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.

Border Wars

North Bay Road (Part 3)

Third in a climatic trilogy about the drowning of Miami.
Part 1: Finnegan’s Wake
Part 2: Urban Salvage

They sat on the fan deck drinking mimosas. It was only an hour after sunrise. The sun was still low but heat danced on the surface of the water like a mirage, water above and water below.

“Beautiful,” Jalen said.

The yacht Tatooine lay at anchor in what had been Biscayne Bay. The bay was unrecognizable except for the black towers rising from the sea. Storms and sea salt had pitted exposed concrete and steel and broken the glass from windows. Black mold covered the surfaces above high water, barnacles and sea stars and scuttling crabs below.

The sun burned in a cloudless sky. The flat water reflected the sun like polished glass. Humidity added weight to any movement, even breathing.

“It would be more beautiful it wasn’t so oppressively hot,” Rifkin said. He laid the champagne flute, beaded with condensation, against his forehead. “Why can’t we admire it with air conditioning?”

“If you’re going to complain,” Jalen said, “go inside. I’m enjoying myself.”

“I’m not complaining. I’m just stating a fact. It’s damned hot.”

“Of course it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere.”

“Couldn’t we have come at a more seasonable time of year? Maybe winter. Or fall.”

She bristled, then took a deep breath. “There is no other time of the year. There’s only a narrow window between storm seasons. We discussed this. If we want to dive the ruins, it has to be now.”

“And why do we want to dive the ruins again?”

“Now you’re just being petulant. Besides, I thought you wanted to create a performance piece. Some nonsense about the kraken rising from the sunken ruins of civilization.” She knew she was being cruel. She didn’t care.

“It’s not nonsense, it’s just impractical. To be credible, it would be too big to fit any museum space. And besides, it’s too hot to think of art,” he said.


The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.


“I’ve wanted to visit my great-grandfather’s house since I was a child,” she said.

Jalen Páez came from old South American money, one branch rooted in Venezuela, the other in Brazil. Both had profited from years of inequity and withdrawn with their wealth to the U.S. when their own countries became too heated.

She finished her mimosa and set it on the mahogany table. An autobot promptly removed the empty glass, wiped the sweat stain from the wood, and purposefully set a full flute on a coaster. She ignored the implied criticism. “I never knew much about my father’s family. They were almost wiped out during the Venezuelan rebellion.”

“My dear, you’ll need to be more specific,” Rifkin said. “Rebellions, revolutions, coups—they’re endemic to South America.”

“Don’t be an ass. You’ve heard this story before.”

“And I never tire of it. It’s like a child’s fairy tale. You know how it ends but you want to hear it over again. And again. And again.”

“You didn’t have to come.”

“No, I didn’t. But the alternative was to remain in Manhattan. People were being so pissy about the scene at the MOMA.”

Rifkin Po was an artist working at the intersection of performance art and artificial intelligence. His last installation at the Museum of Modern Art had been a giant sloth extinct for 10,000 years. The sloth lumbered around the performance space criticizing, in a heavy Spanish accent, the species responsible for its extinction.

Over the brief period of the installation’s exhibition, the sloth—named Megatheria—became increasingly irate. Its criticism escalated to invective. There was no separation between art and observer at the museum. Megatheria wandered freely through the crowds. A bitter sloth the size of a rhinoceros alarmed the staff. When Megatheria began making fake dung from found objects and throwing it at visitors, they tried to contain the exhibit behind velvet ropes. Megatheria used the rope to hang itself from the rafters. It was never really alive so it couldn’t really die but neither could it speak with the velvet rope crushing its larynx. It hung for several days, slowly turning at the end of the rope, glaring balefully and croaking at museum patrons. The art critics were unkind.

It had been Rifkin’s first very public failure. He hadn’t taken it well. She could have consoled him. She didn’t. “The captain believes they may have located the block on North Bay Road where my grandfather lived. We’re going to dive the site this afternoon. You can go or stay, whichever, just quit being so depressing.”

