Sailing and Cancer are not words found often in the same sentence. In fact, my “cancer life” and my “sailing life” were so contradictory that they seemed to never overlap — hence the beauty of putting the two together and founding a competitive sailing program for cancer survivors.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at 17. I’m lucky in that Hodgkins is considered more curable than many other malignancies, especially if it is diagnosed before it has spread to the bone marrow. My cancer was treated with surgery and six months of chemotherapy; I had to delay college by a year, which I now jokingly call my “gap year independent study in the oncology experience.” In reality, I spent a good part of that year in bed, clinging precariously to life, seriously underweight, completely bald, and vomiting frequently.
When I finished chemotherapy and was declared free of cancer, my mom and dad planned a family sailing trip to the British Virgin Islands. Although it wasn’t my first time on a sailboat, it was the first time that I became truly interested in sailing as a sport. I found great solace in harnessing the wind for speed. In short, I soon discovered that while I had been successfully treated for cancer, I had caught another disease which has no cure — the “sailing bug”. That trip to the Caribbean was the start of a journey that would guide me, year by year, more seriously into the sport of sailing, from that first cruising experience through getting my charter skipper certifications, learning to race, participating in regattas in the US and Europe, and eventually buying my own boat and skippering a race team.
Many sailors claim that sailing keeps them sane. The positive impacts of sailing on mental health may be more literal than most believe; people often get “in the zone” when sailing or into what is scientifically called a “flow state”. In a flow state, focus and concentration are at their peak, to the point where a person loses feelings of self-consciousness, self-doubt, anxiety, and even physical discomfort. Repeatedly getting into flow states can help us become vastly happier, more productive, and mindful.
Cancer survivors often deal with significant after-effects of surgical, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. These effects can be physical in nature, including fatigue, pain, and neuropathy, as well as emotional, such as the fear of cancer recurrence and survivor’s guilt. These detrimental physical and emotional after-effects can hold people back from moving on from cancer and reclaiming their health and their lives. Many cancer survivors feel isolated, lonely, and as if they are looking for a new purpose in life. Forging a connection between sailing and cancer survivors starts to make infinite sense when you think about the healing effects of being in a flow state.
These same issues that cancer survivors face can be mediated by the experience of flow, and flow can be found in sailing. Sailing is also a sport that doesn’t require a high level of fitness to get started in, but can hugely improve physical ability, strength, and flexibility over time. Sailing is a team sport and has a welcoming global community; it’s difficult to feel lonely once you begin to meet fellow sailors. It’s possible to enjoy sailing as long as you live, and it can provide new, exciting goals or opportunities to pursue, whether it is cruising, racing, ocean crossing, or simply mastering new positions on the crew.
For me, sailing was a major factor in helping me find beauty and passion in my life after going through one of the worst and most terrifying experiences that a person can face. Through time spent on the sea, I’ve come to realize that we are limitless beings, able to cross oceans, harness the elements, travel in harmony with nature, and help each other push the boundaries beyond what we had ever thought was possible. I want to bring this passion to survivors who may be feeling limited by their experience with cancer and help them rediscover that the only limits are the ones we place on ourselves.
I chose the name Resilience Racing for this team because we all have our own stories of resilience. Life is a series of small changes and evolutions that often mean reinventing ourselves, overcoming adversity, and making a comeback. Cancer survivors understand the essence of resilience; most sailors do as well. I believe that through Resilience Racing, we can prove that we have not been limited by cancer and what it put us through, but instead that we are, as the great French sailor Florence Arthaud would say, “living to the limit”.
To learn more about Resilience Racing and Jennifer Hinkel, visit www.resilienceracing.org
To contribute to this charitable effort, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/resilience-racing-cancer-survivor-sailing-team/x/8534694