A gift of calm in mid-ocean gives cruiser confidence to undertake new ventures

By Joy Smith
For Points East

For over 20 years I had been fully content with the fun aspects of boating – summer island hopping, cocktail parties on the dock – but my husband wanted more. He had every man’s dream of sailing offshore. I always managed to skillfully dissuade him whenever he suggested we try an overnight sail. The truth was I didn’t want to do serious sailing because I was afraid of it. Whenever someone talked about sailing on the open ocean, I became wide-eyed, envisioning waves bigger than buildings and wind gusts higher than my age. Reading books like “The Perfect Storm” and magazines stuffed with offshore survival tales fueled my fears. Dealing with our New England coastal nastiness – tide rips, fog banks, and thunderstorms – was enough for me to handle.

A few summers ago, we traded our 38-foot sailboat, Joy of Summer, for a new Freedom 45, Joy for all Seasons. The catch? This was the boat we would use beyond summer and take offshore. Joy for All Seasons certainly fulfilled my fantasies of a bed I could walk around and sleep in without banging body parts, storage enough for a summer’s worth of clothes, and a galley that begged me to make homemade pasta sauce. It wasn’t until my husband started spending big bucks on heavy-duty survival gear and upgrading our boat’s seaworthiness that I knew he meant to fulfill his fantasies as well. I felt cornered, and finally blurted out I couldn’t do it.

He was a good sport about it and set off for the British Virgins with friends in the fall. Waving a teary goodbye from the safety of our dock, I watched our boat drop out of sight, afraid for him, yet relieved I didn’t have to go. The Joy For All Seasons crew arrived ahead of schedule (no one had even gotten seasick) and I flew in to greet them, an outcast from what had become an intimate group. I should have been euphoric because we each got what we wanted. He wanted to go offshore, and I didn’t have to join him. But I was depressed. Let down. I couldn’t shake the feeling I had missed a great experience, and shame about my fear weighed on me.

It took me until spring to realize my fear was not about the ocean or its conditions, but about me. I worried about getting seasick, spending the trip belowdecks curled into the fetal position; about handling the watch system; and getting sunburn, freckles, and greasy hair. I worried about a lot of inane things, all of which added up to “what If I couldn’t cut it?” How ridiculous it all suddenly seemed. I needed to set all that aside and, love it or hate it, lay my fears to rest. I signed on for our return trip home, but only as far as Bermuda. I wasn’t gutsy enough to tackle the Gulf Stream leg. My husband acted like an excited kid, promising me the easiest watch and no responsibility. I could go as cargo if I wished.

So here I am, taking over my 6 a.m. watch on our second day out, and not believing this absolutely stunning calm. We would spend five windless days motoring, filling our time fishing, reading, cooking, and mostly eating until the wind picks up and blows us into St George’s Harbor. Safe, exhausted from doing nothing, fulfilled and lucky.

All this calm was a gift, I know. The angry seas and capricious weather I’ve read about and feared are only hibernating, waiting to catch us on another trip. Right now, though, all that matters is I did it. I found out what it was like being offshore, and that I can handle it. I’m not afraid anymore. In fact, I feel rather a fool for having put it off so long.

Joy Smith is the author of “The Perfect First Mate: A Woman’s Guide to Recreational Boating,” published by Sheridan House Inc. She lives in Glastonbury, Conn.