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Column: How to stitch your tongue at sea

Friday - 12/14/2012, 4:15pm  ET

By JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Columnist

PARIS (AP) - One sailor used sandpaper to gingerly file down his broken molar before capping the aching stump with epoxy resin. But no one _ at least not yet _ has had to stitch their own tongue back together or crawl with a broken leg the length of their yacht tossed by raging seas, as in previous years.

The doctor of the around-the-world Vendee Globe solo sailing race has learned to be grateful for such small mercies. Experience has taught Jean-Yves Chauve that when the telephone rings in his surgery in France, it can only be bad news. His patients, utterly alone in the tormented oceans of the southern hemisphere, are as tough as old boots. They have to be to survive three months away from home, comfort and human contact. They're not the type to consult the doctor for mere aches and scrapes.

"These are very resistant people, so generally when they do call it's because there really is a serious problem," Chauve said. "I often say that I'm a doctor who lives in his waiting room. Because I have to be patient, I have to wait for people to call me."

They say the Tour de France is grueling. Ironman triathlons look aptly named, too. But the Vendee Globe might be the toughest race of any sport, almost lunatic and most certainly dangerous in the pounding day-after-day demands it puts on sailors and their boats.

Little more than one third of the way into the race from France, around Antarctica and back again, one third of the 20 starters have already given up. The remaining 13 skippers are scattered over 3,700 nautical miles (6,850 kilometers) of ocean from Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa to Cape Leeuwin on the southwestern tip of Australia. Ahead lies the Pacific Ocean, Cape Horn, the long sprint northward back up the Atlantic Ocean, and who knows how many icebergs, whales, storms and potential disasters to avoid.

It may be another 50 days or more before the winner sees the western coast of France and the harbor at Les Sables d'Olonne. That is the start-finish point of this race that bills itself as "the Everest of the seas" _ although far more people have scaled the roof of the world or even stayed aboard the International Space Station than completed the six previous editions of the Vendee Globe.

Those that make it, never touching land or getting assistance, as the rules dictate, will doubtless return with more tales of having hallucinated from exhaustion, of seeing pink elephants or imaginary cats. Being able to sleep in short, sharp bursts or surviving on the briefest of power naps is a vital part of competing effectively.

"I often say Vendee Globe racers are elite-level sleepers," Chauve said in a phone interview. He's been the race doctor since its first edition in 1989. "If you sleep badly, if you sleep too much or have low quality sleep then it affects your intellectual performance and physical performance and that can be very bad over three months."

Being an accomplished sailor, single-handedly navigating giant yachts with a spread of sail, isn't enough. Vendee Globe competitors must also be mechanics, electricians and doctors, able to fix a broken diesel engine, debug a malfunctioning computer or stabilize a broken bone, always one of their own. They must know how to pace themselves, be their own coaches, insisting not only that they go fast but sleep and eat enough, too.

The muscular effort, alone, of keeping one's balance on such a yacht burns 800 calories a day, Chauve said. The sailors need daily to wolf down 5,000 calories, mostly dried foods, pasta and other carbohydrates, often over five meals. The galleys are minimalist: a water heater, a stove and a fork, the doctor said.

Stripped down to save weight, the sparse cabins amplify the thump of waves on the hull, a sound that can grow as loud as a rock concert, 120 decibels, Chauve said. Imagine how that wears on nerves and sleep. The constant damp makes the skin fragile. Salt gets into cuts; they can easily get infected. Unlike in other sports, there is no hot shower to reward aching muscles _ just a cold flannel wash, more sea, more pounding, more missed sleep.

Bernard Stamm's tooth sheared off this week when he was eating. Even breathing became uncomfortable for the Swiss-born yachtsman, with cold air making the exposed nerve ache. Worried the broken molar's sharp edges would cut and infect Stamm's tongue, Chauve said he asked him "to file it down a bit, very gently of course," with sandpaper.

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