Sailing: Humphreys ready for ocean ordeal with help from imaginary friends

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The Independent Online

It was when Jennifer Aniston asked Conrad Humphreys to start undressing during a trans-Atlantic yacht race this summer that he knew the situation aboard his boat was getting out of hand.

The 31-year-old from Plymouth, a record-breaking skipper in crewed racing, felt confused. He was in a solo event - the Transat, from his home town to Boston - but he could have sworn that someone else was on deck while he was checking the radar down below. Despite the dark, wet, freezing-cold conditions, Humphreys removed his socks. "Now take your balaclava off," said Aniston.

Only then did he emerge from a state somewhere between hallucination and deep sleep. The punishing regime of the single-handed sailor - lack of rest, harsh conditions, solitude - had been playing tricks.

The Transat, a relatively short hop of 14 days, was Humphreys' longest solo race to date. In fact it was only his second single-handed event, following the Route du Rhum between France and Guadeloupe in 2002, when a dismasting forced his retirement after eight days.

To say that this solo track record does not bode well for his third unaccompanied voyage, the 26,000-mile Vendée Globe, is one way of looking at things. Yet he is far from daunted.

"It's not a freak occurrence," he said, explaining how chronic fatigue routinely upsets the brains of ocean racers. "Everyone will suffer from the same thing. The Transat just taught me not to let myself get so dog-tired."

Another strange episode in the Transat involved a battle for fourth place with Nick Moloney, a UK-based Australian who is also contesting the Vendée.

"At one stage, I'd been side-by-side with Nick for 18 hours, both of us staying awake to keep an eye on the other. Nick was almost hallucinating. He believed I was sailing with a team and he was gutted. I was also convinced I had a crew on board and that I'd handed over the helm."

The next thing Humphreys was conscious of was waking up two hours later, dressed only in his underpants. Though his boat, Hellomoto, was doing a dangerous 28 knots, and in stormy conditions, he fleetingly believed that whoever was driving would take down the big headsail and bring things under control. Then the penny dropped. He was supposed to be driving but he'd put himself to bed instead. He ran up on deck in his pants and spent an hour grappling with the sail.

Moloney finished fourth overall, but Humphreys still managed fifth, and that in a top-class fleet. His time, of 13 days and 20 hours, was also well inside the then-record time that Ellen MacArthur had set in 2000.

Humphreys' hugely creditable Transat placing was no surprise to those who have followed his career. In 2001, aged 26, he became the youngest skipper ever to win the BT Global Challenge, a round-the-world crewed race. One leg of that voyage also involved an actor, Jeremy Irons, whose participation, unlike Aniston's later, was not illusory. Humphreys fondly recalls Irons, a keen sailor, ditching some of his clothes to make space for 12 large pouches of tobacco for the trip.

Also in 2001, Humphreys was the navigator aboard Mike Golding's Ecover in a trans-Atlantic race, the EDS Challenge. They came third. Humphreys subsequently acquired Ecover, which he will sail in the Vendée as Hellomoto.

"I never thought, back in 2001, that I'd be doing the Vendée one day on Mike's boat," Humphreys said. "It's like a dream. I feel humbled by the sheer scale of the event and the affection that the French have for it."

Humphreys first aspired to compete in the Vendée in 1996 after following the exploits of Pete Goss, also from Plymouth. Goss famously saved the life of a fellow competitor, Raphael Dinelli, in a ferocious Southern Ocean storm.

Humphreys prefers "healthy apprehension" as the most accurate description of his approach. "It stops you being reckless," he adds. And what of his chances? "I'm a competitive sailor. I wouldn't enter if I didn't think I had a chance."

He will heed Goss's advice of "Don't flap". And if Aniston shows up again, he'll just ignore her.