Category Archives: Sailors

Inarticulable as Lust

“…a man climbs on dangerous paths in the highest mountains so as to mock his fear and trembling knees.” Nietzsche

“The obvious question is why,” Maggie Shipstead wrote in an Outside Magazine article about the Golden Globe Race. “Why choose to sail alone in a small boat through the world’s most furious seas, far from comfort or help, guided by the stars? Why attempt such a journey knowing full well that at times you will be horribly lonely, at others frustrated beyond measure, sometimes bored, sometimes afraid, that death by drowning out in the middle of big blue will be a constant possibility?”

It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question but her answer was no answer at all. “If you have to ask, you’ll never really understand the answer.” In fact, she denied the possibility of an answer. “In a way, there is no answer.”

The sailors themselves are no better at articulating their reasons, their explanations no more satisfying than George Mallory’s reason for attempting to summit Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” He sacrificed his life in the attempt despite his inability to explain himself to others.

Shipstead does make a salient comment. “All the sailors seemed to have decided more or less instantaneously to enter the race as soon as they heard about it, as though the idea had broken a pane of glass inside them, releasing an implacable spirit.”

The immediacy of the decision, without thought or conscious deliberation, is suggestive.

“Fundamentally, the desire to be in the race was just that,” she observes, “a desire as instinctive and unpredictable and inarticulable as lust.”

Instinctive and inarticulable, perhaps, but unpredictable?

While there’s not much research on the motivation of long-distance solo sailors, there’s a fair amount on expeditionary mountaineers. The two extreme sports share a lot in common; the extensive preparation, comprehensive skill sets, and the experience of extended periods of grinding tedium punctuated by bouts of blood-thinning fear.

Agency & Emotion

Extreme sports have a high probability that something will go wrong and a high chance of death as the outcome. In the past participation in such sports has been explained as a means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking.

But don’t mistake mountain climbers with bungee jumpers and skydivers. The later, driven by sensation seeking, are addicted to the rush of adrenalin. It’s a quick fix. Sensation seekers are averse to routine work or repetitive experience. They become restless when things don’t continually change.

Expeditionary mountaineers often spend weeks hauling their gear to the base of a mountain. The ascent, one tedious step after another, may take more weeks on a major summit, and then the long return to civilization. Any pleasure is largely retrospective.

A circumnavigation of the globe in the old boats stipulated by the Golden Globe rules will likely take 10 months or more. Something other than adrenaline drives them.

Climbing Mt. Everest
Climbing Mt. Everest

James Lester, a psychologist, accompanied the first American Mt. Everest Expedition in 1963. He described several characteristics prevalent among the mountaineers; desire for agency, lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake, high need for independence and achievement but a low need for intimacy and affection. Personal relationships and domestic life “were more stressful to the average team member than were the icy conditions in a fragile tent in a high wind with inadequate oxygen.”

Additional research based upon Lester’s foundational work (Woodman, Hardy, Barlow & Le Scanff 2010) identified emotional regulation and agency underpinning the motives of participants in expeditionary extreme sports.

Emotional regulation refers to which emotions we have, when we have them, how we experience them and how we express them. Agency is fundamentally an individuals’ beliefs regarding their ability to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Research revealed mountaineers and trans-Atlantic rowers had greater difficulty regulating their emotions than most people and a diminished sense of agency in their everyday lives. At the same time, they had  greater expectations of their own agency. They expected to be more in control of their lives than most people. The discrepancy between what they feel and what they expect of themselves drives some people to climb mountains or cross oceans.

Difficulty managing emotions may result in a constant, low-level anxiety, “a kind of background radiation saturating existence.” People aren’t likely to recognize the source of their anxiety or control it, but they feel it. In the mountains, climbers can trade their ambiguous, internal anxiety for a clearly identifiable emotion driven by external events: fear. Where anxiety has no source or defense, fear is a response to a definite threat. It’s a known enemy.

Extreme environments provide simple, stark challenges where there is no room and no time for anxiety. Failure to control your fear on the pitch of a major peak or a storm at sea diminishes your ability, efficiency, and chances of survival. It becomes a simple calculation. Control your fear or die.

Storm waves
Photo credit: www.coastalliving.com

Where mountaineers struggle with agency most and feel least in control is emotional relationships.

There are metaphorical similarities between the mountains and romance. (The same metaphors apply to the ocean.) Both are perceived as difficult and stressful, a prolonged emotional struggle. The ability to control emotions and master fear while summiting a mountain may transfer positively to managing romantic relationships.

It turns out to be true. Mountaineers returning from an expedition have a significantly heightened sense of agentic emotion regulation (control over their emotional life) compared to skydivers or ordinary folk.

Expectations

Mountaineers and, by extension, ocean racers, have exaggerated expectations for their experiences and achievements in their everyday lives. Characteristic is their continual striving to push their limits., whatever they do. And because of their frustrations achieving those goals in the ambiguous muddle of everyday affairs where they perceive a lack control over their lives, they push themselves to achieve in extreme environments where the rules are simple but the cost of failure catastrophic. They tend to be intolerant of vulnerability and weakness in others because they are intolerant of it in themselves. Their own anxieties provoke a counter-phobic reaction, conquering their fear in high-risk scenarios to overcome their anxiety in common life. It is a complex of emotions and behaviors that has produced spectacular achievements, sometimes at great personal cost.

In a culture that has become increasingly risk-averse, whittling away the personal freedoms to ensure safety and conformity, the high mountains and the open oceans are among the few simple, deadly places where an individual’s survival is largely dependent upon their own agency. We tend to think of sports where the participants risk their lives as pathological but there are benefits as well as risks. We act in ways that enhance our survival, even if the behavior is profoundly paradoxical.

