Taming The Wimp Within

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.

The Wimp in his natural habitat

Apprenticeship

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.

Knowing Myself

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.

Be Gentle

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.

{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Chris September 23, 2010, 1:12 am

    Love it. I’m constantly working through my mind all of the things that could go wrong at any moment. I think, before too long, I’m going to go step offshore to see how the world looks from there.

    Reply
  • pete October 9, 2010, 8:29 am

    The oldest saying in the sailing world is:
    Prepare for the worst and pray for the best.
    I strongly believe in this as when things go wrong you will wish that you had bought that bigger bit of kit but then of course it will be too late.
    Keep this in mind when you are getting the yacht ready for off shore
    Pete

    Reply
  • pipposail December 2, 2010, 2:28 pm

    Anche se con qualche problema di lingua, credo di aver compreso cosa vuoi dire e condivido appieno cosa dici.

    Reply
  • Trond Hjertø December 8, 2010, 12:04 am

    This is one of the most useful sailing article I have read. I do know my wimp within. It certainly was there when we almost dragged onto a beach in Labrador. I felt uneasy and I listened to the wimp. The wimp saved our asses that night. T

    Reply
  • Ben February 3, 2011, 8:27 am

    Hmmm..

    Interesting, and thanks for being so frank about the wimp within.
    I can be one of the wimpiest sailors I know, fretting and worrying over small and big things.

    But then I have also managed to safely sail a small engineless 26 footer, singlehanded across the Tasman in winter (Nelson to Sydney), sail my 34 footer from Hobart to Commonweath Bay, Antarctica, and run a 60 foot charter boat in the Antarctic Peninsula, plus manage numerous dodgy deliveries.

    Still the wimp within remains with me, nagging at me and keeping me up to scratch, and so far safe (touch wood).

    I am a great believer in John Vigor’s Black Box theory, a kind of safety Karma thing; if you haven’t already heard about it go and look at http://johnvigor.blogspot.com/ and click on the black box theory link at the top.

    Thanks to all of you for making me feel not so unusual in my wimpiness. It does makes me wonder if maybe some of the great sailors of the past may also have a similar degree of wimpiness, and if in fact the very presence of Mr Wimp is what somehow drives us to test our selves.

    When I first got my Ticket and became Third Mate on a 40000 tonne containership I started having nightmares about running aground (the real wake up sweating type). When I mentioned this to the chief mate he just laughed and said they were normal “mates mares” and would soon pass as I got used to the responsibility.

    By building up my skills and comfort level slowly I have gained an understanding and ability to analyse some of my feelings and know which ones are normal jitters and reactions and can be ignored and which ones signify some subconscious and important concerns that need to be actively dealt with.

    However I still envy those happy go lucky sailors that seem to get by with not a care in the world. Maybe there are 4 stages:
    1 Ignorance is bliss, not even being aware of the dangers
    2 Knowing the dangers and fearing them, or fear of the unknown
    3 Confidence that you can deal with the dangers as they arise and any unknowns
    4 Overconfidence and a fright can kick you back to stage 2

    And these fearless sailors at either 1 or 3…maybe they just lack any imagination.

    Cheers

    Ben

    http://www.snowpetrelsailing@blogspot.com

    Reply
    • John February 3, 2011, 10:14 am

      Hi Ben,

      What a great comment, thank you so much!

      I really like and agree with your four stages, never truer words were said.

      Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 8:18 am

    Really great post!

    (The below post is only to the nonbelivers in another way of seeing it, I’m aware of John and others GOOD approach on this and this is not a debate, post. But there might be someone reading this that can contact me about the question “are there no dragons at the end of the world”

    Me and my crew mate M might be on the other end of this scale. Not at all in “wimpiness” (is that a word in English?) or braveness for that sake, no.

    We are not young and silly either I like to think, kind of middle age (two guys 36 years who like beers…) but I think we might have a kind of different approach to sailing and “yachtmasters” and miles and preparing forever. Probably out of experience being unexperienced We only had a few days previous proper SAILING experience before getting off the dock. Even if we have lived closes possible to the waters, motor boating a few years and Optimist maybe a week or two as a kid we felt an urge to go offshore for some reason, maybe the adventure, maybe the “easy life”, maybe just of boredom of not living to max and collecting the standard health problems from working to much or drinking coffee from a machine. We are everyday thrill seekers and lazy, no adrenaline junkies.

