Alumni Story: Cheryl Fleet - Outward Bound

Alumni Story: Cheryl Fleet

Cheryl Fleet celebrates the 50th anniversary of her Outward Bound course and recounts her epic adventure. Cheryl has lived a full and adventurous life but still credits her OB course as her greatest experience.

Hello fellow Outward Bound alumni,

I attended in January 1974 so I've just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the greatest experience of my life. I’m told I’ve led an unusually interesting and adventurous life so when I’ve mentioned to folks that Outward Bound was the highlight, eyebrows are raised.

I was selected to NZ Women’s Basketball teams between 1973 and 1982, served seven years as a New Zealand Police Officer and Detective, did my OE alone through 19 countries in 1983, graduated from George Mason’s (Virginia, USA) School of Business in 1987 (financed by fruit selling and fence building), coached girls high school basketball in both Napier and in Arizona, founded Canyon Calling Tours in 1996 leading women on world-wide adventures for 20 years and along the way renovated seven homes. 

My Anakiwa experience began while working in an accounting firm in Petone. My boss was heading off to a Rotary luncheon and I asked if Petone Rotary would consider sponsoring me to Anakiwa. He stopped in his tracks and said “We’ve never sent a girl before.” Upon his return, he said he got the OK, made a call and I’d be in the January intake. I was over the moon.

I was less happy on the launch trip from Picton to Anakiwa. The girls around me were quiet, reluctant to engage and frankly, it seemed I’d ended up with a bunch of duds. How wrong I was. In hindsight, they were nervous and contemplative while I was buzzing with excitement. Our group of 14 ran the gamut from university students to a railway ticket seller. The youngest was 16 from Papatoetoe and I was 19, about the same age as the rest.

Every detail of the 23-day experience is still etched in my brain. Some years back, one group of my customers in Peru kept peppering me with questions about Outward Bound and I found myself regaling them with stories. One of these tales was even life-threatening.

Adie was a very shy girl who was in the Navy in Auckland. She rarely spoke. On the second day of our sailing trip, we got too close to the lee of a hill and lost our wind. At the same time, a strong current was running and hurling our whaler straight towards high surf which was smashing onto the rocky coastline. Our safety vessel was too far away to help. Suddenly Adie leapt up, grabbed the tiller and started screaming orders. "Get those sails down,” “Get the oars out,” “You ROW, You Row and YOU ROW.”

I could feel the veins popping out the side of my neck as I pulled on that oar with all my might. We missed being crushed on those rocks by about 60 meters - or by only two minutes with how quickly the current was pulling us. Some surely would have died if not for Adie’s leadership. Later we beached near a hut with a concrete floor. We were so exhausted we crawled into our sleeping bags while it was still light and went out cold. Neither dinner nor a soft mattress mattered and we slept clear through till morning. One would think that Adie’s confidence would have grown after the outstanding leadership she demonstrated but she went straight back to being the shy girl who seldom spoke unless spoken to.

The three, 3-day hikes were all challenging. One was with Graham, our instructor, and the other two were on our own, one in a group of 14 and the other a group of seven. As an athlete and a Girl Guide, I was one of the few used to camping, hiking and exerting myself, so soon I was reducing loads by carrying one girl’s groundsheet and another’s food package. By the third hike, I was the one completely worn out and bush sick and I walked back into camp with an empty backpack with my other hiking mates carrying my stuff.

The most memorable hike was with the group of seven. We were following a prescribed route but on the last day we could not find the final point on the map. So, as it was about 2pm and we had to be back at camp by 6pm we decided to leave the ridge and bush-bash downhill until we found a stream that logically would lead us to a river and lead us home.

At first, it was fun swinging downhill on vines. We found a stream which soon became steep and we roped each other down short, slippery waterfalls. Then one girl slipped, grazed her arms and slightly twisted her ankle, and a bit of panic set in. Adie insisted we leave the stream as it was too dangerous and said we should set off into the bush to hopefully find a clearing and see which way to hike out.

I argued that the bush was too thick and we’d never find a clearing and even though the stream had its challenges, at least we weren’t lost. The Golden Rule of Outward Bound is that you NEVER split up. So, we took a vote. Two voted with me and two voted with Adie. So, it was up to the 16-year old to decide our fate. She went away for a few minutes so as not to be influenced and came back and said “We’ll stick with the stream.”

Relief! Two hours later we were back at camp. I often wonder if that 16-year old remembers the gravity of her decision.

Back at camp. Ah yes! No matter how tired or injured you may be from your three-day expedition, you must run TWICE around camp - a distance of two miles. The point of course is that you always have more in you than you think. This is probably one of the biggest takeaways for me from Outward Bound. No matter how empty I may think my tank is, I know I still have a reserve that, if I dig deep enough, will help push me through.

