Bravery and foolishness are much closer than we think

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The Independent Online

It is a remarkable paradox that Britain, which has produced some of the world's most daring explorers, should also be full of people who seem to feel that taking risks is to be avoided at all costs.

It is a remarkable paradox that Britain, which has produced some of the world's most daring explorers, should also be full of people who seem to feel that taking risks is to be avoided at all costs.

How else to explain the outcry over Eric Abbott, who was using an AA road map in his home-made boat to try to cross the Irish Sea. He ran aground once and had to be rescued twice by coastguards.

In all, he has been "rescued" 12 times at a cost (it is claimed) of more than £55,000. The 56-year-old was condemned as "irresponsible" and "clueless". He replied that he didn't need a skipper's licence: "I'm far more intelligent," he said.

Mr Abbott reminds us of the earliest explorers, and even of mountaineers such as Irvine and Mallory, who disappeared towards the top of Everest in 1924. They and he were heading into the unknown; except that Mr Abbott apparently decided to handicap himself. Rather than kitting himself out with GPS, radar, detailed maps and a pilot, he sailed to sea in a boat. Columbus did something similar, you'll recall, though his motive was profit, not pleasure.

The outcry is, of course, not about Mr Abbott's actions but about their consequences. The grumblers demand that risk-takers should apply for licences and insurance. License mountaineers! they cry. Oblige them to insure! Yet it is usually unprepared hill-walkers, not experienced mountaineers, who get hurt. Should they be insured too? Will we need insurance to walk up hills? To the shops? Where does it begin, or end?

Beyond the intriguing calculations lies a wider question about personal responsibility and the state.

Even if they behave like idiots, people like Mr Abbott exemplify our British character. David Hempleman-Adams, the British balloonist who attempted to fly over the North Pole, suffered sub-zero temperatures and a crash landing. He also set three new records in the process. Was he being foolish? Or brave? Or both?

Or is it just that he and Mr Abbott are each, in their way, searching for something that has no price, but an unarguable value - personal fulfilment, with the added spice of risk?

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