The glass door slid open automatically and one of the camera crew walked onto the fan deck. “I hope I’m not intruding.” Jalen couldn’t remember whether it was Blick, Snick or Whick. Rifkin had named them after the dwarves in the silent film version of Snow White published in 1916. They were making a documentary on Rifkin’s life. He had agreed to take them along before the spectacular failure of his giant sloth. “Is this still a good time to film?” he said.

“Can we do it inside?” Rifkin said.

Whick, she thought. Blick was the cameraman, Snick the soundman, and Whick the mouthpiece.

“Sure,” Whick said.

“Then it’s the perfect time.”


As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain.


A few minutes later, after she had finished her mimosa, Jalen followed them out of curiosity. Snick was fussing with something that looked like a wooly caterpillar, a cozy that fit over his microphone. Blick was taking notes on a tablet. Whick was spread out on the couch like it was his own living room.

“Something I don’t understand,” he said casually to Rifkin. “So much of your work is an indictment of western civilization, its avarice and greed, but you live in Manhattan, an island of privilege guarded with deadly force. How do you reconcile the contradiction?”

Jalen looked closely at the man. He seemed so casual and nonchalant but his question was sharply pointed.

“I’m an artist,” Rifkin said, “not a bleeding heart. You think my art would be more authentic if I was starving in a garret or a cold water flat?”

Rifkin’s life had always been privileged like her own. As the world became more heated and the deserts marched north and drought led to famine and famine sparked wars, neither of them felt much of the world’s pain, protected by the walls around Manhattan, living in an armored high-rise, defended from the rising sea and the riots and the storms.

Rifkin took the bait. He didn’t see the cameraman—Blick, no, Snick—put down the tablet and pick up his camera. The other one—Blick? What did it matter?—subtly extended the boom mic in Rifkin’s direction.

“I didn’t make the world we live in,” Rifkin said. “I do what I can but, let’s face it, I’m not going to change the world, either. There’s only so much food and clean water and power left. It’s not enough for everybody. Some have more, some less. I’m not going to surrender my share to satisfy someone else’s sense of fair play.”

“Isn’t that the attitude that got us here in the first place?” Whick’s eyes were half closed as if thinking about something else. Jalen suspected he was much more attentive than he appeared. He was baiting Rifkin.

“What got us here was a genetic flaw,” Rifkin said, rising to the bait, “a lack of self-discipline. We shit in our own bed. We bred like field mice, ate everything, and now we’re starving. Simple, brutal math.”

“So, you’re saying all this was inevitable?” Whick waved his hand in an encompassing gesture.

“All this? You mean the Tatooine with all its firepower and sophistication? Or the ruins beneath us?”

“Yes. Both.”

“Inevitable as a Greek tragedy. It was never going to be a happy ending. Our insatiable curiosity and casual violence helped us survive the African savannah but it doesn’t scale. We’re still the same vicious apes that first descended from the trees. We’re still using automated drones and nuclear bombs like stone clubs. Art isn’t going to change who we are. It just makes who we are more obvious.”

“Then what’s the point of it?” Whick sat up on the couch and leaned forward. He wasn’t pretending indifference anymore.

Rifkin leaned back, self-satisfied. He didn’t even know he’d been trapped. She loved him, she thought, but sometimes he was such a bumpkin. “Something to do,” he said. “Another way to keep score.” He thought he had won. He turned as Snick removed the camera from his shoulder. “What, you were filming? I didn’t approve that.”

“Just some b-roll footage,” Whick said. “Filler.”

Jalen didn’t know much about film making but she knew you didn’t record sound for b-roll.


Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city.


She left her empty flute on a glass table and went in search of Captain Fairchild. She found him on the bridge looking at a display of weather systems cartwheeling across the Caribbean.

“I hope the weather isn’t going to spoil my vacation, Captain.”

