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Stretch the envelope and conquer fears

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer."

"Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." - the Bene Gesserit mantra against fear, from Frank Herbert's "Dune"

Mike Saylor

Stretching the envelope means moving out of your comfort zone, and that involves fear. It also involves growing. Don't be like so many boaters and fishermen I've known who repeat their first or second year's experience 20 times over.

When I was a kid I felt I was immortal. I used to go out with friends in 14-foot rowboats with small outboards. We didn't have charts or a compass, but we did have sandwiches and bottles of Coke. We would leave City Island, heading out of New York Harbor for the "lightship." We really didn't know which lightship, but we would lose sight of land. Sometimes fog would roll in, but somehow - and for the life of me I don't how - we always made it back to shore. I feared only one thing: lightning.

I encountered real fear for the first time in the Army. I was afraid of heights, and mountain climbing, along with rappelling down vertical walls, during Ranger training didn't help. Even tougher was jumping off the 8-foot platform when practicing parachute landing falls in jump school. My heart was in my throat - I was terrified. Interestingly, the 17-foot tower we graduated to, while challenging, was less of a problem. Nor did I have problems during actual jumps, though I'm still skittish on tall ladders. I learned later that immortality is an illusion, but I also learned to handle fear.

We face fear to one degree or another any time we venture out of our comfort zone. Fear is natural. It protects us. Anyone who claims to have not experienced fear is either a liar or has never ventured beyond his or her comfort zone, never stretched the envelope.

When I first started sailing, I was the original "chicken of the sea." Suddenly it was the wind, not an engine, as the controlling influence. And with the wind was the sea. A Force 3 wind put me on edge. Fortunately, I was able to learn from some excellent seamen - not merely sailors but seamen.

After a while my confidence and my comfort zone expanded. Then my wife and I decided we'd sail around the world. Not circumnavigate per se, just cruise and voyage to different places. To do this we needed to become competent in a variety of conditions and with skills we did not have at the time. We also concluded that we would not put others in danger. If we got into trouble, we committed ourselves to get out of it on our own.

We began to stretch the envelope. We learned piloting and navigation, anchoring, maintenance, etc. We began pushing the envelope with regard to sailing in more inclement weather. From Force 3 winds, I would venture out in stronger and stronger winds. I finally called it quits after Force 9 (41 to 47 knots). The point is, when I was caught out in winds of 60 knots or more I knew what to do. Not that I wasn't scared, but I didn't panic. It's interesting that after experiencing increasing wind forces (within reason) I did not fear those winds or the seas that they generated.

It's not about stupid heroics. Deliberately going out in Force 9 is stupid. (I hadn't considered the effects of shallow water in such winds - darned if I didn't learn the hard way). It's the little, less dramatic things.

How many powerboaters have run only one of their twin screws? How many sailors have tried sailing into and out of their slips or off their moorings? How many have anchored under sail or weighed anchor under sail? In fact, how many boaters, power or sail, have actually practiced anchoring with more than one anchor or towed a drogue?

I remember sailing into our slip with a following wind and a jammed prop. It was not something I wanted to do - it was a necessity at the time. Everyone eventually learns how to get into their slip or onto their mooring, but how many have tried reversing the maneuver? I know how stressful docking can be. I've provided entertainment on many occasions. To hell with embarrassment. Try different maneuvers, even difficult ones. It's amazing how good you'll feel after you master them. And you never know when you'll actually need to perform them.

The thing about stretching your personal envelope is that you often find you are better than you thought when you venture beyond your comfort zone. You will find that your comfort zone has increased and that your personal envelope is larger.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.