The Day of the Dolphins

The four-day trip around the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Southern California, started out like it was supposed to…calm seas, plenty of sunshine, and 18 to 20 knots of winds. The channel was only about 35 miles across which would put us in a safe harbor for the evening in 5-6 hours.  So far so good, right?

But I’m not a sailor. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of sailing and all, but I’d rather be one of the passenger than the crew, if you get my drift. Besides, my buddies Coy and Timmy were sailors and this was their trip. I was just coming along for the ride…or so I thought.

Just after motoring out of the Santa Barbara sailing center in a relatively new 32-foot long Hunter sailboat with plenty of warm California sun and blue skies, we began to notice the swells getting deeper as we moved out to sea. Hopefully that’s normal, I thought to myself, as I looked over at the faces of my crewmates for any indication of concern. Fortunately, all I saw was smiles, as they seemed to welcomed the challenge.

Within minutes the wind gusts picked up to 25 knots. Now I don’t really know what 25 knots means other than I was completely relying on the railing to hold me up. So much for calm seas, I mumbled, wondering what had I gotten myself into. Just then the boat jerked to the left so hard that I saw Timmy sliding along the deck. He was on his way over to the main sail to let some tension out before losing his footing. Coy was shouting and signaling to me, but to avail. Between the the loud shrill of the intense wind and the continuous jerking of the boat from side to side, all I could do was hold on for dear life. Alas, the warm California sun and blue skies that initially greeted us had been replaced with dropping temperatures and an angry gray sky. 

This trip was not going as planned.

The wind picked up to 30 knots as darker clouds filled the sky. By now the sea swells had gotten so deep that when our boat smacked into the bottom of each one, all you could see on either side was a wall of gray ocean seawater. Soon the color of the water and sky merged together as one thick gray mass, making finding the horizon almost impossible. If you’ve ever gotten seasick on a boat before, you know how important it is to keep your eyes on the horizon for some sense of stability; a horizon that no longer existed for us. Despair engulfed me. This was quickly becoming the nightmare of all nightmares. I glanced over again at my crewmates, hoping for some kind of positive sign. Instead, what I saw sent a surge of panic throughout my body. On one side of the boat was Timmy, hanging over the side, throwing up, with his face as pale as the sea. On the other side was Coy, frantically trying to sail the boat by himself, in desperate need of assistance.

I helplessly watched as this terrifying excursion unfolded, unwilling to release my arms from the rail. The howling wind was non-stop as was the constant slapping of freezing seawater that the sea was now throwing in my face. My body quickly became one massive shiver. Enough already! I screamed, only to be slapped down again and again with seawater. Without question, this was the most uncomfortable moment in my life. Up and down…left to right…up and down…left to right…with no end in sight.

The sea raged on for what seemed like hours. The winds were now over 40 knots and the swells over 18 feet. Timmy was so sick that he could no longer move from the fetal position. I tried…I really did…to help Coy with what little I could do but most the time I couldn’t hear him, let alone understand what he wanted. He was basically on his own.

And then, right at the climax of this intense storm, the most ironic and amazing thing happened.

There, along side our boat, came a school of dolphins, jumping up and down and playing together like a bunch of 4th graders during school recess. It was the oddest thing. Here I was completely helpless, frightened, and hating life as I’ve never hated it before, and these dolphins were ironically having the time of their life! It was the contradiction of all contradictions.

It was like I was in a weird dream where two opposing energies collided. The next thing I knew I was laughing and shaking my head at the absurdity. Perhaps I wasn’t going to die after all. Perhaps we were going to make it through this storm and live to tell the story. And perhaps the dolphins were the universe’s way of telling me to lighten up and experience the experience.

The 5-hour trip ended up taking us 9-hours, but the seas slowly calmed down and the absent sun and blue skies once again reappeared. That evening we never laughed so hard in sharing our three separate experiences over and over again. What was the worse day of my life ended up being one of the best days when all was said and done. But isn’t that how life is?

I don’t think I learned a thing about sailing that day on the ocean but I sure learned a thing or two about life from a school of dolphins…only in their school they were the teachers and I was the student.


Greg Giesen is the Manager of People Development at the University of Denver and brings over 25-years of experience in leadership development, management coaching, conflict mediation, team building, and keynote speaking. He’s also the author the award-winning novel, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead.