Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fear of Sailing

A sight that used to fill me with dread and almost prevented me from ever sailing.

One day, about a month ago, while making passage from one port in the Dodecanese to another, our day was dominated by the weather depicted above.

Looking at that photograph it is hard to believe the day had started sunny and calm. We rounded a point just as the wind picked up and the sky overhead closed in from all sides. Off to the west, we saw a squall line move toward us like the front of an ancient army.

A squall line moves across the Aegean sky. This shot is taken looking aft from the boat.
The scene reminded me of a day some six years earlier, long before I had cast off on this voyage. It was in the time when the idea of this grand voyage was still new and filled with as much excitement as trepidation. I had fears back then which sometimes mounted to tall dark clouds of ambivalence. Could I face the immense and merciless forces of a tempestuous sea? Forget the brutality of ill weather, would I feel lost and small being so exposed and vulnerable to the elements?

Not being seen by freighters is a justifiable fear. Especially in really bad weather when they adjust the radar gain so waves don't clutter their radar screen.
I remember one evening coming home from the grocery store with my daughter Zoe. As we came out of the store, an impressive sunset presented itself to us. Over the buildings across the street, a base layer of dark gray clouds ran ragged up into the sky as if the Adirondacks had suddenly erupted in size. The cloud crests were wispy and stringy like a mad scientist’s hair. From below and behind, the clouds were illuminated: electric orange and red with sharp shards of horizontal yellow. The bloated dark blue-gray clouds and sunset-lit sky mixed in a Maxfield Parish type of unreal juxtaposition of threat and warmth. It was a scene as imposing as it was impressive.

“What a beautiful sunset,” I said to Zoe, but no sooner had the words mixed with the cool air that I felt punched right in my gut. A voice inside me asked, “And you want to be at sea with that kind of an immense and unforgiving sky to worry about as night falls?”

Some months later, I attended a two-day offshore sailing seminar. I was nervous as I stuck my nametag to my shirt. I worried about exposing myself as a novice. I was ambivalent about voicing my fears and being considered ridiculous. But quickly, I realized that all of the two- or three-dozen participants were more or less at the same point in their sailing development as I was. Some were experienced coastal cruisers, but none had done an ocean passage. One workshop was specifically dedicated to discussing our fears.

“Fear has got a bad reputation,” said Steve Black, the seminar’s founder. “But it’s an early warning system.”

If you have fear of something, he said, then you need to learn more about it. Learn how to prevent it. Learn how common the event is. Learn what causes it. Learn what to do once it occurs.

“There is nothing you fear that you can’t significantly change,” Steve reassured us.

It was instructive to hear what others feared.

“I worry I won’t be able to maintain concentration. I worry I’ll have to be paying attention and be fighting fatigue all the time,” one woman said.

As I listened to the woman, I found myself thinking, “What an unnecessary fear. Why, you can just heave to and get some rest. Or you could ask the next watch to take over a bit earlier.”

But with the same ease that I dismissed her fears, Steve dismissed mine about containers. My last remaining terrifying fear was hitting a partially submerged container. Steve acknowledged rare reports of boats hitting things in the water, but even in those cases, the objects almost never hole the boat. He reminded us that the stem is one the strongest hull points and things will glance off the boat as it slices through the water.

We talked about lightning and Steve offered the most amazing story: He had been in a lightning storm when he was the only boat around. The lightning was striking the water all around his boat, but he never got hit. To my surprise another skipper had a similar tale. Another spoke of getting hit, but having it do no further damage than blow out his electronics.

Then he gave us the warning I keep repeating to this very day: The dangers we face at sea are far more likely to be of our own making than weather and external conditions.

Poor navigation, over-reliance on charts and GPS accuracy, inattentive watches and the resulting rock we hit is a hundredfold more likely to put a hole in our boat than lightning or a container. Most neophytes worry about the things they can’t control whereas it is the small everyday activities that will almost certainly give every sailor an injury. Burns while cooking, for instance, are the most common cause of minor and serious injuries, but no one ever asked a question about or how to treat a burn wound, or the safest way to pour boiling water into a cup in a rocking boat.

Cuts from chopping food in choppy waters, getting fingers caught in a winch, pinches in the windlass, falling inside the cabin and knocking your head during rough weather. These are all common injuries that can often be prevented by not underestimating the caution needed at every moment with every movement on board.

We spend far too much energy worrying about the things which present the smallest actual threats to our boats and our lives.

There are two things every sailor should be concerned about above all others, Steve said. One is fatigue. The other is being beam-to in breaking seas. But once again, he reminded us, they are both within our control.

If I look deeper at what my fears were going into the conference, it was the fear that I was ignorant, a novice, a beginner. Yet isn’t that the silliest fear of all? By the end of the conference I realized that yes, I was just a beginner, I was just a novice, and I was still ignorant of many things this new life would be teaching me. That isn’t a fear. That is the most thrilling aspect of all.

It is precisely the unknown that makes adventure exciting. If it is known, it is not adventure. A part of adventure is that you are not always in control. You are not in control of the weather, you are not in control of lightning, you are not in control of submerged containers. But you can learn to be in control of how you react. You can learn to react to the circumstances. And when you do, it provides the most powerful feeling any human can experience. Because the immediate rush of sensation flushing through your body is, “I can gain control.”

As the squall line passed overhead, winds gusted up to 25 with shots of 30.
That day last month in the Dodecanese, I wasn’t afraid of the squall coming at us. I didn’t feel lost or small. I had seen squalls come and pass. I was curious to see the effects of this particular one. How quickly would the gusts arrive? How strong would they be? Would the wind direction change after the squall?

Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. ... We must do that which we think we cannot.”

Always nice to be heading for a bright horizon, however slim.

1 comment:

abbot said...

storms, freighters, submerged containers.... all pale in comparison the the Oceanic White Tips