Butterfly Mind

Sailing (and life) lesson: know where you want to go.

My first attempt at skippering our 13 foot wooden yawl was a disaster. The wind on Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was stiff when I took the tiller and the main sheet (the line that trims the mainsail).

When the wind is blowing and the boat is tipping, things happen fast. As a skipper, all you have is a sail, your body, and a tiller, and you need to be able to react quickly.

You need instinct. And I didn’t have it.

Every time the boat heeled, I steered into the wind to keep from capsizing, then lost momentum. I put us “in irons.” Despite steady, moving air, my sail flapped, and the boat stalled. We’d get going again, the boat would tip, and each time, I reacted out of fear instead of confidence. I was at the mercy of the wind and the chop, knowing nothing about how to use my body, how to work the sail, which way to move the tiller. I ended the day totally defeated, in tears, wondering how I could have lived my entire childhood on the water and have no instinct.

On my second attempt, I took only the tiller. My husband took the sheet. Controlling everything at once was too much on my first skippering effort.

“I won’t let us capsize,” he told me. “Just get a feel for the tiller. I’ll take care of the sail. If you feel us heel, it’s okay, let it tip — I’ll spill some wind if we’re in danger.”

Brian had gotten us into open water on the sound before handing the boat over to me. As I took the tiller and nestled into the stern, my back against the gunwale, Brian said, “Where do you want to go?”

“That green house,” I said, and pointed at the one landmark that stood out and that I recognized.

“Ok, I’ll control the sail. Point toward the house and hold the course with the tiller.”

And I did. It was terribly difficult to hold a steady course. Wind, chop, and the force of water against the tiller required constant adjustment to stay on course. If I didn’t have a mark to watch, who knows where we would have ended up. With all the forces on the boat, it wanted to steer itself, and it was up to me to keep us on course. There was no such thing as set it and forget it.

As we approaced the house, and therefore land, I told Brian, “We need to think about turning.”

“Ok, where do you want to go?”

Uhh, I dunno. “Away from land?” I had already started turning the tiller.

He felt the boat turn. “Wait!” he said. “Don’t do anything until you know where you want to go. Where do you want to go?”

“Away from land! I don’t want to hit land.”

“But where do you want to go? That’s always the first step.”

I know it is absolutely cliche to use sailing metaphors, and I apologize for it. But this was a pivotal moment for me. For sailing, for my career, for life. The first step isn’t to dodge obstacles or let outside circumstances steer you.

The first step is to figure out where you want to go.

“Point us into the wind and set the mizzen to hold us steady so we can talk,” Brian said. I set the mizzen and we rocked gently on the water.

“Before you steer the boat,” he said, “you need to know where you want to go. Then you need to think it through.”

I had been sailing to avoid interference, going wherever the wind took me. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I was just reacting to the land that was coming up fast, reacting to gusts that made me fear capsize.

“Don’t let the wind determine where you go,” Brian said. “You determine where you’re going, then use the wind to get you there.”

I pointed to a mark on the horizon, out in the sound. “There, that structure.” We turned, and sailed toward the mark I’d chosen. The tiller became more natural. I didn’t react as badly to the boat tipping. I held a steady course.

“I’m ready to try the sail, too,” I said, and Brian handed me the sheet. Within minutes I realized I need quite a bit more upper body strength. Sailing a small boat is an athletic endeavor.

We sailed about a mile offshore, and I was feeling comfortable that I was getting the hang of it. I no longer felt defeated.

“We should probably get back to the kids,” I said. “Let’s turn around and head back in.”

“Ok,” my husband said. “Where do you want to go?”

Ummm. Home? But when I looked back to shore, I pointed at the only thing I knew: the green house.

“Why the green house?” he asked.

“Because it’s what I know.”

“But is that where you want to go?”


“Set the mizzen,” he said. “Let’s think this through.”

By now I knew how to set the mizzen, but I still didn’t know how to think fast enough to know where I wanted to go and do all the things I needed to do to get us there. I fell back on a mark that was safe and comfortable, even though it wasn’t the place we needed to be.

“Where do you want to go?” he said again. I pointed this time to the small channel he navigated us through each time we left our rental house and headed out on the sound.

“Where is the wind?” he asked. I pointed straight ahead, to the north.

“Where do you need to point the boat?”

I pointed to the right of the bow, to what would be 2 o’clock on a clock face. “About 60 degrees off the wind.”

“How do you use the equipment you have — our bodies, the tiller, and the sail — to get you there?”

“We need to lean to starboard to let the sail fill a little, then I’ll pull the tiller towards me to steer the boat towards our mark. I’ll pull the sheet to trim the sail tight, and hold the course with the tiller.”

And then we did it. I sailed us to the channel, where Brian took over and then brought us in. As water slapped the hull, wind filled the sail, and Brian steered us through the channel, I was in awe of the simple, fundamental life lessons I learned on my second attempt at skippering:

  1. Know where you want to go.
  2. Give yourself a safe space to think.
  3. Plan your course, keeping in mind conditions and resources.
  4. Make constant adjustments to keep on course.
  5. Arrive.
  6. Drink, and enjoy the place you’ve gotten to.

These are lessons I carry with me back to work, and through the rest of life.

The kids were waiting their turn when we tacked up to the house. I jumped out and they jumped in. I was giddy with finding comfort on the boat, and though it was only 11am, I poured myself a glass of wine. I don’t have instinct yet, but with practice I will.