September 20, 2012

Why don't they want to stop?

WHEN ELLEN MACARTHUR was approaching the finish line, coming second in a singlehanded non-stop race around the world, her mind was in a whirl.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to finish. 

After living for three months in accommodation that authorities would universally condemn as unfit for human habitation, the petite British sailor was not looking forward to the comforts of civilization. “Part of me quite definitely wanted to stay out there forever,” she recalled later in her book, Taking on the World.

When I read that book recently I was astonished at that remark. She was coming home to the acclamation of 250,000 well-wishers gathered in the French port of Les Sables d’Olonne.  She got a congratulatory call from British Prime minister Tony Blair, and later she was made a Dame of the British Empire. The five-foot-two skipper was in fact the darling of all Europe for her gutsy performance against the cream of the world’s singlehanders, giants of the racing world who dared to sail their 60-foot sloops through the hellish Southern Ocean at speed of 25 knots and more.

Now, three months of mental stress and physical fatigue was nearly over.  Soon she would be able to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time.  Soon she would be able to eat a decent meal, cooked by someone else.  Soon she would be able to bask in the glory accorded to heroes.

She had gone through hell. And yet she wanted more of it? She wanted to stay out there forever, worrying her little guts out?

It didn’t make sense until I thought of Bernard Moitessier.  He felt the same way during the first singlehanded round-the-world race when he was leading.  Unable to face what he knew would be a riotous welcome at the finish, he declined to turn left after Cape Horn, abandoned the race, and kept on going around the world until he came to Tahiti. He did it, he said, for the sake of his soul.

Well, Ellen MacArthur did actually finish the 2001 Vendée Globe race, despite her reservations. But on her way to the first press conference,  she asked if she could go to the toilet. “I remember sitting down, putting my head on my knees, and taking several deep breaths,” she said. “I sighed with relief at the momentary quiet I had found, and I smiled at the alarming comfort; it was the first time I’d sat on a toilet seat for three months.”

But the question is: What is it that makes these sailors want to keep on sailing?  Why do they wish to keep on suffering?  Is it masochism, or is simply that the devil you know is better than the  angel you don’t?

There is something in human nature that makes us inured to tough circumstances,  given enough time. There is evidence enough of that in the number of woman maltreated by their menfolk who stay on for more. And they say that prisoners sometimes don’t want to be freed when their sentences are up.    

But sailors?  People who, on the whole, have more than the usual amount of common sense?  Why would they wish to continue the self-imposed misery and deprivation of their floating prisons?    

Ironically, perhaps, Dame Ellen gave up competitive sailboat racing in 2010.  I don’t think she has made the reason particularly clear, but I suspect the money she made from sponsorships may have had something to do with it.  It’s quite a different world when you can afford your own toilet seat.

Today’s Thought
With nerve and bone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.
— Swinburne, Laus Veneris

“Did you finally tell Jimmy where babies come from?”
 “Well, I tried to explain about the birds and the bees but he kept changing the subject back to girls.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)



Anonymous said...

I'd suspect the answer involves routine. We are creatures of habit. We arise at the same time day after day. First we eat breakfast, then brush our teeth, then shower, then.... Same order of events day after day after day. On the sea, that routine goes on all day, every day, day after day. There is no interuption from other people, necessary errands, or... ...simply the routine.

KevinH said...

I have never found ocean crossings to be routine or in any way regimented or predictable. There has always been however a palpable sadness as a long voyage comes to an end. When cruising, each landfall is merely a step on the way, but arriving back at home port and the end of a voyage is having to leave one lifestyle and take on another. Perhaps it's having to face this change that is too daunting and we'd rather stay in our "comfort zone." The achievement of any goal too,could leave an emptiness, until the next one is set.