Women of the Golden Globe

Banner photo credit: DHL

The Golden Globe Race will launch July 1 – 18 entrants sailing alone around the world, some 30,000 miles without stop and without assistance, even the assistance of GPS or satellite communications. Sailors in the race run the gamut in age and experience

Jean-Luc van den Heede is literally the old man of the sea. At 72-years old, he has raced, single-handed, five times around the world and still holds the record of 122 days for a solo circumnavigation, east-to-west, against the prevailing winds.

Phillippe Péché, 57, another professional sailor, has twice won the Jules Verne Trophy for the fastest circumnavigation and sailed with the likes of Eric Tabarly, Michel Desjoyeaux, Ellen MacArthur,  and Alain Gautier.

Mark Slats, 40, has sailed three times around the world and most recently rowed alone across the Atlantic, beating the existing record by five days.

Abhilash Tommy, 39, has sailed 52,000 miles and the first Indian to complete a solo circumnavigation, beginning and ending in Mumbai.

Nabil Amra is probably the least experienced among them but he’s sailing for a cause.

And the women of the Golden Globe? There’s only one, Susie Goodall, 28, the youngest entrant in the race. She looks like the girl next door if you happen to live in Svalbard.

Sailing is still a paternal sport and women are most noticeable by their absence. Dame Ellen MacArthur, Shirley Robertson, Dame Naomi James, Tracy Edwards, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz and a handful more are recognizable names. Susie Goodall isn’t, not yet.

She’s worked hard to be on the starting line in the company of so many men, recruited a high-profile sponsor, and kept the challenging task of managing the race within the family.

Susie Goodall at sea. Photo credit: DHL.
Susie Goodall at sea. Photo credit: DHL.

Her presence in interviews seems demure, introspective, candidly acknowledging her concerns about surviving the solitude of 9 months alone at sea. Others dismiss it cavalierly.

“I’m looking forward to being on my own,” Abhilash Tommy said. “I like it.”

“Will you miss anything?” he was asked.

“Nothing. Seriously.”

In a recorded interview, Ertan Beskardes said, “Being on my own, sailing on my own, is not a fear for me. I’m really happy with that.”

And the old man of the sea, Jean-Luc van den Heede, is more concerned about the absence of salad. “When you come back after eight months at sea without any salad, I can tell you that the salad is very good.”

Susie is incredulous. “I reckon they’re worried about it. We’re human. We’re not meant to be on our own for nine months. We’re sociable people, sociable animals.”

Kevin Farebrother agrees. “The first month will be difficult. If you can get through the first month, I think life out there – simple life, it’s like life in the mountains, a simple life – its’ about surviving. All the everyday hassles are gone…You won’t get much closer to nature than being in the Southern Ocean…”

What’s Goodall’s strategy for coping with the solitude? Consistent with her sense of identity and independence, Goodall plans to knit her way around the world.

“I love it. I go off into my own little world and before I know it I have a four-metre scarf. My plan is to come back with lots of little hats for everyone, all knitted in the Southern Ocean.”

Knitting may seem an incongruous response to the harsh demands of sailing alone around the world, but it might be brilliant.

The race will be physically exhausting, plagued by lack of sleep, likely haunted by hallucinations, but mostly it will be mentally demanding. “The race is about the effort the person on board makes and their psychology,” said Robin Davie, who competed in the BOC Challenge Around Alone Race but withdrew from the Golden Globe when his boat wasn’t ready in time. “The key is mindset.”

Knitting might be just the thing to calm a troubled mind when the wind in the Southern Ocean is howling and the seas are running mast high. And Goodall might be the only one to complete the circumnavigation with marketable memorabilia.

Unexpected benefits of knitting. Photo credit: Lifehack.
Unexpected benefits of knitting. Photo credit: Lifehack.

Why Sail Alone Around the World?

Sailing alone around the world in a small boat is a dangerous business. Sailing alone and non-stop even more so. Fewer have successfully circumnavigated the earth than climbed Everest or orbited the planet in space. When asked why risk so much for so little, the answers given by participants in the Golden Globe Race are curiously unsatisfying. The challenge, the solitude, the simplicity of life at sea. They are no more illuminating than Edmund Hillary’s explanation for scaling Mt. Everest: Because it’s there.

Imagine you’re standing on the bow of a boat, Thomas Metzinger suggests. A pod of dolphin plays in the bow wave, skimming the surface, leaping into the air, veering left and right with unconscious artistry. It only appears to be play. Leaping into the air saves energy because it’s less dense than water. It’s an efficient way to move forward and breathe at the same time. Their ballistic leaps alternate with swimming submerged, near the surface, typically twice the length of time in the air.

That, says Metzinger, is an instructive metaphor for the way we think.

Metzinger is director of the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosopy at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany. He studies the ethics of neuroscience and the neuroscience of ethics.

Dolphin Model of Cognition

In the ‘dolphin model of cognition,’ the surface of the sea stands in place for the interface between conscious and unconscious processing. We spend far less time above the surface than submerged and sometimes we skim the space between, half in, half out.

“The point is that the mental contents available to us via introspection are nothing more than momentary flashes of automatic cognitive processing, grinding away beneath the waves of our awareness most of the time.”

Which leads to the perplexing question: Who is standing on the bow, watching the dolphins?

“But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them?”

Which brings us to one of the more recent fields of research in neuroscience and experimental psychology, mind wandering. It seems a surprisingly simple subject for study by something as imposing as neuroscience.

“Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime.”

If we’re not entirely in control of our thoughts and actions, or even entirely aware of them, how do we hold people responsible for their crimes, how do we make moral judgments, how do we explain our reasons for sailing alone around the world?

We’re Not Automatons

If we’re not fully rational beings capable of self-determination, neither are we the witless puppets of our unconscious. “Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behaviour. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”

Our minds wander more often than we’d like to admit, several hundred times a day, up to 50% of our waking lives. For some, that includes much of their time driving a car along a familiar route. They arrive, or become aware that they’re lost, without realizing how they got there.

There are networks in the brain responsible for managing distinct functions. The default-mode network manages our time when at rest, when our attention focuses internally, during daydreams or spontaneous memories, when we think about ourselves or the future. Overlapping areas of the brain activate during mind wandering and the functioning of the default-mode network. Metzinger suspects they both serve the fundamental purpose of keeping our sense of self intact and consistent over time. They are the storytellers of ourselves.

“Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time.”

Which suggests that our identity—the very concept of who we are—is a succession of stories we invent unconsciously and tell ourselves when half-awake. But we aren’t automatons, not entirely. We can influence the storyline, bend it, even if we can’t reinvent completely.

As Metzinger says, “We can’t get off the ship, let alone summon dolphins from nowhere, but perhaps we can choose where to look.”

We are less like Ahab standing on the deck of the Pequod, captain of his destiny than Ahab lashed to the back of Moby Dick as the great beast submerged and surfaced, sounded and breached.

It’s not surprising that the sailors in the Golden Globe about to race around the world can’t articulate why they are risking so much and what they hope to gain. Any explanation is likely a rationalization. The truth lies deeper.

Resources

Are You Sleepwalking Now? Thomas Metzinger, Aeon Magazine.

Taking a Knee at Sea

The Southern Ocean seems an unlikely platform for protesting the Palestinian occupation. But then, Nabil Amra seems an unlikely sailor.

Using sporting events as a venue for political protest isn’t anything new. The gladiatorial games were often the scene of political theater, the emperor and Roman patricians an unwitting audience.

Even so, sailing alone around the world in protest is somewhat paradoxical. At sea, no one can hear you scream defiance; no one can see you shake your fist at the oppressor.

Governments also recognize the power of sports as a form of protest. The Palestinian Sail and Surf Federation was training young sailors to compete in the Olympics using a dozen Lasers donated by an anonymous Qatari, that is, until the Israeli Air Force bombed the beach, turning the boats into rubble. The Lasers were a security threat to Israel’s naval blockade. Besides, the military reasoned, Palestinians aren’t allowed to travel.

Carrying the weight of the world. Nabil Amra, Golden Globe Race 2018.
Nabil Amra. Photo Credit: Golden Globe Race.

Before he entertained any ambition of sailing alone around the world in the Golden Globe Race—30,000 miles without stop and 10 months of inescapable solitude—Nabil Amra was a foreign exchange trader on the Minnesota Stock Exchange. I can’t imagine an activity more distant from banking than a solo circumnavigation. Neither can he, I suspect.

He bought a Biscay 36, the last built of its kind, a 28-year-old boat to sail the world, and renamed her Liberty II. It’s a name layered with meaning for Nabil. Liberty is the English translation of his grandmother’s Arabic name. It also speaks to his hope for an independent Palestine.

Nabil’s experience sailing was mostly limited to Minnesota lakes before the qualifying solo sail of 2,000 miles onboard Liberty II required by the Golden Globe 2018 Notice of Race. On a passage from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Portland, Maine he ran afoul of a storm called the Mother’s Day Nor-Easter. He deployed a drogue to slow the boat’s drift but was pooped several times by breaking waves. The drogue’s tether wrapped around the self-steering gear and disabled it, requiring that he hand steer, like Susie Goodall off the coast of Portugal.

The cabin flooded and ruined much of his food, inadequately stored in bins. A hundred miles from port, he was reduced to a can of tuna in the morning, a can of sardines at night, a bit of olive oil and a jar of honey.

He made landfall at Nantucket where the Coast Guard fed him bowls of chili.

Palestinian boy throwing stones. Photo credit: Middle East Monitor.
Palestinian boy throwing stones. Photo credit: Middle East Monitor.

Bones or Spirit?

Palestinians have the ability to absorb abuse and punishment, Nabil says. As a child, his parents thought his education would benefit from spending a summer in their homeland. He was 12 when they moved to the West Bank. He attended the Friends Boys School, opened in 1918 and run by American Quakers until the school was closed by Israeli authority during the first Intifada.

Walking home from a youth protest against the Israeli occupation, Nabil was arrested and got “a week’s worth of beatings in a tin box.” It was an experience he hasn’t forgotten. When his closest friend was killed by Israeli soldiers, his parents thought it time to return to the United States.

Palestine is “the largest open-air prison in the world,” Nabil said. His desire to sail alone around the world becomes more intelligible in context.

“I’d rather have a broken bone than a broken spirit.”

Note: The original post included a frequently quoted but erroneous anecdote that Nabil’s father served onboard the USS Liberty, a US spy ship attacked by Israeli jets and torpedo boats with significant loss of life.

Solitude at Sea

For 30 days he was confined to a space so small the European Union considers it inhumane treatment for convicted criminals. There was enough room to stretch his 6’ 7” length to sleep but barely. He slept little anyway, 4 hours in every 24. There were no visitors, no conversations except those in his head. The horizon was a perfect circle as if drawn with a compass. Mark Slats was utterly alone.

