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The ocean has always been a place of solitude for Indian sailor Abhilash Tomy. 

On Sunday, the former navy commander will return to sea as he sets off on his second attempt at the world’s toughest and longest sailboat competition, the Golden Globe Race. 

“When I am at sea, there are no distractions, no external stimulations…I always look forward to it,” 43-year-old Tomy told Arab News during an interview via Zoom. 

The solo, non-stop, around-the-world yacht race, which was first held in 1968-1969 as the “Sunday Times Golden Globe Race,” made a welcome return in 2018 on its 50th anniversary as a tribute to the original event and its achievements.

For its third edition, kicking off on Sept. 4, 2022, competitors will stick to the established rules of using basic boats and equipment and avoiding modern technology to complete their journeys.  

Following the exact route traveled in the first edition, sailors will set off from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France and make their way around the world via five Great Capes before returning to the starting point. 

“I will be out of touch with my kid and my family for around eight to nine months, but it’s an added anxiety that you just come to terms with,” said Tomy.

“If a negative thought enters your mind, it stays there for many days,” he said. “So, I make a conscious effort to keep my mind healthy during those many months of solitude.”

Looking back at his first attempt at the GGR in 2018, a feat that nearly killed him, Tomy believes the upcoming race is his second chance to achieve one of his greatest dreams.  

“The 2018 GGR was a very difficult time, but I never blamed the sea for what happened.

“I was in third position when the storm happened, and out of the three boats that encountered this storm, two were lost,” he said. 

Tomy was sailing the Thuraya, an exact replica of the boat Suhaili used by the race’s first winner of 1968, Sir Robin Knox Johnston, when he faced an extreme storm that dismantled his yacht 80 days into the race.

“I had a couple of knockdowns in the storm. 

“The first knockdown broke my mizzen boom, a few antennas and the wind generator,” he said. “The boat was a complete mess inside.”

While hand steering the boat in rocky waters halfway between Australia and South Africa, Tomy encountered severe winds that flung him into the water, separating him from his boat and pushing him deep underwater. 

“When the boat straightened, I was on top of the mizzen mast, which is about 9 meters high. From there, I fell, my back hit the boom and that’s when I fractured my spine,” he said.

Tomy, who was not aware of the extent of his injury at the time, tried to clean up his boat, repeatedly attempting to stand up before finally buckling at the knees.

“While I was injured and lying in the bunk for three and a half days, I was already making plans to take part in the next GGR,” said Tomy.

After reaching out to the race control and turning his emergency position-indicating radio beacon on, he was finally rescued on day 83 of the race and underwent a two-day spinal surgery over a week later. 

His short journey at the GGR 2018, however, came five years after one of his life’s greatest accomplishments. 

On March 31, 2013, Tomy became the first Indian and second Asian to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation around the world on a boat. 

Sailing 23,000 nautical miles from India, the championed sailor crossed the Indian, Southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans, rounding three Great Capes: Cape Leeuwin in Australia, Cape Horn in South America and Cape of Good Hope in Africa.

After 151 days at sea, Tomy was greeted with a ceremonial reception by Shri Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India at the time.  

This time around, Tomy aims to complete his sail around the world for the second time and cross the GGR finish line, traveling close to 56,000 km. 

“I’ve decided that if at all I go into a similar storm, I am going to stay inside the boat and try to save myself at the very least,” he told Arab News. 

Since his accident, Tomy has undergone extensive physiotherapy to rebuild his strength and improve his fitness levels for the 2022 race.

He also retired from the Indian navy after serving for 24 years, leaving an environment he was very familiar with, having spent much of his childhood on bases across the country since his father was in the Naval Police. 

“It was important that I transitioned, but it was a very emotional moment for me,” Tomy said. “You really can’t take the navy out of me.”

This year, Tomy has solely focused on preparing for the GGR 2022, recently crossing the English Channel over a distance of 2,000 nautical miles to qualify for the race.

On Sunday, he will be sailing a UAE-flagged boat sponsored by Bayanat, an AI-powered geospatial intelligence company, and contributing to the company’s ongoing scientific work. 

“This race takes you to the corners of the Earth that are not really visited by ships or humans, and I am going to be collecting water samples all along the way so that Bayanat can eventually study the microplastic content in them,” said Tomy.

The samples will be sent to one of the company’s healthcare labs to undergo multiple assessments, Hasan Hosani, CEO of Bayanat, told Arab News.

“The target is to publish the data and contribute to learning more about the environment,” said Hosani. 

In parallel, the data collection company will also utilize satellite imagery and synthetic aperture radars to capture images of various locations throughout Tomy’s journey in the GGR. 

“We will be creating an imagery book of captured images across the globe in different resolutions and angles using remote sensing once the race is complete,” said Hosani.

Praising Tomy’s passion for sailing and perseverance, Hosani ensures that Bayanat’s tasks will not interfere with his focus on completing the race safely — and possibly winning it.  

Eagerly looking forward to his time at sea, Tomy says he is not worried about feeling bored.

“Sailing a boat is mostly like running a kitchen; every day you have some repairs to do and chores to keep up with,” he said.

According to him, sailing is a sport that brings about a lot of character development. 

“It makes you patient, self-sufficient and gives you time to read books,” said Tomy. “I will have a lot of work to do.”

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