Finding Confidence Cruising

another postcard

It’s a long journey from the midwestern shore where a kid uncertainly pushed her Sunfish out into the lake, to this beautiful beach of powdery sand and turquoise water in the Bahamas.

Back then I wondered if I’d later be able to steer the boat back to point where I launched. Today I find satisfaction in knowing that I am both capable handling Totem and also have a tremendous amount to improve. Getting to that place of confidence in fundamental capabilities relieves stress and quells fears; knowing that there remain endless opportunities to learn is a joy of cruising.

San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress
San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress

pinterest confidenceIt is a journey to find that confidence. Looking back over some decades at that uncertain teen on a Michigan beach, there isn’t any single turning point but a progression of experiences that describe it.

It helped, and it didn’t, that my partner in this adventure is an accomplished sailor. Jamie has been on boats since he could walk and raced at a professional level. On one hand, his skill gave me the space to grow my own capabilities without shouldering the responsibility of ownership for our safety. On the other hand, it makes it easy to cede responsibility to him instead of tackling things I should learn. And hten, it can sometimes be tricky to learn from those you are closest to!

The antidote for insecurity is knowledge and experience, but the best way to acquire them varies: it depends on how you learn and what your opportunities are.

Time on the water

When Jamie and I work with coaching clients who need to build skills, one of the first tactics we suggest is to get involved in casual racing on a smaller boat. It typically costs nothing more than time, and will surround a learner the proper terms while drilling in tasks that make a better cruising sailor. Small-boat sailing is also an excellent way to internalize the fundamentals of bigger-boat handling; and the afternoons I spent learning how to steer that Sunfish with my foot from a prone position (the better to ponder life… or work on my tan) were better training than I allowed myself credit for at the time. Racing dinghies in college later steeped me in terminology, rigging basics, efficiently routing from A to B, internalizing that flat is fast and the telltale dance that is good trim. I’m not exactly a cutthroat competitor (anyone who knows me well is giggling right now), but this transition from lazy day sailing to team competition ignited my passion for sailing in unanticipated ways.

Celebrating Siobhan's birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock
Celebrating Siobhan’s birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock

Judgement-free learning

Among the best preparation in my path was a week-plus of sail training with an all-woman crew cruising the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea. We studied, discussed, and practiced everything from rules of the road to sail selection to self-steering, radar use, docking, anchoring, and more as needed – it was as if we had embarked on a cruising journey already. In an open learning environment, I was gently guided, allowed to make (and learn from) mistakes, and ask as many questions as I wanted without feeling any of them might be ‘dumb.’ My experience was with two-time circumnavigator Nancy Erley of Tethys Offshore in the Pacific Northwest; chief among other programs I’d reach for is the east-coast-based Morse Alpha Expeditions led by Ben & Teresa Carey.

Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?!
Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?! Our anchorage companion this week

A good book

Kinesthetic learning is essential, and some studying can’t be avoided. One of the best ‘books’ in my journey isn’t in any store. Before we started cruising on Totem, we had a 35’ Hallberg Rassy—Mau Ke Mana—as our training wheels for cruising skills in Puget Sound. Like too many Americans we crammed our summer holiday in a few long weekends and a stolen getaway week. To extend our range afloat, we made an arrangement with trusted friends: we’d sail the boat north up through the San Juans and to the Canadian Gulf Islands and expend all our vacation days in one direction; they’d drive up to meet us, we’d trade vehicles, and they’d sail down for their summer escape while we hustled south in the car to jobs and daycare. Every boat has idiosyncrasies, and boats set up for cruising have more complex systems than the typical daysailer. To help our friends take over Mau Ke Mana, Jamie created “The Boat Book” as an orientation to her quirks and equipment—a mix of how-to and maintenance schedule in one. I was the unexpected beneficiary, as this basic orientation guided my initial learning process in cruising systems stepped through the particular equipment and oddities of our boat.

Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds
Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds

For more readily available material to purchase, there’s not a prettier or simpler way to learn the basics of sailing than Jan Adkins’ Craft of Sail (thank you to Teresa & Ben for reminding me of this beautiful book: I was given a copy years ago and the pages were well thumbed). Another is Chapman’s Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling: I’ve never quite gotten over the fact that a family friend, who I’d been sailing with many times, passed me over and gifted a copy to my younger brother (uninterested in sailing, but The Boy) years ago. Our edition stems from Jamie’s teen years, but is perfectly applicable today. If it’s resources to plan cruising you’re after, there is none better than Beth Leonard’s The Voyager’s Handbook. For more ideas, we’ve curated a list of recommended reading in a number of categories.

Racing, training, reading: ultimately it’s whatever works for you to learn. Situations that facilitate learning for some may inhibit learning for others. All-women’s courses were a gift for me, as was racing. Sailing schools, passage, training, there are a myriad of options.

What does it take to gain confidence?

How long is a piece of string? While was confidence in my sailing skills I was after initially, it was the freedom of sailing that has brought a greater confidence to my person.

Sea trial for Totem's purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007
Sea trial for Totem’s purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007, with Jim Jessie

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to spend two days with a room full of women who plan to go cruising. They’d signed up for the 2-day Cruising Women seminars I delivered with Pam Wall as part of “Cruisers U” at the Annapolis Boat Show. Talking through their reasons for participating, I saw myself in so many stories and faces: I remember what it was like getting ready for this massive change in our lives. Excitement about the future, but trepidation about the realities. My mind too once swirled with what-if worries, uncertainty about my own capabilities, and wondering if we’d be able to pull it off.

In truth, I’ve failed to appreciate when this confidence settled in, but on the heels of Cruising Women I’ve had another opportunity to appreciate that strength week. Jamie’s not on Totem right now, an unusual scenario.

on the tarmac

He’s flying to a few Caribbean ports to give practical evaluations for coaching clients to boats they have under contract. So for at least a week and a half, it’s just me and the kids, keeping up with… well, everything.

Beautiful islands below

None of it is a big deal: just keeping up with everyday life on board, but it made me realize how much I count on his relative depth of experience in arenas where I’m not used to flying solo, whether managing voltage on board in the delicate dance to balance incoming power with draws from the watermaker and refrigeration and screens. Moving Totem to anchor in a new spot based on our needs. Staying mindful of the weather forecast and what it may hold: if we’ll be fine in this pretty curve of bay, or need to move for shelter from a shifting breeze. And it’s fine. I’m fine. When did this happen? I can’t say, but wouldn’t recognize this in myself even just a few years ago.

Heading back to Totem after an ice cream / garbage run to "town."
Heading back to Totem after an ice cream / garbage run to “town.”

In the subtle gilt trim of the Naval Academy conference room in Annapolis, I wanted every woman in the seminar to internalize that she too has this confidence and capability entirely in her reach, but how to fit that into words? So Pam and I gave our best effort to shed light into dark spaces where niggling worries fester and scare them off. Offered points to follow and place to seek information and resources. Provided tangible skills in basic knots, coiling and heaving a line. Reinforced that physical size or strength is not a detriment: it is simply an issue to address mechanical advantage. And ultimately, I hope, communicated through personal experience that it’s possible to go from that person who wondered if she’d get her little 14’ dinghy back again into an adventurous cruiser with undreamed of stories to tell.

Late 1980s - in front of the family cottage in Pointe aux Barques, Michigan
Late 1980s, Pointe aux Barques, Michigan

24 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this! My husband and I are still new to sailing (we are starting our third season on the Chesapeake Bay), and I’m in the process of finding my confidence on the boat. I appreciate you giving me hope that I’ll get there someday.

    1. The sunfish brought back many good memories. A fun boat in a bathing suit on a lake. You could go anywhere. Hobies and a 14 ft a sailing dingy I restored are another memory as is my cousin’s 40 ft wooden sloop on Lake Erie. Boat was built back in the 20s and leaked. With no engine you needed a beam reach to get it down Rocky River to the Lake. So it was in 1958.

