“You’re never more alive than when you’re nearly dead.” Kevin Farebrother should know. He has summited Everest three times. His third attempt in 2014 turned back after an avalanche killed 16 Sherpa guides. In 2015, 19 climbers died at base camp. On the descent from his third successful summit in 2016, two more climbers died on the mountain.
Climbing Everest is an extreme sport. Extreme sports have a very high probability that something will go wrong and a very high chance of death as the outcome. Sailing alone around the world in a single-handed race, non-stop, is an extreme sport by anyone’s standard. It’s Farebrother’s next attempt.
What prompts apparently rational people to risk so much?
A Race for Luddites
Extreme sports have been explained as a positive means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking—addiction to the rush of adrenaline. Participants in extreme sports are either abandoning themselves to chaos and uncertainty, deceiving themselves about their own abilities, or taunting death for the thrills, none of which seem healthy. And none of which seem true about Kevin Farebrother or the other participants in the Golden Globe Race 2018.
There are several venues where professional sailors race around the world in boats built with the latest materials, architected for speed, supported by satellite communications, onboard computers, weather maps, GPS, remote monitoring of their sleep patterns, and sponsors with deep pockets. The Golden Globe Race has none of that.
The race is an emulation of the first Sunday Times Golden Globe race held in 1968 and never since. The technology is largely limited to what was available in 1968; sextants instead of GPS, paper charts instead of chart plotters, binoculars instead of radar, VHF/HF radios instead of satellite links, cassette tapes instead of digital media, SLR cameras and film instead of video.
It’s a race for Luddites, working class people sailing 30-year-old boats. Why would anyone race around the world using outdated technology? I suspect it’s less a matter of choice than necessity. Few people can afford the multi-million dollar campaigns required of the Vendée Globe or the Velux 5 Oceans races.
The expense might explain the retro character of the race but not the reasons people participate.
Like Water—Strong but Soft
Extreme sports have gotten a bad rap by academia and the press, supported by modern society’s fixation with safety and reducing risk. More recent research reveals some profound benefits experienced by people voluntarily participating in activities where “…the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death.”
You can’t approach Everest or a 90-foot waterfall in a kayak with an adversarial attitude. You can’t win pitting yourself against the mountain or the river.
“You cannot conquer a river,” one extreme kayaker said. “How can you defeat something that is never the same twice, that is unaware of your presence? To the river, we are so much flotsam, and if we forget that the results can be decidedly final.” (Developing an intimate relationship with nature through extreme sports, Eric Brymer & Tonia Gray.)
Lynn Hill, an eminent rock climber, described climbing as adapting to the rock, letting the rock shape her rather than imposing herself on the environment; an experience that requires skills “more like water—strong but soft.”
A BASE jumper described standing on the edge of a cliff, ready to jump.
“You know, you’re in this incredibly spectacular environment dealing with really, really primal forces. Not only primal forces in the environment but primal forces within yourself . . . We have primitive parts of our being that are connected to primitive parts of every other being . . . We are part of everything that’s around us; at some deep, deep, deep unconscious level connected to it.”
Putting yourself in the presence of such primal forces requires you confront and manage your fear. Panic is death, but so is a complete lack of fear. Survival demands an accurate assessment of agency.
The Southern Ocean
There’s a proverb told about the Southern Ocean. Above 40° South Latitude, there is no law; above 50° South Latitude, there is no God. The participants in the Golden Globe Race will round Cape Horn at 55°58′ S, 67°16′ W. In that latitude the wind blows the entire circumference of the planet without obstruction. There is nothing to blunt the force of the waves.
Storms, often 2,000 miles edge to edge, sweep across the Southern Ocean, on average one gale per week above 50° South. The enormous fetch of the wind across the Southern Ocean makes it the engine room that generates waves that propagate across the planet. The seas are often confused, old swells colliding with young ones, and the conjunction of wave trains produce rogue waves.
In May 2018, a buoy in the Southern Ocean recorded a wave 23.8 meters (78 feet) high. Forecasts for sea state just north of the buoy location were even higher, possibly 25 meters (82 feet), and winds more than 65 knots.
Experiencing a wave that big is like standing at the base of a collapsing 8-story building. The Southern Ocean is a place every sane sailor fears. Those who don’t have a deluded sense of their own agency.
“…The art of seamanship resides in a clear-eyed grasp of our agency: understanding the fine lines between what we can control, what we can influence but not control, and the vast world that is beyond our control. The annals of exploration and modern recreational sailing are replete with tales of sailors who came to grief from overestimating their agency.” (Freedom of the Seas: The Stoic Sailor, Gregory & Tod Bassham.)
The sailors in the Golden Globe Race will have to master their fear in solitude. They will be challenged by loneliness, exhaustion, exposure, sickness, injury, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and the staggering violence of the Southern Ocean where there’s little hope of rescue if needed. If they survive, they will be changed by the experience.
Michael Bane wrote in Over the Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme Sports that he had never met anyone who had stood, however precariously, on the flanks of a great mountain, or had been, however briefly, to the dark world at the edge of the abyss, who had not come back changed, more humble, more aware of the fragility of life.
Fear can be a transformative experience.
Hunting on Death’s Territory
“…Extreme sport participants face intense fears, accept that control of the future is not always possible and move through these fears to participate fully in the action. It would seem that by taking this action despite the intense fears participants were able to move towards a greater understanding of self. Furthermore, the indications are that a participant who makes that choice, who participates despite the fear reportedly has a magical experience, that is, something that cannot be expressed in words.” (Extreme sports are good for your health: A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport, Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer.)
Michael Bane wrote in Over the Edge: A Regular Guy’s Odyssey in Extreme `Sports that he had never met anyone who had stood, however precariously, on the flanks of a great mountain, or had been, however briefly, to the dark world at the edge of the abyss, who had not come back changed, more humble, more aware of the fragility of life.
The sailors in the Golden Globe Race will sail to the edge of the abyss. They will have to master their fear in solitude. Challenged by loneliness, exhaustion, exposure, sickness, injury, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and the staggering violence of the Southern Ocean where there’s little hope of rescue if needed, they will be changed by the experience. If they survive.
“The test of truth that emerges from playing on the razor’s edge is an elegant way of putting one’s life on a par with Death for an instant in order to steal some of its power. In exchange for exposing oneself to the loss of life, the player intends to hunt on Death’s territory and bring back a trophy that will not be an object, but a moment; a moment impregnated with the intensity of self because it bears within it the insistent memory that, through courage or initiative, he or she succeeded for a moment in extracting from Death or physical exhaustion, the guarantee of a life lived fully.” (Playing Symbolically with Death in Extreme Sports, David Le Breton.)
Kevin Farebrother may know what it’s like to hunt on death’s territory. He has climbed the mountain and returned. Many of the other participants in the Golden Globe Race 2018 will soon find out.