Nick Moloney has faced some terrifying scenarios at sea. He tells Andy Rice how to handle fear
Facing your fears is something that challenges every sailor, but none more so than those taking on single-handed offshore racing.
Nick Moloney is a social animal and thrives on being in good company. He’s never more in his element than racing as part of a team. Even before he set out on the 2004 Vendée Globe, Nick had his doubts about whether he was really cut out for the long-term solitude of a circumnavigation, but his race started well and Skandia was in the top 10 for the first month.
However, when he found himself caught in an 80-knot storm in the depths of the Southern Ocean, Nick was forced to face up to his mortality in a way that has shaped his outlook on life ever since. Here are his five tips for facing your fears.
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1. Plan and prepare
As an offshore racer your goals come with inherent risk. At some point you’ll need to face up to a level of fear, and manage it.
In ambitious projects you must understand that you have chosen to attack a goal with clear and known risk, so you need to prepare accordingly, with a strict focus on managing that risk.
The more effort you put into this at the preparation stage, the more confident you will become in your ability to manage a potentially life-threatening situation at sea.
2. Don’t dwell
During the planning process it’s easy to be drawn into dwelling on the worst-case scenario. It’s important to be aware that we can very easily inflate fear to the point where it can strip you bare emotionally, affect your rationality and restrict your ability to function effectively. I’ve experienced this personally, and I’ve seen fear overpower some very strong and brave people.
In the planning phase I identify a list of elements that will give me positive support in most worst-case scenarios – positive buoyancy or watertight provision built into the boat’s construction, satellite connectivity or other vessels in my vicinity, for example. Try to keep these foremost in your mind when you find yourself fighting with your fears.
3. Manage the manageable
It’s important never to get complacent, to ensure that you and your equipment are ready to adapt to change, to make sure you’re wearing the right protective gear, not cutting any corners in your preparation.
Competitive athletes talk about controlling the controllables, which means focussing only on the things where they can make a difference. Everything else is wasted time and energy. For example, while you can’t control the weather, you can control your knowledge of the weather that’s coming your way. Diligent forecasting can give you the time and opportunity to literally and metaphorically batten down the hatches.
In worrying situations I try to take my mind away from the source of the fear. To get another perspective, talk with one of your crew mates or, if you’re sailing solo, get on the comms with your one of your shore team.
I turn to those who are good at putting me at ease, who make me laugh, or who simply offer sound advice that will help me see the situation differently. Being able to speak to my team and family on shore was a lifesaver for me during that 80-knot storm in the Vendée Globe. Without them I’d have been lost.
5. Understand the fear
When I have growing concerns about something, I try to identify the source of that worry. One example I recall vividly is sailing a 110ft catamaran at speeds in excess of 35 knots through an ice field, with night approaching and the radar out of action.
In situations like that I’ll ask myself: ‘How is my concern or fear affecting me?’ Often the answer is that I feel ill, or restricted in my ability to perform at my peak. When I find this happening I convince myself that any restriction fear places on my body and mind will hinder a worst-case fight for survival. So I eat, hydrate and dress accordingly.
Sometimes I’ll do stretching exercises and have even practised holding my breath in the event that I might have to swim if caught underwater in a capsize.
While there might seem an element of bravado in this I’m not afraid to admit that fear has also brought me to my knees. One particular event in my career destroyed me emotionally and it has taken me a long time to mentally work back through those circumstances and how I responded.
Learning to face your fears is not an innate talent, it’s a skill you can – and should – work at developing.
About the expert
Nick Moloney is a two-time America’s Cup sailor but the Australian is best known for his offshore exploits. Among the 15 speed and endurance records Nick has won is the Jules Verne Trophy. He has also competed in the Volvo Ocean Race and the 2004/05 Vendée Globe.
First published in the August 2020 issue of Yachting World.