Conrad Humphreys was the sailing master during the TV Show Mutiny

Conrad Humphreys: “Don’t fear the isolation, see it as an opportunity”

When there appears to be dozens of solo sailors giving us their positive ideas for surviving or indeed profiting from isolation it is interesting to turn to Conrad Humphreys. Humphreys has a unique background. His peak as a solo racer was a very tough Vendée Globe in 2004-5 placing seventh in 107 days, after repairing and replacing his rudder off South Africa and finishing with no power. He has two round the world crewed races under his belt, winning the 2000-1 BT Global Challenge as skipper and he raced on Odessa in the 1993 Whitbread Race. But in 2016 Humphreys was sailing master on Mutiny a 4000 mile reality TV 60 day voyage from Tonga to Timor with a crew of nine on a 23 foot (7m) open boat recreating Captain Bligh’s voyage after mutineers cast them adrift from the Bounty. He is an accomplished motivational and team building coach and consultant working for many blue chip companies. 

Conrad, what is the essence of harmony and working together as a team or a small family unit for example. Not everyone has had the choice of who they are spending time with in an enclosed space. And what is common to building a strong crew which will cope well with adversity?
In essence we had a metre of space each over the course of 60 days. That is not too very dissimilar to what some people are being asked to do here. The starting point was starting out and stating what we were hoping to achieve. Bligh would have said ‘our objective is to get food and water and we stay safe and of course that is what people are doing now. He would have painted a very clear picture about how they were going to survive and where they were going to get to. Daily briefings and debriefs are important, we have them from our leaders (Prime Minister), this is about being present and people seeing a leader every day who gives confidence that things are happening. I remember the first night, we spoke about how we would survive, the discipline needed and the way people needed to be honest and open about how they are feeling.

How to avoid conflict?
The key to avoiding conflict is to really understand what makes people tick. You have to be open and maintain dialogue to understand what people’s motives, what their hopes and dreams are. In most family and team environments you know each other well enough to leave each other alone if people are clearly not feeling great, for example in the mornings. Some people are morning people some very definitely aren’t. People came to Mutiny with different agendas. Mine was to make sure people were safe and got to the end with as little conflict as possible. My interest was in the team dynamics and maintaining harmony on board. I look a lot at the experience of the Volvo and you put nine or ten super pro sailors together but you don’t give them a mechanism to download then what you get is a very stiff upper lip type ‘we are professionals, we don’t need to talk about problems, we get on with the sailing’ and I think you will find the top, best performing teams they are the ones who have the ability to share their experiences and not keep everything bottled up. I think we saw that in the last race.

What is your philosophy on leadership?
Experience counts for a huge amount. In Mutiny even though everyone looked to me for leadership even though Ant Middleton was cast as Captain Bligh, the skipper. In a crisis everyone looked to what we were going to do on the sailing side to me. Ultimately decisions were taken by me but my relationship with Ant was really critical on the voyage. He was our leader, our captain, but my role was to support his decision making without him feeling threatened. Maybe on sailing teams the leader is there as figure head but with very good watch captains. I am a big advocate of shared leadership. I think of my own family right now, stressed more than we usually are, juggling  the kids schooling, one predictable income one not so predictable, but we have absolutely got to lead together. I have been focusing on my Vendée Globe stuff. We had moments we had a young Scouse guy Chris who was a talented sailor but he came from a dark place, he found it difficult to be told what to do. He caused conflict and was not a team player. What should happen is you nip that in the bud. I should have promoted him and given him responsibility. Under pressure to deliver, destabilising characters often flourish with responsibility and pressure. What Ant did was more militaristic was to almost demote him and take away responsibilities and I think that was the wrong thing to do. It made him feel less valued and more prone to kicking off. We have all sailed with difficult charactersYou have to work out what motivates them and what makes them tick.  I took Chris under my wing and taught him all I could one to one. We had the luxury of time, like we do now.

Recognising people are just simply tired and grumpy through stress and extreme tiredness is important too, even in the team or one on one environment?
On the Vendée Globe Vikki (Conrad’s wife) became by default my coach. Every day the conversation would be similar. ‘Have you slept? Have you eaten?’ She could tell the answer by voice. If I was struggling fixing something. Sometimes you want someone to empathise. Most of the time though you don’t really want someone empathising you just want a kick up the backside, but the key is when you deliver that. Do you try empathise or do you just say ‘no, come on we/you are good enough to get there’ And you go from there. I remember about a week from Les Sables d’Olonne my generator had packed up. My main engine had gone in the Southern Ocean. I was nursing the boat with no rams, the keel was lashed, we tried to cant the keel with this particular lashings. All of a sudden I was a week from the finish and had no way of charging the instruments or pilot. I tried to balance the sails to make a simple bungee system to hold the tiller and the boat kept crash tacking. We were near the Azores, the wind was unstable and I was so tired but trying to sleep on deck just holding the tiller. I couldn’t. After the 10th crash tack I called her and said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t sail this boat 1000 miles to the finish without an autpilot…I can’t do it…..”
She said, bluntly, “Conrad. If Jean Pierre Dick can sail 12,000 miles with no engine. I am sure you can sail 1000 miles to the finish.”
I was livid. I was so angry. I should have said ‘Jean Pierre Dick has a brand new boat, he has solar panels, he has go all that stuff. What do you know?….But I put the phone down. I don’t think we spoke for three days. But what I did was take the sails down. I slept. I put them up and tried again and it worked and I got back. But it was the only time in the entire race where she maybe misjudged the situation, the rest of the time she was spot on. But that time…I was livid. But it kicked my arse and got me home.

