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Old 08-07-2009, 03:22 AM   #1
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I wrote this many years ago, and it's on sv Watermelon's logs, but I'd like to repost it here, and add some new thoughts.

WOMEN AT THE HELM

[One women's journey to becoming an equal partner in this cruising life]

For my part, I know that I was full of anxiety when we first started sailing. It was only after talking with other women that I could understand some of the reasons for my nervousness and fears, and that I wasn’t alone.

One problem I recognized in myself was my difficulty in judging speed and distance on the water. Everything seemed closer than it actually was. I worried about avoiding oncoming boats and took “evasive” action long before it might have become necessary. I was convinced that I was going to run our home up on the rocks, never mind that the rocks I worried about were half a mile away from us and 90 degrees off our course! To an experienced helmsman such as Peter, my worries seemed irrational because he didn’t see things the way I did. To him, that boat over there was at least 10 (or 15) minutes away from us and the person at the helm of that boat surely saw us and wasn’t about to let us collide. Those rocks didn’t even register on his consciousness because they were not in our way. He knew exactly how long it would take to get from Point A to Point B, he knew what our direction was, what the current was doing to us, and how fast we were going. He knew what our boat could do, under sail or under power. And once I realized that I could learn these things myself I could set out a program of learning how to handle the boat better, and thus control my fears.

I played games. When I was at the helm I’d guess at the time it would take for us to pass a landmark on shore, or reach a buoy, or pass an anchored boat - something fixed. I would them time our passage to that point. It always took longer than I had expected, of course. I would calculate how far off I was in my estimate and try again. The exercises helped me judge distances on the water better, and helped ease my anxiety that things were going to happen too fast to control.

Then there was the day that we were backing out of a marina slip and the engine wouldn’t go into forward. Peter deployed everything soft that we had in the cockpit - fenders and boat cushions. They cushioned our contact with the dock, and no harm was done. It may have been frightening to me, but Peter’s no-nonsense handling of the “emergency” quickly calmed me down.

There were all the times we practiced coming up to our mooring under sail. And sailing off our mooring, and sailing onto and off our anchor. We would start our engine but leave it in neutral, which reassured me that if I goofed I could put the boat into gear and get us out of trouble. It took many successful maneuvers before I could be convinced to do it completely under sail, but we were both determined that I learn how to do it and be confident doing it. And with each new skill, other problems also resolved themselves, such as my insistence on anchoring so far our that it took us forever to dinghy into the beach. Once I understood that I could steer us out of harm’s way, and that things looked closer than they were, it became easier to be braver about closing on the beach. Once I learned how to extricate us from a grounding or other problem, the less worrisome that possibility became.

As in so many areas of life, success breeds success. Each time I did something well my confidence increased. We would then play “what if” games and try something new.

Our first offshore passage through a storm was not very frightening because we had already done passages in fine weather which proved to me that I could handle myself and the boat, and the bad weather just proved that our boat could handle the weather. That built up my confidence even more.

That just left the vague fears, the ones I couldn’t express because I wasn’t really sure what they were. Those just eased and disappeared as we cruised and built up experience.

Try this. When you weigh anchor, and are feeling anxious, let your partner take over the helm, and go below and lie down for a while - half an hour, an hour - until your heart rate slows down. You might find that this little trick (Peter calls it my “vapors,” and I still indulge them) calms you down significantly and makes the trip less stressful.

But the best cure for anxiety is experience and competence. Practice in non-threatening situations so that you can trust your judgment, and learn how to navigate, and just about anything else you are worried about so you won't feel powerless or vulnerable should something happen to your partner.

We were all novices at one time. We’ve all had to learn how to handle ourselves and our equipment. All those competent and “fearless” people out there once were fumble-fingered and clumsy and did dumb things.

Jeanne.

Some more thoughts.

When I was first learning to sail I hated a boat's heeling, and would eventually get quite shrill in my anxiety that we were going to tip over. Absurd, my husband would say. And do nothing else.

