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 moderate wind speed of 18 to 20 knots. The channel was only about 35 miles across, which meant we would make safe harbor for the evening in five to six hours.

The Backstory
I’m not a sailor. I love the idea of being a sailor, but the fantasy is much more appealing than the reality. The only other time I had sailed was a disaster. I had rented a sailboat at a nearby lake with some friends and the sailboat tipped over, propelling all of us into the cold water. As I tumbled over the side, my right shoulder popped out, leaving me in excruciating pain and with only one arm to dog paddle to the surface. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least. We not only had to be rescued, but also I had to pop my own shoulder back in place. Ouch!

Perhaps you can understand why I was a bit hesitant when my buddies—Coy and Timmy—asked me to fly out to Santa Barbara with them for a three-day sailing excursion. But both were experienced sailors and assured me over and over again that they’d be doing the bulk of sailing.

The Sailing Trip
After motoring out of the Santa Barbara Sailing Center in a relatively new, 32-foot long Hunter sailboat, the swells were getting deeper as we moved out to sea. My crewmates seemed to welcome the challenge.

But soon, the wind picked up to 25 knots. I don’t really know what that means, but it was starting to feel like an amusement ride gone bad—up and down and up and down! Fortunately, I had remembered to put on my sea sickness patch before we left. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had no idea how I would get to the little bathroom, let alone stand up in it, when that time came. Too much information?

The wind picked up to 30 knots as dark clouds filled the sky. With every swell and crash, all I could see was a wall of green seawater on all sides of us. I looked to my crewmates, hoping for reassurance, but I saw Timmy, hanging over one side of the boat, heaving whatever was left of his lunch. Coy frantically tried to sail the boat by himself, but he was in desperate need of assistance.

I watched the nightmare unfold. The wind howled as the angry ocean doused us over and over again with freezing seawater. My body was shaking from head to toe and I was unable to release my arms from the rail. The clouds were so low that it became difficult to see where the sky and sea separated. Up and down—left to right—up and down—left to right—with no end in sight. Without question, this was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. It was horrible!

The sea raged on for what seemed like hours. The winds were now over 40 knots and the swells over 18 feet tall. Timmy was so sick that he could no longer move from the fetal position. I wanted to help Coy, but the storm was so loud that I couldn’t hear a word he said. And I wasn’t about to let go of the rail. He was basically on his own.

Then, just at the apex of awfulness, we came upon the most amazing contradiction. A school of dolphins swam up alongside the boat. They jumped and played with glee.

The irony was overwhelming. How could they be having such fun, when I’m literally experiencing the worst moment in my life!

But then a calmness came over me too. The dolphins were there to let me know that everything was going to be okay. It became clear that I needed to embrace the moment, lighten up, and enjoy the ride. It was so obvious that I laughed out loud.

The Aftermath
The five-hour trip took us nine hours, but the erratic seas finally calmed down and the sun reappeared in time for a beautiful sunset. That evening we laughed like little kids, reminiscing about the day’s exhilarating voyage. To no surprise, we each had a different experience during those nine hours. For Coy, it was about sailing solo in treacherous seas. For Tim, it was about keeping his eye on the horizon and breathing. And for me, it was about loosening my grip and lightening up during difficult times. I have the dolphins to thank for that! Funny how what started out as the worst day ever turned into one of the best.

Author's Bio: 

Greg “Geese” Giesen is a writer, speaker, storyteller, and student of life. He’s been a management trainer/consultant, graduate school professor, conflict mediator, team builder, personal growth coach, college administrator, radio talk show host, and team intervention specialists. He is the award-winning author of Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead, and just published his second and more personal book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese. Greg continues to speak across the country on authentic leadership as well as facilitates his personal-empowerment program, Leading From Within. For more information, go to