    So, we are the kind described above, cutting the lines and just go. But how on earth could you “learn” without trying? We have no tides back home, no long waves, no doldrums, no sharks, no penguins, no icebergs, no Brazilian womens :) Try or die trying. One never learns to ride a bike as a kid without pulling out a few teeth from the asphalt. So far we have laughed through: A named storm losing our liferaft in the North Sea, snow, epedemic flu, angry policemen, naval searches, bureaucrats, minibikerides, dolphin attacks, too much good food, palm trees, mosquitos and motor breakdowns and groundings. Crusing is NOT complicated, nor advanced, cruising do NOT have to be miles gained sailing ships across vast oceans. As long as you can walk upright, speak a few words, listen more than you speak and and have the underdog perspective you have the possibility to have great fun while learning and to go everywhere you want on this globe. All cruising grounds as I see it is local crusing ground for someone else. Asking a French guy about tides might not give ýou the same pointers as across the pond up in Canada or here in Argentina, but it is the same concept: water is missing or against you when you are entering an harbor :) Cruising my own home waters (Swedish westcoast close to Norway) is not that difficult even for a Aussie, most of the places around the globe tend to put the marks on the grounds or close by. If you do not know what the signs means, stay away from them. The same goes for larger boat, let them play where they want with the containers and oilrigs, if it have lights and you do not want to prove your rule-of-way-skills, just stay aside. Getting the normal crusing boat up to speed by trimming, why? You can always watch some seagulls or the Sopranos.

    Well, this is only MY opinion, being still a bit “stupid” in some fellow sailors opinion and that still can’t tie more that a couple of knots, have no interest in sextants, to lazy to change sails and always put out to much chain, grounding the boat ever now and then but STILL cruise nevertheless. For 2 years we reached the 40s south in Argentina and will continue as far from home as possible. Antarctica will block our way of be the first crew ever to take the straight line from north-pole to north-pole via the south one (where are the polarbears?) I guess the last possible achievement in floating-things-record? All other “records” are achieved, all other mistakes are done a thousand times. Even if I like my live and want to live I’m not really afraid of loosing it, cruising must be much more safe an uncomplicated than the normal desk job. Get bored to death must be the ultimate in NOT trying.

    All this my sound as crazy Viking stuff (R.I.P the crew of Berzerk by the way) but this is just for SHOW. We actually learn a lot in these two year. But still does not call our self sailors or experienced. If there was a way to bring your home AND have a glass of red while EVERY day parked close to the ocean I would have bought a caravan. I’m constantly seasick (one of the 5 %) but nevertheless: it’s just an other way of thinking its really fun, not scary.

    Go cruising today, tomorrow the water will still be there maybe, but it is meant to be stirred once in a while. And the dolphins like a laughing captain!

    Now I will read the rest of this GREAT site, thanks for charing!

    Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 8:21 am

    And for the record: being a neutral Swedish blond guy, please do not sue me for being un-polite. It’s just my grammar. :)

    Reply
    • John January 4, 2012, 11:26 am

      Hi Nemo,

      I thought your comment was great! You certainly did not offend me.

      I’m self aware enough to know that I’m a an over-planner, it’s just the way I am. My hero is Roald Amundsen who said “Adventure is just bad planning.” But there is no question that the world is a better and more interesting place because there are people like you and your mate that take a more spontaneous approach. Go for it!

      Reply
  • John January 4, 2012, 12:30 pm

    Nemo, you faker :-)

    I just looked at your site and as far as I can see you have a strong and seaworthy steel boat that you have meticulously fitted out. (I looked at your 660 item completed list.) Don’t tell me that there is not a little tiny wimp lurking somewhere on “Nemo”.

    Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 12:31 pm

    Did’t say I was a under-planner, way way way the other way :) I have very long planning sessions with myself and I. My 1stMate is a sleeper and cock the food. I suffer from insomnia and have the nights pretty often for free and then I have time to hang in front of the computer. If you check out our homepage (google translate it if you not learned the word from Mr. Amundsen and his Swedish likes) There you have a Tab for Nemos working list. Now is not updated to version 10.0 yet but in a few days more I guess it is there with the last 400 things we adjusted the last 3 months. And under Stuvlista you have the (not up to date yet either) list of EVERYTHING packed onboard, tools, medix, down to the 4 different wine opener.

