Medical Chronicle

The Southern Cross

Photo sent from the boat Queguiner - Leucemie Espoir, on November 17th, 2016 - Photo Yann EliesPhoto envoyée depuis le bateau Queguiner - Leucemie Espoir le 17 Novembre 2016 - Photo Yann Elies

This evening, it’s Helena embracing us. La Belle Hélène. But our solo skippers don’t want to hang around with her for too long. They want to get down south and find some areas of low pressure to propel them forward. Some are already down there. Bye Helena. See you on the way back up!

As the sun goes down, the sky turns orange. Back inside. We turn on the little light. The red LEDs have a calming effect. The computer is in night mode. Time to look at the weather again. A roaring storm ahead in the Pacific. A deep one, building in strength in the corridor between Antarctica and South America. This is the one we have been waiting for. We mustn’t miss it. It could take us all the way around.

I need some sleep but there’s no time for that. What’s going to happen tomorrow ? There are so many unknowns in this race. The mind wanders. A bit of a worry lurking back there. You suddenly imagine the worst. Something horrible, violent, unpredictable. The pictures keep going through your mind. The fear, anxiety and dread build having a physical effect on the body. Can you repair this? Am I going to be forced to quit? All that hard work for nothing. The others are getting away. Any loss in speed and the gap widens. No time to worry about the rankings. You need to call your shore team. Explain things, talk it through, find the solution, if there is one. All that to stay in the race.

In these situations of prolonged stress, the body always reacts in the same way. Once you have understood how complicated the problem is, there is a hormonal reaction in the brain to get the body to react appropriately, using the adrenal glands. They secrete cortisone and this has several functions. It frees up the reserve energy, stimulates the break down of proteins and fat. The sugars that are created give you the impression of seeing things more clearly, but also build up your muscles and physical ability. You are overwhelmed by a sense of euphoria preventing you from falling asleep and giving you the ability to push that bit harder.  

It’s the magic potion giving you something special. Looking beyond the psychological reaction to stress, we all have the mental means to push to one side our fear of the unknown, allowing us to focus on the essential aspects to a problem. This strategy of dealing with stress is commonly referred to as coping. A lot of people have worked on that. They have been through all that can go wrong and know the procedures to follow. Like airline pilots or astronauts, planning ahead and knowing what to do gives you a feeling of confidence in yourself and the idea that you are still in control. But to achieve that, our skipper must know how to do everything. From composites to computing, mechanics, electronics and medical treatment. He has been trained to deal with all these questions by himself with the means on board.

But over the years with such adventures, this ability to adapt to such attacks uses up all our anti-stress reserves. You don’t know where the limit is until you have reached it. So even if the ability to surpass yourself seems like the promise of eternal youth, the tired body has lost its ability. It can no loner react. That’s when disillusion, illnesses and premature ageing set in.
The key is to listen to what your body is telling you and take care of it. Don’t go too far or that voyage in the Southern Ocean will turn into a ride into Hell.

Dr Jean-Yves CHAUVE

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