In June 1996, I went on an Outward Bound sailing course offered by their Hurricane Island school, based in Rockland, Maine. This post conveys some aspects of what I experienced during that weeklong trip. It was long ago, obviously, but I wanted to register these notes for posterity nonetheless, as it appears I may want to cite this material in other posts from time to time.
Outward Bound began in World War II, when the British wondered why young sailors, going down at sea in boats torpedoed by German submarines, had a lower survival rate than older sailors. An Outward Bound webpage reports that Kurt Hahn, an educator, believed the answer lay in “experiential learning to include real and powerful experience to gain self-esteem, the discovery of innate abilities, and a sense of responsibility toward others.”
As a resident of Rockland, I had an opportunity to participate in this course at a fraction of the retail price. I got onto their standby list, and when someone canceled at the last minute, they called me. I scraped together the items of gear on their list and showed up at the dock downtown on Sunday, June 9, 1996, for a course that would run until the following Sunday.
There were 12 students and two instructors in our group. At 40, I was the oldest by some years; I estimated that the next-oldest student was around 25. The median was probably a college student; some group members were teenagers. Five were female, as was one of the instructors; locations varied from Rockland and Bangor (Dylan Trainor) to Queens (Jeff Lin), Atlanta (Mitch Hamburger), Texas (Dr. Patty Lewis), and California (Melissa). Our instructors were Jen Porter, from Arizona, and Cooper Dragonette, who I think was based there in Rockland.
On that first Sunday, we had to check out our Outward Bound-supplied gear (e.g., life vest, rain jacket, sleeping bag), arrange it with our own things in canvas duffel bags, and load the boat with those bags and with plastic water containers and closed five-gallon plastic buckets containing our food. After a scheduling snafu requiring us to kill some hours until seven adolescents showed up and loaded their semi-companion boat, we were off. (I say “semi-companion” because that other boat seemed to be vaguely sharing our route, but it was generally not very near to us.)
The boat was about 30 feet long. It wasn’t exactly crowded, but it did feel full – especially after spending the first three days and nights on it continuously, with only a few hours on land, on one of the islands there in Penobscot Bay. Maybe it was to be expected from this self-selected group, but with one exception (below), there seemed to be virtually no anger, resentment, scheming, serious nonperformance, or other dysfunctionality by anyone. I wasn’t sure I could have enjoyed such a positive and cooperative ambiance, over a period of so many days, even if I had been able to hand-pick 13 fellow sailors from among my own neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.
This is not to say that everything was peaches and cream. For one thing, conditions were obviously pretty primitive. The food in those plastic buckets was on the order of rice and beans. By the time we took our hike on that island, on the second or third day out, we had reached the point of sharing our vivid food fantasies: cheeseburgers, pizza, ice cream, etc.
Also, on the second or third day, Jen sat down and gave us a little speech about how some of us had probably not pooped since we had left the shore, and we needed to adapt to the reality of flipping up the wooden lid on the toilet, up by the front mast (see photo, above), and sitting down to take a dump. Jen gave us this speech while seated on the boat’s outer edge (the gunwale, pronounced “gunnel”) – where, she said, she was peeing while she spoke. (I resisted the obvious temptation to crane my neck and inspect the situation more closely.) The point of her message was that it is entirely possible to slide down your pants and do your business, on the gunnel or on the toilet, without anyone being able to see skin.
Of course, the output could not linger in the toilet’s plastic bucket forever. At some point, one would have to empty it overboard. It was not recommended that we do this in the harbor at places like Rockland, lest our scupper trout (Dylan’s term) float ashore and irritate the natives who had spent their lives’ savings on oceanfront homes. People peeing and throwing feces overboard did not really make a dent in the vast seeming purity of Penobscot Bay, especially when we were sailing away from such detritus at a good clip; but when the anchor was down and such activities were underway at one end of the boat, it was best not to be washing dishes or brushing your teeth in the waters at the other end.
Sleeping arrangements were also pretty sketchy, as you’d expect with so many people in such a small space. On that, I have a separate video:
The weather was not always our friend. Sometimes we’d have beautiful sunshine, and would look around at the salt water and the islands at various distances from us, as we caught a good wind and went shooting along through the waters of the bay. At other times, we would have rain, drizzle, mist, fog, and otherwise dreary conditions, and instead of islands and sparkling sea water we’d see nothing but gray. Those who failed to bring the items of clothing on OB’s recommended list (and, again, there was one principal example) could spend hours being damp, cold, and miserable.
Not all of our progress was wind-driven. Sometimes we were becalmed. Our boat had four sets of oars (i.e., eight oars altogether, four for each side, with benches to match). At most, we used only three sets, and more typically two. The photo here shows me at left, wearing my referee shirt (chosen partly to be funny, but mostly because it was all I had for the recommended quick-drying synthetic fabric), and Chris Nahatis from Plano, Texas at right. Everyone took their turn at rowing, but in my recollection (and in the letter of reference I volunteered afterwards) I would say that Chris went above and beyond in his willingness to row. In this, he often used my leather gloves, without which people tended to get blisters quickly. Rowing acquired a bit more glamour when Dylan taught us a rowing song, “Haul Away Joe.”
