Resilience above the Arctic Circle

  • Published
  • Tech Sgt. Aaron Thomasson, 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

The activities that build resilience are different for everyone. For Stephen Skinner, transportation specialist at the 426th Air Base Squadron in Stavanger, Norway, his recharge activity is sailing. For a man who grew up around the sea, perhaps this isn’t surprising.

“I grew up around the south coast, Portsmouth Naval Base area in the U.K, and my dad was a shipwright who worked for the military sailing center in our hometown,” said Skinner. “One of the most vivid memories I remember was one of the very few days I was actually allowed off school when HMS Hermes came back in from the Falklands War in ‘82. We were right behind it in one of the yachts so we saw all of the fireworks, and that’s obviously the command ship of the fleet as it all came back in through Portsmouth harbor. I still remember that now, sailing right behind the aircraft carrier.”

After growing up near the sea, Skinner joined the British Army, which might surprise some readers. However, it turned out for the best.

“When I was in the Army they were like, ‘Hey Skinner, you grew up near the water right, right, you’re a volunteer.’ And next thing I knew I was going sailing in Kiel in Northern Germany. The British military had an adventure sail training center there which they use for their adventure training program.”

The adventure training program, much like the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa GRIT program, developed resiliency skills and self-confidence that servicemembers could take back to their units and missions. Skinner spent three years as military skipper and sailing trainer, before transitioning to the civilian world where he continued as an instructor for five more years. He credits this experience with giving him a different perspective on day-to-day troubles.

“I can put my finger on three or four situations that were genuinely life-threatening situations for my crew and for me as the skipper,” he said. “Being in a storm in the middle of the night when it’s pitch black in the North Sea gives you a different outlook and a different way of dealing with problems. Some people who have not been in those situations deal with things differently than someone who has been put in those life-threatening situations where you have to make command decisions for your subordinates and the people whose lives depend on you.”

For Skinner though, it’s not enough to sail familiar inlets and coastlines. In the summer of 2019, he and his father-in-law decided to sail from Stavanger to Svalbard, a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle, and only 600 miles from the North Pole.

“I always say to myself, every five or six years I need a challenge, I need that push,” he said. “I believe that people’s experiences and doing different things to push yourself personally, then you build on those as a human and you apply them to your home life and your work life. That shows maturity and improves the way you deal with problems in life.”

The trip plan meant that Skinner and his family would spend five days sailing the open waters of the Arctic Ocean. In the middle of the Arctic, halfway to Svalbard, their sailboat would be so far away from land that they would be outside the range of helicopter rescue in the event of a crisis. Stormy weather on the trip forced Skinner to anchor at a tiny island, the only refuge for hundreds of miles in any direction.

“There was no real protection or harbor as such,” he said. “There was a small cove inlet that was surrounded by hundred foot cliffs, so what wind and waves came in resonated around there, which kind of amplified the situation. The boat was constantly going up and down one to two meters. No one got any sleep for almost 48 hours.”

For Skinner, riding out a storm on the Arctic Ocean is just another part of his overall experience of resiliency.

“Sailing is my comfort zone,” he said. “There’s just that independence, and when I get on a boat I suppose I just feel at ease with the world. You reset yourself ready to take on the challenges of a busy adult life nowadays whether it be at work or at home. It just develops you and gives you a sense of perspective and satisfaction.”

If you would like to share your own story of resilience, contact the 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs office at