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How to Sail Around the World Alone and Not Go Mad

The isolated adventure is about skill, belief in internal power, and talking to yourself.
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(Photo: 14degrees/Flickr)

(Photo: 14degrees/Flickr)

Navigating a sailboat out of the heart of a fierce coastal squall takes a special combination of concentration and skill. But for an extremely weathered yachtsman, surviving tough weather might become a sort of routine, a ritual even. Draw down the mast, bale out the water, hope for the best, pray.

But maintaining that same sort of calm and attention—the kind it takes to successfully ride out the torrent—becomes much more complicated when it is a seafarer's 200th solo day out on the open ocean, and there's just been a windless fortnight spent on the equator, baking under the sun. It takes a personality, a special kind of salt, to endure these nautical challenges, especially when they're part of a larger attempt at circumnavigating the globe, using only two hands and the sails flapping above.

Bearing constant isolation and thriving amid the monotony, while still maintaining the reactionary prowess to handle sudden danger or equipment failures, are not characteristics every person can master. But they're requisite traits for a journey most experienced sea dogs wouldn't even be particularly bothered to consider.

"In maintaining a belief orientation that he was the master of his own destiny, it is likely that he was able to make a distinction between his ability to control his life in general and the uncontrollable exigencies of Nature."

The first man to take up and succeed at such a challenge was Captain Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotian mariner who completed the feat over the course of three years in the late 1890s. In the appendix of his memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World, he reminds "young men" with ambitions of such voyages to remain militantly certain of their own capacity to conquer a powerful sea. "To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood," he wrote. "You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over."

Some would call this confidence mad. But a hint of madness is what these ventures seem to demand. Perhaps this narrow obsession can only be cast by fires in the minds of the slightly unhinged. While at sea, Slocum "befriended a spider" and sang to porpoises and sea lions.

Certainly, overzealous confidence can also lead some misguided jack-tars to personal failures or premature death. In Slocum's case, it was both. Though his book received wide acclaim (one reviewer even wished death-by-drowning upon those who did not enjoy it), he occupied most days by doing even moresailing alone. Then, in 1906, he was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl after a yachting lecture, and later convicted on a reduced charge of "indecent assault." Following the incident, "He became more withdrawn from humanity," according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography's account. In 1909, he sailed off from Martha's Vineyard, heading south, and was never seen or heard from again. For all his ocean-going, he "could not swim."

GLORIA LEON, A PSYCHOLOGY professor emerita at the University of Minnesota, has exploredthe mental mechanics of hardcore expedition teams since 1986, when she evaluated members of an unsupported 56-day, 1,000-mile ski and dogsled trek to the North Pole. Recently, she paired with Danish trauma researcher Anders Kjærgaard to examine the personality and emotions of his 29-year-old friend (referred to only as "C."), as he attempted to sail non-stop and alone in a small vessel across the world.

Much of the previous work on life within an intense, confined, and extreme environment, labeled ICE in the literature, has focused on anecdotal information about group dynamics and negative experiences or "stressors." Leon and Kjærgaard set out instead to learn more empirically about the individual's psychological profile, experience, and capacity for growth during the journey. The case study, published in Environment and Behaviorin Mayintended to identify some of "the traits, attitudes, and behaviors that are optimal for engaging in long-duration solitary challenges." They asked the seafarer to respond to a battery of psychological assessments before, during (two responses were dispatched live over either satellite phone or Internet), and after the voyage.

Before the trip, a personality evaluation revealed that the sailor already possessed certain "adaptive psychological characteristics," like "openness to new ideas and experiences" and "absorption." "The ability to become highly engaged in the beauty and majesty of the environment and, thus, pay less attention to long stretches of boredom and monotony is clearly adaptive for engaging in a long-duration solo voyage," the team wrote.

The sailor also filled out a once-weekly affect assessment. Despite storms, a gigantic wave that destroyed his wind rudder, and various other frustrations along the way, he remained abundantly positive throughout. Here's the data plotted across the voyage (positive affect is solid; negative affect is dotted):

(Chart: Environment and Behavior)


And though the man originally departed from Skagen Harbor in Denmark and had to abandon his voyage after his mast broke off on day 260 in the English Channel (he was technically successful because he managed to "[cross] his own departure line ... alone and without stops along the way"), he remained bright-eyed even after a nighttime evacuation, according to the researchers' interview. "Imagine if it had happened in the middle of the Southern Ocean or in the Pacific.... I hardly dare to think about it. Also it could have happened under much worse weather conditions.... So really it was extremely fortunate. It was a starry night and I could see the countryside and the evacuation all went smoothly. So it was almost touching how fortunate a place it happened in."