“Not likely, Ms. Páez.” Fairchild wore a uniform jacket of Navy blue with gold stripes on the sleeves, starched shirt and black tie. She had never seen him outside in the heat. His white hair was precisely cut. He was the manicured impression of authority. “The window is still open, at least for several days,” he said.

“Excellent.” She paused. “Something Rifkin said piqued my curiosity. I didn’t pay much attention to the yacht’s charter, Rifkin did all of that, so I’ve never reviewed your security arrangements. Do we have time for a tour?”

“Of course.” The captain seemed to inflate like a frigate bird in mating display. “I’d be delighted.”

He led her down several narrow ladders somewhere deep in the 80-meter yacht and opened a metal door. “This is the CIC—the Combat Information Center. It’s the beating heart of our defensive systems. And this is Mulvaney, our weapons specialist.”

Mulvaney was rising from a swivel chair in the center of circular banks of screens rising in several tiers. The monitors were thin and translucent. The images seemed to float in the air.

“Please, keep your seat,” she said.

“Every inch of the water surrounding Tatooine can be observed from here,” Fairchild said, “and every inch defended with deadly force. Mulvaney is jacked into the weapons network, two miniguns mounted above the flying bridge. Wherever he looks, the guns track. One man can pretty much defend the entire boat, stem to stern.” He was obviously proud of his deadly toy, like a child with a pet scorpion.

“It’s called the Basilisk,” Mulvaney said. “The miniguns on either side can put a round every square inch out to 1,000 yards. Beyond that it’s less accurate but still messy.”

“What happens if you’re looking here,” Jalen nodded toward the screen showing the yacht’s bow, “and the threat comes from there,” she pointed toward the screen showing the stern.

“When the system goes to full engagement, the guns become semi-autonomous,” Mulvaney said.

“Semi-autonomous? You mean, they choose who to kill?”

“Within limits, yeah,” Mulvaney said. “Even if I was taken out, the Tatooine could defend herself.”

“And how do the guns determine who is a risk?” she said.

“Facial recognition,” the captain said, taking back control of the conversation. “Behavioral patterns, detection of lethal weapons or explosive signatures, proximity. The system goes to its highest defensive posture when it registers damage to the vessel or crew.”

Jalen raised an eyebrow. “The crew, but not the passengers?”

“From the Basilisk’s perspective, everyone is crew. Everyone authorized to be onboard. Everyone else is a potential threat.”

“I hadn’t realized the Tatooine was so…” she hesitated, choosing her words cautiously, “self-contained.” It seemed a better word than militarized.

“Ms. Páez, we specialize in adventure tourism. You pay us to take you places where other people don’t go…for a reason. You also pay us to bring you back safely. We take your security seriously. All my crew are combat veterans. So is the Tatooine.”

“You mean this boat has been attacked?”

“We’re a brightly polished target,” Fairchild said. “The people living on the fringes have never seen such wealth and probably never will again. So yes, we’ve been attacked but never taken.”

“I’m sorry, captain. I didn’t mean to sound critical.”

“Ma’am, you’ve paid for the privilege.” He didn’t smile.

She didn’t know whether she was reassured or alarmed. “Thank you, Mr. Mulvaney. Captain, are we still on for the dive this afternoon?”

“We are but if you’re up for a dive this morning, I thought we might take advantage of the weather. There’s something you might like to see. A drift dive through the Worldcenter.”

Jalen caught her breath involuntarily. She was not often surprised. “I thought that was too dangerous.”

“Normally I would agree. The currents are usually treacherous and the Worldcenter itself is unstable but this is an unusual opportunity. We have slack water in an hour turning to ebb. The current is unusually weak. The weather is holding and visibility is excellent. We can drop you and your guides up-current, track your drift with GPS, and pick you up on the far side. We’ll be in communication at all times. Anything gets hinky and we can retrieve you immediately.”

“Yes,” Jalen said, I’d love to.” She hoped she didn’t sound as smitten as a school girl. “When can we go?”

