Real disappointment . . .


You ask how I would feel to lose an event that I hold dear, how I would feel to be told that it would never happen again. To say I would be upset would understate it. To say that I would be desperately disappointed would be getting closer.

When I was 17, I went on an Outward Bound course in Wales. It was March in the mountains, it was cold, my hands were freezing and I was climbing a rock face. I slipped. The grey rock flew upwards and I hurtled downwards. I fell about fifteen feet before the rope held, a split second between the relative security above and the grazes and bruises below. Too quick for fear, too swift for anger, the world had shifted before my eyes. Shaken, I needed time to recover and regroup . . . Now we are even closer to what I would really feel losing that event, but we’re not there yet.

The event I am thinking of is a yacht race – the Jester Challenge. It is not a competition in the way we accept competition nowadays – strict rules binding the competitors, encouraging increased financial input, possible corporate sponsorship and insistent media attention. The race I am following is from Plymouth, Devon to Newport, Rhode Island. The organisers describe it as “run on a ‘gentlemanly basis’ within the following guidelines:

  • for sailing vessels between 20 and 30 feet
  • human power is the only acceptable alternative propulsion to that of the wind
  • single-handed to Newport
  • one way
  • stops allowed
  • no time limit . . .
  • no fees
  • no inspection
  • no regulation: skippers will be entirely responsible for the equipment they take, based on their own experience

These are the guidelines, not rules; the rest is up to those who wish to enter. As one of this year’s entries said on his blog “Big ocean, little boat, low budget and more about cooperation and camaraderie than competition.” The mightiness of the task means that more people sign up for the voyage than arrive at the start. They are not diminished by dropping out. It takes courage to opt in . . . and courage to opt out when preparations fall short. The decision is yours and yours alone. (Yes, of course it upsets those who would like us all to lead a strictly regulated life).

With or without a race, the solitude of single-handed sailing draws me – not loneliness but aloneness and the sense of freedom that comes with it. A state of awareness, of continuous problem-solving, of feeling the changing wind and sea – the keenness of the boat. There is a continual desire to be good enough in my own eyes, then a wish to be better still. ‘Practice’ wins over ‘perfection’. And if I remove the words ‘sailing’, ‘wind’, ‘sea’ and ‘boat’, this becomes a description of writing – for surely this is a single-handed occupation too, and a clue to why I am here.

So what are my deeper feelings if the race were lost?

You are a writer. Imagine that someone takes your keyboard and your mouse, then your monitor and the computer with all your stuff on it. Imagine that they then remove your pens and pencils and your notebooks and paper. Imagine . . .  Now we’re getting very close.

It’s not the race itself that concerns me – (although I confess I would like to do it), it is the thinking behind it that encourages me. The instigators saw their chosen preoccupation – sailing, taken over by big business, by technology, by fashion, by people’s need for immediate excitement. They also noticed that one of the potential benefits of sailing, the development of the truly self-sufficient individual – (small boat, low budget, big ocean!), was being stifled by these changes. Here was a way to give those with the will an opportunity to grow their skills and widen their experience.

Whether these sailors like it or not, (and I suspect they don’t), the leadership built into their activity is becoming increasingly important in a world overtaken by universal communication. We need individuals who stand out. Where will they come from? Already it is virtually impossible to disappear into the wild without some form of tracking device. You can find Webb Chiles, who has sailed alone around the world at least five times without such a device, here, or Jeremy and Phillip who are sailing round Britain in a Wayfarer dinghy, here. These are people undertaking amazing adventures. We, who sit in front of our computers, can find them instantly.

What will we do when the Google satellites make everyone and everywhere visible in real time? We’ll work it out no doubt. But, in the mix of a humanity shaped by technology, we will still need leadership from individuals shaped by hands-on experience. I am not suggesting this race produces world leaders – although some amazing individuals have taken part. I am suggesting that the attitudes behind it are important in the search for those leaders.

So, if the race were abandoned, I,for one, would be desperately disappointed. Good leaders create spaces for their followers to move into. The space created by the Jester Challenge and those who participate in it has significantly enhanced my life. I would have lost that source of leadership. I would definitely miss it.