I thought diabetes would end my sailing career but a glucose monitor saved it

Alone in the Atlantic, with waves crashing around me, managing a 40ft sailing yacht and attempting to break a world record, there are obviously lots of things I have to be mindful of.

From weather charts, to wave patterns, sail configuration and navigation equipment, there are a million and one things to keep track of.

But there’s one measurement that feels more important than the others – my glucose levels.

Because not only am I a professional, competitive offshore sailor, taking part in races all around the world, traversing oceans and battling all manner of brutal conditions, I also have type 1 diabetes, a lifelong condition. 

I have to be aware of the amount of glucose in my blood because my body no longer regulates it for me, and if it gets out of the safe range it isn’t just bad for performance, but potentially life threatening.

And thanks to a neat bit of innovative technology, it’s easy to monitor, no matter how far I find myself from the nearest port.

I attach a small sensor known as a Flash Glucose Monitor to my arm, which allows me to check my glucose levels at any time, so I can better make decisions on exercise, food and whether I need insulin.

This helps me to manage my diabetes, especially with a lack of routine and in a fast changing environment.

The check takes seconds, and the sensor is connected to my phone, making it even easier.

Having previously had to use a finger prick method while on the boat even as it was buffeted by winds and waves, I certainly prefer the more technological approach my Freestyle Libre allows me to take.

My love affair with sailing began when I was six – my mum took my brother and I to a local sailing club and I just jumped in a dinghy.

I took to it immediately – I was straight out on the boat with someone else, and within a few days even on my own.

I wanted to move fast, and with local racing clubs having a lot of good infrastructure, I was able to do so – I had my first taste of competitive racing when I was just eight, and by the time I was 13, I was taking part in UK-wide competitions.

My journey from local level to national defined a lot of my teenage years at school – I was immersed in that life, spending my weekends travelling the country and developing my skills.

I went to university but left shortly after, deciding that what I really want to do was professional sailing.

There was something about these huge boats, these technological marvels that are up to 70ft long, and the massive distances that they travel, that just captured my imagination.

I started to take part in events around the world, but at 21, shortly after completing one particularly gruelling adventure round the Arabian Gulf, I eventually received the diagnosis that would change my life.

In a lot of ways, it should have been obvious what was wrong with me – my symptoms were those classic diabetes warning signs of being fatigued, constantly feeling thirsty, and going to the toilet all the time.

But I was competing in this challenge, operating in temperatures north of 40 degrees, so some of that felt natural.

It was only when I got home and jumped on the scales and realised I had lost 20 kilos, almost a quarter of my body weight, that I knew something was seriously wrong.

I was immediately admitted to hospital in diabetic ketoacidosis – a dangerous state that can happen when type 1 diabetes is untreated, and blood sugars become very high. It left me severely dehydrated and at risk of going into a diabetic coma. My priority was just to get better.

But in the few weeks following the diagnosis, I soon started to worry about my career.

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I knew my mindset on board could help with this battle too – when I’m on the boat there is so much happening, that I try and focus on what I can change, and try to turn down the noise in my head about external forces, and the things that I can’t do anything about.

It’s one of the biggest skills in sailing, knowing what to focus on, knowing how to prioritise, and getting a sense of what is the right choice in a high-stress environment.

And I knew that the right choice for me was to try and continue racing, even after my diagnosis.

So that’s exactly what I’ve done. There were initial kinks to work through, not least the rules and what I was allowed to do in terms of competing – and those challenges of trying to treat myself in more of an ‘analog’ fashion with finger pricks and injections.

It’s why the technological marvel of the Libre has been so crucial – even outside of the sailing world, I remember the entire diabetes community, around 2014/15, just exploding with excitement that this innovation could improve things so much.

It’s bettered not only the quality of my life, but my performances on the boat too; the sensor has an alarm which will sound if my glucose levels are low, a real safety net as I navigate the ups and downs of my career.

It’s allowed me to achieve so many of my goals, and helped me stay focussed on those that I’m still reaching for.

In 2018, I took part in the notoriously difficult Route du Rhum race between France and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, an 18 day transatlantic crossing, becoming one of the youngest competitors, and the first with type 1 diabetes, to complete the course.

My ultimate goal is to take part in the Vendée Globe, a round-the-world solo sail, which can take almost three months to complete.

In sailing, it’s a generally accepted fact that with the technology of the vessels, the sailor themselves is the limiting factor; the variable that can lead to things going wrong.

But for me, armed with this technology, I know that I won’t be limited by my diabetes, I’ll continue to help people who have the same condition, and will constantly try and move forward, challenging myself on the ocean and throwing myself into fresh competitions.

There will be plenty of uncertainty – there’s no way to complete a challenge on a yacht without it – but I’ll never be in the dark about how to manage my diabetes.

For more information about type 1 diabetes, visit diabetes.org.uk

The Tech I Can’t Live Without

Welcome to The Tech I Can’t Live Without, Metro.co.uk’s new weekly series where readers share the bit of kit that has proved indispensable for them.

From gadgets to software, apps to websites,  you’ll read about all manner of innovations that people truly rely on.If you have a bit of tech you can’t live without, email [email protected] to take part in the series

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