An overview, till early May 2023, of the 2022 edition of a fantastic race
Like some who watch the David Lean classic ` Lawrence of Arabia’ finding the desert the film’s real hero, the actual hero of GGR is the sea – its known tendencies and its unpredictability. None, not even the world’s best sailors, are spared.
As of late April, of the 16 sailors who commenced the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR), only three were left in the main race category. Two stood pushed to the Chichester Class. The rest had retired. This included two major accidents – a case of a boat sinking in the Indian Ocean in November 2022 and another of a boat rolled and dismasted in the southern Atlantic Ocean in April 2023. Nothing captured the sea’s effect on a race and those tracking it, as well as this comment posted on GGR’s Facebook page after the world was informed of Kirsten Neuschafer being seven nautical miles from finish and without wind to push her on, “ All of us on the YouTube live chat are pointing hairdryers, leaf blowers out windows and waving towels and beach blankets towards coastal France!’’ By afternoon, April 28, the situation must have felt similar for Abhilash Tomy and his fans too. He was expected at Les Sables-d’Olonne that day but thanks to prevailing weather conditions, the ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) stood revised to late morning April 29.
Over four and a half years after a storm in the Indian Ocean left him badly injured, Abhilash Tomy finished second in the 2022 Golden Globe Race (GGR). According to the event’s live tracker and Facebook page, he crossed the finish line at Les Sables-d’Olonne in France after completing the race’s mandated solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the planet, at 04:46 hours Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) on Saturday, April 29, 2023. The race was won by Kirsten Neuschafer of South Africa. Sailing in the Minnehaha, she reached Les Sables-d’Olonne at 19:44 UTC on April 27, 2023. The 2022 GGR had got underway on September 4, 2022.
The first among the 2022 GGR participants to reach Les Sables-d’Olonne after a full circumnavigation done, was Simon Curwen of United Kingdom. He had led the race by a considerable margin for much of the voyage before the need to repair his boat forced him to deviate to coastal Chile, relegating him to the Chichester Class (sailing with one stopover) of the race. With that he stopped being one of the contenders for a podium finish in the main GGR, which requires solo, non-stop sailing. However, Simon caught up with the competitors who had gone past him during that halt in Chile, overtook them and finished ahead of all in the early afternoon (10:38 UTC) of April 27, 2023.
By evening the same day, the winner of the 2022 GGR, Kirsten Neuschafer of South Africa, reached Les Sables-d’Olonne becoming in the process, the first woman to win a round-the-world race by the three great capes across the solo / crewed and solo / non-stop categories. She is also the first South African sailor to win such an event. Her voyage as part of the 2022 GGR was remarkable not just for the quality of sailing she showed but also the rescue of fellow GGR participant, Tapio Lehtinen. The rescue happened in November 2022. Lehtinen’s boat sank suddenly in the Indian Ocean forcing him to transfer to a lifeboat. Neuschafer was awarded the Rod Stephen Seamanship Trophy by the Cruising Club of America for the rescue. The intervention, also fetched her time-credit in the race, as compensation.
Two things set the GGR apart from other races involving circumnavigation of the planet. Given it has the flavour of a retro-sailing event, some aspects of technology and access to technology permitted for the race have been pegged back to what prevailed a few decades ago. Second, a non-stop voyage around the planet takes a massive toll on both sailor and boat. This is where Abhilash’s story becomes special. In 2013 he had become the first Indian to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation in a sailboat (INSV Mhadei) as part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project, conceived and overseen by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati. A few years later, in 2018, he had participated in that year’s GGR only to end up with serious injury to self and his boat (Thuriya) dismasted, following a severe storm in the southern Indian Ocean. But he fought his way out from that reversal of fortune; he underwent surgery and rehabilitation and eventually got back to flying and sailing, the activities that defined him as a naval aviator and one of the all-time greats of Indian sailing. He then signed up for the 2022 edition of the GGR and returned to the race with the Bayanat; the boat was named after his main sponsor for the voyage, a company from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) specializing in AI-powered geospatial intelligence.
Now retired from the Indian Navy, Abhilash’s passage in the 2022 GGR wasn’t easy. Although he kept himself in the pack of race leaders, the position probably revealed little of what he was actually enduring. He knew the sea, the challenges pertaining to weather and maintaining the boat. But in 2022, there was a new ingredient in the mix – his mind, still living the memories of the September 2018 accident. It was clear to those tracking the 2022 race and reviewing videos posted from the periodic rendezvous with sailors at check points that Abhilash was battling anxiety in the portion of the GGR leading to the southern Indian Ocean, where in 2018, he had been battered by a storm. This was vindicated by his admission (in communications with the race organizers) of a peace finally found after he got past the site of the 2018 accident. Thereafter, it was a different Abhilash. His worries from that point on, seemed mostly about addressing the needs of his boat which kept developing a litany of complaints. But he responded creatively and found solutions for the problems without resorting to a stopover for repairs. He improvised with what he had aboard. This approach kept him alive in the main, competitive segment of the race featuring solo, non-stop circumnavigation. Amidst this struggle, he coped with his old injuries acting up as a consequence of long hours of work, steering and maintaining the boat. What reached Les Sables-d’Olonnes on April 29, should therefore be a package of Abhilash and Bayanat that captures single handed sailing over an extended period of time. Saturday (April 29, 2023) was the 236th day since commencement of the race.
