Night and day
Children often ask skippers: Hey, do you stop your boat at night to sleep? It's a simple question and yet its response gives us a true insight into a complicated element in the life of a solo sailor. Aside from the 24 Hours of Le Mans and certain rallies or extreme trail running, it's rare for a top-level competition to take place at night. Indeed, solely offshore racing requires the athletes to take this on for such a long duration, forcing them to completely modify their way of life. The solo sailor trades in the traditional day-night' pattern for intense activity 24/7, interspersed with short rest phases. Sébastien Josse has been sailing singlehanded for over 20 years. Adapting to this rhythm, that landlubbers consider to be virtually superhuman, has become second nature for the skipper of the Mono60 Edmond de Rothschild. In the Vendée Globe, which spans over 70 days and as many nights, the pilot of Gitana Team knows that he has to be even tougher, particularly once the boat is under the cover of darkness and he has to keep up the pace.
Since the start in Les Sables d'Olonne on 6 November, Sébastien Josse has crossed the North Atlantic, southbound, switching from autumn to summer in around ten days. The solo sailor crossed the equator in the early hours of Wednesday (GMT); the first time in the southern hemisphere for the most recent of the Gitana fleet. On entering these regions, some of the references change, such as the direction of the air in the zones of high and low pressure, as well as the night sky. Indeed, the view we have of the moon's motion in the northern hemisphere is reversed in the South, as are the constellations, which no longer appear in the same place. Add to that the time zones, which slide by as Sébastien moves around the Antarctic; it's enough to really make you feel a long way from home!
In the moonlight
Before casting off, Sébastien always takes an interest in the lunar calendar that shows the phases of the Moon over the first days of racing as its brightness has a significant influence on the atmosphere aboard. “At night, you lose your visual references. You no longer see the sea, the clouds, the sails, so if the moon's out, it can light your way as if it's broad daylight, which changes everything,” he explains. This year, the competitors set sail with a waxing moon and, overnight from 14 into 15 November, photographers from around the world turned into night owls so as to capture images of the “extra-super moon”, the biggest since 1948. In fact, our most familiar satellite turns in elliptical fashion around the Earth and when it gets as close to us as possible, as it did on Monday night through into Tuesday, it is a sumptuous sight to behold. However, under the tropics, Sébastien Josse and his close rivals had a great many other natural phenomena to tame at the same time.
At that very moment, Gitana 16 was traversing the doldrums, a climatic zone near the equator, where the trade winds of the northern hemisphere and those of the South come together to create a zone that is not exactly relished by sailors given how hard it can be to decipher. As a result, the skipper spent the night battling hard on deck. “I wasn't able to enjoy the phenomenon,” he admitted yesterday. The moon stayed behind the clouds and wasn't much of a support. However, since Edmond de Rothschild has been able to extract itself from the clutches of the doldrums, Sébastien has been able to appreciate the beauty of this now waning moon. And given that the tropical temperatures mean the boat can be sailed in a T-shirt under the stars, the skipper is making the most of the pleasant nights, much more so than the days in fact, where the sun beats down on the deck and transforms the inside of the boat into a sauna.
Keeping watch at night, sleeping in the day
Indeed, staying awake at night rather than in the day isn't an activity reserved exclusively for the equatorial zones. In the Vendée Globe, Sébastien seeks to get 3 to 6 hours sleep every 24 hours and admits that he sleeps better during the day. “The night is the riskiest time, as you only feel the changes in the conditions when it touches your sails, without really being able to anticipate it,” he continues. “At night, we're never contemplative. We remain on the alert, poised to spring. As a result, I manage to get off to sleep more easily during the day, as it's better for performance and safety.”
The mysteries of the night
As is the case back on shore, the night is often more conducive to daydreaming. Time stretches out and the mind wanders. “When the boat is slipping along at 25 knots in the pitch black of night, it certainly is an incredible feeling,” he admits. “It's exhilarating but agonising at the same time as you don't exactly know what the sea state is like and where you're going.” Indeed, at times like these, where the boat is performing acrobatics on the crest of the waves, Sébastien has a technique for making him feel calmer. “Before the sun goes down, I memorise the boat's trim with the aim of keeping it at its optimum until the following morning. In that way, even if something happens, if the boat races out of control and I have to react, I know I can quickly get my bearings and my trim back and hence my speed.”
The Mono60 Edmond de Rothschild is currently making her way down the coast of Brazil. The sun and the moon are still colouring the seascape and the life of the sailor, but soon, as they hit the roaring forties, the cloud base will drop, thicken and take on a permanent grey hue, typical of the Deep South. And yet, it's the height of the summer down there! Furthermore, so close to the South Pole, the nights will also become shorter, only to become a half-light on the approach to Cape Horn.