Qayamat se Bayanat Tak — The Abhilash Tomy Story

It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” — William Ernest Henley.

At 12:49PM on Mar 22, 2022, navy veteran and solo circumnavigator Cdr Abhilash Tomy KC, NM (retd) wrote a series of tweets announcing his participation in the Golden Globe Race 2022. It is a solo, unassisted, circumnavigation of the Earth on sails that draws participants back to the ‘golden age’ of ‘one sailor, one boat facing the great oceans of the world’. He traced the origins of the race, the challenges it posed, and reasons for throwing his hat in the ring, making a small mention of his accident when racing at third position in GGR 2018. To his 11000+ ‘followers’ on Twitter, he asked for nothing more than “wish me luck”.

I have posted below, the contents of his tweet for those of you unfamiliar with GGR and Abhilash Tomy. I urge you to read it slowly, absorbing the little details and his choice of words, for it could change the way you think about mariners. It will also give you some idea about Tomy’s incredible achievement.


“I will be taking part in the Golden Globe Race 2022 on the Bayanat. It is a big thing for me and here is why. On 18 Sep 2018, I was racing in the south Indian Ocean when we were caught in an unusual storm which claimed two of the three boats in its way. Mine was one of them. In 1967/68, Francis Chichester sailed around the world single handed with just one stop – an unparalleled feat. When he returned “in the slow manner of the sea” he was knighted by the Queen using the same sword that was used to knight Sir Francis Drake 5 centuries ago.

That led to the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, where 9 entrants vied to claim the title of the first single handed non stop circumnavigation of the earth under sail. Things did not go as planned. One of the sailors allegedly committed suicide, another sailed around the world twice refusing to finish and a third entrant saw his boat sink just one mile to the finish. The rest either retired or lost their boats before crossing South Africa. Except one. That entrant was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. It took him 312 days to complete the first solo non stop voyage around the world. A new record was set and, unknown to many, he achieved this in an India-built boat called the Suhaili.

The GGR of 1968 spawned many round the world races, but GGR itself was never repeated. Until 50 years later, in 2018. A race around the world, alone with no stops, using technology of 1968. 30,000 miles and 300 days of solitude. I applied and got a special invitation to what would become the longest, slowest and toughest race ever. I turned up at the start at Les Sables d’Olonne, France with an Indian built replica of the Suhaili. We christened it “Thuriya”- the fourth state of consciousness- a name derived from the Mandukya Upanishad. Officially she was one of the smallest and slowest boat. But we were faster than Robin by 30 percent.

After 82 days we were lying in third position when the storm overtook us. My boat was dismasted and destroyed, and I suffered a huge fall which left me with multiple spine fractures. And with pretty functionless legs. The remoteness? Couldn’t have been worse. The Antarctic was the nearest continent. We were exactly between Australia and South Africa, and south of India. The international SAR organisation kicked in, with four nations joining the rescue effort. Gregor McGuckin, Irishman and my nearest competitor jury rigged a temporary mast and made a heroic effort to reach me. Australian P8 and Indian P8i were despatched to fly over head. INS Satpura set sail from India and HMAS Ballarat was despatched by the Australian Navy. French fisheries patrol vessel “Osiris” was the first to reach. It took them three and a half days. I was shifted to Ile Amsterdam, an island in the French sub-Antarctic Territories where I was given primary medical care.

On the 6th day after the accident I even went for a walk with crutches because I had no idea about the fractures. Satpura arrived on day 7 and I was transferred to the ship on a helicopter. We arrived at India on the 16th day. An MRI revealed the fractures in the spine. Two days later I was operated upon. Titanium rods were inserted in my spine and five vertebrae were fused into one. My legs were so badly off that I had to learn to walk again. But I did learn to walk, and then got into a cockpit and got back to flying, and sailing! 3 and a half later, I am heading back into the same race that almost got me killed. Wish me luck !”


That was over a year ago. At the time of writing this article, his tweet had garnered around 1047 “likes” and 197 “retweets” on Twitter — an abysmally low social media catchment for a nation with over 7500 kms of coastline, a rich maritime legacy and a Twitter base of over 27 million. Indian media of 2022 hardly gave any coverage to this audacious Indian who had then only recently hung his whites to prepare for the most important voyage of his life. Perhaps they underestimated his resolve, given that he had ‘swallowed the anchor’ and may no longer get the navy’s active backing. A former naval aviator and Dornier pilot, Abhilash could have easily done his pilot licence, applied for a cockpit job and walked the beaten path of “job security”, “high salary” and “stability”. But such people rarely make history.

