Conrad Humphreys is a three-time round-the-world yachtsman, the youngest ever winner of the BT Global Challenge in 2001. He’s also a driving force behind the Blue Mile and the wider Blue Project – pioneering new ways to put people in touch with our ‘blue environment’.
Here Conrad tells us about his own long-standing passion for the sea, the close links between sport and the environment, and the importance of inspiring a love of nature from an early age.
“For some people the natural environment is highly addictive. Personally, I can testify to an almost insatiable appetite for spending time on the ocean.
Is this desire innate? It’s possible, given that my mum spent almost every daylight hour on or next to a beach (she worked night duty as a nurse to make it possible).
It’s certain that my earliest connection to the sea came from living a stone’s throw away from Exmouth seafront in Devon. I divided my time between playing rugby in the winter and sailing in the summer, until eventually the pull of the ocean overcame all else.
While some of my friends spent their time satisfying their craving for video arcade games on the seafront, my fascination for what lay beyond the shoreline started to consume every waking hour.
I’ve no doubt that some of this addiction came from playing competitive sport from an early age, as many athletes will testify. The physiological, and psychological, changes that stem from a heightened state of arousal during sport are crucial for motivating certain behaviours, like mobility (the flight or fight response) and emotional response.
I still recall the wonder from those earliest memories playing with boats on the River Exe, right through to surfing powerful Southern Ocean waves for days on end during the Vendee Globe.
For some athletes, it’s this intimate relationship with nature that’s helped produce some remarkable performances. Take pentathlete Heather Fell, whose inspired performance at the Beijing Olympics surprised many after a lacklustre pre-games period. Heather rekindled her focus by returning to Dartmoor National Park to train, and found the emotional resilience to achieve an incredible silver medal in the modern pentathlon.
It’s this emotional connection between sport and the environment that inspired me to found the Blue Project and more recently, in partnership with WWF and Ecover, to create the Ecover Blue Mile, a mass-participation event designed to connect people with the water all around us – our blue environment.
Lots has been written about the emotional value of green and blue space in an era of increased urbanisation, particularly in children’s developing years. In Edith Cobb’s Ecology of Imagination in Childhood she concluded that many of the world’s most creative achievers could recall from their middle childhood a period “when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of profound continuity with natural processes.”
So have we gone too far with removing children from the ‘risk’ of natural play? Certainly the National Trust thinks so, with the recent launch of ‘50 things to do before you’re 11¾’. Climbing a tree, camping out in the wild, wild swimming and building a fire all awaken a sense of wonder at both the natural environment and the part the person is allowed to play in it.
I believe sport is intimately connected to nature, and it’s often the relationship that the athlete has with the environment that motivates and inspires them. Rediscovering our emotional connection to the natural world is vital if we’re to better understand how we can look after it.
As Tony Juniper, ex-Friends of the Earth director, said recently at TEDxExeter, “One priority that should be at the top of the national curriculum would be to have a Natural History GCSE as a compulsory subject for school children” – and I agree with this. Particularly at a time when our government seems hell-bent on putting growth above all else. It’s ridiculous to think we can continue putting our relationship with the planet on the wave behind.
If there is one single legacy to build on from London 2012, I’d stress that everyone has the legal right to do sport in a clean and healthy environment.
This Friday, 8 June, is World Oceans Day, and through our partnership with WWF and Ecover we’re encouraging people around the UK to get close to nature by completing a Blue Mile in, on or next to water this summer.
Follow Conrad on Twitter – @conradhumphreys