Leon on fear of letting people down
In this episode of Our Voices, we hear about Leon Ward’s fear of letting people down. He talks about his reactions to being in the midst of an intensely dangerous storm while participating in an annual sailing competition. He goes on to discuss feeling, for the first time, as if he had fundamentally reached his limit.
Sailing in extreme conditions
Leon’s story takes place in 2007 on the English Channel. He and his team are taking part in a sailing competition and the weather conditions are extreme. “ We knew we were going to beat down through the English Channel into a storm, and we knew it was gonna be big, and it was gonna last more than a day.”
The severity of the conditions only became more pronounced as the team found themselves facing force nine gusts “which is really, really big stuff, something I’d never been in before.” So extreme were the conditions that, out of an initial 300 boats that had started the race, only 60 remained.
The Perfect Storm
Setting the scene further, Leon says “Mayday calls were being made over the radios and things like that as people were in trouble with their life… At night there were big waves, it actually is the only time I’ve seen something that looks like the movie, The Perfect Storm, where you’re climbing waves just like in the movie. And it’s genuinely very scary.”
In order to qualify that fear, Leon goes on to say: “You’re not so much worried about yourself, it’s that everybody else is now in your hands, because you’ve got 10 of you on the boat. Three or four of those people are asleep below. If you get this wrong… everybody’s in massive trouble.”
Meeting his limits
Bearing in mind the extreme difficulty of the conditions, it was important to have a strict rota system to organise the ways in which the duties on the boat would be divided. This involved each sailor taking the helm for a 90-minute slot, while the other team-mates had a chance to rest or take on other duties.
Leon’s turn to steer was coming up, but he had a problem: he was feeling severely ill and had serious reason to doubt his ability to take on the task. “It was actually my brother who told me ‘You’re up!’ And I went, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t take the helm…’ I’m just sat there huddled and I just do not want to move. This is as far as I can push myself at this point in time.” Someone else would have to fill in for Leon on this occasion.
When it came round to Leon’s next slot, he felt much better and was able to take over the boat. However, it’s the inability to perform that stays with Leon 15 years after it originally happened. Again, the fear of letting people down resurfaces.
“ It massively affected me at the time and afterwards… The first thing that pops into my head is that, when it was my go, my turn to be responsible for everybody for that one period, I couldn’t do it. And that almost defines the whole race for me… I let everybody down.”
A haunting memory
On the surface, Leon’s inability to take the helm on that one occasion hardly seems like the sort of thing you would wish to chastise yourself for 15 years later. Especially when you bear in mind the fact that he had clearly made a sensible decision.
Taking on the responsibility of nine other lives in extremely dangerous weather conditions is not something a person should do if they know that they are physically incapable of doing it. Yet, still, that moment continues to haunt him, which demonstrates the power of the fear of letting people down.
Part of the reason for Leon’s fear of letting people down may well come from unrealistic societal expectations. In Leon’s words: “There’s an expectation that you will step up as a man and that you will do things. You will be that person like in the movies or in the books where, no matter how hard it is, you will step up.”
Unrealistic expectations of men
Stepping up is clearly a powerful concept for Leon. He uses this expression on multiple occasions when reflecting on his fear of letting people down. But it’s important to ask ourselves what we mean when we use that expression. Later in the podcast, Leon talks about “taking care of business”. Another expression associated with competence, strength and success. These expressions are so often associated with males. This may well indicate the way society holds unrealistic expectations of men.
A stern upbringing
As well as talking about that moment of vulnerability, Leon also discusses his upbringing and highlights where his conceptions of masculinity originate from. He mentions his father, who was a particularly stern individual. There was no expression of feeling, no discussion of fear, unhappiness or vulnerability between Leon and his father:
“[He had] almost a stiff upper lip, stereotypical attitude… We would never give anybody a hug, we will never do that.” Leon’s father was a former soldier and he remembers him as being “very aggressive”.
It turned out that Leon’s father had PTSD. The refusal to discuss his emotions may well have had the effect of further compounding that trauma. But the pressures on men to always seem in control rarely provide opportunities for truly opening up.
Not wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps
Leon acknowledges his father is a major influence on his conception of masculinity. He reveals that he has made a conscious effort not to be like him. “I’d like to think I’m not him, that I wouldn’t do it how he did it. It was massive for me to not be the parents that I had.”
A brighter future
As a result, Leon has done his best to support his daughter. She like her grandfather, has begun serving in the military. He now understands the importance of her being able to “step up” or “take care of business”.
One imagines that, when faced with the intense spectre of a potential life and death situation, one relies on one’s instincts. Leon hopes that his daughter’s instincts do not let her down in the way that he believes happened to him.
Yet, if she were to experience vulnerability, perhaps the most important thing is that she would have a strong set of companions to support her just as Leon had a strong enough set of team-mates to help see them all through that storm. Leon’s story isn’t so much about the feeling of letting yourself down; it’s also about the need sometimes to let yourself be helped.