LONDON — It was Day 82 of the 2018 Golden Globe Race when officials declared a Code Red Alert.
Skippers sailing nonstop and alone around the world, unassisted and without modern navigation aids, as the rules of the notoriously challenging race dictate, found themselves in a vicious cyclone Friday in the southern Indian Ocean.
Don McIntyre, founder and chairman of Golden Globe Race, told The Washington Post the seas were “horrific.”
“It was the absolute worst type of storm,” McIntyre said. “The wave state was extreme. The conditions were almost unheard of.”
The seas were not only confused, coming from one direction, then another, but huge — rising to the height of five-story buildings, then curling and breaking over the vessels.
The winds reached at least 80 mph, which is hurricane strength, and shifted from north to south within minutes.
Three of the small sailboats were repeatedly knocked down. One sailor at the front of the fleet, Mark Slats, 41, of the Netherlands, was dragged overboard and saved only by his safety tether. He told race officials he had “never seen conditions as bad.” One wave smashed through his companionway, flooded the boat, fried his electronics and sparked a small fire. Still, he managed to maintain his second-place position.
Two boats were rolled over completely in the 50-foot seas; both of these vessels lost their rigging, masts and sails.
One of the racers, 39-year-old Abhilash Tomy, an active-duty commander in the Indian Navy who was making his second solo circumnavigation, was severely injured in the maelstrom.
In a text sent to the race headquarters in France, Tomy typed out a distress message that read, “ROLLED. DISMASTED. SEVERE BACK INJURY. CANNOT GET UP.”
Over the next four days, rescuers struggled to reach Tomy, alone and adrift in a crippled vessel, his mast and sails dragging in the water, in a location that Australian officials described as one of the most remote on Earth, at the very edge of immediate rescue range, some 1,900 miles southwest of Perth in Western Australia.
The Indian sailor was saved Monday by a French fisheries patrol vessel, Osiris.
The Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Canberra, Australia, reported: “Tomy is conscious, talking and onboard the Osiris. Australian and Indian long range P8 Orion reconnaissance aircraft are circling overhead.”
The Osiris was previously a pirate fishing vessel that had been confiscated by the French and now patrols the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters, searching for vessels violating international fishing rules.
The Australian Navy also dispatched a warship, the frigate HMAS Ballarat, and reconnaissance aircraft over the weekend to search for the 32-foot sailing vessel, as Tomy lay in his bunk and his yacht, Thuriya, drifted in the ocean. The Indian Navy also sent a ship and plane to the search area.
After his sailboat was dismasted in the storm, Tomy spent the next four days trapped in his cabin. After his first text message, the skipper was not heard from for almost 24 hours.
Later, he texted that he could not stand, that his toes were numb, that he could not reach an emergency grab bag in the small cabin that contained a satellite phone.
He texted, “CAN MOVE TOES. FEEL NUMB. CAN’T EAT OR DRINK.”
Later, he wrote, with misspellings, “LUGGED CANS OF ICE TEA. HAVING THAT. VOMITTING CONTINUINGLY. CHEST BURNING.”
The Golden Globe Race committee reported: “Overnight Saturday, an Indian P8 Orion military plane out of Mauritius overflew Thuriya to assess the yacht’s condition. Photographs taken by the crew show the yacht dismasted with her rig still attached to the hull acting as a sea anchor, and slowing her drift westwards.”
Tomy managed to activate his emergency beacon — and then he waited.
One of Tomy’s competitors, 32-year-old Gregor McGuckin of Ireland, the second sailor whose boat was rolled over and who lost his mast, struggled under a jury-rigged sail to reach Tomy from 90 miles away.
McGuckin had survived his own harrowing adventure.
“The Irish yachtsman reported that he had utilized his spinnaker pole to rig a simple jury rig but found that the alloy tube was bending in heavy gusts,” the race committee announced. “He is also having trouble with the engine, which keeps stopping. This may be caused by fuel contamination when the yacht was rolled and dismasted on Friday. He is also having to hand steer after his wind vane self-steering was smashed by the falling mast.”
McIntyre, the Golden Globe Race founder, said that Tomy will travel aboard the fishing patrol boat to lonely Amsterdam Island, which has one doctor.
Tomy will then either be taken to Australia or picked up by the Indian Navy.
As for the Irish skipper, he faced a tough decision. McIntyre said the captain could have slowly sailed his damaged boat all the way to Australia, but that could have taken two months.
Instead, because rescuers were in the area, he decided to voluntarily abandon his own yacht and join Tomy aboard the Osiris. That rescue was ongoing Monday.
“He concluded it would have been reckless to carry on,” McIntyre said. “It was the seamanlike thing to do.”
McIntyre said he was not sure what would happen to the two abandoned yachts. “Usually they scuttle them [sink them] at sea so they won’t pose a navigation risk,” he said.
Seventeen sailors began the race in July. Eight have abandoned their circumnavigation because of boat damage or for personal reasons. Nine are still at sea.