My ASA Certified Sailing Instructor

Many of our fellow rum race crew mates are currently or have been American Sailing Association instructors. However, I was surprised when Mary announced to me that she had decided to sign up for the instructor course to begin teaching ASA 101, Basic Keelboat Sailing. Thus began a very intense four weeks of studying and sailing.

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While Mary had passed the ASA 101 class three years ago, it’s not like we sit around discussing the parts of the boat or the center of effort. I mean, half the time when we’re about to tack I yell something like “tally-ho” because I can’t remember what you’re actually supposed to say.

Her books arrived and she spent every waking hour for at least two weeks memorizing names of lines, parts of the boat, rules of the road, and the meanings of all those strange flags with different amounts of dots.

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Many, many years ago at Scout Camp I taught Small Boat Sailing merit badge, but it was nothing close to the intensity of the ASA test. In fact, we had several friends who said, “You’ll probably think you failed it, but it’s made to crush your ego, so make sure you come back the next day.”

Then came the practical. She had to sail solo (which she’d never done before) on small boats with tillers (which she’d never used before) and start and run an outboard (which she’d never tried before). There was a lot to learn, so we spent two days laying down tracks that looked like this.

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It was a rough start. For the first hour, things did not look good, and my coaching and commentary was not too appreciated. Then, suddenly, it clicked! After that it was just tack after tack, jibe after jibe, setting and naming every point of sail. Then came figure eights for the man overboard drills. She was on fire!

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When the weekend of her course arrived, she scored a 96% on the written test and passed her practical and her teaching exam with flying colors. She walked out with a written recommendation from the instructor for every sailing school in the area.

To say that I’m proud would be an understatement. In the past year she’s gone from having anxiety attacks when the boat heels to crewing in rum races, making offshore passages, and now instructing classes.

Way to go, Mary! I love you.

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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.