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.
The snipe is a small, two person boat and there’s a healthy racing fleet of them up at Guelph Lake. Jeff’s been teaching Sarah and me how to sail and race the Snipe over the past month or so and Tuesday night we got to make our debut. There was no Jeff. He’s off on his big boat and you can read about his adventures here on his own blog.
How’d we make out?
We didn’t die, capsize, crash into any other boats, or drown.
We (mostly) successfully rigged the boat.
We got the boat into the water, and ourselves into the boat, and vice versa at the end. As with rowing there are times when this feels like the trickiest part of the whole thing.
We made all of the mark roundings.
The winds were tricky. It was great that it was neither dead calm nor blowing all the boats over but the winds were really shifty. Because the weather was unsettled we were happy to see that there were only a dozen or so boats out. Sometimes there can be twice that number and it gets a bit hairy at the start. In the end, it rained but only for about ten minutes. We got damp but not soaking wet.
From my point of view, we safely followed the fleet around the course at a respectful distance. In our last race we nearly came second last but the other boat got by us on the final run up to the finish. It was a confidence building experience. It was fun and we’ll definitely do it again.
Sarah had the much harder job of skippering. I was just crew. But we’re learning to work together, to communicate better, and next time we’re hoping to mess it up with the boats at the back of the pack. It’s good to have something that’s new, with a lot to learn, to distract me from all the things I’m not doing this summer because I can’t.
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