Is there a thing you do that you always find scary but you do it anyway?
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years of this blog and I confess it’s mostly been in the context of trying to problem solve for Tracy and road biking way back when. She loves triathlon so much, I thought. Surely there ought to have been a way to get over the fear of road cycling? In the end there wasn’t, she gave it up. And that was the right choice for Tracy.
Since then I’ve often thought about fear and the role it plays in our lives, in particular in the role it plays in what physical activities we do. Downhill skiing anyone? Fat biking on ridge trails? Camping in areas of high bear activity? Paddling in wind and waves?
Back to cycling, for a minute: While I’m road cycling I don’t find cycling scary. I can zoom down big hills, ride fast in a group, and ride in city traffic without fear. The only cycling related fear I have is sometimes after a ride. Sometimes I play over the ride in my head and think about the ways things might have gone differently. Sometimes I get scared then but the activity itself is done. And next ride, I’m happy and relaxed and ready to ride again.
Here’s a thing that I find scary when I do it: small boat sailing, like Snipe racing.
There I’ve said it. I haven’t talked about this before. But here’s the thing. Although it’s present every time I get in a small sailboat it goes away after the first race or the first half hour or so that I’m out. I’m puzzled by it. I know it will go away. I no longer want to go in and get off the boat when it happens. I can’t figure out what it’s about. I get shaky. It’s very much a physical sensation. I kind of freeze in place and I feel like everything could go wrong.
What exactly am I worried about? You name it really. Capsizing, hurting my knee, hitting other boats. And these are all things that could actually happen. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. I know that but still, I’m nervous and shaky.
It goes away when I start to focus on the tasks at hand: making sure the sail is trimmed properly, making sure I’m in a good position on the boat, making sure that we have all of our lines untangled and running freely, making sure we’re in a good position comparatively speaking.
It’s different than the fear that led Tracy to stop cycling in three ways: I love sailing and in particular, sailboat racing. It goes away each time and I know that. The worst case scenario I imagine is not that bad in the scheme of things.
I keep waiting for it to go away. Instead, it persisted all summer and yet I kept sailing.
I’m curious to see if next summer feels different.
What is a dinghy anyway? Let’s start with basics, “a small boat for recreation or racing, especially an open boat with a mast and sails.” My family has two different sorts, a Laser (raced singlehandedly) and a Snipe (a double handed boat.) Sarah and I have been racing the Snipe.
My participation in the 219 in 2019 group was the impetus to think about the question of “does dinghy racing count as exercise?”
I knew it was tiring. And racing sure felt like a workout so I listed it as a workout. A few hours went by and someone asked why it counted. Wren’t you just sitting on a boat letting the wind take you where you want to go? Maybe on a big boat, I thought. Maybe if you’re not racing. I got bit defensive. I did what defensive academics do. I went and looked things up.
“Sailing is a sport that will work many aspects of physical fitness:
Core and muscle strength: Pulling on lines, hiking your boat, and maneuvering the rudder will all help develop core strength and general muscle strength. If you want a few sailing specific exercises, try partial crunches, squats, and single arm rows.
Aerobic fitness: If you’re on a relatively small sailboat, you will constantly be on the move doing things like adjusting the sails and moving from port to starboard. Do additional aerobic activity (cycling, hiking, dancing) to build up more stamina for when you next leave the dock.
Balance and agility: Manoeuvering around the boat and its tight quarters and finding your sea legs will all help improve your balance. Get a head start by trying activities like Tai Chi or balance exercises, to help prevent “spontaneous” swims!”
For me the there are three physically tough things:
As with rowing, it’s a workout in itself getting the boat in and out of the water. The Snipe weights 381 lbs. Yes, it goes into the water on a small trailer but you still have to lift the front end and pull. It takes two of us working hard. We struggle to get the boat into the water and a few hours later, tired from sailing, we really struggle to get it out the water. “Out” is also uphill! That’s the first hard thing.
