I have never thought of myself as adventuresome or brave. I don’t like gales offshore and I raise worry to an art form. So when a friend exclaimed, “John, I didn’t think you were afraid of anything,” as I admitted to being a white-knuckle flier, I was stunned.
My friend’s misconception, brought on by the number of voyages that I have made as skipper of a sailboat to the high latitudes, was about as far from my own perception of myself as it’s possible to get.
This startling revelation got me wondering: Do other high latitude sailors have the same fears I do? Did my heroes Tilman, Smith and Brown (H.W. Bill Tilman, yachts Mischief, Sea Breeze and Baroque; Newbold Smith, yacht Reindeer; Warren Brown, yacht War Baby) feel the same sense of dread when they saw the black-sided, ice-capped mountains of Greenland for the first time? Did they lie awake in their bunks, hove-to in a gale, systematically worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong? Did they experience the same feeling of anxiety the first night of every ocean passage?
If I am not the only wimp hiding behind an air of projected indifference to the risks of offshore sailing, maybe my coping strategies learned while accumulating 100,000 miles of ocean cruising and racing experience, much of it in the less hospitable parts of the world, can help others to achieve their cruising dreams.
First off, I worked up slowly to skippering a boat offshore by logging 10,000 miles of ocean sailing and racing before going to sea in my own boat. Today this kind of apprenticeship has become unusual. Increasingly, prospective cruisers read a few books, do some coastal sailing, and set off in command of their own boat. For U.S. East Coast sailors, their first offshore passage is often across the Gulf Stream to Bermuda and for Europeans it is often a crossing of The Bay of Biscay; typically both are in the fall—voyages at a season that even experienced sailors dread. Each year boats are abandoned and cruising dreams shattered when the reality of offshore sailing hits the inexperienced and unprepared.
For me, when the going got tough during some of my early voyages as skipper, I was able to draw on my prior offshore experience as a crew and then watch captain on other people’s boats; a big comfort for The Wimp Within.
My approach of gradual acclimatization to new challenges continued as I developed an interest in the north. I followed my first northern cruise to the comparatively hospitable coast of Nova Scotia with trips to Newfoundland, then Labrador, and finally voyages to Greenland, Baffin Island and Iceland; taking the next step only when comfortable with the last.
I particularly noticed the benefits of this approach while cruising Newfoundland on the way to Greenland in 1997 when I realized how at home I felt. A big change from my first cruise to “The Rock” six years earlier when I felt intimidated by the fog, ice, gales, and limited services for yachts (despite being quite experienced at the time with some 15 crossings to and from Bermuda under my belt). The conditions hadn’t changed, only my own experience in dealing with them and my perception of the threat they represented.
Second, when taming The Wimp Within, I have found that it helps to know and anticipate my own reactions. For example, I know that on the first night of almost every challenging passage I will question why I wish to subject myself to this yet again and will usually decide to go ashore permanently after the current cruise. Also, I know that at the end of a passage to an out of the way place I will feel a tremendous sense of elation, but this will soon be followed by a feeling of anxiety, particularly when sleep deprived, as the question ringing in my head becomes, “How am I going to get us home?” When these fears appear it is comforting to know from past experience that an off watch and some sleep will set me to rights, restoring the feeling of enjoyment and peace that I normally feel at sea.
Third, I have even learned to cherish my Wimp Within since, when something nasty does happen, I have often already worried about it and figured out at least part of the solution ahead of time, which in turn makes it easier to stay calm and effective—it’s all right to be anxious and worried, but it is not all right to show it to my crew who are relying on me.
Fourth, I have learned to be gentle with myself and my crew as much as possible. This is particularly important since we sail short-handed (two to three people). Specifically, I try to pick weather windows so we don’t start an ocean passage in heavy weather or to windward.