“I’ll have a boat put in the water. Whenever you’re ready.”


Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?


Jalen breezed through the main saloon but failed to get Rifkin’s attention. He was gesturing broadly for the camera like an actor onstage. She left him recording for posterity and quickly changed. The rigid inflatable that took her to the ruined city was large enough to accommodate twice the size of their party—coxswain, a crew member armed with an assault rifle, and her two guides, one armed with a spear gun, the other a bang stick. It was surprising how simple underwater weapons remained, a piece of metal sprung like a bow and a shotgun shell detonated by contact.

Worldcenter was a presumptuous name even for Miami. It was constructed as the convulsive gesture of a dying city. The architects knew the city couldn’t be defended against the rising sea level. Even a wall around Miami like the one encircling Manhattan was useless. The city was built on porous limestone, the bones of ancient reefs. The flood tide bubbled up through the ground. But the city was financed by a Ponzi scheme. Miami depended upon real estate, resort, and business taxes for funding. The moment investor confidence in the city’s future faltered, the house of cards collapsed.

The boat traveled across the bay on a plane and then slowed as it steered through the massive towers rising on either side of what had once been 10th Street. It seemed to Jalen they had entered a place old and weighted with arcane significance like Stonehenge or a Neolithic tomb. They motored past the Paramount Hotel that seemed as tall as the Tower of Babel. It measured 700 feet when it was first built, less since the upper façade had blown off. A low ground swell surged into the open atrium and broke against interior walls with a sound like a slow drum beating inside of a mountain. The rags left of curtains still hung in some of the broken windows and fluttered in time with the drumming like a dying breath.

The divemaster looked vaguely like a young Sterling Hayden. (Jalen was a fan of Doctor Strangelove.) He shouted over the sound of the outboards. “We were here a few years ago when a heavy sea was running. There was so much pressure built by the waves inside the building that spray burst out the windows. Made your ears pop. We tried to get a look inside but the surge almost sucked us in.”

The divemaster—his name was Redford—plotted their dive with grease pencil on an old street map encased in plastic. “We’ll start the dive here,” he circled the intersection of 1st and 9th Streets, “and enter the mall here. The current is slack right now but it always accelerates between these tall buildings. Just flow with it. We’ll be right behind you and the guys in the boat will be right behind us.”

“How are they going to do that?” she said.

“There are bugs built into the gear. They can follow each of us wherever we go. And we’ll be able to talk to them and each other with the mics built into the masks. No worries.”

She had several worries despite Redford’s reassurance. Pieces of the façade were missing from the massive towers they would pass between. What if a piece of concrete fell on her? Or if she got tangled in the city’s wreckage and couldn’t free herself? Or a shark attacked?

Redford apparently saw the fear on her face. “It’s cool,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve done this before. We got your back.”

It was presumptuous to touch her but reassuring.

The coxswain slowed the boat and the crewman tied the bow line to a piece of angle iron that broke the surface. Redford helped her with her gear. He gave the universal hand signal, thumb and forefinger enclosing a circle—Are you OK? She replied with the same, held the mask to her face and rolled backward off the side of the inflatable.

The warm water embraced her like a womb. She hung from a line trailed from the inflatable like a flag in a light breeze. Thirty feet below her the rusted remains of a city bus lay on its side, crusted with barnacles, sea anemones and ochre stars. A small jewfish swam out of a broken window, looked at her, and swam back into the bus.

The visibility was outstanding, like swimming in a sea of glass. She released her hold on the line, turn turtle, and allowed herself to sink deeper. The towers rose on either side from deep shadow into fierce sunlight. The foot of the towers looked organic, fecund, encrusted with life, but above the surface, in the relentless sunlight, they looked like broken weapons turned against the sky. She felt like she was falling, light as snow, into the underworld.

“Ma’am, you alright?” Redford’s voice was distant and mechanical. She righted herself. He was beside her.

