Medical Chronicle

Down in the Doldrums

Macif_pot au noir_201112
© François Gabart / Macif

All is quiet, but it is an oppressive silence, which engulfs you.  A strange, deafening silence.  Silence is said to help you rest, but here in the middle of nowhere, this silence is tiring and worrying. Since the start, noise has been omnipresent to the extent that you become used to it, even if it is rather too present.  But noise means that you are making good headway.  The louder the noise, the better the speed. So who’s going to complain? 

Occasionally, the sheet goes taut or you hear the sails rubbing. It feels like another world here. The place where time stopped for ever. Lugubrious. The burning lead weight in the sky will gradually move away. Ocean racing requires patience and humility and frustration. People say you’re crazy to want to come out here. Of course,  the others. They’re doing fine. They’ve got plenty of wind. Nothing more annoying than that. You look at the computer, the weather, go out on deck with your sunglasses on and cap down over your eyes to search the horizon. No sails to be seen, but clouds. The raindrops which fall from them promise strong gusts But how can you get over there? You mustn’t get down when you’re down in the Doldrums! On paper the Doldrums looks like a narrow strip and is not very active. You have to believe that.

Under the midday sun, the heat is intense, heavy and hard to bear. Inside this carbon cabin with no air inlets or insulation, the temperature gets close to 50°. An oven where breathing is hard. Each little movement is difficult.  With all the sweat, the skin is wet and sticky. The effect of the sea water shower you just took only offered temporary relief. Once the water had evaporated, the salt remains to make the skin itch.  You should rinse yourself off, but fresh water is a precious commodity. When you think that it was only a few days ago that you were in a fleece and foulies. 

The change is striking and therefore all he more difficult to live with.  Adapting to climate change is tough on the body, jus like jet lag.  It takes a fortnight to get used to it.  Just when you get used to it, you start to feel the chilly weather of the Southern Ocean. Before that happens, you just have to stay in the steamy conditions and drink. Drink to sweat.  The water that evaporates helps evacuate the surplus heat from the body. You can lose half a litre of water per hour to begin with. The capillary vessels in the skin dilate. The skin is red, hot and swollen.

On the Equator in this wet air, evaporation is almost impossible. So the system goes into overload. Sweathing uses 12 litres of water per day. It’s vital to drink and showers using salt water are vital to cool the body down. With your vessels dilated over a surface of almost two square metres, 15 litres of blood is pumping around per minute. So less blood for the muscles and brain cells. You get cramps doing manoeuvres and can get dizzy spells and feel sick. It’s best to work at night, when that is possible. When you’re not overwhelmed by the heat, you think more clearly and manoeuvres seem easier.

Keep drinking again and again. Drink before you feel thirsty. Thirst is a sign of dehydration. If your body is missing a litre and a half of water, that represents 20% less physical and mental ability. Three litres, 40%. And when you drink, don’t forget to add a touch of salt. It can be easier to take a few gulps of sea water. There’s plenty of that around you!

Dr Jean-Yves CHAUVE

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