When we set off on our three-day hike with our group of 14, we were promised water holes at several locations. However, it was an unusually hot January and all these water holes had dried up. The first day we’d climbed almost 1500 meters yet all we could afford to drink before bed was a cap full of water. I remember Lou Patterson and I waking during the night and actually licking the condensation off the inside of our nylon tent. We lay there talking about all the irrelevant things in our lives compared to life-saving water. 

Our three-day kayaking expedition on the Pelorous River was great fun. The kayaks were the old heavy canvas ones and we were all wearing our dad’s long johns as the river was darn cold, even in January. The first rapid was called Can Opener. 13 of us fell out and one girl who kept her eyes glued shut, zipped through unscathed (something perhaps to be learned there!) Anyway, everyone except me was miserable. We had banged up knees and shoulders and were freezing. But I was in my element - emptying kayaks and helping bruised souls back into their boats.

I LOVE kayaking. On the second day, we pulled into the bank and watched Graham climb 10 meters up a cliff onto a ledge. He jumped off into a deep pool. Then he said “OK, follow me.” And of course, Ms. Enthusiasm was right behind him as we climbed back up to the ledge. I looked over and said to myself, “Yep I can do this.” But it took about 15 minutes for everyone to arrive up on the ledge. Each minute that went by my desire to jump declined. As each girl successfully leapt into the water my enthusiasm had withered to zero.

Graham, to his credit, talked with me on the edge of that ledge for a good 10 minutes. The girls below had long since given up their encouraging cheering. All of a sudden Graham kneed me in the butt and I was sent screaming down into the water. I was a complete sobbing mess. Graham would have none of it. “Right Cheryl, you lead the next rapid.” "I don’t want to” I sobbed. “Do it” he commanded. And so I did, successfully shaking off the trauma. I’d met my Waterloo.

Solo was interesting. You were dropped off by a launch at one of the many tiny islands in the Marlborough Sounds for three nights. Most Outward Bounders, we’d been told, kept themselves busy by keeping their fire going. But during our time there was a total fire ban. So, the cold, boiled sausages we’d be given in our food kit stayed that way. They were slightly disgusting but hey, better than going hungry. I actually wrote a poem about them on my groundsheet. A friend who completed Outward Bound after me told me that my poem ended up framed in the Anakiwa kitchen which gave me a good laugh.

The best memory was being picked up by the launch on the last day. We’d so missed human contact that we were all hugging and sitting on each other and the launch driver had to ask us to spread out or we’d capsize his boat!

One day near the end of the course is spent running a 14-mile marathon. Seven miles is on a dirt road and the other seven is through bush. Graham said “Whatever you do, don’t stop on the dirt” so I didn’t. Once in the bush I paced myself by doing Scouts pace - running 30 meters, walking 30 meters. My feet were killing me as my shoes were half a size too small. I ended up with two black toenails that night. Graham shook his head in disappointment as I crossed the finish line. He expected much more of me. But back in the 70’s you couldn’t buy sports shoes. Everyone who visited Australia took an outline of your foot with them and tried to pick the right size shoes for all their friends. Unfortunately, my friend had chosen shoes a tad too small.

The highlight of Outward Bound for me was the day all 14 of us successfully scaled the 12-foot wall as a team. The task seemed impossible but we worked out a plan which only succeeded because two of our team were very fit and courageous. Adie volunteered to be the one who hung upside down from the top for everyone to climb up and over. Had she fallen it would surely have guaranteed a broken neck. I was one of the two on top of the wall holding her legs firmly. The level of trust involved was enormous. Then Lou volunteered to go last which meant she had to run, leap and grab Adie’s dangling fingertips and pull herself up Adie’s body. I’ve never felt such relief when Lou got her foot into Adie’s armpit and we were able to pull her to the top - and get Adie back right side up (that’s me reaching down). 

We left Anakiwa positively euphoric and full of the joys of new friends and life lessons. My "glum” teammates had become best friends. I learned that you’re only as strong as your weakest link and that no matter the group, everyone at some point will have something valuable to contribute. Mostly I learned about synergy - that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

I went to the first Rotary meeting after Outward Bound to thank the members for sponsoring me. My mother was a bit concerned that I hadn’t prepared a speech but I told her it was going to be easy as I’d just speak from the heart. After about five minutes, I looked down at the faces of the Rotarians and the joy on their faces told me that they felt their money was well spent. Indeed, it was.


Cheryl Fleet

Sedona, Arizona USA