated the worst was yet to come.
“The reading one day before was 1,020 millibar. It dropped to 970. That’s a drop of 50mm. A cyclone was forming in the sea and I was in the middle of it,” he said.
By now, the boat’s wind generator was destroyed. This makes electricity from the wind. “If the blades were still there, I could have fixed it,” he said.
Before Tomy could even examine the generator, though, Thuriya was battered by a second knockdown. This was even worse and broke the boom of the mast.
The boat was an absolute mess by the time it was toppled by powerful winds for the third time.
“The gas stove had flown off and it was hanging by the hose of the cylinder. Gas was leaking into the boat. I somehow lifted it and put the stove back. I then shut the gas supply. Barely had I done that that I could smell diesel leaking into the boat, right next to the engine. I couldn’t fix that,” he said.
Tomy began cleaning up the mess in the boat, restoring key electronics items and the emergency gear that was flying all around him. And then the worst happened. He realised he could not move.
“My back was gone,” he said.
“I summoned all my strength and tried to walk. But I was all wobbly and kept falling. I thought to myself, ‘let me lie down for a bit and take some rest’. That’s when Thuriya took its worst beating, a 360-degree spin that dismasted the boat. Everything was flying all over the place. I could hear pieces of the mast beating against the deck,” said Tomy.
He knew the situation was out of control now. So Tomy did what he could.He crawled his way to vital communication equipment and lobbed it into the bunk. In excruciating pain, he crawled back to the bunk and somehow hauled himself up.
He then sent a message to the GGR organisers detailing his condition. He got a call that night to activate the EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon).
“I checked the gear I had thrown on the bunk. The radio beacon wasn’t there. Unable to move the next day, I turned around deliberately and fell from the bunk. I crawled a few feet to get the beacon, activated it and crept back to the bunk,” he said.
He kept his mind blank.
“There were no thoughts in my mind during those 70 hours. That is something I have taught myself over the years. Thinking can lead to problems. I was trying to figure out what to do next all the time,” he said.
French patrol vessel Osiris rescued Tomy in a dramatic mission, supported by the Indian and Australian militaries, on September 24.
“When the rescuers got on my boat, I couldn’t hear their voice. They were shouting. I finally managed to hear what one of them was saying. ‘Do we have permission to come inside your boat?’ I replied, ‘Please come in.’”
Before the accident, Tomy was in the third position among 11 international participants and had sailed over 10,500 nautical miles since the race began on July 1. “I am very upset about being eliminated from the race,” he said.
There are two things that Tomy wants to do after getting back home. “I walked a few metres using crutches today. The first thing is to get my health back to normal,” he said.
And the second?
“Start sailing again.”