Sailing, and how to stop being afraid

When you are new to sailing and in the middle of the Atlantic on a 43ft boat, there is a lot to be worried about. What if the weather changes or what if there is a storm? I am alone on my watch…what if something goes wrong, what if I fall in, what if we hit a sleeping whale? You get the picture.

I was fairly new to sailing when we left harbour in Cape Verde to head towards Barbados. A whole ocean, over 2000 nm and 2 weeks of sailing lay ahead of us. In the beginning I spent a lot of time being scared, especially during the night when we’d be on shift alone, being responsible for the boat and everything and everyone on it. That was until I realised how much my worrying was getting in the way of enjoying my adventure.

My Personal Challenge:

It was 2 AM and time to get ready. I rolled out of bed, holding on to the wall of my cabin with one hand while clumsily putting on my rough weather gear and life vest with the other. I went up to the cockpit where I was greeted by Ellie, one of the other crew members. She gave me a quick rundown of her shift and went to sleep. I checked the logbook and switched off the auto-pilot. Something I really struggled at was helming, partly because of my nerves. But I knew that if I didn't practice, I would never overcome this fear.

Instead of letting my anxieties take over, I devised a little motto for my trip:

“Don’t let fear or my own self-limiting beliefs stop me from doing the things I want to do.”

I spent many of my first solo night watches being scared. Scared of a gust, scared of a big wave, scared of steering the boat the wrong way. Eventually I had to overcome that fear and trust myself, the boat and the crew. I accepted that there were a lot of things I could not control, both in the sea and in my own life. Instead I could prepare, be attentive and deal with whatever came my way. I was going to be fine.

As I started to worry less, I could appreciate more. The beauty of the sea, the energy of the waves, the miracle of seeing dolphins swim next to the boat at midnight under a full moon and much more.

“You Are So Brave” – Am I Though?

I’ve never considered myself to be very brave. In fact, I think of myself as being pretty ordinary.

The idea of sailing across the Atlantic came from a desire to challenge and prove to myself what I was capable of. Before I embarked on my adventure, I was stuck in a job I didn't really like, a sacrifice I was willing to make for something that looked good on my CV. However, I was feeling increasingly trapped and anxious in London and felt very out of touch with myself and what I wanted to achieve. This constant self-doubt led me to drift through life, never really being sure if what I was doing was actually what I wanted to do. I felt like I needed to achieve something outside of my work to finally make me stop second-guessing myself so much.

I knew I wanted to travel and grow as a person in ways I couldn’t do in the comfort of my home. I decided to quit my job, move back home, save money and sail to South America where I wanted to travel for as long as possible.

When I announced my plans to friends and family, lots of people called me “brave”. This was usually followed by concerns about women travelling alone in foreign countries. I wonder what a man my age would be told if he had the same plans. It would probably be more along the lines of “awesome, dude”.

As a woman, I have always been told that it’s best to know my place and minimise my expectations. I was tired of that. I knew that if I wanted to change the way I was living I had to do something big to convince people (mostly myself) that the limitations I thought controlled my life were ones I had been conditioned to believe.

Riding the Wave

It took us 12 days to sail from Fogo in Cape Verde to Barbados in the Caribbean. I learned a lot, both about sailing and about myself. I started to realise just how much I was capable of when I committed to an idea and most importantly, when I let myself achieve it.

We all have a narrative about ourselves, a story we tell about who we are and what we can do, but with this comes a whole set of self-imposed limitations. Once I allowed myself to think I could sail across an ocean, I did. It was a difficult process to re-learn who I was and what I could achieve, but I travelled for months by myself and I was fine. More than fine, I loved it and am still loving it.

Words and pictures by Mirjam Boss:

Mirjam is currently stuck in Venezuela because of COVID-19. Before that she was travelling to South America by sailboat and in her newfound adventurous spirit has started rock climbing in Colombia. She works as a freelance writer and translator and is originally from Switzerland.

Her sporadically updated Instagram is @mirigoesround and you can find more of Mirjam's adventures on her blog.