Medical Chronicle

Ear flaps

Sommeil François Gabart
© Vincent Curutchet / DPPI

A bird. Sweeping across the water with the tip of its wings, it disappears behind the wave, then soars away and glides effortlessly. It’s an albatross. The symbol of the southern latitudes. The backdrop is in place. Now it’s time to climb onto the stage and act out your part. Surfing along on the side of a wave, the boat accelerates. A touch on the helm. That’s it. You’ve got the boat under control. Nothing to do now but watch. You quickly go down below to shelter. Too cold and wet to hang around outside. Acceleration at more than 20 knots. The whistle from the keel is shrill now and then there is the bass roar from the rudders and the wailing of the daggerboard. The shrouds on double bass, the slamming in the rhythm section. A 1940’s orchestra playing hard rock.

You have to live in this infernal din, day after day. It wears you down, adds to the stress, makes you less vigilant and you can no longer focus. Imagine the boat shaking as it slams into a wave, the violent shock waves echo around. The noise gets into you, drills into your mind and your body quivers. All the racket is amplified by this carbon hull, which means it is a bit like being inside a drum. Sometimes the explosions are at more than 120 decibels. 120 decibels is the noise you hear when standing next to a pneumatic drill or an Airbus taking off. It’s unbearable.

Without these peaks, the average noise is around 90 decibels, which is on the edge of being harmful. The loudest are the bass sounds, which are the most aggressive on the ear. These come from the foils and daggerboards, the water against the hull and the engine, when it is running. They hide the higher pitch sounds, which are more important. These bass sounds make it hard to remain focused and affect your vigilance, reducing performance and your ability to think ahead, leading to strategic errors and potential dangers.

It is in this atmosphere that you have to try to get some rest. It is hard to fall asleep, so noise affects sleep patterns and dreams. To get quality sleep you have to eliminate this noise from your mind for three months. The physiological solution is to put them to one side and forget them, just like you forget the sound of the engine when you’re driving a car. But while you sleep your brain still hears these noises, even if it is not listening. It records them and analyses them all the time. If there is a new sound or something changes, the subconscious remains alert and triggers a wake-up mechanism. In other words the mind is always awake.
The surfing comes to an end. The bow slams into the wave. The brakes go on. The hull buries itself under tons of water. It bangs and slams and echoes around the shrouds and there is a torrent in the cockpit, while the spray glistens in the sunlight adding a touch of colour in this grey universe.

Inside you can’t see what is happening, but you hear it. The sound of the water washing over the deck gives you an idea of the volume involved. Experience allows you to get more and more sleep. In no other sport is dealing with getting to sleep part of the game. Here it is a vital strength for the skippers, who become top class sleepers, if they want to win.

But modern technology comes to your aid. There are noise-cancelling headphones which use a few microphones to detect the background noise. The electronics analyse and process to create opposite frequencies. By removing the bass sounds, you can better hear the other noises, which are more informative. This is nothing like ear plugs which block out all the noise, as these are too dangerous.

After the long voyage down the Atlantic, you feel at one with your boat. You hear every noise, from the tiniest to the loudest. This hi-tech machine is your companion and you know what she is trying to tell you. Some boats don’t say much or are difficult to understand. Beware of them. They are visious beasts and can drag you down without warning.

Today in the atmosphere of the Southern Ocean, you would like some time off, some silence, just to disconnect from everything if only for a few minutes. With your hands cupped over your ears, you close your eyes. Your eyelids shut off your vision, but the noise, even if reduced is still attacking you. Why in our evolution weren’t we provided with ear flaps?

Dr Jean-Yves CHAUVE

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