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From Yacht Racing To An Epic Tale Of Survival

The intense isolation of the open ocean requires resilience, fortitude and a unique sense of calm, as triple around-the-world yachtsman Conrad Humphreys knows better than most

More people have visited space than have sailed, solo, around the world. Even with modern technology, to sail the seven seas remains a test of focus and endurance beyond compare. It’s a feat Conrad Humphreys has achieved not once or even twice, but three times. In his career as a professional yachtsman, he has skippered a winning team in the BT Global Challenge. He’s also only the fifth Brit in history to complete the Vendée Globe, a race of legendary renown that tasks individuals with sailing around the world non-stop without assistance.

Humphrey’s attempt was not without incident: off the shores of Cape Town, he was forced to single-handedly repair a broken rudder by repeatedly diving under his ship; and a hydraulic ram failure made for dangerously unstable conditions over the final 50 miles. Yet 104 days since setting sail, he returned to a hero’s welcome.

More recently, Humphreys was skipper for the Channel 4 show Mutiny, in which he guided nine men across 4,000 miles of open ocean – from Tonga to Timor – to recreate the epic eighteenth century voyage of Captain Bligh and his men.

Whether leading a team or sailing solo, Humphreys’ capacity to keep calm under pressure – an essential trait for any would-be adventurer – has greatly contributed to his success as a sailor. But what other attributes does a round-the-world yachtsman need, and what has he learned from a life at sea?

The sense of accomplishment gave me something from which to benchmark all other experiences – it was my Olympics and Everest rolled into one

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Q: What does sailing mean to you?
A: ‘From the moment I started, at the age of six, I've loved the sense of freedom that sailing offers, and the challenge of making a boat go fast. It's one of the most complete sports, where a good understanding of the environment around you is as important as your physical abilities sailing the boat. In my past, it was all about competition and winning.’

‘I would come home from school and head straight to my local club to train, constantly looking for improvements. I hated losing club races and would beat myself up if I did. I realised early on that preparation wins races, and not to be so hard on myself so long as no stone was left unturned pre-race. That philosophy has prevailed throughout my life.’

Q: What does it take, physically and mentally, to sail around the world?
A: ‘There are big differences between the two. I think most people, physically, could sail a boat round the world, but it's all about self belief and your ability to cope with uncertainty. The build up to a major race is where you mentally prepare. There are no easy pathways and the journey will be full of extreme highs and lows. If you can make it to the start line, then there is every chance you will make it round the world.’

‘Today's high-performance yachts are much more physical, therefore you need to be tough. Tough is the best word for it: it covers both the physical and mental attributes needed for offshore racing.’

Q: What’s your proudest achievement as a yachtsman?
A: ‘If I was to choose just one, it would be finishing the Vendée Globe. It was the culmination of over four years preparation with my team and then a race that tested every nerve and sinew. Completing the Vendee changed me as a person. The sense of accomplishment gave me something from which to benchmark all other experiences – it was my Olympics and Everest rolled into one.’

Q: In a round-the-world race, like the Vendée Globe, are there any chances to switch off or is it 100+ days of intense concentration?
A: ‘You can never switch off. Firstly it's a race, so you are constantly driving harder and harder to make the boat go fast. It becomes obsessive. Every four hours you get everyone's position update – it's like getting your exam results. You know immediately if you've gained or lost. During the Vendée I had this constant voice in my head pushing me to drive harder. I had to learn to shut it out and give myself a pat on the back when things were going well. The intensity is relentless: sail, eat, sleep, repeat for 100 days.’

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Q: How do you cope with the complete isolation of being alone at sea?
A: ‘In today's world we are always connected. Information is just one swipe away. One of the great aspects of the Vendée Globe – and more recently recreating Mutiny – is the ability to switch off the constant stream and only really process what matters most. During the Vendée, the rules allowed satellite communication, but bandwidth is limited for voice and data.’

‘I spoke once a day to my wife, Vikki (I actually think we spoke more in 100 days while at sea than we had in the previous 10 years living together!) I think everyone should experience some form of isolation in their lives, and learn to be content on your own, with limited resources. It's something I want my kids to know and understand. To feel content with yourself and what you have around you helps develop your resilience.’

Q: Mutiny saw you lead a team of nine rowers across 4,000 miles of open ocean – what was the toughest aspect of that voyage?
A: ‘Mutiny was a very special project. To have the opportunity to recreate one of the most remarkable voyages of survival in British history was incredible. There were many challenges involved with taking on a TV-led expedition of this nature, and most were related to making an authentic programme with a cast chosen by Channel 4.’

‘The question we were trying to answer was whether people in today's society could survive and ordeal with the situation Bligh and his men endured over 200 years ago. The answer was an emphatic yes. My role onboard as the professional skipper was to ensure all nine people were safe, which was the toughest aspect of the voyage. There were inherent risks trying to recreate the voyage in today's health and safety culture.’

Find out more at Conradhumphreys.com. Follow him @conradhumphreys

Words: Issac Williams

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