Sol 14 – A message to sailors and astronauts
I have been sailing since I was a little girl. There is a picture of two-year-old me taped into my father’s journal, in front of the newly acquired family sailboat. The caption reads: “Marie gives her approval… c’est parti!”
Ever since that day, few days have gone by when I have not thought about being at sea.
So what, you might say? This is space we’re talking about. After all, I am in fact currently confined inside a metal cylinder 8 meters in diameter along with six other people, 60 million kilometers away from home, on a hostile planet where oceans are relics of the past.
But to me, looking towards the horizon has always felt the same as staring at the stars. Two dangerous, hostile environments, yet so inviting and mesmerizing, staring right back at you. Daring you to come closer, to make it one more mile, to tackle one more hurdle. To explore, just a little bit further…
By the time I could read on my own, I started devouring stories of sailors and space explorers, from swashbuckling pirates to fearless adventurers, from Jules Verne to Conrad. In my dreams, I was alternatively Captain Nemo and Captain Kirk.
As I learned to sail thanks to my father, over the years I grew more and more anxious to do more, go further and further out, in rougher and rougher seas. I wanted to show I was not afraid. I wanted to prove that I was capable, that my instincts on the water were good. I wanted to be what I thought great sailors were like: tough, unflinching, sailing bow first into the storm. I was arrogant, and incapable of turning back. If I turned back, I was weak. If I changed my mind or realized I had made the wrong decisions, I wasn’t a capable sailor.
This summer, my father was thrown overboard in the middle of the English Channel. He was retrieving a torn sail when he was swept off deck, like he weighed nothing, by a sea that had never felt so monstrous to me before. I was no longer capable, or tough, or unflinching. I was at the mercy of the most powerful forces of nature, like an astronaut stranded in deep space or on a deserted planet would be. Space and rough seas are so very much alike in that sense. Both make arrogance inexcusable, and safety the very top priority.
I have never felt so strongly the connection between these two parts of me than now, halfway through our mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. Outside these walls are not 30-foot waves, but an unbreathable atmosphere. There is the cold, and the winds : they whistle around our base when we sleep, and they rattle it so that we feel, not that we will be dismasted, but that the literal roof of the Hab will be blown away. The ship we came to Mars on bore no sails, but we are, after all, a crew!
As a child I devoured sailing stories, but missed the most important lesson these ancient and less ancient heroes wanted to tell me. Being a good sailor, a good captain, a good crewmember, is not about how violent are the winds you confront, how high the waves, how dangerous the waters. It is about how well you take care of your crew, your crewmates, and your ship. I believe the same goes for being a good astronaut.
For every Sol spent on Mars, I learn new things from my mates. I make mistakes, and try to listen a bit more and a bit better than on the previous Sol. And, quite literally, I turn back when the wind is too strong.
To fifteen-year-old me, I would like to say this :
Learn from those with experience before you give your two cents.
Listen before you speak.
There is no shame in turning back.