Loneliness affects solo sailors as well as lock downs, what is your advice? 
One of the mantras I am saying is don’t fear the isolation. It makes us more resilient. It makes us more adaptable. As we exit out of this scenario we will find that we are more resourceful, more able to cope with situations. Don’t be too hard on yourself. During the Vendée Globe I suffered from voices in my head which were critical of performance, of strategy, of tactics. And they never gave me a break, making me feel terrible. So learn to deal with them. Take moments of the day to reflect positively. And say ‘I did something good. I made a good sail change at the right time.’ Without people around you who might naturally give you a pat on the back or pick you up, learn to do it yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back. That does not come easily to people who are highly driven. But do it.

What about the elements of rest and routine? Do you have fixed ideas….? 
How you structure day is key now and sailing offshore. We have all worked with sleep and nutrition specialists and psychologists. I am a morning person. I work to that strength. I learned to do all the critical thinking type stuff in the morning, strategy, weather first thing. And as a morning person I learned to take siestas in the afternoon. On the Vendée that was my best and most productive sleep was in the afternoon. I would give myself my longest, maybe an hour, to relax, chill and rest in the afternoon. The position skeds every four hours are like an examYou need to deal with it in a way which does not then directly affect your performance. I was conscious during the Global Challenge when I walked on deck with the sked careful that if we had lost miles we would lose even more because people would be demotivated. Dealing with setbacks you have to be able to park it and move on. Don’t brood. It is done. Move on. The best way is to really stick to a routine and keep the big goal in mind. My Vendée went from ‘I want to be in the top 10 to being 4000 miles behind and in a different race. I plotted all of Mich Desj’s positions from the 2001 race and then used his targets each day to then sail my own race. I thought if I can keep up with him it is my own race and so I did catch and pass other boats.

What are your thoughts on frequency and contact with outside world?
I joke that I spoke more with Vikki during 104 days at sea than ten years of living with her before. I think it is important to have a network of people to converse with on different levels for different things. The converse is that we are bombarded with content all the time. That can be overwhelming. So cut through the noise and decide what is important and stick to that. On a boat you only have so much time and energy. So focus your time and energy on exactly what you need, both ways, support of giving advice. Cut out the random noisy stuff. Right now there are people twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do but read social media. They don’t have a balanced view and might spiral downwards. It is all about control. If you can achieve things and control your environment, being content on getting through each day, you are less likely to be affected like that. That is what the Vendée is. Some days you say ‘I can’t get through this. I can’t do it’ And the smallest things trigger a melt down. Once I cut my thumb, a tiny little cut. And I could not open a Ziploc bag to get my mars bar out and I nearly broke down. The thing there is to remind yourself ‘this is not normal, don’t beat yourself up about it.’

Sometimes it can all be too much. For example the start of the Vendée Globe is overwhelming. How do you cope?
In any big task break it down to small bite sized pieces. It can be overwhelming, if you are planning a Vendée Globe or setting up a Volvo Team it can be overwhelming. Compare it with our kids at the moment, trying to make it feel normal and focus on one thing at a time. They have school, have breaks, do their PE and don’t feel overwhelmed. And again, some days just pat yourself on the back for getting through the day, reward yourselves. And in one or two months we can look back and say ‘we got through that.’ We have so much freedom in our lives and that we are not used to being confined or held back, that has been a problem. But you have to be able to adapt and adapt and adapt. Remember Yves Parlier and that ability to see the problem change and readapt. There was a remarkable mindset.

Omnipresent TV cameras made people act differently. What is your view on communication with the outside world for Vendée Globe sailors, and again is there a learning for us now?
It is really interesting. I found cameras liberating. I shot 12 hours of footage during the Vendée Globe and it became a friend. I could talk and offload to. I think some people are making positive use of social media in the same way now. My case was 15 years ago and there was no ‘live’ so you were just offloading and talking to a box. Look at Gabart for example who loves telling people exactly what is happening and when and that medium is perfect. Others don’t enjoy that. It is vital to tell your story as it is shared. If people now can have a voice and a positive impact now is the time.

Conrad’s Check list

  • Build a network of friends around you
  • Learn to give yourself praise
  • Have empathy for others and communicate every day
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Make sure your environment is safe
  • Prepare meticulously
  • Create a routine around your sleep cycles, try and keep them in phase with the team’s needs
  • Keep checking and maintaining equipment (IT/comms equipment)
  • Don’t fear the isolation, see it as an opportunity to learn about each other, to learn new skills

Photo: Lloyd Russell

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