Seeing Things At Sea: When Solo Round-The-World Sailors Start To Hallucinate

Sea visions
Sea visions
Isabelle Musy

GENEVA – The disappearance of many sailors has been blamed on something that doesn't quite seem real: hallucinations, which have even prompted sailors to believe they had reached port and to climb over the railing of their boat.

Loss of lucidity, loss of bearings – sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on a sailor’s mind, to the point where it creates a state very similar to a hallucinatory drug trip.

French skipper Jean Le Cam smiles when asked about hallucinations: "Sometimes you’re just too tired. On solo round-the-world races like the Vendée Globe, if you get to the point where you’re that tired, it can have serious – dangerous – consequences," he explains. "During the 2004 race, we all pushed our limits to the max. I was so tired, I couldn’t sleep anymore."

At one point Le Cam thought he saw his sister on the deck. "I held her in my arms but when I woke up, I was just hugging a sail. It gets surreal. When you start believing that people are on the boat with you, you know you’re starting to go nuts. That’s when you try to sleep, if you can," he says. "Often it’s difficult to find the right time for a nap, but you really have to find moments to rest, otherwise things will start to go in a tailspin. Since the beginning of this race, we haven’t been sleeping much. For me it’s about four hours a day max."

Speaking on his satellite phone, Swiss sailor Bernard Stamm recalls his nicest hallucination: "On this Vendée Globe, I haven’t had any yet. When you do hallucinate, it’s because you’re having serious sleep deprivation. During the Around Alone solo around-the-world race with stopovers, I was freaked out by one of my waterproof jackets. I thought someone had gotten on board. In the long time it took my brain to realize what was happening, I had time to flip out. Then I realized it was my oilskin and not someone who was after my cute little body."

French sailor Michel Desjoyaux, who won the race twice, recalls that fellow French skipper Roland Jourdain once thought his compass was the bloody head of a monkey who was trying to eat him: "Instead of little white bars between the cardinal points, he saw teeth. According to him, there also was a cow on the boat," says Desjoyaux.

Visions of animals seem to be quite common. Swiss skipper Dominique Wavre had a feline encounter: "My boat had a complete electric breakdown and so I was using small green lamps to light the compass. It looked like cat’s eyes in the night. I could feel it brushing up against my legs, trying to get some food out of me. In the morning, I found my sandwich in tiny little pieces at the bottom of the cockpit – because I had fed him. Once I also found myself in a field, surrounded by cattle," confesses the Geneva skipper.

"Something that happens very often is when you see a mate at the bow of the boat, and you scream at him for not being at the right place, when in fact, it’s actually just a sail."

Another thing that happens often is when you hand over the steering of the boat to another sailor to go get some sleep. It happened to Michel Desjoyaux: "I was 4 days in the Solitaire du Figaro solo race. I found myself in the company of French skipper Vincent Riou who, in fact, was on another boat. I remember saying to him: "Vincent, take the watch, I’m going to bed, wake me up when the wind picks up." So I went to sleep and when I woke up after a couple of hours, I really kicked myself."

When seas hallucinations turn deadly

He says, "a hallucination isn’t a physical affliction, it’s all in your head. It’s like a dream except you’re fully awake and fully stupid. In most cases it’s not too bad, you just need to catch up on sleep and after that, everything starts making sense again and your reflexes kick back. What’s dangerous is when you start wanting to disembark because you think your boat is at dock. I remember a competitor in the Solitaire du Figaro who had called his competitors on his VHF radio to say ‘What the heck – my boat has no fenders, I can’t dock.’ We were in high seas."

Legend has it that this sailor – who shall not be named – actually did step off his boat once, but fortunately he was wearing a harness. This anecdote impressed Damien Davenne, a chrono-biologist and sleep specialist at Caen’s STAPS University: "I’ve heard similar stories from a couple of other sailors. Some of them told me they were dreaming of arriving at port, with the crowd cheering around them and so they stepped off the boat. When they are hallucinating, they can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. It is believed that sailors have been lost at sea after stepping off the boat during a hallucination."

When sailors describe their hallucinations, says Davenne, it’s reminiscent of descriptions of LSD trips.

There’s a fine line between daydreaming and paradoxical sleep. "It’s easy to wake up from a dream when the alarm clock rings in the morning but when you’re trying really hard not to fall asleep, dreams can be quite intrusive. This is what hallucinations are," he explains. "It’s when someone who is sleep deprived has a day dream that turns into a reality. There is a thin line between reality and illusion – but it’s there when you have enough sleep. But if you’re sleep deprived, the dream – which is essential to life – starts invading everything, paradoxical sleep and deep sleep."

This is why Swiss skipper Yvan Ravussin, during the Jacques Vabre trans-Atlantic race, couldn’t wake his brother up. "He was dreaming that we had capsized and someone was knocking on the boat’s overturned hull."

Damien Davenne says getting enough sleep is vitally important. "It’s a biological process called circadian rhythm – our internal clock. The human being must spend 1/3 to 1/4 of his time recuperating. If there is not enough recuperation time, the system crashes. During sleep, the brain filters the good from the bad and only keeps what’s necessary for survival. Sleep deprivation intoxicates the brain and this intoxication forces the metabolism to stop at some point."

"What we admire in sailors is not their ability to go without sleep, it’s their ability to recuperate when they need to." For these reasons, solo sailors need to know themselves really well. Davenne insists on the fact that "genetics determine what our needs are. They differ from one person to another. There is no survival without sleep and when it is well managed, sleeping is absolutely not an obstacle to victory, on the contrary. In a Vendée Globe, those who end up winning are those who know how to handle their recuperation periods. Michel Desjoyaux concurs, the more he sleeps, the easier it gets."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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