His stable affect was also backed by consistently high ratings for belief in the "internal locus of control," the concept that experiences are "a result of one's own behavior" rather than "a result of forces over which one does not have control." The man's "beliefs or expectancies in Chance and Powerful Others were uniformly low." This strong belief in an internal system of power is thought to predict success in stressful environments. It's easier to ride out a storm when your fate and course are not fixed—when, in Slocum's words, you're confident that the sea is "made to be sailed over." "In maintaining a belief orientation that he was the master of his own destiny, it is likely that he was able to make a distinction between his ability to control his life in general and the uncontrollable exigencies of Nature," the authors conclude. "This belief system is clearly adaptive in dealing with disappointments over which one does not have personal control...."

Ultimately, Leon says in an email, the most important factors for success in these types of challenges appear to be "stable personality and excellent technical training. The ability to prepare but yet ask for advice when needed. The strong motivation to be successful, while at the same time being careful and not taking excessive risks. So certainly not a daredevil but measured in risk taking." The results also indicate that this psychological profile is not necessarily unique to success on a solo trek. "Obviously, someone who would go mad in isolation would not be a good bet for any kind of trek in isolated, confined, and extreme environments," Leon says.

Requirements for a small team trek, like strong communication skills, might also be crucial for a solo trip, even if that communication only comes in the form of talking to oneself or inanimate objects. Though it can seem a bit loopy, the behavior can be an effective coping mechanism for isolation and can act as a sort of buffer from societal disconnection. Instead of singing to porpoises and befriending spiders, C. often spoke to himself or to his computer. "It was almost as if he had another person/being with him," Leon says. "He clearly found this very helpful and did not think it was strange or that he was losing his mind. He was bound in reality, but nonetheless used these methods to cope with stress and also to alleviate the monotony."

In a way, he embraced what one from the outside would view as crazy to ease the effects of encroaching and maddening drudgery. He described the experience to the researchers:

Because there are really a lot of similar days, which is the biggest challenge—not going crazy with the monotony, the same environment, decor, food, your own company and limited movement possibilities. ... I talked every day loudly. I often commented on the trip as if I were telling others what I saw. If I saw something when I was standing at the mast, I went down and told it to anyone. It was often the computer. It was a great listener.... Sometimes I could get a little crazy. It was towards the ending of the journey in particular. So I just went out and screamed. And then I laughed about it afterwards.... Very primitive, but it works.

Compared to the information collected during the middle of the voyage, the data also indicate that the sailor felt he grew personally in "appreciation of life," "relating to others," "personal strengths," and "new possibilities" in follow-ups.

THERE ARE RATHER UNEXPECTED land-based skills also needed for a successful voyage. Life-long sailor Bruce Schwab, who has raced across the world twice and holds the American record for solo circumnavigation at 109 days and 20 hours, pointed to the importance of pre-voyage preparation. He believes his intense obsession with the legwork was a driving factor in his success. Interestingly, skills he picked up outside the sport helped him make it happen. "My dabbling in PR (for a rigging shop and company that I worked for), and as an occasional performer (have always been a guitarist)," he explains in an email, "are other factors that played a role in my eventual successful voyage ... that is, the ability to beg for money and to be a bit of a showman." The tasks of fundraising and amassing equipment were not easy, he says. Schwab actually argues that "getting to the starting line, with a chance for a successful trip" was actually the most difficult component of the entire process. He writes:

Handling the financial stress, lack of sleep (both in the years of prep and during the event itself), managing personalities (both of a team, and of my own quirks), and balancing/meeting the expectations of others all create a very high level of stress that not everyone would want to deal with. I was not 100% successful on all these levels, however I did fulfill the actual preparation (mostly) and the sailing parts of the equation. Bankruptcy and personal life struggles followed, although having gotten through the years of prep and the sailing itself, the subsequent battles perhaps seemed less harsh than they may have been on their own. Of course, if I hadn't have gone at all, then most of those troubles would likely have been avoided... ;-)

Similar to C., Schwab seems personally strengthened by the trek. But like any obsessive, he can't help but reflect on two key characteristics a successful solo sailor should have once she crosses the starting line. "The ability to worry and visualize what can go wrong (but without despair) so that you can try to predict what bad things may happen and prepare for them as much as possible," he says. And, secondly: "Once something bad does happen, having the ability to suddenly stop worrying and get on with fixing whatever it is that went wrong."

In other words, true long-distance solo sailors must know what the sea looks like before the storm arrives. They must remember they're in full control of their own destinies when it comes. And, if memory fails, they must shout reminders to themselves at the top of their lungs.