Sail Training at Gordonstoun - Alexander's Chapel address

By Alexander M, Round Square Year 13

Alexander has a passion for sailing and was asked to deliver a talk to the rest of the student body about what he has learned from his sail training experiences, and give some advice to any students about to embark on sail training for the first time. This was his address to the Senior School:

When I was approached to write a nautical themed chapel, I spent quite a while thinking what to talk about. I really love sailing, and I want to impart the level of excitement I have about it, but everything I wrote sounded like a long-winded way of saying ‘I promise you, it’s not that bad’.

I though perhaps, I should do the tried and tested. Take the school’s motto ‘There is more in you’, and explain why sailing is the perfect demonstrator of this. When it’s half way through your night shift, you're freezing half to death, too sick or too tired to hold a conversation, and Mr Lerner pops his head out the hatch and announces its time to tack, how it’s in that moment you find that little Kurt Hahn inside you, and go at your task with vigour.

On second thoughts, that might instil more fear than confidence; so, back to the drawing board... After sitting around for half an hour and failing to think of any good ideas, I was about to resign myself to flicking over to youtube, when I was reminded of this card that my mum has up in our kitchen at home.

‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails’

Life, like the wind, is unpredictable. We encounter challenges, face adversity, and navigate through uncertainties that are beyond our control. The winds of change blow in unexpected directions, sometimes gentle and soothing, at other times fierce and turbulent. Yet, it is conquering these moments of uncertainty that truly fulfils us.

When we are confronted by situations that we cannot control, it's easy to feel overwhelmed, powerless, or defeated. It's natural to wish that we could stop the wind from blowing, to object to the existence of the forces that threaten to push us off course. As much as we sit on our hands and complain, however, the wind will keep blowing. GCSEs and A-levels will still be on the horizon. It will still be cold and wet when we have to go to play sports. We can’t remove life’s challenges.

But that doesn’t mean we have no agency; in fact, the opposite. Even in the face of adversity, however unexpected and however brutal, our reaction is ultimately our choice. We can choose to abandon our voyage, and make for safe harbour; open Instagram in prep time, or pretend to be ill to get marked 'off exercise'. Perhaps it will feel like a triumph, when we’re laughing at that TikTok and our roommate is struggling with their maths prep, or better still if our friends come back from rugby frozen to the bone and laden with mud, whilst we’ve been sitting comfortably in bed.

This will no doubt give us pleasure. But there is an important distinction to make, one that is central to a philosophy called Stoicism, upon which much of the Gordonstoun ethos is based. Whilst pleasure is brief and fleeting, true happiness, that fulfilment - remains.

Staying in a safe harbour will no doubt keep our boat intact. But boats are not built to stay in the harbour, and however rough the waves and strong the wind, their purpose is to keep sailing. They may not always chart a steady course, and, more than likely, neither will we. The tide, the waves and the wind may one day be carrying us forward, and the next be dragging us back, but that’s why we can adjust the sails. We may take more pleasure in staying here at school, but looking back on the experience of, and the achievements made on a great voyage really is something else.

If you go out on sail training this year, I’m sure you’ll find the conditions never stay the same for long, but your direction of travel will remain. Likewise, as we inevitably begin to face new and changing problems this year, we can remain faithful to our aspirations, and, in the face of shifting winds, keep going onwards, even if that means taking on a different tack.

I think that’s why sailing was always such a fundamental part of Kurt Hahn’s philosophy, and why it remains as such an important aspect of a Gordonstoun education: it’s one of the greatest metaphors for life.