Recently, in the midst of teeth grinding fear I realised it was not the event itself causing my sleepless nights it was the lead up to it. It was the ‘what ifs’ that stirred up those little fear gremlins into a frenzy.
I know this because during the event as we surfed down waves at twenty knots in the blackest of black nights, I spread my arms and felt like I was flying. I loved it!
I’m not scared! I should be scared.
I pondered that for a moment as the boat whooshed forward.
Well, you are a maritime trainer with many miles of commercial and recreational boating under your belt, you know you are in safe water, and you are with an incredible skipper and super strong boat, you’ve rescued many boats in much worse conditions than this as a Rescue Skipper.
I reflected on that. We do get caught up with in the what ifs, don’t we? Well, I know I do. The myriad of thoughts helped me grow in so many different ways.
To delve into the peaks and troughs of the fears, let me start at the beginning.
‘Will you do the Melbourne to Hobart Race with me?’
This question came at a funny time as I was right in the middle of recording a podcast on FEAR.
‘I haven’t sailed for three years,’ I said, ‘No! It’s longer than that!’
I was chatting with Lisa Blair, world record holder for circumnavigating Antarctica single-handed which included a dismasting! Lisa Blair, world record holder for circumnavigating Australia single-handed… Lisa Blair is asking me to be her co-skipper!
‘You know I have only cruised bare-foot and only operated commercial motor boats. I’ve never raced before!” My voice rose as I visualised the real and imagined horrors of the Southern Ocean.
‘It’s informal, fun and a small fleet,’ Lisa laughed.
With my stomach apparently trying to vault over my lungs I staggered back to the caravan (we’re currently building and living in a shitty caravan). I had a stinking cold, my head ached as if stuffed full of cotton wool and everything hurt. Shit, I thought, I can barely walk, how am I going to sail?
‘Am I capable enough?’ I asked Noel
‘Of course! Tell me about the race.’
I read the first line of the event, ‘Arguably the toughest race in Australia.’
The trajectory of Noel’s coffee from his mouth was quite something. His body shook with mirth.
‘Oh hysterical,’ I frowned, ‘thank you very much, I think I have my answer.’
Noel managed to pull himself together, wipe the floor, his mouth, and eyes. I noticed his body still shook with a silent giggle.
‘Of course you can do this, you are brilliant on a boat, you always do what needs to be done.’
The Different Forms of Fear
Later, while ignoring my body organs re-arranging themselves, I pondered, so what am I fearful of?
The weather? Well it can be unpleasant, it can be crappy, it can make you wish you were anywhere else in the world except on a bloody boat. I know this – I can deal with it – I won’t like it but I can deal with it.
Noel and I chatted while I made my decision. And my fear came down to letting people down.
‘What if I cock up?’
How Noel knew this quite so certainly, I am not sure.
But that was my biggest worry – with not racing before and being out of practice, I was terrified of messing it up and letting Lisa down.
‘I don’t like being near other boats!’
‘There’s plenty of room in Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean,’ Noel giggled, I am sure he muttered something about few are silly enough venture down the west coast of Tassie.
‘I have nothing to wear, no boating stuff at all!’
‘I should launch my training videos before then!’
‘I need SisterShip merchandise – there’s not enough time!’
Meanwhile Lisa encouraged me to join her on the delivery from Sydney to Melbourne. It was perfect training time.
‘I am not fit enough.’
‘I’m 50 next year!’
‘I have a cold.’
‘And BTW I haven’t sailed long distance for OVER SIX YEARS!’
Over the next two days my cold travelled down to my chest and I coughed and whimpered – walking to the bathroom was still an effort.
But the thought of an ocean race with Lisa, creating a record, carrying a message, and facing a challenge was too much – if it scares me and excites me then I must do it!
The fitness campaign began. I wheezed up and down hills wondering who was running a motor; realising the noise was my grating chest as I gasped for air.
I purchased thermals, gloves, and seasick tablets. I arranged flights, courses, Sailing Memberships. Had I made the right decision? There was barely time to think about it – except at night.
