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Overcoming Fear of Ocean Sailing

The problem with sailing is the more you learn about it, the more you realize all the ways the ocean is out to get you. I have struggled with fear, cliche I know, but it’s a huge factor nonetheless since it's honestly the biggest hurdle many of us have to overcome in order to make a commitment to cruising.

Buzzy Trent, the pioneer of big wave surfing once said, "Waves are not measured in feet or inches, they are measured in increments of fear."

We achieved status on top of the food chain because of this little ball of magic in our brain called the amygdala. It’s there to help protect us from going outside our cave and getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers. Today, it can be a problem.


Particularly if we have to do things like give a presentation in front of a large audience and sometimes it can keep us from doing things we want to do. I like to think I’m courageous and carefree but I’ll be honest, that really only applies when it comes to ordering dessert. Everything else I sorta need my inner warrior-goddess to talk myself into.


The biggest gift of the amygdala is it teaches us things like staying safe means ‘staying with the herd.’ Selling all of our crap and crossing the Pacific is not staying with the herd. So, my brain keeps me safe by putting all these mental barriers in the way that are foreign and scary and makes me work really hard to hurl myself over them.


For me, facing my fears starts with writing them down….so here are just a few of the biggest ones I’m wrestling with in making this transition.


That’s a lot of water!

The Pacific Ocean covers 64 million square miles and takes up 1/3 of the earth’s total surface area which is larger than all the land put together. Take a moment to look at a globe, it will take you awhile, I’ll wait. So when my husband said, ‘Let’s go to Tahiti,’ I’m like ‘Cowabunga!,’ but then he followed it up by saying, ‘no I mean let’s sail there…we have to earn it.’ Which meant in 30 seconds flat I moved on to Retirement Plan B, buying some sinking beachfront condo in Florida; by the way prices are really coming down.

Crossing the Pacific is 3,000 nautical miles from Mexico to Marquesas or if you are interested in the scenic route you can check out Galapagos from Panama, it’s about 4,800 which is about a full MONTH at sea. A lot of things can go wrong in that amount of time, let me list a few that keep me up at night. Someone falls overboard, your water gets contaminated, you run out of food, you hit a shipping container and puncture the hull (I saw the movie), rogue waves make the boat flip, pirates can kidnap you and hold you for ransom or my personal favorite, you get caught in the floating trash vortex as you are also going through the doldrums.

Strategies for overcoming this fear:

Every experienced sailor will tell you that you don’t cross the Pacific on day 1. I mean, you could but I’m not hearing that in CruisersForum. I finally grasped the idea that it’s more like learning to train for a triathlon, you don’t just wake up one day and do the race. For me it was learning to be comfortable in the SF Bay, which can get lively. Then, we sailed outside the Golden Gate, first time was terrifying and thrilling all at the same time; like a really wet rollercoaster. Then, down the coast, then across to the Channel Islands, then a few charter vacations. Many people start in Florida, then do the Keys, then do Bahamas, Caribbean, etc. Okay, I can do that.


I also found it helpful to desensitize myself to waves by watching rough ocean compilations on youtube. I found the ones about the Bay of Biscayne to be particularly helpful, since that is a body of water we do have to cross after we get our boat commissioned on the way to the Med. Just sayin.


Selachophobia, or, Extreme Fear of Sharks

I’ve always been afraid of sharks. I blame my mother who took me to see Jaws at a drive-in when I was like 8-9 years old. She also took me with her to see The Shining and Alien (seriously mom really?1?). It makes me feel better to know that over half of all people fear sharks as much as I do. That’s the amygdala in white platform shoes dancing to Staying Alive on our brains.

Strategies to overcome this fear:

In an earlier podcast I told the story of my son who is in college and is a fanboy of Sharknado, recently asked me, ``aren't you afraid of getting eaten by a Megladon?’ My answer sort of surprised me as it dropped out of my mouth, ‘well, I would rather die getting eaten by a shark than by a heart-attack behind a desk.’


I do think the secret for me on this one is to stay in the boat in dangerous waters, and if it’s my destiny to die by shark, it’s a much more interesting way to go - especially if it’s a megalodon. my husband and I got Advanced Dive Certifications and learning about the different types of sharks was helpful. There are also good tactics here as well, like staying low, since they attack from below their prey. Or my personal favorite, only paddleboard in water so crystal clear that you can see to the bottom – bam!

2017 stats that make me feel better:

  • 5 people died in unprovoked shark attacks

  • 16 people died being struck by lightning

  • 48 people died while operating a lawn mower

  • 424 people died getting out of bed

  • 610,000 people died of a heart attack in the US, 1 of 4 deaths

What if we get caught in a storm?