    2. You absolutely can and will Sara. One option is hiring an instructor to come onto YOUR boat instead of taking lessons elsewhere. But just getting often, lucky you having out regularly– with the Chesapeake accessible– lucky you!!

  2. Beautiful post, Behan. It’s so important to appreciate our younger selves. Therein lies the perspective on our own growth! Love you and HAPPY MOTHER’s DAY! xoxo
    p.s. …handsome Niall w the shark selfie?! eek!

  3. That last picture is totally awesome from the clothes to the hair (1980’s west coast teenage slang intended. And let’s be honest, I still use it today).

    Happy Mother’s Day!

  4. Wow… great narrative on the steps in building confidence! It is a self-education (with your encouragement) with no graduation & no diploma for the building never ends. The mechanics of sailing, safety, weather evaluation, maintenance and all the rest take time & patience. Developing & realizing confidence makes it all work.

    You write that you failed to appreciate when your confidence settled in. Look at it another way; you always had that confidence. It was the confidence you could figure out what you didn’t know. A great start with your sailfish and a supportive family was a big boost. You were concerned that maybe you couldn’t steer the Sunfish back to the launch area. Point is that you did launch and did head out. You had concern yet didn’t realize you also had confidence you could somehow return… and you did. Concern & confidence are different things. Swimming with a shark however is a twofer; concern & confidence all in one very cool picture.

    Cheers & Happy Birthday Siobhan!

  5. I enjoy all your posts, Behan. You have mastered the art of mixing just the right ratio of humility with inspiration. This one hit a special cord, though.
    We are on our first-ever cruising experience and have just turned our bow northward to return to Canada from the Bahamas . When we set out 7 months ago, my partner had almost no sailing experience, but is mechanically oriented, prides himself on self-sufficiency, and was up for joining me in my dream. I was the “veteran” sailor on board, if I may use that term very loosely, with a couple of courses, and some mild fresh-water lake day sails under my belt. Talk about an immersion course in confidence building! There was our 1st night out grounding requiring Coast Guard Rescue and a return to rebuild our pulverized rudder, a hellish inaugural overnight off-shore passage, gas in diesel engine prior to our Gulf Stream Crossing, and many, many other minor incidents, too many to list. We’ve made almost every mistake possible, or shall I say, we’ve created almost every learning opportunity for ourselves you can imagine ☺, and have emerged from each far wiser and more confident. And we’ve had a blast, and look forward to setting out again! Sailing has allowed me to grow in courage and confidence, and at the same time – despite it seeming like a contradiction – I am returning home a far more humbled being.
    Enjoy the Exumas. They were by far our favourite area of the Bahamas. Will enjoy continuing our cruising vicariously through your blog.

    1. thank you so much Shirley, for opening up so much of your experience. You had quite the first season! But at least the more difficult lessons usually only happen once, and I love how you see your challenges as the foundations of courage and confidence. Right on!!!

  6. I noticed the line about mechanical advantage over physical size and strength because I’ve just seen it. If you need to show an example to a skeptical client, Delos Ep 118 and 119 both have a shot of a very petite young woman putting a beat-down on the genoa sheet on the wind–the big Buddha never got a chance to breath out.

  7. Good article, as ever.

    I would add that, while it may be different in the female mind, I find that I can do more by first visualizing the experience until it is a part of me. My experience with surfing and skiing, along with my first experience on a sail boat, came out great because it was just as I imagined it to be.

    Now it didn’t hurt that I learned to swim and row a boat, but there is more to it than that.

    We visualize the water and its movements, and how it changes with the winds and tides. We watch it for hours from the shore, and videos help with that visualization immensely. We see the boat move from the force of the wind. Then we set foot on board the vessel and our bodies immediately feel at home in the rocking and bobbing the water causes.

