Ellen MacArthur smashed the records for sailing single-handed round the world in 2005. She was 29 and she took the 23m trimaran B&Q round in just 71 days. She did not have a safety boat trailing along to pick her up, or helicopters on stand-by, though I’ve heard people mutter she did, as if her bravery somehow undermined their own.
Of course she was in danger. That was Ellen, on her own and thousands of miles from land, unjamming the mainsail at the top of the mast while her boat was laid over so far by the waves that she was in the water. In the never-ending pursuit of funding which bedevils the adventurer, she did have cameras aboard and the wonders of the satellite age meant she could send back film from the boat. (Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to complete a non-stop solo circumnavigation has talked about how different it is these days; he says the pressure to communicate is itself a challenge and a distraction from the job of getting home.) Everyone saw Ellen weep, saw her hunched over - bruised and frightened and covered in snot. Even today it is all too easy to find references to her tears in a simple google search.
Felicity Aston skied alone across Antarctica. Let’s repeat that sentence. Alone. Across. Antarctica. 1700 kilometres. It took her 59 days, only two of which were rest days (and one of those was at the South Pole.) She had a sat-phone so she could call home for brief chats and update twitter (@felicity_aston) with amusing asides about the shattering experience. Several times in her book about the journey she writes about knowing she could not be rescued. If she fell in a crevasse, even if she could get a signal and they could reach her, it would not be in time. And once, driven nearly mad by the danger and solitude, she did something especially dangerous and was lucky nothing bad happened.
She cried a lot too. She writes about learning to sob, going through the weeping and heaving so that she could keep on keeping on. From the time the plane took off, leaving her a tiny dot on the ice shelf, she wept. It’s not a secret.
Of course, again, that’s what people – some people – focus on. The Daily Mail says ‘Felicity, unlike most male explorers, shares with the record-breaking solo sailer Dame Ellen MacArthur an almost painful frankness about her emotional and physical weakness.’ (For non-UK readers, the DM is a right-wing tabloid I would never normally cite in my blog and I’m not giving it the pleasure of a link.) On this occasion the newspaper’s reflection of the unpleasant side of British meaness and its relentless ability to promote the patriarchy typify remarks and reviews I’ve all too often seen about dedicated and extraordinary women.
It is simply not true that male explorers don’t admit to weakness. David Lewis was another amazing sailor. In 1972 he set out from Australia to be the first person to sail single-handed to Antarctica. He had a well-found steel yacht Ice Bird (also the title of his book about the voyage). Part 1 of the trip, to the Antarctic Peninsula, saw him capsized twice, dismasted, his self-steering destroyed and with frostbite in his hands.
On part 2, to South Africa, the new self-steering was ripped off by ice and Ice Bird capsized again, losing the new mast. He survived and went back to sea.
Lewis writes frankly about the agony, especially in his hands, and the paralyzing terror. He describes spending three days so miserable he couldn’t get out of the cabin and tend to his boat as she struggled in a gale which tore his best headsail to shreds. He refers to ‘shouting and crying’ from the frostbite. (The picture shows Ice Bird arriving in Cape Town and the amazing jury-rig which Lewis created to get himself to safety.)
These three explorers all describe different reasons for keeping going: competitiveness, thoughts of their families, a sheer inability to give in and die. But none of them pretend to maintaining their stiff upper lip throughout their endeavours. At the risk of sounding trite, and knowing I could never emulate their physical achievement, that’s what I find most courageous. I weep plenty: there have been times in my life when I have cried every day for months on end. But I don’t like admitting it and I very rarely shed tears in front of anyone else. I started this blog saying I want to confront fear. For me, confessing fear is itself a challenge.
People have started to ask me if I'm afraid, and I say (as I've already written on this blog) that I am afraid of climbing the masts. But I fully expect at some point (or many points) to weep on this journey. Seasickness, storms, exhaustion, sheer terror of the sea will all do that. Maybe I'll let you know at the time, but even if I don't you know now that somewhere, down South, I will be snivelling.