Having sustained a broken back in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy has left nothing to chance for the 2022 edition of the race

Abhilash Tomy is certainly determined. Despite breaking his back in the 2018 Golden Globe Race, the former Indian Naval Commander has returned for the 2022 race.

He is sailing the Rustler 36, Bayanat, which used to belong to French veteran offshore sailor Philippe Péché; he raced it as PRB in the 2018 race but retired due to problems with his self-steering gear.

Abhilash Tomy has made modifications to the boat, overseen by his technical manager, Dick Koopmans, who also managed Mark Slats, who came second in 2018.

Bayanat was refitted in The Netherlands, and now has a furling headsail, electric bilge pumps and three reefs in the mainsail; Péché sailed with two reefs in the main, and all of his sails were hanked-on.

Golden Globe Race 2022 skipper Abhilash Tomy with sunglases on the top of his head

Following surgery to repairs his broken back, Abhilash Tomy sailed 2,000 miles to get race ready. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Abhilash Tomy, who in 2013 became the first Indian to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world, via the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn and Cape Leeuwin, aboard the 56ft fin keel sloop, INSV Mhadei, had to learn to walk again before he could take part in the 2022 race.

The 43-year-old took part in the 2018 event, but retired after his ERIC Suhaili Replica masthead ketch, Thuriya was knocked down multiple times while running under bare poles in 75 knot winds in the southern Indian Ocean.

Tomy broke his back in four places after falling from the mast to the deck during the last knockdown and required rescue; he now has titanium rods in his spine.

‘I broke four vertebrae and now have titanium rods and screws in my back. It is now all fine and doesn’t interfere with my sailing at all. I’ve sailed 2,000 miles now [since the operation]. I am certainly back!’

Sailor Abhilash Tomy holding a line

Abhilash Tomy plans to meditate during the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

In the 2018 race, Abhilash Tomy found himself running out of preparation time. For 2022, he had just five months to prepare, although having the United Arab Emirates tech firm, Bayanat, as a title sponsor, helped, as well as his long term sponsor, Jellyfish Watersports.

During the SiTran prologue race from Gijon, Spain to Les Sables d’Olonne in early August, Bayanat collided with a bulk carrier, damaging her bow; the crew member on watch was so absorbed by Sir Robin’s Knox-Johnston’s book, A World of My Own, that he failed to notice the approaching vessel.

A yard in Belgium re-built the bow, using a mould from the only other Rustler 36 in the country which happened to be next door.

The work was overseen by Dick Koopmans. After repairs to the mast, Bayanat was back in the water by 29 August, less than a week before the start.

‘I think I’ve sent a clear message to the other skippers to stay away from me,’ joked Tomy, who has provisioned for a 250 day race.

A bow of a Rustler 36

The bow of Bayanat had to be completely rebuilt for the 2022 race. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Why enter the Golden Globe Race 2022?

Abhilash Tomy: Because I didn’t complete the last one. If I had finished the last one I probably wouldn’t have decided to do the 2022 race

What did you learn from the 2018 Golden Globe Race?

Abhilash Tomy: There are a lot of lessons. The most important is to find a good sponsor who will support you.

The second lesson is to have a good team around you so the boat is really well prepared and you have to be very well rested before the start.

And most importantly, if I run into a storm [like the one which ended his 2018 race] I will stay inside the boat.

Why choose Philippe Peche’s Rustler 36 for the Golden Globe Race 2022?

Abhilash Tomy: Because the Rustler 36 did pretty well last time.

Second it is a 36 footer and the bigger the size, the faster and safer the boat.

A man sailing a yacht with a blue hull

Abhilash Tomy is planning on finishing the 2022 Golden Globe Race in less than 250 days. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

The boat was also available, and it was prepared pretty well for GGR 2018, so considering the time that I have I think it is a good bet.

If I had gone for a boat that hadn’t previously been in the race it would take much longer to prepare.

How are you preparing the boat for the 2022 race?

Abhilash Tomy: I am making quite a few changes.

Personally, I believe Peche set up the boat to punish himself and I don’t want to do that.