Maybe it was absurd, but fears and anxieties do not easily yield to reason, and many people have a difficult time calming down sufficiently to figure out how to overcome their fear.

I struggled with this anxiety long after I could easily say that I knew how to sail. What did help was crewing in a yacht race and learning a lot more about sail trim and sailing tactics, and seeing how others handled the boat's movement. And the best advice I heard? In an online discussion of women and their unreasonable sailing fears, one of the men said that the best thing he did was to let his wife handle the sheets. What a great idea; she now had control, she could decide just how much heel she was comfortable with. And that was an "aha!" moment. How wise that man was, and how difficult it was for me to realize that it was my taking control - handling the sheets - that put my anxiety and discomfort at heeling to rest.

Now. What was your "aha!" moment?

J
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Old 08-07-2009, 04:25 AM   #2
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Thank you Jeanne,

A good post with new thoughts.

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Dame Ellen Patricia MacArthur, DBE (born 8 July 1976) is an English sailor from Whatstandwell near Matlock in Derbyshire, now based in Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. She is best known as a solo long-distance yachtswoman. On 7 February 2005 she broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe.

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Old 08-07-2009, 11:59 AM   #3
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WISE!?

spilling wind to reduce heal means luffing ... those poor sails... He should have put her in charge of reefing
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Old 08-07-2009, 03:20 PM   #4
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I think that you're making some incorrect assumptions. *Lots of men think that the greater the heel and the more sail up, the faster the speed, which is not correct. *On a beam or broad reach, for example, easing the sheets and getting her back on her feet can add a knot or more to the boat speed. *Easing the sheets does not necessarily mean luffing, and even luffing does not necessarily mean flogging the sails. *

Peter learned to reef through a humbling experience - a smaller boat came rushing past us one day as we were overwhelmed by the heavy winds putting us on a close reach. *The boat had two reefs in the main! *I was so tired of bracing myself in the cockpit that I insisted that Peter immediately put a couple reefs in the main, and when he did, we picked up about 1.5 knots (maybe more, this is a long, long time ago, BC - before cruising) and the boat sat up and hunkered down and just WENT.

Reefing is a better strategy for cruisers than simply easing the sheets, though in gusty conditions easing the sheets is more sensible if you expect the winds to ease later in the day.

Haven't you ever wondered why all those racing crew are sitting on the windward rail? *To keep the boat as upright as possible while flying as much sail as they can. *I remember one maxi race many years ago when one of the boats requested a layday, which bought them the time they needed to fly in a special crewmember. *He was 300+ pounds and his sole job was to sit on the rail, providing ballast!

I've mentioned Niuatoputapu, Tonga before. *Out of the 8 or so boats that left Pago Pago, American Samoa over the course of two or three days, we made the fastest time, although we were not the largest boat. *We were the only boat that spent only one night at sea, even though we were not the earliest boat to leave in the morning. *Our good showing on that trip was partly because Watermelon is a pretty swift boat, but also because when we really want to make good time we pay attention to sail trim, and reefing is an important strategy in a cruiser's repertoire.
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Old 08-07-2009, 05:19 PM   #5
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Super subject. If more males spent their time wisely there would be far more sailing and a lot less marina berths tied up with water gardens growing.

My friends razz me a lot that my wife does more "skippering" than I. I sailed long before I met my now wife, and understood that if I wanted her to enjoy it as much as I, then I needed to instill a confidence that she could do this without me. Admitted, there are sometimes I would like the helm but would never push the issue unless it was extreme and I felt or for that matter Annette felt the conditions were out of her depth.

As it stands Annette will always ask for advice and sometime even heed that advice, but these days she is confident enough in her abilities to offer her advice. And truth be told, she is often the better sailor of the two of us which leaves me very content as we now sail as partners which allows me to accomodate my "vapors" as you so adequately put it.

