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Fear is healthy at sea unless it makes you wig out

2010 February 1
Trust me on this one. I know bloodcurdling screams. As a kid, I used to go to the Saturday horror matinees, and no scream in the world matches the sound of several dozen 8-year-old girls when the screen flashes a close-up of a blood-soaked monster. Just thinking about it raises the hairs on my neck.

But here we were in the middle of a long-distance ocean race, a bunch of guys who've moved beyond horror films and even sci-fi scares. Granted, it was a pitch-black moonless night. But this scream had a distinctly male note to it.

And here's the strange thing. It was coming from inside the cabin.

Now, I've heard a few ungodly onboard shrieks in my time. There was the Congressional Cup when Leo was easing the spinnaker sheet and somehow eased his finger right into the winch. Loud and undoubtedly painful, but not like this.
Then there was the Acapulco Race when the spinnaker halyard got away from Eric as he was getting ready for douse. Well, it didn't actually get away from him, because he had a really good grip on it with one hand when he released the halyard from the cleat with his other. In the cockpit, we weren't quite ready for him to uncleat the halyard because, in fact, the chute was drawing well.

Real well.

About 70 feet of halyard smoked through his hand in less time than it takes to read this sentence and, yes, that would qualify as a bloodcurdling yell. Except that there wasn't any blood. This was a very tidy accident because the first 35 feet of line carved a groove across his palm and the next 35 feet of line neatly cauterized it. Had to hurt a ton but, still, not a yell like this one.

And it wasn't even close to the one that Doug let out as he lost control of our boat surfing down a wave during the Transpac race. We could tell the extent of his problem by his volume control. It started quietly: "Oh-damn-oh-damn-Oh-Damn-OH-DAMN-OH-DAMN-OH-DAMN." By the time he had moved beyond the litany of oh-damns into some more innovative constructions of four letter words, we were in full knock-down mode, hanging from the lifelines and studying the mast, which now lay flat on the water. Good yelling, but no gold medal.

That honor was earned on this moonless night. When we heard the first shriek from down below, all of us on watch looked at each other. Usually we werethe ones shrieking, "All hands on deck … get up here, you guys." But it wasn't us: the sound came from the cabin.

Then there was a great crashing and banging around, and someone yelling, "Kill it, kill it, there it is." One of our more daring crewmembers poked his head down the hatch and asked what was going on.

"There is," said a quavering voice that had recently been shrieking at 200 decibels, "the biggest #($*%& rat I've ever seen, and it's in my bunk." The banging, which we later learned was with a frying pan from the galley, continued.

Our navigator, deep in sleep, had rolled over to find something very furry snuggled up against his forehead. Usually one of the last to get up for the change of watch, he set a new record for exiting his bunk, thus setting off the entire hunt.

Afterward, I reflected on the concept of fear, which is a very personal thing. Every sailor has a fear threshold, but it is a different fear for every person.

Fear is a healthy emotion because, in many cases, it is your subconscious warning you of danger. All the safety lectures and magazine articles aren't going to make you wear a life jacket in rough weather: it is the fear of going overboard that makes you put it on.

Good seamanship, in many ways, is based on healthy fears. When the sea is a churning maelstrom and sand is blowing in drifts across the beach road, this is probably a good day to enjoy the club bar.

There is a skipper down the dock in my marina who pays no attention to his engine. It doesn't get oil changes, it doesn't get tune-ups and, in fact, I don't think he's ever looked at it. But before sailing, he checks every turnbuckle and every clevis pin to make sure they are properly secured. It's obvious he has no fear of having his engine stop, but equally clear that he is afraid of losing his mast.

I've sailed with a bowman who has ice water in his veins when it comes to dancing onto the plunging bow of a careening ocean racer to change headsails, buried to his chest in foam and then hanging on to a lifeline as the bow tosses high. But when it comes to going up the mast, no way. The merest mention of retrieving something that is only a few feet out of reach turns him pale. He can't do masts.

I don't recommend living on the edge, but a little fear can be a good thing, if only to remind yourself that you're alive. Fear can be exhilarating in small doses, which is what keeps the roller coaster industry in business. Besides, being a little frightened makes for great stories at the club later.

The point is that there's no reason to fear going sailing. Look at your fears, and deal with them. If you fear getting lost in fog, improve your navigation skills. If you dread strong winds, sail in a breeze with someone experienced to allay those fears.

Back to what we now refer to as The Great Rat Hunt. Because we had limited space, we were hot-bunking … when someone went on watch, his bunk was then occupied by someone coming off watch. In this case, the bunk was our skipper's, being shared with the navigator, who was our shrieker.

Think Woody Allen hunting the spider in Annie Hall with a tennis racket. Think a nautical version of the Keystone Kops and Three Stooges falling over each other in the hunt for the rat. And then, just as we have the rat cornered, the skipper exits the head, looks around innocently, and asks, "Anyone seen my toupee?"