Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

This summer I went swimming

this summer I might have drowned,

but I held my breath

and I kicked my feet

and I moved my arms around

moved my arms around.

Loudon wainwright III – ‘Swimming Song’

Contrary to all that I was building up to this year, I have not ended up spending these last few months having the Pacific and Atlantic lash into my face or deluge my boots. Unlike some of my team mates who did get to race in previous legs in autumn and winter 2019, I have not lived through the experience of being slammed by a rogue wave into the cockpit floor or main sheet traveller and losing my front teeth and breaking a few ribs in the process. 2020 has proved to be dramatic in other ways.

As for gig rowing, well, it’s definitely not happening for 2020, as it’s impossible to follow social distancing guidelines when the activity requires 6 oarsmen and a cox to sit together in a 32-foot clinker-built rowing boat.

But…(there’s always a but and an alternative somewhere)…without any intention on my part, I have started a weekly river swim with a dear friend and work colleague. Neither of us had river swimming noted as a 2020 new year’s resolution, but when options for access to outdoor space become very limited and the temperature starts to rise in a city, it is rather inevitable we have both found companionship and solace in a brief dip in a river located roughly halfway between our respective cities of residence – Bath and Bristol.

Luckily for both for us, this little foray into the River Avon enables us both to get away from our desks and home life, whilst following social distancing regulations. I also relish taking to the saddle and escaping the city for an hour or so along the cycle path and seeing a horizon without buildings.

The first time we met for our inaugural dip was 9am on a Friday, so the cycle path was quiet except for runners and racy cyclists who don’t believe in slowing down, even for a blind bend. Like us, there were other women swimming alone or in pairs and the day looked like it could turn out to be a sunny one.

My friend has a fear of losing touch with the ground beneath her feet; an irrational fear she disclosed she acquired after watching Jaws as a kid, and I have an irrational fear of touching something I can’t see in the water like an eel. I do not enjoy swimming in the sea when there’s lots of seaweed or in rivers where there’s long weeds, as just the brushing of them on my legs leaves me paranoid I am about to be attacked by an amphibian or reptile. So we made a good co-dependent team, each trying to calm and smooth away the other’s fears. We both made it into the river, so a big hurdle was overcome there. The next hurdle to overcome was getting my friend to swim out into the river and for me to stop mentally visualising that I am about to be attacked by an aggressive pike. All was going well, we both bobbed around in the serenity of the river’s bend gazing up at the clouds as we floated on our backs and sighted rabbits in the meadow that meets the river. We happily floated about delighting in sightings of swallows, house martins and red kite gliding overhead. Then I saw it, and I did a double take. My instinct was to scream (but I didn’t).

A grass snake (at least I think it was a grass snake because of the yellow and green colouring on its head) was snaking across the surface of the river a metre in front of me and between me and the river bank’s exit! Of all the things I had tried to push to the back of my mind whilst putting energy into trying to be in the present moment savouring my surroundings, a grass snake was not on the list. At first my friend thought my fear was a joke, but she quickly realised I was serious. Worse still, the snake decided it would swim towards the spot where our clothes were heaped half-hidden from view in undergrowth. I was mortified. Heart beating fast. Fortunately, my friend is not scared of snakes so she and another female swimmer came to my rescue by each swimming either side of me and cajoling me to the river bank. It took a while, but I did reach the bank to retrieve my clothes and catch my breath. The  ‘incident’ with my fears did take me a while to internally wind down from, because it had promptly brought to mind two other incidents in my life where I have been terrified when faced with my worst reptilian and amphibian fears.

In 1998 I was hiking with two German guys, an American and a Canadian woman who I had randomly joined up with in one of the hostel dormitories in Gunung Mulu National Park; a protected rainforest in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak). We were trekking the ‘Headhunter’s Trail’ having been on the steep trails to the Pinnacles at Gunung Api (tall, jagged limestone formations). I was not well at the time, suffering all the digestive issues that go hand-in-hand with a tropical disease, so already feeling weak, dizzy, nauseous and lagging behind the rest of the group…and then a green pit viper fell from a branch overhead where we assume it had been sleeping, landing with a loud thud within a few inches of my feet. I was utterly terrified and stood as motionless as the viper. Thankfully, we had an Iban guide with us who calmly instructed that we all stamp our feet, apparently the vibrations encourage the snake to scarper, whilst with a slight of hand I didn’t see coming, he grasped the snake in his palm and slammed it to the ground. I was too stunned to remember the details, but proceeded to walk on with a rapidly beating heart and hyper-alert gaze focused exclusively on the tree canopy above me.