Difficult conditions were not the only kind of challenge we faced. There were also several different stressful activities along the way. For one thing, each of us had to be captain of the boat for a half-day. This involved giving commands on how to position the sail, when to turn the boat, when we should row, and so forth. Depending on the nature of the individual captain, and on where we were trying to go during the hours of his/her captaincy, these obligations could range from fairly easy to quite demanding.
We started every day with a dip in the bay. This was simple enough: put on your swimsuit (either while you were still inside your sleeping bag, or over in a corner of the boat), wait your turn, jump in the water, swim up to the front of the boat and back, get out, and dry off. What made it challenging was that the water temperature was 48 degrees. Jen said that, at that temperature, you would survive for about seven minutes before hypothermia rendered you unable to swim, at which point you would drown. We probably weren’t in the water for more than one minute; hypothermia was not a serious risk. Still, it was very cold. The cold had an interesting effect. You could be standing there and shivering in your swimsuit, waiting for your turn to jump in; but once you did, and then came back out and dried off, you’d feel warm, and now you could comfortably sit there in your swimsuit for some minutes. One important bit of advice: don’t do the dip just after someone has emptied the toilet bucket.
Another challenging activity: the shipwreck. We sailed up to Ohio Island. Jen said we were going to go onto the island, sit down, and listen while Cooper told us a story. She said we would get cold sitting, and therefore should bring our warm clothes. Patty and I winked at each other, knowing what to expect, and proceeded to jam our pockets with pieces of equipment – bug spray, headlamp, etc. Sure enough, Cooper’s story involved a shipwreck on Ohio Island, where the sailors had to get by with just whatever they had managed to salvage from their boat, and now we were going to do the same. We did a bit of Survivor-style negotiation and wound up with three sleeping bags, a tarp, and a loaf of bread, along with whatever we had brought with us. We had not eaten dinner. Dark was approaching. We disputed whether to set up camp on a flat rock (which would draw the heat out of us) or under the low branches on some trees (bugs, claustrophobic). We wound up in a compromise space, on a slope, and spent the night getting bitten by mosquitoes and sliding downhill into one another.
When we reached Hurricane Island, after three or four days of sailing around, we faced another activity that students considered variously challenging: the leap. We had to jump off a high dock. I vaguely recall someone saying that it was a 28-foot drop. Quite intimidating, to look over the edge. As with the captaincy and the icy daily dip, there was exactly one member of the group – a different member in each case – who found the leap virtually overwhelming. In such instances, Jen and Cooper would apply gentle but firm pressure and persuasion to get the fearful student to drop his/her complaints and objections and go beyond what s/he was accustomed to.
Hurricane Island brought some nostalgia toward our boat, for several students: we cleaned it out and parked it at a buoy, and would be using it no more. We all slept together in a big tent; and for meals, we now ate in the galley building, and were treated to some really good food, though it took a long time to clean that place after it served the dozens of people who had reached Hurricane on various courses (e.g., corporate, WFR, youth).
Hurricane also brought a whole new set of land-based outdoor challenges. One was a trust walk. The 12 of us were tied with a single rope, in pairs. Jeff Lin was our leader. Each pair consisted of a talkative person, like me, who would be gagged, and a nontalkative person, like John (my teenaged partner in this activity), who would be free to speak but would typically have nothing to say. The non-gagged person would be blindfolded, however, and it would be up to the talkative person (e.g., me) to figure out how to communicate to him without talking, and without much verbal input or questioning from him. The whole dozen of us were tied at the wrist, with a single rope running from the front to the rear of the group: left wrist, for the talkative person on the left side of the pair; right wrist, for the silent and blindfolded person on the right side of the pair. Then Jeff led us off through the woods on a rough trail, following Cooper, and we went stumbling after, running into trees and branches. It turned out that John was not too good at reading body language. I could tap, shove, or absolutely try to push down on him with all my weight, and he would somehow still not understand that I was trying to get him to bend down so that he would not whack his head on a branch. I looked away for a minute, and when I looked back, John had for some reason decided to climb up onto a rock, all set to fall over the other side and drag a couple of us (or at least our hands) with him. Jen shouted “Grab him!” and I did. But that was close.
Another challenge on Hurricane: high ropes. The high ropes course consisted of activities conducted at heights of 10, 20, and more feet above ground. For example, the photo (above) shows two such activities: swinging across an open space and then letting go and grabbing onto the net; and, behind the net, walking across the horizontal balance beam. In these activities, we were protected by safety cables, tied to higher locations. That kept us from being killed. It did not keep us from being scared. Everybody tried hard to complete the tasks well. A particularly interesting one had Patty and me each walking along our own horizontal beams. Our beams were arranged in a V shape; we were both walking toward a vertical post where they would meet. To help balance us on this walk, each of us held onto a rope. The rope went from me, through an eyelet on that terminal post, and back to Patty. In other words, if one of us pulled on the rope, the partner would be pulled forward, off balance; and if either of us let the rope go slack, it would cease to provide a source of tension that the other person could use to help him/her maintain balance. Very interesting teamwork exercise.
