A beautiful monster

Why did you choose to go on The Island?

There were a couple of things that happened in 2013. The first was that the business of which I was a director and one of the co-founders, collapsed. So I found myself in a really interesting situation. The good news is that the new business we’ve created, 7connections, is back up and still running. We’ve had an extraordinary 18 months, we’ve worked very hard, rebuilt the business, getting ourselves back to where we were. I’m pleased to say that the work has been very successful and we’re now in a very confident place.

But, I want to go back to last year. Between March and September there was a six-month period that was very challenging. When you’ve just walked out of a train wreck you’ve got the day-to-day physical and emotional issues of that to deal with. In my case I had 21 years of reputation management to deal with as well because, by hook and by crook, I’m a reasonably high profile person in dentistry.

The second thing that happened last year in September, was that I was able to celebrate my 60th birthday, and had an absolutely fantastic time, which I’ll never forget, at home in south Manchester. There were friends and family and just good times. The thing about men is, when they turn the decade, they have a midlife crises every single time. So I was having my 60-year midlife crises, fortunately I’m in pretty good shape, but there’s still things to do on the bucket list.

Quite fortuitously, within a few weeks of that birthday I was reading Dentistry.co.uk and I saw an article, and that’s where it all began. It began with a paragraph that said Channel 4 is looking for volunteers for a TV show where a bunch of guys are going to be put on a desert island by Bear Grylls. I just thought what the hell, why not have a go?

Some weeks later a phone call came in and between October and December I ended up doing three telephone interviews and then I was called to a hotel room in Manchester one Saturday morning, where I was interviewed.

There was an interesting twist in the tale, about three days before the Christmas holiday I got a phone call from Shine TV (the production company) to say: ‘Just to let you know you made it to the last 30 but you didn’t make The Island. But we just wanted to thank you for all your effort.’ So I said thanks, and that was it, finished, get on with your life.

I went home, had Christmas and New Year’s for two weeks. Monday the 6 January, incoming call: Shine TV. I answered the call and the casting director said: ‘If we asked you to go on the 28 of January, could you go?’ So I said yes and she said she would let me know on Friday. So I spent a whole week sat on a drawing pin. I was in the middle of a dental workshop delivering, the call came in at the break and she said: ‘Chris, you’d better get ready, you’re going in 18 days.’

How did that make you feel?

Elated! I’d already squared off with my business partners that I was going to be away for five weeks. I’d squared off with my family. I’d also confidentially spoken with my client base. So then what happened was 18 days of pandemonium.

There was no time to think about what we’d signed up for. One of the golden rules was that we were not to meet each other until we got out there. They wanted to set the show up so that when we got to the island we were literally introducing ourselves to each other. But I had 18 days by myself to get my medical sorted out, 11 jabs, an interview with a clinical psychologist, a days camera training because we were doing our own filming and then there was buying the gear because we had a very prescribed list of things we could take. And we were specifically told, don’t start watching Bear Grylls’ shows. Because the whole premise of the show is ‘is 21st century man soft?’

And did you resist the temptation?

I did yes, to this day I’ve never watched a Bear Grylls programme other than the one I was in. Talking to the other guys later, we were all very true to the spirit of the thing, nobody was swatting up. On the 28 January I found myself at the airport waving goodbye to Annie, my partner, for five weeks. Then some hours later I was in Panama.

For the next two days they brought us all together for the day and we sat under an awning in the jungle where we had two days of training. There were 13 of us and we weren’t allowed to talk to each other. We had health and safety, we had basic medical and then we had survival training. And they taught us how to light a fire, how to kill this, how to kill that, how to capture this, how not to kill yourself.

During those two days we were given a list of things you can’t eat, a list of things you can’t kill because they’re endangered species, a list of things that can actually kill you. On day three, the 1 February, we’re all in our separate locations having breakfast. They said: ‘Put your gear on, you’re going.’ And so after breakfast they picked us all up and drove us down to this beach where there was a boat.

Were your nerves going at this point?

Oh Christ yeah! We met Bear Grylls at 07:30 on the beach and he’s there with this big boat. We all get in the boat and it was about an hour, high speed, across the ocean.

We were in that boat going to an undisclosed destination, not knowing each other’s names. And this was the moment of truth, in our imagination we were going to crunch up onto a sandy beach and were all going to get out and have the time of our lives.

They could have picked a better destination to drop you off than a flooded mangrove.

That was very deliberate. They were throwing us in at the deep-end and they knew it would make good TV. We’re all sat there looking at each other and all we can see is plop, plop, plop, caiman crocodiles dropping into the water off the side. And that’s where it starts; Bear Grylls gets us into the mangrove, turns the engine off and says: ‘Off you go.’

