Crashing into Blue Thought

This has been a month of great achievement, as a handful of our sport’s top athletes have secured their spot in the 2016 Olympic Games. The trickle down effects of this earned casts’ sweat and tears undoubtedly washes our sailing world with current of pride and anticipation. There is a growing bubbly feeling in my stomach just thinking about the battle-royal that will ensue beneath the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain this summer.

But amid these lofted thoughts of herculean trial and sport, a recent life event near to me colors the frame of my mind’s eye. And the daily evolution of these events sends ripples across the ocean of my heart.

I want to tell you about a sailor on my team named Marnix.

I’ve been coaching him for the past two years and in that time his quick wit and analytical (read: annoyingly skeptical) mind have challenged nearly every word that comes out of my mouth. I love this trait in a sailor, one who questions and dissects everything. (Let’s face it, who am I to say what’s right and wrong in boat racing?) Marnix is the kind of person who looks for the logic within every situation. If he can’t find it, it’s an unsupported claim. (aka: bullshit)

This type of thinking put this impressive 15 year old at the top of our state’s “Future Business Leaders of America” competition. To give you an idea of his character and maturity, already at 15 we were grooming him to become a linchpin staff member. Gaining experience daily by volunteering with our adaptive sailing program and summer camp classes, Marnix had the chops to be a first rate instructor.

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Life can change within the blink of an eye. This is what happened: Christmas Eve Day, 2015 Marnix, was skiing with his family in Austria. A trip he’d been talking up for many months preceding. Marnix, who’s family is from the Netherlands, looked forward to spending the holidays in Europe with his grandparents. On what can be classified as a “blue” run, trailing his father by approximately 30 meters, Marnix crashed. A headfirst fall into the mountain broke his nose and left him fading in and out of consciousness.

His father, Sjoerd, recounted to me that after the crash Marnix could respond to commands like, “squeeze my hand.” “He was in and out for a few minutes, must have been five minutes but felt like 3 years for the ski [patrol] to get him on the sled,” said Sjoerd. Marnix lost consciousness as he was airlifted off the mountain. It was ten days in intensive care before Marnix awoke from the coma, his brain bruised and damaged, his body too fatigued to lift his head off the pillow.  

I want to pause a moment to write this again, ten days.

After several more weeks in a hospital in Salzburg, Marnix slowly regained speech and the strength to sit up for a few minutes at a time.The swelling around his nose and eyes had gone down, but his mental state was in infancy, or to be more accurate, to an early adolescence.

Marnix doesn’t remember anything from this time. To this day, he has no memory of the accident or the first two weeks in the hospital. However, there is one thing that remains vivid in his mind. Blue thoughts, or “blauwe gedachten” as he likes to say. As soon as he woke, after the initial shock of returning to this world, his parents and sister, and learning that he had fallen while skiing, Marnix recalled a profound feeling that stays with him since the accident.

I think of it as his lifeline back to reality. Marnix likens this sensation to being pulled by the wind and sliding across the water. This is “blue thought.” It’s more than the action of sailing, more than movement of the boat, the energy of the wind, or lapping of water. It is the sum of all parts encapsulated in this wonderful dance. These blue thoughts come together and form an entire landscape within Marnix’s mind.

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At the top of his list, created by his healing and fragile mind, which includes his family and his dog, Botje  (little bone), sailing sits as something most cherished. “My primary thoughts, even when I initially woke up from my coma, were thoughts of sailing,” says Marnix.

As sailors and water people, I think we are all drawn to this kind of sensation. In pursuit of chasing the magic that comes together when out flying atop the water. I know it is something I have devoted my whole life.  Which is why this story strikes me as so profound. The marks in the pavement where this whole story touches down for me is that sailing has really made a difference in Marnix’s life.

“[Sailing is] a primary motivator and encourager for me.”

More than a hobby or sport- sailing is the driving force to Marnix’s recovery. In the past few months I’ve spoken to his hospital team, calling on behalf of his doctors, to build a success plan for Marnix to return to sailing. Each day he gets closer to fullfulling his dream, Marnix continues to heal.

His dad will tell you that every thing the doctors tell them, things Marnix can’t do, Marnix responds determined to overcome those limitations.

Last October, months before his accident, Marnix saved up enough money to purchase a Lightning from our local fleet. He made a payment plan with his dad and negotiated with the boat’s previous owner. He even took a job at a local store to make some cash to pay for repairs. The boat, “Beater,” a Lightning from the 1960s had a laundry list of work to be done. In need of new rigging, rebuilt wooden fittings, and delamination in the floor; an aggressive list for anyone.  One warm fall day, I helped Marnix step the mast so he could trailer his boat home.

Once he returned home from the hospital in Salzburg, Marnix became an inpatient at Craig Hospital (known for it’s incredible work with spinal chord injury patents). Side note: our sailing program partners with Craig to offer sailing outings to their out-patients, to provide confidence boosting recreation for patients and families. Patients come out of Craig to join our program. I never imagined it would be the other way around.

Craig’s basement is filled with workspaces where their three in-house engineers tinker with sporting gear to custom fit these tools for their patients to get outdoors. During his stay at Craig, Marnix spent as much time in the workshop as he could. Under close supervision at first, he soon earned the freedom to work with power tools again.

The gears in his head turning the whole time thinking of “Beater” in his garage and all the work that needed to be done.

“The boat project in the garage has been excellent for Marnix’s rehabilitation,” remarks Sjoerd. I visited Marnix this past weekend and found “Beater” nearly race ready. New wood trim, varnished, a rebuilt rudder, reinforced rigging platforms, and trailer rebuild.

“In January, when he woke up, Marnix said ‘I’m going to sail ‘ and in April, as soon as we got the chance, we were sailing,” says Sjoerd.

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Last week, we rigged up one of our adaptive keelboats and turned the keys over to Marnix. He and his dad cruised around the reservoir on a light wind day.

I can’t quantify how full my heart felt watching these two sail together in light of all they’ve gone through this winter. Soon, maybe as early as next week, Marnix will put the mast up on his lightning to sail for the first time as a proud boat’s owner. With shiny new varnish and rigging, this time instead of ‘beater’ the stern will read “Blue Thoughts.” And I look forward to following the path  of its wake.

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