The second hard thing is me-specific. With my bad knee I can struggle with balance and agility and finding a good spot to be on the boat where I can reach and see the things I need to reach and see. You also need to be able to change positions quickly and gracefully. It’s not easy and I’m constantly working on it.
The third thing is hard for everyone. It’s hiking. There are hiking straps on the boat. You use your weight to keep the boat as flat as possible. It’s like one continuous crunch. What is hiking exactly? Our friends at Wikipedi say, “In sailing, hiking (stacking or stacking out in New Zealand; leaning out or sitting out in United Kingdom) is the action of moving the crew’s body weight as far to windward (upwind) as possible, in order to decrease the extent the boat heels (leans away from the wind). “
(UPDATE) Sarah, late to the blog party, chimes in: ” I think an important distinction to make is between “going for a sail” and racing a dinghy, which are as different as “going for a stroll” and race walking. In the latter, one’s body is actively engaged in going as fast as possible. Even if winds are too light to hike hard, sailors have active cores and legs as they balance the boat for optimum speed. In Sam’s case this can look like an extended deep squat while twisting her upper body to look around. In my case, with the main sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, all of my movements must be “hands-free”. By the end of a race I am breathing hard and smiling. Dinghy sailing may not always be the most intense workout, but it’s definitely a fun one! “
Here is Sarah Douglas hiking. Douglas aims to represent Canada in the 2020 Games. The Torontonian is the 2019 Pan Am Games champion. Also a University of Guelph grad! (That’s where I’m a Dean.)
I’ve often wondered about the comparison between rowing and dinghy racing. I know rowing is physically more demanding. There’s mental effort but it’s in things like maintaining a rhythm, following orders, withstanding pain! Sailing is less physically demanding but more varied and much more about strategy and timing. You interact with other boats tactically in a way you don’t when rowing.
Sunday we hosted an end of summer BBQ in our backyard. That meant Saturday we were cleaning the basement putting some summer things away, taking out others.
Okay, we were drying and putting away sails for the season. After Jeff’s DNF due to rudder failure during the Lake Erie solo challenge, Tin Lizzie is home in Guelph for the season.
In the middle of cleaning I got carried away with a box of old photos and correspondence, as one does. I found a letter to my parents from 25 year old grad school me in Chicago, a relic from life before children. Also back before email and social media. I would write letters on the computer, print them, add physical photos and mail them off to my family in Nova Scotia.
What was striking about this letter though is that it captured the beginning of my fitness journey. Boy did I get some things right. Boy did I get others things wrong.
At 25 I wrote to my parents to say that:
1. I was hanging out with a 55 year old faculty member who still, at her age, rode a bike and played squash. At her age! Geesh, 25 year old me, get a grip. Now I’m that 55 year old professor who still rides a bike. I’m wondering what the 25 year old grad students think. Still!
2. I was riding my bike pretty regularly on the Lake Shore bike path, sometimes riding as far as 26 miles. I aspired to ride a century, 100 miles. There was a ride called the Chicago century, Chicago to Wisconsin, and I told them I hoped to do that the following summer. This is notable because I was riding a pretty heavy hybrid bike back then. Also my beginning cycling ambitions were about to be interrupted by baby 1. Hello Mallory! It would be about 15 years before I rode a 100 miles. I didn’t do it on a hybrid either. The funny thing is until finding this letter I had no memory of distance ambitions prior to getting my first road bike in my 40s.
3. I was doing aerobics classes in the gym in our building, River City, three times a week and between that and bike riding feeling pretty fit.
“I surprise people a lot in the aerobics class because I’m far from skinny, a pretty constant size 14, but I can do the full 90 minutes with lots of energy and enthusiasm. Some new people, about half my size can’t, and I think that shocks them. I’ve heard women behind me making comments to that effect. I think it’s good to break the tight association between being thin and being fit.”
Go 25 year old Sam! Size 14 then, same now.