Did he give you any more direction than that?

No he just says ‘off you go’. We had five camera bags and one medical rucksack, and there was one other bag that ended up being the knives and machetes. We’re all in the water and Bear Grylls says: ‘I’ll see you in a month’ and he puts the boat in reverse and off he goes. That’s where the show properly kicks off and that’s why we were helping each other out of the water onto the banks saying, ‘Hi my names Chris’, we’d been together but nobody knew each other. There’s that classic opening sequence where we clamber out of the water and onto the bank and then we all stood in a circle and 13 people pointed 13 different ways about what should we do.

You spent the first night in the forest, was that the worst night?

One of. At that point we had no idea what insect life there was, what wildlife there was, what temperature it was going to be. That night we lay on the floor, fully clothed, just literally lying with your head on a bag, shoe or boot. We were lying there looking at the forest canopy and listening to everything going on around you.

I think that night most of us slept two hours and the rest you were just lying there thinking what have I done? It was very strange, that first night, and of course we all got up the next morning knackered. Then slowly, it’s all about priorities.

So, your first priority was finding water.

One of the things they do in survival training is teach you the rule of threes. The rule of threes is: three seconds without thinking, you can damage yourself. For example you’ve got a machete and you’ve got a vine in front of you, you swing the machete and you go through the vine and you cut your femeral artery. Or you’re jumping across a ravine and you break your ankle. We used the three-second rule all the time. There’s then the three-minute rule. Three minutes without oxygen, you’re in trouble. Three hours without cover from the sun, you’re in trouble. Three days without water, you’re in trouble. Three weeks without food and three months without company, you start talking to a volleyball.

We knew that we had 24 hours of water with us, so we had effectively four days to find water or we would be hauled off and sent home, that became priority number one. And we did get lucky, one of the forage groups went out and found a dirty pond, which, little did we know, was the only water on the island. We spent two weeks looking for another water source before we gave up and said screw it.

At that time we knew we had found water. We also knew we couldn’t touch that water until we’d gone to step two, which was fire. Fire would then allow us to boil the water. And it was only by boiling water that we could be sure it would be free from bacteria.

The fire took a few days didn’t it?

It took us two days to light a fire. What’s frustrating is the number of messages I’ve had from people who’ve said: ‘My 14-year-old son can light a fire in 15 minutes, what’s wrong with you?’ There are two answers to that. The first is that we were constrained by the materials that were around us. It was a bit like 1,000 ways of not inventing the light bulb. The other feedback was ‘why are three guys lighting the fire and everyone else lying about not doing much?’ That’s not true, we agreed a fire team and while the fire team were doing that we were crawling all over that island looking for stuff. 

The fire team tried 20 stones, 20 different bows, 20 different pieces of wood, until they got the right one. But day two we got the fire lit and that fire stayed lit until the end.

The next thing we’ve got to do is rig up a filtration system to take the big stuff out of the water using filters and then we’ve got to boil the small stuff out. And that’s where the foraging on the beach came in because what we also discovered was that on the western side of the island, which is where we eventually made camp, the beaches had a hinterland of refuse. 

On day three we managed to rig up a filtration system, an upside down oil can with bits of cloth in the bottom of it, socks and underpants. It then went down into a bottom bottle. We then took the bottom bottle and boiled that water we put it into the third bottle. The third bottle was the clean bottle; clean being a euphemism because it was dark brown. But it was dark brown free of bacteria. The water tasted of soil and tin. Within a few days you were used to it.

So, we’ve found water, we’ve cracked fire, but we’ve got nothing to eat. What then happened was 10 days of starvation, 10 days of malnutrition, 10 days of two to three hundred calories a day.

What were you eating in that time?

Snails, limpets, crabs, I will never eat a snail again as long as I live. In those first 10 days we found no vegetation. I found the yucca plants about 12 days in.

The big find was the caiman, of course. They killed the caiman about day five. And that was another lucky find. The crocodile fed us for a couple of days and then it was back to 200 calories a day, figs, coconuts.

It took us two weeks to build nets from foraging. And after two weeks the nets were going out every night and there were days we caught nothing and there were days we would catch 25 fish.

What we realised is that when an animal dies out there, its digestive system releases toxins into the rest of the meat after about 12 hours. There was controversy about keeping the crocodile alive. In reality the crocodile was kept alive for two hours after they caught it. Basic training, don’t kill something until you’re ready to eat it. If you kill it, it starts to rot, and the meat goes off. If you kill something, eat it then.