The benefits of this strategy were brought home to me in 1997 on a passage from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to south Greenland. We left right after a gale (so as to get as far as possible before the next one hit) into a leftover sea. Two out of three crew were seasick, me included, and no-one slept or ate much for the first 24 hours, even though we were all experienced and the sailing was an easy reach. I contrast our comparative discomfort in fairly mild conditions to our reaction five days and 700 miles later, when we were hove-to in a full gale with the temperature close to freezing and ice in the sea, just south of Greenland. We all got plenty of sleep and ate three full meals a day, enabling us to deal easily with the challenges of the weather; we had our sea-legs. Such a gale the first or second day out would have been very unpleasant, perhaps even dangerous.
Be Prepared for Heavy Weather
Fifth, I have my heavy weather tactics worked out and the right equipment installed and tested ahead of time—when the going gets tough The Wimp heaves-to. There are few people that can truthfully say that they like heavy weather offshore, particularly when the wind is forward of the beam, but a boat that can easily heave-to—go passive—goes a long way in taking the sting out of a gale at sea. There are few things about offshore sailing that I’m dogmatic about, but one of them is that boats that can’t heave-to well have no place offshore with short handed crews.
When planning our heavy weather tactics our most important step was buying the right boat. Morgan’s Cloud was designed by Jim McCurdy, one of the best offshore yacht marine architects of all time, who put going to sea in safety above all else. Her design parameters are moderate and intended to produce good sea-keeping: fine ends, moderate displacement, moderate beam, deep-veed sections, small ports and hatches, and strong welded aluminum construction. Yes, Morgan’s Cloud has less room below than many boats her size, but when it gets nasty and we are tired, there is nothing like the soft ride she gives us, under way or hove-to.
We have modified her cutter rig by installing easily moved sheet leads and roller furling on the staysail and three deep reefs in the main. This setup allows us to go all the way from her working rig to hove-to in a full gale, in minutes, without changing a sail. Knowing that we can easily stop and take a break is a big comfort for The Wimp.
What Really Matters
Sixth, fitting out is a time that I nurture and listen to The Wimp. Show me a skipper with a genuine respect for the sea (read fear) and I will show you a well-prepared boat. On the other hand, one must keep preparation in perspective. If we waited until every little detail was perfect before starting our voyages, we would never have gone anywhere. We concentrate on what I call “The Big Five”: that the crew stay on the boat, the water stays outside the boat, the mast stays up, the keel stays down, and the steering works. The rest is small stuff. Although it was hard to remind myself of that at Resolution Island, in Hudson Strait, with the engine fuel system disassembled all over the cabin sole.
I have found that the amount of anxiety I feel when equipment fails is inversely proportional to my familiarity with it. Over the years we have disassembled almost every system on Morgan’s Cloud, from removing the rudder for inspection to taking the mast-head sheaves apart. We even spent one frenetic winter replacing the engine ourselves.
This do-it-yourself craze started because it was the only way we could afford to own and cruise the boat we’d chosen. However, the pleasant side effect is that when something fails in some out-of-the-way place, we are less intimidated by the prospect of having to fix it.
On the other hand, we don’t scorn help from the professionals. Every few years we have an experienced mechanic go over our main engine and our favorite rigger take a magnifying glass to our rig. Their specialized experience with thousands of engines and rigs together with our intimate knowledge of the boat can often find a potential problem before it happens; a great comfort to The Wimp.
It’s Really Not That Dangerous
And finally, when feeling wimpy, I remind myself that with the right boat, equipment and experience, there is nothing fundamentally dangerous about ocean sailing—even to the high latitudes. It is not an adventure that is on the border of human capability, and therefore intrinsically dangerous, like climbing Everest or doing the Volvo Race. Yes, I could make a mistake and lose the boat or even a life. But by preparing Morgan’s Cloud and ourselves in gradual stages over a period of years, we can keep the demons in check and reduce the risks to sensible levels.
I re-wrote this article in 2005 based on a piece with the same title that I wrote for Cruising World magazine, published in July 2000.