Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Reflections on Fear.

The story of "Captain" Heather has set me thinking about what we are all doing here. Sailing is a voyage of discovery but not just discovery of new people and places but discovery about ourselves. This is what really interests me and is so little talked about.

For example, I find myself in deep sympathy with "Captain" Heather, in her current crisis, because I remember the thoughts that flashed through my brain when TBH injured himself. I discovered that he and I have a very different response in a crisis. I tend to react quickly and intuitively, TBH reacts slowly and thoughtfully. TBH, for example, will very methodically tackle an engine problem at sea taking great care not to force anything, strip threads, shear bolts or compound the damage.

Neither is right or wrong, and both helped us in a tricky situation.

On a long passage we encountered a micro-burst. Something we had never heard of at the time. Our first response to the sudden storm conditions was to try and keep the boat heading into the wind. This was not a good idea as the wind is coming straight down and spreading out radially! Suddenly I realised that we might be holding ourselves in the bad weather by going round in circles and decided to turn 90 degrees to the wind, risking a knock down. This was the right decision and in a couple of minutes we were out of the very localized bad weather.In those few wild minutes we had snapped a reefing line and the Monitor paddle was dragging behind on its rescue line after the sacrificial tube had snapped!

During this crisis TBH crushed his hand in the Monitor mechanism, with winds over 55k( the highest calibration on our windspeed gauge) and spray coming horizontally it was impossible to assess how badly he was injured.

As I was struggling to stabilize the boat, I told TBH to sit in the cockpit and scream! Good therapy for him! It seemed to work well too.

The jumble of thoughts and decisions were fascinating in hindsight.

We were literally mid-Atlantic, and go back or go on is one of the thoughts that come to the fore. Its a real test of your level of commitment!

As I stood at the wheel, in a split second or two, I realised that I needed to decide what we were going to do. I did not feel capable of sailing singlehanded unless TBH was conscious, at the very least. I believed that even if he were confined to a bunk for the rest of the voyage, so long as he could give me instruction in certain matters, I could cope. If however I was going to have to give him heavy duty painkillers I would need put a call out for assistance. I recognised my own limitations physically and mentally.

You need to understand the speed at which these questions and answers were going through my mind, it was fast!

How we perform under stress is determined by our sub-conscious and gives fascinating insights in to our true self. I had a strong immediate gut response, we have to go back because somehow where we had come from was known and where we were going to wasn't! Illogical but very real!

However as my brain flew through the 'risk assessment' it was obvious that although this was an emotionally satisfying solution it was not a practical one.

So I am not surprised at "Captain" Heather's decision but it makes me wonder whether she will restart the trip again. In her moment of crisis she ran for home. On the surface an understandable decision. Under stress very minor problems loom very large. But illogical, the weather was settling, the seas calming and Isla Mujeres was an easier sail. What, maybe, this tells us about her psychology is that there is a very deep rooted fear which I am relieved she has listened to.

'Be what you is, not what you ain't because if you is what you ain't you ain't what you is'! Work that one out!

This issue of how we handle stress is the most compelling aspect of a lot of sailing stories.

For example I have just watched the video of Lionheart, the Jesse Martin story,(circumnavigated non-stop age 18) and most of the story centres on coping with tiredness, loneliness, boredom and sheer terror! It's ALL about the mind.

What Jesse had done though is to listen carefully to advice and carried the tools and materials as well as the practical knowledge to repair breakages. He had tested himself in previous, land based, expeditions.

Another recent example was quoted on Elaine Bunting's blog and the story here of a dismasting in the 2006 ARC shows how the academically qualified skipper froze, while the practically qualified rigger dealt with the emergency. The skipper called a Mayday and wanted to launch the liferaft. The practical crewmember borrowed some tools from a nearby boat and fashioned a jury rig.

This is not about what is right or what is wrong in any one persons response it is about self knowledge and recognising that the system is not the boat alone but the boat plus YOU and that it's your mental flexibility and capacity to handle surprise that keeps the boat moving forward (or backwards in Captain Heathers case!).

Finally, on a more positive note, this is where Jesse Martin is today, I want to go!

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