Cheers

Robert & Annette

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Old 08-07-2009, 07:09 PM   #6
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While I do hate to see a boat with poorly trimmed sails--luffing about and spilling winds--the idea of having a cautious crew member run the sheets is great--this immediately will let the person at the helm know if they need to consider a different point of sail or putting in a reef in order for crew to be comfortable.

Often times, a boat can be pointing too high for the hull design, heeled over and "looking fast" but really doing nothing more than scaring the crew--since at the higher point of sail, much leeway is being made requiring an additional tack or two just to make the mark.

Finally, about all that heeling--when you look at the loads on the standing rigging with each additional degree of heel, you might want to reduce it! The rig and hardware will all last much longer if kept to a reasonable degree of heel. Your rig will be ready for a brutal storm if you haven't already fatigued it with pointless load ups year-in and year-out. I know a woman who has circumnavigated two or three times and runs a sailing school for women--she won't set up a tack to heel over 15 deg and prefers 10 or less. She puts in a reef, or two. She notes the wear on the rig--and the wear on the people! as reasons to keep things moderate.

I really believe the easiest job on the boat (unless running before a storm or dealing with tricky quartering seas) is that of helmsman (or woman) and if you have an easily frightened partner, it's better to put that person at the helm and get them familiar with working the helm than any other job. They will feel more in control of things, and hopefully become much more confident with the whole sailing experience.

I love sailing and even if I were "stuck" having to spend most my days heeled over and walking on the sides of the boat, I'd do it just to sail! I'm also very lucky in that my husband/sailing partner knows himself and realizes that he has to be considerate of folks around him as he pretty much has no fear himself. Me, on the other hand, I "get my thrills cheap" so to speak. We laugh and he says he wishes he could get his adrenalin rushes as easily as I do

For many years, together, we've participated in lots of slightly risky sports and I do realize that I just have to speak up and communicate what I'm thinking and what I'd like to do to make things more "comfortable" for me to deal with. I was quite the capable daredevil myself until in 1994 I had a spinal injury (C1-C2) that temporarily paralyzed my right side. Since then, I have residual nerve damage (the neurologists are always fascinated during my physicals...I digress) that leaves me with limited sensation in my right foot, a tingling right hand, right side spasticity exacerbated by cold, crappy balance, and interesting things with the sympathetic nervous system...all of the issues are exacerbated by fatigue, too. As such, my primary goal during anything stressful is to remain "unstressed" and thus, I've become pretty expert at evaluating my physical condition and communicating what I can or can't do at a particular time. This can mean that on a given day my balance is more screwed up than usual and I'm having a hard time just walking on a flat sole--much less crawling across the foredeck to deal with a rigging mishap.

Since I usually do understand the physics of what's going on with the sailing, anchoring, etc, I realize that I'm only really frightened if I feel that I will end up in a situation that I physically don't have the strength or coordination to deal with getting out of! When I'm confident in my own ability to deal with something, I am much happier.

In our case, and I think in the general case for others, it all works out with good comm and reasonable ability to modify things to deal with the situation and the real capabilities of all crew onboard No use is pretending that all crew members are capable of doing all the same stuff--it's never that way--we just figure out who can do what and work things that way. Then, of course, we work on building the skills (or physical strength) for each crew member to do more.

Best to all.
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Old 08-07-2009, 07:24 PM   #7
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Reefing is a better strategy for cruisers than simply easing the sheets, though in gusty conditions easing the sheets is more sensible if you expect the winds to ease later in the day.
wait a dog gone minute.. isn't that what I just said... to my mind the only time you should be heeled is on a close reach, so if your easing sheets on that point of sail to reduce heel it's time to put in a reef... if your healed on any other point of sail that's a trim issue ... from the context of the discussion I would assume the sheets are well trimmed for the point of sail and he gives them to his wife to ease her mind... not that the guy can't trim his sails so he lets his wife do it...

as for "lots of men" liking more sale and heel... I've actually never so much as crewed in a race and never intend to... I'm a cruiser at heart... I like short sail and a smoothe ride... drives the racers nuts when they come onboard... on my last crossing it became a running joke, everyday the same girl would come a begging "but I wanna go fast!" ... ... occasionally I'd endulge her by taking out a reef but I'm generally happy puttering along around 5 knots. By the end of trip she was officially "Kelly zoom-zoom"
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Old 08-07-2009, 07:31 PM   #8
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atavist--

It's an unfortunate fact that many guys do think that you have to be heeled over if you're sailing.

