Sailing on board an IMOCA 60, a sailboat over eighteen meters long with two foils that lift the boat out of the water at the right speed, cannot be compared to sailing on any other boat, says Rosalin Kuiper. She has previously driven a Formula 1 car, she supposes, another mix between man and machine, bordering on what a man with his common sense and physical strength can manage.
Kuiper gives an example: except when leaving the port, the boat is constantly guided by an automatic pilot. The crew members feed it data and they hoist the sails. But at speeds of between 40 and 60 kilometers per hour, it is impossible for a person to be at the wheel for more than a few minutes, says Kuiper. “Your brain capacity can no longer afford focus, it is too intense for that. After ten minutes you are exhausted.”
The sailors spend 90 percent of the time on board in a cockpit with windows all around. Sitting outside is dangerous, it goes too fast for that. “You don’t sit on the bonnet of your car at 60 kilometers an hour,” says Kuiper. Any promotional videos showing the crew members on deck or even in the mast are for show only, she says.
During manoeuvres, if a sail needs to be changed or if something has broken, the boat is put against the wind so that the sailors can safely walk on deck. Then they dive back into the cockpit, only then can they wind up again (turns the bow towards the wind). Kuiper: “Everything happens in the cockpit, on deck you are a passenger. And as soon as you unwind, you immediately spray away again.”
In short: the crew of five – four sailors and one reporter on board who reports — with whom Kuiper set off Sunday from Alicante, Spain, aboard the German Team Malizia’s sailboat for the first leg of the Ocean Race, the around-the-world sailing competition (see inset), is “the limiting factor,” she says a a few weeks before departure. “And I’ve never experienced that.”
Participating in the biggest sailing race in the world is a dream come true for 27-year-old Kuiper: eight years ago, she formulated the goal of sailing the Ocean Race for herself. This year she is the only Dutch participant sailing around the world. In the second racing class VO65, the Dutch team JAJO with skipper Jelmer van Beek participates, but due to lack of money they both only participate in the European stages of the competition.
Also read: Sponsor the toughest sailing race in the world? Rather not
Last year, the call Kuiper had been dreaming of came from Germany: skipper Boris Herrmann asked if she wanted to be part of his team. Now she is co-skipper and responsible for all technology on board. “But I don’t do it alone. On land there is a technical team of forty people whose knowledge we need to be able to sail this boat.”
There is an automatic pilot, you are in, you have support from a technical team. Can it still be called sailing?
Cooper thinks for a moment. “Yes, it still sails, but with much less feeling. In the VO65, which I have sailed a lot, you sit on the deck, you feel the wind, the lapping of the waves, you are in control of the helm. Then you can sail much better based on your senses. Now a computer is at the helm. It steers better, but also more unnaturally than a human. So you can’t sense what’s coming, you’re constantly on edge because something unexpected can happen. I think that means you have to use very different parts of your brain.”
Life on board is hard, says Kuiper. “The intensity of everything is very high, even sleep.” The high speed at which the sailboat sails over the waves makes the crew members jump up and down, because the boat is made of carbon, they feel a constant vibration, and the whistling of the wind along the keel “sounds like there’s a baby next to you 24 hours a day is screaming,” says Kuiper.
On board, she eats almost exclusively freeze-dried food from vacuum-sealed bags – “astronaut food” – which she heats up with boiling water. To avoid burning her hands while pouring, she wears special gloves in some conditions.
She only gets on and off if the weather conditions permit, otherwise she sleeps in her thermal clothes. There is hardly any privacy on board, she defecates in a bucket in front of the others. The sailors sleep in a bunk, fastened so that they cannot be launched from the bed and with it noise reduction earplugs in. With any luck, they sleep three hours a day.
The crew alternates in pairs, taking turns of four hours. To continue any longer is simply irresponsible. Kuiper: “Do you know Villa Volta, the Efteling attraction? It’s like you’ve stepped into it permanently.”
It all sounds pretty intense. Is it fun to make?
Cooper purses his lips. “Phew, that’s really hard for me to say.” She becomes quiet.
