Sailing slow into your fears

A little more than one week ago we were at anchor in Cumberland Island, enjoying the warm weather and the gentle wind. Mornings are still chilly this time of the year in these Southern lands and seas, but when the sun shows up they climb quickly and make it a wonderful place to be.

We anchored in the north side of Cumberland Island, by the ruins of Cumberland Wharf. Right in front of the stumps left from the old pier the water is deep enough for us to be still floating at low tide. Unfortunately it is a not very protected anchorage and can only be used with wind from the E or the S. That prevented us to stop here in other trips, but this time weather was with us and we had a pleasant day and night on the hook.

Kate wanted to take a stroll in this particular area of Cumberland Island to see the first African Baptist Church, built  in this settlement in 1893. A beautiful forest, with many trees down from recent tropical storms, surrounds the Settlement, so thick that it is almost impossible to cross out of the only road that is built in the area. We disturbed peaceful armadillos, looked at wild horses from a safe distance, picked up juniper berries, while walking through the forest.

The Church in Cumberland Island

There is a need for loneliness and remote areas that has a profound effect on me. It must have something to do with my feet, which are my main form of transportation right now. In quiet an unobstructed places early mornings became my treat retreat. No internet connection means freedom from constant feed and social media. It calms my urge to express quick and shallow thoughts.

Tranquility at anchor

Places like this have a restorative effect. There is nothing wrong with people, but I don’t particularly like what is built for people. Roads, parking lots, concrete surfaces, they all bring clutter and negative vibes. They all serve a purpose: take you fast and comfortably to a place where you can spend money.

In the morning I usually take some time before making coffee to write whatever comes out of my mind, without a specific aim. Then I make coffee and continue with writing or reading as I wait for Kate to wake up. It is my only private moment aboard Tranquility. Kate usually enjoys the same privilege at night when I crash earlier than her.

There is an article about Tranquility’s refit coming up in the May issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. I’ve been in touch with the editor working on few details of the story and pictures. It makes me feel a little like a professional, the exchange of information back and forth, the check coming into the mail, the editing process. I am trying to read and write better, with more intensity, and focus. I am not sure if I could ever make a living out of it, it should be nice indeed. Writing itself stabilizes my mood. I become cranky and distracted when I don’t do it enough. So you won’t get rid of me so easily.

After Cumberland Island we sailed with a clear blue sky and enough wind to move consistently toward our destination: St.Marys. I am rather pessimistic when it comes to estimate our progress, especially when we have to use our slow motor. It might not be very powerful but is indeed perseverant, and we sailed quicker than expected to destination. There we reunited with our friend Bill and other people we got to know when we were in the boatyard for a month of hard work. We visited and saw their progress, indeed slow but perseverant. If you keep moving you eventually get there.

Saturday the strong Northerlies kept us at anchor. We tried to make it to Fernandina Beach in the afternoon but the effort was not successful, we couldn’t make way in a bend of the river, where the current and the headwind brought us to a dead stop. We retreated a few hundred feet back and dropped the anchor again, then we waited for the next day when the wind dropped, and started to move timing the tides, ebbs and flow, trying to get to the inlets at low tide to use the next flood.

Again, with the use of sails and motor we did remarkably well and we darted through the marshes of Florida’s barrier islands, a journey made of dolphins encounters, birdwatching, fighting the currents and the shoals. My mind that usually see the darker picture, predicted that we would have to stop in Amelia Island and wait for the next tide the following day. Instead, winds, currents and a little help of the motor when needed, put us all the way past the Talbot Islands to a free public dock in Jacksonville, right before the St.John’s River. There we celebrated, with delicious food and with a dose of spy movies to be precise.

With this unexpected progress, we arrived earlier than I thought to Palm Cove Marina, so Kate could go easily to her doctor’s appointment.

Tranquility’s new home for February

Why am I so pessimistic? My mind often wanders about how to build faith. Not in the religious term, or maybe so, but for me faith means a deep motivation and sense of direction. It’s possible that my  interest in psychology comes from a desire to know deeper why faith is so volatile, why, basically, the mind gets in the way of your everyday life, with worries, negative thinking and other sort of anxiety-driven doubts.

Every reduction of this problem to a mechanistic view never really answered my questions. What’s the role of bad thoughts, of second guessing, of self pity? Is it something we can dismiss easily as just wrong or unadaptive or something to cure and eliminate? Is being happy and have a positive outlook to be normal?

