My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Everyone has different notions of what is success for them – money, more “stuff”, skills, status or contribution, etc. – and I don’t dispute the importance of any of them. What interests me, and maybe you too, is figuring out, firstly what constitutes success to me personally. And secondly, how to achieve it.
I suggest the line separating success from failure is a lot thinner than we sometimes like to admit or even recognize. In fact, I think we often live hop-scotching, dancing, zig-zagging backwards and forwards across the line. Sometimes we may experience failure as a bleak, lonely, isolated place from which we will never escape; a form of despondence that saps all our energies and resolution. And with success can come a sweet sense of invulnerability, a sense of standing proud on the mountain top, separate from all other endeavours. After four months of intense sailing training in the English Channel and Solent in winter time, and a final 25-hour practical exam, my own experience is that personal failure and success walk very closely together.
They are twins; and we can choose by our own actions which one spends the most time as our companion.
Having tasted plenty of failure, I personally prefer success. Though it’s probably true that we learn more from our failures. Both have a place in our personal journey because we rarely gain success without first spending quite a time visiting failure.
My own journey over the past four months has been long and challenging, with many weeks of doubt and apprehension that I was never going to achieve any to level of confidence or sailing competence. Now I’m not sure if I’ve more elated or just relieved that the fasttrack course is finally over and that I have passed the RYA Yachtmaster Offshore exam, the second highest qualification in leisure sailing. Once commercially endorsed, the “ticket” would allow me to captain vessels up to 200 gross tonnes; a scary thought.
I’m very aware that all the exams combined, both shore-based and the final practical exam on the water (with a military examiner with high standards) are really only the basic driving test for a boat on water. What matters now is to practice and to apply the skills and knowledge on my own vessel “Kuan Yin” and to gain depth of experience. However, like anybody who sets out to achieve an important goal and works hard to achieve it, there’s a happy sense of accomplishment and pleasure in knowing that NOW I do know, at a basic level, what I’m doing and that I’m far, far better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
What are some of the things that make the difference between succeeding or failing at something? Here’s my triangle of fire through which we walk to our choice of either success or failure:
1) Purpose – it’s essential to have clear purpose. Why do you want to learn French, or become a psychiatric nurse or make a million dollars? Over and over again since last November I’ve had to remind myself that I was chilled and feeling weary and inadequate on a boat lopsided in the water in the dark because it was an essential part of my larger purpose of sailing “Kuan Yin” to Labrador this summer and in 2010 to retracing the perilous voyage of an Inuit sea captain and two missionaries in 1811.
2) Dream – seeing yourself living it is absolutely essential. Some people call it “The Law of Attraction” (as highlighted in the film The Secret). If you can’t see yourself dancing on stage, or looking down from space or walking your own child in the park, how can your dream have any chance of becoming reality? Most nights I closed my eyes in my sleeping bag on the boat either seeing myself accomplishing the manoeuvre we’d just been practising all day or standing on the deck of “Kuan Yin” looking out at the Torngat mountains rising from the Labrador Sea.
3) Fight for it – few things worth accomplishing come easily. If they did, we’d have already moved on to something more challenging. We don’t set goals for things we can already do, toys we already possess, abilities we’ve already mastered. The bigger the dream, the harder we have to fight. And contrary to movies such as “Rocky”, “E.T.” or “Casablanca”, there will be no stirring music each time we have to choose whether to fight or flight. Too often, it’s all too easy to justify to ourselves why we should quit (rationalizations are rational, after all). The trick is to feel sick to your stomach and to just keep going, no matter what.
A week before the end of my course, the Adrenaline Sailing school ceased business – our last week of training and exam preparations were cancelled. (Other students who were not so fortunate lost many thousands of dollars as the fees they had paid in good faith had vanished from the school’s bank account.)
Even so, I panicked. I was confident of the theory – navigation, weather, lights and collision regulations, but the close manoeuvres under sail were still eluding me. So in the week we had hanging around waiting for the exam I managed to convince myself that I didn’t want the Yachtmaster “ticket” or need to take the final exam because I’d already gained the practical training.
Fortunately I came to my senses just in time – thanks in part to David Gratton-Cooper, one of the students almost half my age but with more backbone and resilience. Pass or fail, I decided it was better to go for the exam than be a quitter and to refuse to face my own demons. Who said, “The only way out is through?” So for three days, I controlled my nerves and contained the nausea in my stomach and determined to see it through. Our examiner, Paul, has high standards – I’d already seen him fail one students who was a better sailor with a lot more experience than myself.
Fortunately, everything went well. Once in command on each exercise I followed my own instincts and knew what to do. I’m far from perfection and of course lack experience but, with this part of the journey accomplished, this small success under my belt, it’s time to set new goals and be tested in the triangle of fire all over again. No doubt our old friends, failure and success, will be keep pace with me and awaiting to see what my choices will be.
Though the sailing school has lost it’s RYA certification, because of administrative and leadership deficiencies, this is no reflection on the quality of instruction — all the instructors were freelance. Special thanks to my instructors John Field, Marcus Greber, Anson Lane, Andy, Mari, David, Doug, Stuart and Simon (and anyone else I’ve missed). It’s a special skill to teach skills that come mainly with practical experience. Thanks also to Paul, our examiner from the Joint Services who after 35 years in the British Army doesn’t take bullshit from anyone and who sets a straightforward but thorough exam in which candidates and crew also learn.
Thank you too to the other students with whom I’ve sailed over the past four months; I’ve learned something from everyone. Especially my thanks to Dave Gratton-Cooper and Gwyn Lovett, both Yachtmaster fasttrackers on the exam who also passed) and our hardworking crew Wayne and Ralph. See you all at anchor!
Spring Garden Guest House
– sincere thanks to you all!!
Nothing would have been achieved without finding a home from home at Spring Garden Guest House. Heather, Mike (in photo) and all the staff provided a safe, comfortable haven where I could relax, revise the theory work and prepare myself for the next stage in the long process. Believe me – nothing was more important in the many, many weeks of slogging through theory work and practical drills and exercises than having this home to return to.
The spotless bedroom was big and comfortable (and had an endless supply of tea and coffee, TV and a desk) and the full English breakfast was a treat worth looking forward to. Heather was even thoughtful enough to get thick cut bitter marmalade for me and kippers. That was typical of their thoughtfulness for all their guests. Almost everyone seemed to have stayed many times before. And I’ve never seen a cleaner kitchen! Having their support for so many months was really important and a privilege – every time I stayed I felt I was coming home.
(originally posted March 2009)
© 2009 Dennison Berwick. This article may be republished for noncommercial purposes, with full copyright attribution and notification to the author. Any other use is a violation of copyright.