Tomy and me were on the ‘same side’ in some ways: both pilots, both north of the runway at naval air base INS Hansa in Goa. He checked into INAS 310 ‘The Cobras’ sometime after I checked out from ‘The Falcons’ (INAS 339) in the regular humdrum of naval life. All that is immaterial now. Tomy has left most of us way behind in his pursuit of excellence. His sails have achieved far more than his wings would ever earn.

Golden Globe Race (GGR) Challenges

Take a moment to fathom the challenges GGR contestants face. Rightly labelled “the voyage of madmen” in the GGR 2018 official movie, it is the longest event of human endurance on Planet Earth; also its slowest race of attrition. The race requires one to “sail like it’s 1968”, on a sailboat with 32-36 feet length overall, using only those equipment that were available to mariners of that year. This rules out almost everything we take for granted today. No apps, no GPS, no moving maps, no autopilot, no radar, no mobile phone or any computer based device, not even electronic watches or clocks.

Navigation is purely visual or celestial — ‘shooting down’ the sun as it crosses own meridian (MerPass) or heavenly bodies using a sextant. This requires a steady hand to measure the elevation of heavenly bodies with great precision, followed by elaborate calculations, referring to nautical almanacs, ultimately leading to ‘position lines’ from which a “fix’ is determined on a 1960’s chart — basically what a GPS does in seconds, only infinitely slower, coarse and painstaking.

Mariners carefully watch wind patterns and the barometer for signs of weather, thunderstorms and revolving cyclones. A wind rotation that may be good in one hemisphere may wreck your boat in another. There are areas in the world’s oceans even seasoned mariners sailing on massive steel hulks balk at. Without modern weather-alerting systems, Tomy encountered many such storms over eight months and estimated their dangerous/navigable semicircles with just a wind vane and barometer. At the end of the day this is a race, and the route to a podium finish means a careful selection between ‘safety course’ and ‘best course’.

Trivia from early 90s: As cadets, the navigation watch was the toughest, involving star sights. Errors in ‘shooting a star’ in the middle of the Bay of Bengal could return a ‘fix’ on mainland, out by a few hundred miles. With a sextant in the hands of a seasoned mariner, one could hope to make safe landfall (at, say, Port Blair after many such fixes on a 3-day voyage from Chennai or Visakhapatnam).

Tomy has been out at sea for 234 days and counting. He has traversed all major oceans, crossed the Great Capes and the Equator (thrice), bearing the brunt of global climatology, solely with reference to a barometer, sextant, charts and rudimentary compass. In this race, you are your own boatswain, plumber, electrician, cook and captain. There is no one he can handover the watch to; no lookouts; no landmarks; only endless water all around. When night falls, the ocean drapes itself in a black cloak where — at the eye-height of Bayanat — one can barely see a few cables out. Weather, fatigue, risk of collision, hallucinations, sleep deprivation — all these are constant companions, not for days but months. Often, the nearest land is few kilometers below the keel (Davy Jones’ locker). For those who survive this ordeal for eight months, the Bay of Biscay awaits where skippers must navigate heavy marine traffic in the most exhausting part of the race to reach the waters off Les Sables-d’Olonne (LSO). Imagine the magnitude of the challenge.

Expectedly, only a handful of humans have been able to complete such a voyage — way lesser than the number of Everesters and space walkers (purely in numbers; no comparison is intended). This is Tomy’s second shot at solo circumnavigation. His first attempt took 151 days on naval sailboat Mhadei (Sagar Parikrama 2, Nov 1, 2012 – Mar 31, 2013), sailing around the earth, south of the five Great Capes of the Southern Hemisphere, alone and without stops. That earned him a Kirti Chakra, Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award, and Macgregor Medal, among others. The GGR rules are tougher by an order of magnitude, largely due to the ‘retro’ nature of technology allowed to the sailors. Sailing at third position, his first attempt at GGR 2018 ended abruptly after Thuriya got knocked down in a storm in one of the world’s remotest locations.