After that incident, I just couldn’t relax on the trail and had a silent, mental battle with myself as my irrational fears had me constantly scanning my legs and ankles for leeches and the branches overhead for snakes. The rainforest closed in on me and I was desperate to get back to my flat in Penang surrounded by familiar urban life. I suddenly found the rainforest environment very threatening and claustrophobic.

I’m on the far left and despite my strong legs, was feeling weaker by the day.

For a year from 2002-2003 I was a VSO volunteer in Bangladesh doing research and advocacy work for indigenous knowledge in fisheries management. Once again, I had to confront my fear of snakes and leeches as they are common place among the paddy and in the monsoon season. Like with my fear of snakes, I have an irrational fear of leeches that similarly began with my first encounter in Sarawak, but at least nowadays I don’t scream when I see my blood-stained socks or trousers and I can tolerate someone else removing them – just don’t ask me to do it!

So, my encounter with the grass snake on the River Avon wasn’t just an encounter with a grass snake; it instantly recalled memories of times in the past when I have been utterly terrified and felt vulnerable to attack. It also reminded me of the time I was swimming off a 32-foot sloop that was my home at the time, living at anchor in and around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. My then partner and I decided we’d head further out of the bay to go to one of our favourite fishing locations to catch some red snapper for dinner and whilst he was absorbed with the lines I thought I’d go for a dip off the boat as the sea was almost flat calm. I was swimming around the boat when he called in a serious, measured voice that was so unfamiliar for him: “Hannah, swim to the boat. Now. NOW.” Instinctively I knew why and it was my worst fear when in the sea; a shark. I didn’t hesitate and swam straight back to the stern’s steps and only once my feet touched the deck did I glance back to see the fin.

On all these occasions I am sure the pit viper, unidentified shark and the grass snake were just as scared as me, possibly more so, but that’s the thing about irrational fears though – it’s very hard to control them.

That’s why I was so proud of my friend when she called me a week later to suggest we met up at the same bend in the river, only this time we met at dusk and this time she swam further from the river bank and I was relieved not to be eye-balling my grass snake again. Feel the fear and do it anyway. We had fun and I was blessed with this sunset on my cycle home afterwards.

Look-back Time

“I discovered the ocean in my imagination. I discovered the ocean in books.”

Sailing to the Edge of Time: The promise, the challenges, and the freedom of ocean voyaging – John Kretschmer

I have had an albeit, quite private, bookish love affair with boats and sailing since my early teens when I discovered the writing of Robin Lee-Graham, Slocum and Chichester and would vicariously go on their sailing adventures and ocean crossings as an armchair stowaway…They fuelled my romance and longing for big adventure, an expanse of ocean and exploring new horizons. How I wished for the freedom and romantic adventures of Robin aboard Dove!

I got my chance in 2005, when an opportunity presented itself to go and live aboard a 32 foot ferro-cement sloop called Crystal in the Bay of Islands, the North Island of New Zealand for six months.

The relationship with the boat’s owner was disastrous, but my relationship with Crystal was instant. She opened my eyes to the sheer joy and freedom of waking up each day at anchor in a secluded bay, lying tucked up in my berth listening to the wind clatter the shrouds and the tide pull at the anchor chain. All those stunning sun rises and sun sets viewed on deck in delicious solitude!

I never knew the phrase ‘live-aboard’ until I met a vibrant, eclectic mix of live-aboards from around the the world, all sheltering at Russell in the Bay of Islands, hatching up plans for their next ocean crossing once the weather improved. I was fascinated (and a little envious if truth be told) of those children who had grown up at sea and never knew the constraints of life ashore. Self-contained kids who were confident to make friends and entertain themselves wherever they were, communicating in an excited, confusing babble of languages and hand gestures; What a life! What freedom! I was also impressed by the adults who seemed self-assured, so eternally positive and ready for anything. I was inspired by this cruiser community, but in my heart knew it remained out of reach at the time.

Although living aboard Crystal opened my eyes to a whole new way of being upon this earth, I would hardly credit it as a sail training opportunity. The boat very much belonged to the ‘other half’ at the time and he took full control and was not patient enough to teach me about sailing or the boat. But in many ways it didn’t matter, because sharing life aboard his boat for six months was enough for me to vow to myself that if I could, I’d find a way to learn to sail and go to sea on my own terms.

Crystal at anchor somewhere in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. 2006.
Living a dream: Fishing off Bird Rock at sun rise in the Bay of Islands (New Zealand). February 2006.

