I am pondering the ironic fact that I felt less free over a decade ago while sailing over the Temecula Valley in a commercial hot air balloon than I did recently when I rose straight up over Orange County, California, in this tethered Great Park balloon.
I am reminded of another time I sailed through the air: when I careened off of a 30 ft. telephone pole as part of a team-building exercise. The atypical expletive I screamed as I jumped off the wavering wooden beast and toward the trapeze bar didn’t stop my epiphany: fear can be random and irrational. Yet fear was the last thing I had expected to feel. After all, no harm was in sight; I was harnessed and tethered. Yet “abject fear” barely defines what flooded my mind in the few moments that elapsed between climbing, standing, jumping, and gratefully connecting with that three-foot swinging bar.
Pondering fears–rational and irrational–inadvertently led me to the debate that exists between sailors who believe tethered harnesses should be the standard when sailing on the open seas, and those who don’t. Mobility and racing effectiveness are allegedly compromised when a sailor’s safety harness is tethered to jacklines secured to the stern and bow. San Francisco and San Diego are both reeling from the recent deaths (rare occurrences in the sport) of several sailors, which has fired up ongoing concerns about sailing safety in general. Bryan Chong, a survivor of the San Francisco accident spoke up on the matter, standing clearly on the side of safety precautions that could have saved his crew mates and eliminated his horrific experience; one that he says was like being in a “washing machine with boulders.” Regarding not being tethered, Chong had this to say, “It’s simply a bad habit that formed due to a false sense of security in the ocean. It’s obvious to me now that I should have been clipped into the boat at every possible opportunity.”
Freedom creates a tantalizing fantasy that rarely considers viable dangers. Sometimes we act with wild abandon and we survive, thrive even. Other times we are left to clean up the aftermath of something we regret. There is a balance that involves weighing the risks – a “pros and cons” list we often make in our heads based on knowledge, experiences, beliefs, affinities, tolerance levels and more. It is complex and personal. This is a healthy process because we know ourselves best. But when we allow our fears to be tethered to our doubts, we are unlikely to sail toward our best dreams–the ones that bring us the most joy. Going adrift of total caution can be just what we need to spark an incredible journey.
So why did I feel more free in the tethered balloon? I have a fear of heights and a proclivity toward claustrophobia. Neither are a problem; they are mild in nature. But that day, the beauty of the Temecula Valley was obscured by my eagerness to land. The Great Park balloon on the other hand, is finite. It has a secure basket with a screen that prohibits falling out. There are openings that allow for photography, and behind the lens I was pursuing a passion that blotted out anything else. My fears were non-existent. I was safe, and I was free.
My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones to the sea; weak solace in the fact that they died doing something they loved. Hindsight has everyone involved wishing these souls had been safely tethered. Though they would not have escaped fear, they surely would have cheated death.
Note: An anchor that is aweigh is one that has just begun to put weight onto the rope or chain by which it is being hauled up. And while this pulling up allows a ship to sail, the anchor sits ready for when it is needed again.
To “ride at anchor” is to be anchored.
photographs and thoughts are the creation and property of the author/photographer, Britton Minor