It's also true that 8 out of 10 boats I see out on the water are poorly sailed--sheets too tight or too lose for the point of sail. Here in the USA we're a nation of lousy sailors, I've decided. Given that too many guys want to heel and too many sailors don't quite know how to get it right...

No wonder too many women just don't want to be out there sailing!
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Old 08-07-2009, 08:19 PM   #9
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Ok I definitely agree with that ... I'm honestly a bit afraid to go sailing where I am now... just too many bad sailors gybing and out of countrol... and everyone asks me "why don't you ever go sailing?"... I'm like, "I live on the boat, I have no desire to go sail in circles around the bay with a bunch of daysailors who don't know what they're doing" (no offense to any daysailors out there)... now passage making, that's a different story
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Old 08-08-2009, 03:31 AM   #10
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Good post Jeanne

Your experience is similar to that of my wife, Phyllis. Practice and experience will allow us to become more confident in the boat's abilities and limitations as well as our own. There is no substitute for getting hands on practice.

When I am at the helm I know what plans are in my head to maintain the course, sail trim, etc and what to do in the event of an emergency situation, but Phyllis does not know what is in my thoughts(even though she claims she does). Because of this uncertainty she is nervous and keeps pointing out things like heading, sail trim, traffic and wind, etc. We have found that having her at the helm works well because she is in control and knows what she is doing and plans to do.

People are much happier when they are involved. 30 years ago we headed up to Alaska with 4 children for the summer. My wife and I sailed the boat. The kids were difficult and bored. It was not until we wised up and involved them in the sailing of the boat that they took an interest and started to enjoy sailing. They returned home after 5 years in the South Pacific mature, experienced and confident young people.

We have met boat where the wife and children were just passengers. No one seemed to enjoy the experience.

We sail our boat as close to vertical at all times. We are enjoying the sailing not looking for adrenaline rushes.

Thanks to all for sharing your ideas and experiences.

Gary

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Old 08-08-2009, 11:15 AM   #11
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Thank you, Gary. *You bring up another thought; sharing.

When we were cruising in the Caribbean we spent the winter high season, from January through April, living in our apartment in St. Martin and doing day sails and taking out fellow owners of apartments in the building and friends who came down for their vacation. *Some people would not touch a line, wanting only the pleasure of sitting back and letting others do the work. *Some were being dragged along by their spouse or partner, not sure if they were going to enjoy this experience at all. *I gladly surrendered the helm to anyone willing to steer.

Caribbean sailing is a lot of going to weather, and we would always do the hard part to start, bringing our guests back on a lovely run, keeping the mellow mood going. *One day we took out all our condo cronies for the day, among which was the 18-year-old intellectually handicapped son of one of the couples. *As soon as we had slipped our mooring and gotten the sails up, I put him on the wheel, and for the next hour or more he was as happy as could be, steering our "big" boat as his parents calmly looked on. *He just loved it. *His attention was engaged so he wasn't fidgeting and pestering parents or neighbors, and a few of our other guests saw him in a much better light as he steered so competently (with my occasional very quiet hints). *That was one of the most satisfying of our daysails. *
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Old 08-11-2009, 03:41 PM   #12
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- - I would like to make a word distinction - "Sailors" are people who only want the experience of "sailing" a sailboat and really "getting anywhere" is not interesting to them. They want to feel and experience the rush of pushing the sailboat to its limits of speed and ability. And then talking about it over some rum back at the club/bar/whatever.