“I’m fine. Where do we go from here?”

“This way,” he said, leading her through shoals of clown fish and angel fish. A big grouper lurked in the shadow of some concrete rubble like a cartoon character. Anemones waved their tentacles.

She felt like an archeologist among the ruins of a dead civilization. Millions of people once lived here, walked these flooded streets, laughed and loved and argued bitterly in these empty rooms. How could so much be lost so quickly?

They emerged from the shadows of the Paramount and floated above what had once been gardens that adjoined the mall. Eel grass and shoal grass grew with abandon where bermudagrass had once been trimmed with military precision.

They entered the mall. The sharp edges of terraces and store fronts were softened by marine growth. The architecture seemed in the process of transforming, morphing into something organic, abandoning its provenance, becoming something other. She was startled by a mannequin still standing behind a broken display window, clothed with sea squirts and filter feeders that wrapped around its body like a boa, fanning the water with the illusion of movement.

She let the current carry her past the remnants of expensive boutiques and specialty shops and sidewalk cafes that had eventually become bodegas and cribs and storefronts for drug dealers as the ocean advanced and the wealth retreated. It felt like she was fixed in place and the world accelerated past her. A school of angel fish darted back and forth, frightened by the shadow of a six-foot barracuda that passed overhead. The mall narrowed, constrained by two large buildings that flanked either side, and the current began to quicken.

“Hold on,” she heard Redford say. “This is an E-ticket ride. See you on the other side.”

His voice was disembodied. She turned to locate him at the same time the current became more turbulent, accelerating like water through the nozzle of a garden hose. She was caught off guard and began to tumble. She struggled to right herself and overcompensated, tumbling in the opposite direction. She was cartwheeling ass over teakettle, out of control, hardly aware of the dark shadows racing past on either side. Her breathing became ragged. Her stomach muscles constricted, her heart raced. She kicked hard and twisted. Something large flashed past her. A manta ray? A shark? She fought to get her mind and body under control. Something gripped her wrist. She jerked reflexively. It was Redford.

“Looked like you were enjoying yourself too much,” he said.

It felt like her breath was whistling in her lungs. She didn’t dare more than a single word. “Asshole.”

The current went slack as it spilled them into an open expanse that led to the edge of the sunken shore and the bay. She settled into an upright position.

“One more surprise for you,” he said, holding her by the wrist, pivoting her until the object filled her vision.

“My God, what is it?” It was a massive black monolith, an octagon. There were inscriptions on the two sides she could see. “I’ve never read anything about this in the histories,” she said.

“No idea,” he said. “It might have been placed here just before the city was submerged or just after. Either way, you gotta wonder why anyone would create a monument that nobody sees.”

“What language is that?”

“Swahili and Hindi. Least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t speak either. There’s also Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish and English on the other sides. They hedged their bet who might survive to read it.”

She swam around the edges of the black sculpture until she recognized a few words of English not covered with algae. She rubbed the stone with her gloved hand. A cloud of micro-organisms slowly dispersed.

“Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason,” she read aloud. It was number four. “Really, no one knows where this came from, who put it here?”

“Someone knows, I guess,” Redford said, “but they’re not talking.”

She cleared the face of the stone further down. “Avoid petty laws and useless officials.”

“Amen to that,” Redford said.

She read the last commandment. “Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.” She paused. “Important enough they repeated it. I’m afraid we still screwed that pooch.”

“That’s the end of the tour,” Redford said lightly. She could hear the smile in his voice. “Hoped you enjoyed yourself. Remember to tip your deckhands.”


People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.


When she returned to their stateroom, Rifkin asked, “Did you enjoy your excursion?” He was sprawled across the bed wearing only a Speedo.

“It was marvelous,” she said, “and horrible. It’s as if the earth is erasing us.”

“Not entirely. We have our own geologic epoch. The Anthropocene. That’s some kind of immortality.”

“Why are you always so glib?”

