Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Fear is Good

In six months I will be sailing into the deep ocean once again, bound across the North Atlantic from New England to Scotland in a 41-foot yawl. And so it is time to reflect on the subject that many sailors would rather ignore: fear.

First off, I must admit the most frightened I've ever been in a boat has been within sight of land, not out on the deep. Racing a Soling near Lake Ontario's Canadian shore, I watched in terror as an electrical storm supercharged the atmosphere so completely that my shaking fingers tingled as I doused the wet sails. There were those many capsizes in windsurfers or Lasers that left me terrified under the shroud of sails until I struggled free. And there have been moments in fog or the black night when other vessels passed far too silently and much too closely.

As for the most likely candidates for fear, storms usually leave me feeling less frightened than challenged. I think three factors are at play here. One is my technical interest in sailing, which seems to come most richly alive in tough moments. The second is my conviction, bred into me by family and religious belief, that life is by nature risky, no matter where we are, and so we might as well stick our neck out here as anywhere. And the third factor is the power of adrenalin - that evolutionary defense mechanism, triggered by fear, that helps us all survive tough times by pumping us full of unrealistic confidence, even stupid arrogance.

All that concerns the during-the-storm experience. After the storm, when there are few technical fascinations and adrenalin has been drained away, I have been left clear-eyed and (very properly) frightened. I did not sense the full emotional power of the 1979 Fastnet storm until several weeks after we came ashore. As a passenger of a huge ferry boat rolling in a mild sea, I suddenly came to see myself far more helpless than I had ever believed during the gale itself. Escaping the deck, I found a safe corner in the cabin where I distracted myself with the terrors offered by the morning newspaper.

This is not to say that the open sea does not scare me in principle. If it did not, I would be very stupid indeed. Consider what the world's most popular and influential book says about the terrible deep. Though the authors of the Bible loved the wind (equating it with the Holy Spirit) and fresh water running in streams (living waters that bring life), Holy Scripture says hardly a good word about the sea from the first words of Genesis to the last ones of Revelation. In the Bible, the sea and the storms upon it are the chaotic Other Place of evil - as of course anybody who has been through a Force 9 or more powerful blow knows very well.

The question is not whether the sea and the storm are chaotic. That is generally understood to be true. The sea can be a very dangerous place. Rather, the issue is how on a practical level we can deal with and respond to them by warding off panic while still respecting the power of fear to hone our skills.

Two techniques work for me. First off, try to use our fear to ground our experience in facts, not terror. Look around and understand what we see, not what we imagine. At a safety-at-sea seminar in London, I heard the great ocean sailor Chay Blyth make this very point when he said that seamanship rule number 1 is "Be aware of your environment." It is all too easy to misread our surroundings, making them into something unrealistic, irrelevant, or fanciful.

If alertness is the first crucial grounding point, self-confidence is the second. Recognize that we have not traveled this far without some skills. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first conqueror of Mt. Everest and a man never afraid to admit fear, described a moment of self-recognition in his autobiography, View from the Summit. In a moment of faltering confidence in a frigid Antarctic camp on his route to the South Pole, he took a personal inventory of his aptitudes and came up with this: "Slightly crazy, frequently terrified, and not a bad navigator - and that about summed it up." Many of us would not consider this a happy self-evaluation, but it was good enough for Hillary. Reassured of his fundamental competence, he slept like a baby. He had succeeded in making his fear a companion.

Like awareness of the environment, self-confidence must be grounded in reality, not fantasy. That is why we who venture out onto the deep must keep working to build our skills by going out there and taking some chances. Even a little experience in windy weather teaches lots about boats, the environment, and your own skills.

One productive way to look at this exercise in self-improvement is to consider the example of skiers. Women and men who are competent on intermediate slopes and trials marked with blue signs always learn by mastering a black-diamond expert trail or two. In sailing, a day of moderate wind - 12-16 knots kicking up a mildly tossing sea without the need to shorten sail - is the equivalent of a blue trail, while 17-25 knots with whitecaps is firmly in the land of the black diamond.

When the wind pipes up a little, don't turn on the engine and douse sails. Instead, push the limits a little, work on your skills, be aware of your changing environment, recognize your abilities, and keep sailing. While no guarantee that you will never be fearful, this is a step toward the point where fear will not paralyze and may, in fact, be a stimulating companion — even a friend.

By John Rousmaniere

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