Challenges Publié le 15 juillet 2019

Challenging boundaries

The Vendée Globe is not considered the nautical Everest for no reason. Sailing for weeks by yourself means much more than sailing: it means learning how to deal with tiredness, fear, eating habits, focus and difficulties that may arise. And, above all, it means that you know how to face uncertainty.

All elite athletes are physically and mentally prepared. And those who practice extreme sports also have to assume they are going to be exposed to unpredictable situations and must be ready for anything that might pop up. Participants in the Vendée Globe go a step further. Aside from physical toughness, mental demand and facing unexpected events, there is an extra challenge: being alone at sea for many weeks.

We talked about this with Giancarlo Pedote:

Question: What leads someone to take on such an extreme challenge? 
Answer: I think that the wish to take extreme risks is in you. It pushes you since you՚re very young. It՚s about overcoming limits, seeing things from a new perspective and testing yourself in a new context. It՚s a need that makes you meet more and more difficult and demanding challenges.

Q: Why does someone take the risks of solo sailing around the world?
A: As a sailor, I think about risks rationally, not emotionally. The same happens to someone who wears a motorcycle helmet when he goes for a ride: he wears a helmet because if he was driven by emotions, he would focus his energies on the risks involved and on the fact he could get injured and end on a wheelchair. I believe the risks you take when doing that type of sport aren՚t very different from those that any person can take in their daily life. I always take the necessary precautions so that everything goes well.

Q: What can you say about the solitude experienced when sailing?
A: It is a mind state that helps me to look inside me. I experience solitude as an opportunity, not as a limit, as it allows me to reflect upon everything I՚ve achieved in life and to think about my family and friends. Obviously, those who don՚t enjoy being alone will have a hard time.

Q: How important is mental strength?
A: Mental strength is essential because in navigation there are always unforeseen events that break your schemes. That՚s why it is so important to develop an adaptive behaviour. When you can adapt easily, you can really enjoy what you do.

Q: Sailing around the world takes many weeks: how do you manage to remain focused?
A: I՚m always focused, for me it՚s an everyday thing. Regardless of where I am, whether at sea or on land, I՚m concentrated fourteen hours a day. It՚s an attitude that I have in life, it՚s a habit.

Q: Is there time to relax?
A: Yes, when the wind drops and the ship moves slower, then I can relax a bit… Although, it՚s also true that՚s precisely the moment when you have to check the ship and verify everything is fine. The level of attention I pay can vary from 100% to 60%, but it will never be 0.

Q: Do you ever think about the dangers you face?
A: I know the dangers, but I don՚t let fear invade me; I՚m driven only by reason, as if I were playing chess. If I let myself be led by imaginary emotions and dangers, I’d better do something else.

Q: What is it like to sleep while you are sailing?
A: I sleep badly, especially because it՚s very difficult to relax the muscles. You are used to a monophasic sleep pattern: I fall asleep around 23 pm and wake up around 8 am. But solo sailing demands a polyphasic sleep pattern, so I sleep for short periods of time throughout the day (8, 10 or 15 minutes), as many animals do. I՚ve been doing it for a few years and I got used to it. It՚s hard when I՚m on the mainland where sleeping habits are different, but it՚s part of my job.

Q: Doesn’t that way of resting affect your mental capacity?
A: The less you sleep, the more vulnerable you are from the emotional and rational point of view. So, it՚s important to rest well and to know how to identify the moment lack of sleep starts to affect you.

Q: A high competition sailboat is a demanding machine; how does a solo sailor prepare himself to face the difficulties that may arise?
A: It՚s a preparation that takes years and years because you have to know a bit of everything about the boat. You need to know about electricity, electronics, computers and energy; you have to be ready to repair a piece of carbon or any mechanical part. Whenever we assemble and dismantle the boat, I try to imagine how I՚d repair each piece in case of breakage. In 2013, on the high seas, my boat was split in two and I was able to repair it with the carbon that I had in reserve.

I՚ve been sailing in the IMOCA class for 10 years, so I had the opportunity to delve into different subjects. I spent a lot of time in the shipyard and learned a lot from the craftsmen. After some years of doing that, I acquired a certain degree of knowledge that prepared me to solve possible problems. If you are in the middle of the ocean and you don՚t know how to repair something that broke, your career has come to an end.

Q: What kind of physical activities can you do during navigation?
A: The space on the boat is very, very limited and you really can՚t move much, unless you want to go to stern when the sea is calm. I have some room where I can lie down and – although it՚s uncomfortable —I can also stand or sit in stem. Actually, the only type of physical activity that you can do on board is stretching your muscles.

Q: How much energy does work demand on board?
A: It demands a lot of physical energy, so you have to eat more than 4,000 calories a day. They are necessary to counteract the cold and the effort required by the tasks on the boat.

Q: The safe spaces of the IMOCA are very limited. What do you eat and how do you cook it?
A: I eat dehydrated food. I use a water purifier to remove the salt from the water, then I heat it and pour it into the powder preparation. After a few minutes, it swells and is ready to eat. It is also possible to bring vacuum-packed food, but there՚s one disadvantage: it weighs more. And when it comes to sailing, each gram counts.