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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.