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Facing fear in the Drake's Passage

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

On leadership. From an introvert, not quite fitting anywhere, not having any role models that are similar to me. Where should I start?

I guess the Drake Passage is as good as any start.

The roaring seas. The violent wind, screaming through our sails.

The rain splashing left and right.

The grey sky. The wetness in the air.

You wouldn't see past the bow of the boat. Not even see the bow of the boat.

Anguish and fear inside. Eagerness to learn and prove myself, doubt for choosing this adventure, fear that I'd go through it and still not learn. Helplessness of being "stuck" on this boat in the middle of the ocean, unable to go back, unable to even walk 50 meters in any direction. With my life in the hands of strangers, acting together as team.

When I reflect on my leadership role, sometimes the Drake Passage comes to mind.

Port or starboard: rushing waters, violently sweeping the deck. The entire boat, a small toy churning and struggling, bouncing from all directions, like I imagine a rubber duck caught in a laundry machine.

I feel trapped, trapped on a small floating leaf, ready to be swept under by the thundering waves. Humans, little joyful ants, running around to maneuver this leaf to safety. My threat modelling and risk assessment of the situation gear into action. Guilt and anger for having put myself, willingly, into this nasty situation.

I'm scared. As I've never been scared in my life. My first time crossing the Drake to Antarctica, on a sailing boat, the awesome Bark Europa. My second ever time on the open ocean, part of an amateur crew, mainly folks I've met 2 days before, sailing the boat.

Crossing the Drake 2018, on Bark Europa

In these moments, despite your best confidence in science and engineering, despite everything you know, something entirely different takes over your senses and your thoughts. It's as if you listen with something else, beyond your conscious mind, beneath all the pragmatism and knowledge. Some deeper sense of living, a revving sparkle of life as you feel that, any moment now, you may be closer to death than you can ever imagine.

You're likely not. But you can't quite silence the fear, the strange giddiness, cursing like a living hot wire through your veins, through your senses. Both regretful and scared for all the living you my be missing out on. Aware you've rarely felt more alive than in that very terrifying moment. This moment that simply doesn't allow for second guesses, it doesn't allow for re-running scenarios or simulations or alternatives. It just is. Powerful and mighty. Primordial: the now.

I think of my family back home, of the things I never got to say to them, of how much my mom and dad would hurt if I perished. Of how much living I would miss out on with my partner. Stricken by fear and hyperventilating, as I look around, I feel hollow inside. Something inside me urges me to recite The Litany Against Fear, it's surprisingly calming me a bit, and I start to see my watch moving in slow motion around me, putting on their gear.

Part of me wants to lament and say a thing or two to the deity of my heritage. But there's no more time for that. It's time for my watch. I'm on the lookout. It's probably the worst for me. Maybe topped only by manning the sails, or having to go aloft, a little human at the mercy of the great winds of the Drake.

What am I saying? The worst is watching him go aloft. He's happy there. I know he's very careful. But to me it feels like I've lost him already in a thousand ways. I've seen his suffering and death in my mind's eye a million times over, of all scenarios I couldn't keep him safe. Then letting him go, for not wanting to hold him back.

That's probably how it feels to be a parent. You see all the things that can go horribly wrong, but then let the little ones go face the world, hoping you equipped them with sufficient resilience and love to get them through safely to the other side.

My daydreaming blocks the chatter of my watch mates. I arm up with determination. In a trance, I check and check and re-check my harness, muttering to myself the by now safety gospel:

  • One hand for the boat, one hand for myself. (Don't get swept away by the waves and the bouncing of the ship.)

  • There's no rush. (Do things slowly and well, reliably, so you or others don't have to fix later things done poorly now, in a rush.)

  • First secure hook before unhooking. (Ensure safety at all times, before taking the next step.)

  • No loose hooks.

  • No crossing lines.

Crossing the Drake on Bark Europa

The nets are up (great for preventing humans being swept away into the ocean). There is but one rule we MUST obey: Stay onboard - our Captain jokingly said that anything else may go, but this one rule.

Pay attention. To the present. Don't rush. Hold the fear. Hold the anxiety. Wait. Never rush. I'm never good at that.

But crossing the Drake in a storm on a small sailing boat, while on watch, at 4AM, is not a time for day dreaming.

I regret my predicament and regret not taking a bigger cruise boat, while I could enjoy my sleep and comfort. But that's not what it is about. Taking the easier way (out, around or about) was never my forté. Taking the easier way doesn't quite teaches you much, is it?

I know this is cool, an adventure, what I wanted, to challenge myself, to go where very few go anymore, at least this way. The old-school, adventurer way. I'm terrified and scared and miserable. Wait till I tell my team about it, I'll brave it out then, in hindsight!

All I can do is stay put, grind my teeth. Just stay put, for dear life. Stay put to this very moment. Watch the waves and the sky for any changes.

Trust the helm and the radar watch, trust that they will notice any icebergs.

Damn you, climate change. Not only is crossing the Drake tricky on its own, now we need to also dodge traveling icebergs. Sneaky bastards.

I found this awesome clip on YouTube from ETC RO, show-casing as well as I can recall, the feeling of this passage.

As we safely reach the Antarctic Peninsula, the pace of life abruptly changes, still rushing, but only to prep the small boat (the Zodiac) which would take us to shore.

Peculiar Conservatory bit

In the brief moments of ease (and now years after this trip), I try to stop and wonder What have I learned? I'm not entirely sure, as learning keeps evolving as I do, learning is a continuous work-in-progress, but here I venture:

  1. Life is scary. The most beautiful and wondrous things in life are scary as hell. Whether it's adventure, traveling, taking a chance, or loving someone deeply: the higher the stakes, the scarier it is. (I believe it's worth it, but make your own opinion.)

  2. On the moment, things appear much worse than they really are. Hang on tight, to the moment. Remember the feeling and dread, learn to recognise it in you, especially when you're in a different type of storm (difficulties at work, challenging times in family etc.)

  3. Accept help from others who are willing to be by your side through the anguish.

  4. A great team is at times quite literally a life-saver. Feeling accepted as part of one is truly a bliss, especially when you're the new-comer who doesn't even know themselves.

  5. Death is the only certain thing in life. Go out there, have fun, be dumb and silly and honest. Even when you're scared.

When I'm back in my own routine, in my own work dilemmas, I look around and wonder: Are others afraid too? Would they even tell me when they are? Am I wrong to share openly when I am afraid? What does that make of me?

Whether from Star Trek or real-life, we talk about leading with authenticity, showing humility and vulnerability, but I don't often recognise it applied around me. I've rarely seen a leader showing fear, or even acknowledging fear. I wonder if they fear. I've seen discomfort, frustration, but rarely fear.

PS: The Bark Europa crew is amazing (see posts of how much I've learned from their generosity and great examples of leadership and teamwork). Thank you for keeping our lives safe into your experience hands and being the ever-calming watchers over our adventures.

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