Bound to succeed

16:00, Feb 11 2012
Outward Bound
ALL-AROUND ABILITY: Outward Bound's courses are designed to "give direction to our lives".

The day starts at 6am. You wake, shake yourself and begin to run beneath the lightening sky. Your team-mates push you on; another kilometre, another hill, another daily struggle. The air is freezing and stings your throat, but if you don't make it you'll let the team down. You reach the sea – the frigid waters of Queen Charlotte Sound – and plunge, breathless, into the water. Another morning of Outward Bound begins.

This year marks 50 years since the founding of Outward Bound in New Zealand, and the outdoor education classes at Anakiwa have ingrained themselves on the New Zealand psyche. More than 50,000 New Zealanders have attended an Outward Bound course – more than 2000 every year – and their popularity shows no sign of waning. And as New Zealand becomes more culturally and ethnically diverse, Outward Bound is striving to keep pace with the changes, and shake the legacy of a secretive military boot-camp which has lingered long since those days were over.

"Outward Bound is for the 80 per cent of forgotten New Zealanders," says Outward Bound New Zealand chief executive Trevor Taylor.

"In the early days it was a very regimented, military-style approach. It was a big unknown and nobody talked about what went on down there. But we have moved away from that ... We are seeing a number of youth now who have never spent any time in the outdoors, who have never been to the sea. To me, the focus is on showing that middle group of New Zealanders that if they just lifted their sights and lifted themselves they could do a lot better."

Outward Bound was founded in 1941 by the German educator Kurt Hahn. It was originally devised for The Blue Funnel Shipping Line as a training course for their young sailors during World War II. In 1946, the Outward Bound Trust was established to expand the concept to other schools worldwide. "Outward bound" is a nautical expression which means your boat is heading out to sea: out of the safety of the harbour and into unknown waters.

In 1961, Kiwi Hamish Thomas, a barrister and ex-navy man, decided to bring Outward Bound to New Zealand.

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He was distressed by the generation of lost youth he saw around him, and convinced the juvenile offenders he worked with would benefit from the course.

In 1962, the first intake of young men descended on Anakiwa in Queen Charlotte Sound for 24 days. They were the guinea-pig group. The organisation was still heavily influenced by its military origins, and the majority of the instructors were ex-servicemen. Marching, surnames and the morning flag service were standard fare.

Forrest McDougal, 66, was 17 when he attended the course, and says it set him up for the rest of his life. He has only recently retired from a 40-year career as a merchant seaman.

"The values I learnt on that course, of teamwork and personal responsibility, have played a big part in what I believe in. I knew a lot of good seafarers who had gone through Outward Bound during the war, and though they didn't talk about their experiences, a lot of their knowledge was based on it."

New Zealand Outward Bound is the most successful branch of the worldwide organisation (which has 40 schools in 30 countries), and the only school left that has the 24-day "Classic" course at the heart of its organisation.

About 70 per cent of New Zealand Outward Bound's business is generated from the Classic (18 to 26), and Mind, Body and Soul (16 to 18 years) courses. But during the past 20 years the changes in New Zealand society have seen Outward Bound branch out to offer tailored courses to special needs (blind, deaf, brain injuries, long-term unemployed) adults, seniors, ethnic leaders, Maori and elite sports people.

Current curriculum manager and past instructor Dan Moore says although the course requirements and structure has essentially remained the same since 1962, people's motivations for taking it have changed.

"Earlier it was seen as a rite of passage for young men and now I think people come for some more reflection and direction in their lives," he says.

"And that has meant our teaching has changed as well. Back then there was more of a `let the mountains speak for themselves' type of philosophy, while now we draw metaphors from the activities.

"If we've been paddling on a river all day we might talk about how the river is similar to a person's life in that there will be rapids, there will be eddies, there will be calm patches and there will be rocks to hold them up."

Independent outdoor safety auditor and Sports New Zealand adviser Stu Allen says Outward Bound leads the sector in safety and standards. But he has concerns that Outward Bound – and other outdoor education groups – do not inspire a love of the outdoors for their own sake.

"You've got to remember that they are using the outdoor environment for personal and group purposes," says Allen.

