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“Injecting insulin in the middle of the ocean wasn’t going to work”

Jack’s story – “When I was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, my future as a professional sailor looked uncertain. Now I’m taking on the biggest challenge of my career.”

 

A professional yachtsman who has type 1 diabetes, on his yacht in the ocean

Spotting the symptoms of type 1 diabetes

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 21. I had recently started pursuing a career in professional sailing. At the time, I’d been racing in the Arabian Gulf and I started to notice that I was very thirsty and tired. It was 40 degrees in the daytime and the racing was tough, so I kind of thought that was normal.

But when I flew home after three weeks, I realised I lost 20 kilos in that time. I figured something was probably wrong and looked up the symptoms, which, fortunately are very distinct for type 1. I was shortly diagnosed after that.

I threw myself into learning as much as possible. I didn’t find it particularly daunting. It was just a new challenge and a new thing to learn. In a way, it’s exciting to learn something new. Maybe that was my weird positive spin on it at the time.

Sailing with type 1

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a professional sailor and race around the world, but when I was first diagnosed, I learnt that there were rules that would stop me from doing that as a type 1 diabetic.

So, for me, the steps were to learn as much as possible about type 1 diabetes and to get a handle on my diagnosis, then to do everything I could to have the rules that stopped me from sailing overturned – which I did.

Using tech to get back onboard

Sailing is physically and mentally demanding. I didn’t know what it was like to manage a condition like diabetes, let alone take on the challenges of sailing on top of that.

When I was first diagnosed, I went straight onto multiple daily injections and fingerpicking. When I first tried to go sailing, as soon as there were any waves, it was very difficult to inject or do a finger prick test. I quickly realised that probably wasn’t going to work for me.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to try an insulin pump. The daily demands on my time are very different and it’s quite difficult to establish routine, so to have the flexibility of the pump is fantastic.

My continuous glucose monitor (CGM) is the thing that means I can go across oceans and be safe, especially on my own, because I haven’t got someone looking after me. Instead, I’ve got the CGM to look after me.

It took me a little bit of time to get used to using the pump and the CGM. I think that’s normal. I kind of saw it like a bit of an experiment. You know, you start using these new technologies to see if they work for you. You can always change back. I certainly wouldn’t change back now.

The Vendee Globe

My next sailing challenge is a race called the Vendee Globe, which is a solo, nonstop and unassisted race around the world. To put it into context, over 7,000 people have now climbed Everest, and about 700 people have been into space, but only around 100 people have sailed nonstop, solo and unassisted around the world. And no one’s done it with type 1 diabetes – yet.

Although you don’t see anyone for a long time, I have great satellite connectivity. It’s a nice parallel to living with type 1 – you realise how important it is to speak to people, how important it is to stay connected, because loneliness isn’t about being isolated, it’s about not being connected.

For the race you’ve got to be prepared mentally and physically. They are big, fast, powerful boats and they require attention all the time and everything on the boat is manually powered. I burn 5-6,000 calories every day and generally sleep for 20 to 40 minutes at a time, maybe every two to four hours.

There’s constantly too much to do at any given time, so you have to pick the most important thing to do next. That might be taking 20 minutes of sleep, changing sails so you go faster, or pre-emptively treating a hypo.

I’ve learned through all the racing that I’ve done that I need to incorporate looking after myself into everything else I need to do to look after the boat and make it go faster.

I genuinely believe that type 1 gives me a strength when I’m racing because so much of solo racing is about the human, it’s about the sailor, it’s about how they manage themselves because they’re the limiting factor. As someone with type 1, I’m used to looking at myself and asking what I need. That’s my superpower when I’m racing.

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