How to maintain focus offshore

Published on March 23rd, 2020

Casey Smith

Casey Smith is a two-time Volvo Ocean Race veteran and was a key member onboard during all of Comanche’s record runs and race wins. Casey knows a lot about being stuck out at sea, but still finds humor in the little things and gets his job done, which is most important.

In this report for North Sails, Casey share his tips for maintaining focus while isolated at sea for days on end:

What’s the longest race you’ve done?

For sure, it’s the Volvo Ocean Race. Four hours-on, four hours-off, the whole way around the world. Waking up and coming on deck, “Oh, hi. Fancy seeing all you guys here! And look, that other boat we are racing against is still right there, and it has been for the last week!”

Do you have a sequence of things you think about that help you stay focused?

Sleep. Eat. Four hours on watch. Repeat (10, 20, 30+ days…).

Do the days blend together or do you lose track of time?

You lose track of the days of the week. You never lose track of time because the whole boat revolves around time. The four-hour watch rotation or the weather schedules and boat position schedules are all very closely followed, and everyone wants as much time to rest as possible and also know how you are doing on the fleet.

What are some things you think about while you are sailing for extended periods of time?

You just need to concentrate on the competition aspect of the race; that’s why you are out there in the first place. Compete and try to win. It’s really important to put everything into sailing the boat 100%.

How do you maintain your focus if the weather gets rough and you are on the same tack/jibe for hours on end?

Focus comes from wanting to win. Chances are if it’s windy and downwind, you are probably going fast. You want to make sure you are the fastest boat and keep the pedal down. If you’re sailing upwind, and conditions are windy and rough, that’s a bit tougher because it’s hard to sleep during the off-watch and your energy is a bit lower. Being on the same tack or jibe for long periods is great as it means you get a break from moving sails and equipment so everything has a silver lining!

What advice can you give to someone who is sailing offshore for their first time in relation to staying focused and not feeling overwhelmed?

It’s all about making the boat go fast. Basically nothing else matters. You have a job to do, it might be helming, trimming, grinding, sail changing and everyone contributes to miles gained or lost. Do your job at 100% and keep the boat moving fast. Also, stay calm and level. There will be times when another boat (or boats) is doing better than you but stay calm and keep sailing your boat 100% as that’s all you can control.

When you are down below, if you are not sleeping, what do you do to still stay alert and ready for when it’s time for your shift to start?

Eat. Make coffee for the team. Tidy up the living space up. Dry water out of the bilge. Check the steering and other systems. Watch movies.

What are your favorite foods to help stay awake and focused if you are the crew on shift?

We are usually limited on what foods we can have on board, so your mind does wander to what food you love and would love to be eating. The reality is you have never seen faces light up as much as when a fresh bag of jerky comes on deck. Coffee and warm drinks are huge as well, but chewing gum is needed after the jerky and coffee. Brushing your teeth is something that slips a little offshore.

Is there anything you have vowed to do when you’ve been on a long leg? (Did you do it?)

Remember to load some more movies, music, or books on the iPod. You can only watch the music video of Umbrella by Rihanna so many times.

Staring at the horizon for so many hours on end, have you hallucinated offshore?

No hallucinations on deck but I’ve had some crazy dreams during the off watch. Also waking up and forgetting where you are and then slowly coming too. Then the realization of “crap, I’m on the boat and only one week into a six-week leg from China to Rio.”

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