Paddy Upton

When Fear Strikes

A story from that scary intersection where a series of mistakes, a consequential oversight, and an unexpected turn of events collide.  

My mate Guy and I set out from Simonstown to test a 3.8m Inflatable boat with a 30 hp engine. It was a 15-year-old rig which he had very recently bought. 

There was a strong Southeaster blowing, which was due to settle at around 11am. On an otherwise clear summers day, we set out fishing while the wind was still strong, and trolled lures downwind for approximately 15 km.

That wind never did settle, but thing did change later that day. Within minutes of the skies being clear, we found ourselves in a complete white-out, with almost no visibility. An unexpected and violent storm hit us – about 5km from the nearest land.

And then fear struck.

It dawned on me that this was the perfect storm. Neither our boat nor our clothing was equipped for this weather. Driving rain and waves breaking over the boat saw us taking on water fast. We had no cell reception and no navigational devices, and a violent wind was now blowing us off course and further out to sea. Our only way of knowing where land was, was a small piece of mountain that was barely visible, and any moment could disappear. Without wet-weather gear, my core temperature was dropping on top of not having kept a meal down for three days thanks to a tummy bug – so I wasn’t my strongest. In isolation, none of these factors were a significant problem. Together they added up to a shit-show. And there was another threat looming and which we hadn’t yet realized. 

We were running out of petrol.

And soon found ourselves in proper trouble.

Guy was skippering and fully focused on keeping the boat upright as wind and waves conspired to capsize us. 

I was navigating, and planning for the mounting threats. My biggest concern being if cloud concealed that last piece of mountain. 

If this happened, we would have absolutely no way of knowing which way land was. 

There were too many scary scenarios, and in all them, I would be edging closer and closer to hypothermia. My teeth were already chattering.

This was quite a different situation from being on stage, or in front of a cricket team, telling others how to navigate fear! 

This following is what happened in my mind for the next ninety minutes:

  • Fuck! 
  • This is really bad! 
  • What the hell am I doing out here, how did I get myself into this? 
  • I know better. 
  • I’m not ready to die today. But the chance is real. 
  • Panic.
  • Panic even more when I realise I’m panicking. I know panic at sea kills. 

Helplessness slowly morphed into awareness

I’m feeling fear and panic because I’ve have become fixated on all the possible worst-case scenarios that could play out.

I know that fear is not ‘real’ – it’s a concept that I’m creating for myself in my own head. 

I’m doing this by getting stuck on predicting things going wrong in the future

I’m causing myself to panic.

I know I can immediately fix this.

Bring your focus back into the present moment. 

I looked at the ocean in the immediate 10-20m around the boat and asked myself, ‘are we OK at this very moment’. 

The answer was yes.

What am I in control of? I can still see the mountain, so get back to navigating. 

And breath. 

And relax your grip, stop holding on so tightly.

I’m calm and focused again. 

We’re in shit, but we’re OK. For now. 

I go back to planning for what can go wrong. And panic re-surfaces. It comes in waves, not unlike the ones pounding the boat. I need to steady my mind again and again.

  • Come back to the present. 
  • Focus on the immediate surrounds. 
  • At this moment we’re OK. 
  • Focus on what I’m in control of. 
  • Navigate, breath, relax.
  • Repeat.

I went through this cycle maybe five times over the next very long hour before we eventually sighted land. We had missed our destination by only about 500m. A very good result all-considered.

We arrived back shaken, mildly hyperthermic, and with half a litre of fuel to spare. 

I was, once again, humbled by the ocean and mother nature. 

And grateful to be alive.

When faced with pending danger, challenge, difficulty and/or the unknown…


Project into the future and think through all possible scenarios. Do not dwell here.

Step 2:            

Come up with a plan.

Step 3:            

Return your focus into the present moment, placing full attention on what’s important right now?

Step 4: 

When fear rises again, as it will, return to step 3! Watch video for full story.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *