May 4, 2014

The fear of sailing

THERE ARE MANY SPORTS whose popularity is due, at least in part, to the fear they generate. I’m thinking of sports such as mountaineering, car racing, skydiving, and, of course, sailing.

But there is one thing that separates sailing from the rest, and that is the length of time for which the fear exists. If you’re crossing an ocean, for example, you could well be in a continuous state of fear for 30 days at a time — sometimes more fearful than others, but never less than baseline anxious, if you are any decent kind of sailor.

Strangely enough, it is the presence of possible danger, and the fear it generates, that is attractive to many people. The rush of adrenaline appears to be sweet for many mountaineers and  car racers, but they don’t experience fear as the deep-sea sailor experiences it, relentlessly for days and weeks on end.

Luckily, fear has its uses at sea. It’s 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.

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.

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.
“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.

Today’s Thought
The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than with their minds.
— Will Durant

 “Is this the sound-effects department?”
“Good, send me a galloping horse immediately.”
“What for?”
“Well, the script calls for the sound of two coconut shells being clapped together.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Riverbank Images Ireland said...

Lovely article. As we say here in Ireland, "Pure true".

Tillerman said...

Excellent. We all struggle with fear of sailing from time to time. At least I do and this puts it into perspective very well.

Bursledon Blogger said...

very well put, as the English sailor Peter Pye wrote "if you want to be a sailor you have to go to sea"

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Most of us involved in outdoor recreation accept the presence of risk and danger along with our fun. With the recent sherpa catastrophe on Everest, it occurred to me that sailing and mountain climbing set themselves off from the rest of sports: both of them involve risk to those coming to the aid and rescue of climbers and sailing. As I age as a sailor, I am more mindful of the risks I take which may endanger those who might try to come to my aid.

rattus said...

Self-confidence as an antidote to fear is a valid theory.

It's *unwarranted* or delusional self-confidence that gets many into the justified fear zone...