He lifted his head. “Me? I’m a sane man well-adjusted to an insane society. And the filming went well today, thanks for asking.” His head fell back on the bed, seemingly exhausted by the effort.

“You know that documentary isn’t going to end well for you, don’t you?” she said.

“Don’t be absurd. They love me,” he said.

“You’re delusional.”

“Like I said, well-adjusted.” He stood and smoothed his clothes. “When you’re out of the shower, join me on the upper deck for a rum and tonic. Thank God they have a competent bar on this boat.”

She showered the salt water from her body and the wriggly little worms that were the larval stage of some lifeform that had found safe haven beneath her swim suit. She found Rifkin lounging in the pool. Sweat beaded on the glass in his hand and on his forehead. The autobot took her order and returned with a Mojito.

“What is that?” she said, pointing into the distance.

“My dear, are you really going to make me get out of the pool?” Rifkin said. “It’s hot.”

“It looks like a stain on the water,” she said a few minutes later, “but it’s getting closer. I think they’re boats. I’m going to ask the captain.”

“Really? Just leave it alone and it will go away.”

Captain Fairchild was on the lower bridge with a pair of binoculars aimed at the approaching boats.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“Drifters,” he said. “Migrants with no place to go.”

“Where did they come from?” she asked.

“There are tussocks of land still above water,” the captain said. “Hardly big enough to call islands. They’re regularly overtopped by storms. These people keep moving. They’re homeless. They live more on the water than the land.” He passed her the binoculars.

“They look so gaunt,” she said, “like Auschwitz survivors.”

“It’s not a good life,” Fairchild said, “but it’s the only one they’ve got. People don’t take kindly to immigrants anymore. You shelter in place or not at all.”

“Can we give them any food?” Living within the armored defenses of Manhattan, she had never seen hungry people before. On the video feeds, certainly, news footage of riots and restive natives, but that was like watching a documentary of baboons in the Drakensberg Mountains. They didn’t seem human.

“That would be unwise,” the captain said. “It would appear to them a sign of weakness, appeasement. If they think we’re vulnerable, they’ll become aggressive like sharks tasting blood in the water.”

“Really, captain. You’re being melodramatic. How harmful could these people be? They hardly have strength to raise a paddle. And they have children with them.” She saw a gaunt boy with hollow eyes sitting in an aluminum canoe between a bearded man and a woman who looked like she was fleeing the Dust Bowl.

“With respect, ma’am, these people have nothing and no hope of anything more. We have everything. The math doesn’t work in our favor.”

“What if we trade them for food? We wouldn’t seem weak.”

“They have nothing of value.”

“Don’t be dense, captain. It’s just a pretense.”

“The safety of this boat and everyone onboard is my responsibility. I don’t want these refugees inside our perimeter.”

“A few at a time,” she said. “The children first. What harm can they do? I insist.”

“I’m the captain. I’m the final authority on this…”

“True, Captain Fairchild.” she interrupted. “But I’m paying the bills. The children first.” She turned and walked away.

Rifkin stood beside Jalen as the first skiff came alongside. He was still wearing nothing but his Speedo. “Is this necessary?” he said. “It won’t make a difference. It’s an empty gesture.”

“It’s not a gesture.” she said, “They’re people. It will make a difference to them.”

“They’re not our people.”

“Really, Rifkin. You’ve been living in Manhattan too long.”

“You were living there with me, as I recall.”

There was a little girl in a wooden sailing skiff. Her skin was tanned like shoe leather. She waved at Jalen and smiled. She was missing several teeth. She was the first onboard. She was shy and hid behind her father, a man who looked anemic despite his dark tan. Kneeling, Jalen tried to coax her with an orange.

The captain’s handheld radio crackled. “Captain, we’ve got several of the buggers getting close on starboard side.” It was Mulvaney.

“Keep them at a distance,” the captain ordered.

“You want me to sink one as an example?” Mulvaney said.