For a race of this dimension, the boat matters. During the 2018 GGR, Abhilash’s boat had been the Thuriya, a replica of the Suhaili, in which Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the world’s first solo, non-stop circumnavigation and won the original Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968-1969. The Suhaili was bult in Mumbai; Thuriya in Goa. To compete in the 2022 GGR, Abhilash bought a Rustler 36 type of yacht in France; it was then renamed Bayanat. The boat had been used in the 2018 GGR by Philippe Peche of France. As per information on Wikipedia, of the 16 sailors who commenced the 2022 GGR, four – including Abhilash – had boats of the Rustler 36 type. Kirsten Neuschafer’s Minnehaha is a Cape George Cutter (CG36) while Simon Curwen’s Clara and Michael Guggenberger’s Nuri are both Biscay 36. At the time of writing, Guggenberger (he is from Austria) was in third place with roughly 488 nautical miles left to finish. South Africa’s Jeremy Bagshaw sailing in the Olleanna (OE32 type of yacht) was second in Chichester Class and 1621 nautical miles away from Les Sables-d’Olonne.
In a video posted on the GGR Facebook page, Abhilash could be seen saying soon after his arrival at Les Sables-d’Olonne in France that this is the first time an Asian is securing a podium finish in a round-the world race of any format. “ It’s a big moment for me,’’ he said. Responding to a message from Admiral R. Hari Kumar, chief of the Indian Navy, congratulating him on his achievement, Abhilash recalled the support he had received from the senior officer when in 2018 he put in his resignation because he wished to attempt the GGR and was unsure he would be able to do that through the navy. The admiral was at that time, head of HR in the navy. “ He understood the importance of GGR and he pushed the boundaries of a lot of rules to make sure that I was here,’’ Abhilash said, adding that when he had the accident in the 2018 GGR (his boat, Thuriya, was dismasted and he suffered serious injury in a storm in the southern Indian Ocean), the admiral had been in the operations room directing the rescue.
“ I am happy to have completed the circle. The stigma of losing a boat…I didn’t want to, you know, once is an accident, twice is a habit! So, I really wanted to get Bayanat back and I can tell you, Bayanat got me back,’’ Abhilash said. Asked about the impact of his podium finish in India, Abhilash pointed out how small the number of yachts in all of India was. From that backdrop, if he could think of a circumnavigation race and complete it, it meant the youngsters of India can do a lot. Comparing the two solo, non-stop circumnavigations he has done so far, Abhilash said that the INSV Mhadei was a big boat, one that kept you safe as long as you made sure that nothing happened to it. It didn’t demand a lot. “ But a small boat with wind pilot and no GPS is a hundred times more difficult. But at the same time, I want to say that if that circumnavigation had not happened, I would not have dreamt of coming for GGR. So, they are important in their own places but a GGR is a hundred times tougher than what I did in 2013.’’
The second major mishap of the 2022 GGR happened on day 218 of the race (around April 10, 2023) in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the first report on the incident on the GGR website, Ian Herbert Jones of the United Kingdom and his boat Puffin, found themselves in `
Storms and freaky weather conditions aren’t the only things that trigger retirement in endurance races. In solo, non-stop sailing, the boat he / she is in, is every sailor’s floating house. It is what shields sailor from the elements. Its maintenance is a constant job. Equipment aboard may malfunction or break down. The hull may gather barnacles and slow down the boat’s progress in water. Monitoring, cleaning and repairing – it keeps going on. Depending on what is available and what isn’t, one may require to be creative on the repairs. The paradigm of a race, enhances the importance of these aspects. In solo sailing, all this has to be done by oneself. Limits reached on any of these fronts or quite simply the mind declining to sustain its appetite for such life, can lead to people pulling out.
A summary of the race would be incomplete without a picture of the finish. A circumnavigation is a hell of a lot of distance covered, long enough for people to be separated by vast margins at sea. Yet by the time, Abhilash and Kirsten Neuschafer entered the Atlantic for the second time in their long voyage (this time on the way back to Les Sables-d’Olonne), it was clear that a tight finish was on the cards. Around the equator, the lead separating the two had reduced considerably. At times, they seemed almost parallel to each other on the race’s live tracker. Eventually, Kirsten finished first, Abhilash placed second. For most observers, given a whole planet circumnavigated, both represent endurance sailing at its best.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This wrap-up is the extended version of two articles by the author published in Telegraph and Rediff.com)