#7 – Doubt and the Thrill Zone

Vicki wasn’t sure she qualified as an Admiral. This surprised me because she’d spent years in the charter biz with her husband, and in 2002, while my husband and I were dallying in Mexico, they’d scooted right past us for the South Pacific on Firebird, an 84’ Palmer Johnson ketch. I would read the updates she wrote with the mild envy one always has for crews ahead of you (and, yes, for people blessed with big yachts), and I was particularly stirred by her stories from the “route less traveled” — the Solomon Islands and the north side of Papua New Guinea — where they’d go months without seeing another cruising boat. I’d thought them rather bold.

Vicki found herself living aboard because she “fell in love with a man who loves the sea,” but she herself grew up with little connection to it, learning to swim late in childhood, tasting saltwater the first time at 20, and only enjoying her first snorkel in St. Thomas at 33. When Jim’s dream for a circumnavigation took shape, the original idea was she would fly to join him as she wished, but, when crew plans fell apart, she ended up aboard fulltime.

At first, Vicki did not think she had “IT”. To her IT was “confidence to begin something you have never done before.” In my years as a scuba instructor, I ran into this self-doubt over and over. Accustomed as we become as adults to a known world, we simply forget the feel of uncertainty, the bio-chemical janglings of the “yellow alert” our bodies broadcast when we address the unknown.

With anxious dive students, I preached my zone theory in which the picket fence surrounding our comfort zone is itself surrounded by the thrill zone. When we step beyond the fence, adrenalin pumps, our hearts beat faster and our stomachs flutter as our nervous systems shout, “WAKE UP AND PAY ATTENTION HERE!” Is this remotely an inappropriate reaction the first times we plunge beneath the sea, lose sight of land on the horizon, point the bow at new latitudes, or sail into the black of a night passage? Hardly! Even now, after twenty years of living on the water, I continue to feel that shiver of yellow alert whenever I head somewhere new. But with the success of each foray into the thrill zone, our comfort zones expand. Over the years, cruisers can end up with some pretty big comfort zones!

On the other hand, some people mistake the yellow alert of the thrill zone for the red alarms of the panic zone, which lurks out there for all of us. Bold young folk may doubt its existence, because they have yet to touch it, but, as years go by and life gives us occasion to recognize our mortality, our thrill zone narrows, sometimes so much that it seems easier to leave closed that picket gate.

You simply cannot be a cruiser and leave that gate closed. But there is no rule that you have to dash through. The key is to go forth at a pace appropriate to you. For nervous cruisers this means starting slowly, growing prudently. Expand daysails to multi-day sails, push to a few passages out of sight of land, and then, when you feel good about those and the forecast is good, add an overnight. If dawn comes and you think to yourself, “I never want to do THAT again!” then the cruising life may not be for you. But if you find yourself thinking proudly, “Holy cow, we did it!”… keep right on sailing.

Kathy B. of Sunflower sent me an insight on this: Given that the physiological responses for fear and excitement are virtually the same, how you talk about those feelings can color your actual reaction, i.e. if you speak of fear, you feel frightened; if you spin it as excitement, your emotions can be persuaded! The Latitudes & Attitudes store has shirts that proclaim “Attitude: the Difference Between Ordeal and Adventure.” Wear one and feel brave!

“I remember the moment I learned to stay calm,” Vicki wrote. “We’d been running south from Hurricane Lenny for two days, but it seemed like he was chasing us. We’d had 40-50 knot squalls and zero visibility repeatedly. Then the lightening started. I prayed aloud ‘Please, God, not lightening.’ Jim called to me to stay calm, and suddenly it became clear that my natural reaction — to crank up the emotions to full-blown panic — was pointless. We just had to deal with it. Within an hour we were in a safe harbor with two anchors set. We’d faced disaster and succeeded in keeping ourselves safe!”

Vicki’s letter to me concluded with these words: “Who can be sure ahead of time if the cruising life is going to be right for them? Those who decide not to go must know themselves well enough to realize they don’t want to be tested in unpredictable circumstances. There! I think that I’ve found the crux of the matter. In order to have IT, you must be willing to be tested, to be challenged, to face the unknown with a bit of bravado….. Gee, Gwen, maybe I’ve had IT all along!”

Contributing Admirals: Vicki Juvrud, Firebird; Kathy Blanding, Sunflower; and others.

This article was published in the February 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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