In 30 days he rowed alone from the Canary Islands to Antigua, over 3,000 miles, breaking the record for the Atlantic crossing by five days. He had previously sailed around the world, single-handed, non-stop, in 205 days. The man knows something about solitude.

Compulsory solitude is called solitary confinement but what do you call it when it’s voluntary?

On July 1, Mark Slats will begin his second relentless, single-handed circumnavigation, this time racing in a fleet of 18 solitary sailors. The Golden Globe Race 2018 will span approximately 30,000 nautical miles, much of it in the Southern Ocean.

For the better part of a year, participants in the Golden Globe will be alone with only the company of a voice heard on the radio. They’ll be challenged by weather, mechanical breakdowns, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation but, perhaps most of all, by solitude.

Mark Slats & Peanuts, his Transatlantic rowing boat.
Mark Slats & Peanuts, his Transatlantic rowing boat.

The Looking Glass Effect

We are social creatures. We create and maintain our personalities, sense of self, and identities by seeing our reflection in the behavior and response of other people, a process Charles Horton Cooley coined “the looking glass self” in 1902. In effect, who we think we are is largely the consequence of how other people respond to us. As a result, “isolation from other people can lead to cognitive dysfunction, mental withdrawal and in some cases psychological dissolution.” (Psychological factors in exceptional, extreme and torturous environments, John Leach.)

In isolated research stations of the Arctic and Antarctic, there’s an effect called the “winter-over syndrome.” People, isolated by extreme temperatures and fierce storms through the dark months of winter, become increasingly depressed and irritable. They experience difficulty thinking clearly. They withdraw socially, get angry easily, and revert to hostility with less provocation. They can’t sleep soundly, lose their appetite, and become anxious or apathetic. And these are people who choose to be there.

The station doctor burned down the Argentine Antarctic research station of Almirante Brown to avoid staying another winter. That’s a pretty hostile reaction.

In some respects, solitary sailors share a similar environment to Antarctic researchers wintering-over. There’s a form of sensory deprivation. The horizon is uniform and unremarkable except in a storm when it’s often terrifying. There’s nowhere to fix their attention, nothing to distract them from themselves. The vast, reflective sameness becomes what Joseph Conrad called “the mirror of the sea.” Thoughts become deafening in the silence. Some people don’t like what they hear.

Sensed Presence

One of the symptoms experienced in the Antarctic was the experience of a “sensed presence,” the feeling that someone else—or something else—is present. Sometimes the presence is only a feeling. Sometimes it’s visible. Joshua Slocum is famous for seeing the pilot of the Pinta onboard Spray during the first solo circumnavigation in 1895. Susie Goodall experienced the presence of two strangers onboard her boat off the coast of Portugal when qualifying for the Golden Globe race.

Solo sailors are notorious for their hallucinations, likely the result of sleep deprivation but social isolation may play a part.

“And don’t get me started on those crazy singlehanded sailors…” Nic Compton wrote in Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea. “…it seemed that any singlehanded sailor who didn’t have some kind of mental paroxysm just wasn’t trying hard enough.”

The litany of dreadful symptoms quoted in the medical journals are largely the consequence of perceived isolation or enforced solitary confinement, something the UN now lists as torture. I suspect solo sailors…or ocean rowers…do not perceive themselves as isolated despite the lack of society. They are where they want to be even if they are there alone.

Waking Dreams: Hallucinations at Sea

“I know hallucinations happen to a lot of solo sailors, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so early.” Susie Goodall said. She was making a 2,000-mile single-handed passage to qualify for the Golden Globe Race 2018.

“…coming down the coast of Portugal…I didn’t sleep for two days because there was so much shipping around, and I had to hand steer because the lines on the self-steering snapped, so I was utterly exhausted.

“I was approaching Lisbon at about midnight when this man appeared in front of me, and another sat next to me and took the helm. They were both wearing red coats, one had brown hair and the other blond hair. I didn’t recognize either of them, but they looked Danish, or Scandinavian. The one at the helm said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s OK, we’re here.’

“I thought, oh my god, someone’s on my boat, and started to freak out. I decided to make myself some coffee and try to stay awake. Then they just disappeared.”

Goodall isn’t the only sailor to experience hallucinations resulting from sleep deprivation.

Cat in the Cockpit

Dominique Wavre has raced alone eight times around the world. In the 2012-13 Vendee Globe, his electrical system failed catastrophically. “I had these little green lights to light the compass. It looked like a cat’s eyes in the night. I was convinced it was rubbing against my legs and asking for food. The next morning, my sandwich was in crumbs on the cockpit floor, from trying to feed it to the cat.”

Hallucinations aren’t always so benign.

In the Solitaire du Figaro—a brutal series of single-handed races sailed off the coast of France—one of the competitors sailed into the harbor. He heard the crowds cheering and applauding him. He stepped from his boat onto the wharf to accept their congratulations. His safety harness jerked him back. He was in the middle of the ocean.

“I’ve heard similar stories from a couple of other sailors,” Damien Davenne said. Davenne is a chronobiologist with STAPS University, Caen.

Chronobiology is the study of cyclic rhythms experienced by organisms and their adaption to solar and lunar cycles, including sleep. The curriculum of the university at Caen focuses on the science and techniques of sports and physical activities. Many of the sailors in the Solitaire du Figaro consult university staff to help them manage their sleep while racing.

“When they are hallucinating, they can’t tell what’s real and what’s not,” Davenne said. “It is believed that sailors have been lost at sea after stepping off the boat.”

