Facing anxiety and fear on a sailboat

When you see videos of sailors on YouTube or TV and the boat is heeling way over, it is easy to think of them as fearless. I want everyone out there like me to know, we aren’t all fearless – some of us are scared to death! I’m hoping that by sharing my own struggle with anxiety, other people can be helped. My sister, Julie, is going to join me today as a subject matter expert.

I don’t know about expert, but I am currently a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology. I’ve only been a therapist a few years, but luckily you don’t have to rely on my experience – there are decades of research on anxiety to help me out. I’m going to try and comment on Mary’s experiences to help her, and anyone else reading this, to better understand how anxiety works and how to overcome it.

There are so many great aspects of sailing. I love cooking on the boat … and swimming …. and pulling lines.  I especially love when I first step on the boat after a week on the hard at work. It’s very relaxing to feel the gentle sway of the boat. However, since I first started sailing with my husband, anxiety has been a huge problem for me.

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At first it was docking. Every time we would go to take the boat out or come back in, I would be so wracked with anxiety that I almost could not function. This can be extremely dangerous as sometimes he really needs my help. Gradually, as we got better at docking, that anxiety almost completely went away. That’s not to say that a windy day or an unusual docking situation can’t bring it back, but I’ve been on other people’s boats who have just full-on slammed into the piers, poles, or other boats. I realized that nothing too bad really happens, and we were much better at docking than I had thought.

Anxiety is a horrible feeling – there is no denying that. By definition it is fear, an emotion that evolved to keep us safe from danger. It’s no surprise then that being on a big, unsteady floating object might create some natural anxiety at first. Just like the first time riding a bike, jumping into the deep end of the pool, or riding a rollercoaster, anxiety is there to alert you to the potential danger. Of course, as most people have experienced, these initially frightening activities get easier the more you expose yourself to them. So, because Mary faced her fears and kept sailing, it got easier too. Think of it this way – if Mary went sailing once and decided it was too terrifying and avoided it from then on, it confirms her fear that sailing is dangerous, and it also increases her anxiety if she ever has to go sailing again. However, notice that she said “almost” gone. So why isn’t she over it if it’s something she does every weekend? I’ll explain that next.  

The second thing that is a huge trigger for me is heeling and rolling. This includes big waves on the side of the boat or the normal heeling you get with a close hauled point of sail. After almost four years I at least know exactly what is going to happen. There is a sudden rush of anxiety when it first happens, and after that I am basically unable to move for a minute or two. If the boat continues to tip more and nothing is done to make me feel comfortable, I will most likely end up in a full-on panic attack with tears and all. My friends like to joke that I have no fight reflex, only the flight, and when things get bad, I shut down.

There are things many people do to help them feel safe when they are anxious. Sometimes these things are as subtle as thoughts, and sometimes they’re as obvious as holding tightly to the railing and a life vest. These are ways to avoid being on the boat, even when you are already there… and over time, they only serve to maintain your anxiety by convincing your brain to be on alert for danger.

Over the years I have learned a couple tricks to help keep my anxiety in check and allow myself to even do a bit of sailboat racing, as well as ocean voyaging. First thing is to keep my PFD close if I start to get scared. Not only do I know it will save me if I hit my head — one of my big anxieties — but my husband also gave it to me, so it helps me to think of him. In reality we’ve never been in a situation where I’ve even come close to falling overboard and needing that PFD, but it has become a security blanket that keeps me functional.

The second thing I do is to look over at the other people on the boat. Are they scared? If they’re not, then I tell myself everything is normal and that there is nothing of which to be scared.

Mary has inadvertently been maintaining her anxiety over the years with her “tricks.” Keeping her PFD and looking around checking other people’s reactions are both little things with lasting consequences. Both of these behaviors keep her brain firmly believing that there is imminent danger.  Sure, they help her feel a little better in the short-term, but in the long-term she will stay anxious and always feel like she needs these things to be safe. The reality is that the boat isn’t going to tip whether she’s doing these things or not.

The third thing I do is to repeat something simple and calming in my head. Something like, “Everything is ok, this is all normal, you’re beating your fears, good job!”

Ok, this one might be more helpful – but it can sometimes take more than putting on rose-colored glasses to overcome anxious thoughts. Instead of just saying “everything is ok,” say why it will be ok with facts. She could consider the low probability of the boat actually tipping or remind herself that even if the worst case scenario happens and she falls off – she knows how to swim, so Fred would just stop and pick her up.

A lot of other people have also made suggestions. I’ve heard that it helps many nervous people to helm the boat, so that they feel in control. This doesn’t help me whatsoever because then I’m just anxious about not being able to control the boat, but I can understand the idea. Another is to learn the actual physics of the sailboat. For some people, understanding how much weight is in the keel really helps them to feel safer.

Two years ago when Fred got invited to crew on Antares for the Icicle Series, I didn’t even want to be on the boat. Last Saturday I was working the main sheet while the boat was heeled 35 degrees. Yes, I still had a small panic attack when we first started heeling. Yes, I was still worn out from anxiety by the end of the race. However, I did it.

Now I just have to work up to an ocean crossing!

In sum, if anxiety is really getting in the way, there are ways to overcome it! 1. Get rid of the subtle and obvious safety aids. 2. Challenge those negative thoughts with realistic facts. 3. And lastly, stay in the situation until your anxiety begins to go down.  I think it is important to note that if anxiety is a serious problem that you are having trouble overcoming on your own – find a psychologist who uses exposures as treatment, and they will lead you through all the confusing or difficult parts of overcoming your anxiety.

Stick with it, face your fears, and cross that ocean!

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Photos courtesy of John, Scott and Becky Lacy.

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4 thoughts on “Facing anxiety and fear on a sailboat

  1. Being at the helm doesn’t help me at all because, like you, I feel out of control. I want my hand on the mainsheet so I can dump the wind when I need to. I keep telling my husband the boat goes faster on her belly than on her rails.

  2. I however heard on Sunday that while you were running the mainsheet there were times that you seemed to totally forget about your anxiety and that you did a good job and appeared to be much more relaxed during the whole process. Keeping busy while sailing does help. (plus on a Cal 40 you were driving the boat, not Doug).

  3. Thanks for sharing. I have docking anxiety and fear of running aground. I really want to live my husbands dream so I will persevere. We have a trawler! I move at about 7 knots so at least there’s that in my favour!

  4. Please don’t hold your PFD – Wear it!! Unsafe to see all those people without wearing PFD. It’s useless unless you are wearing it and nuts not to be wearing one. Good on you re: facing anxiety, but it’s nuts not to be wearing a PFD. Too much can go wrong — why add that level of stress by not wearing? Holding a PFD/life jacket tight gives you a false sense of security – put it ON please! Thank you.

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