I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville



Apr 15, 2013

Indian sails across world alone- enters the record books



The Outdoor Journal

The Navy officer became the first in a country of billions, to circumnavigate solo, on a yacht.

An Indian navy sailor has found his name at the bottom of the list of the Joshua Slocum Society International, a global body which honors all solo and long distance sailors for epic sea voyages.

Being 200th in the list of people who circumnavigated non-stop solo or being 79th to do it by sea is nothing short of an incredible achievement. Lieutenant Commander Abhilash Tomy is eager to get some rest post his 150-day sea sojourn before embarking on a new adventure.

In 2009, when his mentor and senior officer Commander Dilip Donde decided on a solo circumnavigation ‘Sagarparikrama 1’ (circumnavigation by sea),  Lt. Cdr Tomy assisted his superior officer in setting up the ship for sail.

That experience gave the then 30-year-old sailor the inspiration for his own journey. While his mentor achieved it with four stops, Lt Cdr Tomy targeted a non-stop journey.

He set sail on November 1st from Mumbai port in the state of Maharashtra by the same boat his mentor had sailed in ‘INSV Mhadei’ and returned on March 31. The President of India was among the people present to greet him when he sailed in.

In an e-mail interaction with The Outdoor Journal Lt Cdr gives an insight to what it takes to be a solo circumnavigator:

Q. Congratulations! You’re the first Indian to do a 150-day non-stop solo-circumnavigation, the SAGARPARIKRAMA 2. How do you feel about it?

A. I think it was a fantastic experience. Everything worked out as per the plan and when I returned the boat after 150 days, it was almost as good as new. The only “issue” was that at the end of the voyage I felt a sense of loss and the overwhelming attention showered by people around me made me wonder if I should not go back to the sea.

Q. When did this idea of circumnavigation cross your mind?

A. The idea of a circumnavigation crossed my mind in 1999 when I read about a round the world solo race in a magazine. In 2009, Cdr Donde wanted an assistant for his solo circumnavigation project and I volunteered. That was the first concrete step towards a circumnavigation.

Q. Could you describe your preparations for the voyage? How did you refuel the yacht?

A. I worked under Cdr Donde and helped him prepare the boat in all ports during SP1 (Sagarparikrama 1). I also sailed with him to Colombo and Mauritius on training voyage prior solo. When it was confirmed that I would be doing the non-stop, we planned a sail from Goa to Rio with a halt at Cape Town. I sailed under Cdr Donde and with two other crew. At Rio the boat was handed over to me and I crossed the Atlantic with one crew and sailed from Cape Town to Goa solo.

In 2012, I sailed the boat as skipper with a crew of three to Malaysia and Thailand. So, by the time I started the solo non-stop, I had about 27000 miles of experience. I carried all the fuel that I needed. So, I did not have to refuel.

Q. Tell us about your ration for the whole trip.

A. The ration came from the following sources:-
– The Defence Food Research Laboratories gave about 150 packets of ready to eat meals gratis
– A lot of freeze dry food came from New Zealand
– This was supplemented by rice and lentils and chickpeas that could be cooked and also dry nuts and fruits, dehydrated vegetables, fish pickle, canned pickle, canned fruits and all that.
– Fresh food that was taken for the voyage lasted for about one month.

Mrs Meera Donde helped me with the preparations. It was assumed that a man eats about 500 gms a day. On the basis of this calculation, food was segregated month wise and packed in plastic boxes.

Q. Did you have the fear of encountering pirates, especially off the Somalian coast or the Gulf of Eden? Were you carrying any arms for defense?

A. I did not have any form of self defense. what I did though are as follows:-
– stayed away from piracy prone areas as much as possible
– public position reports were disabled while crossing piracy infested waters

Additionally, ships and aircraft of the Indian Navy who were sailing in the area would drop by to check on me

Q. What were the international maritime bodies or countries you crossed? Did you get any assistance from them?

A. The world’s oceans are divided into Search and Rescue Regions which are managed by MRCCs in assigned countries. I passed the SRR of the following countries:
– Sri Lanka
– Australia
– NZ
– Chile
– Argentina
– South Africa
– Reunion
– Madagascar
– Mauitius
– Maldives

I did not take any assistance from them though I would pass my position reports to them every day so that they could come and help me in case of any emergency.

Q. Was your engine unserviced all the way? Or did you halt somewhere for that? How did you manage it?

A. – The engine was not used much, so it was never serviced. It did have a defect once though. It refused to start. I replaced the starter relay with spare and it worked well after that.
– The generator was serviced twice. It included an oil change and check of the sea water cooling system.
– I did that while the boat was still moving. I managed to do it by planning the servicing when the sea was calmer than usual

Q. Any such incident where you faced a storm or an instance of capsizing in the sea?

A. It is very difficult to capsize this boat. However, I did go through a couple of instances when the boat went out of control. Once was off Falkland Islands and the second time it was while rounding Cape of Good Hope

Q. You’d said that you faced your scariest moments while crossing the 3 Capes- Cape Leeuwin, Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope. Tell us something about it.

A. The scariest moment was while the boat rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Winds had shot unto 70 knots in a gust and the boat went out of control. The wind caught the Genoa, made a belly and it caused the mast to shake violently. It was a scary moment because I thought the mast would come off!

The sail eventually shredded and made a mess but it affected the mast much less.

Q. This yacht, INSV Mhadei, has taken 2 separate circumnavigation trips. Could you please describe this vessel? Some specifications.

A. She is a Van de Stadt Tonga 56.
– Builder- Aquarius Fibreglas pvt ltd- Goa
– Year- 2009
– LOA- 56 ft
– Displacement- 23Tons
– Construction- Wood core fiberglass
– Log- Approx 80000 nautical miles
– Mast and rigging- Southern Spars, Cape Town
– Sails- North Sails, New Zealand and Cape Town
– Navigation suite- Raymarine
– Communication Suite
– Thrane and Thrane INMARSAT Mini C
– FBB 500
– SPOT Personal tracker
– Emergency Equipment
– EPRIB, SART,  Liferaft (4 men), immersion suit
– water maker- Schenker Italia
– Engine- Volvo Penta D5
– Power generation
– main engine
– 3.5 KVA Whisper Power genset
– Superwind wind generator
– Solar panels

Q. Since you’ve travelled the whole world now, what next?

A. Some rest, and then look for the next adventure!

Pic Courtesy: Abhilash Tomy

Place: New Delhi

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.



Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.


I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.


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