So I am putting in a furling headsail and changing a few things like putting in electric bilge pumps, more hand holds and more reefs in the mainsail [Abhilash Tomy is going for three reefs in the mainsail, while Peche had only two reefs in the 2018 race, as well as hanked-on sails]

What storm tactics do you plan to use?

Abhilash Tomy: Last time in all the storms that I had I was really comfortable with continuing to sail the boat.

The storm that caused the accident was a very uncharacteristic storm and I don’t think any boat could have escaped it if it has been in my position.

A skipper being taken over a dismasted boat

Abhilash Tomy’s yacht, Thuriya was dismasted 1,900 miles south west of Perth, Western Australia in the 2018 race. He was rescued by the crew of the French Fisheries Patrol ship, OSIRIS. Credit: Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Usually you witness that a storm itself, even if you have 60-70 knots, moves at around 10 knots but when I analysed this particular storm, it was moving at between 50-75 knots, that ’s how quickly it moved.

Because of the speed it moved, the change from wind direction from northwest to southwest happened in about 15 minutes; it was that quick.

Usually it takes 6 hours for the wind change from northwest to southwest, and because the wind changed so quickly we had waves coming from two different directions and I think that was the culprit.

I don’t think any boat of that size would not have had a knockdown in those conditions.

I won’t be heaving to, I will continue to sail the boat.

A navigation table on a Rustler 36

The chart table on Bayanat. Credit: Katy Stickland

It has always worked, but in the particular storm I encountered last time [which dismasted the boat and left Tomy injured] I don’t think any tactic would have worked.

You can only plan for one train of waves, but if you have 10m waves coming from two directions, you really can’t do anything on this size of boat.

No amount of heaving to or drogues or warps will help.

I am planning to put the boat down the biggest wave and continue sailing.

I also plan to carry a Jordan Series Drogue, but my primary option will be to continue sailing the boat

How are you preparing yourself for the 2022 race?

Abhilash Tomy: I am coming into the race with a reinforced back.

It is much stronger than before but there are some problems in terms of flexibility like twisting and bending sideways or the amount I can raise my legs, but other than that there are no problems, and I think this issue will not really impede my sailing in any way.

The fact that I want to do the circumnavigation is good enough, you don’t need any other mental preparation.  I love singlehanded sailing, alone at sea and I always look forward to it.

Continues below…

Last time my family had a lot of reservations, but this time they are backing me more than last time.

When I visited Jean-Luc Van Den Heede‘s boat in December 2017, a good six months before the start of the 2018 GGR, his boat was completely prepared.

It is good to have that sort of readiness for the race because time was a bit short for me [in 2018] and this time I don’t want to be doing a lot of work at the last minute.

At least three weeks before the start the boat should be ready, and the boat should not be on my mind anymore.

What will your sail plan be?

Abhilash Tomy: I am going for a regular rig and a furling yankee and behind the removable stay, I will have a downwind sail made from very light cloth and after that we will have the stay.

The main will have three reefs.

Are you looking to win or get round?

Abhilash Tomy: In the 2018 Golden Globe Race, my main aim was to make it to the start line, which was a big project. This time I plan to complete a circumnavigation

How do you feel about the 2022 race having looked at the other skippers?

Abhilash Tomy: Some of them are very tough and have very interesting stories.

There are four Rustlers so it is going to be a nice fight.

This time it will be more of a drag race as you have so many waypoints, so the fleet will be much closer than last time. There is no imagination required. I find that frustrating.

A self steering system on the back of a Rustler 36 yacht belonging to Abhilash Tomy

Abhilash Tomy is using a Wind Pilot self-steering system. Credit: Katy Stickland

Last time, I remember the places where I made gains, like avoiding the St Helena high which caught others like Susie Goodall.

This time this is ruled out.

The second place I made gains was when I rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

I was at 40-41° South, and anybody who crossed at 37° really slowed down. Because I rounded it at 40° South I almost made 240 miles in 24 hours, and in 3 days I did 600 miles.

So I think Don [McIntyre – race chairman] is planning to put in a waypoint after Cape Town so people don’t turn east early.

Too many waypoints and too many gates will kill the race a bit.