4. I was out on the water pretty regularly on boats of various shapes and sizes and configurations due to Jeff working for Sailboat Sales in Chicago. I went lots of years in the middle without sailing and now with Snipe racing at Guelph Lake and sailing Tin Lizzie, it’s back in my life again. A special surprise finding this on a day I’m busy flaking sails once again.
Dear 25 year old me: You will eventually ride a century. At 55 you’re still singing the “fat can be fit” song. And your views about aging will change.
Sarah and I raced our first weekend race today on the Snipe. We’ve done a couple of evenings of short course races at the club but this was our first longer event.
“Serious sailing, serious fun” is the motto of the Snipe class. The Snipe is described as a tactical, racing dinghy. It’s 15.5 feet and it’s raced by two people. Today Sarah was skipper and I was crew.
The good news? We had fun and no one drowned. We finished the course and didn’t crash into any other boats. Our peak speed was 7 knots. We had a good amount of wind. Also, thanks to us an 8 year old racing a laser is very happy he wasn’t last! We’re a pretty good team and we’re getting better at communicating on the boat.
Also it’s a great community. People were very happy to have us out there and recognize that we’re beginners and have lots to learn. We’ve been attending Thursday night race training where an experienced sailor follows us in a motorboat offering tips and advice. Thanks Harri!
The bad news? We lost Sarah’s hat overboard, attempted to rescue it but didn’t succeed. The line for our pole which allows us to fly the jib like a spinnaker came undone and we had to do some fixing underway. We were very much dead last.
But we’re learning lots.
Our experience reminded me of a conversation I had on our Newfoundland trip about the advantages of racing, both bikes and boats. I like riding in a community of cyclists where everyone races because there are skills you only only acquire in that context. It’s true for boats and sailing too. Everyone learns to race as part of learning to sail.
Our day ended with a moving ceremony to remember Mark Parkinson, former Commodore for Life of Guelph Community Boating Club. His grandchildren were there to raise the colours and a bench overlooking the race course has been named after him. We also awarded the Commodore’s Cup to the winning boat. At GCBC it’s filled with jujubes not beer or champagne. Congrats Julian!
Oh, and a friend asked recently about sailing as a fitness activity. I guess it depends. There’s always work getting the boat in and out of the water, even on a trailer. It weighs 380 lbs. There’s moving about the boat as we tack and jibe across the lake. Today we did lots of hiking, getting our body weight out over the edge of the boat to keep the boat flat. That’s a pretty good ab workout.
I recently watched a Netflix special by a woman named Brene
Brown on the topic of vulnerability and courage. She defined vulnerability as “the courage to
show up and letting ourselves be truly seen” (weaknesses and all), when you
can’t control the outcome (or reactions of others). She was talking primarily
about emotional vulnerability but as I discovered this week, that can show up
in all areas of life including in sport and fitness.
So this two part blog is all about two new activities I tried this week, which required two distinctly different types of vulnerability: 1) learning how to sail which involved a willingness to make mistakes in front of my loving, but sarcastic cousin Dale with 60 years of sailing experience and 2) participating in a naked yoga class! Yep, that’s right folks, nothing but my birthday suit…aka: totally STARKERS! However this week’s blog will only address the sailing component. You will have to follow up on next week’s post to hear all about the Naked Yoga!
My cousin Dale had invited me to sail with him several times
in the past but I had declined. This year he told me he was selling the boat by
the end of June, so this was my last chance.
So off to Michigan and Lake St. Claire I went. Prior to this week, I had planned to do an
online sailing course, which I proudly announced to my veteran sailing cousin 6
weeks ago. Sadly, I bit off more than I
could chew and only finished chapter 1!
So, when I got on the boat, all I could do was name basic boat features
including: the main sail, jib, boom, port, starboard, bow, and stern. In fact, that was about all I knew. Dale was
duly unimpressed since I was one of only 2 crew for his 30 foot boat and we
were racing that night and the next. He
mumbled that it was “a good thing we have 2 hours before the race gets started!”