- - Myself and others are "Cruisers" - the sailboat is a means to a destination. We want to get from here to there and not go broke buying diesel. Our boats are comfortable, sail reasonably well with the mast pointing at the sky instead of the horizon. Besides which with all the "stuff" we have crammed onboard, heeling the boat to get the rail in the water just means a lot of time cleaning up the insides of broken glasses and emptied lockers. Not that trimming to get optimum performance is not rewarding, we still care about efficiency and speed, but not at the expense of comfort or expense of having to buy new standing rigging - not to mention the expense of having to buy replacements for all the broken plates and glasses, etc.

- - On the original subject of Women Sailing - I was a sailing instructor for 15 years and never would (got the advice from my old instructor-instructor) teach males and females at the same time. You cannot get away from the cultural bias taught men and women about who is supposed to be "macho" and who is supposed to be "submissive." (That is rapidly changing in modern society, but still is ingrained deeply into our society). So in mixed gender instruction periods, the women learn a lot less and the males don't learn to sail by the seat of their pants but by a couple of things hanging in between their legs.

- - I felt - and experienced as an instructor - that I was really "getting across" the necessary knowledge and skills a lot better if those issues/biases were left on shore. I always hammered into my students who were wanting to sail with their "better halves" that it is a partnership not a competition. Both halves need to know and gain the skills necessary to operate independent of each other in an emergency or in partnership borne of shared knowledge in good times.

- - Then I found that the distaff side really got/learned to enjoy and appreciate the joys of sailing, their fear and angst was greatly diminished as knowledge and confidence in themselves grew. I firmly believe (with rare exceptions) that operating as a single-hander on a sailboat with a spouse/significant-other on board will quickly result in actually being a real single-hander with nobody on board to share the joys and tears of cruising.
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Old 08-12-2009, 11:03 PM   #13
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- - I would like to make a word distinction - "Sailors" are people who only want the experience of "sailing" a sailboat and really "getting anywhere" is not interesting to them....

- - Myself and others are "Cruisers" - the sailboat is a means to a destination.
hmm.... while I agree with the logic of this statement I disagree with it fundamentally...

I was in the Marines for near a decade and spent a lot of time at sea on Navy ships, after that I went and got my 200 ton Ocean Yachtmaster, I then worked as a delivery skipper and ran a few odd charters.... only after that did I buy a boat and spend a lot of time gunkholing... am I a "cruiser"?... yeah sure... I'm a "cruiser" as apposed to a "racer"... but in my own mind I am most difinitively a "sailor"... my life is inexhorably tied to the sea, it is my life in many respects and provides me both the wind that turns my genny and most of the meat that sits on my plate... as "sailors" from eons before, my ultimate intent is to live and die at sea and see as many places in between as possible.....

what does that make the others?... the hobbyist? .... I prefer "day-sailor" .... or we could always go with the more condescending "yuppy yachty" (any present company of course excluded )
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Old 08-12-2009, 11:31 PM   #14
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hmm.... while I agree with the logic of this statement I disagree with it fundamentally...
We love the sea and we love sailing. And, we love voyaging. The trip itself is the excitement and fun--yes, of course, the places at the end of the voyage are lovely...but they're not really the point. When I picked up Annie Hill's book on Voyaging on a Small Income--it hit me that I consider myself a Voyager NOT a cruiser. Many people dream of "cruising" and dream of visiting exotic locations..sitting at anchor...drinking...relaxing..etc. They look upon their sailboat as inexpensive means of getting from destination to destination--many of them would use a power boat if they just had the money to do so. Oh, not me. Enjoying my boat, the sailing, the wind, and the sea--THAT's what it's all about for me.

I hope that other women sailors will find that they love their boat, sailing, and voyaging as I do...I also hope that they can agree with the following quote from L. Francis Herreshoff:

"The cabin of a small yacht is truly a wonderful thing; not only will it shelter you from a tempest, but from the other troubles in life, it is a safe retreat."
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