That was 13 years ago now. After an all too brief spell living at anchor in New Zealand I found myself back in Thailand trying to survive on meager wages from publishing restaurant reviews and articles in a Thai luxury lifestyle magazine and teaching for the British Council, but it wasn’t long before I found myself back in Durham doing a PhD (more on that in another post as the subject matter has played a central role in why I applied to the Clipper Race!). After completing my PhD at Durham University in 2010, I packed up my postgraduate life in Durham – forever my spiritual home – to take another life gamble. This time I was moving down south, to Bristol, to join my now husband and seek work. I have often lived and worked abroad since originally leaving home at 19 years of age to go to Malaysia and seek my fortune (it didn’t happen, obviously, but I credit my time in Malaysia for the woman I am today). However, until Bristol, I had never lived south of the Peak District when in the UK; the north of Scotland, yes, but the West Country was new territory for me.

2011, following the completion of my apprenticeship into academia by becoming Dr Rumble, was a tough year for me, as I was once again starting over, but this time ‘austerity’ had taken a firm grip on squeezing the hopes, dreams and opportunities of those living in the UK. After much effort, I secured some very short-term academic research work and some zero-hours work for a year crewing for the Bristol Ferry Boat Company, which all helped pay the rent whilst writing my first academic book and settling into Bristol city life.

Aboard Emily, one of the ferries I regularly crewed upon in 2011, whilst working for the Bristol Ferry Boat Company. Not quite an ocean crossing, but much better than nothing!

Working as crew with the ‘ferry family’ was great fun and a lovely way to get to know a city and some of it’s ‘characters’ and sights, but it provided a lousy and unpredictable income at the time, which didn’t help me to feel settled in my new home. Nevertheless, it did present me with my first opportunity to sail aboard a very special boat, The Matthew of Bristol, from Fowey in Cornwall to Ramsgate in Kent. This was to be my first taste of coastal sailing in the UK and only served to galvanise my dream to get a few RYA sailing tickets during my life so I could enjoy more time at sea. At the time, The Matthew was hired out to be transformed into the Dawn Treader for the Narnia film, hence why we were sailing her to Ramsgate; it provided much needed funds to cover her maintenance and expenses.

The Matthew is a replica of the Tudor merchant ship that John Cabot sailed from Bristol in 1497 taking 54 days to make the crossing to Newfoundland across the Atlantic. Cabot was searching for a sailing route to Asia but ended up ‘discovering’ Newfoundland instead. The modern replica that you see in Bristol harbour today and that I had the pleasure of sailing aboard, was built to celebrate and recreate the 500th Anniversary of the voyage in 1997. The ship completed the task and returned triumphantly in 1998 (the same year I left home to venture to Malaysia). She remains a working ship and is available for private and corporate hire and can be visited when moored up in Bristol’s historic floating harbour.

When I sailed her to be delivered to Ramsgate for her transformation into the Dawn Treader, it was March 2011. It took us 4.5 days to sail there, including 24 hours in Gosport’s Haslar marina due to poor weather. The trip was roughly 300 nautical miles with an average of 5-6 knots; we were not sailing fast! I joined a motley crew as a deck-hand with absolutely no experience of traditional boats and barely any sailing knowledge, but a whole lot of enthusiasm to muck in and make the most of the journey. Our Skipper was Rob Salvidge, himself a former Clipper circumnavigator, the larger-than-life Sasha Hall as First Mate and a very taciturn ‘galley slave’ called Dave, who was a force to be reckoned with! Conditions were cold, damp and smelly, but we had a lot of laughs and I got to fire a cannon in the Channel, which gets a mention in the ship’s log.

An unconventional log book entry.
An unconventional crew.
But a very, very traditional sailing ship! This photo captures me feeling very, very cold, but relishing my precious time offshore aboard The Matthew; one of my treasured memories.
Somewhere in the Channel at sun rise. I loved how the sun’s rays made the deck work glow orange; a sight to behold!
Damp, smelly conditions down below, but still a LOT more comfortable, drier and roomier than what I’ll experience aboard Punta del Este in the Clipper RTW yacht race!
The Matthew arriving into Gosport/Portsmouth in 2011. She felt very out of place moored up alongside power boats and super yachts, but I love The Matthew and smile whenever I see her back home in Bristol Harbour.

Once back ashore and between writing job applications in Bristol, I wondered into a ‘charity shop’ on Gloucester Road and found an unused, but old edition, of an RYA logbook. I promptly bought it and took it as a sign that I must make it back to sea in my lifetime. Seven years later, to the very month (!) that very same log book received its first official entry from my Level 1 training Skipper, Emily Caruso, for 110 nautical miles sailed over seven days aboard CV2, a former Clipper 68 racing yacht, on the Solent. I was beaming. I was FINALLY realising a long held dream. My return to Gosport’s marina wasn’t only about sail/race training for the Clipper RTW yacht race, it was also very nostalgic and emotional, as I recalled how my life had changed course since I first sailed into Gosport seven year’s previously aboard The Matthew. Life moves in unseen loosely-drawn circles at times and I am full of gratitude for that.

The Clipper 68 training fleet moored at Gosport marina.