“Keep it in your pants, Mulvaney. Just train your guns on them.”

The little girl wasn’t convinced. She had probably never seen an orange before. Jalen peeled it and ate a segment. She licked her lips. The little girl took a step forward.

“They’re not impressed, captain,” Mulvaney radioed. “They’ll be beneath my angle of depression in a minute.”

“Fire a few rounds above their heads. That should get their attention.”

The little girl extended a dirty hand. She touched the orange tentatively. Jalen held her hand, drawing her closer. The starboard minigun spit out a hundred rounds in less than two seconds. The little girl pulled back. Jalen held her. The little girl reacted instinctively, slashing with her free hand. Jalen dropped the orange on the deck. Blood spurted from a wound in her wrist. The little girl was holding a bone blade sharpened to a point.

“Captain, they’re on the aft deck,” someone shouted from the radio. “Bastards must have been underwater.”

“Weapons hot,” the captain shouted into his radio. “All targets.” He grabbed Jalen and pulled her away. Rifkin stood stunned, immobilized by the sudden change in roles. The girl’s father reached behind him and pulled a rusted blade from his rope belt. He plunged the blade into Rifkin’s throat. When he withdrew the blade, Rifkin’s heart pumped blood in a jet that splattered the man’s face. The man licked his lips.

The miniguns opened fire. Water erupted in jets like choreographed fountains. Wood and metal, flesh and bone were shredded by the impact. The small boats instantly decomposed into debris floating in a spreading red stain. The sound of small arms fire came from the aft deck.

The girl’s father moved quickly toward them. The captain roughly flung Jalen behind him. In the same movement, he drew a Glock from a shoulder holster beneath his uniform jacket. There was only an arm’s reach between them when he shot the man in his blood-stained face. Then he shot the little girl.

Rifkin was slumped on the deck, his back propped against the side of the cabin. He held his hands to his throat. The blood welled between his fingers and drained down his naked chest. He looked toward Jalen and tried to speak but only gurgled. His hands fell to his side. Blood trickled from the wound.

One of the boat people stepped into view from the aft deck. He was carrying an assault rifle issued to the crew. Another followed close behind. The captain fired before the man could bring his weapon to bear. The shots struck him center mass. He fell back onto the man behind who scooped up the dead man’s weapon and used his body as a shield. Captain Fairchild pulled the trigger until the hammer fell on an empty chamber. There was nowhere for them to go, nothing to hide behind. The man stood and raised the rifle. He looked as gaunt as death. Jalen braced for the pain.

The man’s head exploded in a cloud of blood and bone. He tumbled sideways. One of the camera crew appeared. It was the sound man, Blick. He was holding his rifle like a soldier. Of course, Jalen thought. Almost everyone who wasn’t rich had once been a soldier. Blick gave Fairchild a thumb’s up. The captain nodded.

“Report,” the captain barked into the radio.

There was a long pause. “Four dead, two wounded, one badly,” someone said. Jalen didn’t recognize the voice.

“Who is this?” the captain said.

“Withnal.” Withnal was the cook.

“Where’s the mate?”

“The mate’s dead. And Redford and Crookshank and the guy leading the film crew.”

“Damn. What about the boat?”

“The decks are cleared. You can see what’s left in the water. Mulvaney did a man’s job today.”

Jalen looked at the floating wreckage, pieces of boats shredded by the minigun but no bodies. No survivors, no one lifting their hand for help, no one struggling to stay afloat. They were all gone, slowly settling to the bottom of the bay. The little boy and his gaunt mother, his father, everyone except the bodies staining the teak decks with their blood. And poor Rifkin, propped against the bulkhead, a perplexed expression on this face, always the victim.

“My God,” Jalen said, still holding the wound in her wrist. “They’re all dead.”

“What did you expect,” the captain said. “They were starving. We have food.”

“I didn’t expect this.”

“You should have,” he said and turned away.

 

 

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."