Courage at Sea

In Part III of this four-part series, women share their greatest fears and exchange ideas on how to overcome them. "Cruising Connections" from our February 2008 issue

March 12, 2008

Courage at Sea

Robin Owen and her husband, who sail Whisper, a Hallberg Rassy HR 42, needed help to plan their passages, so they hired a professional weather router. Courtesy Of Robin Owen

Emotions have an enormous influence on women’s lives. They guide us, connect us, and distinguish us. They can also overwhelm us. But sailing is an activity that has little room for emotional paralysis. When you feel fear, analyze what’s causing it, then work out a solution so it doesn’t interfere again.

Fear comes in many forms, including dread, alarm, apprehension, and worry, and they’re all an indication that danger is lurking nearby. As a woman, you may experience fears and concerns for your personal safety that are different from the ones felt by men. When you sense danger, the degree of perceived danger determines the level of fear you experience. An awareness of danger in sailing is essential in keeping you safe, but if the adrenaline that causes fear races through your system, your reactions may be unpredictable. Fear such as this occurs when you’re not in control.

“My biggest fear is losing my husband overboard at night while I’m asleep,” says Carol Noel, who sails on Elyxir, a Westsail 43.


“Being hit by a ship or hitting a container are my biggest fears,” says Lesley Swan of Swanhaven III, a 41-foot Arthur Robb yawl.

“When our journey will last several days, my biggest fear is always the weather,” says Linda Dawkins, on Aquila, a Hylas 49. “I always worry if we’ll know what to do if the weather turns really bad.”

Don’t run away from your fears and dreams: Face them. Education, safety rules, established procedures, communication, and equipment all can help. Focus on what it would take to alleviate a particular fear, then act on that.


“My biggest fear is losing my partner overboard,” says Shelly O’Brien, who sails Whisper, a Pearson 424 cutter. “So I insist that we strictly observe two rules: From dusk onward, we don’t go into the cockpit without a safety harness securely hooked. And no one goes forward out of the cockpit without notifying the other person, day or night, regardless if the other is sleeping. Also, before we leave on a passage, I’ve assumed responsibility for our emergency preparations.”

“Freighters are my biggest fear,” says Mavis Norman of Kaien, a 44-foot Waterline. “So we bought a night-vision scope. It’s terrific. Now we can identify unlit boats, fishing traps, and harbors. The scope took a little of the fear out of night sailing and gave me more confidence.”

“For me, weather was a stressful issue,” says Robin Owen, who sails a Hallberg Rassy HR 42 that’s also called Whisper. “While at sea, we always wondered whether to keep moving or slow down, and when we were ashore, we never knew when to go. Choosing the best time to leave on the volatile passage from Fiji to New Zealand was very stressful. It was sucking the fun out of cruising. We decided to hire a professional weather router to give us advice. It was a major relief to have someone watching the fast-moving weather patterns with us and advising us when to go.”


Take control. If you fear that the mast will fall down, get a rigger to check your mast and rigging. If you fear sailing in heavy weather, practice heaving to with your partner when the weather’s fine. If you fear being alone on the boat to rescue a crew overboard, insist on inviolate harness rules and practice retrieval with you in charge of the boat.

Gaining Courage
To be courageous, three factors must be present: skills and education, an awareness of danger, and physical and mental endurance. When one of these factors is missing, the remaining two factors create a counterproductive emotion we recognize as fear.

Imagine that you’re on your first overnight sail. You’re on watch by yourself while your partner is sleeping. You’re under full sail. You see on the radar that a squall is fast approaching. You know there’s a possibility that it could have strong winds that might cause the boat to heel severely or damage the sails. What do you do?
You know how to reef because you’ve practiced it until you were comfortable. But you’re worried that if you make a mistake while reefing, the boat will heel with the increasing wind, you may slip and fall, or something unforeseen may happen. So you wake your partner, ask him to be on deck to look out for you, and you put on the deck light. Clipping onto the jackline before going forward, you execute a perfect reef in the increasing wind. You’ve courageously reefed in the dark in 20 knots of winds and have gained confidence in doing so. Here’s the same scenario with one factor missing from each step:


Worried about the increasing wind, you quickly run forward to reef without being clipped on or waking your partner. At the mast, you realize that you didn’t account for the dangers of working unclipped by yourself on a dark deck during a squall. Knowing that you’re taking an unnecessary risk, you feel foolish and afraid.

