Kevin Hall - America's Cup sailor duels with bipolar

Kevin Hall was the navigator for Emirates Team New Zealand.
Chris Cameron

Kevin Hall was the navigator for Emirates Team New Zealand.

If depression is a black dog, then Kevin Hall's nemesis is a snarling mad beast of a thing. Its frequent attacks have, at times, obliterated his sanity and threatened his life.

It's been a jagged ride for the 46-year-old American sailor.

Hall has lived a life of extremes - from elite sportsman as an Olympian and America's Cup sailor with Team New Zealand, to testicular cancer - twice. And throughout all this he has endured a brave and ongoing battle with acute bipolar disorder.

His journey through cancer, his sailing achievements and mental illness is all laid bare in his book Black Sails, White Rabbits; Cancer Was the Easy Part, a devastatingly honest self-published memoir.

Kevin Hall sailing with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Chris Cameron

Kevin Hall sailing with Emirates Team New Zealand.

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Hall wrote the first draft of the book in eight days from his home in Auckland where he now lives with his wife and three children.

He might have been pre-hyper manic during that time, he says. It certainly reads this way. It is nothing if not authentic.

It all came tumbling out, he says.

One of the biggest challenges with the mania side of bipolar is knowing where to find the line between being in top form and getting sick.

"Maybe I was just on the edge of getting sick writing the book but it didn't manifest till the following July last year after I'd put the book out for feedback. It was from a lock up facility as I recovered from a manic episode that I contacted the book printer."

Hall was only 19 when testicular cancer hit him. He was studying at the Ivy League Brown University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and French literature.

Kevin Hall sailing solo.

Kevin Hall sailing solo.

Around the same time he experienced his first delusional episode.

Then came cancer in the other testicle followed by more manic episodes landing him, too frequently, in a lock-up mental institution.

The manic episodes recounted in the book often start out as good times. He recalls once climbing up a huge tent pole at a music festival with a crowd of thousands cheering on the crazy fun guy inching up higher and higher. It doesn't turn out well.

"Sometimes it goes from crazy good to not having any free will and it's terrifying," Hall says.

These days he can face an episode head on and work through it knowing it won't last forever.

Kevin Hall in action with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Chris Cameron

Kevin Hall in action with Emirates Team New Zealand.

"Age and wisdom helps. I know the drill. It doesn't mean I like it but I just know I'll be down and out for a while."

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Hall suffers from imposter syndrome, an inability to internalise one's accomplishments. Failure is a constant theme running through his book, despite myriad achievements in his life.

He also experiences Truman Show Delusion, where he feels he is being watched by the world and must play his part for the 'hidden cameras'.

Kevin Hall and his wife Amanda.

Kevin Hall and his wife Amanda.

In 1989 when Hall first experienced these delusions, there was no name for it but the syndrome goes back hundreds of years, he says, with cases where patients felt there were influencing machines controlling them from the outside.

The irony that the world can watch you through the multitude of social media platforms is not lost on him.


Kevin Hall and his three children, Stevie, Rainer and Leo.

Kevin Hall and his three children, Stevie, Rainer and Leo.

Hall's nautical achievements are many. He was on the US sailing team from 1994 – August 2004 and competed in the Athens 2004 Olympics winning a bronze.

He was navigator for Seattle Yacht Club's One World Challenge in 2003 and for Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2007 America's Cup match. He was head of performance and instruments for the ill-fated Swedish boat Artemis in 2013.

He was on the Artemis, in a training session for the America's Cup in San Francisco Bay, when it capsized killing fellow sailor Andrew Simpson. Hall was one of the crew who hauled Simpson's lifeless body from the water.

It's hard to talk about.

"He was an exceptionally wonderful guy and it's a tragic loss to his family, his friends and the whole sailing world. He was one of those special guys you don't come across every day."

The episode really shook him up.

"It took me back to that same space that the cancer had me in and some of the scarier moments of my mental illness, and it made me think you don't know when it's going to end, so you better do what you want if you possibly can because you might not get many more chances."


What he wants to do now is write. His enthusiasm for the craft outweighs his passion for sailing and if it came down to a choice between the two, writing would win out.

But it's a tricky business, he says.

The medication and the calm state it instilled suited the professional sailor in him, where he needed to be steady, show up at the gym every day, fulfil his responsibility to the 100 sailors working with him.

They were frustrating when he wanted to be an artist. Meds have a way of stifling his creativity and allowing him to reach natural highs and lows leaving him in a rather flat state, he says. Many times he tinkered with the dose to allow his creative thoughts sneak out, roam around a little.

It's a luxury to be able to harness his precious imagination. But there is a very fine line - almost invisible to Hall - where his imagination can flourish before he disappears down a rabbit hole, only to emerge once more in hospital.

He has spent half a lifetime tinkering with his meds to reach a medium between access to his emotional and creative side and keeping a steady even keel. 

"I had to learn that my imagination was really quite dangerous. I had to learn that when my imagination started to percolate that probably meant I was on the road to trouble and getting sick. So the thing that makes me who I am - my imagination - I didn't just have to curtail, I had to shut down. One of the greatest things in life is your imagination, especially if you are a creative person, and yet mine is bad for me."

Throughout all his adult life - his international sailing achievements and his worst manic episodes - his wife Amanda, an emergency room doctor, has been there. They met at college and she remains his most ardent supporter.

Hall is not easy to live with. He admits that. His medication remains a work in progress. He still tinkers with it but he has spent his whole life trying to find earlier warning signs and with each episode he gets closer to catching it before his mind heads south.

This aspect to his illness fuels the complex relationship Hall shares with his father, also an emergency room doctor. The two have not spoken for a year or more.

He writes of his father coming to the rescue on many occasions.

"It was so hard for him having to pick up my pieces so many times he has never gotten over that... [but] my father sees me choosing to have a crazy good time and not imagining I remember the rest of it."

The raw accounts of his mania in this memoir will ignite a conversation, if not with his father, then with others who have wrestled with the black dog.

Black Sails, White Rabbits; Cancer Was the Easy Part, by Kevin A Hall, is out now, $30.

 - Stuff


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