For this race there will be no HAM radio transmissions allowed only registered, licensed maritime-approved HF Single Side Band (SSB) Radio, with discussions limited to the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) weather. Weather Fax will be allowed for the race. Some of the 2018 Golden Globe Race skippers raised concerns about picking up GMDSS in the Southern Ocean. Do you share these concerns?

Abhilash Tomy: Not really. In the last race in the North Atlantic, I did not take any weather information as I was settling down [due to delays, Abhilash Tomy spend much of the early part of the 2018 race getting used to his boat and experimenting with the yacht’s sail configuration].

I used to listen in to the transmissions of other entrants and they were so widely dispersed that when they shared their weather information I had a complete picture of the south Atlantic.

So at least for the first one I was not sailing with any weather. I was just going with what I had at the back of my mind.

Abhilash Tomy, a skipper in the Golden Globe Race, wearing a blue tshirt

Abhilash Tomy had five months to refit his boat and sail his 2,000 mile solo qualifying voyage ahead of the start of the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

As 2022 will be a drag race, you kind of know the entire weather enroute.

Even if I get no weather update I can complete the circumnavigation.

The Southern Ocean weather is very predictable. If you get some good weather information it will help with racing, but with no weather information you can still go around the world.

Jean-Luc Van Den Heede consulted meteorologists and studied the weather to choose the best route which helped him make early gains in the 2018 race. Do you plan to do the same?

Abhilash Tomy: If I have time.

What self-steering set up are you planning on using?

Abhilash Tomy: I will be using same windvane steering as last time, the Windpilot. It is simple and rugged and I didn’t have any problems with the Windpilot last time

What antifouling will you be using?

Abhilash Tomy:  I have yet to decide on that, but it will be something that will last.

How is your celestial navigation going?

Abhilash Tomy: Last time, I sailed 12,000 miles using celestial navigation and I was very, very comfortable with that.

This time I have brushed up so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I am extremely comfortable with celestial navigation, it is one of the things I look forward to doing every day.

Even in that storm, when I had the accident, in the middle of the storm I saw the sun and I thought I would get my sextant and shoot it.

Golden Globe Race sailor Abhilash Tomy wearing a blue tshirt

Most of Abhilash Tomy’s sailing has been singlehanded. Credit: Nora Havel/GGR

Is coping with isolation an issue?

Abhilash Tomy: No it is not a problem.

In fact, when I was checking my sailing log I have more solo sailing experience than sailing with someone else.

I love sailing alone. I would rather sail alone than with crew.

It is much less responsibility and more fulfilling.

How do you handle challenges while alone at sea?

Abhilash Tomy: You always have a plan, an alternative plan and a third plan so I go with three backups although you don’t have a backup for a spine fracture!

How will you keep yourself motivated during the 2022 race?

Abhilash Tomy: I am always motivated.

I learnt a lot of things from the first nonstop circumnavigation I did.

To prepare, I sailed 27,000 miles on the boat to feel comfortable.

Initially I was very uncomfortable being on a boat. Being on a boat is tough: everything is wet, salty, too hot or too cold, you don’t get to eat what you like eating, you can’t talk to people and you always look at the destination because the destination is some sort of a salvation.

The saloon on a Rustler 36

The main saloon of Bayanat. Credit: Katy Stickland

You reach your designation, and there are people, good food, a good bed and a good toilet etc.

One day, I realised the biggest impediment for me being happy at sea was the fact I was always looking to the destination and all the things that came with finishing the voyage.

I changed my mindset.

I decided not to think about the destination or the speed of the boat or how quickly I was to reach the next port and, with that, the present moment became a lot more comfortable.

If you keep at it, it is much easier to be in the moment.

What will you miss while taking part in the race?

Abhilash Tomy: I don’t know.

I really don’t miss anything when I go sailing, but this time will be different as I have a 3 year old son and I will miss him, and my wife has made a very comfortable home so I might miss that as well.

What treat will you be taking?

Abhilash Tomy: Popcorn; lots of popcorn as I love popping corn at sea

GGR 2018 was a celebration of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. The GGR 2022 is a celebration of Bernard Moitessier. What words of wisdom from Moitessier will you be following in the race?

Abhilash Tomy: I think Moitessier used to meditate on the boat and for some reason I stopped meditating in the last race, but this time I will meditate every day.

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