    Visualization brings knowledge, and knowledge give confidence. At least for me.

    1. As a masters ski racer I’ve developed a different approach to visualization. Effective visualization isn’t visual at all! Rather you should place yourself mentally in the actual situation. Rather than seeing yourself ski around the control gate, you feel the changes in edge pressure, balance, and timing that make the turn happen.

      Translated into sailing, you feel the sensation of the boat rising to a wave, heeling to a gust, developing a rhythm that you fall into step with. Or the “sound” of watching a perfect sunset while at anchor. Once you immerse your mind into that space and re-live it over and over again it ceases to be threatening and becomes home.

      1. So you do not use visualization, but rather feeling? Most interesting. I would have found it difficult to believe that most people would be able to mentally feel without mentally seeing something as well. That is why the visual is such a powerful tool. The simple act of closing one’s eyes brings a picture into mind. The sighted person will likely “see” mentally before they “feel”. We will see and then “paint” the picture with our other “sense” memories, and by so doing we put ourselves into our mental environment.

        As I alluded to before, it is necessary to have been in water, wind and sun for us to know the forces at play. However, once we have those sensations stored in our mind’s memory bank, we can apply them to our visualization to know if we can be a peace within the environment we perceive. If so, we can then have confidence. For instance, we may know we cannot swim, but we can trust the life-vest to keep us safe.

        1. Visualizing an image of yourself doing something is like watching a video of—. (I was going to offer an example, but will abstain as this is a family site!) Not the same feeling as doing it! LOL

          When a World Cup ski racer memorizes a series of gates they do so visually so they know what to expect, but the actions they perform while completing 50 turns per minute flow almost completely from muscle memory developed through thousands of hours of training. The reason my technique works for mere mortals like me is that I can reconstruct the one perfect turn that I did and learn how it felt, meanwhile suppressing all the botched ones!

          1. Most confusing. I do not understand then why you mentioned feeling in the first place, if feeling is not the same as imagining. Further, I do not think that muscle memory has anything to do with developing confidence in the way in which Behan was meaning it.

  8. Spot on and eliquent as always! And I got a private giggle when one of your photos (relating to Jamie being away) was of the first aircraft I captained in my airline career – way many years ago!
    But from the guy perspective, I’d share the thrill and joy I’ve felt as my wife Nicki has stepped up to try, learn, sometimes slip but always try again in all the tasks and skills that are Cruising. Certainly writings by you, Beth Leonard, Teresa Carry and others have been formative and valuable to her, and I’m sure many other women as well.
    Thank you!

    1. Same plane, no kidding! Flamingo Air needs you. 😉 Thanks for the kinds words about the articles, I don’t measure up to those other two though!

  9. Great article! I am one who is hesitant to even try sailing although I feel the pull towards it every day. My main drawback is concern over my body size. I am physically capable and exercise frequently but am of a larger size and have not seen or heard of other larger sized people living the cruising lifestyle on a sailboat. Not having a reference that it is even possible make me very hesitant to even take that first step by signing up for classes. I have had one confidence building sail though. My first sail ever was last year in Annapolis on the Schooner Woodwind. I hoisted the sails and even got to take the helm and did really well according to the other seasoned sailors on board (not just the paid crew). Most didn’t believe me when they found out that was my first time ever on a sailboat. This was an encouragement to me but that was a much larger boat that the ones I would be on for training classes. Your statement, “Reinforced that physical size or strength is not a detriment: it is simply an issue to address mechanical advantage.” has given me another boost to contact a nearby sailing club to see when they might be having lessons for adults in the future. Thank you for the years of sharing what cruising is and how your family adapts and learns from each new experiences. Maybe one day I will break out of my landlocked bubble and join the cruising family myself.

    1. Hi Kim– I love that this line sank in with you. I believe it– don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Love that great experience on the schooner and hope it parleys into family cruising for you, you can do it! There ARE references out there. If you don’t already belong, I recommend joining Women Who Sail to find community.

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