I flipped from excitement and visions of smooth water, slicing through the waves ahead of all the fleet, enjoying a thoroughbred race boat instead of a heavy displacement ocean cruiser, and teaming up with Lisa for a successful voyage. Then the other part of me realised the battle that lay ahead – we traverse the Southern Ocean, on the WEST side of Tasmania, not the comparatively easy east side. We’ll have a lee shore, reefs, notoriously fickle and changeable weather – what the fuck was I thinking! I hadn’t done a decent sail for over six years and I’m a laidback cruiser! It’s nothing like racing. Crossing oceans Noel and I could think about jibing for hours, sometimes days before we did it! That wasn’t going to cut it in a race.
‘It’s going to be a great adventure, you may not enjoy all of it – but an adventure it will be!’ Noel said. The next minute though, he’d laugh hysterically, shake his head and mutter, ‘the bloody Southern Ocean,’ and walk off shaking his head.
Keep positive Jack. I berated myself through one night and awoke feeling buoyant and excited. It was time to buck up!
Suddenly I was in Sydney sitting onboard Climate Action Now. Where are the cushions? I wondered. I quickly reminded myself I was here to race not partake in a leisurely cruise.
When underway the boat made complete sense, it’s built and set up to race not lie back enjoying seeing the world at deck level. The more miles behind us, the more I fell in love with the boat and the unfamiliar set up.
Lisa had completed the Lioness’s share of the work already – beneath two days of sweltering heat and smoke we finished the preparations.
As we untied the lines and puttered into the most magnificent harbour in the world everything felt right. I felt great.
We hauled sail and headed south. In the cockpit I glared at the forty lines. Set up for single-handing meant that forty critical, loaded lines were in one place. I glared at the array of colour. How on earth am I going to figure that lot out?
Forty. Of. Them!
During the cruise down the coast I quickly learned I was not boat-fit. Boat-fit is quite different to being fit. (Although being fit helps). I tripped and caught my feet on everything. I felt old, clumsy, useless. Frustration engulfed me.
That night, on watch I learned. I studied, traced, pulled, pushed, I memorized, and moved around the boat. I cajoled my body back in to the swing of boat life. The following day was better. And the delivery was fun.
We motored into Melbourne, tying up at 2am. Sitting beneath towering, sleeping apartments sipping a cool beer our faces glowed with a successful voyage. We had faced forty knot head winds in Bass Strait, but we worked together and enjoyed the experience. I still had much to learn about the boat and racing, but it was starting to feel possible. Those headwinds were perfect training. Those two beers were two of the best I’ve ever had.
The conveyor belt of race-ready took off. I flew home for one night before flying to Sydney for a Sea Survival course. As a maritime teacher, my sea Survival ticket lasts a lifetime, but I didn’t have the ‘racing/sailing’ element. Regular training is important, and this Sea Survival course carried an emphasis on sailboats. Terry and his team and Pacific Sailing School were terrific! Supporting our quest and delivering fine training.
With First Aid updated as well, I flew back to Melbourne on Christmas Eve where Lisa and I spent Christmas day Passage Planning and finishing last minute jobs.
Women Who Sail Australia
The connections and support from Women Who Sail Australia constantly amaze me. With over four thousand members, it’s quite likely several members will be in the same port. Our WWSA member, in the same place, was an angel from heaven, in the form of Mary-anne Raven.
We were in Melbourne prior to meeting up with the WWSA team taking up the Cock of the Bay Race on Boxing Day (the day before the Melbourne to Hobart Race). Luckily for Lisa and me that Mary-anne was there too.
“We are across the harbour come for dinner!”
Christmas had, so far, sat firmly on the sidelines, together with my Boxing Day birthday. After Mary-anne’s invite, warm smiles, mouth-watering smells, and welcoming faces greeted us into the Yacht Club lounge. That evening Lisa and I became extended family of Mary-anne and Andrew’s family. Laughter, support, fun and delicious food (and one beer each and an early night!) was perfect. I love Christmas, togetherness, relaxing, indulging, so I was missing Noel even more at this point (we usually do everything together!) Mary-anne and her family were a wonderful gift and I have a new friendship that’s special.
