Family Magazine

Finding Confidence Cruising

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem

another postcard

It’s a long journey from the midwestern shore where a kid uncertainly pushed her Sunfish out into the lake, to this beautiful beach of powdery sand and turquoise water in the Bahamas.

Back then I wondered if I’d later be able to steer the boat back to point where I launched. Today I find satisfaction in knowing that I am both capable handling Totem and also have a tremendous amount to improve. Getting to that place of confidence in fundamental capabilities relieves stress and quells fears; knowing that there remain endless opportunities to learn is a joy of cruising.

San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress

San Francisco, 1970. No skills yet, but togged in a sweet sailor dress

pinterest confidenceIt is a journey to find that confidence. Looking back over some decades at that uncertain teen on a Michigan beach, there isn’t any single turning point but a progression of experiences that describe it.

It helped, and it didn’t, that my partner in this adventure is an accomplished sailor. Jamie has been on boats since he could walk and raced at a professional level. On one hand, his skill gave me the space to grow my own capabilities without shouldering the responsibility of ownership for our safety. On the other hand, it makes it easy to cede responsibility to him instead of tackling things I should learn. And hten, it can sometimes be tricky to learn from those you are closest to!

The antidote for insecurity is knowledge and experience, but the best way to acquire them varies: it depends on how you learn and what your opportunities are.

Time on the water

When Jamie and I work with coaching clients who need to build skills, one of the first tactics we suggest is to get involved in casual racing on a smaller boat. It typically costs nothing more than time, and will surround a learner the proper terms while drilling in tasks that make a better cruising sailor. Small-boat sailing is also an excellent way to internalize the fundamentals of bigger-boat handling; and the afternoons I spent learning how to steer that Sunfish with my foot from a prone position (the better to ponder life… or work on my tan) were better training than I allowed myself credit for at the time. Racing dinghies in college later steeped me in terminology, rigging basics, efficiently routing from A to B, internalizing that flat is fast and the telltale dance that is good trim. I’m not exactly a cutthroat competitor (anyone who knows me well is giggling right now), but this transition from lazy day sailing to team competition ignited my passion for sailing in unanticipated ways.

Celebrating Siobhan's birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock

Celebrating Siobhan’s birthday in Staniel Cay this week, with ice cream at the dock

Judgement-free learning

Among the best preparation in my path was a week-plus of sail training with an all-woman crew cruising the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea. We studied, discussed, and practiced everything from rules of the road to sail selection to self-steering, radar use, docking, anchoring, and more as needed – it was as if we had embarked on a cruising journey already. In an open learning environment, I was gently guided, allowed to make (and learn from) mistakes, and ask as many questions as I wanted without feeling any of them might be ‘dumb.’ My experience was with two-time circumnavigator Nancy Erley of Tethys Offshore in the Pacific Northwest; chief among other programs I’d reach for is the east-coast-based Morse Alpha Expeditions led by Ben & Teresa Carey.

Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?!

Another kind of confidence: shark selfies?! Our anchorage companion this week

A good book

Kinesthetic learning is essential, and some studying can’t be avoided. One of the best ‘books’ in my journey isn’t in any store. Before we started cruising on Totem, we had a 35’ Hallberg Rassy—Mau Ke Mana—as our training wheels for cruising skills in Puget Sound. Like too many Americans we crammed our summer holiday in a few long weekends and a stolen getaway week. To extend our range afloat, we made an arrangement with trusted friends: we’d sail the boat north up through the San Juans and to the Canadian Gulf Islands and expend all our vacation days in one direction; they’d drive up to meet us, we’d trade vehicles, and they’d sail down for their summer escape while we hustled south in the car to jobs and daycare. Every boat has idiosyncrasies, and boats set up for cruising have more complex systems than the typical daysailer. To help our friends take over Mau Ke Mana, Jamie created “The Boat Book” as an orientation to her quirks and equipment—a mix of how-to and maintenance schedule in one. I was the unexpected beneficiary, as this basic orientation guided my initial learning process in cruising systems stepped through the particular equipment and oddities of our boat.

Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds

Sharing sundowner snacks with curious birds

For more readily available material to purchase, there’s not a prettier or simpler way to learn the basics of sailing than Jan Adkins’ Craft of Sail (thank you to Teresa & Ben for reminding me of this beautiful book: I was given a copy years ago and the pages were well thumbed). Another is Chapman’s Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling: I’ve never quite gotten over the fact that a family friend, who I’d been sailing with many times, passed me over and gifted a copy to my younger brother (uninterested in sailing, but The Boy) years ago. Our edition stems from Jamie’s teen years, but is perfectly applicable today. If it’s resources to plan cruising you’re after, there is none better than Beth Leonard’s The Voyager’s Handbook. For more ideas, we’ve curated a list of recommended reading in a number of categories.

Racing, training, reading: ultimately it’s whatever works for you to learn. Situations that facilitate learning for some may inhibit learning for others. All-women’s courses were a gift for me, as was racing. Sailing schools, passage, training, there are a myriad of options.

What does it take to gain confidence?

How long is a piece of string? While was confidence in my sailing skills I was after initially, it was the freedom of sailing that has brought a greater confidence to my person.

Sea trial for Totem's purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007

Sea trial for Totem’s purchase; San Francisco Bay, 2007, with Jim Jessie

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to spend two days with a room full of women who plan to go cruising. They’d signed up for the 2-day Cruising Women seminars I delivered with Pam Wall as part of “Cruisers U” at the Annapolis Boat Show. Talking through their reasons for participating, I saw myself in so many stories and faces: I remember what it was like getting ready for this massive change in our lives. Excitement about the future, but trepidation about the realities. My mind too once swirled with what-if worries, uncertainty about my own capabilities, and wondering if we’d be able to pull it off.

In truth, I’ve failed to appreciate when this confidence settled in, but on the heels of Cruising Women I’ve had another opportunity to appreciate that strength week. Jamie’s not on Totem right now, an unusual scenario.

on the tarmac

He’s flying to a few Caribbean ports to give practical evaluations for coaching clients to boats they have under contract. So for at least a week and a half, it’s just me and the kids, keeping up with… well, everything.

Beautiful islands below

None of it is a big deal: just keeping up with everyday life on board, but it made me realize how much I count on his relative depth of experience in arenas where I’m not used to flying solo, whether managing voltage on board in the delicate dance to balance incoming power with draws from the watermaker and refrigeration and screens. Moving Totem to anchor in a new spot based on our needs. Staying mindful of the weather forecast and what it may hold: if we’ll be fine in this pretty curve of bay, or need to move for shelter from a shifting breeze. And it’s fine. I’m fine. When did this happen? I can’t say, but wouldn’t recognize this in myself even just a few years ago.

Finding Confidence Cruising

Heading back to Totem after an ice cream / garbage run to “town.”

In the subtle gilt trim of the Naval Academy conference room in Annapolis, I wanted every woman in the seminar to internalize that she too has this confidence and capability entirely in her reach, but how to fit that into words? So Pam and I gave our best effort to shed light into dark spaces where niggling worries fester and scare them off. Offered points to follow and place to seek information and resources. Provided tangible skills in basic knots, coiling and heaving a line. Reinforced that physical size or strength is not a detriment: it is simply an issue to address mechanical advantage. And ultimately, I hope, communicated through personal experience that it’s possible to go from that person who wondered if she’d get her little 14’ dinghy back again into an adventurous cruiser with undreamed of stories to tell.

Late 1980s - in front of the family cottage in Pointe aux Barques, Michigan

Late 1980s, Pointe aux Barques, Michigan


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