Fatigue at Sea Can Transform Reality


The journey

The Velux is a magnet for fatigue. Sailed in three legs of 12,000, 14,200 and 3,200 miles, the race bounces back and forth from brutal conditions to the mind-bending challenge of the windless doldrums.

In the earlier editions of the event, sailors spent weeks in total isolation.

Even today, conditions on the 50- or 60-foot sailboats are anything other than elaborate.

Something as simple as going to the bathroom becomes difficult in boat-bashing seas--especially when there are no restrooms on board.

In the Velux, it's a bucket to do business and a "chuck-it" overboard to flush it.

At least today's technology has made some things more bearable.

The modern sailor relies on amenities such as the Internet, satellite telephones and GPS-guided autopilots to help get them through.

"It's a night-and-day difference," Adams said. "When weather permits, the autopilot can be turned on, they can fix problems on their boat, call the wife and kids at home, and spend much-needed time on the computer looking for weather and the best wind."

But the reliance on technology does have its drawbacks.

"The sailors grow to depend on it," Adams said. "When it breaks down, they have to know how to fix it or do without."

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston knows the old and new ways. In 1969, he became the first to sail solo around the world. This year in the Velux, on the second leg from Australia to Norfolk, he told race officials he loathed today's technology. He hated it because it wasn't working properly and actually was depriving him of much-needed sleep.

"It's dangerous because the other day I went out to sleep because I was so exhausted and I missed the radar alarm going off," Knox- Johnston wrote in his log. "I had a cruise liner go within 2 miles, and I didn't know until that had passed.

"It isn't amusing."

Sunday, four of the five racers will leave the Chesapeake Bay in their wake and head toward Spain on what must seem like an afternoon cruise compared to the first two legs. The fifth contestant, Dalton, is still trying to make it to Norfolk.

When the four leave, sleep--and the problems a lack of it cause--won't be as much of a problem. The leg is relatively short, about a fourth of the distance of the previous two. And anticipation of completing the endurance test is high.

But for Stamm, who enjoys an overall lead of two weeks and three hours over the closest competitor, the final leg will hold all of the same challenges.

"I will be pushing hard to finish," Stamm said. "But as with the other legs, it is important to listen to the body. It talks to you and tells you what you need.

"It's more important than ever at sea. The body will tell me to eat or sleep, or even to stop racing if I am in danger.

"With the win so near, I can assure you, I will not be so tired as to see anyone else on board my boat."

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