Macho suffering isn’t smart
Blown at 30 miles an hour, the snow makes a distinct hiss as our skis rattle across the Greenland Icecap. It’s barren here and the map… Well, there isn’t one, just an aerial photograph. My life, and everything required to sustain it – packed in a sledge – is being pulled along by the kite. Alan and I will be self-sufficient for five glorious weeks as we train for a big expedition, learning to use the kites, developing equipment and routines to enhance our performance and our safety.
Not until we are confident in our ability and equipment will we take on ‘the big one’. It’s this approach that brings the Volvo Ocean Race to mind. As the man who lost the world’s biggest catamaran, I’m not one to criticise. But I do have an opinion and approach which has evolved across many disciplines.
As a naïve trainee Royal Marine, I was stopped in my tracks by a sergeant lecturing on survival. He explained that being a Marine is about attitude and using your intelligence. ‘Any idiot can be cold, that’s the easy bit.’ The clever ones that adapt and improvise are the ones left standing. The roughy-toughy Dan Dare types are ground down by their own ignorance. That insight was fascinating to me because it demanded innovation. Comfort and protection was king.
Interestingly, I found a much more inhibited attitude when rubbing shoulders with a new discipline at the North Pole. Many elevated suffering into an end in itself. If you didn’t come back with a finger missing, you weren’t a proper explorer. You could smell it in the testosterone-infused air. I found the women refreshing; with less physical power, they were doing the same thing but with a thoughtful, open style. With more nuanced views, they were often more interesting to talk to. In my view, the goal is to design and build a vehicle and its equipment such that you finish an event fitter than when you started and in so doing so, beat the opposition. This is something shorthanded competitors have been chasing since Blondie Hasler and Sir Francis Chichester laid down the challenge to further sailing innovation through the Single-handed Trans-atlantic Race. Much of those innovations are now commonplace, something that as a cruising sailor, I appreciate all the more as they increase our safety, enjoyment and endurance to cover miles and reach remote locations. These developments enable Tracey and I to take on this adventure of ours two-handed, even as we approach the older end of the spectrum.
And so it is that I look at the videos and pictures from the Volvo Ocean Race with a heavy and frustrated heart. The crews, all amazing sailors, have been sent off into the wilds on strong, exciting boats that are bereft of protection on deck. Those haggard faces, shredded hands and ghostly outlines in the spray have been designed into the event. They must have been, since there is no competitive penalty for shelter.
The Vendée Globe boats opted for a starkly differing philosophy. Look at the fresh smiling face of François Gabart as he crossed the line after more non-stop miles in the Southern Ocean, on his own and at a similar pace. Vendée boats have sheltered cockpits which they can further protect by sliding back an encompassing roof. Its genius is wantonly ignored in the Volvo in pursuit of a roughy-toughy image.
I’m writing this at sea on a cruising yacht, sitting in a fully protected cockpit. If cruising boats have picked up on the innovations of the Vendée, why can’t the Volvo Ocean race? The crew have the best protective clothing and safety gear but no basic shelter. My old sergeant would turn in his grave.
The roughy-toughy types are ground down by their own ignorance