Here are some observations made concerning psychological and cognitive aspects of the journey of Skycatcher as elaborated upon in Part One. As an 'Adventure Psychologist' and cognitive scientist interested in how the brain functions in the 'real world', such an experience is hugely rewarding to understand first hand what factors come into play, how the brain adapts to its environment, and how an individual can benefit from being exposed to the challenges thrown up by circumstance out 'in the wild'!
A key component of effective seamanship rests on the qualities of the crew. The crew must work together, shoulder responsibilities, look out for each other, work in unison, take shifts and put in extra work where needed. They must be flexible, amenable, ready to act, considerate. People come down ill, so extra responsibilities are assumed. Shift patterns necessitate a recalibration of one’s own capability and preparedness. You must learn to snatch rest when you can. I normally do not sleep well outside my own decades long established pattern. And I tend not to nap. I have a highly active mind and seek to stimulate it during rest periods. Not so on board. You work, you assist, you eat, you rest (sleep) you do it again. Get rest in the bank so that when rest is sparse and shifts double, you have enough stores of energy to get you through.
Personalities change, but groups of individuals accentuate differences, and facilitate commonalities. A rumbunctious individual may be reduced to withdrawn quietude when stricken with sea-sickness. Resolve comes out in such moments. Moods ebb and flow like the tide. Discipline is a cornerstone for prevailing, particularly against one’s normal routine.
There will be low points where you doubt yourself, your resolve, your purpose being here, even your sanity! Then the tide shifts and you perk up, finding extra energy stores, humour, capability. Enjoying yourself even in adversity. At the moment when I may have been most anxious ‘turning the corner’ rudely awakened at Land’s End, I found myself grinning manically. It felt all so surreal, wild, primal. The darkness and mist beckoned, the wind threw it’s might against us, we pitched and yawed. It was exciting! This carried me through the night with zero sleep.
Slow progress led to frustration, a sense of hopelessness. At times like these, as the Foo Fighters might have intoned, you learn to live again (!), actually no you learn to knuckle down, take redundant systems offline, focus on the task.
This latter is key and the foundation of my research into brain functioning under duress.
We have an internal focused ‘network’ of brain regions that allow thoughts to percolate, attention to wander, daydreaming to be enabled. We also have an externally focused network that processes the outside world, keeps attention on the task at hand, accommodates information from ‘out there’ that supports completion of the task. At the helm, keeping the ship a-sail, responding to environmental circumstance, necessitates being in this ‘zone’ of attention, and importantly means keeping the internally-centred network ‘switched off’. This was highly apparent when sleep deprived, struggling to keep eyelids from shuttering down the windows to the world. No room for rumination, for daydreaming. As soon as your attention falters even for a second or two, you lose course, the hand on the tiller slips and the compass bearing goes off-kilter. And at these moments just imagine a ship comes careering out of the gloom, invisible in thick sea fog. You need to be switched on at all times, alert, scanning the environment, preparing for adaptive action if need be.
Add to this the extreme fatigue, and if you lapse into daydream, then surely you will also fall swiftly asleep. Do not fall asleep at the helm!!! Number one directive at sea on lone watch (or any watch).
This situation is cognitively demanding. But the solution is an adaptive capacity to take offline the components in the brain that ‘at rest’ actually use a lot of energy and resources. And which indeed, if allowed to buzz away as background noise, will sap energy further, and reduce effectiveness on the main task. So, by being task focused, and disciplined with it, you can become more efficient, more productive. And better able to switch off unnecessary noise. Incidentally that ‘noise’ is a key component in construction of ‘self’, the internal narrative that tells us who and what we are, admonishes, critiques, distracts. Turn this off and you get a better handle on what you are capable of, losing your self momentarily, and better able to deal with circumstance and the passage of time...
Interestingly, and obviously due to extreme fatigue, you tend to fall asleep quickly. This is a revelation for someone who is normally plagued with insomnia due to an overactive ‘default mode’ (internal rumination). The very discipline of, for concerted periods of time repeated throughout the day and night, keeping my ‘task-focused’ networks on the external realm and preventing the internally-focused ‘default mode’ from activating, massively helped by ability to rest and recuperate, and sleep more or less on demand.
As a brain scientist and cognitive psychologist, the opportunity to observe how the brain operates in an extreme environment (at sea) was of great benefit to my work. I endeavoured to capture some data ‘live’ using a portable EEG system coupled with physiological data concerning ‘sympathovagal balance’ (I.e. heart rate variability which gives an indication into the status of the Autonomic Nervous System preparing the body for ‘fight/flight’ or ‘rest and recovery’). This was somewhat challenging given my multiple roles in the proceedings (crewing the vessel) as well as the conditions themselves (difficult to set up an experimental protocol whilst heeling or buffeting violently in a turbulent sea state, let alone whilst pumping out the bilge, or indulging in numerous other bespoke tasks and duties). I gained some data nevertheless, and of course the insights into the challenge of capturing meaningful data. Observational insights were invaluable throughout of course, not least from an introspective perspective, seeing and feeling first hand what it is like to go through this experience. And I got sea sick for a good day and a half at the start of the proceedings which hampered my abilities significantly early on!
