The woman who scared away the fear

Alexia Barrier in a story by Andrea Sylos Labini. A thrilling tale on bravery and strenght. 

I was at a circus show once.

I’ve never loved it, but there was a time when my children were crazy about it, and so I had to go with them.

During one of these circus shows, this act was performed: a strong man enters, bringing a long chrome pole; the pole has some sorts of rungs and ends with something like a perch. The strong man reaches the centre of the ring, spreads his legs like Cristiano Ronaldo does when he’s about to take a free kick, moves his head back, takes the pole (which is taller than he his) and puts it on his chin. And he stays still, with a long shiny pole balanced on his chin, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. I thought – and I don’t have a great sense of balance – that it couldn’t be more exciting than that.

But then a girl in a costume comes, carrying a wooden chair. She lays it down near the big man, and before I understand what she’s getting at, she hops on the man’s thighs, slides onto his shoulders, reaches the top of the perch and crouches down. So now we have a dancer in a costume, crouching down on a two-metre pole, uneasily balanced on a muscled man’s chin.

At that moment I was already astonished, but here comes a clown (one of those with the wig, the giant shoes and everything) who takes the chair, gets on the man’s thighs and hands it over to the girl crouched on top of the pole balanced on the man’s chin.

And while I was busy figuring out whether I was dreaming, the lady puts the chair on the perch on top of the pole, steps on it, puts one foot on the top rail and the other one on the stretcher and moves forward, keeping the chair balanced on its two legs. And while the drums roll, she stands up (on a chair balanced on a trench, placed on a two-metre pole standing on a strong man’s chin).

The audience cheered wildly, I was over the moon, but the dancer (or whatever she was), not content with what she has done, starts a contortion act.

No joking: a contortion act.

On a chair standing on two feet.

Which is on a trench on top of a two-metre pole.

Which is balanced on a strong man’s chin.

What I saw that day struck me, and I’ve been talking about it in some of my stories as a representation of “overmuch”: something so extreme in its own category (which I guess is acrobatics) that is definitely too much or over the top.

But then this afternoon I watched a video of Alexia Barrier, and my idea of overmuch changed forever.

Alexia Barrier is an ocean sailor, and, together with her boat TSE-4myplanet, she’s taking part in the Vendée Globe competition: a single-handed round the world race.

The peculiarity of this race is that you don’t “easily” pass through Panama and Suez canals, keeping yourself at ‘normal’ latitudes, with ‘normal’ winds and temperatures.

The Vendée Globe guys circumnavigate the world passing through the Antarctic.

And this could even sound like a triviality, so I’ll spend a few words on the route as to do it justice. Because I can assure you: it’s everything but banal.

The race starts in France, in a place with a marvellous name: “Les Sables d’Olonne”, on the French Atlantic coast; the competitors then descend the Atlantic until reaching south Africa, they round the Cape of Good Hope and head towards Australia, navigating through the “roaring forties”. They owe their name to the fact that in that part of the world, under the 40th parallel north, the wind blows at such intensity as to create a noise similar to a roar.

The journey then takes the sailors pass Cape Leeuwin (the most south-westerly mainland point of Australia), going down over the 50th parallel north, where they enter the so-called “furious fifties”: here the western wind blows with even more intensity, constantly going over 40 knots. This means that the wind is so strong that airplanes are not allowed to take off; with 40 knots, according to the Beaufort scale descriptions, on shore “Twigs break off trees; generally impedes progress.”: well, what for us is extreme conditions is considered to be the normal run in that area. And then you have waves, being three or four metres high in normal conditions: like a double-decker bus. And then the cold weather. And then the threat of icebergs.

This is what happens during calm days: if the weather’s bad, it can be worse. Much worse.

And this is exactly the enjoyable stretch of sea that our Alexia Barrier is sailing during these hours, covering 300 nautical miles per day towards the Nemo Point.

The Nemo Point, despite the name, it’s not an actual point, it’s more of a concept; in order to make it understandable to those who are less accustomed to sea stories, I hope you’ll allow me another short digression.

Have you ever been alone?

No doubt you’ve been alone in your house: the nearest human being standing at no more than 20 metres from you.

Maybe alone in the streets, at night, a bit of anxiety: the nearest human being standing at no more than 100 metres from you.

Some of you may have been alone in the woods, on a mountain or in the countryside: the nearest human being standing at no more than, let’s say, 10 kilometres from you.

Those between us who have experienced solitude may have crossed some desert or wasteland: the nearest human being standing at 300 kilometres from you at best.