He then began giving me directions to rig the boat on my own
instead of enlisting me as a helper which would have been easier for both of
us. This was a great strategy for me to learn
quickly, albeit somewhat embarrassing at times, as I was prone to confusing
port with starboard and right with left!
Shortly after I finished rigging the boat, it started
pouring rain and there was zippo wind. Things continued that way until we got
off the water at 9:30 pm. I was hoping the race would be cancelled since I was
tired after all that learning and rigging, but no such luck, so off we
went. And we sat… for a long time… in the
boat… in the rain…with no wind.
After 30 minutes of 2-4 knots per hour, I started engaging
in some idle chit chat with my cousin, because really, what else was there to
do? I was quickly informed that “this is
no time for chatting, we are in a race, not on a pleasure cruise!” Okay, so
this sailing thing can be really serious business I guess. On the bright side,
since there was practically no wind the entire evening, Dale was able to teach
me to tack and steer without any serious safety risk.
The next night the weather was much better and I was happy
to demonstrate my new found ability to rig a boat on my own with minimal
direction. This time I was able practice
some more tacking of the jib. I learned
that the combination of tacking and
steering at an angle as close to the wind’s direction as possible, can get me to just about any
destination that I choose (although I can’t say I personally experienced this!).
All in all this was a great experience and I look forward to
trying it again in Guelph sometime, maybe with Sam and Sarah one night.
So what does this have to do with vulnerability? Well at the
age of 55, I do not learn as quickly as I used to, so I had to be willing to
make mistakes without personalizing my cousin’s sarcastic and sometimes impatient
remarks. 10 years ago, I would not have
been emotionally strong enough for this type of situation. At that time, I had
a thin skin and took myself way too seriously, so I probably would have wound
up crying and feeling sorry for myself at the end of it all. Instead, I felt proud of myself for trying
something new and was really happy to have the opportunity to bond with my
Overall, I would say there was both personal growth and
learning in my sailing adventure. I am learning a new sport and stretching my
limits physically and mentally as I attempt to learn something new. I was also
able to vulnerable by “showing up and being seen” when I am not feeling strong
and confident… first by trying with no
success, trying again with some luck, and then finally, trying and succeeding…all
in a day’s work on a sailboat!
Ellen Burgess is from Guelph, Ontario and is a runner, yoga practitioner, meditator, and cycling enthusiast. She is currently fulfilling her career dream working as a mental health RN within the greater Wellington community.
Saw the surgeon and his team on Monday. I’ve been crying on and off since.
The easy bits are that I got another shot of synvisc under my kneecap. What is it and what’s it for? “SYNVISC is a viscosupplement injection that supplements the fluid in your knee to help lubricate and cushion the joint. SYNVISC is for people with knee osteoarthritis who have not received enough pain relief from diet, exercise and over-the-counter pain medication.”
I’m also still wearing the knee brace and it’s helping on days when I’m on my feet a lot. I spent the weekend in New York and even though I took the subway more than usual and hopped in a few taxis for good measure, I still got 13,000 steps in on Sunday including a walk through Central Park. Thanks knee brace. I did some shopping for more leggings for under the brace and for short skirts and dresses to wear over the leggings. The brace presents some fashion challenges and I’m warmer than usual with black leggings on no matter what.
I’m still going to physio and doing lots of knee-supporting exercises.
I still meet the conditions for knee replacement surgery (in both knees actually though only the left hurts) but neither of the surgeons I saw recommend it. I’m too young and I’m too active. The surgeons made me laugh, which is something, given the general message they had to deliver.
They said they like to make people happy. The person they make the most happy through knee replacement is somebody who arrives in their office, sad and older. Someone who just wants to walk to the grocery store without pain, the kind of person who says they want to lead a normal life, get a decent night’s sleep, and not suffer all the time. Knee replacement apparently makes that person very happy but they said for someone like me it wouldn’t make me happy.
