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The unexpected lessons from challenge and adversity.

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Humans don't go in search of hardship or struggle but if you've been alive long enough you will surely have experienced it and there is something in the universal experience of suffering that can offer us deeper meaning, understanding and growth. After returning home from South Australia and spending some time processing my experiences aboard a sailing ship for four days I wanted to share this story of my challenges and what I learned from it.

After the voyage was over, I read in the sailing handbook that you can expect voyages to be "fun, exciting, challenging, physically and mentally demanding and extremely rewarding." Upon reflection, I agree it was all these things and more. One and all is operating as a sailing training vessel for Youth Development courses and other voyages including our four day and three night experience. My fellow passengers were aged in their 20's right through to their 60's. To get an idea of what it like aboard the One and all, the design is based on a 1850s Brigantine, being build of mostly timber with 12 sails and all modern standards met. The One and all ship was part to the first fleet reenactment 1987 to commemorate the bicentenary of colonisation in Australian.

The first of my challenges started on day one when my watch leader asked if I wanted to climb the mask. I enthusiastically got into my harness and was attached to the safety line and began climbing the steep later made from timber and rope. As I reached midway I became aware I was breathless, my heart was pounding and my legs were shaking. I had to pause and practice my breathing skills and allow myself time to establish some footing and take it really slow. One of the crew further up suggested I put my foot on the outside of the wooden bar because the inner part was getting too narrow for the foot to fit and as I tried I literally couldn't move my foot. I had to coordinate in a way that allowed me to gently test it before trusting the whole weight of my body could rest on the side even though I was wearing a harness and the crew were instructing me. Eventually I was able to push through, continue up, over and down the other side. I was quite shaken up afterwards because for one I never knew I would be afraid of heights and two, I really felt shocked at how my body reacted to the fear in such an immobilising way swinging between surges of adrenaline and being physically frozen. The crew told me this reaction was common.

The second challenge came later in the day when I began feeling sea sick. Despite taking sea sickness tablets the increasingly rough sea were proving too much for me. The doctor, a volunteer crew member on board assured us this was normal and was already attending to another crew member who was feeling sick. As the day came to a close other passengers and crew were starting to also feel sea sick and bit by bit another one and then another one. With sea sickness I get dreadfully disorientated, experience vertigo, nausea and vomiting so as all this was going on I had limited perception of what was unfolding on the ship and with the weather.

At some point the decision was made not to sail through the night because of the prevailing winds, rough seas and limited crew able to function. The remaining crew was instructed to bring down the sails which meant climbing the mast and we continued on by only motor. We were told we were now heading to Emu Bay at Kangaroo Island to anchor for the night but wouldn't arrive until the early hours of the morning. Dinner time came and past and I was unable to eat a thing and I don't know that many people could including the poor cook who was also now struggling. I vaguely heard their was sticky date pudding on offer (Richard's favourite) but as much as I love the desert too I knew my sickness was not going to relent until the waves stopped.

I requested some water from Richard as I could no longer stand let alone walk and didn't want to go anywhere near the ships cabin. He was gone some time as I sat head in-between my knees on the stern bench surrounding the helm with others who had fallen ill. As I lifted my head I saw a completely saturated Richard skid across the deck on his knees around the corner with a cup of water as the waves began exceeding 3 meters. I grabbed the cup desperately as I was now feeling dehydrated and my other hand grasping Richard. Everyone cheered us on and someone said it was proposal which got a roar of laughter and I managed a faint giggle. Richard sat beside me with his arm tightly around me and the timber frame surrounding the helm area so I wouldn't slide off. My strengths was gone and I could barely see. The stern was full of sick passengers and crew and a fellow passenger later told me as she fell out of the saloon and into the midship she looked up and over the ship to the stern to see Captain Bill at the helm with a big stormy sky behind him and a wild look in his eyes as he navigated ahead. One poor guy was wailing as he bent over the rear rail of the ship while a crew member held his shirt at the back to make sure he didn't get swept overboard. The wailing was in rhythm with the boat rolling and pitching (up and down) and this is how I knew I was not alone with this extraordinary experience. In darkness and disorientation this baptism of fire went on for hours and hours and it was like time stood still. I remember at one point feeling like the stern of the boat was airborne and then seeing the stern travel down the wave that stretched out behind us into the horizon and thinking it was just like you see in the movies. At this point I felt at the total mercy of the ocean and with that came an odd sense of peace, surrender and trust.

As soon as we made it out of the high wind and waves the sea sickness subsided and I was able to look up to see peoples faces and make eye contact again. Sitting next to Richard was another guy I knew was unwell and he begun being able to talk again and we shared our astonishment and awe of what we'd just experienced. It was after midnight before we we made it into our bunk and fell asleep. Nearly every person I spoke to over the next couple of days had a story to tell about the first night at sea and in someways we found a camaraderie as we learned the ropes and shared our adventure. We sung and danced together, climbed to new heights, hoisted the sails, anchored, scrubbed decks, helmed, ate hearty food, watched the pods of dolphins swim along side us, identified birds overhead and explored nearby islands under the sun and the moon. We were teachers, engineers, farmers, police, surfers, writers, software developers, life savers, students, truck drivers, doctors, fishermen, pilots, bookkeepers, counsellors and IT workers and yet we all shared this common ground of experiencing the voyage together.

A strong sense of humility has being growing within me since witnessing the sheer power and unpredictability of the ocean that night. There was sacred wilderness in it you can't manufacture and it awoken something deep in my psyche; an experience that made me appreciate being alive in a way that normal day to day life doesn't. I've been reflecting on how so much of our modern lifestyle is lived out in a delusional sense of control over nature, we deny our own pain and the pain of being separated from it in order to seek out feeling safe, happy and secure. We have become so numb to our sense of attunement and harmony with the natural world that we have forgotten how to take care of her or what she asks of us in return. We take what we want from the planet and in every aspect of our lives we use resources that in some form or another have been extracted and so rarely give anything back or consider the harm this one sided relationship is causing. We give little thought or effort to try to understand or respect natures boundaries in our consumer choices and lifestyle decisions until we start being forced to because our very survival will depend upon it.

That night at sea, nature decided to show me a valuable lesson that has left me somewhat stirred and wondering how I might do more to serve her. I think that is what I love about sailing, that sense of being closer to nature and always alert and aware of her powerful presence and my connection to it. What I would like to do more and more is to help others find their true nature in my work while at the same time helping the natural world survive the climate crisis and it's without a doubt in my mind that our mental health and wellbeing is intrinsically connected to the wellbeing of the planet.


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