The high days were the crocodile and the stingrays provided you killed it straight away because the stingrays turned off really quickly. Gradually, in the second two weeks, I would say that fish was a pretty staple diet. Having said that, a nutritionist looked at the footage. We were running on about two-three hundred calories a day for the first fortnight, then 500-700 calories a day for the rest.

As we reached the midway point we were beginning to create sustainable supplies. And as we moved into the second half, the mood was about thriving. So that was about building tables, beds and building the camp.

But there were also two things that happened simultaneously in the second half of the experience. One was the issue of transition from survival to thrival but at the same time there was this gradual deterioration in some of the relationships. And this became very destructive.

The masterstroke was, and Matt Bennett was the mastermind of this, a leadership election. By the time the leadership election came along the group had split into two very distinct camps, the under-35s and over-35s, and we were eating in different parts of the camp. If we’d been left there any longer, the suspicion is that those two camps would have actually separated to different parts of the island. There were no arguments as such; it was just the absence of a relationship.

The only way we were going to finish on a high note was to come together. And the only way we’d come together is if we elected a leader. So that became the drama at the end, which is the election. And all credit to Sackie he did do the job after winning.

And did things get better from there?

The last three days were hugely enjoyable because number one we knew we were going home, number two we decided we were going to have a party on the last night. So a lot of food was gathered, a lot of tidying up around the camp was done, we built a stage, we built a bonfire, Sam and I did the raft as part of that whole process. I was slightly peeved, it took us three days to build the raft and it got 15 seconds on TV. That was part of our celebration to say look at what we can do, we can set out to sea.

The last three days were about enjoying the final experience. The party on the last night was a joy we were all really together. And of course the morning of the 28th we woke up, super excited.

So all’s well that ends well. And when Bear Grylls turned up on the island on day 28 we were able to show him the camp.

Would you recommend the experience?

I would recommend the experience to anybody. If we get away from the actual desert island thing, the real issue for all the guys, and we’ve stayed in touch with each other since we’ve got back, was that ability to actually just unplug from the grid. And I consider the opportunity to have airlifted myself out of Chris Barrow and just drop down into that environment; it was what I’d describe as the ultimate Zen experience. And I saw 28 of the most beautiful sunsets I’m ever going to see in my life.

The island was a beautiful monster. It could kill you, but it was beautiful to look at.

Has this experience helped in dentistry?

Yes. One thing I would say is, this is a bit of a generalisation but, when you’re under 35 you’re trying to figure out who the hell you are. But between 35 and 55 you’re probably trying to figure out how you fit in the world.

I didn’t go on the island to find myself, some of the younger guys did. I think the older guys; me, Tony, Kiff, went on the island knowing who we were, it was just confirmation that we were OK.

The one thing I resolved, was just to take more time off work. And what it’s made me realise is that the bucket list is still there, and that there’s nothing stopping me from ticking it. I’m 60 and Tony on The Island is 70. Tony is just as active mentally as I am, but physically constrained by his age. And it was a really big wake-up call for me. So my massive take away was, you need to the make the best of the next 10 years.

What was that first beer like when you came off the island?

Paradise, we talked about that first beer while we were on the island. There’s a great movie from the 1950s and its called Ice Cold in Alex. It’s about a group of British soldiers in the Sahara who are stranded behind enemy lines and they have to make their way back. The title of the movie comes from a conversation that they keep having which is ‘when we get back to Alexandria, we’re going to have a beer.’ We’d been talking as a group for about two weeks about that movie and the whole thing was about the ice cold in Alex moment. On the way back in the boat they’re saying no alcohol, because we’d been in starvation. We pull up on the beach and we jumped out of the boat, walked up to the bar and ordered 13 beers, it was a great moment. We had that first meal of chicken and rice. I will never take running water and air con for granted. Walking into those hotel rooms I looked like Animal from the Muppets. 

It was just an unbelievable experience.

Chris Barrow has been a consultant, trainer and coach to the UK dental profession for over 21 years. In 1987 Chris was active in the establishment of the Institute for Financial Planning, an organisation representing the first fee-based financial planners. In 1993 Chris decided to make the transition to business coaching and became one of the first UK students at Coach University. Recognising the opportunity in dentistry, 1997 saw Chris create The Dental Business School and the development of a 12-month business coaching programme for dental practice owners and teams. His main focus now is on 7connections, a privately-owned company specialising in creating business systems and coaching managers and principals in dentistry. Chris has co-authored two books on the business of dentistry: Profitable Dental Practice and The E-Myth Dentist.

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