Overcoming Fears in the Blue
Today’s post comes from Surfers Leadership School Director and waterman, Robert McDaniel. Robert has been on staff with Surfing The Nations since 2007 (ten years!) and traveled on every single international trip STN offers! He’s been part of every local outreach and pretty much every department at STN, and has been training new generations of our staff members for a few years. Here he writes about some of his experiences at sea and just how profound an impact the SALT trip has on young lives.
My dad, a US naval veteran, once told me: “Under the right conditions, even the most seasoned sailor can get seasick.” Since most of us at STN aren’t seasoned sailors, seasickness is a big fear to anyone who’s never been at sea, but the ocean, in general, brings up many fears in people – granted most have to do with getting eaten by sharks! There’s falling off a boat at night followed by getting eaten by sharks, shipwrecking in a storm then getting eaten by sharks, or even going for a quick swim or surf and getting eaten by sharks, and so on. Even though these fears can be real and in some cases, debilitating, fear can cause us to miss out.
I have been surfing, diving and boating since I was a kid but, like everyone with an affinity for the ocean, I too had to step past the dread of getting tumbled by 10ft waves, or the panic of seeing a 6ft shark. I took these steps in small doses. The first few times I went spearfishing, it was in about 4-6ft of water. I started to feel comfortable in that depth before I upgraded to 10-15 feet. Within a few years, I increased to depths of 80 ft.
Twice a year during Surfing The Nations’ bi-annual SLS curriculum I get to help people face some of these fears during our 5-day sailing trip. We call this trip the Sailing Adventure Leadership Training trip or SALT. The course is designed to develop the students in teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and decision-making skills. It pushes the students past fear and discomfort to discover character strengths they never knew they had. The most notorious fear that gets pushed through is the fear of the unknown. I have spent a bit of time soothing this fear on every SALT trip I’ve been on, telling people sharks aren’t usually aggressive and the benefit of taking a little risk and facing the fear will open up the indescribable world of the Waterman.
Knowing how long and how many steps it takes to get comfortable in deep water, one of my favorite moments on the SALT trip is watching people partake in blue water diving. Our boat stops off at a FAD buoy. FAD stands for fish aggregating device and is a man-made device out at sea used to attract pelagic fish like tuna and marlin. Diving in blue water for the first time is quite an experience. It’s scary. Most of the time in life we have some idea of depth perception and reference points we can look to for orientation, but when you jump out into blue water there is nothing all around – but blue. If a fish swims up to you it is nearly impossible to gauge how close it is because there are no reference points to compare it to. At the FAD, I get to see young men and women with little to no diving experience see what many will only see on a screen. They may face fears stepping off that boat but they are repaid with the most awe-inspiring sights one can imagine, as well as the sense of accomplishment that accompanies conquering the unknown.
Had I never overcome that first scary stage in my own relationship with the ocean I would have missed out on some of the most glorious sights my eyes have seen. I would never have witnessed dolphins swimming out of the depths greeting me face to face, giant sea turtles drifting lackadaisical with the currents, monk seals curiously following me, giant sunfish shying away from me, and my favorite to date, a blue whale swimming beneath me! And yes, sharks too!