“A Bigger Eye for Life”: Interview with Russell Sandbach.


Russell Sandbach sailed around the world in twelve months from 2011-2012. Here he talks about his trip to Ellen Cheetham.

Ellen Cheetham: How would you summarise your trip?

Russell Sandbach: I took part in an around the world yacht race for amateur sailors. Lots of different people took part in it for lots of different reasons. I did it to get over a bereavement, but lots of people did it for various reasons. It was … fun.

EC: What do you think was the main thing you got from the race in terms of personal gain? Did you experience a different side of yourself?

RS: Oh without a doubt. I think you have to be fairly self-assured and self-confident to do that kind of thing anyway. That’s a given. But I think you get to see how you react in different situations. I think everyone would say we learnt good and bad sides about our characters. In the nature of the activity you have to diminish your bad sides. All the bad sides come to a fore and you can’t let them there to affect others as well. So a lot of self-growth.

EC: Do you have a particular moment that sticks with you?

RS: I had some bad memories.

EC: The wave?

RS: The wave. The four or five times I thought I was going to die, that was quite bad. The good things involve rescuing someone, saving somebody’s life, that’s great and that feels good. Overall, it’s a camaraderie with everybody, it’s that friendship where you know what someone thinks before they say it, it’s about knowing people well enough to anticipate them. And feeling comfortable enough to do that. And just meeting a whole range of different people from way different backgrounds and different nationalities I would never have met before. It gives you a bigger eye for life … one person’s parents were reindeer herders north of the Arctic Circle. I would never have met that sort of person in any other situation, and you could just talk to them … it was great. I met a guy who was a race engineer for Maclaren, I am not going to meet that person in any other situation. It was fascinating.

EC: And was there anyone there who changed your perspective on something?

RS: Lots of people who changed my perspective on lots of things. It is great holding your position but other people will think from different angles – there is no one angle that is right. It will be right for you but you actually become more accommodating to other people’s perspectives, you realise that just because you think something, that doesn’t mean it is that way. It is just your view because of your past experience and your background.

EC: Out of interest, going back to the point where you saved someone’s life, is that a particularly vivid moment for you or is it a massive blur? Did you find moments of high pressure are the ones you can imagine really clearly?

RS: No I can imagine them really clearly… I can imagine that one clearly. It happened over a 12-hour period when we were trying to get control back over the boat. In that situation, essentially a thirty-five year-old who was tied onto the boat had fallen overboard and was holding on outside the boat and there was a woman who was mid-fiftiesI guess and she was rescuing, who was untied and she was on the edge of the boat. She was on board, but was on the edge and wasn’t tied on and couldn’t help herself because of her injuries. I remember very clearly the thought of which one do I save? And I went for the young one. And I knew them both and they had both been on the boat for months and months and I knew them equally well and I was equally friendly with both of them. But I remember thinking I’ll save the younger one because she has more life to live. And it wasn’t to do with friendship, although the other one survived as well, but I had that conscious choice and I have that particular memory. It isn’t a particularly nice memory, but it was a rational thought. Not just based on one friendship. Who is in the most danger and who is going to live the longest?

EC: You must have made that decision in split seconds but it must have felt like eternity in your head.

RS: Yeah, in a situation like that where it is quite extreme … it very much is the flight or fight response. But everything happens a lot quicker, your mental capacity is a lot quicker. And the fact that we have a whole range of ages, people, nationalities. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was shouting out of panic, it was to be heard, to fulfil a function, to get somebody to do something.

EC: I guess that moment broke down any form of difference, where you could just see each other as operating together.

RS: Completely. But it is interesting how natural leaders come out in those situations. And people respond to natural leaders who take that responsibility, who follow a clear logical reasoning for why they do things.

EC: And in terms of physically, and mentally, from what you’ve said before it seemed to be extremely tough.

RS: Absolutely. I can hold my hands up and tell you that before, I was extremely overweight. But I lost about 44% of my bodyweight. 8 months in I was seriously concerned about how much I was losing. I’d gone down to a fit, lean, muscular individual but it had continued to go down owing to the nature of what I was doing on the boat. I was being given protein shakes form the boat funds on land for four months. When we were on land and went out for a meal and people didn’t want the rest of their food they would just put it on my plate. They just would, because they wanted me to be built up because of the nature of the work I was doing. Because I was dependent on my body in the jobs I was doing. In other roles it was more cerebral. But mentally, it took me six months after to get over it. Certainly a year afterwards I was still waking up at 5 am, 6 am, ready to go on watch for five hours. Every time I applied for jobs afterwards, I was still relating everything back to sailing.

EC: Do you think your body became automated in terms of a routine?

