Ben Asks: How do you manage fear?

Fear can be a positive or negative influence in your life. Manage it well and it can guide you to safety. Manage it badly and it can paralyse you and hold you back from achieving your wildest dreams. Overcoming fear usually means staring it right in the face without blinking. It’s not an easy skill to learn, but it’s something you can master….with a little bit of courage.

Jim’s body was limp. The wave had knocked him unconscious after tossing his body like a ragdoll into a piece of deck equipment. The Doctor was at the helm, unable to leave his position, battling with the furious storm. I had to take charge. I was dazed, confused and soaking wet from the 20ft wave that had just crashed over the side of the yacht. Ten days earlier, fear would have prevented me helping my friend. Now though, I had the mental strength to overcome my fear.

I had been chasing a career since a young age. I had a dream and I worked damn hard until I finally made it as a professional test driver. The relentless work ethic had paid off, however I was in need of a break. When a friend of mine invited me to see a start of a yacht race he was competing in, something inside of me said this would be a good weekend away. Little did I know, it would be a life-changing event.

The Solent is a sailing mecca in the south of England. It was also home to the start of the 2011-12 Clipper Round-the-World Yacht Race. A pay-to-play set up where people from all walks of life can become offshore sailors. Racing 12 identical yachts east around the world on a 42,000 mile journey, it’s quite the adventure.

Teams take on Mother Nature in some of the world’s most extreme environments—those even professional sailors find hairy. Working in revolving watches, sailing is a non-stop battle 24 hours a day. The crews of amateurs must come together to form a tightly knit team to survive.

Fast forward two and a bit years to Cape Town, South Africa, this was exactly what I was about to do. The weekend in the Solent had had such an impact on me that I went home that night and immediately signed up for the race. I hadn’t had the money to compete at first. But I had sold my apartment, lived in the cheapest B&Bs I could find and drove an old banger for a year to be able to get my place onboard. 

Now, all those sacrifices had been worth it. We were on the 3rd leg of the journey bound for Albany, Australia. A local priest blessed the boats, as I gave each of my team a hug and wishes for the upcoming journey. I was the watch leader, a seasoned sailor by now and despite bagging four race starts, this one felt completely different. The atmosphere was tense, compounded by the silence of the crew.  A lot of cigarettes were being smoked, even by the non-smokers. To ease my tension I went below deck for one last check of my equipment. My thermal underwear was packed away, my sleeping bag was prepped at the end of my bunk and my foulies were hung in the locker. Foulies, the affectionate name for the wet weather gear we used to protect us from foul weather we experienced at sea.

The challenge that lay ahead was the Southern Ocean. Home to monsterous waves, without land mass to break up the energy, the swells of the Southern Ocean can grow to the size of houses. If there’s enough distance between your vessel and the rest of the fleet, the closest humans are the astronauts in the space station. if you get into trouble, helicopters can’t save you. Out here, there is no help. 

With no real knowledge or experience of such isolation, the anecdotes peppering the pre-race training sessions sounded mythically exciting. The reality would turn out to be truly petrifying. After some experience in the open ocean, I knew it was down to me and my crew to look after one another. My crew was everything to me. 

Under the protective gaze of Table Mountain, Guardian of the Southern Seas—so legend has it — we departed. Always dramatic, the race start saw the boats racing exceptionally close to one another. Although the winds initially were manageable, they started to escalate quickly. As our afternoon watch ended, we knew we had to get some quality rest for the battle we would undoubtedly face that evening.

I awoke to the sound of a menacing wind. It felt like a screaming banshee, outside the hatch and coming to get me. I was wide awake, with the growing fear of impending doom coursing through my body. I took a deep breath and pushed my anxious thoughts aside. I managed to wrestle myself out of my bunk and into my foulies. I took a seat in the galley and awaited my call to duty. 

 “Port Watch, ready!” shouted a crew member from above.

