Fatigue at Sea Can Transform Reality

Graham Dalton of New Zealand survived a pretty nasty situation during the first leg of this year's Velux.

In a log entry from December, Dalton wrote that he had woken up in his sail locker near the sailboat's bow: "How the hell I got there and what I had been doing, I have absolutely no idea. That is the level of fatigue. The body starts to close down."

Graham later determined that he must have been sleepwalking--leaving him one or two slippery steps from a perilous dip in the drink.

In times of war, prisoners have been tortured by being denied the opportunity to sleep.

"Imagine how uncomfortable you feel when you haven't slept in more than 24 hours," said Dr. Robert Vorona, an associate professor at the Eastern Virginia Medical School's Sleep Disorder Center. "It's unpleasant."

Vorona said that a lack of sleep affects mood, judgment and the ability to perform even the most simple task.

Anything less than the recommended 7.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep a day, and the effects of deprivation start to show in most people.

"But over days, weeks?" Vorona said. "It has to be a miserable experience."

Sailors in the Velux try to get as much sleep as possible when they can. Quick naps often are as much as they can hope for.

"That at least does some good," said Vorona, who has helped with a study being done on sailors by the University of Portsmouth in England. "It's better than nothing, but not as effective as seven and a half continuous hours."

Vorona has been amazed at the sailors.

"It's remarkable to me to circumnavigate the globe alone," Vorona said. "It's just fascinating, especially from a point of sleep deprivation.

"You just have to wonder what kind of person would put themselves through the kinds of conditions these sailors are subjecting themselves to in this race."

Why Racers Race

So why would someone put himself through such torturous conditions to sail around the world alone?

Race director David Adams of Australia--who has competed twice in the event--said that some enter as a personal challenge, similar to running a marathon. Others are just adventurous.

But for professional sailors such as Stamm, it's all about the competition.

"I once was a lumberjack. I skied, did motorcycle racing, gymnastics, a little judo," Stamm said. "But I think I was born to sail.

"The experience I take from other things is that I want to work hard and be the best. To overcome, to win...yes, that's why I sail this race.

"But like everything else, it comes with its challenges. A lack of sleep is a big one."

Adams, who won his boat class for the event in 1994-95, said that the hardest part of the challenge came from sleepless hours alone.

"It brings to the forefront the mental demons that people have to get over," he said. "You can go through so many euphoric ups and deep depressive downs."

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