Abhilash Tomy speaks to Yachting Monthly's Katy Stickland about his second Golden Globe Race experience, which he finished in second place
In 2013, Abhilash Tomy 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. Prior to this, he was shore support for Dilip Donde, the first Indian to sail solo and unassisted around the world. Tomy has also represented India in yacht races, including the Cape Town to Rio race.
Unable to commit to the 2022 Golden Globe Race without the financial benefit of a title sponsor meant Abhilash Tomy was the last to enter the race, and subsequently had less time to prepare his Rustler 36, Bayanat. This meant much of his circumnavigation was spent making repairs.
The work began two week before the race start, when Bayanat was involved in a collission with a cargo vessel during the race prologue from Gijon to Les Sables d’Olonne. More than 18 inches of the bow section and a larger portion of the deck was delaminated and had to be cut away and replaced. This was achieved but the cost of the repair fell on Tomy personally as it fell outside of his sponsorship deal. This meant he had to cancel his order for a weather fax, and spent most of the race relying on forecasts from ships and Peter Mott of Passage Guardian, who broadcast weather reports on HF radio for the Golden Globe Race fleet.
Many of the repairs were small problems – a rip in the mainsail when a batten broke and it got stuck in a stay, a broken freshwater pump (he resorted to opening the tank to take out fresh water as he didn’t have a spare), a VHF antenna which for ‘some reason was not giving me any range’, a non working HF radio, which was found to be a deteriorated fuse and cable, which were replaced, and sealing a hole in the deck after it was punctured by the mast of the wind generator during a knockdown.
The biggest issue was with his Windpilot self steering gear. This model has a servo rudder, and by Cape Horn he had used all of his spare pendulum blades, and was forced ‘to innovate’. He used a hatch cover from the saloon, the door of the heads and his spare rudder to fashion three different replacements, but these all broke. Eventually, he used the fortress stock of the anchor. ‘It fitted almost exactly, except is wasn’t really wide enough. As a result, the power was less but it really worked and it worked from Cape Horn to Les Sables d’Olonne,’ he explained.
Rigging and sails were also a headache for the former Indian commander. Racing up the Atlantic, his running backstay parted and his mainsail split from luff to leach. It took him 26 hours to replace the running backstay with one of the guardrails and stitch the mainsail together again.
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‘All problems are fixable so I never thought I couldn’t make a repair but it was constantly sapping my attention and energy; it was always repair and move.Every time I had fixed a problem and I thought I was going to gain on Kirsten [Neuschäfer], there was another silly problem; unbelievably silly, stupid problem. I had to innovate, like using fishing hooks tied to the spinnaker halyard to pull fown the yankee halyard as I didn’t want to climb the mast in 25 knot winds.’
Tomy used intense visualisation, and then always ate before tackling a large problem. ‘You don’t want to be stuck say, up the mast for two hours and feeling hungry.’
A trained pilot, Tomy could rig his so-called secret sail – hoisting a storm jib or staysail on his backstay for reaching and broadreaching. In reality, he used it once due to the difficulty it caused in accessing the companionway and concerns about the affect on the backstay in a crash gybe. Instead to get speed, Tomy religiously trimmed his sails and the toping lift, especially in moderate to light winds.
He had two mainsails onboard – both of them ripped. He replaced the primary one with his spare, which was bigger with only two reefs. This he lived to regret.
‘I should ideally have changed it back but I didn’t, which created some problems. You need a third reef in the Southern Ocean. You need a small sail as when the wind stregnth doubles, the force on the sail becomes four times and you need to change gear. I resorted to easing the luff tension, but this meant the sail was pressing against the spreaders too much and the batten was pressing into the spreader; eventually it broke and punctured a hole in the sail and that meant more stitching. In hindsight, I could have done it differently.’
The race took a physical and mental toll on Tomy. In the 2018 Golden Globe Race his boat dismasted in the Indian Ocean; during the knockdown, he fell from the mast to the deck, breaking his back in four places. He was rescued and had titanium rods inserted into his spine; he also had to learn to walk again. During the 2022 race, he suffered from PTSD and could not eat due to re-living his experiences in 2018.
‘The primary aim of doing this race was to complete it and get rid of the stigma that I had with losing a boat in 2018. It required a lot of effort because of the accumulated memory of the 2018 accident and the collision before the start of the 2022 race. It took a lot of effort to keep myself calm, which I achieved through very focussed breathing techniques,’ he explained.
Heavy weather on approach to Cape Horn took a physical toll on Tomy. He had severe back pain and numb limbs having had steered for 12 hours in a storm, and he was advised by race doctors to rest; he had to sail to make the boat comfrotable, rather than pushing on in race mode.
‘I had to bring my focus back to the fact that for me, the primary aim was to finish it. Racing was secondary.’
Abhilash Tomy crossed the finish line after 236 days at sea; he became the first Indian sailor to win a podium position in a solo round the world yacht race.
Heavy weather sailing tactics
The storm on 7 February 2023 delivered 45 knot winds, gusting 70 knots and 12m waves for Abhilash Tomy, who was sailing 1,100 miles north west of Cape Horn.
‘I put the boat dead down wave, with a little bit of headsail and that really worked well. I had two knockdowns because of a wave that came from the beam not because the boat bore into the wave. It was not as bad a crossed sea that I saw in 2018.’
Every four or five hours, he would experience a ‘huge freak wave’, which Tomy believes forms when two waves intersect at 120°,
‘The waves build up a lot, and it’s quite possible the freak waves might pass five cables behind you or five cables ahead of you or it might find you, which is what happened to me.’
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