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We don’t value our heroes until it’s late

Until he was at the centre of an international rescue effort last week, few knew about Abhilash Tomy's quest to win an extraordinary sailing race

Tomy was the subject of a ‘Lounge’ exclusive this January, ahead of the 50th-anniversary edition of the annual Golden Globe Race.
Tomy was the subject of a ‘Lounge’ exclusive this January, ahead of the 50th-anniversary edition of the annual Golden Globe Race.

India’s first solo, non-stop circumnavigator and winner of the Kirti Chakra and Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, Commander Abhilash Tomy is one of 18 sailors taking part in the 50th-anniversary edition of the Golden Globe Race (GGR). Commemorating the first ever GGR in 1968, during which Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the world’s first solo, non-stop circumnavigator, participants in GGR2018 are using the kind of boats and navigation equipment that were available back then. The only concessions to modernity are safety and tracking equipment.

It’s an indicator of how tough the race is that 84 days into what was to be an eight-nine-month-long ordeal, only 10 of the original 18 were still in the fray. Tomy was doing excellently, at number three. In sport, however, things can go awry at any time.

On 21 September, Tomy and co-competitor, Irishman Gregor McGuckin, were caught in a storm in the Southern Ocean. Buffeted by waves as high as 10m and two powerful wind fronts, their boats rolled, wreaking devastation in seconds. McGuckin escaped with minor injuries but Tomy suffered a blow to his back. His message to race control read: “Rolled. Dismasted. Severe back injury. Cannot get up."

By 23 September morning, newspapers in India carried brief reports about Tomy’s predicament and suddenly people were looking up the race and marvelling at the gumption of this extraordinary Indian sportsperson. The compelling details of his lonely wait for a rescue coordinated by the Australian Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre and the Indian Navy and completed by the French fisheries patrol vessel Osiris, were reported widely.

When Tomy decided to participate in the GGR, he began a long and lonely journey familiar to most pioneering Indian sportspersons. Lounge had carried a cover story (13 January) on this unique expedition, for which I travelled to Goa to meet Tomy. Planning, prepping and finding resources for the event, in a country where few know about sailing, posed numerous hurdles. Even as he dealt with these trials, he knew that the challenges of the race were bigger.

In Goa, Commander Dilip Donde, India’s first solo circumnavigator, Tomy’s mentor and manager for GGR, had talked about what could go wrong. He described two scenarios: damage to the boat and injury to the sailor. “Abhilash can deal with minor damage but if he loses the mast, the race is over," Donde said. “Far worse for any sailor," he added, “is any injury that incapacitates him completely. It can take a long time for help to reach the far-flung parts we sail in." The predicament Tomy found himself in combined both worst-case scenarios.

As an extreme sportsperson, this is a possibility he was aware of and embraced willingly, yet few of us recognize the odds such adventurers confront. They risk their bodies, and in some cases their lives, yet when we take pride in their accomplishment, we seldom appreciate the hard work and personal sacrifice involved. It takes an incident such as this to make us recognize the bravery in our midst.

Sporting events such as the GGR2018 are full of exemplary moments of sportsmanship. Of coping with bad weather with humour, and loneliness with fortitude. Stories like that of McGuckin, who, despite losing his mast, rudder and wind vane, set up a jury rig and tried to make his way towards Tomy to help his co-competitor.

The rescue executed at the fringe of the earth with the collaboration of three nations is a homage to such sportsmanship. The Indian Navy pressed the INS Satpura into action, and sent the P-8I aircraft. The chief of naval staff, Sunil Lanba, reassuringly said, “We’ll get you out of this crisis soon." Currently, Tomy is on Île Amsterdam island, and has recovered sufficiently to eat, drink and walk briefly. A navy release quoted Tomy: “The sea was unbelievably rough. Me and my boat Thuriya were pitched against nature’s might. I survived because of my sailing skills, the soldier in me and my naval training. Very thankful to the Indian Navy and all who rescued me." Satpura was set to reach Île Amsterdam on 28 September to bring the sailor back to India.

At the event in Mumbai celebrating his return from his record-setting, non-stop solo circumnavigation in 2012, Tomy had said: “Can I go back for another round." That is exactly what he set out to do with the GGR. Though he may have been thwarted in this attempt, it’s likely that Tomy will be approaching the navy again, as soon as he is fit and raring to go. For the Lounge story, he had said: “You know what? I’ve already been around the world on the sea. My dream is to be the first Indian to circumnavigate the earth by air too." (Tomy is a reconnaissance pilot in the Indian Navy.) After all, he wouldn’t be a true adventure sportsperson if he didn’t possess a gumption that baffles us all. Though even the resolute adventurer may quail before his wife Urmimala Nag, who says she has no intention of letting him out of her sight for a while. Since their wedding in April this year, the two have spent more time apart than together.

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