How do single-handed sailors sleep

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Jan Heinze, 51, one-handed sailor and entrepreneur

The 51-year-old entrepreneur from Hamburg, cruiser since childhood, sailed his boat "Lonestar" on the "Mini-Transat 2015" from La Rochelle to Guadeloupe despite a serious oar damage in the middle of the Atlantic for 2000 nautical miles to the finish. He wrote the book "Atlantic fever - a man, a boat, a goal" * about his years in the sailing scene and his special trip across the ocean. Heinze, who used to play field hockey in the Bundesliga, runs a state-recognized institute in Hamburg for training and further education in technical professions. He has around 50 employees, is married and has three children. Although he is “in the middle of life”, he repeatedly exposes himself to the risks of single-handed sailing with his well-bred racing yacht in the so-called “mini class” (6.5 meters). The special handicap of this sport: The sailors can only sleep very little - only a few times, at most 20 minutes at a time, throughout the day.


A short nap - 20 minutes at most - sounds awesome. What helped you train that?

I used to play field hockey, in the Bundesliga and in the national team. We worked there in terms of sports psychology. The topic "Level of Arousal" * helped me a lot when I was sailing to improve my sleep management.

* In psychology, arousal refers to the alarm reaction of the organism in which stress hormones are released that have an effect in the whole body, especially in the brain, in the vegetative nervous system and on the metabolism. The person feels arousal, for example through sexual desire, anger or fear. (Stangl, 2019)

But that is very exhausting ...

Sure, but adventures like the 'Mini-Transat' fill my batteries for years. They drive me and give me energy to look for new things.

What is the 'Mini-Transat'?

A regatta from east to west across the Atlantic that has been held since 1977. The skipper qualifies for this together with his boat. You cannot change the boat, because if you want to sail, you have to prove that you can control your boat in all weather conditions. In addition, you have to sail at least one fixed 1000 nautical miles non-stop cruise outside of a regatta with your boat - it took me 12 days for this route because of the difficult weather in the Baltic Sea. So you work your way up to the class of the A races. Most of those who sail such long-distance regattas had already sailed very well before. Many come from the Olympic classes. But there is another essential aspect: You have to make it clear whether you really want that. Well, for example, I met an Olympic sailor, an Italian who undoubtedly sails better than me. But after a few races he said it was not for him to be alone at sea for days and nights in all weathers. That's why the many qualifying races are a very good thing: If you find out that 'it's not for you', no matter how stable your head is - but there is just no point in being out on the ocean for four weeks, if this means just a single fight or cramp for you in the end.

What is it that makes taking part in these regattas that are full of privation so interesting for you?

I've sailed all my life, even as a child, even across the Atlantic with my parents and their friends. That fascinated me. But this boat I'm sitting in is very small, just six and a half meters long. That means you sit directly above the water, you get wet, you hear the water, you feel every breath of air when the wind changes. And you have several sails to prepare for the changes. That is what makes this type of sailing so intense. And then of course the loneliness on this boat: you literally grow together with the elements. It's actually not a sport at all, I would say, and of course a completely different kind of sailing when you're alone instead of going on the water with family, friends or a crew. At some point I realized that, above all, that brings me very close to myself. That's why I started doing it and just kept going.


"There is always a red line that you must not cross."


Let's come back to 'sleep management' and the 'level of arousal': How should I imagine sleeping only 15 to 20 minutes when five or six hours of sleep are actually the lower limit?

There are one-handed sailors among us who want to find out optimal sleep rhythms for themselves in sleep laboratories. I didn't have that opportunity. Basically, I'm a guy who sleeps little anyway - about six hours, at most. But at sea, during a regatta, that doesn't work, these 15, maybe 20 minutes must be enough - and that's a matter of the head that has to do with the "level of arousal", your own state of excitement or activation level : The calmer and more concentrated you are on a long passage on a boat, the less nervousness and excitement you allow - regardless of whether it is about euphoria, a spectacular sunset, a particularly quickly sailed day or joy or fear because of a thunderstorm - the less sleep you need to recover. You have to realize that in the best case scenario you have to process incredibly little in your head when you are sailing long distance one-handed, at least far less than on land just look at an average, normal working day: when the alarm goes off, the first WhatsApp messages and emails arrive on the smartphone, Then get up, take a quick shower, make coffee, drive to the office, red lights, traffic jams, construction sites, pedestrians, cyclists, arrive at the office, get bombarded with further emails and calls, appointments, meetings ... You know what I'm talking about? And none of that happens far out at sea. You only have the horizon, the water and the sky. You have to take care of the navigation and the food, the technique of sailing, and you have to try to ignore everything else. If you can do that, the head is much more relaxed - and then you need a lot less sleep. As a qualification, I have to say that there is of course a critical point, and I got to know it through experience: You can also sail when you are totally overtired, but there is a red line and you have to be very careful that you don't does not exceed.

