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American Family ideals inspire Indian Ocean adventure


American Family Insurance employee Walker Richardson goes on the adventure of a lifetime inspired by people he met at American Family and the ideas they shared.

Sometimes, seemingly unrelated events join forces to change your life. These American Family events led to me sailing a hollowed-out mango tree through the Indian Ocean:

  • March 2016: Employee time-off benefit enhancement announced.

  • April 2016: New Dream Fearlessly television ads debut. Sales Vice President Cesar Pinzon speaks at BizMix networking meeting about what drives him, his philosophies on life, and leadership.

  • May 2016: Ring Doorbell founder James Siminoff visits national headquarters and discusses change, adversity, and motivation. A week later, a friend asks if I want to sail a mango tree in the Indian Ocean. With the events I just mentioned in mind, I tell my manager Elina Walsh that I will spend most of July in Tanzania. “That sounds amazing. I’m excited for you!” she replies.

And just like that, I was on a plane. Fifty sleepless hours took me to a thatched hut in a remote seaside village learning sailing and maritime navigation theories to prepare for the Ngalawa Cup, a 280-mile race organized by The Adventurists, a UK-based organization that supports a range of charities.

They place people in remote locations with inappropriate transportation. Ours was the Ngalawa, an ancient fishing vessel used by locals in sheltered bays. It leaks and is held together by nails and string. Eleven teams from around the world competed, and we were the lone Americans.

For eight days, we sailed the summer trade winds through the Tanzanian archipelago, anchoring at different blue-watered islands each night. Some were uninhabited, others had villages selling fruits and vegetables, king mackerel, octopus, and tuna. Fortunately, we had hammocks. Because at high tide, one spot wasn’t an island at all. Through passable Swahili, we shared our journey with locals. A laugh and a blank stare always followed.

Due to large swells, we capsized four times during the race. That meant bailing with five-gallon buckets while water poured over the gunwales. It also meant losing water, clothes, tools and food. It was physically and mentally debilitating. When we were just off the continental shelf, a swell knocked us over and, despite our best efforts, we couldn’t recover.

Defeated, we hit our SOS button, effectively disqualifying us. We spent the next four hours being knocked around in mile-deep water questioning our life choices. There was no land in sight, and it was getting dark. We assumed help was coming but didn’t know when.

Due to the tumultuous seas, race support could not save our boat. Dehydrated, sunburnt and exhausted, we were dumped on an island and told it would be a few days before they could return. That night, an angry one-legged man with a torch approached our camp demanding 6,000 schilling (or $3) in rent. We were happy to pay, because it meant there were people and a market nearby. After sharing our misfortunes with him, he let us stay free the next two nights.

While we were marooned, we reflected on our failure. It was a pivotal moment but we decided to continue. In the middle of the night, we boarded a small cargo dhow headed for mainland Africa. During the next four days we made our way, by land and sea, to the finish line at the northern tip of Zanzibar where only five teams finished under sail. Everyone shared stories of their journey over cheeseburgers and cold beer, and we received the Indomitable Spirit award.

When I reflect on the events that led to my adventure, I can’t help but credit the people I’ve met at American Family who influenced me and the ideas they shared. Had I not been exposed to both, I never would have met some amazing people and made once-in-a-lifetime memories in a leaky boat made from a mango tree.