    The laisserz-aller attitude is just a SHELL to defend us from jealous people back home that asking what the heck we are doing. Since we do this just to annoy our friend stuck in the hamster-wheel and NOT sail for fame or for money (crewing) or records or press but just for a way of having a good time we need attitude. But to be honest: I got triple system of everything, just ask Martin why we don’t have room for friends on board…

    And of course we agree with Amundsen our naboer, but also admire Scott and Strindberg and the others just to have been trying. It is easy for the winner to write the history. I guess Shackleton had a hard time returning in theses areas and send the message back home that they actually didn’t lose in the end. First fu-king up badly, the suffer the consequences, then putting the effort into solving EVERY problems. Then return home safe with the BRAGRIGHTS and just annoy the disbelievers. Well, that is a “attainable” goal for a few poor bastards also that lack in more imagination, like myself :)

    I change my standpoint: Try not to die while trying is also something to strive for. And wimps or “heros”, either way it’s a journey and we are only humans all of us.

    Nuf of philosophy. Vamos a la playa! (here is 12 C in the water but the locals are tough ones…

    /Andreas Viltfjäll

    (we sailing ORIGINAL style: for getting there and back, seeing woman in every port and try not to get involved in bar fights to often…)

    Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 12:35 pm

    Aha, you DID see me through, touché. But likewise, I see more wimps around me when taking a tour in every marina. The hard part is getting the butt out of the “dream-chair” and actually put up the REAL sign: gone fishing :)

    Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Pls feel free to correct the language, my swenglish sometime makes it hard to follow. And delete THIS post of course. Very nice layout, doing it yourself John?

    Reply
    • John January 4, 2012, 12:54 pm

      Hi Andreas
      No problem on the swenglish, its a hell of a lot better than my Englnorge!

      The layout is based on the Thesis theme with quite a bit of customization by Phyllis and I.

      Reply
  • Nemo of Sweden January 4, 2012, 12:48 pm

    “meticulously fitted out”… Well, toys are for fun. All the other stuff I lack. Like skills and canvas and the right ropes to pull to do those fancy maneuvers. But Nemo like to stand on the grounds and are more like an old Landrover Defender Of the Seas with a few new blinking buttons. Takes you from A to B anyhow. The other cruiser in this little bay (Puerto Deseado, Argentina) is a french guy, Jac sailing a Amel from beginning of the seventies with just ropes and 2 meters of chain pulled by hand. And I guess he is in his seventies as well. We “kids” just try to overcompensate for not being dry behind the ears…

    Reply
  • Mark Boden January 7, 2012, 5:08 pm

    Enjoyable article John….I think many of us suffer from nerves. It is part and parcel of sailing, and not just offshore passagemaking either. I get very nervous about going aloft these days….and it’s getting worse as I age. Years ago I never thought twice about it. Small elevators increasingly seem to raise my heartbeat! How wimpy is that….and they are ashore! So I am a confirmed wimp.

    Some years ago I had a few young Frenchmen crew on my Venus 42 Gaff Ketch. It was just a short hop from English Harbour Antigua to St. Barth; however the trades were piping….25-35 knots with higher gusts. These guys had done plenty of sailing, and as we flew north under full sail (less tops’l) one of them remarked that he wished “he were as brave as me.” Apart from such an uncharacteristic comment by a Frenchman I was stunned! “Why I’m not brave” I blurted back…”in fact at times I can be a total nervous wreck” I added.
    “But you have almost nothing on your boat…no electonics…not even any engine guages! I worry when my SSB isn’t working well, and you don’t even have one! You have no autopilot…no winches….just you and your nine year old son on a 22 ton boat….how can you say you are not brave?”
    I laughed, and it made me realize that we all worry about different things. Complicated things make me worry, and I try to avoid them….he, on the other hand, worried if he didn’t have them!

    Of course every boat needs to be equipped for the type of sailing she does. Reaching up and down the trades can be done with a vastly different boat than one voyaging to Greenland. I really enjoy your site…even though much of the technical stuff is above my head!! All the best John.

    Reply
    • John January 8, 2012, 10:53 am

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks very much for the kind comments and the really well reasoned point on complication and the way that simplicity can help us wimps from getting too stressed out. While they are very different to “Morgan’s Cloud”, I have long been a fan of Paul Johnson’s boats and their elegant but rugged simplicity. While MC is certainly more complicated than your boat, I agree entirely with the idea of keeping things as simple as you can.

      (In doing a Google search for Paul’s boat for this comment, I stumbled on your site. What a great resource, thanks.)

      Reply
  • Debbie November 20, 2013, 10:48 pm

    I read your article with great joy as I recognized myself. I single hand mostly and most people that know me admire my confidence but it’s a complete fake. I have had to build my confidence in my abilities and my boat. The learning process I suspect will be life long. Again thank you.

    Reply
  • John November 22, 2013, 8:35 am

    Hi Debbie,

    This piece is based on the first article I ever had published and even today it is still one of my favorites that most captures my thinking about voyaging, all of which makes your kind words even move valued. Thanks very much.

    Reply

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