Life lessons I learnt sailing around Great Britain

Almost four months on a cosy 28-foot boat with the love of your life, dealing with temperamental weather and an ocean as changeable as a teenager’s mood swings is one of those experiences that make you look at life and your place in it.

I don’t know if I’d go as far to say I’m stronger or that it was a transformational experience – during the sail I often compared to my 3,000km (1,864 miles) walk down the length of New Zealand, which really did change me as a person – but the sailing challenge made me sit up.

These are some of the things I learnt.

  1. You can only control what you can control

In sailing, weather is something you can’t control. It happens. You have to deal with it.

And your response to it is something you can control.

We chose to sail that day or not sail. That was something we could control.

But we could also control – or rather recognise – our emotional response. We could recognise whether we were frustrated or elated or depressed or patient or embody the French expression c’est la vie and buy into that response or not.

Whether you choose frustration or patience, it’s not going to change or control the weather but it’s sure going to impact how you show up that day and it will colour your experience (and your relationship with other people).

In life, it’s the same with anything you can’t control – whether your computer has decided to go on strike, the queue for the checkouts, that stupid BMW driver that just cut you up, your boss’ negative reaction to an amazing idea you had.

How liberating is it that you get to recognise your response to those situations and choose to accept it or not even though you can’t control the situation?

And knowing that takes the pressure off needing to control the things we can’t – and being able to deal with, and even enjoy, the full gamut of what life can throw at us.

Cape Wrath

2) Sailing (and life) is about embracing the unknown

Every day we set sail we embarked on an adventure into the unknown – would the weather be the same as was forecast? (Often not the case) What would the sea state be? Would I get seasick? Would we see a whale? Will the boat sink?

At the start of each day, we didn’t know the answer to these questions.

It was very much a “let’s go sailing and see what happens” type of thing.

We can think of that as being scary, focusing on the what ifs or thoughts of “I don’t feel ready”.

Or we can think of it in a child-like wonder of going on an adventure where some bad things may happen, but a lot of cool things could happen too.

Like spending two hours up-close and personal with dolphins, watching them glide through the crystal-clear water just an arm’s length away.

Every day, whether we are sailing or stepping out our front door in the morning is a step into the unknown because anything could happen. And most of it is out of our control.

But knowing that some fricken cool things could happen is what makes it exciting.

3) You will never be happy if you are waiting for perfection

I admit it – I have a romantic view of sailing where the sun is shining, the wind is blowing and the sea is calm.

In reality, it turns out, this is hardly ever the case. In almost four months of sailing we had maybe three days that lived up to my ideal of perfect sailing.

The rest of the time was often spent bemoaning the lack of wind, the strength of the wind, the annoying direction of the wind, the cold, the swell, the choppy waves, the rain, the tide, using the engine, tacking.

I noticed how hypocritical we were – we’d moan about the frustrating lack of wind and the need to use the engine and then two days later we’d have a great wind but we’d moan it was blowing in the wrong direction.

We never seemed to be happy just being on the water.

And that’s sort of sad.

Especially when you realise “perfect conditions” are out of your control.

It drove Mark to rather dramatic eyerolls, but I came to focus on the positives, what I was grateful for and searched for the beauty around me.

I’d say – “at least it’s not raining” or “the swell could be worse” or “we’re so much more capable than when we first started”.

And I’d look at the way the sun glinted off the water like the sea had captured a million diamonds and locked them under its surface or I’d watch the grey tendrils of rain in the distance that trailed below dark clouds like a delicate silk curtain or I’d feel the wind in my hair or taste the salt on my lips and know that I was alive, that I was living.

When I didn’t focus on the lack of perfection but rather on the positives and being in the moment then happiness was within my grasp.

Life is never perfect. We are never perfect. (And what is perfect anyway?) But happiness is always available to us if we let it.

4) We have conditioned ourselves to fear our bad feelings

We were somewhere on the south coast. I was steering and out of nowhere a huge freak gust of wind came through. The wind gauge registered 27knots (31 miles/50km).

The boat tipped dramatically and in that instant I freaked out. I imagined the whole boat tipping over and that we would drown.

Mark got it all under control and the squall passed through and all was fine but I was a bit of a nervous wreck for a couple of days and felt really anxious when steering. What if it happened again? I was really scared the first time – would I be able to cope if it happened again?

And then I started beating myself up for feeling anxious and scared – because in my head I believed they were bad feelings.

It took a while sitting looking at the water and just reflecting on my anxiety in general that we, as humans, tend to think of some feelings as good and some feelings as bad.

Love, confidence, happiness – good feelings.

Stress, anxiety, sadness, weakness, self-doubt – bad feelings.

But actually, they are all just feelings. And as humans we experience all of them. That’s the beauty of being human.

They are only good and bad if we tell ourselves they are good and bad.

Sure feeling in love feels amazing while feeling anxious feels uncomfortable but it’s only because we believe that feeling uncomfortable is a bad thing that suddenly anxiety is a naughty word.

Traditionally anxiety was part of the flight or fight response – it was there to protect us from danger. It was a good thing.

Human beings are feeling beings. We’re only being human when we feel stress or sadness. It’s neither good nor bad.

It’s just human. And we’re amazing.

5) If I can sail around the coast of Great Britain with no experience, then I can do anything from scratch

I started out on this voyage with just a handful of sailing days to my name, I struggled to remember my port from my starboard, I wasn’t down with the lingo and I didn’t know if I was going to get seasick, let alone whether I would even enjoy the sailing experience.

And yet, with Mark to guide me, I sailed around Great Britain.

After almost four months, I can say I’m more capable and confident than when we first set out, I know most of the lingo and have a good understanding of sailing, I can tie the right knot (most of the time), read a map and navigate (pretty much), and I can even sail and steer pretty well.

On our penultimate day I realised that if I could do something as technical and mentally demanding as sailing around Great Britain with no experience then I could start anything, even if I’m not ready or don’t have the skills or don’t know what I’m doing or I have doubts.

Just through determination, not giving up, practicing, taking small steps, making progress, not letting fears or doubts get in the way, learning from my mistakes and failures and celebrating little wins, I was able to achieve something I had no idea about or what I was even doing.

I’ve always said, after walking in New Zealand, that starting is the hardest part but once you get over that hurdle you can achieve a lot.

And to start – and indeed to continue – it turns out you don’t need to be ready, you don’t need to have the skills or experience, you don’t need to feel confident, you don’t need to wait till things are “perfect”, you don’t need to know what the journey will be like or even be able to see the destination.

You just need to start and you just need to keep going because you will learn as you go, you will practice and become more capable, your confidence will grow, you will make progress and you will realise there is a strength, resilience and awesomeness within you and you can do anything no matter how scary or unready you feel.  

And life is too short to wait for the fears to pass or to wait until we’re ready.

Everything we need is inside us right now to take that plunge, that first step into embracing the unknown.

We’ve totally got this.

PS – It’s not too late to still donate to the charity we have been fundraising for. SafeLives does amazing work to help stop domestic abuse. Click here to find out why were are fundraising for SafeLives. Click here to donate. Every little helps makes this a better world.

2 thoughts on “Life lessons I learnt sailing around Great Britain

  1. GREAT words to remember Katrina. Some I do know, but forget to remember. Sounds like an epic trip. Look forward to hearing what the next adventure night be ❤️


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