Sailing is about Trust

by Jane Miller

Sailing  is about trust.

Who to trust. When to trust. How much to trust. What to do if that trust is broken.

Close to one year ago, we left the dock in Victoria bound for Sidney on the eastern side of Vancouver Island. Off the dock, out the harbor, southeast along the Strait of Juan de Fuca,  and a short jaunt up the east coast.

That was the plan.

The reality was a cockpit slippery with the overflow of diesel from transferring fuel right before we were to disembark, a bilge pump kicking on because a valve had been removed from a pipe in a closet causing water to overflow, a PTSD-induced panic attack when Erik, not fully understanding what I was going through, had me take the wheel.

This was a clarion call to face the fears we had been hiding for months. We lost trust in each other. Erik did not really believe I would make it up to Alaska and back; and my nerves were taut with self-doubt, concern about our seamanship, and panic about the boat.

It has been a year of working through this. Learning, practicing, growing, revising patterns that were not helping, reinforcing those that were. Counseling for PTSD. One more surgery. Healing body, mind, and soul.

Staying alive on a sailboat requires trust. Sails are scary. Life is dangerous. Accidents happen as a matter of course. Weather. Tides. Currents. Time. Distance. Mechanics. Physics. It’s not enough that the pieces –  relationships, people, connections – are there, it’s what you do with them that matters.

The mainsail on Foxy stretches over 60 feet skyward, and combined with the jib covers right around 1,200 square feet. She is 56 feet long at the waterline (where boat meets ocean), with a beam of just 13.5 feet (her width at the widest part). That height and length are balanced by a draft of just 6’ (the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the keel) and ballast of 10,000 pounds (roughly how much the keel weighs).

Six feet balancing 60, resting on a very skinny 56. Hardly seems like enough.

And yet, it is. Believing that is a matter of both physics and trust. This boat is designed not to tip over. She will do exactly as she was designed to do, no matter the conditions. Every time.

Boats like Foxy, “keelboats,” are designed to heel (lean or tip) in the wind. It can be scary, but as I’ve learned, it’s that very heeling that can prevent disaster. As the boat heels, the amount of sail exposed to the wind decreases, and the boat heels less, balancing wind against sail.

A sailor has to know and trust her boat and sails. In high winds and choppy seas, sails have the power to mitigate danger, settle the boat, even outrun weather. Knowing and trusting your boat can be magic.

Trust is not a passive verb. It requires action to start and keep.

Almost one year to the day  after that trip, we were running through our checklist, preparing to cast off.  Erik asked if I wanted to take the boat off the dock. Shocked, I said no, but I would tell him what I would do if I were making the decisions. I was relieved that our plans matched.

He drove us smoothly off the dock while I tended the lines and fenders. I took the wheel and motored us out to the harbor entrance. Then Erik asked me if I wanted to take the wheel while we put up the mainsail or if he should use the autopilot. Without hesitation  I said, “I’ll take the wheel,” not fully realizing that I would have the wheel while we were under sail.

I steered us into the wind. The sail rose to the top of the mast, and … we were sailing. We both  unfurled the jib, something Erik can do by himself, but we worked together this time, and it was wonderful.

It was just one year since we began our nearly disastrous trip to Sydney in these same waters. The wind had been calmer, the seas smoother, but I had been a panicked mess. This time I was nervous, exhilarated, and proud. I trusted the sails. I trusted Erik. I trusted myself.

There’s a point when you’re sailing, when you’ve put the boat in the right relationship to the wind, and the angles of boat, mast, keel, and sail align like the stars. When the boat and the sea are one. It’s happened before. It will happen again.

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