Overcoming Fear on the Water


Gale force winds, black stormy nights, shrieking rigging, feelings of isolation: Every new sailor believes she is the only one who feels fearful. But as the following excerpt from “Escape from the Ordinary,” shows, even seasoned sailors experience these emotions:

During the passage from Galápagos to the Marquesas Islands, there was no possibility of stopping in that vast stretch of ocean. Years before, while priming myself for our early retirement and sailing voyage, I read an account of a woman who was so afraid of that great expanse of isolation, she had her appendix removed to have one less thing to worry about.

At the time I laughed, thinking it an extreme act, but as we started on the same passage, I experienced random aches and pains, and my brain spun out unproductive and fearful thoughts. On our first night, I had a nightmare that my appendix had burst, and I hailed a large ship in the distance to come save me. I woke crying and went to the cockpit in search of fresh air and comfort from my husband, Glen. My mental state must have scared him. Instead of comforting me, he told me I was on dangerous territory with my mind; that kind of thinking could make it happen, and I needed to learn to control my thoughts, mind, and body.

He was right, of course. When I ignored my pains, they spun away, and it was as if they never existed. When I focused on them, they worsened, and no amount of internal conversation lessened what felt to be real. Keeping my mind in check during that long passage became part of my job.

Anxiety comes with adventure

“That was the largest barracuda I have ever seen. So many sharp teeth. My heart was pounding when it swam close to inspect us,” I told a cruising friend the other day while snorkeling together in the Florida Keys.

“Julie, I didn’t think you were afraid of anything. It takes a fearless person to cross oceans, sail around the world…”

My friend’s words surprised me. Fearless was about as far from my own perceptions of myself as it’s possible to get. Far from projecting indifference to danger, I raise worry to an art form. My imagination for worst-case scenarios is so keen that during ocean passages I could get nauseous merely studying a weather fax showing extreme weather ahead.

We all think that it’s the other sailors who are courageous. That we are the only ones feeling the fear. During our voyage I wondered, did my sailing heroes suffer the same feeling of dread at coming storms? Did they suffer twice—once in their mind and then through the actual gale force winds, breaking seas and mountains of waves? Did they lie awake off watch when they should have been resting, systematically worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong? Did they experience anxiety the night before every ocean passage?

Of course, they must have. It’s not cowardly to recognize and respect the inherent risks of both offshore and coastal sailing. If, like me, you suffer anxiety at the enormity of tackling oceans on a small boat, know that you are not alone.

During eight (mostly wonderful) years of ocean voyaging, I developed some coping strategies that got me around the world. See if they can help you achieve your own cruising dreams.

Tip #1: Get your fears down on paper

Keep a journal and write every day, the old-school kind of notebook that you write in, not a smartphone app. My own journaling started as jotting down a few notes about the day—a memory prompt for a weekly email dispatch to family and friends. That daily entry was so satisfying, it grew from notes to travelogue to therapy to a blog and then two books.

You can write whatever you like, and no one is going to judge you for it. Your journal is a space for you to pour out your deepest, darkest secrets, fears, joys, and more. Getting it all out on paper gives clarity and focus to what is bothering you, allowing you to work through them. You might come to major epiphanies, or just gather the strength to approach others with things that may need to be discussed aloud.

Example of a real entry from my journal: “Tonight we sail through a storm with gale force winds. My chest is tight, and I feel anxious because we always wait too long to reef. I hate for either of us to get on deck to reef in 45-knot winds with waves breaking over the deck. My real fear is that one of us will get washed overboard and get lost before the other can retrieve.”

Seeing my fears on paper prompted me to talk them over with my husband and reach agreement on reefing rules that would reduce the reason behind those emotions. Anxiety is a vague fear until you write it down.

The benefits of journaling accrue in ways you cannot imagine until you do it. Make it a daily habit and see what happens.

