Jan 082012

I just came across this beautiful little piece entitled Cape Horn to Starboard, by Lin Pardey, who has been sailing around the world with her husband Larry for decades.

I continue to feel encouraged by reading of other very experienced sailors’ expressions of fear and worry about their adventures. It’s been easy at times to wonder whether I’m “cut out for this”, after experiencing extreme anxiety during rough weather at sea.

At the beginning of my season sailing up in the Channel Islands of California last year, we ran into a pretty decent gale with a dozen and a half 15 year old’s on board. In all honesty, I can’t really say how bad of a storm it was. The important part was that it was the worst weather I’d seen, and my first real experience of having to respond to the cascade of events that often accompanies rough weather. When we finally got home after spending over 12 hours in this gale (a relatively short time, in retrospect), I called up Angus for some serious life advice: was pursuing this career really the right choice for me?

This is a shot of Yellowbanks, the anchorage we chose to wait out our gale, just hours before it hit.

Angus’ efforts to bolster my confidence were varied: he listened sympathetically to my rambling, repetitive play-by-play; he told me he thought I’d be fine; he challenged me to tell him I wasn’t tough enough; finally he told me I needed to shut up and stop being a baby. And yet I whined. The sentence that shook me back to my senses was: “Katz, you’re more passionate about this than anything else in your life. You owe it to yourself to just give it another try.” So I did.

As I read more essays and books by life-long adventurers, I realize that fear and anxiety just go with the territory. It’s pretty normal, and actually, I think that’s a big part of why we do it. So in a way my crazy compulsion to chase after something that strikes fear in my heart is what makes me a member of the tribe. The only thing that determines whether or not I’m “cut out” for this lifestyle is…my own choice to go after it, or not.

Dec 282011

You might not expect it, observing my lifestyle, but I get afraid.

Semuc Champey, the most beautiful spot in Guatemala. We lounged too long, missed our bus and walked a good portion of the 5 miles through the mountains back to camp in the dark.

In the fall of 2009, I stepped onto an airplane bound for Guatemala for 10 weeks. I was alone, spoke only guide book Spanish, and the last time I’d traveled internationally was 10 years prior with my Dad to France. The young woman sitting behind me on the Boston-Miami leg was from Guatemala City. When I told her my plans, her eyes widened. “You do know that Guatemala City is the most dangerous city in Central America right now?” Hm, no, I didn’t.

In the time between having that conversation and getting in line to board the Miami-Guate leg, I was able to think some. There were a couple of rational thoughts in my head like “Maybe it’s not such a good idea to go to such a dangerous place alone and inexperienced,” and “This is a trip you’ve wanted to take for five years, that you’ve prepared for for three months, and you’re IN the airport right now.” Those were the two rational thoughts. The rest of the great, swirling cloud in my head was pure, unrefined, annoyingly loud fear.

Guatemala's cities and towns are beautiful, but travel between them is treacherous. Buses and trucks speed down 1.5 lane, cliff-edged mountain roads. Bus accidents average 1 per week.

And I will tell you that as I stood in line to board that airplane, knowing that once I got on I was committing to a three-month roller-coaster ride from which I could not escape, I came very close to quietly stepping out of line and walking away. What kept me in line? Well, I am apparently more afraid of having to explain such a decision to my family and friends than I am of a sudden drastic increase in the likelihood of my demise.

I did a lot of wonderful traveling while I was in Guate, but the Miami airport turned out to be just the first of many fear-gripped, prayer-filled moments. And it seems I have become a bit of an addict. In 2010, I left home for lonely California, devoid of friends and normal people, to work on a tall-ship in the Channel Islands, the roughest, most weather-prone section of Southern California’s coast. I will tell the story another time of getting caught in a gale off the coast of Santa Cruz island, dragging anchor for two miles, and finally motoring through the night in 15-20 foot seas and 35 knots of wind. Oh yes, I was afraid then too.

Mayan Ruins at Tikal, the last stop on my trip. 12 hours later I was stranded on a broken-down bus on the side of the road wondering if I'd make it to Guate in time for my morning flight.

I continue to do things that cause me uncomfortable amounts of fear (hello Tasman Sea), but I’m getting better at managing it. Because in reality, fear is just a distraction competing for attention. Like any distraction, the way to handle it is to acknowledge it, evaluate it, and move forward. The bravest people in the world aren’t immune to fear; they are prone to it, but they face it, and continue on.