“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
You’re probably familiar with this quote. It gets used a lot, which is partly a tribute to its power to inspire, and probably also an indicator of how often human beings fail.
I used it to console myself – well, somewhat – when my first attempt on the Pacific ended in very public and ignominious failure in 2007. I had run into a big storm about 10 days into the voyage, and my boat had been capsizing more than I expected. It was designed to self-right, and had been doing so, but in all that rolling around I’d dinged my head a couple of times, and had lost my sea anchor. The leecloth fixings had also pulled out of the floor of the sleeping cabin, so it was a bit of a mess in there.
But I would have carried on. Unfortunately, the decision was taken away from me when somebody on the periphery of my team decided to take matters into his own hands, despite my weatherman telling him to mind his own business, and he called out the US Coast Guard to tell them I was having difficulties.
If I had wanted to be rescued, I had insurance with a private rescue company called Global Recovery, and my team had been working with them to develop a detailed plan of action, should the need arise. Unfortunately that option was removed from us when the USCG was called out.
Long story short, after much back and forth, me not wanting to be rescued, but the very professional members of the USCG not wanting me to die on their watch, I accepted rescue, and ended up in the back of a Coast Guard helicopter feeling completely devastated, and not knowing if I would ever see my boat again.
If you’ve never been airlifted, I don’t recommend it. They couldn’t pick me up from the deck of my boat, as the line from the helicopter has to be earthed into the sea to discharge the static. So I had to jump into the 25-foot waves, dressed in an oversized survival suit, and wallow over to the Coast Guard swimmer – who was probably about as un-thrilled about all this as I was. He then hitched me to the line and the two of us were hauled up into the ‘copter.
Things then went from bad to worse: I’d been right on the edge of the helicopter’s range, so we needed to make landfall as soon as we could, or risk running out of fuel. But just as we were approaching the closest refuelling point at Point Arena, it got socked in with fog. By now we were “fuel critical”, and would have to fly another 15 mins to get to the next viable refuelling point. I don’t know what the technical term is for the stage after “fuel critical”, but whatever it is, it’s not good. Anyhow, as you can tell by the fact that I’m here to write this, we all made it out alive.
The full story, as recounted at the time, is here. This is when I republished the story of the Pacific crossing – for some reason, when we transferred blog posts from my old website to this one, I asked for the events around that time not to be copied over. I guess I was still pretty raw about it, even years after the event. It’s also covered in my book about the Pacific crossing: Stop Drifting Start Rowing.
And the video recorded by the US Coast Guard is still on YouTube.
But ah, the best (worst) was yet to come. The online trolling. (I don’t think the word “trolling” had even been invented yet, but that’s definitely what it was.) It felt like every armchair critic on the western seaboard had an opinion. At first it really hurt, to have my intelligence, professionalism, and competence called into question. Naturally, a lot of the abuse used misogynistic terminology. I felt insulted and indignant, on top of the very real practical challenges that I faced to get my boat back before it was either picked up as jetsam, or we lost the signal to its GPS transponder. I also had the strange experience of sitting in a café overhearing a couple of locals discussing the day’s headline news… which was me.
We had to take down the commenting functionality on my website, as it was all getting too nasty. Somebody didn’t take kindly to that either – they knew that my mother had been moderating the comments, and knowing that she would see it, they posted several lines of pure vitriol, including calling her a “F***ing Nazi c**t”. Now you can insult me all you like, but you do NOT say that kind of thing to my mother.
So it was a s***storm. And not fun. But it taught me a lot, which is relevant to anybody who might find themselves on the receiving end of the peanut gallery:
1. People will say any old nonsense, and it’s not personal.
Finally, it was when somebody posted a comment that my female shore manager and I were clearly a lesbian couple that it finally dawned on me how ludicrous the whole thing was. (There’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian couple, but we weren’t.) It was then that I realised that some people will write almost anything, no matter how ungrounded in fact it may be, just because they can.
2. People will be at their meanest when you have reminded them of their own shortcomings.
I discovered I felt sorry for them. What sad, pathetic sadsacks these must be, to have nothing better to do that post ridiculous comments about somebody else’s failure.
In fact, I told myself, the reason they were doing this was because, on some level, it made them feel better about never having tried anything risky themselves. They probably had things they had wanted to do, but they didn’t have the courage. They had talked themselves out of their hopes and dreams because of what might happen. So when they saw me try, and fail, it justified the cowardice that stopped them from even trying. Obviously (cue biting sarcasm) it’s so much better just to sit on your couch in your nice comfy home, throwing insults at someone who is trying to do something out of the ordinary. Because heck, if you put yourself out there, who knows what might happen?
(Wow, finding even as I write this, thirteen years after it happened, it still gets me worked up!)
3. Don’t feed the trolls.
I also learned another valuable lesson: don’t dignify them with a response. It’s SO hard not to. You’re mad at them and you want to set the record straight (which I did do, in a blog post that is no longer on my site, but the USCG were good enough to republish it, with supportive remarks, on their site). But replying to them individually: a) won’t make them change their minds, b) gives them a dignity they don’t deserve, so c) is a complete waste of time.
4. Your actions will speak louder than words.
The best way to respond to them is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back in the saddle (or rowing seat) and next time do it right. Unfortunately, a successful outcome is apparently nowhere near as newsworthy as a dramatic failure. Such is the nature of the media. “If it bleeds, it leads.” But my success the following year – with the added bonus of being able to leave from under the Golden Gate Bridge – left me feeling vindicated.
5. Failure is a sign of success.
Sounds paradoxical, but bear with me. The bolder and more audacious your goal, the more likely it is that you will fail. That’s what comes of being on the edge of what is possible. Humanity has always needed its pioneers, those who are willing to put themselves out there and risk failure – or even death – to expand our collective horizon.
“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” (attributed to Gandhi, although controversial)
In my heart of hearts, I’m proud of what I did. Teddy R. had it totally right. They are “cold and timid souls” who get their kicks out of trying to tear somebody else down. I’m proud of trying, even if on that occasion it didn’t go so well. I failed while daring greatly, and also in the end I knew the triumph of high achievement, and for that I am grateful.
After all, who wants Homer Simpson as a role model?!
Last week it was lovely to find how many people had a personal connection with my blog post in some way:
Minette S.’s father was a theatrical and criminal lawyer who helped Hedy Lamarr defend her shoplifting charges.
Howard W. knows Kent Keith, who came up with the Paradoxical Commandments.
And many others had already enjoyed watching Maiden, about the story of Tracy Edwards’ all-female, round-the-world racing crew.
Thanks for all the nice comments!