Everything is faster this time. This year’s Volvo Ocean Race will take seven months, compared with nine months in 2001/02. The VO70 boats are light-weight monsters, with a sail area the size of three tennis courts.
But is this a good thing or a bad thing, from a strictly medical perspective?
”I believe this race is more demanding”, says stress scientist, Hans Bäck.
”Last time, the boats had a crew of twelve. This time, ten people will drive a boat ten feet longer. This makes a massive difference”.
During the last race, Hans Bäck carried out a stress study on the SEB boat. The twelve crew provided samples of saliva and blood, both at sea and in harbour. The samples were used to measure the concentration of the biological stress markers cortisol and blood sugar. The testosterone content was also tested, which gives a measure of the body’s ability to repair itself.
A normal cortisol level is high in the morning. During the day, it declines, and almost reaches zero during the night. A person who is exhausted or burnt out has a flat curve.
”Even at the start, the crew had low cortisol values”, says Hans Bäck. ”They had serious rudder problems, and had not had sufficient rest”.
Their blood sugar levels also indicated stress. Normal values vary between 3.5 and 5.5. The average of the twelve crew was 5.1. Two of them were over 5.5, which is into the diabetes level.
The study showed that the stages in the southern hemisphere caused the most mental stress. This is hardly surprising, since the route went close to Antarctica, where the risk of collision with icebergs is high. The small ones are particularly treacherous, since they do not show up on the radar.
”The stress there is enormous”, says Hans Bäck.
”The cold makes everything difficult. Add to that the risk of collision with ice. During the night, crew members have to keep a constant watch with searchlights from the foredeck.
To reduce the risks, the rounding marks in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race are further north, where the winds are less strong and the number of days with arctic temperatures and icebergs are fewer.
The most startling result of the stress study was how rapidly the crews’ values returned to normal. After the stopover in Brazil, mental stress fell. The crew knew they were in control of the situation. Despite the continued physical stress, the body began to recover, slowly but surely.
”When they arrived in Rio, their cortisol curves were totally flat. They had no energy left. But after three weeks in port, the curves were fine”.
The intensive stress did no permanent damage. The testosterone levels fell for eleven of the twelve crew on passage to Rio, but were normal again when they reached the finish line. The blood sugar levels gradually declined, and averaged 4.0 when the race finished in June 2002. One month later, the average was 3.9.
”These are professional sailors. They are elite athletes”, says Hans Bäck.
”You must be exceptionally fit to cope with the Volvo Ocean Race, both physically and mentally”.
Fore pictures and more information concerning the Volvo Ocean Race, please go to http://www.volvooceanrace.org/multimedia/