Tag Archives: Golden Globe Race

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.