"And though that is excellent, I am interested in getting people enthused about an outdoor activity and I don't see that Outward Bound has that interest. A good measure is whether they take up those activities after the course has finished, and I don't know if Outward Bound is very concerned about that."

THE HISTORY of Outward Bound in New Zealand has not been without its black spots. Five students have died while on a course at Anakiwa. The last death was in 1993, when 22-year-old journalist Susan Consedine fell down a 61-metre bluff during a tramping expedition. Although the coroner ruled the death an accident, the police report on the incident highlighted a number of failings that led to Consedine's death, which included leaving the group of 14 inexperienced trampers without an instructor.

Since Consedine's death, Outward Bound no longer allows groups to do any unaccompanied activities – including Bush One (the task where Consedine and another student died) – and an external risk management committee was set up to review all programmes and management procedures before they become policy.

Trevor Taylor says the deaths of the five students have made the organisation what it is today.

"During the instructors' three-month induction they read all the coroners' reports and spend a day discussing them," he says.

"The comments back from them are like the rubber is now hitting the road – is this for real? And we say, yeah, it absolutely is for real.

"We are responsible for the lives of students whose parents and loved ones have given them to us for 21 days."

Taylor says Outward Bound uses risks and challenges to induce stress and fatigue situations that force people to face up to their real selves. But University of Otago associate professor of outdoor education Mike Boyes says this form of learning can be hazardous.

"People actually don't learn well when they are scared.

"The thing about pushing people to the edge is they might do it – but it will put them off for the rest of their life."

Outdoor safety auditor Simon Graney, the centre manager for the Outdoor Pursuits Centre on Great Barrier Island, says the use of risk in outdoor education has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

"I think it would be fair to say that historically some of the fatalities [on Outward Bound] were caused by using risk as an outcome in itself," says Graney.

"And the correlation of that is there is some acceptance of loss. But, as society has changed, it no longer accepts that it is OK for there to be a loss rate. And I would say that Outward Bound is very aware of that.

"They are more conservative than they used to be, and the fact they haven't had a fatality in 20 years is a reflection of that."

OLLIE SEUMANUFAGAI, 44, had to go against his community to attend an eight-day Outward Bound course last September. He was overweight, had been in and out of hospital and didn't want to end up "sitting on the sidelines".

"A lot of people were very sceptical," he says. "For a Pacific Islander in his 40s to go on Outward Bound is unheard of."

Seumanufagai ignored his detractors and prepared for the course. He has seven children and wanted to be around to see their kids, and their kids' kids.

"When I got there it was really full-on. It was just hard work, day after day, and on the high ropes course I actually feared for my life. But what imprinted on me is that each challenge is like life. It's a battle but it's achievable. I now know I can push myself a little bit further, and I am pushing everyone around me. I am playing footy with my kids and we're all eating a bit healthier and my wife and I are going for walks."

Mike Boyes says there is solid evidence that outdoor education courses such as Outward Bound have a positive and perceptible effect on levels of self-esteem, confidence, leadership and inter-personal skills, though the jury is still out on how long the effects of an outdoor education course last.

"I think it puts people in a challenging environment – and with the help of their peers they need to solve problems and engage in a realistic and meaningful way with the natural environment," says Boyes.

"It has good learning consequences. But interestingly, one of the best educational outcomes is the friendships and social skills people learn. For some people, that may be the first time in their life that they feel part of a meaningful unit."

Max Blackwell, 18, has just returned from the 21-day Mind, Body and Soul course. He says even though his team-mates were not people he'd normally hang out with, the friendships he formed were the best part of the course.

"Spending 21 days with people constantly – you build a bond with them that is so much bigger than 21 days. I feel like I've known them for years. And leaving there ... I miss them all so much now."

Dan Moore says the fundamentals of Outward Bound are simple, and will not change as the organisation adapts to the increasingly diverse needs of New Zealanders. Although the military backbone of Outward Bound might have relaxed, respect for adventure and challenge remains at the heart of their courses.

"People come here with no social history and they get a rare chance to be someone that is not conditioned or restricted by the way they behave back home," says Moore.

"And they don't know what is coming up day-to-day, we don't tell them the itinerary. Those two things alone are always going to be really important."

Sunday Star Times