The Bayanat (from Abhilash’s twitter of Sep 4, 2022, the day GGR22 was flagged off)

Go Kirsten, Godspeed Tomy!

As of 1600 IST (Indian Standard Time), Apr 27, 2023, Tomy is closing in on the French port of Les Sables-d’Olonne (LSO) on his ‘Rustler 36’ masthead sloop “Bayanat”, a 36-foot sailboat, after traversing about 30,000 nautical miles, non-stop, solo since Sep 4, 2022. Rising from the wreck of Thuriya & GGR 18 that nearly killed him, he is within sniffing distance of a podium finish in GGR 22. Of the 16 contestants who set out from LSO on Sep 4, 2022, only two remain in the main race — Abhilash and female South African sailor Kirsten Neuschäfer (in the lead; ETA around 2200h IST, Apr 27). This would be unknown to them as under the unique rules of GGR, each contestant fights an individual battle, with no external inputs on how they may be faring in comparison to others.

Kirsten is a formidable competitor. All of 39, she has been sailing since childhood, with many odysseys in professional sailing, sail training, sailboat deliveries and numerous Antarctic missions. She is no stranger to solitude either. As a solo adventurist, she biked from Europe to South Africa, covering 15000 kms over a year at the young age of 22. The mental power to deal with extreme solitude — even harness and derive energy from it — is one of the key enablers for GGR. Though the journey to GGR of no two contestants are directly comparable, both Kirsten and Abhilash faced different set of challenges, with the chips clearly not falling in favour of the Indian.

Their journeys have been very very different, right from the start. Abhilash’s challenges have been monumental compared to the others in the race. And by that I mean even before the race started. To have overcome all that and more (he prepared his boat in 1.5 months) and sailed her only for a few weeks. The others have had dedicated teams and have sailed their boats for thousands of miles. His unique experience makes him a class apart. He was always my champion and in this context, the absolute, undisputed winner of the race“, Urmimala wrote on a small group of race enthusiasts following his voyage. She is clearly his “secret sail”.

Qayamat se Bayanat tak

Abhilash Tomy is a great man. In a nation with rich maritime legacy, one would expect the entire country to be tracking & celebrating his intrepid voyage. But here we are, beating down the gates at IPL venues while Abhilash charts his way to history in the world’s most gruelling ocean sailing race. Ask any Indian — even the well-heeled ones that have travelled the world, taken cruises and lived in multi-million dollar seaside homes — “who is Abhilash Tomy?”, and they may likely roll their eyes indifferently or turn to Google. Such is the state of our funding for ocean-sailing adventures that Tomy, soon after his voluntary retirement from the navy,  could raise only a few lakhs against his crowdfunding target of few crores for the GGR 22 attempt. In a country with the world’s third-highest number of billionaires and ‘Unicorns’, Tomy’s 2022 ‘startup’ that would pin India up on marine history plaques could not find any “angel investors” in India. Let that sink in.

Veteran naval officer and former commander-in-chief Vice Admiral Jaggi Bedi had this to say about Abhilash in the context of support/coverage he has received: “Probably the greatest and most courageous sailor produced by India has been totally ignored by the press and electronic media which is drunk with trivia and never ending shenanigans of the political class. If any proof of sea blindness was required , this is it.”

It is a deservedly damning indictment of how little a seafaring nation of 1.4bn contributed to this intrepid sailor’s epic voyage. A few articles in print and electronic media apart, the overall response has been tepid and uninspiring. We seem to be turning into a country of landlubbers with acute maritime cataract.

Abhilash in a thoughtful moment at sea (From Urmimala Abhilash Twitter)

Courage, wit and indomitable resilience

Not affected by any of this, Tomy joked during one of the calls with the organisers after he was savaged by the tumultuous seas around Cape Horn “I was just thinking that if I spend another month, I will have a baby because it would be nine months“.

In his final satellite call before the race ends, he humbly thanked in chaste Hindi, fellow Indians for supporting him through the last eight months, with a hope that his story would make one understand the importance of navies that silently guard us against invisible enemies. “Hope you will support me till the race is over. After that, you can go back to cricket or Bollywood or whatever interests you“, he joked wryly.  

