Peace. Peace of mind. Space. Sanity. Calm. Connection.
Pinning down one word to describe how it feels to be on the water, away from the shore, moving with the current and tides is nearly impossible. We’re all out there for different reasons; with different motivations, purposes, and stories around what got us on—or in—the water in the first place.
One word however, floats to the surface and becomes a worthy contender to connect every marine adventurer: flow.
The calm that arises in that state is the thing we water lovers’ chase. And for Emily Nagel—professional sailor + Mustang Survival Ambassador—it’s her lifeline. Her tether, grounding and yet freeing her from a consistent and persistent anxiety that’s been a co-pilot for most of her life.
Thing is, her most deep sense of flow and the moments most absent from stress and anxiety are in situations that most would find the opposite. Where she goes to find her peace is to the open ocean - racing sailboats in conditions unfathomable to most.
And so began Emily’s pursuit of sport and study; leaving Bermuda for boarding school at age 14 so she could take her competitive sailing to a new level while setting a course for a professional future at the same time.
Part of her experience back home followed her overseas - an unrelenting anxiety that knitted itself into her daily life.
With all things related to mental health being one of those ‘taboo’ subjects only a few years back (and still stigmatized in many communities and cultures), conversations about anxiety, depression or general mental health weren’t regular discussions in school; where teens and youth spend so much of their time.
Panic attacks became synonymous with different types of school work, exams, or in any situation she experienced challenge (social settings included). The transition to University offered her some perspective and understanding about anxiety and how it affected her daily life - yet still hadn’t found a sense of control over it when it would arise.
Her outlet to finding release and relief from those moments of anxiety? Sport.
‘It was while I was sailing that it never got to me. No matter how stressful the situation, sailing just made everything feel better. That escape, that freedom just helps calm me - so much.
And then when I took on the Ocean Race, suddenly it taught me how to handle the anxiety so much better. I was put into situations that would set most people off pretty badly. I mean, sending someone into the Southern Ocean who has an anxiety disorder, really isn't a good idea. Yet, worked perfectly for me.’
The Ocean Race she mentions is a sailing race that circumnavigates the globe...and isn’t for the faint of heart.
It is a feat that tests even the most iron-willed sailors. And, tested Emily to the hilt: from the sheer intensity of the race, to situations she had never encountered before, to getting injured far offshore, and to losing a friend (from another team) who was washed overboard.
Through all that adversity, she found a new side to herself; one that could zero in, focus on the job at hand, and put the hardship aside to stay in the flow and in the moment.
‘One of the more experienced guys on board had said to me that (to get by in tough moments) he handles things by putting them into a black box. You can take them out of that box and deal with them later.
It's something I'd heard before but had never been able to do. Then suddenly, it was like a light switch and I was able to kind of shut off an emotion and focus on what was at hand. From then on, I've been able to handle things so much better with that trick in mind.’
While anxiety still does get the better of her at times, those moments are fewer and further between. And, funnily enough, show up more when she is on shore than off.
Yet, it’s her sailing and in particular her racing that has empowered her with the skills that she turns too, in times of need.
‘Things will go wrong on the boat. And there'll be people shouting and screaming. This ability to stay cool and not get upset by things but equally not get so excited that you lose focus is one of the biggest things I’ve gained from sailing that has translated across life.’
Her biggest hope for how we talk about, educate on, and grow the conversation about mental health?
That schools can be the medium where people learn more about themselves.
That people can understand how much can change in the course of a year. And, perhaps most importantly:
‘That people know that you can have different mental health challenges or physical health challenges and still be able to compete at the highest level. You just have to learn how to deal with the demons.’
Becoming an advocate for mental health may not have been in her plans.
But as she continues along her own path of understanding and working with her own demons, she’s finding her footing as a confident voice in bringing more focus to mental health, and how it isn’t someone’s whole story...just a part - that needs a little extra attention.