Article first published in Yachting Monthly
That first night it really hit me. I’d made a great start, rounded the final turning mark off Les Sables d’Olonne inside the top ten and was now reaching at high speed towards Cape Finisterre. I was suddenly in floods of tears, sobbing irrationally, feeling overwhelmed from the day’s earlier activities. You see, I’d just said goodbye to my family and loved ones, before being towed out of the harbour where thousands of people had lined the pier to say ‘au revoir’. Now, cocooned in my little boat, I suddenly felt very alone. Ahead of me lay three months of isolation. From here on I would only have one phone call each day to my team ashore and Vikki, my wife. The rules of the Vendee Globe, offshore racing’s premier sailing event are stark – no outside assistance, no stopping, alone.
When asked if I enjoy the isolation of single-handed sailing, I always reply yes, but only if I have a good team of people behind me. We are not solitary beings, most people can’t imagine a period of their lives without daily contact and nor can solo sailors. That’s probably why there are only eleven British sailors that have completed the Vendee Globe.
A lot of people think solo sailors must have incredible mental strength. The reality is that we are no different from anyone else. If you compare our amazing NHS workers today, they are the ones with incredible mental resilience. This comes from working in team environments where everyone plays their part and each draws strength from the other.
During the Vendee, I broke my rudder 400 miles west of Cape Town after colliding with a UFO. I thought my race was over. Back in the UK, my team led by Joff Brown thought otherwise. Working remotely they came up with a workable solution to keep me in the race. They gave me the strength to believe that I could make the repairs and rejoin the race. Don’t under-estimate your ability to help give others the self belief that they can get through this.
Prior to the rudder breaking, and for most of my trip down the Atlantic I was also battling a constant voice in my head that was self monitoring my performance, often criticising and rarely praising. I’ve heard that lots of athletes suffer from this (and some people who suffer from mental illness) It can have a positive effect, driving you harder, but people who are isolated also need to learn to praise their own achievements and give themselves a ‘pat on the back’. If you are supporting someone from a distance try to imagine what they might be going through. A virtual hug may be the life blood for someone cut off from the world.
I often joke that during the 104 day Vendee, I spoke to Vikki more often than in the previous ten years of living together! This was partly because, within our team, I didn’t have the budget to employ a coach, and Vikki naturally assumed this role. As you can imagine, there are many times during a race like this when you need emotional support to get through the bad times. Having someone that can empathise with your situation is part of the battle, but there are also times when you need a ‘kick up the arse’. Learning what makes people tick and how they respond to stress is key to motivating them.
It’s important to stay in control or you will slide into the funnel of despair and the further you fall, the harder it is to climb out. Don’t worry about those things that you can’t control or you will start to feel helpless. Try and focus on what you can do, however small and reward your progress. Remember you can only eat an elephant one spoon at a time. In the final week before finishing the Vendee, my engine failed and I had no way to charge the batteries to power my electronics and autopilot. I tried to get the boat on a course and balance the sails. This worked for short periods, but I was not able to get any sleep. In the light and unstable winds around the Azores high, the boat just wouldn’t stay on course. I felt helpless and out of control – I was going around in circles. Eventually, I took the sails down and got some sleep. When I awoke, I tried again, but this time I made two short lengths of bungee to hold the tiller. With a clear head, I found a solution and step by step, I reached the finish line at Les Sables D’olonne. If you find yourself spiralling out of control – sleep, eat and try again.
For those about to find themselves in a period of isolation, there’s no need to be scared, but make good use of the time to get your boat in order and your head too. Be meticulous and plan for what you might need. It’s especially important to establish a routine which includes time for rest, carrying out routine maintenance and strategy. During the Vendee, I worked with a sleep specialist. I’m a morning person, so I tend to wake very early and have a clear head first thing. It’s the best time for me to do jobs that require my brain to work. Morning people also tend to be good at taking siesta in the afternoon. I sleep between 4-5 hours a day, but my longest sleep was often in the afternoon 1-2 hours.
Make your environment safe and have enough provisions to get through the immediate few days. If that means cooking a few extra meals in readiness so that you’re not scratching around the back of your cupboards looking for something nutritious to eat during a crisis. Plan your maintenance schedules, check and double check everything is running as it should, don’t put off doing routine maintenance. Get plenty of rest. Sleep help can reduce stress and will enable you to think clearly. I can still hear those words of advice ringing in my ears during some of the dark days of the Vendee – “When did you last sleep?” “What have you eaten today?”
Good luck and don’t fear isolation. Learning to be happy, content and confident alone is something everyone should do. It will help you to overcome bigger challenges and make you appreciate the things you have and love even more.
My check list for dealing with isolation
- Build a strong network of friends around you
- Learn to give yourself praise
- Have empathy for others and communicate every day
- Focus on those things you can control
- Make your environment safe
- Prepare meticulously
- Create a routine around your sleep cycle
- Keep checking and maintaining equipment
- Get plenty of rest
- Don’t fear isolation
Conrad’s Vendée Globe documentary, Against the Odds is now available on YouTube.