Back to Susie Goodall and her hallucination. She successfully qualified for the Golden Globe Race 2018, a single-handed circumnavigation of the planet. It’s roughly 30,000 nautical miles alone and without stopping, 30,000 miles challenged by exhaustion, solitude, boredom alternating with terror, and sleep deprivation. It’s an emulation of the original race held once in 1968-69 and never since. Until now.

Donald Crowhurst participated in that original race. His boat, Teignmouth Electron, was found drifting in the Atlantic with no one onboard. The Crowhurst tragedy is the subject of The Mercy, a film directed by James Marsh.

“…when you’re trying really hard not to fall asleep, dreams can be quite intrusive,” Davenne said. “This is what hallucinations are. It’s when someone who is sleep deprived has a daydream that turns into a reality. There is a thin line between reality and illusion…If you’re sleep deprived, the dream – which is essential to life –  starts invading everything.”

David Adams, racing alone across the Tasman Sea onboard Kirribilli, steered by hand for eight days after his self-steering systems self-destructed. Suddenly, he had a full crew onboard, none of whom he recognized. “…these blokes were running around the deck doing all the work,” he wrote in Chasing Liquid Mountains.

Chasing Liquid Mountains, David Adams
Chasing Liquid Mountains, David Adams

“As the wind increased and Kirribilli was heeling right over I started to think, ‘This is getting dangerous. They’re going to have to reef.’ But no-one pulled the sails down. I was just about to start yelling at them when a rubber duckie appeared alongside and all these blokes piled in and sped away. I was furious, shouting and waving my fists at them. With that, a big gust came and knocked Kirribilli sideways, with the mast almost in the water. She hovered there for a moment, and a wave washed over the deck, splashing cold water in my face, and luckily that was enough to snap me out of it.”

Solo sailors aren’t the only ones impacted. There is evidence that major disasters have resulted from sleep deprivation, including the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.

I’ve included some of the techniques used to combat chronic sleep deprivation in another post called Sleep.

Sleep

Jean Luc van den Heede is a legend among sailors. He has raced, single-handed, five times around the world and still holds the record of 122 days for a solo circumnavigation, east-to-west, against the prevailing winds.

Even legends must sleep.

In 1994, Jean Luc was nearing the end of the BOC Challenge leg between Cape Town and Sydney. He had sailed alone 6,700 nautical miles across the Southern Ocean. He was tacking the 60’ Vendee Enterprises through the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania, a body of water twice as wide as the English Channel and twice as rough, complicated by commercial traffic and strong currents.

“I had just passed Black Point and tacked. I had five minutes with nothing to do, so I put my head on a winch. A half hour later, when I woke up, I was on the beach.” He had been awake for 3 days.

Jean Luc van den Heede aloft on Matmut prior to the start of the Golden Globe Race 2018.
Jean Luc van den Heede aloft. Photo credit: Golden Globe Race 2018.

In a long ocean race, managing sleep is as important as maintaining the boat. Sleep too little and you make mistakes. Sleep too long and you lose the race.

On July 1, Jean Luc, called JLH in France, will start his sixth solo circumnavigation. By his own word, he is a competitor, not an adventurer. He is in the race to win and he has long since learned what one sleep research team calls Wakefulness Made Good (WMG), analogous to the more familiar concept of Velocity Made Good (VMG). “WMG implies that a skipper needs to find an optimal balance between wakefulness (and thus sleep loss) and functional impairment (due to sleep loss), so as to sail most effectively.”

Wakefulness Made Good

The Golden Globe Race 2018 is roughly 30,000 nautical miles alone and without stopping.

In a race that demands sustained performance over weeks and months, the husbanding of a sailor’s available energy is probably more important than the total energy available. The youngest in the race Susie Goodall, an energetic 28-year-old.

JLH is 72 years old.

The sailors in the Golden Globe Race need to be awake to react to changes in wind and weather, hoisting or shortening sail, adjusting course, monitoring forecasts, maintaining the boat and themselves. They need to be awake to be competitive but sleep deprivation results in a lengthy list of symptoms: memory failure, difficulty thinking or concentrating, uncontrollable mood shifts, poor balance, and accidents among them.

The U.S. Army has a keen interest in the ability of sleep-deprived soldiers to keep fighting effectively. A study for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found the ability to do useful mental work declines by 25% for every successive 24 hours that an individual is awake.

“Sleep deprivation degrades the most complex mental functions, including the ability to understand, adapt, and plan under rapidly changing circumstances. In contrast, simple psychomotor performance and physical strength and endurance are unaffected.”

So, you can still do the work, you just can’t figure out what work to do.

Sleep Psychosis

A sleep deprivation study conducted by the University of Bonn found that, after 24 hours of sleep deprivation in healthy patients, researchers observed numerous symptoms otherwise attributed to psychosis or schizophrenia. Dr. Ulrich Ettinger, Department of Psychology, University of Bonn, said: “We were surprised at how pronounced and how wide the spectrum of schizophrenia-like symptoms was.” After a sleepless night, many of those who participated in the experiment had the impression they could read people’s thoughts. Dr. Ettinger actually recommended using sleep deprivation in medical experiments to simulate mental illness rather than drugs.

Solo ocean races have proved a useful setting to study the effects of sleep deprivation.

“If you sleep too much, you don’t win,” said Dr. Claudio Stampi, a chronobiologist. “If you don’t sleep enough, you break.” Chronobiology sounds like the study of time-traveling lifeforms. Prosaically, it’s about organisms’ adaptation to solar and lunar rhythms. Stampi has been studying the biological rhythms of sailors for decades.

