Start talking to Jamie Cairney and you won’t be able to tear yourself away. The 53 year-old from Palm Harbor, FL, is a boat captain for hire, and he has a whale of a tale or two to tell about life on the high seas (come on, don’t cringe!). Cairney loves inserting sailing metaphors into his posts in the Onnit Tribe, our private Facebook support group, and the story of how the Onnit 6 workouts and Challenge helped him reshape his body and his life is sure to shiver your timbers and put some serious wind into your sails (sorry!).
We talked to Cairney about his troubled upbringing, battle with alcoholism, and why, at an age when most seem to be playing it safer, he’s still exploring uncharted waters (last one, we promise!).
Onnit: You’re a boat captain, which has to be one of the coolest jobs in the world. Tell us about that line of work.
Jamie Cairney: I used to run a lot of dolphin-sighting and eco boat tours, but when the pandemic hit, that mostly stopped. Now I do a lot of private charters, and I contract out as a captain. So I might go to Maine, Michigan, or California, and sail around those places for a few months at a time. I’ve been able to see the country. I also do boat deliveries for people who want their boats moved. I sail them north in the spring and south in the winter. Cape Cod to Fort Lauderdale is a popular route, since Florida is a springboard to the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Can you tell us a good fish story?
How about one with a whale? [Laughs] My last job was running whale watch tours in Alaska. Last summer, I was on an 80-foot catamaran with about 50 people, and one of them asked if I ever see the whales breach. I said no, because you usually see that only in warmer climates.
I took the boat to the North Pass, which is usually a pretty good spot to see whales because it’s narrow and there’s a tremendous flow of nutrient-rich water, which makes it like a buffet line for whales. That turned out to be the right move, because it was full of whale activity. We saw orcas and humpbacks, and they were swimming up to the boat and sticking their heads out of the water.
Suddenly, this giant behemoth from the deep shot himself out of the water in front of us. It was a full-grown, adult male humpback, and he breached so close to the boat that I thought his pectoral fin was going to splash onto the deck. For a split second, we were eyeball to eyeball, and his eyeball looked like the size of a Volkswagen! He must have been the size of four tour buses end to end, and there he was, maybe maybe 30 feet in front of me. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
How were you living before you found Onnit?
I’ve always been active, but I also used to party like a rock star. I was really into martial arts in my 20s and 30s, but in my mid 40s, I just let it all go and I became a mess. My drinking got really bad—I was going through almost a liter of vodka a day. I started missing work, and when I did go, I could barely get through it. My wife knew what was going on and she’d say things like, “I’m really worried about you.” And I’d say, “Yeah, so am I.” She knows my personality, and that I’m the kind of person that if you tell me not to do something, I’m going to do it even more. So the best thing she could do was not be pushy. My daughter, thankfully, was too young at the time to really know what I was doing.
I remember walking out to my car one day and I just felt like an old man—I was hunched over and frail. I thought, “This is killing me. I’ve got to stop.” But I didn’t… yet. Not too long afterward, I found myself in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.
At that point, I thought, “I have a wife and kid, this is ridiculous. I need to get my act together.” I quit drinking then and there.
Really? On the spot?
I never really had a physical addiction to alcohol, so I didn’t have to go to AA or anything. Looking at my lifestyle then, a lot of people would say that I was a functional alcoholic, but I never identified as one. When I decided to quit, I told myself, “I’m not a problem drinker, I’m a problem thinker. If I can just get my head straight, everything will take care of itself.” And that’s what happened.
If I told myself I wasn’t going to drink for 30 days, I knew that would seem like too much and I would break down and drink again. But I learned that if I could tell myself that I wasn’t going to drink for the next hour, I could make it. Then, after that hour was up, I’d tell myself to set a goal to not drink for the rest of the afternoon, and then for the rest of the day. After a few days like that, I felt I had momentum, because I didn’t think I could get that far in the beginning. That thin line of sobriety became a thick rope, and then a steel cable. Now we’re coming up on three years that I’ve been sober. I won’t say that I never, ever drink, but these days, I’ve learned to control it. I can have a drink once in a while on special occasions and I don’t go crazy. It’s not like the old days when I’d have one drink and then be like, “It’s off to Vegas!” [Laughs]
Congratulations. Why do you think your drinking became such a problem in your 40s? Did something trigger it?
