Sailing Hallucinations

Bretten Holland, a competitor in the 2002 Solo Tasman race was exhausted from nine days of hand steering, 20 hours a day, when he began hallucinating. “I was convinced that my short-handed sailing partner was below” said Holland “and I kept yelling for him to get up on deck and take his watch.  I was angry that he was sleeping in.  It seems silly now, but it was so real.”   Holland wisely listened to what his body and mind was telling him and immediately lowered sail and went to sleep, avoiding more serious, even fatal, consequences.  So what causes hallucinations? what risks to they pose? and how can you minimize the risk of one occurring at sea.  
What is a hallucination?

The word hallucination, derived from the Greek word ‘alucinari’ which means to wander in thought or speech, is defined as a false or distorted sensory perception that appears to be real.  Thought to be caused by a misfiring of neurons in the brain, hallucinations among sailors are generally triggered by a blow to the head, physical illness, drugs, stress, sleep deprivation or fatigue.  While some hallucinations are attributed to the mental and emotional stresses of being alone at sea, this type of hallucination is relatively rare.  The majority of hallucinations reported by sailors are acute events associated with temporary conditions, such as sleep deprivation.  Fortunately these hallucinatory events generally cease once the cause has been removed.  Chronic or re-occurring hallucinations, such as those experienced by people with schizophrenia, may develop as a result of mental illness, brain damage, electrical or neurochemical activity in the brain.  People with chronic hallucinations should consult a psychiatrist or psychologist.  In many cases chronic hallucinations can be controlled through medication and/or psychosocial therapy. 

While hallucinations are popularly associated with mental illness, the reality is that the majority of healthy adults have experienced a hallucination at one time or another in their life.  Although they are uncommon, hallucinations are considered a normal part of human development, especially in young children.  In his book Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination, author and psycho-pharmacologist Ronald Siegel states “In childhood, the hallucinations of imaginary companions… are not only common, but normal… researchers report between one-half and two-thirds of all children have them.” 

Given the physical, mental and emotional challenges presented by life at sea it is no wonder that maritime history contains numerous reports of hallucinations.  Early mariners were often at sea for months, even years, under extreme conditions, battling the environment, illness and loneliness, thus hallucinations of landfalls, mermaids, fresh water and sea serpents were common.  While life for today’s mariners is greatly improved, the conditions that can cause hallucinations, such as sleep deprivation, fatigue, a blow to the head, etcetera, remain a concern for all sailors, but solo and short-handed sailors in particular. 
Hallucinations and the solo sailor

While any sufficiently sleep deprived sailor might experience a hallucination, they occur most frequently among solo racers due to the extreme demands of their sport.  Between the need to maintain a proper lookout, the desire to maximize boat speed and a healthy mistrust of self-steering in heavy seas, solo and short-handed racers can easily find themselves working in excess of 20-hour days at sea.   A reasonably fit person can cope with the physical demands of this schedule for several days, even weeks, but their mental capacity — their capacity to think logically, identify cause and effect, and to problem solve creatively — will suffer.  Mental impairment generally appears within the first 24 hours with significant degradation of thinking ability within two to three days.  Unfortunately, as the fatigued sailor’s mental abilities are impaired, so too is their ability to recognize the early warning signs of sleep deprivation, such as extreme sleepiness, lethargy, slurred speech and poor decision making.  In this state a hallucination may be one of the clearest warning signs that the body and mind need rest.

Failure to heed the warning signs of sleep deprivation and fatigue can lead to disaster.  While fatigue has long been recognized as a contributing cause in many automobile and industrial accidents, recent studies of British maritime workers suggest that a significant percentage of maritime accidents can also be attributed to fatigue.  A recognized phenomena, the Japanese have even coined a word for fatigue-related deaths, Karoshi, which literally means death by overwork. 
An expanding crew

Perhaps the most commonly reported hallucination among solo or short-handed sailors is that additional crew is on board.  While firm answers are hard to come by, research suggests that this theme may reflect a conscious or sub-conscious desire for assistance and companionship.  Frequently these hallucinations feature people drawn from the sailor’s past, which is logical since hallucinations, like dreams, are drawn from perceptions and memories stored in our brain. 

In his book Sailing Alone Around The World, Joshua Slocum describes a hallucination of additional crew he experienced while incapacitated by food poisoning:

“I went below, and threw myself upon the cabin floor in great pain.  How long I laid there I could not tell, for I became delirious.  When I came to, as I thought, from my swoon, I realized that the sloop was plunging into a heavy sea, and looking out through the companionway, to my amazement I saw a tall man at the helm….  “I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, Señor Captain,” he said “and I will guide your ship tonight.”