He’s a huge fan of polyphasic sleep. Monophasic sleep is 7 or 8 hours of continuous sleep, the familiar kind. Biphasic divides the sleep period into halves. Polyphasic is a combination of short naps. One of Dr. Stampi’s field studies involving 99 sailors in single- and double-handed ocean races concluded the best performance results were obtained by those sailors napping for periods between 20 minutes and 1 hour, a total of 4.5 to 5.5 hours per day.

It seems we can easily adapt to less than 8 hours of sleep, 60% to 70% less, but no more. Remaining competitive requires at least 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep every 24 hours but diced into ultra-short, 20-minute naps. Less than 10 minutes seem to have no recuperative benefit. Longer than 20 but less than 80 minutes risks sleep inertia.

Asleep with Open Eyes

Sleep inertia is a lack of oxygen to the brain associated with stage 3 sleep and slow wave brain activity. You wake groggy, clumsy, unable to understand what’s going on. That’s not optimal when you’re racing across the Bay of Biscay or the Southern Ocean and you need to react instantly to some disaster on deck. It usually dissipates within 15 minutes but the impairment can be even more severe than sleep deprivation alone. A lot can happen in 15 minutes.

In the coming Golden Globe Race, a lot is likely to happen in 15 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extreme Sailing

“You’re never more alive than when you’re nearly dead.” Kevin Farebrother should know. He has summited Everest three times. His third attempt in 2014 turned back after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides. In 2015, 19 climbers died at base camp. On the descent from his third successful summit in 2016, two more climbers died on the mountain.

Climbing Everest is an extreme sport. Extreme sports have a very high probability that something will go wrong and a very high chance of death as the outcome. Sailing alone around the world in a single-handed race, non-stop, is an extreme sport by anyone’s standard. It’s Farebrother’s next attempt.

What prompts apparently rational people to risk so much?

A Race for Luddites

Extreme sports have been explained as a positive means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking—addiction to the rush of adrenaline. Participants in extreme sports are either abandoning themselves to chaos and uncertainty, deceiving themselves about their own abilities, or taunting death for the thrills, none of which seem healthy. And none of which seem true about Kevin Farebrother or the other participants in the Golden Globe Race 2018.

There are several venues where professional sailors race around the world in boats built with the latest materials, architected for speed, supported by satellite communications, onboard computers, weather maps, GPS, remote monitoring of their sleep patterns, and sponsors with deep pockets. The Golden Globe Race has none of that.

The race is an emulation of the first Sunday Times Golden Globe race held in 1968 and never since. The technology is largely limited to what was available in 1968; sextants instead of GPS, paper charts instead of chart plotters, binoculars instead of radar, VHF/HF radios instead of satellite links, cassette tapes instead of digital media, SLR cameras and film instead of video.

It’s a race for Luddites, working class people sailing 30-year-old boats. Why would anyone race around the world using outdated technology? I suspect it’s less a matter of choice than necessity. Few people can afford the multi-million dollar campaigns required of the Vendée Globe or the Velux 5 Oceans races.

The expense might explain the retro character of the race but not the reasons people participate.

Like Water—Strong but Soft

Extreme sports have gotten a bad rap by academia and the press, supported by modern society’s fixation with safety and reducing risk. More recent research reveals some profound benefits experienced by people voluntarily participating in activities where “…the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death.”

You can’t approach Everest or a 90-foot waterfall in a kayak with an adversarial attitude. You can’t win pitting yourself against the mountain or the river.

“You cannot conquer a river,” one extreme kayaker said. “How can you defeat something that is never the same twice, that is unaware of your presence? To the river, we are so much flotsam, and if we forget that the results can be decidedly final.” (Developing an intimate relationship with nature through extreme sports, Eric Brymer & Tonia Gray.)

Lynn Hill, an eminent rock climber, described climbing as adapting to the rock, letting the rock shape her rather than imposing herself on the environment; an experience that requires skills “more like water—strong but soft.”

A BASE jumper described standing on the edge of a cliff, ready to jump.

“You know, you’re in this incredibly spectacular environment dealing with really, really primal forces. Not only primal forces in the environment but primal forces within yourself . . . We have primitive parts of our being that are connected to primitive parts of every other being . . . We are part of everything that’s around us; at some deep, deep, deep unconscious level connected to it.”

Putting yourself in the presence of such primal forces requires you confront and manage your fear. Panic is death, but so is a complete lack of fear. Survival demands an accurate assessment of agency.

Kevin Farebrother's sloop Silver Heels, the boat he'll use to compete in the Golden Globe Race 2018.
Silver Heels, Kevin Farebrother’s boat for the Golden Globe Race 2018

The Southern Ocean

There’s a proverb told about the Southern Ocean. Above 40° South Latitude, there is no law; above 50° South Latitude, there is no God. The participants in the Golden Globe Race will round Cape Horn at 55°58′ S, 67°16′ W. In that latitude the wind blows the entire circumference of the planet without obstruction. There is nothing to blunt the force of the waves.

Storms, often 2,000 miles edge to edge, sweep across the Southern Ocean, on average one gale per week above 50° South. The enormous fetch of the wind across the Southern Ocean makes it the engine room that generates waves that propagate across the planet. The seas are often confused, old swells colliding with young ones, and the conjunction of wave trains produce rogue waves.

In May 2018, a buoy in the Southern Ocean recorded a wave 23.8 meters (78 feet) high. Forecasts for sea state just north of the buoy location were even higher, possibly 25 meters (82 feet), and winds more than 65 knots.

Storm waves in the Southern Ocean.
Storm waves in the Southern Ocean.

