Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rush Toward Your Fear

I am deathly afraid of heights, and always have been. As a child, during a visit to New York City, I was very nervous about going up the Empire State Building, and even more so when my parents urged me to peer down from the observation deck to the streets below.  My fear of falling was intense; and my parents could never get me to ride any roller coaster - regardless of how small or tame it may have been.

So at the age of 18 years, I faced a dilemma.  I was in my first summer at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.  I found out that on the summer cruise, in just a few weeks time, I would be expected required to climb the rigging of the tall ship, The U.S.C.G. Eagle, and to work aloft handling the sails.

While at the Coast Guard Academy I received instruction from a Boatswain's Mate, who had been in the Coast Guard for about a decade.  He previously had served on the Eagle, and as he taught us various types of knots he explained where on the Eagle we might find a use for each one.  As he was teaching several cadets and me the intricacies of tying a bowline (a type of knot), I asked the Boatswain’s Mate, with some apprehension in my voice, “How difficult is it to climb the Eagle's rigging?”  The Boatswain's Mate paused from working the line in his hands, looked me straight in the eye, and simply said: "Rush toward your fear."

A few weeks later, my fellow swabs - that's what they called first year cadets - were flown to Miami, where we picked up the Eagle to take her on a week-long training cruise.  So here I was at the Port of Miami, aboard the docked ship, with my gear stowed.  It was an early summer evening, and I was on deck, looking up at the three masts, the 10 yardarms, the crosstrees, shrouds, halyards, and all the other rigging.  As I was looking up, contemplating my fate, the Officer of the Deck approached me and asked, "Want to go aloft?"

I imagine I turned white a bit, but just then I remembered what the Boatswain’s Mate had said.  "Rush toward your fear."  So I nodded to the Officer of the Deck, stowed my hat, and headed up the rigging,.  I climbed up, past the first platform and the lowest yardarm.  I continued higher and higher, pausing every several steps to look around – and at times down to the deck, appearing smaller and smaller as I went higher and higher.  Past two more yardarms, and finally I made it to the second and higher platform upon which I could sit, pause, and regain my senses.

But just then the Officer of the Deck shouted up, “Keep going.  Touch the commissioning pennant.”  I look down, then up, terrified.  The shrouds (lines running up and down) were very narrow at this point, and it was difficult to fit my big shoe in the rigging to go higher.  But, keeping in mind what the Boatswain’s Mate had told me, higher I did go, the last thirty feet, and touched the commissioning pennant at the top of the mainmast, some one hundred fifty feet above the deck.

As I headed back down I traversed out onto the footrope which hung beneath each of the yardarms.  My big feet found each single footrope that hung beneath each yardarm with ease, and with a firm grip on the handrails affixed to each yardarm I felt made somewhat secure as I traversed out to the end of each yardarm, then returned back to the mast.

I also paused and sat on each platform, partly to rest and partly to enjoy the view.  In the rays of the setting summer sun, I felt a sense of accomplishment.  Not only had I climbed the rigging, far beyond the point where I ever thought I would, but I was the first among my classmates to do so.

From that day forward, I was known as a rigging rat, always willing to go aloft to furl or unfurl the sails.

A year later I was aboard the Eagle for a longer summer cruise, this time across the Atlantic and back.  When returning, just northwest of Bermuda, the ship encountered a low pressure system.  (A better description of the low pressure system would be “minor hurricane” – although I was not convinced that hurricanes could be minor.) 

It was the middle of the night.  Cadets were not allowed on deck, except for the bridge crew.  The Eagle was under sail, in seventy-five knot winds, with gusts up to ninety knots.  Even though it was the dead of night, the sea was awash in white, as the wind and waves combined to brew a froth of whitecaps and foam atop the thirty-foot high waves.

That night I was on duty on the ship’s helm.  I led a team of six cadets, on three connected six-foot ship’s wheels, as we sought to keep the ship on course.  The Eagle did not have power steering, so turning the rudder, via the wheel, required a good amount of muscle applied by the six cadets to turn the ship's wheels.