Or you wake your partner and ask him to take a reef, as you can’t remember all the steps. And you don’t think you have the strength to do it in 20 knots. You help out in the cockpit by easing the main, but because you don’t try to tuck in the reef yourself, you feel inadequate.

Or you wake your partner to ask him to take in a reef because you don’t know how. But he’s really seasick and can’t help. Knowing you could face a dangerous knockdown if you don’t take action, you clip on and go forward to do something, anything, to get the sails down. But without practiced knowledge of what to do, you feel inept and scared.

Once, just before completing the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, I felt major fear. I was up the wet mast in a rough sea trying to fix a broken genoa halyard, and my whole life flashed before me. I became panic-stricken and froze. When the shouts of concern from below me beat a path through to my thoughts, it dawned on me that I had to get moving because I had a job to do.

With the perspective of time and experience, I now know why I felt fear up the mast. I had the skills and education, and I was physically and mentally fit, but I’d taken a foolish risk. Normally, I’d go up the mast wearing only a single layer of clothing so I’d be lighter for the girls winching me up and so I’d have freedom to climb. But when the genoa halyard broke, it needed to be dealt with instantly, so I went aloft in all my kit, including my heavy jacket. Feeling very constricted and cumbersome, I was unable to climb with ease, and it frightened me. What a fool I was to put myself in danger because I didn’t take the time to dress down.

When you’ve been through an incident in which you’ve found courage, you’ve also been through a priceless learning experience.

Nancy Brown, on the Shearwater 49 Askari, gained confidence being at sea through experience, education, and communication. “I don’t have any big fears about cruising anymore, but I used to,” she says. “I’d be so nervous when freighters were on the horizon. But now, we’ve been by so many that it’s no big deal. The flash cards I studied to learn more about them really helped. Sometimes I’ll call a ship on the radio to ask what its heading is, just to make sure. They love talking to a woman!”

You begin to trust others when you believe that they have the courage to do their best in all situations and that they’ll acknowledge when they don’t. Aboard a boat, crew responsibility needs to be established so that order and duty can be maintained and chaos avoided. Responsibility only comes when three factors are clearly present: trust, motivation, and confidence.

“Bad weather is my greatest fear,” says Judi Nester, on Long Passages, a Shannon 38. “So I took responsibility for learning about it. I monitor it and keep a written log so I can discuss it with my partner and other cruisers. Understanding the weather allows me to help determine our course and makes me feel a little more in control.”

The Five-Year Plan
Establishing a cruising plan gives you goals and a time frame in which to achieve them. For most people, it seems to take at least three years between the time a cruising plan is hatched and the day they slip the lines.

“My husband, Dee, works on five-year plans,” says Suzanne Du Plessis; they sail Kwela, a custom 36-foot Corrida cutter. We bought the hull and decks, then spent four and a half years building the interior while I ran a restaurant and Dee worked as a diamond diver. We lived aboard for a year to see if we could get along together, and then we left. We’ve now been cruising six years-my promised honeymoon around the world!”

Judi Nester also believes in the five-year plan. “I’d been sailing since my 20s, and I dreamed of sailing to Australia,” she says. “My partner, Bob, and I lived aboard for five years before leaving. That time gave us confidence. We really knew our boat.”

Nancy Brown believes five years isn’t enough. “Ours was a 20-year plan,” she says. “You have to take your time, otherwise you don’t know what you’re in for. I found that many first-time cruisers we met in Mexico were frustrated with the cruising lifestyle because they were trying to do and learn everything at the last minute, under stress. They didn’t have time to absorb all the information.”

If you’re new to cruising and want to learn on a faster track with a safety net, consider joining a cruising rally. That’s what Brigitta Kopperud and her husband did, sailing Maria Two, their 52-foot Wittholz ketch, in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. “Our dream was to sail around the world,” Brigitta says. “We’re now in Fiji, nearly halfway. When we started outfitting the boat, we decided to join the ARC. We did a shakedown cruise around Scandinavia and to the Shetland Islands. It was fun, and it gave me confidence.”

In mastering sailing, creating a safe, comfortable floating home, addressing your fears with logic, and setting a realistic time frame, you establish a sound platform that will allow your experiences to grow in depth and strength. Along the way, you’ll have achieved a new level of courage to expand your horizons.

Amanda Swan Neal and her husband, John, conduct hands-on sail-training expeditions aboard Mahina Tiare III, their Hallberg-Rassy HR 46. For more information, visit their website (


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