Wisdom from the sea: 'React fast or be swept away'

By Sheena McKenzie, CNNUpdated 23rd May 2013
Coming face-to-face with 25-meter waves, spending months on end without human contact, and shrinking your world to the confines of a 10-meter boat.
Who are the superhumans who single-handedly sail around the world?
In many cases they are ordinary people forced to survive in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Here, three of those record-breaking sailors reveal what they learned from their time on the waves -- from coping with loneliness to confronting their own mortality and reaching deep within for inspiration to continue their remarkable journey.
Jessica Watson
At just 16-years-old, Australian schoolgirl Jessica Watson became the youngest person to single-handedly sail nonstop around the world.
She completed the epic seven month journey in 2010, in a 10-meter yacht called Ella's Pink Lady.
In 2011, Watson was named Young Australian of the Year and has since written a book on her experience called True Spirit.
CNN: How did you cope with loneliness?
Jessica Watson: From the moment I sailed out of Sydney I missed everyone back home. I wouldn't just miss family and friends, but also simple things like going for a walk along the beach. But despite missing these things badly, I can honestly say I never felt lonely. Lonely is a Friday night on land when no one has asked you out! It's somehow different when you've chosen to put yourself out there alone.
CNN: What did you discover about yourself?
JW: I learned that you really can achieve anything if you set your mind to it. Before dreaming of sailing around the world I was a scared, shy kid, but it was something I wanted to do enough that I overcame those fears. And these days, on dry land, I'm the biggest wuss again!
CNN: Did it affect your idea of mortality?
JW: I can't say that voyage affected my idea of mortality. Although it was during one of the most terrifying moments out at sea that I realized how important the people close to me are -- not so much being with them, but not wanting to put them through so much hardship.
CNN: What inspired you?
JW: It was the stories of other people who sailed around the world that first put the idea in my head. But it wasn't so much the adrenalin pumping, adventurous side that appealed to me. As boring as it sounds, it was thinking about how the risks of such a voyage might be minimized and wondering if I really could do it, that had me hooked. Another big part of my motivation was wanting to make people question their perceptions of what a young person or girl is capable of.
CNN: How do you view nature?
JW: When you sit on a boat for 210 days straight with only the very rare glimpse of land, you start to take a lot of notice of nature. One experience I had with a dolphin was a standout. It was during the first storm of the trip, and throughout the worst hours a dolphin swam along next to Pink Lady -- a pretty incredible, reassuring presence.
Robin Knox-Johnston
In 1969, Knox-Johnston became the first person to single-handedly sail nonstop around the world.
The yachting legend smashed the record books again in 2006, when at the age of 67 he became the oldest person to circumnavigate the globe solo.
Knighted in 1995, the 74-year-old Londoner is founder of the annual Clipper Round the World Yacht Race for amateur sailors.
CNN: Did it affect your idea of mortality?
Robin Knox-Johnston: It certainly did. When you see a 25-meter wave stretching from horizon to horizon, with the top leaning forward and breaking as it rushes towards your boat, you don't have much time to think. You have to react fast or be swept away. It is afterward, when the wave has swamped over the boat and you emerge wet, shaken and deafened by the roar, that you begin to think that you could have been killed.
CNN: How did you cope with loneliness?
RKJ: I think people can either cope with loneliness or they can't. In my case, because I was sailing a boat which requires full concentration, I never really had time to feel lonely for more than a few minutes as there was always something to do. When I got back 312 days after starting, I really was totally happy with my own company and had to adjust to being with people again.
CNN: What inspired you?
RKJ: A combination of boredom -- I was first officer on a passenger ship and beginning to wonder if I really wanted to do that for the rest of my life -- and the fact that Francis Chichester had just sailed around the world with one stop, thus leaving the last thing to be done: to go around alone and without a stop. Once I had thought of the idea it would not let me go.
CNN: How do you view nature?
RKJ: From watching the sun glittering on the sea in the Trades to working through huge icebergs, seeing the birds moving with the seasons; the miracle of spring; the puzzlement as to what caused the Big Bang and what was there before. I view it all with curiosity, respect and awe.
Dee Caffari
In 2009, the former British schoolteacher Dee Caffari became the first woman to sail solo and nonstop around the world -- in both east and west directions.
That same year, Caffari and an all-female crew smashed the mono-hull speed record around Britain and Ireland, completing the voyage in six days.
The 40-year-old Briton is also the only woman to have circumnavigated the globe three times.
CNN: How did you cope with loneliness?
Dee Caffari: Prior to my first solo voyage I had never spent any length of time on my own -- in fact I had never even lived alone, so it was quite a culture shock for me being at sea with just myself for company for six months. I think being busy and preoccupied with an activity is probably quite a good antidote to loneliness and when you sail solo there is always something to be done on-board. The one thing I really did miss was non-verbal communication. Until it is taken away, you don't quite realize how much you pick up on from facial expressions and just being present.
CNN: What did you discover about yourself?
DC: I realized that however strong you think you are, when faced with adverse conditions you can always dig that little bit deeper and surprise yourself. On my first voyage I wasted emotional energy at times by getting frustrated and upset, mainly if I was tired or hungry. I learned that looking after myself physically had a huge impact on my emotional stability and once you know what the triggers are, you can learn to manage yourself better.
CNN: What inspired you?
DC:My father was a strong influence on me and his encouragement to get on and do things instead of talking about them is a bit of a mantra for me in life. Of course, sailing legends such as Sir Peter Blake and Sir Chay Blyth have also been key figures that have inspired me in my career. When I am out on the water, I find that the elements themselves are inspirational.
CNN: How do you view nature?
DC: I am privileged to have sailed in some of the most remote environments on the planet and I have seen nature at its rawest and most hostile. I have also seen the most beautiful things like stunning sunsets, amazing wildlife, and even humans look pretty good after being at sea for six months!