I had a lot of anger and resentment about things that happened to me when I was a kid. I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but I understand it now. The drinking was just a way to numb myself.
Everyone says they have a screwed up family, but mine is right up there. My family would give anyone a run for their money as far as dysfunction goes. I had a turbulent childhood, and there was domestic violence. The police were at our house regularly. When I was 12, my parents got divorced, and I am the spitting image of my dad, so staying with my mom was bound to cause trouble.
When I was 15, my mom threw me out of the house. She had been stashing some money in a dresser drawer, and she came home one day and couldn’t find it. She asked me where it was, and I said I have no idea. She said, “Well, it was there, and now it’s gone. You were the only one home, so it must have been you.”
I had just woken up and I was in boxer shorts with nothing else on. She grabbed me by the hair and dragged me to the front door and literally kicked me out. It was January, and we lived in Canada. I was absolutely freezing, but she said, “You’re not getting back into the house.”
Once I realized that she meant it, I ran down the street to a friend’s house. He lived about a mile away. I got there, and as I waited for him to answer the door, I thought, “Their doormat is really warm.” I looked down and saw that my feet were soaked with blood. My friend’s mom answered the door, looked at me, and said, “What in the world…” She knew my mom was nuts and she had almost been waiting for something like this to happen. She let me in and I lived with them until I was 18.
But just for the record, I didn’t steal any money! My brother later opened the drawer and found it—the cash had been there the whole time, and my mom just hadn’t seen it. Still, she never apologized or admitted she was wrong.
OK, you beat alcohol and exorcized some of your demons… Now how did you find your way to Onnit?
When I quit drinking, I suddenly had all this extra energy. I started rearranging the house, and then I wanted to repaint it [laughs]. I began working out again, and I bought the Insanity® program from Beachbody. I liked it, but it was just a workout program—you work out and that’s it. It didn’t connect you with anyone or do anything to change your lifestyle. But I do credit it for introducing me to the concept of training at home, and how effective that can be.
Eventually, I joined a gym, and I was going there until the pandemic hit in spring 2020. That made the gym close, but I didn’t mind, since it wasn’t really my scene anyway. I remembered how much I liked the Insanity® program, so I thought I would start working out at home again, but I figured there must be something newer and better than Insanity® out there now, so I went online to look for workouts. That’s when I found Onnit.
The Onnit 6 Bodyweight program intrigued me, but I was intimidated by some of the moves. I thought, “I don’t think I can make my hips do that.” But the workouts looked so cool, I wanted to be able to do them. I did some more research and I found a video of [Onnit Chief Fitness Officer] John Wolf saying that if you want to do Onnit, start with the Onnit 6 Challenge Durability program… and life’s never been the same since.
How did you like Durability?
The workouts almost seemed too easy at first, but I could feel the difference within a few weeks. You don’t know how bad you feel until you feel good again. I became so much more fluid in every way. It wasn’t hard to get out of bed anymore! In fact, everything I did felt easier than I remembered, whether it was crouching down to get something out of a cupboard or reaching up to grab something. I had been getting more slumped over and fragile, and then, after six weeks of Durability, I was standing taller with my shoulders back. I could breathe deeper.
When I quit drinking, I also lost interest in crap food. Now it actually grosses me out. I am much pickier about what I eat now. I buy more organic, sustainable foods. I buy in-season and local. I’m more aware of what I put in my body because I want to start treating it right. Thanks to better eating, and Onnit, I’ve lost 30 or 40 pounds.
If you had seen me a year before, you would have thought that I was an old man who couldn’t even walk across his driveway. And now here I was, getting honored in a fitness competition: I had improved so much that I was selected as a semi-finalist in that Onnit 6 Challenge.
Onnit 6 Challenge participants are given access to the Onnit Tribe. Did you take advantage of it?
Not at first, because I’m not a big social media person. But every time I posted something in there, I was amazed at how well received it was, immediately. If I just wrote that I did my workout that day, people would say, “That’s awesome that you did your workout! Good for you.” Everyone was so supportive and encouraging and nice.
It’s amazing that the Tribe came into my life when it did. When there was so much social separation due to the pandemic, this group of people came together and connected through exercise and a desire to be better human beings. My social circle has always been small, but it’s tight. The Tribe expanded it with this nurturing community that is always right there for me. Some of the friends I have made through the Tribe are some of the best friends I have ever had. Tim Sibley and I talk all the time. People in the Tribe have invited me over to their house when I’m in their town. How could something so virtual and remote connect people so well?
