Many have attempted to describe just how hard it is to sail in a Volvo Ocean Race, but what we rarely hear is how getting to the starting line can be just just as tough.
Less than 70 men and women earn the privilege of racing around the world at this level every three years. It’s a race within a race.
We don’t often tell the stories of those who don’t make it, because, frankly, it’s not uncommon. But in the case of Lt. Chris Branning, we’ve made an exception.
Before I met Branning – that’s what he goes by - I would never had make the link between something as simple as making your bed and achieving your wildest dream.
But if there’s one thing that I took away from my time spent with him, it’s that every decision – from the grand to the seemingly mundane - is connected.
From age 18, Branning made his bed every morning at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, commonly known as King’s Point. ('If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another' - Admiral McRaven)
In his mind, the academy presented the shortest route to his childhood dream: flying military aviation. So he made the decision to sacrifice thirsty Thursdays and all of the animal-house trappings of a typical college experience to march, study and spend a year at sea.
But even he could never have imagined how far those choices would take him. Branning is more than ok with being a detail-oriented perfectionist. It’s a valuable trait for any rescue aviator or offshore navigator.
It was one of the reasons that he was the first person called by Charlie Enright and Mark Towill when they finally received the green light to assemble Team Alvimedica.
Rewind to 2007. That’s when Branning first met Charlie and Mark, on the set of Roy Disney’s true-life sailing documentary, ‘Morning Light’. They hit it off immediately. But getting there wasn’t as smooth.
At first, Branning’s command at King’s Point denied his request to take part in the movie. Branning decided to appeal and re-state his position. His case was convincing enough.
On set, during what he describes as his first real team experience onboard Morning Light, that he fell in love with offshore racing, navigation and the night sky at sea.
Gazing up at the indescribable canvas of constellations from the deck of Morning Light, Branning made another big decision: that his future was in rescue aviation, not combat.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s mission makes sense to any sailor, and there are many synergies between the two roles. Each Volvo Ocean Race team has just one navigator, and, second only to the skipper, no role bears greater responsibility for safety and strategy onboard.
The world’s best offshore navigators –it’s a small club- arrive at this niche no differently than the elite few who are allowed to fly rescue helicopters for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Early on, they plot out the shortest, most efficient route, and then they start and end every day and make every decision between with that sole obsession in mind.
There are only 600 rescue helicopter pilots in the whole of the United States military – you have to be damn good at making split second decisions in tough situations.
Branning’s first open ocean, right seat hoist was on December 6th, 2013. His flight team was en route to an emergency off the Florida Keys when two parachute flares were launched off their nose.
The team made a snap call to investigate and ten minutes later two sailors had been pulled from the black and unforgiving Atlantic. Their boat had capsized and sunk five minutes earlier, albeit, in the right place at the right time.
And just 30 days later Charlie would call with the opportunity of a lifetime to send his two polar dreams into a collision course.
Burning through every single day of his vacation leave to help Charlie and Mark take delivery of their new Volvo Ocean 65 was a no brainer, but his chances of making that spot on board were looking slimmer by the day. I remember Branning on the back of the boat, explaining the reality of his situation, before adding, 'but I’m hopeful, you know, I never let go of a dream.'
Months later, standing on the beach in Newport, RI, the two of us in civilian garb, I asked Branning: 'How did it feel to watch the guys sail across the Atlantic without you that first time?'
'I’ll be honest with you,' he said. 'I see them on Instagram, and I like it… And I see them on Facebook, and of course I like it. But it hurts man.'
Looking me in the eyes, he added, 'but I could never trade flying rescue helicopters forever to do a Volvo. And I was very clear about that with my command.' LT. Branning won’t be navigating Team Alvimedica around the world this year. One day he hopes to sail in the race.
Until then, he’ll still be looking out for his friends – but from 500 ft. up in the air.