What it Takes to be a Solo Sailor

By: Sarah McWilliams
Photo Credit: Richard Barley
Photo Credit: Richard Barley

If you’re like most people, you think of boat shoes and umbrella drinks when you think of sailing. Bruce Schwab, the first American to complete the only race involving a solo sail around the entire world: The Vendee Globe, pictures a slightly different scene. Long hours of focus, tired and sore muscles, sleep deprivation, sudden storms…all part of a days work in solo sailing.

Sailing can be divided into two groups: cruising and racing. Your boat shoes and umbrella drinks are typical of cruising while solo sails tend to be associated with the latter.

Going the distance involves incredible focus and attention to detail — named by Forbes Magazine as one of the toughest endurance sports in existence — a list that includes Ultramarathons, Ironman Triathlons, soccer, water polo, and the list goes on.

Similar to a racecar driver, very small lapses in concentration during a race can be detrimental to the race. At the helm, if you are not concentrating on steering the boat for even a few minutes, you can head off course. That much focus is incredibly taxing on even the most gifted sailors.

VendeeGlobeRaceRouteIf you’re lucky and the weather is good, autopilot can suffice long enough for the sailor to rest, but if the weather is bad, the sailor must hand-steer for days at a time, or risk losing precious time.

Schwab, one of the most renowned American solo sailors started sailing complements of his father, also an avid sailor. He missed two years of school working on a boat with his father and sailing it from Jamaica, through the Panama Canal and up around Mexico to Costa Rica and eventually back to the US.

Schwab told ATLX, “With cruising, the brochure says drinks, shade, and smooth seas, but the reality is bad smells, sea sickness, and things just not working, and you get hooked or you don’t. I got hooked.”

Sailing is not cheap, but fortunately Schwab had cleaned enough boats in his time, that his boss let him borrow his boat for his first race, and the race in which he finished first. That day in 1984 unknowingly set him down the path to complete in the international race around the world: The Vendee Globe.

The Vendee Globe is the only he only non-stop race around the world completed with only one sailor on board. Schwab trained for years in preparation, but when Mother Nature controls your sport, the journey can be unpredictable.

“Sailing boats is a complicated affair. So many things need to be adjusted at one time,” Schwab said. “The stress of worrying about everything that could go wrong is mentally taxing. Couple that with sleep deprivation, and you’re in for a long, hard ride.”

Along with the mental components, solo sailing requires high anaerobic endurance. “Your body changes while you’re on the boat,” Schwab said. “Your arms get really strong, your balance gets really good, although your long distance cardio fades back because you don’t use that too much.”

EricGevaertFor races like the Vendee Globe, nutrition becomes an issue, because fresh food doesn’t last for the long trips. Although some racers use caffeine to endure the long hours, Schwab stays away from caffeine because of the difficulty timing sleep. During the few opportunities solo sailors are able to sleep, the last thing they need is to be kept up because they had too much caffeine, and then crashing when they need to be most alert.

With the longevity of races, and the mental and physical strain, Schwab said the most common question that solo sailors get asked is, ‘don’t you go crazy out there by yourself?’ Schwab’s response: “Anyone who does is has to be crazy already!”

Schwab no longer competes professionally as a solo sailor, and has now turned his efforts toward road cycling and cyclo-cross. Check back in later this month to find out how he successfully switched to a new sport!

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