Why not? Because I want to regain function and their line on knee replacement is that you shouldn’t do it to regain function, you should do it to lose pain. Also, knee replacements don’t last very long maybe 20 years and I’m young. I want to do things like ride my bike and some patients after knee replacement have difficulty bike riding because they don’t have the full range of motion back necessary for riding a bike.
Instead they discussed a different surgery called high tibial osteotomy. That surgery involves breaking bones and resetting them so I have a bigger gap in my knee cap on the side that’s in a lot of pain. It’s a good sign that the brace helps because this does surgically what the brace does mechanically. But it’s not a permanent fix. There’s a chance the other side of my knee will become painful as arthritis advances. So it’s good for 2-10 years maybe. Also, it’s big deal surgery. Like knee replacement it’s months and months of recovery. I’d trade off 10 years of active living without pain for six months painful time consuming recovery but I’m not sure about 2 years. There are no magic globes I can peer in to see the future.
I’m trying to decide. See them again in three months.
But the other depressing piece of news from the surgeons was the strong recommendation of weight loss, both as a way of avoiding surgery and as essential to recovering from it. Either way I should lose a lot of weight. It will definitely, they say, help with pain relief. The pain is all about weight bearing. That’s why downstairs is harder than up. It’s all about force on the kneecap. And as far as motivation goes this is pretty horrible pain. Like pain that makes hard to think about other things.
Now as I’ve said before I wish that it were the case that medical reasons for weight loss changed the facts. But that’s not so. Your body doesn’t care how good, how “pure” your motivation is. It’s still tough. It’s tough losing weight and tough keeping it off.
I don’t have any choice but to try. The worse case scenario is that I lose it, gain it back, and more and need knee replacement surgery. But that’s the same worst case scenario I face now. I’ve lost significant amounts of weight in my life, 70 lbs in grad school, 60 when I turned 40. The trick, the hard part, is keeping it off. This time, if I actually lose weight, I’ll be unicorn training, learning the habits of people who actually keep weight off.
Don’t worry. This won’t become a weight loss blog. Likely I’ll save any angst, any updates, to my monthly check in posts. I’ll also add content warnings.
I thought about leaving blogging but making this pain manageable and movement possible is a big part of my life right now. And I’m very much still a fit, feminist just one who is coping with injury and aging and hoping to keep in moving.
It can be tricky moving around in a small boat in ways that don’t hurt my knee but I’m learning how to do it. I haven’t raced a small sailboat ever. All of my sailboat racing experience is on relatively big boats so this is new to me. With all the knee misery, see above, it’s good to have something new to focus on. It’s fun and exciting and lots to learn.
Sarah hadn’t sailed a dinghy since high school. Most of my sailing experience has been on big boats. So this was definitely in the “something new” category.
What’s a Snipe? Wikipedia says it’s a 15.5 foot two person dinghy. The class has been around since 1931. There are fleets around the world.
The community club in Guelph is super beginner friendly and very welcoming. There are club boats you can race so you don’t even have to have your own Snipe to start. Also, there are lots of women around. The boats are pretty stable and beginner friendly. A wide range of ages race Snipes. But they are also fast, tactical, and while not the most performance oriented boat, they’re fun to race.
Here’s some footage from the women’s world championships a few years ago. They’re young women. Luckily there’s also a master class.
More Snipe fun:
If they’re two person boats, how’d the three of us race? The original plan had been for Jeff to skipper all the races and Sarah and I would take turns crewing. We’d swap crew at lunch. You can’t really do that but since it was unlikely we’d place in the regatta (newbies plus club boat) no one was going to object. Instead though Sarah got to crew on one of the go fast boats when someone didn’t show. I crewed for Jeff which felt a bit like old times.
What’s the fitness angle? There’s a lot of physical work in the boat. The most obvious is hiking. To keep the boat from heeling over too much when it’s windy you put your ankles in hiking straps and try to get a lot of your body weight out over the water off the high side of the boat. My abs are sore after three races.
More importantly, I suppose, my knees aren’t sore! Victory