October 31, 2008

Fear is normal

PEOPLE sometimes ask if I ever get scared when I’m sailing. Do I ever experience actual fear? Well, to borrow a phrase from a well-known Alaskan soccer mom and animal disemboweler, you betcha!

But the issue of fear in sailing is not often discussed in public, says Oded Kishony, of Barboursville, Virginia, in a comment on a previous blog. He’s right. It’s certainly not discussed much in most sailing magazines or even on sailing bulletin boards.

I guess most sailors don’t want to confess to feeling scared for fear of being labeled wimps and wusses. But I got over that particular fear years ago. I have wimped and wussed my way through my entire sailing career, so being scared at sea no longer makes me feel I’ve lost my manhood. For me, frequent anxiety, occasional fright, and rare moments of real fear have become the norm in sailing.

I have a whole array of anxieties and fears, ranging from wondering whether the engine will stop just as I’m entering a marina to how I would get back on board again if I fell over the side. I’ll work up a little sweat on occasion when I try to think how long ago the standing rigging was inspected (too long, of course) or how I would stop a leak if I had actually hit the jagged rock we just missed.

I don’t know what Mr. Kishony’s interest is in fear. I discover he is a master craftsman of violins, violas, and cellos. He also has studied psychology, so that might explain something. But I do know that many would-sailors with dreams of cruising away into the sunset are halted by simple fear of the sea.

What they don’t appreciate is that fear is a normal and indispensable part of ocean voyaging -- and perhaps even of sailing with more modest objectives. Fear, after all, is what keeps you out of trouble. It assists in the avoidance of danger, says Dr. Michael Stadler, author of Psychology of Sailing: The Sea’s Effects on Mind and Body (Adlard Coles, London).

“Fear in ample (though not excessive) degree can mobilize forces which sharpen up the senses and improve one’s capacity to anticipate and assess the risks inherent in certain situations,” he says.

Most landlubbers link gales at sea with fear, but ordinary gales should cause no undue anxiety to a well-found yacht. One of my boyhood heroes, Eric Hiscock, a very experienced circumnavigator, learned that lesson only late in his sailing career. He suffered greatly from anxiety most of his life, fearing that really bad weather might some day overtake his little vessel. Which it eventually did, of course. And when it did, he discovered to his enormous relief that both he and Wanderer III had what it takes to survive.

“Fortunate indeed is the man who, early in his sailing career, encounters and successfully weathers a hard blow,” Hiscock wrote. The message is plain: Don’t let fear of bad weather put you off cruising. Those who cross oceans find that gales account for less than 2 percent of their sailing time.

In any case, I think it’s fairly certain that all sensible sailors do feel at least a little scared from time to time. Sailing is a sport from which it’s impossible to remove all risk, and perhaps it’s the thrill associated with danger that lends excitement and satisfaction to even the tiniest voyage. How dull sailing would be if it were completely safe. How motorboatish. Yecch!

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They didn’t remember

Dr. David Lewis, an experienced singlehander, did a study of fear in collaboration with Britain’s Medical Research Council. He found that four out of five contestants in the 1960 singlehanded transatlantic race experienced “acute fear.”

Interestingly, though, they didn’t remember afterward how frightened they had been. It seems to be part of human nature that we forget, or at least downplay, the bad times and remember only the good times. Most of the sailors recalled that they were scared, but couldn’t recall how bad it was. Their brains had expunged or subdued memories of their bad experiences.

Dr Lewis concluded: “Observations noted at the time are the only valid ones.” He himself honestly forgot that he had been at all frightened during one gale until he consulted his notes.

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Trust yourself

Richard Henderson, one of America’s best-known sailing authors, says in his book Singlehanded Sailing (International Marine) that the best weapon against fear is self-confidence.

And how does a wussy wimp like me gain self-confidence?

“This is best assured by careful preparation, attention to one’s health, seeing that the boat is sound and well equipped, learning all one can about the proposed route and weather conditions, preparing for all possible emergencies, and gradually building experience.”

All of which sounds remarkably like my own Black Box Theory. Which see.

* * *

Two types of fear

Ocean voyagers apparently experience two types of fear. There are the initial tensions and anxieties that last for a few days after sailing, and there are specific periods of apprehension such as those occasioned by a gale, sudden fog, or a bad-visibility approach to an unknown coast.