We also rappelled down a long sheer rock face. This is perhaps something to practice before trying it on a rope 130 feet above a solid granite base. I didn’t think of that. I was doing OK until I saw a ledge, partway down. I decided to step onto it. This might have been good, except that I was being belayed by people up above, which meant that I could not just put my feet wherever I might like. My legs were not long enough to reach the ledge; and when I tried, I lost the lateral pressure against the cliff face that was keeping my body at a 45-degree angle, and instead went spinning around in space. I wasn’t scared; I figured I was in good hands up above. It was just a matter of recovering. By this point, I don’t believe anybody tried to protest that they should not have to do this. It was kind of spooky, looking over the edge; but as far as I recall, everybody did it reasonably well.
Our last activity: the solo. On Friday afternoon, Jen led us along a trail around the perimeter of the island, near water’s edge, and every now and then she would stop and tell one of us that this was our spot. We each carried a duffel containing our foul weather gear, a tarp and a string to make a tent out of it, a sleeping bag and pad, an apple, and an orange. We had a period of maybe 15 hours to be all by ourselves out there somewhere on Hurricane Island. Mine was uneventful: I mostly just slept, and enjoyed every minute of it, but others were reflecting, journaling, and doing all kinds of other cool things.
Along with these tales, I want to offer a brief account of how some things went for Beth. Beth was one of the members of our group. Her behavior was pretty bad on the boat. She seemed to spend most of her time looking down or just curled up, avoiding the rest of us. When it came her turn to be captain, she presided over a disaster. We had been working for hours to tack across the bay, but advancing or even maintaining our position required continued attention, and she essentially abdicated her role. She just sat down and wouldn’t talk or do anything. So the boat turned and ran with the wind for some distance, giving up precious territory that we had been fighting to cover against the wind. Nobody knew what to do. Cooper and Jen were adamant that they would not overrule the captain, but we would soon be looking at many hours, if not days, to get where we were supposed to be. A sick look crept across Cooper’s face. I got an idea. I stood up and said, “Captain, requesting permission to bring ‘er about.” Beth looked flustered, but at least she registered that I was talking to her, and she did not say no. So I did what I had asked permission to do. Then I had another one: “Captain, requesting permission to . . .” and so forth, with a series of other things that needed to be done. There was nothing in the rules against this, and it saved the moment. Beth also kind of fell apart on the high ropes course: she fell off, and hung there crying and moaning. She was too heavy for three of us to hoist back up onto the beam, so eventually we had to give up and let her down to the ground.
Ah, but it’s interesting, what you see and learn about people over a period of days. The other half of the high ropes story is that Beth had already done a bunch of the high ropes activities and didn’t want to quit; and now that I had gotten to know her a bit better, I could see that she was primarily mortified to be hanging there, causing a disturbance and bothering everyone. When it was our turn to clean the boat, to clean out the galley after a huge meal, and otherwise do our chores, Beth proved to be a hard worker. On the trust walk, Beth wrapped herself around Melissa, her blindfolded partner.
Afterwards, Melissa said she felt completely safe throughout that jaunt into the unknown. Beth, I felt, would sooner risk her own safety than let someone else get hurt. As a vote of confidence in Beth, I asked her to be my belayer – the person principally responsible for saving me from being killed if I slipped – when it came my turn to rappel. But it didn’t work out that way – because, I think, Jeff Lin wanted me to take his camera and snap photos of him descending the rock face. As I was waiting for him to get set up, I looked down, and with Jeff’s zoom lens I captured Beth far below, doing a little gymnastics feat of her own, when she thought no one was looking.
So I got to see a little bit of how a person can really shine when they find an opportunity that fits who they are. Take a week of people showing their best side – Chris, with all that rowing; Melissa, doing that 28-foot leap; Patty, my partner on the high ropes – and you can come away impressed.
And I did. This was an impressive group. By week’s end, I felt that I had bonded with these people in a rare and special way. Some of that was perhaps delusional. It was plainly not fully reciprocated. But I did feel accepted and appreciated, and so, I think, did everyone else in the course. You ask yourself how often in life you spend an entire week with someone, day and night, and you realize that this is a pretty remarkable opportunity. I was glad to have it. I believe it was a key influence in my decision, some years later, to pursue a PhD in parks and recreation at Indiana University.
After this experience, I was moved to apply to Outward Bound for a clerical position in their Rockland office. In support of that application, I asked Jen for a letter of reference. I didn’t get the job. Maybe they already had a preferred candidate; maybe someone else was less overqualified. It would have been cool to work there. But I can console myself with the kind things Jen said about me, incidentally providing her own sense of what the course was about.