My First Race!
Boxing Day morning and eight women from Women Who Sail Australia joined us for the Cock of the Bay. What a blast! Ten fantastic women – all with differing experience, all with open minds and hearts – laughter, learning, camaraderie, and more new friends.
The day flew and too soon we were saying farewell, the crews faces reflecting a contented exhaustion. Flashes of pity crossed some faces as we hugged goodbye, “We are so tired how on earth can you face another race tomorrow!”
I was wondering that myself.
My First Ocean Race!
The following morning after many media interviews it was time to go. No time for nerves – in fact after a morning of interviews we were both more than ready. ‘Let’s just get on with it!’
With great skill Lisa maneouvred her boat as we tacked, watched, waited, and smiled and waved at all the boats vying for the best start. It was a thrill! The sun shone, the breeze was steady – we continued to watch the weather, we’d completed the passage planning, discussed tactics, MOB, communication, sleep, safety.
Suddenly the fleet were flying towards Bass Strait, slicing through the water with white waves flowing by our bows, then we all stopped. Becalmed.
‘I don’t like it when you watch me.’ Lisa knows her boat intimately, as she should after nine years of racing on her. Adjusting a line is immediate, swift. Whereas I work through forty before I find the right one! I can feel her watch me. She doesn’t judge and she didn’t give me a hard time (except once, when I yelled back, ‘that’s the definition of a split second!’) – we both laughed!
But I realized I didn’t like someone who was more adept on the boat watching me so closely and all the new information was overwhelming.
I hadn’t felt like this for a long time. Suddenly I had an affinity with middle-aged women, after all I was one! The emotional effects of self-inflicted pressure, learning something new, coping with a female body at a certain age (and all the forgetfulness that brings – what is it with that?!)
As I broached the issue, Lisa was saying how she noticed the same thing. It was a night watch where I tweaked the sails, fiddled, played, got more and then less out of the boat but learned so much. I wasn’t watched, I felt no pressure, I began to shine and got on with sailing this amazing machine.
With five days of a mixed bag of everything from hushed becalmed days to a wave crashing storm, to gusting headwinds on the final stretch up the Derwent River, we made it.
The fishing boat that laid buoys out around us when becalmed was forgotten, (after Lisa explained to the skipper we were in a race and couldn’t manoeuvre!), the shattered block in a storm as the bow dipped and crashed, the teamwork, the sleepless nights, the new friendship, the reawakening of my sailing senses. The Record! We’d done it all.
Setting a New Record
We are the first double-handed all female team to complete the Westcoaster in the forty-seven years of the race’s history. The fleet was small, the weather mostly kind, but that didn’t lesson the challenge of two women handling a feisty fifty-footer in the stormy Southern Ocean.
This is Me
Not only did I learn a lot from Lisa, but I learned about me. It took some time to kick start this old brain and body back into sailing mode. As Noel said to Lisa, ‘She’s like a cold diesel, takes a while to warm up, but when she does she’ll go forever!’
When we parted with a big friendship hug – she thanked me and told me how well I had done, and that was enough.
The race and time with Lisa has reawakened the passion for sailing. It’s hard with four horses and a home I adore. But when I catch Noel looking at boats for sale, I don’t tut quite so loudly!
1st – Division 123 DH
2nd – Division 123 IRC
3rd – Division 123 PHS
4th – Line honours
Commercial Skipper/Professional Mariner, ex-Marine Rescue Skipper, previous TAFE Maritime Teacher and current Instructor of Professional Level Courses privately (Navigation/E-Charts/Passage Planning/Weather/Intro into Boating). Cert 4 Trainer, Recreational Sailor (ocean sailing around the planet, inland waterways, sailboats and motorboats), Author of Practical Maritime Books/Pilot Books/Memoirs/Articles, Speaker at Nautical and Book Events.
Australian adventurer, keynote speaker, and multi-world record holding sailor