We are heeled over on a starboard tack. This is normally the exciting “action filled” direction of sailing but it is feeling a bit too much for me. The tiller is in my left hand and I would like to release the main sheet a bit to reduce the power being transmitted from the wind into the boat but it is out of reach and I don’t want to switch hands, it feels too dangerous. I assess the situation. It feels like I am nearly standing straight on the port bulkhead but I know from experience that I am nowhere doing so, looking at the boat I think the mast is just over forty five degrees from the vertical. There is no real danger here, but I can’t help wondering how far the rudder is in the water. The captain tells me to steer into the wind a bit more to release the pressure that way, I try but nothing changes. He points out I am pulling the tiller to wrong way and gently pushes the handle away from me and suddenly the power eases and so does my anxiety.
So much of sailing is about making the most of the conditions you have, when tacking trying to make headway, one wants the sails pulled into the boat and to be heading on the edge of the no-sail zone (approximately 45 degrees either side of the wind direction). This is what I was doing, keeping the boat on the best point of wind so conscientiously that I forgot that turning the boat to the right a bit would have achieved the same outcome as spilling a bit of wind off the main sail by releasing the main sheet. These things come with experience and I should know better but it has been two years since I have sailed and I have never been completely happy in this particular boat, it just doesn’t balance as well as other yachts I have been in.
I grew up on the south coast of England near Portsmouth. As a child as well as the FA Cup Final, The Grand National, The Boat Race and Wimbledon featuring as annual events, there was also Cowes Week. Cowes Week is a week long (!) regatta held in the Solent (area of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland of England) which is apparently the largest of its kind in the world (didn’t know that). Sailing is viewed as a rich person’s sport because owning a boat is expensive in upkeep and purchase but smaller older boats can be had for five figure sums and kept in quieter places for four figure sums. This isn’t cheap but some ordinary people manage. I don’t think my family ever thought about it.
Whilst the sea is in my blood in some sense that I have lived within a few miles of the sea 95% of my life and have a few relatives that are in the Navy (or were), I never sailed as a kid. I thought it looked wonderful though, sitting on the side of boats in your shorts and t-shirt while zooming over the waves with white sails full of wind and a colourful spinnaker out front. I got the chance twenty years ago now when it turned out friends of mine were qualified Yachtmasters. My first sail was on a 37 foot Westerly setting off from near Oban and covering some of the Inner and Outer Hebrides. It was fantastic but unfortunately I wasn’t always able to stay up on deck because I tended to get very sea sick. It turns out that I don’t really have the ear for sailing, constant unexpected motion is not good for me. Sailing also turns out to be bloody cold most of the time, there is rarely a chance for shorts and t-shirts on board in UK waters.
Sailing showed me places I would never had seen otherwise, and taught me to respect nature and live with nature in a way I had couldn’t have fathomed before. It can be dangerous and thrilling but also boring and relaxing, and above all, it is always unexpected. Perhaps the biggest challenge for me (apart from sea sickness) though was the constant sharing of a small space. It can be lonely at times (when they rest of the crew are couples) and it can be hard to find peaceful moments away from others. Sailing is about putting aside what you want to do and making the best of the situation you have no control over. I can’t help but think there is a lesson about autism in there.
In more recent years I have found it difficult not having a degree of control over my time on boats. When I first started sailing, I was taught about every aspect from changing the front sails (before furling genoas), listening to the weather forecast, identifying a suitable destination, plotting a navigation route, calculating tidal variations, getting a bearing whilst sailing, handling the boat during turns, to laying an anchor after calculating how much chain to put down. In later years when I have sailed it is with people who are not so good at delegating. It has been a matter of being told what to do and stepping back when things get more interesting (helming through a narrow passage or laying an anchor). Whilst I understand the captain bears the responsibility for the boat and the crew, this more controlled aspect led me to decide that sailing was no longer for me. It became boring and I tended to sit around getting cold.
This last trip was different because firstly I didn’t get cold, it was quite a short trip, and finally because I continued to helm through the tricky bits. My friend has never before let me helm through the bridges around Dundee or back into the marina. Yes he took over when we were coming onto the pontoon but that was fine by me! The sailing was less frantic too. We had a reef in the main from the start (the main sail is made smaller by putting reefs in it) so I was able to use one hand on the tiller to keep the course whilst heading into the wind (an unbalanced boat will want to keep turning into the wind and you need to compensate with the tiller). Once I had got used to the bouncing off 3 or 4 foot waves as we headed into the wind against the tide, my anxiety levels decreased markedly and I surprised myself at how much sailing skill came back to me. Okay there were some mistakes such as I described at the beginning and not ducking enough on a gybe (a glancing blow thankfully) but actually it was a good trip.
Looking back on what I have written it seems to me that I enjoy sailing when I am more involved in it. I suspect the involvement allows me to forget about my anxiety and concentrate on the immediate situation, after all keeping busy is a way of handling both depression and anxiety. There was only one time during the trip that I got completely confused by a request and inability to decide what to do brought me to a standstill. Thankfully it was once we were back on the pontoon, tidying up the boat. I had help put the main sail cover on but on the whole I was just standing there wondering what to do. I went down below to put the binoculars away. My friend wanted the remaining hot water left in the kettle for something but my mind couldn’t work out what. It made sense to use it for washing up the cups but that seemed to be wrong. He kept saying things I couldn’t hear. When he point-blank asked me to pass up the kettle, I saw he used it for washing down some of the gear on deck. I am sure there was a reason for it but I still don’t know what it was. I was just relieved I was released from my anxiety spiral.
Maybe coming alongside and tidying up are other areas I need to improve my knowledge on after all so I can be more involved. Whether from physical or mental exertion I certainly slept well that night. That’s a good thing in my book.