Susie Goodall, participant in the Golden Globe Race 2018. Photo credit: Bernard Gergaud,

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.

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