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Anxiety at Sea

Fear is a funny thing, we all feel it, but rarely talk about it. It’s not popular or exciting to say that you are afraid, that you are anxious; instead, we are expected to hold it in, pretend we don’t feel it, put on a smile and tell the world everything’s fine – all while internally twitching. See, we’ve finally left the dock – after two planned weeks of boat work turned into two months – and, while we’ve had some beautiful times, more often than not I have been anxious and some times I’ve been afraid, even downright terrified.

Anxiety and fear are two normal human emotions that each serve a purpose, but they’ve been somewhat vilified by the toxic positivity sphere. We associate the word ‘anxiety’ with an anxiety disorder, thinking that any feelings of anxiety are bad, that they mean we are ill. This is not the case. Anxiety is an emotion that gets us to pay attention, to prepare for future problems. Anxiety, in the proper amount, can be a tool that keeps us safe. Anxiety is the underlying emotion that drives me to get up to investigate that strange new sound at anchor (which in this case led us to discover a problem with the rudders). Anxiety before leaving on a passage is what helps Kane and I to remember to, and put large importance on, pre-departure safety checks. These experiences of anxiety are not only normal, but in these cases, beneficial. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming and paralysing, stopping us from living the lives we wish to, is when the normal emotion transforms into a disorder – which needs proper care from professionals.

Fear is a more immediate emotion that amps up our bodies and minds to deal with a currently occurring threat. While anxiety helps us foresee future problems, fear is more of a “let’s get the blood pumping right now to avoid getting eaten by that lion” type of thing. While anxiety is more often the roil in your gut, fear is the heart pounding, laser focus, blood pumping, sweating, all the things that would prepare you to survive whatever challenge you are facing right now; and while it may not be popular to admit, lately, in these early days of sailing full time, I have been afraid.

The first time I felt that true fear was our first night at anchor.

This is the reality of boat life sometimes, frazzled fear rather than Instagram perfection.

We’d left the comfort of our little end dock in Kawana for the duck pond – the only real anchorage in Mooloolaba and thus crowded, but free. As we do not have unlimited funds to pursue this sailing dream, free was a big draw, so we threw off the dock lines with smiles on our faces and excitedly messaged our friends “we left the dock!”. Cue a resounding response of little blue and white messages of happiness and celebration. “Woo hoo!” “Finally, boat life!” “Enjoy it for us!”

We did not go far. It was a short motor to the best spot we could find, tucked as far off the main channel as we could be without actually anchoring on top of one of the many other boats there, but we’d done it, after weeks and weeks and weeks, we’d finally left the dock! We cheers-ed over dinner with a glass of wine and settled in to watch Wednesday while the sun set. Then I went down below for a shower around 9 pm. The water was warm, the boat gently rocking in the glassy ripples of a low wind evening. All was well.

Then I smelled petrol.

“What’s that smell?” I asked Kane as I climbed the stairs into the saloon, hair wet from the shower and fresh PJs on.

Turns out the smell was the fuel from an unattended monohull’s outboard that Kane was now, quite literally, holding off Avalon’s starboard hull.

“What the hell!?” I screamed and ran up to grab a rail, pushing the mono off our previously fender-lined starboard hull (this is anxiety functioning well, around dinner time I’d been concerned by the odd movement of Blueline, the mono in question, so we put fenders up, just in case).

“It’s okay, the wind’s not up, let’s just wait for it to drift off us,” came Kane’s calm, collected reply.

“Like hell we’re just waiting! There’s a boat on our boat!” I cried in fear, heart pounding in my ears, eyes still struggling to believe what was happening. “I told you we were too close to it, we need to move! Now!”

“Okay, okay, just breathe, we’re okay, we’ll move in a minute.”

As Blueline floated away, I raced to the bow to prepare to pull anchor while Kane went to the helm.

“Ready?!” I yelled, probably louder than necessary given it wasn’t windy…yet.

The engines roared to life. “Ready to raise.”

As the windlass pulled our chain in, metre by metre, the wind picked up and, in the usual way of everything falling to pieces at night and in a storm, the minute the anchor bit onto it’s roller at the bow, the squalls hit.

Sheet after sheet of driving rain appeared out of nowhere to drench us both to the bone within seconds. The previously non-existent wind screamed, gusting to 20 knots, then 25 knots, then 30. The rain was an impenetrable screen on our vision.

All we needed to do was pick up anchor and re-set it 10 metres ahead of the spot we’d raised it, but with the squalls perfectly terrible timing, this simple move was proving far from simple.

