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Circumnavigation

Young man and the sea

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SEA LEGS: The boat, Mhadei, with Dilip Donde on board (right) and Abhilash Tomy (below)

On a record-making non-stop sea voyage around the world, Abhilash Tomy knows that things will go wrong. But all he wishes is that no one calls him.

Joshua Slocum of Nova Scotia completed the world's first solo circumnavigation in 1898. It took India 112 years and a clearance diver, not a bonafide competitive sailor to chart the spherical diameter of the planet, solo. In 2010, Dilip Donde, a trained diver with the Indian Navy, sailed over 21, 600 nautical miles over 157 days with four stopovers. This October, Abhilash Tomy, an experienced competitive sailor, will repeat the same journey but this time it will be completely unassisted and non-stop.

Circumnavigation is not the most visually adrenaline-pumping adventure sport when compared with climbing frozen peaks or spelunking down bottomless caves. The club of solo circumnavigators only has about 200 members worldwide. Of these only about 80 have succeeded in making it non-stop and unassisted. More people have gone into space.

Donde, who proudly wears a full face of brilliantly calcium-white beard and looks like a mariner out of a poem, had actually volunteered for the project (Sagar Parikrama) when the Navy had proposed it. "I did it out of sheer ignorance. It looked like a good idea then and everyone else had refused it, " says Donde, who started training and boat-acclimatisation after the decision. Donde's idea of a good sail was making a cup of coffee and sitting on the deck to watch a sunset, not riding nine-foot waves in tempestuous weather.

Donde struck gold when we got in touch with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail non-stop and solo, whose boat was incidentally built in Bombay in 1965. It was when Johnston was participating in a roundthe-world solo race that Donde got the opportunity to work with him as his shore support team for six weeks.

The shortlisted boatbuilder, Ratnakar Dandekar, had never built a sailboat. "We have naval architects and engineers, sure, but their whole training is not for sailboats. The ships they build, their lifeboats are the size of my boat, " says Donde. But the boat, Mhadei, made India's first perambulation successfully. The three-year-old boat has clocked 57, 000 miles at sea and is now prepped for the next one.

Tomy, however, found his sea-legs long back. He started sailing when he was a cadet at 16. Before he knew it, he was beating colleagues. He now has several sailboat races, medals and training sessions to his credit.

An essential part of long-term sailing training for both Donde and Tomy was blazing through several firsts in Indian sailing. They sailed (all records) to Colombo, Mauritius and Brazil together. All of it was critical though. "On these trips we realised the boat needed a lot of improvements. We fitted an extra generator, extra winches, plus a new handhold, some hook somewhere. I didn't have mirrors. I thought who cares, who is going to see me on the boat anyway? And then one day I hit my head against something and it started bleeding. I wanted to see how badly I was hurt. Do I need stitches? Finally I had to see myself on the laptop webcam, " says Donde.

Tomy has sailed 25, 000 miles on Mhadei. "That is more than a circumnavigation. During Donde's trip, I was in every port, Goa, Bombay, Colombo, Australia, New Zealand, the Falklands. I was with the boat, preparing it, maintaining it for his next voyage, " he says.

Tomy hopes to finish his voyage by April-May next year. He is not sure of anything except that things will go wrong. But one thing that he cannot stand in the middle of a seemingly interminable time on the sea is, oddly, communication from the outside world. "Once when we were in the thick of bad weather, our main sail tore. There is no luxury of a pit stop in the sea. A merchant ship ahead of us lost 36 containers and you bang into one of them that is the end. One boat behind me sank, one got dismasted, one lost its rudder, one cracked its boom in three places and in between all this I get an email from SBI saying please pay your Rs 1. 2 lakh tomorrow, " he recalls.

Tomy and Donde are like a married couple - spending several days on end with each other without a soul in sight - though they say it is more like a father-son relationship.

The physical rigour is something they got used to pretty fast though it is a pretty healthy life with the cleanest air in the world, healthy eating and physical exertion. "There are good and bad days. On bad days you are convinced that you don't want to sail ever again. But you are a couple of thousand miles from nearest land, so you move on. And then there are very good days, when you promise yourself to sail everyday of your life because you are in this blissful world. Your work is cut out for you. There are times I have made dosas and pancakes and risotto and had good music playing. But there were also days when there would be a packet of chocolate ten metres away from me and I wouldn't have the strength to get to it. Some days I was cursing myself for not writing my will and some days I would be dancing boat buck-naked on the deck or watching whale spouts early morning, " says Donde.

Tomy has started listing books and music for the voyage. His essential carry-ons are laptop, phone, books and guitar though he doesn't play it. "I've been trying to learn since 2004 but don't get the time. I can sing as off-key as I want on the boat, " he says.

There is one pending ritual between the two. The first time they sailed from Goa to Mauritius, Tomy had carried a cigar and Donde a bottle of wine to celebrate crossing the equator. When they crossed the equator at 4 am, Donde said, "We're crossing the equator", to which Tomy had only grunted. Later Tomy, gave the cigar to Donde when he completed his circumnavigation. Donde hasn't smoked it yet. He says, "Maybe when he comes back".

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