One hopes a Khel Ratna, Arjuna or, in the least, a Padma award awaits this pathbreaking Indian. In fact, one hopes that we will do better — throw open the boat pools for future Tomys, identify and fund them, even institute an award in his name that recognises unique oceanic achievements. His voyage on sails should also serve notice to a politics and spectacle obsessed nation that often the most important races are not the fastest.

“Less is More”

To my mind, the most abiding message of Tomy’s voyages has been “less is more”. In a short video posted on his website, Tomy recounts how he managed his maiden circumnavigation with the most basic human requirements, only to reach Mumbai and find hoardings that advertised a material world. He spoke from the heart about how another legendary sailor — his senior and hero of Sagar Parikrama-1, Cdr Dilip Donde — handed over the Mhadei with two simple words “all yours”. His meditation on our mindless pursuit of materialism and a seaman’s request to leave behind a clean, less cluttered planet for the next generation with the message “all yours” will tug at your hearts. It is the kind of simple, earthy wisdom the planet needs more of.

Sails or Wheels? What “business” are we really in?

It was the Indian Navy that sowed the seed of adventure in Tomy’s mind and he uses every opportunity to highlight how naval upbringing and training helped him get up there. The silent service is presently conducting a ‘Sam No Varunah Motor Car expedition’ on a fleet of sponsored fuel-guzzling SUVs even as Tomy’s humble ‘around the world, east about’ voyage on sails reaches culmination. Some have questioned why the navy that provides daily updates on a car expedition is not supporting Tomy. You have a right to ask “why” or “why not”. Maybe there’s space for both. Maybe the bridge between aspirations of “serving” and “retired” needs some mending. However, these conversations can wait. The navy is called “silent service” for a reason. While celebrating Tomy’s achievement, do remember to hold in highest esteem the contribution of Indian Navy and the steady ‘hand on the tiller’ of past ‘skippers’ like VAdm MP Awati, Dilip Donde, and Gulshan Rai, among others, who prepared the sails for ‘golden age’ even as they steered the navy into blue waters.

What should worry us is the utter lack of interest, nay a word of encouragement, from a galaxy of leaders, sports celebrities, and a new crop called ‘influencers’, in a phenomenon called “Abhilash Tomy”. It’s as if this is some kind of private adventure he set upon (which in a way it became, in the absence of support from India). My hat-tip to Team Bayanat and Tomy’s long-time sponsors, Kerala-based Jellyfish Watersports.

Mark my words. Once he secures alongside at LSO, everyone & their uncle will be making a beeline to felicitate & own his achievements, most of whom never bothered to invest even a dime in his audacious startup.

Here’s wishing Abhilash, Urmimala, Abhraneil & Vedaant the very best. It’s been an incredible 235 days. One of the most beautiful lines I heard in recent times came from his wife Urmi: “Being with him means knowing when to let go“.

Hopefully, a generation that can’t get around their own cities without Google Maps will derive inspiration from this audacious sailor who set out to circumnavigate the globe on sail in the 21st Century, armed with sextant and barometer, titanium in his spine and gold dust in his heart.

Intrepid solo circumnavigator Abhilash Tomy (Picture from his Twitter)


(A lightly edited version of this story was first published by The Quint as an op-ed. You can access it here)

©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2023. All rights reserved. I can be reached at or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal except where quoted. Photos used with permission of Urmimala Abhilash.

21 thoughts on “Qayamat se Bayanat Tak — The Abhilash Tomy Story

  1. Hello Kaypius, thank you for putting Tomy’s journey in perspective. Had missed it. Perhaps as you so eruditely put it…no media hype. I wish him all the best in this voyage. May he have fair winds and following seas….and complete his aspiration safely.

  2. What most people don’t know is that it was the College of Military Engineering (CME), Kirkee who popularised sailing in India. After the sport caught on, they were the main promoters of the Yachting Association of India (YAI). The inaugural race was hosted by NDA at Khadakvasla lake in August 1960. The then COAS, Gen KS Thimmaya, was one of the participants. I was also privileged to participate.

    My best wishes to Abhilash Tomy.

  3. Truly inspiring. I’m overawed at what Tomy has achieved. Here comes the much awaited and looked forward sequel to the epic, ‘The Old man and the Sea”.

