Malayali sailor Abhilash Tomy inches closer to winning 2022 Golden Globe Race

Abhilash first attempted the race in 2018, but had to call it off after his yacht was destroyed in a storm and he suffered injuries to his spine.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Mar 29, 2023 | 9:30 AMUpdated Mar 29, 2023 | 2:39 PM

Abhilash Tomy onboard Bayanat. (Golden Globe Race)

Somewhere in the South Atlantic Ocean, close to the Equator, Abhilash Tomy’s yacht, the Bayanat, is defying gusting winds to blaze to victory. With every passing hour, the retired Indian Naval officer is inching closer to the finishing line. 

For the unversed (and now is a good chance to get with the times), Kerala-born Abhilash is circumnavigating the planet as part of the 2022 Golden Globe Race.

About the Golden Globe Race

The race, dubbed as one of the best human adventures in the world, entails a solo non-stop circumnavigation in a sailboat. It began on 4 September, 2022, from Les Sables-d’Olonne in France, and it will end at the same location in June 2023.

Sixteen sailors started the race to win this incredibly tough competition. By mid-February 2023, 10 had retired. Abhilash (44) is the only Indian-origin participant and is currently sailing in second position. Leading the race is the only woman — South Africa’s Kirsten Neuschäfer. 

India is rooting for Malayali sailor Abhilash. But his biggest cheerleader is his wife, Urmimala Abhilash, a graphic designer from Bengal.

Urmimala posts minute-by-minute updates on her and Abhilash’s Twitter accounts to get his fans up to speed with information about weather conditions and his real-time location in the sea.

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His greatest supporter

Abhilash and his wife Urmimala. (Supplied)

Abhilash and his wife Urmimala. (Supplied)

“Professional sailors have retired from the race, Abhilash has soldiered on,” Urmimala tells South First. “The race has been very very trying for him. But he has put in everything to overcome the odds he’s faced.”

It takes a lot to face your fears again. But demonstrating courage comes naturally to Abhilash. “Yes, he is extraordinary in that sense,” Urmimala beams with pride. “I don’t know anyone who is braver than him. We only read about such people in books or see them in movies.”

The fears she is referring to is something Abhilash experienced first hand in the 2018 Golden Globe Race. That year too, Abhilash was the only Indian and Asian to participate in the race.

What transpired in that game is a story worth telling!

Making waves

In 2018, Abhilash was an entrant in the 50th edition of the Golden Globe Race. The first was held in 1968; the winner was Englishman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who sailed a 32ft timber yacht built in India named Suhaili. Abhilash was sailing in the exact replica of Suhaili called Thuriya — also built in India.

In 2018, an extreme storm severely damaged his yacht and left Abhilash with an injured spine. (Bram De Vries)

In 2018, an extreme storm severely damaged his yacht and left Abhilash with an injured spine. (Bram De Vries)

Most part of the race went as he planned, but an extreme storm somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean severely damaged his yacht. Abhilash injured his spine and was unable to move his legs.

A multi-nation rescue effort was launched and, finally, after three-and-a-half days, Abhilash was brought back to shore. He was sailing in third position then.

His wife calls the episode “absolute madness”. “The only thing I want to express is my gratitude to the Indian Navy,” she adds.

Abhilash hated that he had to retire from the competition. When we ask Urmimala what those unpleasant hours of rescue mission felt like, she simply says, “I don’t like to dwell on this or revisit it [the 2018 race] especially at the moment.”

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Love in the time of adventure

Urmimala has been a source of constant support to Abhilash. But when he declared he was going to participate in the 2022 race, she was hesitant at first. Eventually she came on board the idea.

“From the moment he returned post his surgery, this had been his thought. I took some time to accept it, but I realised soon enough that there’s no point tying such souls down. I did not want to control his dreams and ambitions,” she explains.

Abhilash prematurely retired from the Indian Navy to participate in the 2022 Golden Globe Race. (Bram De Vries)

Abhilash prematurely retired from the Indian Navy to participate in the Golden Globe Race. (Bram De Vries)

But could he have reached the second spot in the current race without her being by his side, we ask.

“He would’ve done it nonetheless,” she laughs. “My support along with the support of all his loved ones keeps his spirits soaring, but his resolve is above all else.”

For his family, these adventures were expected. “Abhilash’s odyssey with the oceans began when he was just a little boy,” his wife says.

“He was an avid reader and stories about adventure always intrigued him. Abhilash is great with people, but when he wants to do something that is close to his heart, he prefers to do it himself. He is a deeply spiritual person as well and he needs those moments of absolute silence to draw upon the energies that aid him in such extraordinary situations. He figured that out over the course of his journeys,” she adds.

And so, when he retired prematurely from the Indian Navy in January 2021 to prepare for the 2022 Golden Globe Race, his decision did not come as a surprise to his close peers and family.

“Yes, his retirement was a bit difficult to come to terms with. But this has been his dream and the thought that he has held onto to during his recovery. So it was obviously very important for him,” she says, adding that she supported his decision.

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Second time’s the charm

Abhilash went through training to equip himself to face challenges at sea. “The Indian Navy has given him the physical and mental training, but yes he does have tremendous resolve and his focus is unparalleled when it comes to his commitment to a mission,” says Urmimala.

However, she confesses that he did not have time to “prepare adequately” for the 2022 race. “Other sailors have prepared for years, sailed their boats for thousands of miles. Abhilash is drawing purely from his passion and knowledge that he has gathered from his previous experience.”

Unfortunately, Urmimala doesn’t have any means to communicate with her husband.

“This is a vintage-style race that uses technology from 1968, hence there is no Internet, no GPS, no phone available,” she adds. “I’ve only heard from him through the captains and crew of passing ships, those who’ve heard Abhilash on the radio and passed on his messages to me.”

As he inches closer to lifting the coveted trophy, Urmimala prays that all Indians should root for him.

“Yes he will finish the race,” she adds, optimistically.

“No Asian or Indian has been able to do this in the history of the sport. Manifest the best for him collectively.”