Alex Thomson is a day away from coming second, or even first, in the Vendée solo round-the-world race. While I’ve never been big into competitive offshore sailing, I have followed his exploits for years because they are, frankly, outlandish.
And I do love a bit of the outlandish.
So for the past 73 days I’ve been sporadically checking in on the Vendée Globe tracker – and now daily as Alex speeds towards the finish line.
But while I’m excited at the prospect of a British sailor within winning distant of the Vendée race, what really fascinates me is what these sailors have been through, the isolation that they’ve lived in for 73+ days.
Out of sight
The isolation that I experienced during my two, month-long ocean passages was very different to that the racers are experiencing.
For one, I wasn’t alone. I sailed with my partner – the Vendée sailors are alone on their yachts.
But my partner and I were alone. We had no internet connection, no Sat phone, absolutely no contact with the rest of the world. If we’d seen a ship on the horizon, then we could’ve contacted them via VHF if we’d needed to. But it didn’t come up – because we almost never saw one.
If we’d encountered a life-threatening emergency then we could’ve set off our EPIRB, an emergency beacon that would’ve transmitted our GPS location for 48 hours.
But that was it. We were alone.
Offshore Sailing = Total isolation
Many sailors have some form of satellite communication and can transmit and receive anything from text messages to voice and video. Some use SSB radio to transmit over vast distances. We had neither.
But in those two month-long voyages, I was faced with an interesting situation. Whatever happened in the world, in my country, my town, my family, my friends…I wouldn’t know.
Having seen a lot of disaster movies and, more recently, just the news, it seemed entirely plausible that something huge would happen and I would be utterly ignorant. Entire stories would play out in my head, what if, what if, what if.
The internet age
Born in the late 80s, the internet has increasingly played a huge part in my life. From my teen years onwards, social media has been there, digging its claws in deeper and deeper. 24 hour news is now taken for granted but when I was a child the news was only available on certain hours. The Six O’Clock News was a thing.
When I left the Canaries to sail across the Atlantic, I went from having 24 hour access to world news and familial news to nothing. Nothing at all. Zip.
Of course, because the Earth doesn’t revolve around my availability, it didn’t save up the disasters Hollywood movies are made of just for when I was offshore. It merely played out its countless miniature disasters all over the world as it would any other month.
But the isolation felt deeper and more defining than it was.
It didn’t take the news away from me, it took me away from the news. I was free from the burden of knowing, comparing, worrying. I was free from the constant grappling that social media does with your soul. From the endless story headlines shouting for my attention. No longer did I have to decide between clicking on ‘Are You Making THESE 10 Makeup Mistakes?’ and ‘Allied Strikes Accidentally Target Civilians’.
The isolation was strange and eerie but it was also wonderful. It freed me up to spend all my energy on what was happening right then, in the moment. Right there, in the ocean. What was the wind doing? How fast were we going? Is that fish trailing us going to finally bite and provide us with a fresh dinner?
Like I said, the isolation faced by the Vendée sailors is markedly different. Not only are the racers continually in contact with their teams on dry land, they can make calls, receive messages, use the internet and even transmit and receive videos. They have the best communication technology a sailor can have.
But while they’re logged into the rest of the world, a friendly chat just a button away, they’re still very much alone and in a very dangerous place.
Their shore teams are dedicated and constantly working hard to help their sailor but there’s only so much they can do. When Elle MacArthur was forced to repeated climb her 10 metre mast in the southern ocean during her Vendée Globe, she was climbing that mast by herself.
The pressure that ocean racers are under is immense because it’s not just about winning the race. Or even about finishing the race. The pressure comes from every dimension, every molecule around them. The ocean, the wind, the sun, the squalls, the time, the changing seasons. Everything matters.
In an extreme racing yacht, even in my slow-going 1970s yacht, sleep can be hard, even next-to-impossible to find. I sailed double-handed, changing watches every three hours and knowing there was someone else to watch the clouds as I napped. But the Vendée sailors have no such luxury.
Everything is a challenge out in the ocean and these racers have been traversing the toughest ocean out there.
So I’m watching the Vendée tracker with awe, because fellow British sailor Alex Thomson is less than a day away from ending his 3+ months of isolation. And I’m so excited for him.