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The loneliness of the solo ocean racer
Possibly the ultimate adventure -- the Vendée Globe around-the-world race has started, pitting sailors against the elements and their own minds
It’s one thing to spend a few hours at sea, quite another to spend weeks alone offshore, cut off from family and friends.
But that’s what lies ahead for the 20 competitors setting off on November 10, 2012, from Les Sables d’Olonne in France to sail solo, non-stop around the world in the Vendée Globe race, the "Everest" of sailing that takes place every four years.
That’s three months of stress in the form of interrupted sleep, freak storms, technical hitches, fear, loneliness, potentially fatal accidents -- and a bucket for a toilet.
It’s a challenge to make even the most seasoned of yachtspeople blanch.
So why do it?
And can the rest of us learn anything from these brave -- or mad -- souls?
For 38 year-old skipper Alex Thomson, attempting to be the first Brit to win the race, it’s all about the challenge, both mental and physical.
A challenge to stay alive
"You’re trying to be the best, trying to sail the boat, trying to stay alive -- it’s like nothing you’ll ever experience in day-to-day life," he says.
Yachtswoman Dee Caffari MBE, 38, who competed in the 2008/2009 Vendée Globe -- and the first woman to sail solo around the world -- agrees the race is an extraordinary test.
"You need to be able to manage yourself, the boat, the race, and above all else, to enjoy it. No one ever says it’ll be easy, but it is an amazing experience," she says.
The preparations begin months ahead on dry land.
For Thomson, this means rigorous strength, cardio and endurance sessions. Mental preparation is especially vital to the solo sailor and to this end, he has turned to sports psychologist, Ken Way.
"When an event is perceived as challenging it is highly likely it will give rise to unwanted emotional reactions like anxiety, nerves or disrupted thinking and poor decision-making," says Way.
"So you need to train yourself to react to all potential situations. We have had sessions whenever Alex feels the need. I use a vast array of techniques, including hypnotherapy and NLP, to enable him to develop a thinking flexibility and to fine-tune his brain to feel confident and handle any scenario."
While veteran Swiss race competitor Bernard Stamm, 49, shuns the services of a coach ("I prefer to prepare alone -- for me it’s a personal process of reflection"), Caffari worked with Dr Neil Weston, from England’s Portsmouth University and found his input priceless.
Food and sleep lead to better decisions
"The most valuable part of my development to be a Vendée Globe sailor was learning how to become a much stronger and more clinical sailor regardless of the environment or how tired I was," she says.
"I learned that my inabilities to make clear decisions were linked to a lack of food and sleep. So keeping hydrated, consuming a snack or taking a quick snooze mean that decision-making was much easier and clearer."
Ah, sleep. Exactly how does that happen on a yacht scything through choppy waves when there’s no one to relieve you?
"You learn to catnap," says Caffari. "During my Vendée Globe, I slept for periods of 20 minutes, and a long sleep for me was an hour and a half.
"Sleep is very much dependent on the conditions. If the weather is set and the boat is sailing well, then you need to bank some shut-eye while you can as you don’t know when the next opportunity will be.
"It’s surprisingly easy to wake up, you sleep listening to the boat and you know all the noises she makes. If a noise changes you know you have to check it. When it is your life in your hands it is amazing how fast you can wake up!"
For Stamm, even catching a few winks is a tactical maneuver.
"I sleep wherever I need my weight to be on the boat, so rarely do I sleep in the dedicated rest space. I often sleep on the sails or sit and nap by the controls," he says.
But what happens in the event of an emergency?
A ship’s medic, Thomson says he’s equipped to look after himself should any accidents arise, but claims to be squeamish.
"I’m trained in first aid, and I did sew up a chicken on the course I took," he says. "But believe me I wouldn’t want to have to sew up myself. If it came down to it, I’d just grit my teeth and get on with it. I hate the sight of blood."
Thank goodness then that race doctor Jean-Yves Chauve is on call 24/7.
Remote medics on call
"With the medical training all the sailors have received before departure and the extensive pharmacy on board, they can act as my eyes and hands -- they describe their symptoms and follow my instructions," Chauve says.
"I can also receive images of wounds and communicate with them via video conference if they need help with a tricky medical procedure, stitches, for example."
The sort of mishap that sounds ghastly enough on dry land can be lethal if it happens at sea.
Chauve describes how in a previous race one sailor managed to stab his arm with a knife so badly (whilst climbing to the top of the mast to cut a stuck cable) the blade went into his elbow and exited below his shoulder.
He managed to radio the doctor before he blacked out. "I was convinced he’d cut the main artery of his arm. Miraculously, a few minutes later he came to, and we were able to help him."
Another hapless competitor, he says, was thrown during a storm, and broke his femur.
"He was in too much pain to reach the drugs that could relieve him, and it took 48 hours for paramedics to reach the boat. For those two days, I called him regularly to help keep him alive. Sometimes he wouldn’t answer, and I didn’t know if he was asleep or in a coma."
Loneliness bad, boredom good
It takes more than a first-aid kit and crack medic to combat the inevitable feelings of loneliness, perhaps a solo sailor’s biggest nemesis, next to unpredictable weather.
Thomson is philosophical about the pangs one experiences when alone at sea for long periods.
"It will happen, but it doesn’t faze me too much," he says. "After all, I made the decision to subject myself to it. Mostly I miss having someone to share the workload on the boat. Fortunately, there’s a satellite phone on board which I use to speak to my shore team, family and friends."
As for rare snatches of down-time, it seems the hard-working skippers crave it.
"Solo sailors long for the chance to be bored," says Caffari. "If you’re not trimming your sails or driving to go faster, then you need to be downloading weather, making tactical decisions, or fixing something on the boat, and if not you should be eating, drinking and sleeping."
When all is calm, Thomson says he might watch a few minutes of a light comedy or action DVD.
As for refueling, it’s freeze-dried all the way.
"They’re pretty good actually, beef and game casseroles, chicken curry," he says, of his meals. "You just mix them up with water. I also carry a few treats. I love mayonnaise which I eat with everything and I carry a stash of peanuts which I reward myself with or when I’m a bit low on energy."
Stamm says he concocts his dishes with the help of a nutritionist and Swiss catering company. No freeze-dried pub fare for him.
"I love stewed veal shoulder with coconut milk and almonds, rice and leek, or shrimp curry, cauliflower, chickpeas, or veal, mushroom and potatoes with garlic," he says.
So stressful and potentially risky is the race that it inspired a book, Dr Weston’s "Coping and Emotion in Sport."
He’s put his findings to good use in workshops with gifted young sailors in the UK’s Artemis Offshore Academy in Cowes, providing them with the tools to cope with psychological stress, and manage themselves effectively when out at sea.
Finishing is an achievement
"If it all goes wrong, ultimately you could die. These skippers need to be mentally robust, they need to be able to cope with harrowing situations at sea -- if not, they’re using their intuition alone, which is more unpredictable," says Weston.
As for Alex Thomson, how will he be feeling if he manages to cross the finish line after the grueling race? "From my racing experience, I know it’ll be a mixture of elation, relief and exhaustion," he says.
And what about the celebrations after the months of intense focus, discipline and anxiety -- will they kick off with champagne? A glitzy post-race party?
A solo ocean racer’s priorities, it seems, lie elsewhere. "The first thing I’ll want to do is get a cheeseburger and a beer," he says.
After doing battle with the Big Blue, it’s the small things in life that matter.
For more info visit www.vendeeglobe.org. This year’s race starts on the November 10. The departure ceremony starts at 9.30 a.m. local time, with the race starting at 1.02 p.m. Spectators are welcome. More info here.
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