Sailed solo into the dock the other day. Just crushed the thing. Cracked the dockbox and took a chunk of paint off Delilah’s bow. That’s the great thing about singlehanded sailing: You don’t need anyone’s help to make mistakes.
Days later, I had another award-winner. Was coming alongside the marina guest dock, tried to spill wind, messed up, panicked, and came in with so much stank I had to leap off the boat and lasso a cleat cowboy-style. Afterward, the sheriff came by.
“Everything good?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “You came in pretty hot.”
Sailing will reveal things about your personality. Maybe you’re a worrywart tied to the dock or a type-A perfectionist with sacrificial covers for your Sunbrella covers. Me? My issue is speed. Put me in a stressful situation and I begin to move in double-time, apply twice the force and produce half the results. Film me in slow-mo, under stress, and I still look like a speed demon.
For the record, there’s nothing wrong with moving quickly. What’s wrong is when you get in a jam, rush into poorly thought-out “fixes” and add problems to problems. Take it from me: every blunder from my first year with a sailboat points to my need to calm down and pump the brakes.
Day One, I snagged a shroud while stepping the mast. Sure, I could’ve stopped, but I was in a rush, raised the spar anyway and bent a genoa car. Weeks later, when my furler jammed, our hero returned. In less than thirty seconds, I went from stressed, to scared, to completely flipping out. I put the furling line on the primary winch and ground my way to heartbreak.
First-world problems. Pass me a tissue.
I had to wait a month for a new extrusion and forestay. On weekends, I motored around the marina, eating my feelings and listening to Richard Marx, staring at headsails like a dumped boyfriend watching romance flicks.
“Listen, it happens,” a dockmate said when I told him my sob story. “Just stop and take a deep breath, you know?”
No, I didn’t know. Maybe because I’d been rushing from the moment I’d launched Delilah. Or maybe it was more than that.
My buddy, Matt, is a psychologist who spent years doing adventure-based therapy. Despite his Ph. D., Dr. Poinsett still answers my late-night calls seeking free professional help.
“Under stress, our minds become more rigid and it’s easier to believe distorted thoughts like I’m gonna’ fail, I’m in danger, or I need to fix this now,” he said. “These kinds of thoughts not only intensify emotions, but often lead to worse performance.”
I told Matt I could relate to the worse performance part. I needed help, and I needed it…fast?
“We can’t just snap our fingers and be more mentally and emotionally fit,” he said. “But we can dive in and start cultivating some relaxation skills.”
Dr. Poinsett told me about the STOP acronym: Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. And I told him about an online article from an ad-covered website that said running a finger over your lips can produce calm.
“Um…I’m not familiar with the lip technique,” Dr. Poinsett said. “But consider this: if you’re out on the boat and the loudest core belief in your head is, I might fail or I’m in danger, you’re setting yourself up for a fight-or-flight response.”
I nibbled snacks, slurped on a fifth cup of coffee, and scribbled notes.
“But the good news is this,” he continued. “We can also learn and practice new scripts like: I’ve done this before, I’m going to be safe, or even if things don’t go exactly to plan, I can handle it.”
Man, every sailor should have a free therapist. If a part breaks, we don’t have to panic. Awareness of our emotions can prevent overreacting. And new thought patterns can calm us down to make better decisions.
Yeah, I’ll probably never win a sailing trophy or a mental wellness award, but I’m working on it.
And if I do crash into the dock again, I’m betting the sheriff won’t trouble with a dude who’s deep-breathing and rubbing weird circles on his lips.
But, I’m just a noob. What do I know?
David Blake Fischer is a “noob” sailor living in Southern California whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, BuzzFeed, the Moth, and Good Old Boat. He hasn’t crossed oceans. In fact, he’s only recently crossed the Santa Monica Bay. Follow him as he fumbles out the channel, backwinds his jib and sometimes drags his fenders on Delilah, his Cape Dory 25. Find him on Instagram @sailingdelilah.