  4. Hey Kaypius, many thanks for spelling out in great details the intrepid voyage of Abhilash. Ever since his rescue from the previous encounter, I have been following his escapades. I am waiting waiting with bated breath for him to dock and disembark. My heartiest congratulations to him are ready to be dispatched. My deep appreciation to you for documenting it in such a delightful and sensitive manner. DEEPLY APPRECIATED.

  5. Every Soul which comes to this world is equipped with unlimited energy.During the course of their journey in this world,each one performs according to their thought process.Some are able to open their inner Soul and record their activities. Abhilash is one such. I am an accidental military officer who broke conventional service norms.

  6. I agree. This is a material world. I haven’t followed a single sport for over a decade, got rid of the television some eight years ago and never regretted it.
    Following this race within the small community Urmi creates has been the best call I’ve made to follow something in a decade.
    This piece is honest and poignantly covers the journey of Cdr Abhilas Tomy, KC and I am grateful that this is out there.
    Many will now want to claim him, because he created history. It is the saddest thing. I agree with you that we can dwell on that later. For now I prefer to savour these amazing months of watching history being made, the lessons learned and honouring a phenomenal, incredibly courageous human being who, with the indomitable support of a just as courageous Urmi have shown the world what partnerships can be like if you truly love another human being.
    Thank you for this article. As for Cdr Abhilash Tomy, KC the biggest BZ ever!

  7. Exceptional writing sir. The best I have read about Abhilash And state of interest in maritime affairs in the country.

  8. All endurance sports are to be marvelled at, but GGR is the true triumph of human spirit. Even a few days out at sea in a secure steel vessel with power, food, air conditioning, entertainment and company makes one want to come back ashore. To be at sea with none of the those provided for readily and to do that for 300 days in a 32 feet boat is unimaginable. Amongst all the achievements of human endurance and spirit, at least in the Indian context, this must be arguably the best.

  9. Thank you KP…for such an awe inspiring write up on Tomy….What a Champion! And what marks his indomitable spirit even more is his Sobriety, Humility & Modesty….

    A Super write up for a Super Achiever! Thank you once again….loved the piece!


  10. Excellent piece. One of your best. Moved me!! I have been following Tomy but still feel ashamed that we Indians are the way we are. Thank You for Sharing.

  11. May be his efforts get recognised into school text books in our education curriculum for the present and future generations to get inspired.

  12. Dear Kps

    I’m in awe of you after going through this invaluable informative and treasure of knowledge . The article gives
    comprehensive overview of our daring adventurous Abhilash’s incredible unimaginable challenging journey at sea.

    It’s indeed saddening to witness the minimal coverage given to our hero who is just few hours away from creating a history . Our humongous population is oblivious of the sweat blood invested by this chivalrous unstoppable sea farer….

    Your write up educates about the origin of the race …it’s challenges and reflects the magnitude of experience grit will Power and resilience of our dear Abhilash Tomy .

    Your appreciation and tribute to him is worth an applause. It’s an eye opener too at the same time for a layman who is clueless about this GGR and our Nation’s Pride .

    This thriller read will leave an indelible mark in readers minds.

    Many thanks for the lovely read
    God bless!

  13. Thanks KP for sharing the inspiring saga of Tomy. I felt as if I was travelling in time with you. Speaks volumes of the character of Tomy and his never say die attitude. The fact that he decided to again venture out on the GGR makes him a winner. It surely saddens on the value we give to such super human endeavour over shadowing it with meaningless trivia.

  14. We salute Abhilash Tomy for his outstanding achievement ,his grit and determination will be an example and lode star for generations to come…Congratulations Abhilash wishing you the best

  15. Grit makes one great. This guy may have got fitted metal into his body, but he is a real man of steel. Kudos to his indefatigable spirit.

  16. Congratulations Cdr Abhilash Tomy for achieving this unique task. We the sailors of Indian Navy is proud of you. I remember, when you have presented a video on your first global sailing. Bravo Zulu.
    Preman Nair, Fleet Meet, Kannur

  17. Abhilash is a true unsung hero of India
    Had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with him in 2013 when he spoke to students at a summer camp in dehradun
    I’ve followed his voyages and as a kid read Thor Heyadhal, Chichester and Knox Johnston and their sailing heroics- but Abhilash you are the best and the bravest

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