Sailing on an Ocean of Hope

Rob Munns was having a bad year, well six of them to be precise. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009 at the age of 39, the Englishman was struggling to find his footing in his new world that was no longer disease-free. “MS was sapping the color out of every experience.” And then he hit the high seas in a most unexpected fashion: on a sailboat manned by MSers. That changed everything.

Rob Munns (right) sailing with a friend

2015 has been an enormous year for my journey with MS. And I am lucky—I can run, swim, sing and dance and play golf. (For the latter two, my enthusiasm far outweighs my talent.) The compromises in my life are manageable. I have to watch my energy levels and try my best to predict fatigue. But this year my attitude toward MS has been put into perspective. My journey with multiple sclerosis has been a long and testing one. The sad part: until this year, I did not know I was on this journey. 


Looking back after my 2009 diagnosis, MS had a strangle hold on my life. A life that used to be full of laughter and vitality. Until this year, I really wasn't consciously aware of what MS was doing to me. How it was bringing fear into every waking moment, every decision I had to make, and every room I had to walk into.

MS was sapping the color out of every experience—greatly affecting work as well as relationships with the ones I love—and I didn't even know it at the time.

Going About

In April 2014 when I was a manager at a marina on the south coast of England, I was on duty and a small party of people came into the reception. They represented a very adventurous project. We talked for a while and I learned of a fantastic voyage that they were planning. The project was called Sailing Sclerosis, and they were planning to sail a boat—Oceans of Hope—around the world… by a crew of people with MS.


Over the next couple of weeks, I could not get the proposed voyage out of my mind. Was this really doable, quitting my job and facing unemployment? Would I have enough personal fortitude to participate? Could I commit to an adventure of a lifetime fraught with the unpredictability of my disease?


Absolutely, I decided. I wanted to be a part of it.


Finally, I was starting to get excited about something... I was starting to look forward to something... And from that moment on, nothing else was important. This was the first decision I had made in a long time. So I officially applied for a spot on one of the later legs of the circumnavigation. And I waited. Six months later the e-mail arrived: I was in!


They informed me that I was going to join Oceans of Hope in the Galapagos and sail with her across the Pacific to Tahiti. That's 4,000 nautical miles of open sea sprinkled with isolated islands. So on January 9 2015, I resigned and a month later I was in the air to Quito in Ecuador.


New Bearings

This article isn't about my geographical journey from A to B. No, my journey turned into a whole different entity. During the voyage, the last five years caught up with me. Being out in the big blue ocean, with time and space and good people, made it apparent to me that I had not been myself over these last few years. The Robert I thought I was, well, he had disappeared and had been replaced by a frightened, pretty helpless and lonely 46-year-old man. This was an awakening for me. I realized that to some extent, I had been disengaged from life for a long time now.

Rob Munns in his element

I started to listen to my shipmates, listening to their stories, their difficulties and their passions. We sailed together, we cooked together and when we could, we explored islands together. I realized that I needed to rediscover how it was to live life in the moment. To be bold and not give into the stupid fear that had been forced upon me by a stupid, stupid illness.


Not to hide behind a facade of smiles and good humor (a facade that I was getting good at by the way), but to engage with others and invest more of myself in each experience that came to me. By engaging with the guys and gals on board Oceans of Hope, I came back from the dimly lit corridors of sadness. I found the light switch to take away the gloom.


By listening to others who put up with more compromises in their daily lives than me, I've gained strength from them. The captain and crew—Kristian and Bertram—gave me the gift of genuine laughter. However childish or silly it was at the time, this laughter filled a giant vacuum that existed in my body, a gloomy void. Laughter filled my lungs with fresh oxygen, putting color back into my soul. A sad soul that was not even aware of his mourning.


Today I'm definitely ready to engage with the world again. I also feel that I am better prepared—I'm stronger and fitter if needed in the future. I also feel less selfish and I want to give something back, almost as repayment. Not only to repay the superstars of Sailing Sclerosis, but also to repay myself.


Learn more about Oceans of Hope and Sailing Sclerosis Foundation at www.oceansofhope.org

Follow Rob Munns on Twitter at @robwmunns, Sailing with MS at @OOHChallenge and Oceans of Hope at @sailsclerosis.

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