“Sailing this boat is often not fun, but honestly, it is offshore usually not sailing. I think about 80 percent of the time you wish you weren’t on board. And the difference with other boats is that here low points be even more extreme.”
Why do you do it anyway?
“I think I want to ask the ultimate of myself. Right before the start, I see what it does to my body and my brain, how much I’m going to throw myself into the deep end. That’s the kick for me. If I can do this, I’ll be very proud and happy. And don’t get me wrong, in the 20 percent of the time when the sailing is going well and you’re foiling, you’re really flying. It’s a magical and powerful feeling that you is connected to nature and you really feel it king of the world. I can imagine that no one understands it, but you feel so much adrenaline that it really kicks in.”
Are you worried that something might happen to you on board, or even worse: that you might fall overboard?
“You are aware of that every day. If you fall overboard, there’s a 90 percent chance you won’t survive because you’re sailing so fast that it takes forty minutes for the sails to lower and you’re flipped over. In the Southern Ocean, the water is 1 degree Celsius, so you will be hypothermic within fifteen minutes.
“At sea, you are unreachable by a helicopter and other ships are often not around, so you have to do it yourself. As one of the two doctors on board, I learned the hardest things to survive, like amputating my legs .So you never do anything unconsciously, but you always do a risk analysis of what you want and how you can do it safely.”
How do you deal with the threat of death?
“I never think about it. I know what the dangers are, but I actually deal with them. Getting emotional doesn’t do anything for me anyway. Yes, it might be the last time, but I live my life to the fullest and enjoy it every day. I wouldn’t regret anything. I always come back, otherwise I would consider it selfish in front of my family and my friend.”
800 kilo sail
In preparation for all the tests, Kuiper and her team spent months in the gym five times a week. Many exercises for their core stability, to strengthen their back and to strengthen their neck; all in order to properly absorb the impact of the boat.
They have also trained in strength because they regularly have to carry sails. There are eight different types of sails on board, varying in weight from 40 to 90 kilos. In total, there are around 800 kilos of sails on board. Kuiper: “The sails must be moved when the course is changed: if the team sails on the port side, then the sails we do not use must be on the starboard side for balance, and vice versa.”
Kuiper has also mentally prepared himself for life at sea. She has agreed with herself to sit out on the deck for half an hour every day. “I need that, I’m really an outdoorsman.” In addition, she has set three goals with her mental coach that she wants to achieve during the race: to have fun every day, to sail every leg of the race and to add something to the atmosphere on board every day.
How to do it, improve the atmosphere on board?
“On board, everyone survives, so you have very different social interactions with each other. If someone is ill, you feel sorry for them, but you also think: ‘It means I have to work much harder, and I already have it so hard.’
“I will try to give everyone a little love every day, for example by making jokes, making coffee or just asking how they are doing. It can also be something as simple as a sausage, such a small French sausage, take it with you and cut it. Just really nice cool, it makes everyone happy. I think it is very important that the others feel good.”
Is it so hard to think about yourself?
“Now that you mention it, I think it will be very difficult. During the last ten months I have been so busy with all the preparations that I sometimes forgot myself. It will be a challenge.”
How will you ensure that it succeeds?
“First and foremost by making sure that everything is well organized here in the Netherlands. You have so much time at sea, you think so much in unguarded moments, it’s nice when things go well at home with my family and my partner, and also between us. That’s one less thing to worry about. Not having to think about what I’m eating because everything is pre-selected and packaged also removes a huge stress factor.
“I think the most important thing will be my meditation exercises. I have three types of exercises that I do in bed. I do body meditation, where you pay attention to your whole body little by little, I have a jazz playlist that has been the same for years, which helps me fall asleep quickly, and I have taught myself a form of self-hypnosis. In my mind I then go to mine happy placethen I feel my body relax and then I know it is safe to go to bed.”
What does your happy place look like, is it at sea?
“No, it’s in the mountains, always near the same kind of stream. In my spare time I prefer to be in the mountains rather than on the sea, because I always relax when I’m there. The mountain air makes me feel me cleansed. Life is like at sea: you are in nature and there are far fewer stimuli. Life is simple, wonderful. That’s actually what I’m looking for.”