John Dennis harnessed himself to the safety line of his boat as it was tossed by the rising swell. A storm brewing in the Atlantic had already claimed the mast of a larger boat in the global sail race, and John was heading for the safety of an unscheduled stop in Spain. He was lonesome for his wife Penny, and sad he would mark his 58th birthday with nothing but the waves for company. John had waited a long time for this opportunity, and even these minor setbacks would not prevent him from fulfilling his lifelong dream to sail around the world-alone.
“My dream began in the summer of 1958 when I was just a boy.” John remembers. “I was sailing with my father, an officer in the Canadian Navy. ‘Someday, I would sail solo around the world, I told him. I have never lost sight of that dream.”
John never did lose sight of his dream… but he did have to postpone it. He got married and had two children, which gave him responsibilities and left him busy building a 26-year career in commercial real estate management in his native Toronto. Believing there would be plenty of time to complete the challenge he had set out for himself; John didn’t mind delaying his dream. He knew a solo sail would be a difficult challenge, running the risk of depression, sleep deprivation and hallucinations-not to mention capsizing on such a long voyage by himself. He never imagined the unexpected medical setbacks that would nearly sink his dream before it even started.
“I had the classic symptoms-constant thirst, fatigue, frequent urination,” says John. His wife Penny had been treated for similar symptoms for years so John knew the signs. “I consulted my physician immediately and was devastated to learn that I too had diabetes.”
Diabetes is a chronic disease that has no cure. It affects the body’s ability to make or use insulin, the hormone that converts sugar into the energy needed for daily life. Diabetes can lead to serious complications including blindness, kidney disease and nerve damage. Of the more than 17 million people with diabetes in the United States today, nearly 190,000 people die each year.
It wasn’t the risk of having diabetes that concerned John the most. More than anything, he was afraid his dream had been shattered or, at the very least, the odds were against him attempting such a difficult undertaking. “More people have gone into space than have sailed around the world single-handed; nobody has done it as a diabetic.”
What John didn’t know was that he had the ability himself to help control his diabetes and prevent the most serious complications. With diabetes, the amount of glucose (sugar) circulating in the blood without being converted to energy, can go too high and result in damage to blood vessels and nerves. This can lead to circulatory problems, blind ness and even the need for amputation. According to the National Institutes of Health. the goal of diabetes management is to keep glucose levels as close to the normal range as possible. Today, diabetes health experts understand that means self-management, where the person with diabetes is responsible for his or her own care on a day-to-day basis.
When John got over the initial shock of his diagnosis, self-management was a les son he took to heart. “I took control of my diabetes. As long as I consistently monitored my blood sugar levels and followed my doctor’s instructions… I felt I could do anything I set my mind to.”
What John set his mind to was Around Alone, a 33,000 mile (28,000 nautical mile) global race, braving the world’s most powerful oceans with neither companions nor crew. The race is held just once every four years, and with his son and daughter both in college, John felt the timing was right to enter the 2002/2003 edition of the race. He would still have medical issues to deal with; managing diabetes in the middle of the ocean while trying to hold a boat on course is different than managing it when you’re safe at home. Before he’d be able to work out details of his diabetes self-management program, John would have to get into the race, and there were several hurdles to overcome.
First, John’s entry into Around Alone had to be accept ed. Race organizers pointed out no one with diabetes has ever been allowed into a race like this before. Armed with his medical history, the results of his monitoring and a letter from his personal physician, John convinced them he was fit to compete in Around Alone.
“Around Alone is the greatest mental and physical challenge in any sport,” said Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Chairman of Clipper Ventures plc, race organizer of Around Alone. “This is the first time a skipper with diabetes has been able to compete and we are proud of John for overcoming his personal health issues to take part in this ultimate sporting challenge. This is a fine example of the personal sacrifice and determination required to sail around the world alone.”
John’s next challenge was getting the money to buy a boat and refurbish it for the grueling sail ahead. He turned to Bayer for sponsorship, “I first approached them because my wife and I both use Bayer’s Ascensia blood glucose monitors.”
On May 3rd, John flew from Toronto to New York for a hastily arranged meeting to discuss possible sponsor ship. It was a Friday morning, the last possible day John had given himself to secure sponsorship and still be ready in time for the start of the race. John told of his lifelong dream, his battle with diabetes and the support and encouragement routine blood glucose monitoring had given him. He left with a handshake and the financial backing he needed.
At this point, John was pressed for time. He had just weeks left to redesign the boat and get ready for the race. He named his boat Ascensia in honor of the Bayer monitors he uses; he painted the boat blue and ordered new sails. He still had two qualifying tests to pass before he’d be allowed at the starting line.
First was the dramatic rollover test. On July 26th, a stifling summer afternoon in Barrington, Rhode Island, John was sealed inside the cabin of his boat with just a single observer for company. Underneath the boat. divers tied a rope to the keel and attached the other end to a crane. As the crane lifted the keel, the boat flipped upside down in the water with John inside. His task was to prove he could turn the boat right side up again in the event of a capsize.
Shortly before noon, John began pumping water out of ballast tanks on one side of the boat and into tanks on the other, shifting the weight to flip the boat back up. He thought it would take about forty-five minutes; all of the pumping was done by hand. An hour later the boat was still upside down. Two hours and still no progress. Three hours later, the boat designer was standing on the dock wondering why the shifting ballast did not flip the boat. John’s wife Penny paced nervously on shore. Inside the boat, the temperature had soared above 100 degrees. His friends were concerned about the strain on John’s body and called on John to give up but he continued pumping water and shifting heavy objects inside the boat. Finally, a little more than four hours after he began, John turned the boat right-side up again. He had passed his test.
Next John had to prove the boat and himself sea-worthy for a long solo voyage. His mission was to sail 2,500 miles (2150 nautical miles) to the Portuguese Azores, which he completed in just 12 days. On the trip back, he ran into a high pressure system with no wind, which delayed his return leaving him barely enough time for a final check-up from his doctor, and a last night at home.
The trip to the Portuguese Azores taught John much about his diabetes. While usually his blood sugar is too high, the strenuous work of managing the boat brings his glucose levels closer to normal, and John has to work with his doctor to adjust his medication so his blood sugar does not drop dangerously low. Under these circumstances frequent glucose monitoring becomes crucial. With his monitor and software John can down load his results into his laptop computer and send them back to his doctor via satellite.
“Having diabetes does mean I have to work harder. Like any skipper I have to monitor the yacht systems and sails on a 24-hour clock. Because of my diabetes, I also have to monitor my blood sugar without fail. But I am up to the challenge… and I hope that as the first skipper with diabetes to ever sail the Around Alone, my story will inspire other people to live their life-not their diabetes.”
The first leg of the race took John from New York to England. When he arrived in mid-October he became the first person with diabetes to cross the Atlantic in this class of race. John had proved that he could sail competitively, and that diabetes was a bump in the road but not an insurmountable obstacle to achieving his lifelong dream. The rest of the race takes John to South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and if all goes as planned he’ll be back in Newport, Rhode Island in April 2003-the first skipper with diabetes to circumnavigate the globe alone.
by Stephen Gendel
former Senior Correspondent for Inside Edition and Chief Science and Medical Correspondent for CNBC