I have just battled my way through what will be my last international sailing event for some time. It was really difficult mentally to race knowing that it was my final regatta before taking a break due to lack of funding.
On the plane home from Abu Dhabi, I was reflecting on what international sailing has taught me, and I realised that the answer was ‘a substantial amount’. It was 11 years ago, aged 13, that I competed internationally for the first time, and I wouldn’t trade the past 11 years of sailing and going against Cambridge graduate convention for anything. I have made incredible friends and acquaintances all over the world, and I feel like I have attended both the University of Cambridge and also the University of Life, which is a wicked combination.
Anyway, on the plane home, I started writing. One lesson learned for each of the 11 years I have been international sailing. Or rather, I should say, a lesson being learned. It’s still a work in progress.
So, here we go, in no particular order…
Some useful, and some fairly inconsequential, life lessons learned whilst messing about in boats.
- If the stranger sitting next to you on the plane is still a stranger at the end of the flight, you have wasted an opportunity.
This obviously doesn’t just apply to plane journeys, though there can be few circumstances in life where you spend such a prolonged period of time in such intimately close proximity with a total stranger.
From doing charades with a lovely lady to try and explain what sailing was whilst staying in a Buddhist temple on top of a remote Japanese mountain, to meeting an incredible man/absolute crazy lunatic in Rio de Janeiro airport who was attempting to be the first to stand up paddle board the length of the Amazon river (sadly his inflatable board had punctured and he had had to swim several hundred metres through piranhas to get to safety….but it’s ok, because he is going to try again next year (!)), to writing University essays sat on the floor of a commuter train on the way to the sea one Friday night and discovering that the person you are sat next to is the translator for a Saudi Arabian princess… so many awesome people I have been fortunate enough to have had chance encounters with, and you walk away wondering how it can take fewer hours than you can count on one hand to feel such human comradeship with a complete stranger.
I completely believe that even the most ordinary person will have some element of extraordinary within them, and everyone has a story to tell. Granted it may be that the person you are sat next to is an expert in lawn mower repair, but chances are that you may never again have the opportunity to glean so much knowledge about lawn mower repair. And you never know when that might come in useful.
Dancing to ABBA with some Croatian old ladies because, well, why not?
- The solidness of a friendship is often proportional to the level of ridiculousness and calamity the friendship has faced.
I mean there is nothing like bonding over shared hypothermia, or a YouTube karaoke party in China when there is nothing much to do in the evening, or tying the rest of the fleets’ boats down with another Good Samaritan during a raging thunderstorm in the middle of the night, or inventing the game of jumping over the shadows of the wind turbine blades on a blown out day’s training in Holland, or going sailing with another person in a solid Force 6-7 and both snapping your masts and drifting towards the Needles pretty rapidly, or trapping someone into a revolving door with you when you try to take your rolled sail through it and get it stuck.
- Trading in kindness and good deeds is infinitely more joyful than trading in money.
I have had to rely on the kindness and good deed trade to a very large extent in the past year (on the basis of the simple reason that I haven’t had enough money to pay for things). Initially it was difficult to overcome the pride hurdle, take a deep breath and actually ask people for help with things (in exchange for either nothing or very little) – but I have learned that the hugely humbling feeling you get when people go out of their way to help you is a wonderful thing.
I now try to abide by the simple rule of not worrying about asking someone for something you would be more than happy to do for them.
There is very little you cannot work out if you surround yourself with a network of good people.
Hitchhiking a tow to the race course.
- Fresh air is good for the soul.
There is very little more to be said really. Fresh air blows away the cobwebs, clears some head space and just generally makes you feel more alive.
Apart from the odd run in a hail storm or the odd sail where the temperature has dipped well to the unpleasant side of zero and I really would rather have been almost anywhere else so long as it had a roof, I have pretty much always been extremely happy to have been running and caught the sunrise before most people got out of bed, or felt the wind and spray on my face training alone in a strong breeze when I was the only boat in the Solent with a sail up.
- You will (almost) never regret looking around the next corner.
I have been lucky enough, whilst pottering about on this planet, that international sailing has taken me to some wonderful corners of the world. I have visited some amazing places – both those more frequently visited destinations and also some hidden gems a little off the beaten track.
It is the latter that usually capture my imagination best,and some of my most memorable moments have been when I have totally spontaneously taken off for a day or two after a regatta to actually ‘see’ the place I have been training or competing in.