Nevertheless, being at sea under conditions where inevitably things go wrong and one must deviate from the plan, is an invaluable experience to develop an ‘adventure mindset’. It encourages flexibility in attitude, and a capacity to adapt to circumstance. Resolve is built through the process, sometimes quite challenging, and an ability to focus on what needs to be done. The result of this is better control over one’s own distracting mind, and ultimately a greater efficiency in brain functioning! Finally, the ‘self’ becomes better controlled – by learning to ‘switch it off’, or at least give it less indulgent attention or pander to its needs. And from this process, one grows, develops, becomes more attuned to one’s capabilities. The trick is how to RE-ADAPT once back on land, for that is when the culture shock comes back to the fore! After a night or two of rest and sleep restored, you ‘ll be clamouring to be back out in the blue, plying the waves and broadening your mind!!
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
Sea Fever - John Masefield
Must remain focused. Incessant motion, bobbing up and down one moment, pitching to port, picking up speed as she heels to windward. Eye-hand coordination is paramount to keep on course, and to maximise catching the wind. A little more to port and she is too ‘into the wind’, nullifying forward progress. Too much to starboard and we are off course, perhaps gathering speed, but heading too far from our intended destination. These small increments make all the difference on an open passage across the sea, with landfall a hundred miles north. It’s a tricky game however, as the wind direction is directly from the north, and the direction we want to head. It’s been like this all of the way, for the whole of the south coast! Frustrating. This means our only course of action is to tack. That means heading off on an angle to catch the wind obliquely, and to periodically about turn 90 degrees in a zig-zagging fashion. Doing the ‘math’ this adds up to significant extra mileage, slowing progress, increasing frustration!
In the end we will be over a day behind schedule, provoking concerns from loved ones back ashore, out of reach (no signal), particularly given deteriorating weather conditions – an impressive storm has been percolating on land. We will encounter this storm as we finally make our approach into the channel and destined port, Milford Haven, on the ‘snout’ of Wales’ south-west coast. An eventful trip holds in store a final sting in the tail in the form of forked lightning, torrential rain, and the prospect of losing engine power at precisely the wrong time heading into a busy shipping lane in the dark...
There is much to tell about our voyage along the south coast of the UK, round the corner at Land’s End and up across the Bristol Channel to our stopping point at Milford Haven, but I also want to focus here on the pertinent psychological aspects of being at sea, the benefits, the challenges, and the ‘cognitive’ elements that are relevant to my research on how the brain functions under duress (some observations made in Part Two). The voyage was aboard ‘Skycatcher’, a sturdy racing-equipped vessel with an impressive heritage having been sailed round the world single-handedly by a previous owner, taking all that the elements could offer. We were taking this craft up north to extend the fleet, and ‘see what she’s got’. It turned out to be a good test of character – hers and ours!
Going to sea requires a degree of flexibility of mindset, for the sea herself, the weather, and other human-derived factors can all conspire to ‘upset the applecart’ and provoke a change in plans. This is part and parcel of what it takes to adopt an ‘adventure mindset’ that can accommodate change, and embrace opportunity – even when things are certainly not going to plan!
Our original plan was to go from Eastbourne, down near the south-east corner of England’s south coast, up to Whitehaven in Cumbria – furthest north-west destination in England at the edge of the Lake District National Park. Even before we planned to set off the weather was already heralding complications, there being northerly winds setting in for the foreseeable future, which would make progress slow to impossible. An alternative, shaving off some of the time and distance was to head to Liverpool (base of Shadow Wind, and the sister vessel in the fleet), and to ride out a prospective weather window by delaying departure from Eastbourne by a few days. So far so flexible.
In the end we would set sail only a day beyond initial schedule, but southerly/south-westerly winds would hamper our passage along the south coast, forcing us to tack considerably, and to make agonisingly slow progress past the isle of Wight – to the point of staying still it would seem for several hours! The tides of course have a massive impact on sailing in our fair isle – even if you get the wind right the tide may be against you, and if both conspire together you are going backwards or at best staying still even under engine power!
Resultantly, we had to break the journey in Devon, at the port of Brixham, whereby we regrouped, reconsidered our options, but also lost half of our crew due to time running out and commitments holding sway. Down to skeleton crew of 3 we decided to capitalise on another weather window which promised lighter winds (we were pushing hard into the wind on the previous stage which created difficult sailing, and inevitable human casualties due to violent motion-induced sickness) and more amenable conditions. The goal was Milford Haven – some 200 miles round Land’s End – aiming for 48 hours sailing.
The gods were destined to be against us all of the way.
Making initially steady progress with the tide we hit Land’s End around midnight of the second day, but with the tide turning, the Atlantic encroaching and the wind changing – all against our favour. Roused from fitful slumber, having not long since relinquished my own watch and snatching any moments of sleep possible, all hands were required on deck. The wind was indeed picking up. Skipper James was engaged in a flurry of movement looking to change tack, release the headsail, keep course, and battle the elements.
