Tag Archives: Mark Slats

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.

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.