RS: Yes absolutely. One of the things I would say is that, it’s quite well known in sailing circles but maybe not outside of that. Sailors like lists. They like to check things, tick things off. They like to do things in the correct order because they have to. When they don’t, accidents can happen. Sailing is very good for people who are OCD as you have to do things in order. It certainly bought those traits out on me. It got to the stage that when I was going on watch I would put my hand in one pocket knowing that was where my hat would be, I would put my hand in another pocket as that’s where my snood would be, another pocket was where my knife would be … I would put my arm through the life jacket in a particular way as it was easier to get on. You learn to be more efficient. I used to put on four layers of clothing. Four complete sets of clothing. It took me originally 25 mins to do that and I got it down to 11 minutes. Because it meant that I could have an extra 14 minutes in bed and I got an extra hour of sleep a day. It was necessary, it was important to me.

EC: It’s using time on a different level …

RS: We had five watches in a day, of five hours. And we found that whatever time of day or night it was, when someone gets up you say good morning. And when you finish your watch, you say goodnight. So it might be two o’clock in the afternoon and they’ll say good morning. The unit we know on land in a day was actually reduced to the five-hour watch as you always sleep before or after that watch.

EC: How do you think your relationship to water and the sea changed on the trip?

RS: I hadn’t sailed for thirty  years previously. I think any sailor does appreciate the sea and appreciate the relationship of the sea and the wind. And how insignificant we are … that’s what it comes down to. We have to work with it rather than against it. Even if working with it means going another 500 miles, it’s going to be better in the end because you can’t go the next day. It’s a higher force. There are times where it is incredibly dangerous, and incredibly scary, and the waves are towering above you, and you getting salt in the eye, and all that sort of thing. But there are moments in time where it’s incredibly beautiful … far too beautiful to be able to take a photo of. You just have to have the memory of that image in your mind forever. Some of the memories are just amazing. You can never explain them, or never show them, but I’ve got them there in memory.

EC: Do you find it’s given you a different perspective on capturing a moment in photography?

RS: It’s given me a perspective on how limiting photography is. It has made me appreciate the simple things in life … I know that sounds a bit clichéd. But just enjoying looking out on the sea, watching the clouds in the sky, watching the wildlife … because there’s loads of wildlife out there, and just appreciating and seeing it, and enjoying it. Enjoying it for the moment. Don’t try and capture it, don’t try and change it, don’t try and abuse it. Just enjoy it. If I want to be really serious … because I’m really old now, I now think that you don’t measure your life on how good your job is, or how well your kids have done, or how big your house is, or how big your salary is. It’s about your experiences, and your memories. At the end of the day that’s what’s important. That’s how I measure my life – with my memories. And you help other people make their memories. All the rest of it is not important.

EC: It’s so hard when we are taught how we should measure success.

RS: I’m really frustrated I only learnt this now. If I’d learnt this thirty years ago my life would be completely different. I mean my whole life structure, I would have done completely different things, and I would have structured my life completely differently. And that’s a shame really, but what’s the point of being upset about it, let’s just make the most of it now.

EC: One thing I do want to ask you, out of interest, is what’s it like having a massive wave tower over you?

RS: You have to have trust in your boat. You have to know it’s capable of standing up to it. And you have to have trust in your colleagues. I had both of those, so it wasn’t as scary as it could be. I knew we were in as good positions as we could be. I wouldn’t recommend it … but so long as you have training, the knowledge, and the equipment to get yourself out of it … that’s what’s important. When you’re sailing, you carry a lot of kit you hope never to use. It’s all of the expensive stuff … and you only carry it to get you out of a difficult situation. We had it, and we knew how to use it. So it wasn’t as scary as it could be. Although, having said, there are things you have to do in those situations. Three or four of the situations in which I thought I was going to die were in wave incidents. You have to say, well actually, if I don’t do that, this boat is going to be in danger, I’m going to be endangering everyone else’s life. I have the best knowledge for it. So you have to go ahead and do it … it’s going to be risky for someone else.

EC: Is it almost unthinking?

RS: For me, no. It definitely wasn’t unthinking. You have to consider absolutely everything like where do I put my feet, what can I hold onto, what’s moving, what’s not moving, what’s safe. Even to the minute detail you have to be completely rational. You have to say: well actually, this isn’t strong enough piece of boat to go onto. If this goes, I will be ridiculously injured. But that’s the nature of ocean sailing in the southern ocean. There were a couple of occasions where I said to an individual watch me do this don’t do it yourself, but watch me. Because if I go, I’ll probably have three minutes [before dying] and you’ll have to find somebody to get me on board. That’s the nature of it. You have to think, what’s going to happen. How do I minimise the chance of me dying.

EC: I think the last question, which I know I’ve asked you before … but would you ever do it again?

RS: No. Because I’ve done it once, why would I do it again? There are things I do want to do. I want to sail around Cape Cod. And I’d be looking to do that in the next few years. It’s not all sailing related … I’d love to cycle across America, for example. I still want to do adventures, but not just sailing adventures.

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