Andy Rice talks to Vendée Globe and Volvo Ocean Race sailor Jérémie Beyou about how to manage fatigue and avoid exhaustion when racing offshore
It’s all very well refining every detail of your boat – re-cutting sails, longboarding your hull – but what is the point of any of that attention to detail if you don’t spend as least as much effort on yourself? Nearly every offshore sailor has a story about when they fell asleep at the wrong moment in a race, or became so tired that they started hallucinating.
Multiple Figaro winner and IMOCA sailor Jérémie Beyou has fallen the wrong side of ‘too tired’ before, but has learnt from experience that it’s not worth the risk, and it’s not the way to win. Here are his five tips for managing fatigue and maintaining peak performance during a long offshore race.
1. Stay warm and dry
Although the newer foiling IMOCAs are much faster when they’re foiling, surprisingly they’re less wet because you’re actually flying above the water. With the older IMOCAs, or particularly the Volvo Ocean 65s, they’re wet across the deck nearly all the time. Whatever kind of boat you sail, it’s vital to stay dry. And I mean stay dry not just from the water, but from your own sweat. I have worn gear that isn’t properly breathable and when you’re working hard and start sweating, there is a risk of the body getting too cold once you stop working and start cooling down again.
On all of my own campaigns I choose Musto; I have tried almost every other brand at some point, but Musto’s ocean trousers are the best on the market for sure. I tend to wear a small and lightweight GoreTex jacket on the new IMOCA because the cockpit is quite well protected so I don’t need the full wet weather gear all the time when I’m on deck. For me, using GoreTex breathable clothing is a must; the body has to breathe, because it will keep you dry and longer term it will make it much less likely for you to pick up skin infections.
2. Sleep little and often
You know you’ve been going too long without sleep when you hear strange noises in your ears. For me, it’s a whistling noise, and if I hear that sound, I know I’ve already left it too late. Before you reach the point of hallucination or whistling in your ears, you have to stop. You have to rest.
I actually find it easier to sleep when I’m sailing solo, than when I’m part of a crew in a watch system. When you’re single-handed, you get to choose when you sleep, whereas I find it difficult to adapt to sleeping on my off-watch.
Overall of course, in a watch system on a crewed boat you have more opportunity to sleep. When you’re racing single-handed you grab short naps of 10 to 12 minutes here and there, sleeping in your sailing kit so you’re ready to respond to an emergency. This is why it’s so important to wear clothing that is comfortable, breathable and warm.
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3. Take a ‘long’ sleep
Fortunately, the older I get the less sleep I seem to need. Most of the time the key is to grab short sleeps, little and often. But once every two or three days, the body needs a full recharge. The trouble is, if the weather is bad or there’s a lot going on, you can’t always sleep when you want to – not when you’re solo.
So before the start, it’s important to identify a period on the routing where it looks like conditions will be stable and where you can grab the opportunity for a longer sleep lasting around 90 minutes, up to two hours. For these moments, you take off your sailing clothes, go to your bunk, and get some real, deep sleep. It’s a good idea to set an alarm, but usually you wake up before. Getting some deeper sleep every few days is vital for your health and wellbeing.
4. Keep a ‘self-tuning’ log
You can’t afford to start the race tired, because the start is always quick and an important period in the race. So you have to be focused and fully rested beforehand. I have a good understanding of my body’s requirements because I register my sleeping cycle with a doctor every two or three years, to see if my pace has changed or not.
This involves a number of tests of concentration and reflexes, exercises with lights and noises where you push buttons as quick as you can. We do these exercises on a normal day, after sailing, after sport, so we have quite a few numbers and data. This data is useful to make sure my mind and body are on track during the build-up to a race.
5. Lay off the coffee
Don’t drink too much coffee, because while it’s good in the short-term, all stimulants have their after-effect. I’ve never tried caffeine pills or any other kind of drug for keeping me awake, and I don’t intend to start.
The best thing you can do is make sure you start the race not too stressed. I don’t try to get into a different sleep pattern before the race, I simply use my time on shore to get as much good quality sleep as possible. The most important thing is to make sure you are in good shape physically, with normal food intake. Make sure you start the race confident in your boat, and confident in yourself, mentally and physically.
About the expert
Jérémie Beyou is skipper of the foiling IMOCA 60 Charal. The French veteran hopes this will be the boat that powers him to victory in the next Vendée Globe, having finished 3rd in the most recent edition. A three-time winner of the Solitaire du Figaro circuit, the 42-year-old has also competed in the Volvo Ocean Race, as part of the victorious crew aboard Dongfeng Race Team last year.