Adrenaline can prepare one for action even coming so suddenly from the depths of dreamless sleep. The night was dark, the boat being tossed left and right, an ominous mist had cloaked us. A silhouette to starboard presaged land. And rocks. We were in a narrow passage and were being forced to tack. The engine had been giving us problems on the previous leg, but wasn't sufficient to pass muster alone right now.
We scrambled on command to unfurl head sail, pull it in, then switch direction, pull it out. Ropes became entangled, caught up. Needing releasing. Clip in, shimmy along the deck, wrestle the lines free. Sorted.
The next 4 hours of cold, wet, uncertainty necessitated multiple tacks like this to safely navigate this iconic patch of UK waters. We took turns to go below for half hour respite, to warm up, regroup resolve, relieve comrade of burden. In some ways this was harder than shivering up top. For returning to some semblance of comfort and warmth gives the body incentive to recalibrate, downgrade status from high alert to one promoting rest and recovery. But that means it’s harder to stay awake, focused, and ready to act again. In short, you want to just go to sleep but that would make it much harder to rouse back to action 30 minutes later!
Around 5am we had asserted ourselves back on course, and into the Bristol Channel. With that our skipper set us back onto the watch patterns that was our mainstay throughout the voyage. I took first watch, which meant another 2 + hours straight away as we headed into dawn’s early light. It took an act of will to remain wake and alert and helm the course, with winds dropping, sails flapping, and mist all around. I managed to keep myself active and present, singing songs accompanying my I-pod, shifting my weight, and seating position, stamping my feet, and embracing the cold, wet conditions so that my body didn’t try to take rest and slip into drowsiness.
Relieved of the helm around 7.30am, I sank into my bunk anticipating a good 2-3 hours. But I awoke around an hour and a half later to hear some tinkering with the engine, and got up to help man the tiller whilst my crew mates attended to the latest issues (soon resolved thankfully).
There followed another 2 days of tacking, observing watches throughout day and night, in thick fog, and occasional lightning (at night), being mindful of the shipping lanes that pepper the Bristol Channel. Occasionally the wind picked up, other times it dropped off. One of my watches was spent doing ‘doughnuts’ spinning slowly around as I struggled to edge into a light wind only to lose it and involuntarily tack and spin 360 to catch it again.
Finally, on the last day, already behind our scheduled arrival time at a destination still 50 miles away, we caught a stronger headwind that allowed us to tack at speed a little closer to our end point.
Some pools of liquid collecting down below seemed to have spread, and deepened. Heeling 30 degrees to starboard, this seemed exacerbated, having not taken that angle in some time. We discovered on opening a sealed hatch at the stern down below that a significant amount of water had collected and was sloshing around, precipitating an urgent need to find the heavy-duty manual bilge pump that was buried under all sorts of heavy stuff rammed earlier in before disembarking Eastbourne. Somehow, I managed to half crawl inside and tug with all my might to release the various components and bring out into the steeply listing heads. Skipper pumped the handle whilst we sweltered down below and I fed the bilge tube as far out the small porthole as I could to ensure water-diesel mixture didn’t recirculate now out onto deck and fill our cockpit with dangerously slippy liquid. We carried on for some time scooping leaked diesel from various compartments where it was running free around the vessel inside, then precariously mountaineering our way back to the listing deck to dispose of the spillage again without losing a drop. Urgency increased. Would we make it back to port before the leakage ground the engine to a halt? Were we taking in extra water or was it simply recirculating from fore to aft and back due to earlier deposits that had not made their way out of the craft?
Finally, our last couple of tacks got us on track to make landfall and into the entrance to the channel towards Milford Haven. It was at this point we noticed a large cloud off the starboard stern dispensing crackling forks of lightning straight into the sea. Trying to fix as fast a course as possible in the general direction of port I struggled to maintain wind on sail, as it became apparent we needed to get away from the open sea, with our 72ft metal mast beckoning on nature’s electricity! Lightning increased all around now, a huge black mass of cloud behind, and an amphitheatre of sparking skies surrounding us. The lights of Milford Haven coupled with this ominous scene created an impression of heading into an industrial fantasy land, redolent of Blade Runner, or Mordor!
The coast guard had been alerted to our late arrival, with concerns over safety given the stormy conditions that were battering land and heading out to sea. We didn’t alert them on getting a signal to our compete safety as we still had to negotiate the potentially busy shipping lanes into Milford, and with an engine that might give out if the leak had not been sufficiently contained. An emergency plan was in place to raise the genoa and sail into port if need be (last resort). But it didn’t come to that thankfully. A final deluge of torrential rain soaked me to the skin on the tiller, but one had to laugh! We moored up at the waiting pontoon outside the lock at the marina, jaded, exhilarated, exhausted. We were told ‘no room at the inn, you’ll have to go back out to sea...’
Au contraire my friend, you’ll have the coast guard to speak to who will insist otherwise....
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