I also experience the collywobbles before I set sail. (Do I really know what the hell I’m doing? Will I really be able to pull down the second reef in a 50-knot gale? Will I be seasick and incapacitated … and on, and on.) But I know now, after years of experience, that all these and most of my minor anxieties will disappear as soon as I leave the land behind. It’s as if some part of my mind — the dedicated worry zone — realizes that it’s too late now, and that it might as well cooperate in getting the damn boat to the next port as painlessly as possible.

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October 29, 2008

A word of thanks

OK, before we go any further I should mind my manners. I have to express my deep gratitude to Karen Larson and Jerry Powlas, founders of Good Old Boat magazine, for hosting my website.

Of course, it’s not pure altruism that moves them. There is a faint chance that someone might visit this site, take leave of their senses, and order one of my books. In that case, Karen and Jerry stand to make a small commission. A very small commission, to tell the truth — just about the same as what I make from the sale of my books, as a matter of fact.

The people who make the real money from my books are the publishers and the retail sellers. I’m talking about the big money, the heavy spondoolicks if you know what I mean. Now I ask you, in all decency, is it fair? Is it right? I do all the work and they get all the … but no, my wife says I must get a grip on myself. Thank you, dear. We seem to have been down this road before. But let me assure you all that I am not resentful. Hell, no. Not really. I always foam at the mouth and grind my teeth like this.

Sorry, I got carried away there for a bit. What I actually wanted to say was that Karen and Jerry have come to be good friends of mine in the decade since they bravely started a new sailing magazine called Good Old Boat. Accordingly, they allow me to indulge in one of mankind’s greatest urges, one even greater than the urge to reproduce, and that is the urge to change other people’s writing.

They made me Good Old Boat’s copy editor and gave me full permission to cross other people’s crooked T’s and dot their naked I’s. It’s wonderful. And to crown it all, they pay me for doing it. It’s heaven. Thanks Karen. Thanks Jerry. I owe you.

October 27, 2008

Anchors: Weight counts most

People often say it’s the shape of your anchor that counts, not the weight, but that’s not entirely true. Weight matters, too.

No matter what kind of anchor you use, heavier is better. It’s weight, sheer weight, that helps an anchor penetrate the bottom. And, remember, things weigh less under water. Some of the new alloy anchors are so light they almost float in air, never mind water. When you toss one overboard with a nonchalant flick of the wrist, it zigs and zags drunkenly through the water like a falling leaf. There’s no knowing where such a thing might land, or where you might end up anchored—if, in fact it ever manages to scritch itself into the sea bed.

No thank you. On a little 22-footer I once owned I carried a 25-pound CQR. People sniggered and said it looked out of proportion, but when I dropped my anchor it didn’t prance and glide like a ballet dancer. It fell like a ton of bricks. It sent waves halfway up the bow. It crashed into the sea bottom and buried itself in a massive crater.

When I was anchored, I was really anchored. Shape is OK, but weight is what really counts most.

* * *

Anchoring rights

Know your rights when you anchor. Basically, the first one to anchor has all the rights.
U.S. Admiralty Court decision number 124-5861 of 1956 says:
“A vessel shall be found at fault if it … anchors so close to another vessel as to foul her when swinging … and/or fails to shift anchorage when dragging dangerously close to another anchored vessel. Furthermore, the vessel that anchored first shall warn the one who anchored last that the berth chosen will foul the former’s berth.”

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October 24, 2008

Better than sex

THOSE WHO participate in it regularly know that sailing is wonderful, even better than sex. If you’re not a sailor, you might find that hard to believe, but it’s true. Here’s the proof:
• You never have to hide your Sailing magazines.
• It’s perfectly acceptable to Sail with a professional.
• There’s nothing in the Ten Commandments that discourages Sailing.
• When your partner videotapes you Sailing, you don’t have to worry that it will show up on the Internet.
• Your Sailing partner won’t quiz you about people you Sailed with before you were married. Or after.
• It’s quite OK to Sail with a perfect stranger.
• When you meet a really good Sailor in a bar, you needn’t feel guilty about imagining the two of you Sailing together.
• There’s no danger whatsoever that if you Sail by yourself you’ll grow hair on your palms or go blind.
• You can have a Sailing calendar at work without precipitating a sexual harassment suit.
• There are no known Sailing-transmitted diseases.
• When your Sailing partner insists you bring protection, any old anorak will do.
• Nobody expects you to Sail with one partner for the rest of your life.
• You never have to wonder next morning if your Sailing partner still loves you after a one-night Sail.
• Nobody slaps your face if you ask: “Do you Sail?”
• Your Sailing partner will never say, “Not again! We just Sailed last week, for goodness’ sake! Is that all you ever think about?”
* * *


A small-town vicar was asked to lecture the local young girls’ club on Christianity and Sex. But because his wife was very strait-laced, he told her he was going to lecture on sailing.

