Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Most Dangerous Personality Type on an Expedition, and How to Avoid It

I was aboard a wooden raft with an unstable man once, just a few years ago, and as we drifted and sailed on the open sea this strange man began to radiate a mania, a dark, venal paranoia, a malaise that today terrorizes me sometimes, in my nightmares.

There were five men on this expedition, living in a little bamboo house on top of the raft, and as the days passed this hideous man, whom I will here call "Frederick," began to obsess over what he called a "rare tropical disease." He believed that something unseen—some aggressive microbe—had crawled under his skin and was now eating his flesh. Each day, during this time, he would try to eradicate this crawling thing by tearing his own tissues out with a pair of surgical pliers (hemostats). For example, if he got a cut or a scrape on the back of his hand he would declare that the disease had made "a hole" in him, and then spend hours picking and pulling and jerking little bits of his own flesh out, slowly extracting the phantom microbe from his own meat until there was, indeed, a gaping hole. These holes were horrific, roughly the size of a coin—like, say, a quarter—and sometimes half an inch deep.

All things threatened Frederick. He believed that any course we sailed on was the course of doom, and so he felt his duty to always change it …without telling us. Each night when we'd put this frenetic man on watch, he would apparently change the course of the raft, so that in the morning when we looked at the GPS we would find ourselves in a completely unexpected part of the Pacific Ocean. As the weeks passed on the barren sea Frederick's mania incubated and mutated. Anything, no matter how small, could send him into raging fits of blood-faced, vein-bulging chaos. He would sometimes scream and shriek and appear to be trying to claw his own face off. And the very smallest of things were the very greatest threats. When he became obsessed with our little rubber dinghy, which we towed behind our raft, and when that obsession could not be satisfied, he simply cut the dinghy free and let it drift away in a rainstorm, an act of sabotage.

Broadly speaking, these are the effects Isolation and Confinement on an unstable personality. The term Isolation and Confinement applies to the types of environments found inside submarines, remote polar stations, and spacecraft. The data on this phenomenon is still scanty and of course mainly anecdotal, but after a good deal of study most scientists agree on one basic idea: If the person is not unstable before they go out there, then being out there probably won't destabilize him, or her. I believe this to be true. I have made other long voyages aboard rafts, like the horrific one that I was just describing, where I drifted on the open sea for months sometimes, and recently a friend of mine asked me, "Wouldn't you go mad out there?"

No. You wouldn't.

There's nothing out there to make you go mad. Yes, people will decline emotionally —their morale will go down—but that is not instability. Isolation and Confinement alone should not cause a person to destabilize or to adopt abnormal, pathological behavior.

The best way to avoid this catastrophe is to trust your intuition during the selection process. This was the genius of the legendary English explorer, Sir Earnest Shackelton. Shackelton selected his expedition team by considering the type of person they were first, much more than worrying about their credentials, and he never took anyone with him that violated his intuition. Trust your intuition completely. The moment I met Frederick I knew there was something wrong with him, but I ignored my conscience. This was the beginning of disaster: You simply cannot go on an expedition with someone who violates your intuition. Many people can have friends of that sort for years, perhaps even live with them and sleep with them—and that's fine—but don't ever take them with you on an expedition.

John Haslett's memoir of survival on the open sea aboard a wooden raft is called Voyage of the Manteño, The Education of a Modern-Day Expeditioner (St. Martin's Press, Dec.'06). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Film Director Annie Biggs.

To read the first chapter of Voyage of the Manteño just click: Chapter 1 The Worst Day ...and The Best

"When describing Voyage of the Manteño, the word riveting works best."

Four Things You Should Know If You Find Yourself in a Life Raft:

You might find yourself suddenly stranded and traumatized in an inflatable raft someday, with a barren sea all around you and with the plastic walls of the little boat crinkling and crackling in your ears, and you should:

1. Be prepared for an emotional explosion from one or more of the group in the raft. It can come sometimes in the form of an unadulterated panic, but it is much more likely to manifest itself in recrimination, blame, indignation at being put in this situation, and it is going to come in the form of a volcanic rage. A friend of mine once stalled a boat's outboard motor on the open sea, and instead of working to solve the problem calmly, his two companions exploded into a childish shoving match that knocked the motor overboard. The three men spent another nine days adrift and survived only by sucking the blood out of a turtle. This happens a lot. Try to let the person who's 'losing it' blow off their steam in the most benign way—let them vent, but keep it under control.

2. Know that you can sink your only hope in two seconds. All modern inflatables boast tremendous resistance to tearing and puncturing, and this is no doubt true, but I have seen rafts, hard ones, sliced-through like butter. My cinematographer and I once glanced an inflatable boat off a sharp metal edge and then found ourselves suddenly treading water in towering seas, with our raft deflated underneath us like a dead animal. When you are in your raft you must quickly probe for sharp objects or protrusions among your fellows: Check for purses with metal latches or ornaments, belt buckles, earrings, snaps with jagged edges, even ballpoint pens.

3. Know that it is exceptionally difficult for anyone to see your little raft. Objects that shine are now your life. Don't use flashlights for simple tasks; you must conserve them exclusively for signaling. Anything, cosmetic mirrors, belt buckles, even the plastic laminate on the cover of a book, if polished, can be of help. CDs are excellent; they are like beacons on the sea. But be advised: In certain seas, tiny wavelets can twinkle just like your mirror or CD, so you must signal in a pattern. Be consistent. People will see your pattern and realize that someone is signaling. And always be persistent. Never assume that they've spotted you. An aircraft or sea vessel may appear to be coming for you when in fact they've simply made a course correction. Continue signaling until you're dead sure they've indeed come for you. Take nothing for granted, brothers and sisters, KEEP SIGNALING.

4. Know that people will give up quickly, and therefore you must make up your mind to stay alive. All experts agree that attitude is usually the deciding factor. I have seen strong men lay down and give up on the sea. I have seen this. If there are others in your raft who are determined to stay alive, make a quick alliance with them, even if they don't appear to be "the strongest." Always keep in mind that human beings decline at an uneven rate, and that you, the one who is not declining, will have to give those others a little spark—a little push, for FREE. Every single human being, without exception, has a reserve that exists deep down, stored in a place that they've never been to. It is real, but it has to be brought out. It has to be encouraged, coaxed, cajoled, pushed, and basically convinced of its own existence, to come up. But everybody's got it.

John Haslett's memoir of survival on the open sea aboard a wooden raft is called Voyage of the Manteño, The Education of a Modern-Day Expeditioner (St. Martin's Press, Dec.'06). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Film Director Annie Biggs.

To read the first chapter of Voyage of the Manteño just click: Chapter 1 The Worst Day ...and The Best

"You won't be able to put it down." National Geographic Adventure