A Cautionary Tale from an Ancient Mariner

Posted on July 8, 2021
Boat and flowers

In 1979 Susie and I were pregnant with our first child. At that time I was a professional yachtsman, and I was invited to help sail a small yacht in the Fastnet race which is an international classic that takes place every two years. The yacht was maybe the smallest in the fleet and designed by a friend of mine as a cruiser racer for mass production. I arrived expecting an easy sail so just wore my day clothes with docksiders and a duffle coat. We set off from Cowes on Cheesecake (the name of the yacht!) in light winds and gently sailed down the English Channel but as we entered the Irish Sea conditions started to deteriorate and soon we were racing in full gale conditions. A freak set of weather conditions set two low pressures colliding, which created very unusual and stormy conditions with hurricane force winds. It later transpired it was the deadliest storm in modern sailing history, one that took 19 lives.

The midnight forecast predicted even more wind increase. The seas were building quickly and soon we had rollers tossing us on our beam ends and even with reduced sail we were still carrying too much sail. Seas were now washing over the deck, and I could see the concern on the crews’ faces. I can’t remember the exact trigger point but, having spent much of my career in heavy weather, I knew we had to make a shift. We had to shift from racing or business-as-usual to survival, to the care of human life and waking to a new day. We totally changed our tactics and did what was called for to nurture the boat and ourselves. We set a sea anchor and locked down with everyone below deck. I went into the bow bunk and went to sleep. We woke to a fine morning and set sail for a Cornish port with only one broken collar bone.

Here we are 40 years later and it seems like a similar situation but on a much much graver scale. At some point we as a civilization must recognize that we have to make the same shift, the shift from racing towards more economic growth and business-as-usual to the survival of the human race. The longer it takes us to make this shift from unsustainable to sustainable living, the greater the cost and the challenges will be.

So far there has been very little positive action or honest acceptance of this situation from our leaders; even in the midst of a pandemic their response is to speak of returning to normal rather than learning the lessons presented by crises which are certainly in themselves choice points. We hear constantly from politicians of all sides claiming to be able to meet this challenge, but as Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The skill set that is needed to successfully make the shift to sustainable survival is very different from the skill set that has created the present predicament and will require a major shift in consciousness. The issues that face us are global and therefore require global solutions, so we would need to be able to imagine and even implement global co-operation and harmony in order to achieve the solutions we need. This alone requires a level of intention and communication that is very different from what we witness today.

Much will be asked for us all, but much is at stake. It is time for us to start to answer the call to step up and let go of our attachments to what many today keep referring to as “normal”.

Forty-two years ago we let go of winning the sailing race and focused on our survival instead. That was a micro-lesson for what is being asked of us now.

With love,


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