A few days later the vicar’s wife met one of the girls in the street. She said the vicar’s lecture had been very interesting and informative.

“Huh,” the vicar’s wife snorted, “I can’t imagine what he knows about it. He’s only done it twice. The first time he got sick. The second time his hat blew off.”
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October 23, 2008

A frightening calm

I’VE HEARD it said many times that the hardest part of an ocean crossing in a small sailboat is the calms. They’re hard on the boat’s gear, with all that jerking of spars, slatting of canvas, and constant chafe of lines. They’re hard on the crew, too. This is the time when minor irritations turn into full-blown confrontations, and even fisticuffs.

But I must admit that I love calms. I never find them boring. In fact, one particular calm gave me the biggest fright I've ever had at sea. I was one of four crewmembers aboard the Diana K, a 33-foot racing sloop taking part in the first Cape-to-Rio race from Cape Town, South Africa, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We ran slap-bang into a calm about 400 miles off the Brazilian coast.

Because there wasn't sufficient work to keep two people busy during the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch, I sent my watchmate down below to sleep. I sat in the cockpit marveling at the beauty of it all.

There was no moon, but each of a million stars was reflected brightly in the pitch-black ocean, and each tiny reflected dot was connected to its neighbor by a wobbly skein of light. The whole surface of the sea was gently heaving with this magnificent display when I got to wondering about how far down into the water the light of a star might penetrate.

I found the deck flashlight and shone it overboard, alongside the cockpit. Seen from almost end-on, the beam seemed to go down for ever, twisting and spiraling eerily, boring into the verdant depths.

Suddenly I burst out in a cold sweat. I realized I had just signaled our presence to every leviathan of the sea within miles. We all know the size of the creatures that inhabit the ocean deeps out there. Occasionally some octopus the size of a small elephant gets washed up on a lonely shore. Enormous whales return to the surface badly scarred after tumultuous fights with giant squids that inhabit the sea's secret depths.

And now I had flashed my light, the brightest light for hundreds of miles around, to show those squids where we were. And we weren't moving. We were a sitting duck. I literally shivered with fright.

More than anything, I wanted to start the engine and move away from that area. But that would have put us out of the race after nearly 30 days of hard sailing. And we had done well. We were in line for a couple of trophies. I thought of waking the skipper and confessing. I didn't know what to do.

I abandoned the tiller and crouched down in the cockpit. After five minutes of near-paralysis I crept down below to locate the fireman's ax we kept for emergencies and brought it back on deck. If any tentacles appeared over the gunwale I wanted to give a good account of myself.

It sounds silly and irrational now, I know, but at the time my fear was very real. Eventually, with a little puff of wind from here, and a little puff from there, we slowly started to move away, and I began to concentrate on my helmsmanship. I sailed like a demon. You’ve never seen such fantastic light-weather performance on any yacht in the middle of the night. It was a long time before I breathed freely again, but we did make a clean getaway.

I never told the others what I had done, and I'll never do it again. One fright like that is enough for a lifetime.

* * *

Today’s Thought

Time flies like a speeding arrow. Fruit flies like a rotten banana.

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October 20, 2008

The heron's voice

WE WERE anchored in Shallow Bay, Sucia Island, in early September 2005 in our little sailboat, Sangoma. The peace and tranquility of this sheltered haven in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest was all around us.

A lanky, gawky heron was fishing in the shadows on the western side of the bay when a kingfisher came flitting along and disturbed him.

The heron flapped clumsily into the air, protesting vigorously, complaining loudly and bitterly in a harsh, grating, echoing croak. If a creaking door could roar, that would be the heron.

Later, I told my wife, June, about it.

“How could God give the heron such a terrible voice?” I asked.

She looked at me for a while and asked: “Have you heard God’s voice?”

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