Seasoned sailors who have cruised for 20+ years, like Lin and Larry Pardey, who wrote Storm Tactics Handbook: Modern Methods for Heaving-To for Survival in Extreme Conditions, they say bad weather only happens maybe 10% of the time. Those are people who are comfortable sailing during storm seasons, but still take a lot of precautions to avoid storms with just good common sense. Like don’t do an Atlantic Passage during hurricane season. Roger that. Yet, storms are a real thing and the weather is getting more extreme so this is a pretty serious matter.

Strategies for overcoming this fear:

The only way I knew to tackle this fear is to face a big storm and try the storm tactics – while cursing at Poseidon and laughing wildly at the sky like Captain Ahab. But first, I started reading as many storm tactics books and studying people’s stories. I have yet to live through a storm to tell about it, but it was helpful to understand the power of a good heave-to maneuver, 40 degrees from the wind with a storm anchor tied to your bow. It apparently creates a slick that flips the script on the breaking wave so it’s less likely to break on top of you. Now, that’s useful information. More good books, Heavy Weather Sailing, Sailing a Serious Ocean, Essentials of Sea Survival. The point is, the idea of a storm on a boat is scary because I don’t do that every day, but I do get in my car every day and my chances of dying in a car are much higher.


What if the boat sinks?

I’ve looked into this, and even though sinking boats make great movies, it’s not a common thing. Just in terms of boating fatalities in the US in 2017 just 658 people died in boating accidents, versus 40,000 who died in motor vehicle accidents. The biggest danger it seems is waves, which goes back to the topic of storm tactics above.

Strategies to overcome this fear:

We leaned towards a Catamaran, two hulls and airtight crash boxes make it pretty tough to sink. They have positive buoyancy and while it may capsize once it is no longer at its maximum stability, unlike a monohull, they don’t have a one ton ballast to weigh them down so while it might not be able to self right, it won’t sink straight to the bottom right away either. The idea would be to stay with the boat, as it gives search parties a better chance of finding us. Plus, a catamaran just has so much SPACE!

2017 stats that make me feel better:

  • 80% of the fatal boating accidents were on open cabin motor boats or in a canoe

  • 81% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction

  • 76% drowned and of those 84% of the people who drowned weren’t wearing life jackets

  • There were 17 offshore accidents, and of those, only 1 died

So one more lesson would be to put your life vest on in anything other than lemonade sipping conditions.

Fear of being stranded on a boat adrift

This is chapter two to chapter one above on the boat sinking. I have a love/hate relationship with this fear because as I write this, no access to video conferences and death by PowerPoint sounds worse. I’m a repressed introvert so being alone on a boat is sort of the whole idea, but not if it’s a rubber life raft or a floating piece of driftwood surrounded by sharks.

Strategies for overcoming this fear:

What helped me on this one was total and complete desensitization by taking a deep breath and submerging myself in non-fiction. I started with Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, then moved to Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan (not to be confused with the movie based on the book about Tami Oldham), Red Sky in Mourning Tami Oldham's actual book, then, I graduated by reading my all-time favorite survival story 438 Days: Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin. No, the title is not an overstatement. It’s the amazing true story of Salvador Alvarenga, a fisherman from Mexico lost at sea after his engines malfunctioned and drifted for 9,000 nautical miles – in a small, 25 foot, open fishing boat! Read that book, it’s of a similar genre to Life of Pi but packed full of practical information, and it will blow your mind.

Survival is a mind game! The thread through all these remarkable true stories was the importance of resilience, resourcefulness and the will of the human spirit to survive. Not only is our amygdala helping us out, our brain does things to create alternate realities to protect us and help us overcome unthinkable situations. After binging on all of these sea survival stories, I found fascinating parallels to my experiences as a woman in high-tech. I’ve also downloaded Navy Seals Survival Guide: Surviving Disaster. I am also planning to sign up for a Sea Survival Certification Course, it will make me feel more in control.


Here’s what I’m learning about fear, and it’s a journey.


In everyday life, like most of us, I tend to apply the rule that I can only worry about things that are in my control, the rest you sort of have to let go of. However, if I’m on a boat with my husband, we are 100% in control of how we react to any life or death situation. It’s called seamanship. But mastering sailing could take many lifetimes, so where does that leave me? My dive instructor said, the most important thing to remember is to recognize your limits and don’t do dives that are beyond your comfort or experience.


I think the point about living on a boat and sailing around the world, is that it pushes our personal boundaries and teaches us what we are made of, I think this was Buzzy’s point.


But we still have to do this within the limits of our combined comfort zone as a couple...together. So for me, managing fear has more to do with finding ways my husband and I can communicate better and work more effectively as a team...and being clear in an emergency, who is calling the shots.


What fears do you have about living on a boat and sailing around the world and how did you overcome them?


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