My first regatta outside Europe was also my first Senior World Championships, in deepest rural Japan. It was a huge and exciting cultural shock. I loved it so much I took off by myself after the event with just a rucksack and an 8 day pass for the bullet train. I learned more in those 8 days than I would have thought possible – important life lessons such as how far you can get with a smile and a nod, that charades is truly international, that pictionary is an important skill to acquire – not just to win the family game at Christmas but to work out how to get from A to B with a seriously insurmountable language barrier, and that travelling solo forces you to make friends.
And so it was that I found myself visiting Hiroshima, staying in a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain, and getting thoroughly lost in Kyoto.
There is no better way of getting to know a place ‘properly’ than getting thoroughly lost, and I highly recommend it.
I mean of course sometimes you look around the next corner and you come across the city rubbish dump. But usually that doesn’t happen. And if you hadn’t looked around the corner to actually find out you’d have regretted it.
- You can always get away with excess baggage.
Flying around the world with sailing kit is always a challenge.
My personal best luggage achievement was getting back from Japan with (apparently) £800 worth of excess baggage.
I mean there are just so many techniques – some more obvious like pretending you’re a diver so you get into the ‘sports equipment’ category, like wearing millions of coats with pockets – I’m not giving away the sneakier ones though.
But if those crafty techniques do happen to fail, you can talk/charm/smile/cry yourself out of most disastrous situations.
What luggage weight limit?
- Nothing counts as an adventure until something goes wrong…
…and unless it’s an adventure it isn’t half so much fun.
So remind yourself when things are going wrong, that it is now an adventure, and therefore more fun, and will inevitably make better future dinner table chat than if everything had run smoothly and gone to plan.
So thank goodness things sometimes go so badly wrong!
- The law of relativity: putting yourself through difficulty will make everything else seem easier!
When you get in from training and you are so cold you have to go and shower to unfreeze your hands before you can de-rig, you emerge from the changing rooms into the dark and find your rope handles have frozen to the deck WITH SEA WATER NOT FRESH WATER and have to chisel them off before you can take your sail down… well after that other things that seemed tricky are perhaps not so hard after all.
The kind of day when you have to plank to stay warm.
- If I can learn to love exercise then I’m pretty sure anyone can.
The original reason I got into sailing was a skive out of P.E. at school: sailing came up as an option and I jumped at the chance not to play ‘drop’ or what other people might call ‘catch’ or using even more sophisticated terminology ‘netball’ or indeed spend hours running away from a horribly heavy and injury-inducing hockey ball chased by other people wielding even more potential-for-injury-inducing sticks. I was the kid who actively kept running to the back of the queue to do the 110m hurdles when the P.E. teacher wasn’t looking (I mean seriously, why would you run as fast as you can towards solid barriers designed to be difficult to jump over). As a result, I got thoroughly deserved sports reports usually along the lines of “Achievement C, Effort 1. Hannah tries exceedingly hard, but is really not very good nonetheless and her talents probably lie elsewhere” which was a polite way of saying I was extraordinarily crap.
Well now I can’t imagine a day going by when I don’t train or get active. Don’t get me wrong, it has taken me a long time to get to this point, and some days I still hate exercise. But the key has been not comparing myself to other people who clearly have been into exercise since they kept running to the front of that 110m hurdles queue, and instead setting my goals to what is achievable to me and only judging myself on that basis.
My P.E. teachers would be immeasurably shocked at my revolutionised attitude to fitness, as am I, regularly! Now I find myself already looking for the next big physical challenge to keep me occupied. Whilst it would be a lie to claim that the primary reason for this is anything other than to enable me to be able to eat more cake than would otherwise be sensible, I love the sense of achievement you get when you do what you set out to.
In short, endorphins are amazing! Who knew?!
Running, sand, sea, freedom…
- Laugh at yourself often: a life necessity.
Because at the end of the day, I spent years sailing a boat in circles around inflatable marks, starting and finishing on invisible lines, and when you put it like that it is quite frankly ridiculous, but I took it extremely seriously nonetheless! If that’s not a half decent reason to laugh at yourself I’m not sure what is!
- Enjoy it all.
Sailing is much like life. Generally the harder you work the luckier you get. Sometimes it all falls into place but sometimes you make all the sensible decisions and it goes wrong regardless, and that’s ok so long as you just keep your head down and keep plodding on.
You genuinely do have to take the rough with the smooth. If it was never rough, you would never appreciate the smooth.
And, anyway, when sailing, the rougher the sea the better! Sometimes when the sea is rough and the spray is hitting you in the face, you just have to go “yeeeeeeeehaaaaaaa” and start surfing the waves.
There really is nothing half so much fun as messing about in boats.