Only the three lower sails on each mast were deployed that night, as the top two sails had long been furled in order to not strain the masts too much.  Suddenly the gaskets which constrained the topsail to its yardarm blew out.  This posed a dangerous condition – not only could we lose a sail in the powerful wind, but the stress being placed on the mast by the sail flapping in the high wind could cause it to snap.  If the mast snapped, it could fall to and through the deck, even punching a hole in the hull of the ship.

The Captain quickly sent an experienced enlisted man aloft to secure the sail.  After twenty minutes, the enlisted man signaled down that he needed more line.  The Captain looked around, spotted me on the wheel, and asked: “Rhoades, want to go aloft?”

I wouldn’t say that I wanted to go aloft in those conditions.  But a request from your Captain was more like a very strong suggestion, and somewhat close to an order.  So I headed down to the Boatswain’s Locker, measured out eighty feet of line, cut and spliced the ends of the line, and wrapped it in a coil.  With the coil of line slung over my shoulders, I headed up to the deck, crossed to the side of the ship, and in a pause between the waves crashing over the ship's side I then grasped the rigging and headed aloft.

The Eagle, though under sail, reeled from side to side and yawed fore and aft.  Climbing the rigging was instantly a challenge, for as the ship careened over onto one side I found myself not climbing vertically, but rather at times almost horizontally, looking down at the deck.  Then, as the Eagle careened to its other side, I hung on, for I would find myself hanging on to the rigging, looking straight up to the sky, with all fours – and even at times with my head seemingly below my feet.

Fifteen minutes of effort later I finally reached the top yardarm.  I left the rigging and traversed out onto the footrope beneath the yardarm.  There I encountered the enlisted man – the very same Boatswain’s Mate who had taught me knots more than a year before.  We looked each other in the eye, and he nodded at me, with a slight smile passing his lips.  I nodded back, and then together we set to work, wrapping up the sail with the line and tightly securing it to the yardarm.  Some thirty minutes later we were back on deck, exhausted from battling the high winds and sea spray as we worked aloft.  Yet it was a physical exhaustion only, for our minds raced as we recalled the journey we had together pursued during the past hour.

Rush toward your fear – or you will miss out on the great experiences in life.

Today I am still afraid of heights.  But I have been on roller coasters since I was eighteen years of age.  And I have gone up in many tall buildings (and even, at times, I have peeked over the edge).

Rush toward your fear  - for life is beautiful on the other side.

Today I observe many of my college students who are shy, even introverted.  At events they tend to stand in the corner.  They rarely approach others they don't know.  In short, they are missing out on life!

I first inform my students that introversion is a strength - indeed, a gift.  It allows we introverts to look at the world through a very contemplative, thoughtful lens.  Yet, introversion should never be an excuse.

Hence, just like climbing aloft - very scary at first - I seek to expand each student's comfort zone.  How?  Through exercises designed to force them to meet new people (after learning how to approach others).  I also provide instruction in networking, and exercises in short public presentations.  How precisely is all this done (in classes where the subject is business law, or employee benefits, or retirement planning)?  Well - that's the subject of a future blog post.  Even I have limits on how long a single blog post can be.

But for now, if you are confronted with some fear, realize this.  Whatever fear is facing you - whether it be the fear of meeting someone new for the first time, or the fear of public speaking, or some other fear in life - rush toward it.  For once you are past it, life is great on the other side.

Professor Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP(r) teaches Business Law, Retirement Planning, Investment Planning, Employee Benefits Planning, Money & Banking, Insurance & Risk Management, and the Personal Financial Planning Capstone courses at Alfred State College, Alfred, NY. He is an EPLP Mentor, C.R.E.A.T.E. program mentor, serves as advisor to Alfred State's Business Professionals of America club, and serves as academic advisor to dozens of students.

Professor Rhoades is the author of "CHOOSE TO SUCCEED IN COLLEGE AND IN LIFE: Continuously Improve, Persevere, and Enjoy the Journey," a 10-week program for success in college (available for $2.99 in Kindle store at, or in paperback for $6.99). Professor Rhoades may be reached by e-mail at:

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