Barb Hansen: 'The Will to Live'

One of the most compelling pictures I have ever seen shows a man sitting on an upside-down boat in big waves, cold spray all around. His arms hug the sharp, unforgiving lower unit of the outboard motor.

I call it “The Will to Live” photo.

With just one frame we learn so much; we feel so much.

In a flash we know the Coast Guard has found the sportfishing boat with four young men they have been searching for all night in the Gulf storm. Whew. Oh, but there is just one man. So three have died. Yet, they have found and saved this man. Good.

It is a compelling picture, also, because in the next instant we understand that the young man in the picture – we learn his name is Nick Schuyler – also feels these emotions, times 100.

We wonder, too, what is going through the minds of the Coast Guardsmen who are in the spotter planes and helicopters as they look down on 16,000 square miles of rough seas, hoping to spot something — what? — in a sea of whitecaps.

Is it all in a day’s work for them? No, they want to save lives. This is what they do as Coast Guardsmen. This is what they do as human beings.

More recently, and in a similar way, we watched and waited and hoped for good news about the 29 miners trapped in a West Virginia coal mine. Our hopes were dashed. And I am certain that the first responders were saddened, too. This was not another day at work.

Eleven oil workers were missing after the BP rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard sent four cutters and helicopters. The Guardsmen rescued over 110 men and they spent another four days searching for the 11 missing workers. All in a day’s work? I don’t think so.

When the earthquakes struck Haiti and Chili, when a mile-wide tornado sliced and diced Yazoo City, first responders jumped into the fray and saved lives. Not just police, paramedics and firemen. Neighbors. Good citizens. Human beings. Sometimes, heroism is neighbor helping neighbor. Sometimes it’s stranger helping stranger.

Then, there are stories like this one out of New York City. A woman was attacked at an ATM. A homeless man tried to fend off the attacker but he was stabbed. He fell to the pavement, blood pouring out of his wound. The video camera showed people walking by him, barely giving him a glance. One person looked more closely, even turned him over, but then he walked off.

So what do we make of it all? Well, heroism may be commonplace, but you cannot always count on it.

The picture of Nick Schuyler clinging to the cold, hard metal of the outboard motor talks to us.

I don’t know what is going through his mind but I hope that he will come to understand that wanting to live and fighting to stay alive so he could be rescued was heroic in itself. His struggle to live will always serve as a terrific example to the rest of us not to give up, ever, to love life, and to make the most of it.

I salute the Coast Guard. Especially, I salute the guardsmen who trained for this search and wanted to save this life. I salute their spouses and their young sons and daughters for loaning them to us for this risky business.

I know they will look for us out there. They are trained to do this. They want to do it. They will do it. You can count on it. Nick knew this and so he held on for dear life. It inspires us to hold on for dear life.

The sea is big. Our boats are small. Life is huge.~Barb Hansen
Barb Hansen manages Southwest Florida Yachts, yacht charters, and Florida Sailing & Cruising School, a liveaboard yacht school. Contact her at, phone 1-800-262-7939 or visit

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The Conversation

One Comment
  • Deb Ferns says: May 5, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Barb Hansen’s piece, especially the quote of “The sea is big. Our boats are small. Life is huge.” struck a chord for me as did the rest of her story. THANK YOU!