We are on the Strait of Georgia sailing upwind in a brisk 20 knots towards the Sechelt Peninsula. From the helm, I look down at the water skimming the rail, occasionally washing onto the side deck. Through a camera’s lens this view captures the epitome of sailing – the excitement of being heeled over, racing through the water. Yet for me, Stefa, having the boat heeled 25 degrees, unable to function easily below decks, there is a feeling of anxiety, not exhilaration.
Jürgen’s assurances repeat what I know: the boat has substantial ballast; the boat won’t easily knock down; if we did suffer a knockdown that same heavy ballast will bring the boat back to upright. But my anxiety wells up from my body, not my head.
As a dinghy sailor in Ontario’s near north, my experience was that a gunwale in the water inevitably lead to capsizing. The shock of the cold water, regardless of the air temperature, was always unnerving. Once in the water, I never shook my fear of getting caught under water, under the sail, unable to breath. Despite decades of dinghy sailing, these feelings never abated. Now the anxiety and fear return uninvited, getting in the way of my enjoyment of our well-founded boat.
The solution? Calibrating. Jürgen and I hold fast to our routine of alternating at the helm and on the deck. One hour on, one hour off. On my first shift at the helm, my anxiety comes as soon as I look at the rail in the water. I tell myself “breath” and then stop looking at the rail, or inclinometer, and focus on sailing the boat.
We are pounding through short steep waves, one to two metres high and two seconds apart. All three sails are up with two reefs in the main and the Yankee furled a little. The helm is, miraculously, perfectly balanced. Without the waves, we could steer with only a finger on the helm. The gentleness from the helm, from Mazu, has a calming effect on my nerves. By contrast, last year we fought a wicked weather helm in 15 knots, Mazu’s way of begging us to alter our sail configuration. Then, cranking on the helm to keep the boat from turning into the wind was unnerving to both of us.
While still paying attention to breathing, my mind and body calm down enough to do what needs to be done at the helm. With each shift at the helm, the satisfaction of knowing what to do starts to replace the anxiety and fear. And it is exhilarating!
When the wind dies down to 15 knots it feels like easy sailing. This appears to be the essence of calibrating – venturing out of my comfort zone and staying there long enough for that comfort zone to get bigger. Next time we are sailing hard to the wind, the anxiety and fear will likely return. Hopefully my body will also remember the positive feelings and exhilaration and the transition to the later will happen sooner.