My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Every sailor fears the sea (and those who don’t are too dangerous to crew with). But long before we cross an ocean or meet our first typhoon we must face a thousand smaller challenges of sailing and navigation – any one of which can torment us with apprehension, even fear.
Making our first passage on our own, entering an unfamiliar harbor at night, going through ship locks, anchoring in very shallow or very deep water – each of these can fill us with gut-churning apprehension. Beginners and novices, especially, need to be able to deal with worries and fears in ways that strengthen confidence and fortitude rather than undermine them. We may dream of steady winds, quiet anchorages, meeting new people and mastering new skills but our dreams will be shattered if we experience too many occasions of debilitating dread.
From mild anxiety to sheer terror – fear arises from our perceptions of risks, not the external reality. We may have good reason to be afraid sometimes but conditions that make us fearful may be plain sailing to someone with more experience. That doesn’t make our apprehensions any less real to us. Being downright scared on occasion is the reality we face as sailors. Skippers and crew need to know how best to cope.
Yet fear is a subject most cruisers rarely to talk about. And there’s a tendency in the literature of voyages to play down, even omit completely, all mention of anxiety or being terrified even as the boat runs aground or capsizes in a storm. It’s as if recounting our fears is either a sign of weakness or, conversely, of boasting. Yet knowing that people we admire and may want to emulate have also been weak at the knees on occasion can be reassuring – proof that such feelings are normal. And can be overcome.
Unconsciously tightening stomach muscles when facing any challenge for perhaps the first time is a normal reaction to circumstances that are not fully within our control. What’s crucial, if we want to attain our dreams, is to learn to live with our very healthy sense of vulnerability so that it doesn’t overwhelm us. Working through our fears, rather than running from them, will help bolster our self confidence over time.
Some degree of heightened awareness is inevitable and desirable. Isn’t that sense of being more fully alive a big part of why we’re sailing? As Cap’n Fatty Goodlander wrote in “The Zen of Wood Butchery” (Cruising World May 2009), “I was dead-dog tired. I was scared. But I felt electric and alive. There’s rare air out there, and I was breathing it. Few men do.”
So what can we do to better handle our fears and sail with greater confidence? Here are 10 suggestions:
1) Know that you are not alone. Everyone – no matter how experienced – is anxious sometimes. I’ve been forever grateful to a friend with many years of experience who confessed she was nervous every time she entered a new marina. And I’d thought I was the only one! Talk to other sailors and you’ll soon discover everyone has been afraid some times. But they keep going.
2) Recognize your fears. Trying to suppress them only makes them harder to handle. Recognize how you’re feeling, be specific about what’s causing the anxiety, then focus on what needs to be done. For example, you may want to cross an ocean but your fears are making you dismiss it as, “Too risky for me!” If you accept this as truth there’s no way to face the fears and overcome them. Calling out fears helps stop them becoming an all-encompassing reality – which they are not.
3) Plan for what might go wrong. Once you recognize your fears, you can work towards overcoming them. Fears often arise from uncertainty, so use your imagination to envisage possible scenarios and plan how you’d handle high risk situations such as a fire, a grounding, serious injury or if the anchor drags. It’s prudent seamanship. No need to conjure a nightmare; but thinking things through, making preparations and then knowing you’re prepared calms nerves and will help prevent disaster from happening.
Handle nagging “what ifs” by making a checklist of what should be done in situations that make you nervous. For example, the first few times you drop anchor you may worry about laying out enough chain for the rise (or fall) of tide and correctly setting a snubber. Work through your checklist to ensure nothing’s overlooked. Confidence comes with practice and experience. Meanwhile, it’s normal to be a little apprehensive.
4) Give yourself time. We work slower when we’re anxious and trying to rush leads to mistakes, which only unsettles us more. We’re cruising, not racing or making a delivery. There’s no where we have to go, no deadline we have to meet. If the forecast is for bad weather, stay at anchor an extra day or plan to make only a short hop. Setting a moderate pace and allowing yourself time to accomplish modest goals is one of the best ways to build confidence as you ascend the learning curve. Gaining lots of good experiences helps put occasional scary moments into perspective.
5) Stay as comfortable as you can. Eat regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. An empty stomach only encourages nausea and seasickness. Warm drinks, fruit or chocolate can do wonders. We all have our comfort foods and this is not the time to be worrying about gaining weight. Before departure, make sure you’re stocked up on favorite comfort foods for all the crew.
6) Rest as much as possible. Being anxious is exhausting. Take it easy, especially after a grueling day. Give yourself time to recharge and rebalance. Weariness exaggerates worry and our ability to make good decisions deteriorates rapidly when we’re tired. You want to be fresh for the next challenge.
7) Keep going. Don’t let anxieties about what might happen stop you. Most of our fears are set in the future; we tend to overestimate risk and danger, especially in unfamiliar situations. The first time you put in a triple reef and prepare the boat for heavy weather you will be nervous. By the tenth time it will be almost routine. The worst we imagine rarely happens. And if the situation does become challenging we’re generally too busy coping to have time to worry.
8) Invest in training. Gaining skills and competence are important building blocks of self-confidence. Take courses or set yourself specific exercises in easier conditions. Knowing that you know what you’re doing is very reassuring and can help settle nerves when situations do get a bit beyond our experience and comfort level.
9) Get as much experience as possible. Practicing maneuvers in calm conditions and sailing with people with more experience are two ways to gradually put worries to rest. Whether experienced or novice, we learn by working through challenging conditions so that next time they are far less daunting. With experience comes the ability to make sound decisions based on knowledge and prudence rather than succumbing to paralyzing fear.
10) Trust your boat. Nothing gives greater confidence, in heavy weather especially, than knowing your boat is in good repair, has the right equipment and that you know how to use it. Conversely, if you know the anchor is undersized or the standing rigging is in poor condition, nothing is going to keep you from worrying constantly. A well-found boat is the best insurance against this.
The sea is a wilderness we can never control. Sometimes we do get caught out in conditions beyond our experience. And then we feel our fears arising from our bellies and there’s nothing we can do about it! Telling ourselves not to be afraid doesn’t help. We must focus on what has to be done and tough it out. Cruisers don’t need nerves of steel but just sometimes we have to keep sailing despite our fears. But with training and experience over time, and a well-found boat, comes faith that no matter what confronts us we can face almost any challenge, reach our destination safely and relish accomplishing our goals.