In a disaster, would you be a likely survivor?
You see, there are three different responses to disaster. One of the possible responses is deadly, whereas another response will heighten your chances of survival.
Which response would YOU have?
I’ll illustrate each one of these three responses in a dramatic real-life story and then take a quick look at how you can train yourself to be a survivor.
But first let’s go back to the central question:
Can You Train to be a Survivor?
This was an important issue in the 2. World War when British naval commanders noticed that young merchant seaman often died in droves after their ships were torpedoed by German submarines, whereas older seamen were much more likely to survive.
In response, Dr. Kurt Hahn founded the first Outward Bound school which taught confidence, tenacity, and perseverance and built experience of harsh conditions. This training was so successful, it saved many lives – and it continues to this day.
You will most likely find an Outward Bound School in your country. I know how transformative Outward Bound courses are because I used to be an assistant instructor at an Outward Bound School in Germany.
Let me now tell you the story with which I’ll illustrate three different kinds of responses to disaster.
How Two Crazy Adventurers Got in Too Deep
The story is about Beryl and Miles Smeeton , a pair of British adventurers who were born just after the First World War and lived into the 1980s. When they were closing in on their sixties, they decided to settle down to a quite life in a seaside port in England. One day, going for a walk, they happened to see a 46-foot ocean-going ketch for sale.
Beryl said, “Oh, that looks like fun!” So they decided to buy the Tzu Hang despite never having sailed before. The owner, Denis Swinburne, didn’t want to sell her. However, Miles, a military man, was used to getting his way.
Here is a peek into the correspondence:
I should very much like to buy your boat.
How much do you want for her?
Miles Smeeton, Brigadier.
My boat is not for sale.
Denis Swinburne, Colonel
You have not answered my question.
Miles Smeeton, Brigadier.
Finally, the deal was struck.
The first trip they went on in order ‘to learn to sail’ was from London to Vancouver…
The following story played out five years later when they were sailing around the world with a young friend of theirs, John Guzwell.
They had made up their minds to try the impossible, sailing around the Cape Horn in a from West to East – which only a few boats the size of the Tzu Hang had ever managed to achieve without foundering.
For Beryl Smeeton, the nightmare started when she took the helm of the yacht, Tzu Hang. They were near the Magellan Straits, the most dangerous stretch of water in the world.
A storm had come up. Suddenly, there was an ominous change in the sea.
Beryl recalled, ‘I looked over my shoulder and thought, at first, that my sight had gone. Behind me, the whole horizon was blotted out by a huge, gray wall. I was looking at a wall of vertical water.’
Beryl felt the stern rise and flung forward as the boat started to careen down the wave. Just before she lost consciousness, she realized that the boat was going to roll end over end.
Next thing she knew, she was in the water, struggling to fight her way to the surface. Her lifeline had broken and couldn’t see the yacht.
‘The boat is gone,’ she thought, struggling to keep afloat.
She was badly injured with broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade and a gash to her face. Then a wave lifted her and she caught a glimpse of the yacht nearby.
You could hardly imagine a more desolate scene.
The water had sliced everything off the deck or Tzu Hang. Both masts, the dinghy the wheelhouse–everything was gone. Less than a foot was showing and waves were washing over the deck. Miles and John had miraculously survived the roll from end to end. She saw them standing on the deck in their pajamas, shoulders sagging.
Then they saw Beryl in the water.
John later said that he was so sure the Tzu Hang would sink at any moment, that he made no effort to get Beryl on board:
‘I really couldn’t see any point. I knew we’d be joining her soon, and I remember thinking that I might as well jump in beside her.’
Let’s step out of the story for a moment and take a look at the most dangerous of the three possible responses to disaster.
1. Give up
When you give up all hope and give on yourself, you are in grave danger. This response robs you of any energy to save yourself and others and you are more likely to die as a result.
Back to the story…
Meanwhile, Beryl was swimming toward the boat, even though she was in agonizing pain with her broken shoulder and ribs. Over the roar of the storm, Miles heard her cry out to him. At first, he thought she was calling for help, but then heard her shout, ‘Start bailing!’
Miles looked at John in confusion. “What does she mean?” he said. Miles was dazed and confused.
Let’s step out of the story again…
What we see in Miles is a common response to a disaster. It’s to fall apart. People fall apart in many different ways, they can succumb to shock, or panic, or can be paralyzed by fear or confusion.
2. Fall apart
Miles is obviously suffering from psychological shock. The signs are his disorientation and dazed confusion. The response of falling apart is usually temporary and it’s much easier and quicker to recover from this response than from ’giving up’.
Back to the story…
When Beryl was near at the yacht, they finally managed to haul her to safety. Miles was about to give her a tender last hug before they died together when he realized that Beryl was furious.
‘What are you two doing, standing around doing nothing?’ she said.
‘Beryl, there is nothing to do now. We are at the end,’ Miles said
‘Bollocks! We need to start bailing. Now!’
Miles shook his head. ‘But the water in the cabin is up to my chest.’
‘All the more reason to start bailing! You, John, start covering the holes in the deck with pieces of sail. Miles, you come with me to start bailing!”
Beryl managed to find a bucket down below and tied a rope to it. She also found her cat Pwe swimming in desperate circles and lifted her up onto a shelf.
With her broken shoulder, she could only lift one of her arms waist high, but she started working with Miles to empty the cabin of water.
They bailed for twelve hours straight.
For a long time, it was touch-and-go whether the Tzu Hang would sink or swim. Then the Tzu Hang gradually began to rise.
Let’s step out of the story again…
What we see in Beryl is the third kind of response to a disaster, which is to assume leadership.
3. Assume Leadership
Without Beryl’s leadership, Miles and John would have died.
If you respond to disaster with assuming leadership, you have the best chance of survival. The key to leadership in a disaster is to take on responsibility for others. This is the key switch.
You need to switch from being concerned for your own survival to focusing on the survival and wellbeing of others.
What about YOUR potential response?
Any of these three responses can kick in after a catastrophe.
But they also tend to shape our everyday lives.
They are response patterns we can practice. For example, when we recognize we’re about to give up, we can encourage ourselves. We can tell ourselves, ‘You can do this! You can come through this!’
When we notice we are going into shock or panic- even in small ways, we can try to stay present, take a deep breath and find the resilience we all have within.
As to in extremis leadership, you can practice it by creating a habit of compassion and empathy. Because, for this kind of leadership, you need to focus on others and not just on yourself.
You need to practice taking the focus off yourself placing it onto others.
If you practice being a survivor in ordinary, everyday life, you are more likely to survive against all odds when disaster strikes.
And how did it end?
Finally, I’d like to let you know what happened to Beryl and Miles Smeeton. After their ordeal in the Magellan Straights, the yacht was able to limp to the coast of Chile where Beryl, Miles, and John, as well as the cat Pwe recovered and their ship was rebuilt.
However, his extraordinary couple didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘give up’.
A year later, they attempted the same voyage around the Cape Horn again. And, more of less in the same position, their boat rolled and was again dismasted by a rogue wave.
They managed to survive.
And yes, you guessed it. They attempted this voyage a third time when they were well into their sixties. This time, they successfully rounded Cape Horn.
They survived against all odds – and you can too.
What is your response to this? Please share in the comments and in social media.
About the Author:
Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Join her free online training, 5 Powerful Online Writing Strategies for More Shares, More Subscribers, and More Success. She is also the brains behind GoodlifeZEN. In her “spare” time, Mary is a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Karate Black Belt.