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  • 1 Post By Joy Smith
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Old 12-02-2003
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Overcoming Your Offshore Fears


When novice sailors finally experience an offshore trip, it's usually not the perilous journey they originally envisioned.

Could this be the ocean I had feared for so long? I'm flabbergasted. Here we are, 200 miles offshore, afloat on velveteen seas, and it's heaven! Getting here wasn't an easy decision, though. For over 20 years I'd been content with the fun aspects of boating—island hopping and cocktail parties on the dock, but my husband had long harbored everyman's dream of sailing offshore. Whenever he'd suggest an overnight sail, I'd talk him out of it. The truth is that sailing on the open ocean used to scare the hair off my head. I always envisioned waves bigger than buildings, and winds gusting higher than my age. Of course books like The Perfect Storm and magazines stuffed with offshore survival sagas fueled my fears. And I used to think that dealing with our New England coastal challenges—tide rips, fog banks, and thunderstorms—was enough for me to handle.

But, not long ago I sold my soul for a new boat that fulfilled my fantasies of a bed I could sleep in without banging body parts, and enough storage space for a summer's worth of clothes, as well as a galley that begged me to make homemade pasta sauce. It wasn't until my husband started spending big bucks on heavy-duty survival gear and upgrading our boat's seaworthiness that I knew he meant to fulfill his fantasies as well. I found myself cornered. Finally, I blurted out: "I can't do it!"

Bless my husband for being such a good sport. Last fall, I waved a teary goodbye to him from the safety of our dock as he and the new boat dropped out of sight. I was afraid for him, yet relieved—I didn't have to go. He and the crew reached Tortola in the British Virgin Islands ahead of schedule, and I flew in by chicken wing to greet them, an outcast from what had become an intimate group. I should have been euphoric, because we each got what we wanted, but I was depressed—let down.


Once you realize that fear comes from within, you'll find that it becomes easier to enjoy your time spent offshore.
The shame of my fear preyed on me for months afterward, and it wasn't until spring that I realized my fear was not about the ocean or its conditions, but about me. I worried about getting seasick, being helplessly curled in a fetal position. And I developed angst over coping with a watch system—I need my sleep—and getting sunburn, freckles, and greasy hair. I had misgivings about a lot of inane things, which added up to, "What if I couldn't cut it?" How ridiculous it suddenly seemed! I put all that aside and, love it or hate it, signed on for our return trip home; but only as far as Bermuda (I wasn't gutsy enough to tackle the Gulf Stream leg). My husband, as excited as a kid who just found a favorite toy, promised I could go as cargo, if I wished.

Well, it's beneath me to travel as "cargo," so here I am as the cook, taking over my 0600 watch on our second day out, not believing this stunning calm. OK, I admit that last night, when a squall came through and the sky got dark as sin, I was weeping in my dinner plate and blubbering, "What am I doing here! I'm a grandmother!" But, this is a new day, and I am at peace with the ocean and, finally, with myself. All that matters in this moment is that I am manning the helm of our beautiful boat, and doing what I thought I couldn't. I'm not afraid anymore. In fact, I feel rather a fool for having put off this experience for so long.

If you've ever found yourself in the same position—leery of going to sea, but anxious to share the experience with a loved one—you should take some comfort in knowing that you're not alone. Anyone's first offshore trip is a rite of passage, and it can often end up as a life-changing event. I suggest you approach it with confidence, not fear, by readying yourself, and taking a few precautions to make it a safe, pleasant trip.


Be proactive and take precautions to make sure that you're truly ready for your first extended trip offshore. This includes using some preemptive approach to deter seasickness.

Get a physical if need be, and stock up on any medications you may need. Even if you've never experienced seasickness, bring along a selection of remedies and take one the first day out to help you adapt to 'round-the-clock motion.

Then, before you depart, make sure you get as fit as possible by sleeping well, eating healthy foods, and thinking positively. And use daily affirmations, if necessary, to bolster your resolve to achieve this goal.

It's best to fully understand what you might expect on an offshore passage, and prepare yourself for that by taking seminars and courses to bone up knowledge and skills that will come in handy, such as navigation, vessel identification, and the general operation of the boat's systems and onboard communication devices.

You should also read as much informational material as possible, but avoid eroding your confidence by overexposing yourself to boating horror stories.

Then, practice, practice, practice. Play the get-the-hat-out-of-the-water game until you are comfortable handling the boat and yourself in man-overboard situations. Review the instructions for operating the man overboard modules (MOM), the life raft, and any other pertinent other lifesaving devices on board.

"To prepare yourself, embark on a simple overnight shakedown to get the feel of the watch system."
If you haven't done so already, embark on a simple overnight shakedown sail to get the feel of watches and to help guide your instincts for longer trips.

Understand, as best you can, what your particular trip entails. How far will you travel? What are the expected sea and weather conditions for the area you'll be transiting, and for the time of year? Is it hurricane season? Are these known as "rough waters?" Would you be better off starting out with a less challenging passage?

Of course you'll want to go with a seaworthy, well-equipped boat with a safety-minded captain and a reliable, experienced crew. If possible, take a shakedown cruise on the boat beforehand.

And by all means invest in personal protective gear: a safety harness that fits, foul-weather wear that's truly waterproof, wicking Polartec under garments for cool days and nights, gloves, hats, highly polarized sunglasses, and sunblock with a strong SPF rating.


With the rest of the crew napping or off-watch, you're on your own, and it can be comforting to have your favorite snack around, or some music to enjoy.
It also helps to bring along comfort tools: favorite snacks, a Walkman, books on tape, or CDs, even your pet rock or favorite pillow—if that's what makes you feel good. During lonely, dark watches, treat yourself to snacks and enjoy listening to music or books on tape, while remaining attentive to your surroundings.

If you stay busy on board, you'll have less time to dwell on how you feel. Offer to assist whenever and however you can. Once you've gotten free of the shallows, ignore the depth sounder—people can just as easily drown in three inches of water as in 200 fathoms.

Think safety, and avoid taking unnecessary risks. If you are alone on watch, wait for assistance to come on deck before you go forward to haul up a sail or tweak a fitting.

And, only embark when the weather bodes well for the duration of your voyage. Many passages that would otherwise have been pleasant have been spoiled by the can't-wait-to-go syndrome. Those are usually the ones that end up making headlines. Wait a day or two, if need be, and have a great experience, instead of a nasty one.

Imprezza72 likes this.
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