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.
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.
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.
“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.
…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.
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.