Well, these sailors crossing the ocean, who are alone on their boats for months, by the time they reach the Nemo Point they find themselves in the furthest place from any stretch of land on the whole earth: 2688 kilometres. From the Nemo Point you can head towards any direction, but in order to find any stretch of land (whether it’s a small island or a mere rock) you need to cover at least 2688 kilometres. Just to be clear, the most advanced helicopters out there cover a range of 800 kilometres.

Interestingly enough, when you are at the Nemo point you find yourself being closer to the astronauts of the International Space Station than to any other human being.

Two thousand and six hundred kilometres of ocean around you doesn’t only mean being alone on your boat, but also means being quite beyond any possibility of rescue or aid from the outside world.


Truly alone.

On a sailboat, far from everything and everyone.

Surrounded by the noise of the wind screaming so much day after day that you can’t hear any other sound.

Between waves high as a bus in the good days.

In such a cold sea that there could even be icebergs.

And it was with such extreme conditions, in this absolute solitude, that in the evening of the 20th of December Alexia Barrier realized she had a problem. A great one: her boat was losing energy.

Contrary to what you might think, running out of energy while you’re alone on a boat near the Nemo point doesn’t only affect the race or make things uncomfortable: survival is at significant risk.

Energy is crucial for watermakers to provide drinking water; for navigation tools, meteorological equipment, radars, communications, lights, internal heating, and last but not least for the autopilot, which is vital.

In short, without energy you can’t drink, communicate, know the weather forecasts, avoid icebergs. But what’s more important, since it’s a single-handed race, you can’t sail without the autopilot. Ultimately: you can’t get back home.

With the assistance of her ground Team, Alexia understands that the problem is caused by a malfunctioning in the hydrogenerator at the starboard, which (like almost everything on the boat) can be replaced. But there’s a problem: the piece that has to be replaced is one of the few that can’t be reached from inside the boat, meaning that the only way of doing it is by diving into the ice-cold water.

And this wouldn’t even be that scary if only you could wait to have flat sea and no wind. But there’s furious fifties here, and the sea is never flat. Or either way, it won’t be flat in the next days, and Alexia knows that time is exactly what’s she’s lacking. If she waits too much, her boat will slowly start to turn off, as well as her chances to get back home.

The news from her ground Team is discouraging: by radically changing her course, thus dropping out of the race, she ‘should’ find a high-pressure area on the fifth day. But the fact is, she doesn’t have enough energy for five days, and even by cutting consumptions to a minimum she could maybe make it through three days; then she would have to go blindly, with no tools nor autopilot.

Alexia looks aft, and she sees the immensity of the ocean all around her, grey and distant, with gigantic waves more than 5 metres tall, while the wind blows with such an intensity that she almost can’t think, her skin is freezing, and for the first time she’s afraid. A lump in her throat, maybe a tear rolls down her face.

But then a particularly strong gust of wind causes the boat to broach slightly, the autopilot compensates to the right while coming down off of a wave, and the TSE-4 starts gliding; the log indicates the insane speed of 31 knots, and Alexia’s heart pounds with an adrenaline rush.

And a mad idea starts to creep into her mind.

She can’t possibly stop, but with a little less wind and lower waves, she could try and keep the TSE-4 on such a heading to keep the waves pushing the boat aft, thus lifting the hull enough to be able to operate without going into the water.

She rushes to the nav station, which shows that wind and waves should decrease that same night, only to increase again the following morning: 25 knots wind, waves ‘only’ two metres high (a single decker bus) and enough light to operate at dawn. So Alexia informs the Team about her decision: “I’ll do it tomorrow morning, while reaching, while the boat is in glide.”

We have no idea of how the ground Team reacted to that apparently mad idea.

Nor can we understand how Alexia spent that night, waiting for that crucial dawn.

But we know that before leaving, she had posted a picture on her wall with an aphorism:

“The beautiful thing about fear is, when you run to it, it runs away.”

We’re living through times in which social media brims with deep phrases and hymns to bravery. Most of the “keyboard warriors”, after posting the aphorism of the day, get up from their couch and crawl to the fridge in their slippers.

But Alexia really did that, and she ran to her fear; actually, she literally jumped in it.

Alone, in the most remote part of the ocean, while her boat was gliding at the speed of 15 knots, Alexia created a safety harness and slid outside the hall upwind; while the ice water numbed her hands, the boat rolled and the waves lashed against her, freezing her legs and feet, Alexia faced her fear, and she succeeded in the feat of changing the hydrogenerator without stopping.

No offense intended to the circus dancer and to the muscled man, and I hope that the tough-looking sports champions with those toned muscles won’t hold it against me.

But from today, when I think of something outstanding, when I imagine someone who’s so off the charts to be ‘overmuch’ in what they do, I’ll think of her.

Alexia Barrier, the woman who scared away the fear.

Translation by Francesca Lega

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