People often ask me why I sail. The attraction of sailing for me ultimately boils down to how it makes me feel; the new emotions, the thrill of gliding across the water, powered only by the wind in my sails. I loved my initial connection with it. I love the freedom of it and I love the adventure.
The first time I took on a round-the-world challenge, I really wanted to experience everything the world has to offer – if you think of the heat, you think of the equator; if you think of the cold it’s the Southern Ocean or the North Atlantic icebergs, albatrosses, all the rest of it. Everything you aspire to experience in nature is there in its absolute maximum enormity.
While seeing nature at its very purest is certainly a draw, I’m fiercely competitive. If I enter a race, I enter with a view to winning and to win it I’ve got to be ready.
Controlling what I can
Being ready for me is straightforward: I know that there are elements I can control and those I can’t. There’s always going to be some element of luck.
When it comes to physical preparation, I can employ a trainer who’s going to whip me into shape and who will know more about the mechanics of what I’m doing in terms of the discipline – if it’s solo, or if it’s fully crewed. They can tailor both diet and physique towards what I need. I just fall into line, do what I need to do. I commit to what they tell me 100% because I know that it’s a straightforward performance gain over those who do not do the work in these areas.
Going into a race is almost ritualistic. The first two days in any race is a period of transition for most sailors: They’re getting used to the motion of the sea, they’re getting used to their broken sleep patterns, they’re getting used to the diet onboard.
I would incorporate that into the days immediately prior to the start with sleep deprivation training, making myself seasick on land and eating freeze-dried food. While I’m doing all this, I know that my opponents are hanging out with their friends and family and sponsors, eating big meals, going out, having a few beers.
These guys might have a faster boat than me, but I am already in the rhythm when we hit the water and I’m pushing harder than them because I’ve got no physical or emotional restraints, this preparation gives me the edge I need to consistently fight amongst the lead pack, particularly in the first few days of any endurance event.
Leaving my emotions on dry land
The time before a big competition, my awareness, senses and appreciation for life on land becomes so strong that everything is alive around me.
My core senses are heavily enlightened. If somebody calls, I know that in two weeks’ time I could leave shore and never return. When people embrace me before the start, I really hug them back. If people call me, I really have a conversation. I make that effort thinking that could be the last time I will ever speak to that person.
When what I can’t control, takes control
The first time that I felt that I was really in danger was when we capsized right in the middle of a shipping channel with a big ship coming right at us. I remember feeling so vulnerable and afraid. That was a very humbling experience and something that has stayed with me. Sailing is a sport that humbles you regularly.
I have almost lost my life twice at sea. I have been so overwhelmed by fear that it has broken me emotionally. I have developed several tools in order to manage fear and it requires a great deal of mental strength to implement them in the face of death.
Sailors around the world find themselves in situations where your next closest human is in a space station above your head. This may sound quite dramatic, but our sporting field does not have doctors on the sidelines or an ambulance 500m away with the keys in the ignition.
Making small wins
You need to be a fighter and you really need to want to live in these parts of the world. During one storm I found myself mid Southern Ocean alone and was mentally broken, petrified with fear – I couldn’t perform. I struggled to physically move. My shore team, in particular my father, devised a job list that I would have to achieve to help me start believing in myself again.
They set me deadlines by which I had to get them done by. I had so many broken things at the back of that storm.
A 20-minute job would take me five or six hours. Once that was done, they set me another slightly harder task. Then I got better, stronger at fixing things. The boat was becoming stronger in terms of its application. It was getting safer. It was performing better, it was more comfortable. My environment was getting easier to live with and through these small achievements my confidence just grew and grew and grew. I was ultimately able to continue my objective to sail around the world solo.
The power of many
When I am alone at sea, I need to be incredibly strong and resourceful – both physically and emotionally. I feel that I am a strong motivator of people in a team environment, but when taking on any solo endurance challenge at sea I rely heavily on my shore team. My communication with them often determines my ability to win a race or break a speed record.
When it comes to putting any team together it’s important to consider balance. I work heavily on the strengths and weaknesses model. My first pick will always be someone who is not only brave, but talented.
Onboard, a fast helmsman is an absolute must: someone who makes the boat go fast all the time, with total disregard for their own life. I also pick someone for navigation. Generally, in my initial selection one is male, one is female. It’s not about ticking boxes but finding the best skills for the boat. Naturally over the years I’ve got my go-to people. The team I absolutely trust.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an extreme battle with fear when I’m onboard a yacht with a team. I’m not sure why. I guess I feel we’re all going to work together and we’re going to survive this. It’s not all on me.