Solo yachtsman Conrad Humphreys shares the lessons he learned to cope with isolation while competing in the 2004-05 Vendee Globe
DEALING WITH ISOLATION
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 10 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.
THE LEARNING CURVE
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 11 British sailors that have completed the Vendee Globe.
A lot of people think solo sailors must have incredible mental strength but if you compare us to 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 an unidentified floating object.
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 underestimate your ability to help give others the self-belief that they can get through otherwise isolated challenges.
Prior to the rudder breaking, and for most of my trip down the Atlantic, I was also battling a constant, often self-critical voice in my head. I’ve heard that lots of athletes suffer from this.
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 a lifeline for someone cut off from the world.
I often joke that during my 104-day Vendee, I spoke to Vikki more often than in the previous 10 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.
THE POWER OF SLEEP
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.
Focus only on the things you can control and reward your progress.
In the final week before finishing the Vendée, 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 round 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.
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SLEEP, EAT AND TRY AGAIN
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 slept between four and five hours a day, but my longest sleep was often in the afternoon when I would get between one and two hours.
Make your environment safe and have enough provisions to get through the immediate few days.
That could mean 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 can help 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.
CHECKLIST 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 what you can control
- Make your environment is safe
- Prepare meticulously
- Create a routine around your sleep cycle
- Keep checking and maintaining equipment
- Get plenty of rest
- Don’t fear isolation
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Conrad Humphreys, 47, is a triple round-the-world-sailor, former winner of the BT Global Challenge and was the pro skipper onboard Channel 4’s recreation of Bligh’s open-boat voyage, Mutiny.