Experiencing a wave that big is like standing at the base of a collapsing 8-story building. The Southern Ocean is a place every sane sailor fears. Those who don’t have a deluded sense of their own agency.

“…The art of seamanship resides in a clear-eyed grasp of our agency: understanding the fine lines between what we can control, what we can influence but not control, and the vast world that is beyond our control. The annals of exploration and modern recreational sailing are replete with tales of sailors who came to grief from overestimating their agency.” (Freedom of the Seas: The Stoic Sailor, Gregory & Tod Bassham.)

The sailors in the Golden Globe Race will have to master their fear in solitude. They will be challenged by loneliness, exhaustion, exposure, sickness, injury, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and the staggering violence of the Southern Ocean where there’s little hope of rescue if needed. If they survive, they will be changed by the experience.

Michael Bane wrote in Over the Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports that he had never met anyone who had stood, however precariously, on the flanks of a great mountain, or had been, however briefly, to the dark world at the edge of the abyss, who had not come back changed, more humble, more aware of the fragility of life.

Fear can be a transformative experience.

Hunting on Death’s Territory

“…Extreme sport participants face intense fears, accept that control of the future is not always possible and move through these fears to participate fully in the action. It would seem that by taking this action despite the intense fears participants were able to move towards a greater understanding of self. Furthermore, the indications are that a participant who makes that choice, who participates despite the fear reportedly has a magical experience, that is, something that cannot be expressed in words.” (Extreme sports are good for your health: A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport, Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer.)

Michael Bane wrote in Over the Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme `Sports that he had never met anyone who had stood, however precariously, on the flanks of a great mountain, or had been, however briefly, to the dark world at the edge of the abyss, who had not come back changed, more humble, more aware of the fragility of life.

The sailors in the Golden Globe Race will sail to the edge of the abyss. They will have to master their fear in solitude. Challenged by loneliness, exhaustion, exposure, sickness, injury, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and the staggering violence of the Southern Ocean where there’s little hope of rescue if needed, they will be changed by the experience. If they survive.

“The test of truth that emerges from playing on the razor’s edge is an elegant way of putting one’s life on a par with Death for an instant in order to steal some of its power. In exchange for exposing oneself to the loss of life, the player intends to hunt on Death’s territory and bring back a trophy that will not be an object, but a moment; a moment impregnated with the intensity of self because it bears within it the insistent memory that, through courage or initiative, he or she succeeded for a moment in extracting from Death or physical exhaustion, the guarantee of a life lived fully.” (Playing Symbolically with Death in Extreme Sports, David Le Breton.)

Kevin Farebrother may know what it’s like to hunt on death’s territory. He has climbed the mountain and returned. Many of the other participants in the Golden Globe Race 2018 will soon find out.

Kevin Farebrother, extreme sports participant (Everest, Golden Globe Race 2018)
Photo credit: Kevin Farebrother, YouTube channel.

God in the Waves

…and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. Genesis 1:2

There’s a sailor’s proverb. Above 40° south latitude, there is no law; above 50° south, no God. I suspect that’s untrue but the god of the Southern Ocean is implacable, utterly indifferent to human suffering, a god both inhuman and inhumane.

The Southern Ocean is a place of unimaginable violence. In the latitudes above 40° south there is nothing to slow the wind. It blows uncontested the entire circumference of the planet, generating enormous waves. Since the end of the age of sail and the opening of the Panama Canal, it’s an ocean where few sailors travel. Until they began racing around the world.

I’ve recently experienced a strong fascination with racing single-handed, non-stop around the world. It began with reading Peter Nichols’ A Voyage for Madmen, the story of the Sunday Times Golden Globe race in 1968-69, the race that demonstrated it could be done. Robin Knox-Johnston, the only participant to complete the race, was also the first to complete a continuous, solo circumnavigation.

Serendipitously, I discovered the Golden Globe Race will be recreated this year, a race for solitary Luddites using only the technology available during the initial race in 1968.

I went looking for more and found Derek Lundy’s Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters. It was like watching a car crash unfold in slow motion. I couldn’t look away.

Lundy’s book describes the 1996-1997 Vendée Globe, single-handed sailors racing the most technically astute boats around the world, most of that above 40° south latitude. Three boats were capsized in the Southern Ocean and never righted, two sailors were narrowly rescued, and one vanished silently. It was an epical experience of pain, exhaustion, chronic stress and moments of pointed fear.

But why? Why would rational human beings expose themselves to so much suffering?

It’s the wrong question. At least, the wrong assumption.

We have largely become a people more concerned with safety than freedom, creating laws to protect us from ourselves. The thought of someone flirting with their own mortality seems irrational, possibly illegal. We forget that we’re not rational creatures. Our reason is only a rationale for our emotional decisions.

It’s the wilderness where people often go looking for god, in the deserts and mountains and sometimes the wilderness of waves. Their pilgrimage often costs them dearly.

I doubt the god of wild places cares whether we suffer but the experience of suffering, hardship, and tribulation in service of a goal is transformative. God doesn’t become more human. Perhaps we become more inhuman, more godly, as a consequence of our experience.

Of course, many of the callused, pragmatic sailors who race across the Southern Ocean would scoff at talk of god but still have a hard time articulating why they do it. There are easier ways to make a living than outrunning the violence of the high latitudes in a cockleshell boat. Words are the tool of reason. The heart has a different language.

Postscript: I blatantly stole the title for this piece from Mike McHargue’s book Finding God in the Waves. It’s about having faith, losing it, and finding it again through science. McHargue is also the primary contributor to Ask Science Mike, a podcast worth listening to.