Can you answer that question yourself?
Well, I think part of it is that people in the Tribe don’t talk about any of the stuff you hear all the time everywhere else. There’s no politics, no negativity. It’s the only forum on the internet that I want any part of.
How has Onnit helped your personal development?
I appreciate my family more now. I don’t take them for granted like I did when I was drinking, and I’m glad that I can be in better shape for my daughter, who’s 10. I don’t care that I may be the oldest dad in the schoolyard when I go to pick her up, as long as I’m the fittest [laughs].
In general, Onnit has given me the ability to see what’s possible. If I hadn’t seen, at first, how I could change my body, I never would have known how much more I could get out of life. Since my first Challenge, I’ve written a book! Before, I would have thought, “Why would anyone want to read something I wrote?” But now I think, “Maybe they would.” I used to talk myself out of things all the time, and now I have the confidence to try them.
So my book is called The Fearless Tiki. I used to work in an area that was popular with tourists, and there was a guy who took people out on a boat to drink. It was like a floating tiki hut, and because of that, other boaters didn’t take it seriously. The tiki boat got shunned by the other boats. But when the water was rough, this guy would still take people out, even when cruise ships wouldn’t dare to. So he got a reputation as the “Fearless Tiki.”
Inspired by that, I came up with this children’s story about a little tiki boat that wants to be treated like a real boat. He goes out on the ocean one day to rescue a boy when none of the other boats have the courage to, and he earns a hero’s welcome when he comes back. I got this amazing artist to do watercolor illustrations for it, and I’m going to self-publish the Fearless Tiki next month. I plan to donate what I make on it to a foundation that supplies life jackets to kids.
I also have plans to open an Airstream B&B. Picture this: you’re staying in an Airstream on a secluded beach. There’s a hot tub right outside. A gourmet chef arrives to prepare you a dinner, and then leaves you to eat under the stars. There will be different packages you can choose from, depending on whether you’re celebrating a wedding, a family vacation, or whatever.
One thing I’ve learned from Onnit is that how you make people feel is what matters most. It’s not what they get, but how they feel. That’s why Onnit has such fiercely loyal, rabid fans. Another company might be able to put out a product like Total Human® for half the price, but I bet no one would buy it. It’s because Onnit makes you feel like you’re being taken care of that it’s products are successful.
Look at the Onnit 6 programs and Challenge. When I was doing Insanity®, [program creator] Shaun T never called me up and had a conversation with me about how I was doing, but [Onnit Director of Fitness Education] Shane Heins does when I’m doing Onnit 6. The people at Onnit care about their customers. That’s what helped me get the concept for my Airstream business. I want to sell a feeling in the same way. I want people to show up thinking that they’re going to be staying in a trailer, but walk out feeling like they were on vacation at a five-star hotel.
Since you mentioned Total Human®, are there any Onnit supplements you use regularly?
Onnit’s products are the only supplements that, when I take them, I actually feel a difference. I take Total Human® myself, but the real game-changer for me has been New MOOD®. I’m happier when I take it. It’s easier for me to dismiss things that would otherwise drive me crazy. If I take New MOOD®, and someone cuts me off in traffic, I can say it’s no big deal. Of course, it’s not a tranquilizer, but I feel like it gives me much more control over my bad moods.
What would your advice be to someone who’s interested in Onnit, and maybe the Onnit Tribe, but hasn’t pulled the trigger yet to join?
I believe that if you discover Onnit, you’re being presented with that opportunity for a reason, so choose wisely. If you put a little into Onnit, you will get 100-times that back. And the community that Onnit creates with the Tribe is what makes that possible.
I believe that people in general are more connected than we realize. I think that if you checked in with everyone in the Tribe at, say, 7:30 one night, and you asked them what they’re thinking at that exact moment, you’d find that some of them are thinking of the exact same things. When you go to a familiar place every day, with familiar people, it creates an alignment between all of you.
When I was sailing in the Gulf of Alaska, I wouldn’t see another boat for days at a time. You start to feel like you’re the only person on the planet—it’s a feeling of isolation but also oneness with the ocean, the sky, and the stars at the same time. You’re alone but you’re still connected, and I get a similar feeling from being in the Tribe. The Tribe gives you this feeling of connection no matter where you are in life.