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.

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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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