The wind punched me in the face as I came up onto the deck. The icy cold spray of the salty ocean water piercing my face like a thousand needles. It was gusting to over 100 knots now. The sky was dark and brutal; no moon, no stars, just a bleak, horrid darkness smothering us all and making the visibility nightmarish. Then I saw it, high, way high behind the back of the boat, a strange white whisper. It was completely out of place from any normal realm of physics or reality. I couldn’t really figure out what it was until the boat hit the bottom of the wave, juddered. This monster wave picked us up — our little craft, a mere matchstick between the thumb and finger of a giant. The helmer hollered “hold on!”, as we all scrambled to find cover from the ocean wash that drenched the boat from the sky.

I sat in the shallow dug out where usually our feet would be, panic setting in. Shit had suddenly gotten very real. I had to calm my anxiety.

Cowering, eyes wide open, I surveyed the crew around me. They didn’t seem at all fearful, as they faced this futile challenge. My friend nodded an ‘Are you ok?’ gesture, meeting my gaze, his eyes filled with concern. No. No. I was not ok. I scrambled back down the hatch to the relative safety inside. 

Not being able to see the mortal terror on deck felt irrationally comforting. Yet, this brief reprieve gave way to another tsunami of emotion. Flooded with shame, I pulled my hood over my head. Hot tears streamed down my face as my body tried to exorcise the stress. 

The crew’s shift finished. I barely slept during the off-watch. A gulf separated me from the cosy feeling of belonging I had shared with my crew mere hours earlier. Feelings of complete failure set in, as I teetered on the ridge of my mental limitations. My mind was out-of-control, catatrophising all the ways in which the boat could keel over and take us all out—500 miles from any other signs of life. How the hell would I get out of here? I thought back to the lessons learned from my days as a professional test driver – to drive fast, first you start slow.

This is what I had to do, I had to build up slowly. The storm wasn’t going anywhere and we couldn’t just get off the boat. The situation in front of me was one that I had to deal with. By having a new baseline, a new normal, I could start to ACT rather than REACT to the situation. Acting can be considered as a more thoughtful approach to a situation whereas reacting, brings forwards your fight and flight responses.

I went up and faced my fear. I took my position on the helm and lasted about 10 minutes. Jolts of fear racing through my body every time the boat lurched on a wave or I mistimed a correction. I called another crew member, he would take over, I would go down below, reset and find a new normal again . “OK, you can do 10 minutes, just do 15 minutes more” I would say to myself.

Slowly but surely I built up my time behind the wheel increasing my confidence. Confidence in myself being able to complete the task but also the confidence in the boat being able to handle the extreme situations. 

Watch after watch, day after day, my confidence increased. I faced my fear and won.

Another storm entered in the wake of the last. One minute, Jim and I sat singing and joking. The next, I opened my eyes to see that I was face down on the ground. A rogue monster wave had hit the boat broadside from behind and caught the helmer completely off guard. Dazed, I looked up and saw my friend crumpled in a corner. I had to help him. “The boat is fine, as long as the boat is fine, then we can carry on” I thought. My new-found resilience was kicking in.

Turning on autopilot, I looked down at Jim,now turning blue. I rolled him over, checked for breathing, thumped his chest and called for help. Crew members came to help me as he regained consciousness, but we still needed to move him down below. Together as a team, a family now, we worked together to help our friend. We lifted him up, down the companion way to the galley and propped him up on the seating space. An old seadog by now, with a cup of warm coco in his belly and some bed rest prescribed by the skipper, Jim was fine. Albeit, a bit battered and bruised.

Jim survived, just as we all did. Those who have sailed the oceans know that it changes you. For me, by having those experiences,  life on land became a lot easier to deal with. Lessons learned in challenging environments are lessons not easily forgotten. 

Fear and anxiety are part of every day life. Facing fear or avoiding it is natural, but if your fear or anxiety interferes with your enjoyment of life on a chronic basis, I advise you seek professional help or talk to a trusted friend. We all need a little guidance sometimes and someone qualified to pinpoint the causes of your distress, can help you find a resolution far more quickly.

 “He who has truly overcome his fears is completely free” – Aristotle

Ben Stalsberg

Copyright © 2020 – Ben Stalsberg – All Rights Reserved


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