Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

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.

Cruising Beyond Our Fears – coping with anxieties while all at sea (1 of 2)

fear2Every 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.

SEE Cruising  Beyond Our Fears (2 of 2)

© 2012 Dennison Berwick.  May be reproduced for non-commercial purposes with full attribution.

2 comments on “Cruising Beyond Our Fears – coping with anxieties while all at sea (1 of 2)

  1. Madla K
    February 27, 2012

    The suggestions are based on an incredibly heroic experience of the author. Refer to ‘A walk along the Ganges’ et al.


  2. Jeannie O'
    March 9, 2012

    I think these suggestions for combating fear apply to lots of things! I don’t sail, but I can use some of this advice! (Had the good fortune to meet Dennison on the road, and he’s an interesting and fun character!)


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This entry was posted on February 22, 2012 by in Life Skills, Sailing and tagged , , .
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