“But aren’t you scared?” It’s the question our land-based friends asked again and again, usually with sincere concern for our well-being, as we set out to explore the world on our sailboat. Now, three years into our voyage, those same concerned friends ask for our most dramatic stories. They want to know all about that time when the storm was big and the seas were raging and pirates were attacking and the boat was sinking.
Why is that? Why do the same people who worry about our safety also seek out the most dangerous stories?
We are all drawn to challenges that scare us, even as they scare us. We are captivated by stories of those who conquer their fears and surmount the greatest obstacles. Perhaps it is a desire to find that same strength within, that same power to defeat the irritating voice in our brain that says, “Don’t do that; it’s scary.”
Fear is healthy. At least, healthy fear is healthy. It keeps us safe by drawing parameters around our actions every day. Those parameters look different for each of us based on experiences, aspirations and fears. I would be scared to drive a motorcycle down the interstate at night; the reward is not high enough for me to warrant the risk. But that is clearly not the case for thousands of motorcycle drivers.
On the other hand, my husband and I just sailed 4,173 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean, from Panama to the Gambier Islands, on our 40-foot sailboat, Halcyon. Deep-sea creatures and a dearth of fresh food, which may have scared other people, were not hazards that worried me, but I had plenty of concerns to keep my brain occupied.
Am I a good enough sailor? What is going to go wrong? Do we carry enough water? Will I go crazy with boredom? What if our rudder breaks? And the scariest question of all: What if one of us falls overboard?
For months and years preceding our ocean crossing, I processed these concerns, and many more. I felt more apprehension than fear. Cruising in the middle latitudes, it is rare that I feel the kind of fear that elicits a heart-pumping, adrenaline--spiking fight-or-flight reaction. I did not experience paralyzing fear on our passage, either, but I was always aware of our situation. This apprehension, if kept in check, could be productive. For me, it inspired thorough preparations to address my scariest “what if” scenarios.
We built redundancy into the most important systems, so broken equipment wouldn’t compound an already hazardous situation. We purchased as many spares as we could reasonably afford and store for mission-critical items. They included a spare autopilot, chartplotter and VHF radio, along with fuel filters, shackles, blocks, lines, nuts and bolts, and 3M Marine Adhesive Sealant 5200. We outfitted a ditch bag, epirb and life raft. (Though I will admit that carrying the latter did little to assuage my anxiety about any situation in which we would have to abandon our vessel.)
Some might say that leaving is the scariest part, but for me it was pure excitement. I was ready to go, happy to trade the frenzied days of planning for the slow, quiet days at sea.
And we had plenty of slow, quiet days at sea. My dramatic story-seeking friends would be disappointed to learn that we saw no gnarly storms or man-eating monsters on our 36-day crossing. The crew stayed on the boat (except when we intentionally swam in the 10,000 feet of infinitely blue water) and the boat stayed (mostly) intact.
Was I ever scared? Yes. But not at the times you might imagine.
I was not scared when, on our sixth day at sea, the boom fell off the mast. The bolt that held the gooseneck together managed to eat through its metal bracket over time, until one morning it had simply had enough. I was steering by hand, trying to keep our light-air spinnaker full in the sloppy seas and vexingly light breeze, when I heard the boom make an unfortunate but suitable boom. My husband and I quickly doused the spinnaker, stabilized the boom from swinging freely, and then examined the damage. With a drill, some goop and a new bolt, we were back underway in a few hours. I was comforted by the knowledge that we were only 100 nautical miles from the Galapagos Islands, with plenty of diesel and an engine we trusted.
About a week later, we chafed through our spinnaker halyard just above the head of the sail. The spinnaker dropped into the water, and the frayed halyard hit the deck. We pulled the spinnaker onto the boat before it fouled on the keel or propeller. The next day, despite a large swell rolling by from the south, I climbed into a bosun’s chair and lurched up the mast to replace the halyard. It took both legs and an arm to hold myself in place as Halcyon rolled from side to side. It was uncomfortable, for sure, but I was not scared.
Moments of action, when something needed to be remedied, didn’t frighten me. Instead, fear snuck in from the edges of the quiet moments, when all was well. At those times, my mind had hours to dwell on what we were doing and how vulnerable we were.
It was exhilarating when we finally found the trade winds and for one glorious week sailed fast in the right direction without any sail changes. One windy day, I stood at the bow and looked back at Halcyon gracefully sliding down one wave after another, completely in her element, with nothing but blue water in every direction. My heartbeat quickened as I absorbed just how tiny and insignificant we were, trusting our lives to this little dot of fiberglass on an enormous ocean. The thought made me shiver in the tropical sun.
Fear most often crept up in the night, even when the wind was calm and the seas were settled. Wide-awake on the bunk, I would listen closely, but the boat would just seem too quiet. Silently, I implored my husband to make a noise, to confirm his presence in the cockpit. If it stayed quiet long enough, I’d stick my head abovedeck to assuage the growing dread.
For the majority of the time, though, fear was far from my mind. Most days at sea were simple, peaceful and beautiful. Any nagging concern was drowned out by the splash of dolphins frolicking at the bow. On calm days, I spent hours cooking elaborate meals, baking bread or making yogurt. We sang to the full moon, took long naps, played cards and laughed a lot. We competed to see who could sail faster with the spinnaker up, and we watched the sun sink into the sea every single night.
It was one of those carefree days of singing and spinnaker sailing, though, when the wind whipped a hat right out of the cockpit. My husband called out “man overboard,” initiating an unexpected MOB drill. We jibed and then retraced our track, into the wind and glaring sun, for the next 45 minutes. We never saw the hat again.
That night, when I was alone in the cockpit, my mind replaced the hat with a human. I thought back to all those times when we were careless about wearing PFDs and clipping in. All of those times when we were only one tiny lurch away from being that hat. It was a sober reminder to be diligent about safety precautions as we drew down the miles, with each day pulling us closer to landfall.
All of my fear had dissipated by the time we sighted the soft peaks of Mangareva Island in the Gambier archipelago. There was nothing but excitement and joy on board. We had been at sea for 36 days, and the smell of the verdant landscape was intoxicating.
Was it scary getting there? Sometimes, but perhaps the more accurate word is worried. I often contemplated “what if” situations, and pushing through that apprehension was worth it.
I will not look back and remember the nervous nights or scary thoughts. Instead, I will remember the vibrant rainbows and crystal-clear water, the schools of flying fish, and the lazy days in the sun.