These are some big philosophical questions, big crevasses that are hard to fill by knowledge. Depression is real, and it is no joke. It affects everybody, but in peculiar individuals, particularly sensitive ones, it takes an enormous toll and becomes a struggle.

I recently read a little more about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. He was clinically depressed. And he was one of the most successful writers of his generation. Eventually he could take no more and committed suicide. I am sure he experienced extreme happiness, an perhaps extreme boredom. I can imagine his life was intense and full under many points of view, with vertiginous highs and bottomless lows.

Looking at people with severe clinical depression makes me withdraw from my self pity and negativeness. I don’t consider myself depressed. I have indeed my moment of darkness, boredom, laziness, cowardice and so on. Still, I look to people that show profound faith and hope with a bit of envy, as an example, or maybe as a myth, because we tend to share only our nice part with others. The undesirable thoughts and behavior are hidden by a curtain of shame. Even there, I look for faults. It seems that people obsessed with Positive Thinking go in a downward spiral because it’s so hard to really be positive all the time. Showing just the positive and shiny parts, they hide the dark ones.

Robert M. Pirsig, who also suffered from severe depression, wonderfully put it in words in an article he wrote for Esquire called “Cruising Blues”:

You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.

I found that moving slowly, a little bit like Tranquillity, gets you out of any situation. Keep moving slowly and things will get better.

Another disturbance in these day of rest, is the role of fear and attraction. There is a common saying that you fear what you desire. My current fear is thinking about sailing the northern route across the Atlantic. At the beginning of all this it was like a fun idea that Kate and I created once we started our boat project. The scary part at this point is that we might do it. When you start considering that a thing may happen Fear shows up, and it can be paralyzing.

Northern route across the Atlantic

There is this stretch of ocean between Newfoundland, Canada and Iceland called Irminger Sea. Named after a Danish explorer, this part of ocean that borders the East Coast of Greenland is considered one of the windiest of the planet. It is studied by oceanographer because of its peculiar oceanic currents, that sink and resurface, and play a fundamental role in the nutrient cycle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Is that scary? Yes, but it is also exciting, daring, emotional. It’s a place where not many people go. But somebody did, in many different crafts, with the more diverse crew.

Geronimo St. Martin, an Argentinian physician made it solo in a 20 ft fiberglass production sailboat, named La India. He later made it to Norway, Spitzbergen, and the Arctic circle, before turning around to reach Cape Horn, on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.

A family of 5 who call themselves the Coconuts (two adults, three kids, now four with the last delivered while wintering in Iceland) made it on a racing boat in October, not exactly the “right” time of the year.

These examples don’t mean that this is an easy and comfortable trip. But it’s possible.

So why this fear? Because I am scared I am not disciplined enough to cope with potentially severe conditions? Because I think that my body is not strong enough to endure the trouble? That my mind will resolve to panic in a difficult situation? Because it is a place so remote that emergency responder may not get to? For sure, all the above.

Human mind assumes it is more likely to face death attempting that route rather than another one. It may be true but calculating the odds could not be that simple or possible at all, and death has very humorous ways to get to you. Fearing the Irminger Sea is both wise and stupid. Wise because it puts you in the face of a very hostile environment. It’s stupid because any Sea or Ocean is worth respect, and we as sailors should pay the same attention, awareness and preparation every time we go out at sea.

But I am also attracted by novelty, and at this point of my life a tropical beach with bar, wi-fi connections, crowded anchorages, fine dining and warm clear waters is not something that intrigues me anymore.  Remote and rugged, quiet and isolated are all adjectives that sound more attractive. There is eternal beauty that waits to be discovered. Even cold assumed a new desirable meaning. The only thing I still can’t go over is cold water. I have a natural, visceral fear and avoidance of cold water. In this Kate is much braver than me.

So what am I really fearing? I am fearing the effort, the amount of preparation it takes, the awareness, and the bare thousands of miles in cold water, fog, strong winds? The fear of failure, that comes from the judgements of others?

I can’t make my fear shut up. Fear is energy. Fear is useful. In this case  fear is telling me not to underestimate the task and to be prepared for it. And there is only one strategy that doesn’t work with fear. Avoidance. When you avoid fear you bring it with you for the rest of your life.

I think I will have to start taking cold showers.

3 thoughts on “Sailing slow into your fears”

  1. Qué bien! 🙂 el miedo los mantendrá en el camino correcto, o en la corriente correcta 😉 un abrazo!

      1. Que no los traiga en Junio porque estaré en tus tierras italianas 🙂
        Antes o después de junio, bienvenidos! Besos!

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