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Learning to be brave again

2017 February 1

A viral video of solo sailors in the Southern Ocean shot by a French warship and helicopter has landed on my Facebook page a hundred times. Sailor friends and friends who know I sail are sharing it. Parents and grandparents have texted dire warnings: “You’re not going to try this are you?” No, mom, I promise I won’t.

The sponsors whose brands cover these sails are cheering the hits. But these images aren’t about fashion or banking. First, they astound with the thrilling speed and power of the boats colliding with the giant forces of Southern Ocean winds and waves. Then, we wonder about the monumental moxie of the sailors.


What kind of steely soul boards a fragile foiling monohull, points it toward deep low-pressure weather systems and pinballs around the globe nonstop alone? Perhaps one who mixes blind ambition, adrenaline addiction and some existential question; a spiritual need to touch the worst of nature to know the best of nature. But I’m just guessing.


What is certain is that these sailors are displaying a kind of bravery that the rest of us could surely use a pinch of. Bravery is fear’s only enemy, and fear is rampant.

Americans have been living inside our amygdala for almost a generation. This is the primordial part of the brain that queues nonreasoning fight or flight and was useful when we were not atop the food chain. Now, it may be the most dangerous evolutionary characteristic of the species. Think of the myriad ways we’ve given in to fear since 9/11: politically, civically, financially and neighborly. This is not about picking sides: For eight years half the country was afraid of Obama and bought guns, and now the other half is terrified and buying visas and gold. A culture of living and giving has become one that is defensive, submissive and passive-aggressive.

If there was ever a time to go sailing, it is now. I don’t mean sail to flee, but sail to recall that we live in the land of the brave, and that we can be brave again. Brave people understand that risk and opportunity are close cousins. Like agreeing to work together on a sailboat. I don’t care who you voted for, what God you worship, or who you love, if we need to get a reef in the main to survive a squall, or if I go overboard and need you to return to pick me up, at that moment nothing else matters. Bravery isn’t belligerence or machismo. Brave people simply act, calmly, regardless of the calamity. Bravery is compromise, teamwork and trust. It meets in the middle to get something good done.

Sure, crises abound. Enemies are out there. Money is tight. Storms are stronger. Oceans are rising. But hey, sailors, we got this! It is high time we cooperate, combine strengths, use our tools and methods, listen, learn and work together. Sailors can help America thrive.

The Facebook video is cool, but it won’t spark action. Find inspiration, instead, at your own waterfront. There, you’ll witness a newbie’s uncertainty and hesitancy (key symptoms of fear) countered with the confidence and methods of a teaching sailor. You’ll see them taking things slowly, one-step-at-time. You’ll hear constructive conversations about risk and how to turn it into grand experiences and memories. You’ll see learning by doing. You’ll see hesitancy become confidence and uncertainty evolve into joy, mastery and awe. You’ll witness virgin adventure become a lifetime of bold outdoor leadership. This act of sailing, I would suggest, is how fearful Americans learn to be brave again.

Then, please join in. Wherever you are on the scale between afraid and unafraid, sailing will change you. Whether you’re unsure or overconfident, sailing will shake it out. If you think you’re not good enough, sailing will change your mind. If you think you’re too good, it’ll fix that too. Think about it: sailing skills help us cope, and sailing experiences help us see that change is constant and something to savor.

This act of sailing, I would suggest, is more than a metaphor for living; it is how we fearful Americans will learn to be brave again.