Tip #2: Lists create a sense of inner mastery and teach you to tackle problems one step at a time

Early on we sailed into a Force 10 storm in the Bay of Biscay. You can read more about that horrible storm in “Escape from the Ordinary,” but it taught us many lessons. One important lesson was that you can’t allow your mind to catastrophize bad situations. Instead of imagining the boat breaking up as it falls off 20-foot waves, you have to really focus on the here and now. Shut out unproductive, torturous thoughts.

Practice reining in your mind with lists. Make a list of all the tasks you do on a boat, daily, weekly, monthly: housekeeping projects, polishing the stainless on deck (it rusts so fast at sea), inventorying your remaining food stocks, meal planning, checks of different boat systems, double checking your navigation, recording your daily mileage in the ship’s log, writing in your journal. Try to stick to that routine as you would your watch schedule.

A routine filled with purpose makes each day feel more filled and focused. The objective is to keep your mind busy with tasks that are right in front of you. On day one of a 21-day passage, I would not think about the weeks ahead but about the day and tasks at hand.

Making lists and sticking to a routine trains your racehorse mind from galloping off out of control. It teaches you to focus on what is in front of you. It’s great mind training for emergency situations. When something goes wrong at sea, you must tackle that one thing you may be able to do and then move to the next step.

Tip #3: Flip that switch off

A bundle of nerves about leaving the Pacific Ocean for the South China Sea, I was so overwrought that I had trouble sleeping, lost my appetite, had a rash on my arms…

As always, another cruiser came to the rescue. A sailing friend—and therapist—showed me how to trick my brain and body into believing that everything is okay: Breathe correctly, darn it!

Your breath is key to your body’s stress response. You can induce a state of anxiety or panic just by taking shallow, short breaths from your chest.

The expression “I held my breath in fear” is no coincidence. My chest gets tight when I am anxious.

Shallow breathing, done over long periods of time, leads to panic attacks. Just like no one ever taught you to walk, no one ever taught you how to properly breathe. Breathing deeply, filling your lungs from your stomach upward, calms the body and mind within minutes.

Try this: Put your hand on your belly. Take slower, longer breaths, filling your lungs from the stomach up. Done correctly, your deep inhale will force your belly to stick out. Exhale deeply, forcing the air out, flattening your stomach. The calming comes with the exhale.

Additionally, one side of your brain fights the other. Your autonomic nervous system is split into two parts. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, controls your fight-or-flight response—the part that makes us fearful and anxious. The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls our rest-and-relax response.

These two parts of your nervous system can’t be turned on at the same time. When fight-or-flight is activated, it shuts down the rest-and-relax response. The anxiety builds and makes you less effective in dealing with the situation. Breathing deeply and properly switches off fight-or-flight and activates your rest-and-relax response.

With practice, deep breathing will become your superpower. Try this: Put your hand on your belly. Take slower, longer breaths, filling your lungs from the stomach up. Done correctly, your deep inhale will force your belly to stick out. Exhale deeply, forcing the air out, flattening your stomach. The calming comes with the exhale.

Such simple advice—I didn’t even try it until we were on passage from Darwin to Indonesia. After five minutes of breathing deeply enough to make my stomach rise and fall, my chest was no longer tight. My shoulders were no longer up by my ears, and the stiffness was gone in my neck. All from a mere five minutes of my first deep, belly breathing exercise. I am not sure I could have made it around the world without it.

Show some gratitude

If I were to add one last bit of advice, it would be to take the time to notice the little things around you. I used to spend hours on watch, just looking at the stars at night. During the day I was happy just to sit and watch the waves. It brought a quiet kind of joy.

So even if you are not yet out on the ocean, and the demands of your family and work keep you busy, take time out to enjoy even the small things, like a nice view. Take a moment to admire the world around you, and you’ll start to see things that really, really are beautiful.

Julie Bradley


Julie Bradley got a jump-start on adventure, joining the Army out of high school and retiring as a major 20 years later. She started writing as a productive obsession when she sailed around the world with her husband, Glen. Switching from sail to power, they are now traveling the Great Loop on MV Star Dust, a Meridian 368. Julie is the author of two international bestselling sailing adventure books, “Escape from the Ordinary” and “Crossing Pirate Waters.”

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