While the hallucination of the pilot was almost certainly a product of his illness, fuelled by the recent reading of a book about Columbus, upon recovering Slocum was so impressed that his yacht Joshua had stayed on course that he expressed gratitude to the absent pilot.  In Slocum’s own mind the line between hallucination and reality had become blurred.  This confusion is not uncommon as the sensory perceptions experienced by the hallucinating brain are so similar to those experienced in reality.  As Seigel points out “In the province of the mind, the border between hallucinations and reality is easy to cross.” 

Another interesting hallucination involving additional crew comes from David Adams, the class two winner of the 1994-95 BOC Challenge.  In his book, Chasing Liquid Mountains, Adams describes how a phantom crew joined him during the 1986 Solo Tasman race:

“I learned about the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation the hard way during the Solo Tasman.  The first night after the start both my sets of electronic self-steering gear blew up…  I thought to myself ‘…it’s only ten days, I’ll hand steer’.  By day eight, I discovered just what happens when you push yourself too hard.  I started hallucinating.  I still remember it vividly.  There was a full crew on board with me.  I didn’t recognize any of the faces, and I wasn’t quite sure how they got there, but there they were, sailing the boat.  I was playing the traditional owner’s role of standing down the back adjusting the running backstays (though in reality I was steering), while these blokes were running around the deck doing all the work.  As the wind increased and Kirribilli was heeling right over I started to think, ‘This is getting dangerous. They’re going to have to reef’.  But no-one pulled the sails down.  I was just about to start yelling at them when a rubber duckie appeared alongside and all these blokes piled in and sped away.  I was furious, shouting and waving my fists at them.  With that, a big gust came and knocked Kirribilli sideways, with the mast almost in the water.  She hovered there for a moment, and a wave washed over the deck, splashing cold water in my face, and luckily that was enough to snap me out of it.  I pulled all the sails down, went below and slept for four hours straight.”

Both Adams and Slocum’s experiences illustrate one of the clearest risks that sleep deprivation poses to both boat and crew — and that is poor judgment.  In both cases these experienced and knowledgeable sailors left full sail up in strong winds, their hallucinations masking the danger to both sailor and boat.  

The mental and emotional stresses of solo sailing, such as loneliness and the desire for companionship, are also capable of generating hallucinations. According to Seigel “Even if an adult never had an imaginary friend in childhood, extraordinary experiences can conjure one.”   One such extraordinary experience is detailed in Hannes Lindemann’s book Alone at Sea.  Lindemann, who completed two solo crossings of the Atlantic in a sail-equipped kayak, created imaginary companions to keep him company.  “Loneliness” said Lindemann “weighed on me no more than it does a healthy child.  Like a child, I peopled nature with my friends.” 

While Lindemann’s hallucinations were benign and relieved his loneliness, ‘companion hallucinations’ can pose a serious threat to the solo sailor.  This is clearly illustrated by the experience of Walter Gibson who, while adrift alone in a life boat and starved for company, hallucinated that he saw a person standing on an imaginary beach waving to him.  Luckily for Gibson, rather than abandoning his life raft and swimming toward the person, Gibson motioned for the person to swim out to him — at which time the apparition disappeared.  We can only imagine what Gibson’s fate would have been had he abandoned his lift raft and swam toward his hallucination. 
Preventing hallucinations

It is important to remember that hallucinations are symptoms and while acting on the hallucination may put the sailor in danger, what is causing the hallucination is generally the more serious threat to the sailor’s wellbeing.

The key, according to Adams, is prevention.  While you may be not be able to safeguard yourself against illness or a blow to the head, there are steps you can take to minimize these risks, such as only drinking treated water, rigging your boat to minimize the risk of an accidental gybe, and perhaps most importantly, not pushing yourself beyond your limits.  The good news, even for solo racers, is that the most prevalent causes of hallucinations, sleep deprivation and fatigue, are within your control.  “I learned more in that Solo Tasman race about what not to do, than I could have learned in years of fully crewed racing” said Adams.  “Since that race I’ve sailed over 60,000 miles single-handed.  I’ve never let myself get that tired again, and never had another hallucination”. 

Adams brought his sleep patterns under control by working with Dr. Helen Bearpark, a sleep specialist, to develop a better understanding of his own sleep needs.  As a result of Dr. Bearpark’s sleep monitoring program, Adams developed a working understanding of his circadian cycles that allowed him to identify those times when he his ‘sleep pressure’ was highest and thus when a nap would give the greatest recuperative benefit.  By better understanding his body’s needs and training himself to take ‘micro-sleeps’ of no more than 30 minutes duration, Adams was able to build a sleep program that was a key element in him winning the 1994-95 BOC Challenge and making hallucinations a thing of the past.

The lesson is clear, listen to your body and mind, and don’t push yourself beyond your limits, otherwise one day you may find yourself issuing orders to the pilot of the Pinta.

By Ocean Navigator