“Watch the dock!” I yelled, fear lacing my voice, but tears no longer falling. “You’ve got maybe 10 metres from Toad*! 5 from the big fishing boat!” Somehow, when my emotions switched from anxiety to fear, my body knew it had to act, and act I did. (*Toad was the name of one of the derelict sailboats left to rot at anchor in the duck pond)

After what felt like three hours, but was more like 30 minutes, we succeeded in re-anchoring, with Kane doing the hardest helming he’d ever done up until this point and me acting as his eyes from the bow, because, despite my struggle to see, he was even worse off back at the helm. Ironically, the squalls stopped when the anchor re-set, but I’ve come to expect this with boat life. It’s terror one minute, pristine calm the next.

“We did it,” I cried into Kane’s chest, the tears coming fast and thick now that the immediate danger was over. My body shook as I sobbed, adrenaline and cortisol rushing hot through my blood, my brain now able to process it all, once the crisis had passed. “I’m so proud of us,” I said as I hugged Kane tight, the only person I’d ever trust enough to undertake this adventure with, this massive, and sometimes terrifying, learning curve, and I meant it. I really was proud of us for acting as a team, for pushing beyond the very real fear and rising to the task of keeping our home safe. Yes, we made mistakes – in hindsight we realised we had too much anchor chain out as I had missed a mark going by, so now we’ve re-marked at 5 m rather than 10 m intervals – but, we learned together, we worked together, and that’s what matters.

See what I’ve realised is that courage, bravery, whatever you want to call it, isn’t the lack of fear, it is being afraid and doing it anyway. That’s what this sailing dream is – a terrifying, wonderful exercise is being afraid, in being anxious, and doing it anyway.

I remember the first time someone told me I was brave, I laughed. Me? Brave? They must have it mixed up. I was the kid who roasted marshmallows with the longest stick humanly possible because I was afraid of fire. I was the teen who hated driving (too many uncontrollable variables, aka other people). I was the young adult experiencing panic attacks. I wasn’t brave. But, then I looked at it from the outside. To them I was the world traveller, the person who left everything they’ve ever known to jump into adventure and chase the possibility of love half way around the world. To them I was brave, because I did brave things and that’s when it clicked. They could not see the anxiety I felt getting on the plane to Australia, wondering, am I doing the right thing? They could not see the fear I felt as I walked the streets of Guatemala at sundown and realised I was lost and alone (don’t worry I found Kane eventually, well after dark with a half eaten ice cream cone I’d bought him for Valentine’s Day, but then stress ate when I realised I couldn’t find his hostel). All they saw were my actions, being scared and doing it anyway.

If I hadn’t been scared and done it anyway, I’d never have gotten this quiet, beautiful day.

So I’ve decided to show the world the unseen – the hidden emotions that lie behind the brave actions – because I want people to know that anxiety is normal, fear is normal, and if you are feeling those things while adventuring, while exploring, that is okay. You are okay. You are normal. You are brave.

I’m certain we’ve barely scratched the surface of things that will make me anxious at sea and that we have many more storms to weather, but I also know that each and every experience that Kane and I get through together is one more piece of proof to ourselves that we can do this, that we are brave enough. Today, I was afraid while we navigated the narrow and shallow north branch of the Coomera river in gusty, rainy conditions. Yesterday, I was anxious at anchor in a wind against tide situation. Tomorrow will likely hold more emotions, both good and bad, anxious and joyful, afraid and in awe, and that’s the beauty, and stress, of this life at sea…we really never know what will happen next.

5 thoughts on “Anxiety at Sea

  1. I read your posts with much awe (and some worry)! You are both indeed brave and I love how you are still taking on the world even when feeling the strong emotions!

  2. Nicely written account of your experience. Having been a sailor for a couple of decades I could visualize what you were going through in that anchorage. I had a similar experience in the mid 80’s aboard my Catalina 25 while anchored off Santa Barbara island. In the middle of the night, with the change of tidal current, another boat bumped up against mine. Fortunately, the other boat was occupied. I hailed the skipper who then, hauled in some anchor rode and moved farther away before any damage was done. Those kinds of things are alarming and definitely get one’s adrenaline pumping. Anchoring is an acquired skill, that one gets from repetition and learning from one’s mistakes.
    BTW, my wife, Charlotte and I met you and Kane during your visit with your parents Christmas before last.
    Best of luck with your sailing adventures.

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