Abyss

A ground swell rolled from the horizon, an old swell that had sorted itself across hundreds of miles into rows as regular as corduroy. It rolled across an ocean patterned by sunlight and cloud shadow, an ocean empty except for a single boat surrounded  by a thousand miles of solitude.

We were steering north by east, two weeks underway, circumventing the doldrums of the Pacific High on a passage from Oahu to San Francisco. I was alone on deck, the crew asleep below. Professional delivery crews are necessarily small to remain profitable. There were only three of us to sail 3,000 miles, each standing our watch alone, watch on watch, daylight and dark, week after week.

My skin was the color of Honduran mahogany from weeks of exposure to the sun. Salt streaked my cheeks like tears, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and the skin peeled from my fingertips. Salt crusted the winches, the hand rails, the running rigging. Salt crystals glinted in the sun. Fresh water was too scarce to waste on washing. Thirst is an especially hard way to die.

It was a quartering sea that passed beneath the boat obliquely, stern to bow, in a complex dance of forces, a sailor’s jig of pitch, yaw and scend—fore and aft, side to side, up and down. Despite the regularity of the swell it was not an entirely predictable motion. A subtle cross-swell from the northwest created an irregularity that would tumble you ass over teakettle if you were unwise enough to trust the rhythm without a secure handhold or bracing against a bulkhead.

Even in a calm the sea is an infinitely complex interference pattern of wave trains that may have traveled halfway around the world without obstruction and without losing much energy. The patterns are complex but consistent enough that Polynesian navigators could feel their way across vast distances. They were taught young to lay in the bilge with their eyes closed and recognize the patterns from pitch, yaw and scend. They learned to map the patterns to their body—kinetic navigation. A capable navigator could stand with legs braced, eyes closed, and plumb his location by the swinging of his testicles.

It’s a skill now mostly in disuse. Global positioning requires less mindfulness. Even those first men who crossed unimaginable distances in open boats were not native to the sea. There were no tribes, no people who lived far from shore. At best they traveled quickly and with trepidation between landfalls, praying for safe passage.

The sea is an alien and inhospitable place for human beings despite the fact that our blood tastes of seawater. It is utterly regardless of humanity. There are no rutted roads or even footpaths to mark our passage, no cairns piled high upon hillsides to mark our dead, no smoke rising from chimneys to mark our living. Even the wake of a boat is soon lost among the wavefield, unremembered. It is a world without root or branch, without hearth or home, the native place of nomadic species who build no tools and have no possessions. It is a place old beyond knowing and violent beyond comprehension.

Joseph Conrad, a man who spent much of his life at sea, wrote that if you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. It is the first face of the world, the oldest face.

The violence of a storm at sea is greater than anything imaginable ashore. The wind is unobstructed by mountains or forests or the obstinate earth. It can rage without restraint. Goaded by the wind, waves achieve their own mountainous topography with peaks and transverse ridges and ravines where white water roars like a rock slide. A breaking wave can exert as much as one ton of pressure per square foot, enough force to shatter a boat. There are storms no boat can survive, no matter how well-found or competently crewed.

Storms are most dramatic but solitude is most unnerving. There is perhaps no place on Earth more alone than the deck of a small boat making a long ocean passage. The sea offers no place for a thought to stick, nothing for the mind to take hold of, nothing but the endless repetition of waves. The horizon is a perfect circle that encompasses three square miles. The trade wind clouds form at a uniform distance above sea level, sailing downwind like a fleet of Velella. In the silence and the distance thoughts become deafening. Many people, maybe most, have never heard themselves think. They’ve lived lives of distraction in a sea of noise. The real sea strips away the distractions and the noise. It enforces a monk’s solitude. It’s an unraveling of the everyday in the presence of vastness. For some it’s deeply disquieting. In Nietzche’s phrase, if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

The tropic sun polishes the sea to the brilliance of a mirror. In that mirror I saw myself reflected for the first time, the self concealed slyly beneath the noise and distraction and misdirection of my conscious life. In the silence and solitude I heard the constant criticisms echoing from my childhood still bouncing off the walls of my skull, the brutal and belittling comments of an abusive father, the physical violence thinly disguised as discipline, the inherited rage. I heard my father’s abuse endlessly repeated in my own voice. His words had become my own.

I felt the successive betrayals of parents who were still angry children themselves and a religion more intent on power and politics than a candid exploration of spirituality and a government that sent a generation to war against a rural country halfway around the world for no good reason they could admit without revealing their callous abuse of public trust.

I heard the continual monologue that occurs inside my head, the bilious, accusing, belittling vomit of words that had first belonged to others but had become my own, endlessly whispered in the darkness, a poisoned stream of words at the root of consciousness.

It was a staggering experience, the realization of how I had internalized the harm done to me as a child helpless to defend myself against the very people who should have been my defense.

Perhaps that is the gift of wilderness, the solitude necessary to see ourselves clearly, the silence necessary to hear the voices inside our heads. It’s arguable that the unexamined life is not worth living but it’s certain that the unexamined life has brought us where we are today, willfully participating in our own destruction. It’s a hard truth confronting your shadow self, the reason we readily flee into distractions and entertainments that waste our time but occupy our attention. Until we know ourselves we remain adult children—the terrifying power to ignite the sun on earth in the hands of petulant children. Ironically, the place that is least human may be the path back to our own humanity.

This is a second draft of an exercise that began with Mirrors for the MIT open course Writing and the Environment. The purpose was to write a detailed account of a particular natural (outdoor) setting that would enable the reader to envision a place they have never seen and to understand my reaction to that place.