Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Fear Factor

I posted an email earlier from a reader who was asking about how to deal with fear of sailing. When the wind is howling and you think that you won't be able to handle the conditions, that you might even break something or hurt yourself, what do you do?

I don't propose to be an expert on this matter. No, take that back. I'm very much an expert on that feeling of being scared to go sailing. What I mean is that I'm not an expert on sports psychology or motivating athletes on how to overcome their fears. But I can pass on a few tips that have worked for me at times...

1. Logic
If you're a left-brain type then maybe a logical argument will persuade you to go out and sail in 30 knots.

What's the worst that is likely to happen?

Sure you might capsize but that's no big deal.

Perhaps something might break on your boat, but you can always mend it.

Will you hurt yourself? Probably not.

I've been sailing a Laser for over 25 years and have been out in all kinds of conditions. I broke a mast top-section once and still managed to sail two miles back to the sailing club with the rig bent in half. I've ripped out various fittings and broken a boom but still managed to survive to tell the day. I've had a few bruises and grazes at times for sure, but the worst injury I ever had was the time the boom cut my head open during a gybe. There was a lot of blood for a while but it didn't require a hospital visit. And that's it.

Realistically the probability of any kind of serious injury while dinghy sailing is very small. So stop thinking about what might go wrong. Go sailing and enjoy the wind and waves.

2. Peer pressure
If you're sailing with other people then there will probably be other folk who want to go out and sail in the conditions that are scaring you. Surely you're not going to let them have all the fun are you? You'll feel like a total wuss if you're standing on the shore while others are out sailing.

This worked for me on the day I wrote about in Small Craft Advisory.

As we arrive at the regatta site we see the bay covered in white caps. There are a few other Laser sailors in the parking lot looking uncertain. Some have taken Lasers off roof racks and trailers. Some are waiting. Another sailor arrives and announces that he thinks there is a 20% chance we will race. We check out the launch situation: two narrow ramps with a pier between them, rocks on one side, facing almost straight into the wind and with waves crashing on the ramps. We all have mental images that it's going to be something like this video. Going out will be tough. Coming back in will be worse.

Another sailor arrives and proclaims in more positive tones that even if we don't race we will sail. He knows more sheltered areas to launch from. Sounds good. We can still go out and have a blast around even if the RC think it's too windy to race.
A positive enthusiastic role model who is determined to sail can have a powerful influence on the timid, uncertain types like me.

3. Call on past positive experiences
Psych yourself up by recalling times that you have sailed before in heavy weather.

For example I can always puff out my chest and and remind myself, "I survived the 2007 Caribbean Midwinters."

4. Bite smaller chunks
OK, maybe you won't be able to handle the conditions. Maybe you will capsize a lot and get tired and have to come in early. So what? If you don't go out and try to sail in these conditions you never will learn to master them.

So make a small commitment. "I'll just sail one race and then see how I feel." Or, "I'll keep sailing until I've capsized five times and then I'll call it a day."

Sometimes when you do this you will find that you don't capsize as much as you thought you would, or you will do one race and feel confident to try another. And sometimes you won't. But hey, at least you gave it a shot.

5. Brag
OK, so you are all standing there, staring at the waves crashing on the beach, and wondering who will be the first to admit he doesn't want to sail. None of my first four tips are working for you. So now is the time for desperate measures...


Take the initiative. Tell the group how psyched up you are about sailing in heavy air. Here are some lines you could use...

"Come on guys, it's only 25 knots between the gusts."

"Wow. 30 knots! I've been waiting for weeks for an opportunity to practice in this."

"Yeah baby. 35 knots! It's a day for the fat boys. I'm going to blow you all away."

Yes, I know it's all lies, but after a few minutes of such bullshit you will actually start to believe it yourself. And then the others will respond to you as in point #2 above. Problem solved.

6. Music
Now we're really getting into the New Age, touchie-feelie, right brain stuff. But music does have the capability to inspire, motivate, calm, soothe, relax... whatever mood change you need.

Surely I am not the only sailor who has composed a mix tape (and it really was a tape back in the early 80's) of songs that he enjoyed to listen to while driving to a sailing event? On that tape there were a few songs that particularly had the ability to put me in the right frame of mind to tackle heavy air, to tough it out with the competition, to keep going when I was becoming tired... and so on. Listening to the music before sailing helped calm any fears and motivate me to have a go. And if things got gnarly out on the race course I would recall the most appropriate tune to keep me going.

Which brings me to the last piece of advice...

7. Sing
If all else fails, sing. Yes, I know this idea is even crazier than #5 and #6. But if you're out there in the midst of huge crashing waves the size of houses and winds that are blowing koalas off trees, singing at the top of your voice does take your mind off the stuff that's scaring you. It's worth a try. I'm sure the psychologists have some fancy term for this way of using a distraction to occupy your mind and overcome your fears.

And, if nothing else, the sight of you singing at the top of your voice will totally discombobulate your competition.

What song to sing?

I have found that Wheels on the Bus works quite well.

OK. That's seven ideas from me. What can you suggest?


Anonymous said...

"Yeah baby. 35 knots! It's a day for the fat boys. I'm going to blow you all away."


But... do you not run marathons? I am guessing that the "fat guy" lie is not going to work for you. Now if I were to use it...

Tillerman said...

"Do you not run marathons?"

Ah ah. My campaign to create a false sense of awareness in the opposition about my level of fitness and athleticism is working.

Pat said...

From the keelboat sailor perspective: Carry a big, bad-ass roll of duct tape and a few key spare parts and some high-strength spare line.

Tim Coleman said...

"Will your anchor hold in the straits of fear...."

One of my favorites.

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