Setting Sail with John Dennis

John Dennis, 58, says that self-monitoring to control his type 2 diabetes comes naturally because he is used to “going it alone.” After all, taking care of himself is as much a solo responsibility these days as sailing his 50-foot boat around the world.

To date, Dennis is the first person with diabetes to sail a boat halfway around the world alone.

“The sailing I’m doing is very solo, and our management of our diabetes is our solo responsibility,” Dennis observed during a telephone conversation from his boat – the Ascensia – on the South Atlantic. “Once I’m given a program by my doctor, it’s my sole responsibility to implement and maintain that program.”

Around the World in 240 Days

Six boats in Dennis’ class embarked September 15, 2002, from New York City in the 28,755-nautical-mile Around Alone global solo sailing race.

It’s the longest race on earth for a person in any sport.

Participants in the race are both captain and crew, and the finish line is literally a world away, through some of the most remote and treacherous seas on the globe. The race ends this May in Newport, Rhode Island.

John Dennis is also the first person sponsored by Bayer’s Ascensia Dream Fund, a new fund inspired by Dennis’ desire to fulfill a lifelong dream: to skipper a yacht in a solo global yacht race.

“What I’m trying to demonstrate is [that] diabetes doesn’t have to define everyone’s lives,” Dennis said. “We can define our own lives if we really work at self-management. We can all live our dreams.”

An Inspiration to People With Diabetes

“We are so proud of John’s achievements,” said Joe Malta, vice president of self-test business at Bayer Diagnostics. “We were moved enough by John to make him skipper of the Bayer Ascensia, but we never imagined the impact he’d have on the sailing and diabetes communities. We are looking for more people out there like John, who can inspire and motivate others to actively manage their diabetes.”

John Dennis embarked on his journey with diabetes in 1996. He says sailing has made all the difference in his control since then.

“When I was first diagnosed, my diabetes was way out of control,” he notes. “I knew very quickly that I had diabetes, since my wife was diagnosed two years before me.”

John Dennis lives in Ontario, Canada, with his wife, Penny Dennis, and children, Frank, 22, and Stephanie, 23. Before Around Alone, he worked as a businessman in Toronto.

“He weighed about 220 pounds,” Penny Dennis recalls. “But since the Around Alone race started, John slimmed down to 185 pounds.”

His A1C levels were in the 20s when he was first diagnosed. Now he follows a plan set up by his nutritionist.

Sailing also ensures that he’s involved in physical activity. Operating the boat requires careful planning, and it requires a lot of exercise to hoist and change sails-sometimes three times an hour, winching, rigging and roping. If something goes wrong with the instruments, he must climb up to the top of the mast.

In Control of the Seas and BGs

All the exercise and frequent daily blood glucose monitoring are the keys to John Dennis’ success.

“It took me a long time to get those levels down,” he admits. “I recognized that if I wanted to define my life, I had to get those blood glucose levels down to a proper range. It took a lot of frustration and trial and error to do it, but I was determined – and I did it.”

In addition to testing his blood glucose five times a day with an Ascensia DEX2 meter, he takes four oral medications: glyburide, twice daily; Avandia, once daily; metformin, three times daily; and Altace, an ACE inhibitor.

Dennis believes that the most important factor in helping to keep his A1C levels between 5.7% and 7.2% is a good dietary program. Although he needs additional carbohydrates to keep his blood glucose up in heavier weather conditions, Dennis tries to maintain the following meal plan:

  • Breakfast at 6:00 a.m., unsweetened granola or oatmeal with a small fruit juice or tea
  • Snack mid-morning
  • Lunch at 1:00 p.m., tinned fish and crackers
  • Snack mid-afternoon
  • Dinner at 7:00 p.m., meat and veggies with rice or potato or pasta; alternatively, a soup or a stew
  • Snack before bed

“It’s hard when you’re alone at sea,” he adds, speaking of his effort to maintain a balanced diet. “It would be easy for me to do a lot of snacking.”

A balanced meal plan keeps more than 90 percent of his blood-glucose readings in normal range, he says.

At about 300 miles off Cape Town, South Africa, en route to Brazil, when we spoke, Dennis says he’s not worried about hypoglycemia at the helm. He always carries glucose tabs and a glucose drink for emergencies. He keeps two spare blood glucose meters on board, since salt water can cause electronics to fail.

“I have all my medications on board. Plus satellite phone and e-mail allow me to keep in touch with my doctor. I also have an extremely comprehensive first aid kit on board.”

Dennis reports that he encountered no emergencies after adjusting his medications in the first leg of the race.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

Regardless of where the wind takes him, John Dennis finds that people are influenced by his endeavors in every port he visits. He hosts motivational speaking events in every port. “Some of the most significant moments of the voyage were spent with other people living with diabetes, discussing what’s possible when your diabetes is in control,” he asserts.

After we spoke in December of 2002, mechanical problems on his boat forced Dennis to remain in Cape Town, as the race continued to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Although he had to bow out of the official race, Dennis embarked on a return trip that followed the group’s route to Newport, Rhode Island.

“He is a strong role model for other people with diabetes to not give up hope that they can live the lives they choose to live,” his daughter, Stephanie Dennis, said.

He plans to pursue public speaking engagements when he returns.

“Self-management is the basis,” John Dennis emphasizes. “It’s just like a race. I’m solely responsible for the boat, and I’m also solely responsible for managing my diabetes.”

A Lifetime at Sea

Dennis started sailing alone at the age of 12, after sailing with his father, a naval officer, off Halifax, Nova Scotia. He entered his first competition that same year.

He has sailed in 35 major races since then, with the longest solo voyage before Around Alone logging 2,770 nautical miles.

“I always enjoyed sailing. It is very peaceful. It’s an activity or sport I can do solo or with a crew,” Dennis observes.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in facing the elements,” he adds. “Not conquering them, but using them to complete a voyage and [to] enjoy going from one point to another quickly and safely – and at the same time having a lot of respect for the forces of nature.”

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