How do you know that you have reached this limit?

If you no longer know how tired you really are, this is the first step that can lead to wrong decisions, which can have dramatic consequences for single-handed sailors. On the other hand, it is actually fascinating - and I have seen it several times myself - that this 'red line' is usually heralded by hallucinations. The problem with this is that you only notice it afterwards. Because when you get hallucinations, you no longer have the clarity in your head that signals that you urgently need to recover. You are simply focused on the things you think you are seeing or on the voice that suddenly comes off the autopilot. However, one does not realize that this cannot be at all. And that's dangerous. You have to master that, and that in turn can be trained.

All alone at sea - aren't you sometimes scared too?

If anything, it's fear and the exhaustion. However, it has to be said that the most difficult situations are usually not even the severe weather, i.e. lightning, thunderstorms and storms. Much more stressful for the psyche are light winds and lulls, of which you do not know when they will end. If you don't show serenity and can detach yourself from the constant calculations - 'When am I where and how long do I need it, and if the wind is not coming now and I am still so slow, then I need another 2 weeks until I get there ... 'That burdens you. I had to learn to relax in situations like this. I learned to forget when to arrive, so to speak. Of course you should try to sail as fast as possible, because the 'Mini-Transat' is a race. You want to arrive as quickly as possible, you are happy about every mile you go. Although one is so incredibly happy at sea. Isn't that a paradox?

What do you actually eat at a regatta like this? There is no kitchen on board

You essentially eat trekking food: these are bags of freeze-dried food. And you have a 'jetboil', a small stove, with which you can bring a little water up to temperature very quickly. And then you put the boiling water in the bag, let it sit for ten minutes and then you spoon your food out of the bag. At the beginning I tried to warm something up or to cook properly. You could also do that on a 'jetboil'. But, that's another aspect: Such things only disturb, because they consume attention and energy that you need for more important things. In addition, you produce rubbish and there isn't much space on board anyway. In general, in my opinion, these spartan meals simply go best with the psychological situation in which one finds oneself on a one-hand regatta across the Atlantic. But then what the total madness is when you approach your goal and realize that despite the major oar damage you only needed 33 days and you can now safely attack the reserves that you naturally packed. When I realized that I would only sail two more days, but at the same time had 14 bags hoarded, I naturally started to loot. It is an indescribable joy to open these bags, to get the biscuits out - oh, wonderful!

As an entrepreneur, where do you see the parallels between a one-handed sailing regatta and business?

You have to listen to your own dreams and deep desires. The motives of the sailors are very different, but what they have in common is that they invest a lot in order to be able to do that. There is some elixir that drives them. Moving in such an environment is extremely inspiring. It's great to have people around you who are chasing something they really want. This is the ideal environment that you should try to create in the company. You should find people who identify very strongly with something that is driven by something. When I was a child, we often went to see the ships in the harbor. Some were covered with algae and smallpox because they weren't moved enough. My father said: 'The most important thing is that you have to be able to sail. This is more important than being able to sail well or having the perfect equipment. At some point you have to be ready to just drive off, otherwise you won't be able to go. If you plan forever and wait for the perfect moment in life, it won't work. At some point you have to say: Now let's go! ‘

Adventure also means walking, driving or sailing - as in your case - to the limit. What make borderline experiences so interesting for you?

First of all, we would have to consider what border actually means. When you have borderline experiences or have adventures, you get very close to your innermost being. I have characterized it for myself in such a way that transitions become blurred. I had this transcendent feeling that I had developed my own cosmos with everything that was around me. But that's not much, just clouds and sky, stars, the ocean with its different wave patterns and colors and my boat. There is nothing more. But at some point you have the feeling that everything is one. But there is nothing oppressive. It's just a very deep feeling.

Thank you for the interview!

And next Thursday:
"It is important that you learn to manage life." A conversation with the "deepest man in the world": Herbert Nitsch. The former pilot and multiple world record holder in freediving talks about limits, his comeback after a tragic accident, pressure to perform and the importance of body awareness.