Fear vs Courage: My Most Terrifying Moments Underway

En route from Bali to Singapore through the traffic clogged waters of the South China Sea on a ten-day passage that included seven days with only eight hours of sleep total…at midnight in a pitch-black moonless night the most terrifying moments in my eight-year voyage. On approaching the harbor at Singapore…an excerpt from By the Grace of the Sea: A Woman’s Solo Odyssey Around the World by Pat Henry:

…This one time, I would violate my personal rule prohibiting landfalls after dark in strange harbors. Something moved along the coast far off to port. Now and then tiny red lights darted in the distance ahead—fishing boats, probably.

…The current and engine together swept me ahead at more than six knots as I scouted periodically for traffic but worried most about my location. In the dim light on the cockpit seat it was impossible to plot it, and the Singapore shoreline offered few clues. The only other vessels moved far in the distance.

At Fairy Point, I could just make out a forest of masts to port. I was home safe. My shoulders unwound as I put the engine in neutral to set up the anchor. In the quiet of Serangoon Harbor, away from the press of big ships, I walked out to the bow, untied the cord restraining the anchor on the roller, lifted a few feet of chain through the hawsepipe, and lowered it to dangle just above the surface of the water—ready to drop when I found a good spot.

Turning to go back, I froze. Ice water surged through my knees. High above the stern of SC (SV Southern Cross), stacks of red and white lights glowed menacingly, the vessel below them invisible in the dense black air. Something very large and very close was under tow and being carried by the same current pushing SC.

I jumped into the cockpit, pulled off the autopilot arm, threw the engine into gear, and opened the throttle, turning to port—away from the looming monster. When the danger receded, my heart thudded still as the questions raced through my head. Why didn’t her captain see SC’s navigation lights? Why didn’t he call? Maybe he did, and I couldn’t hear him above the engine. Where did she come from? Was she the vessel I saw earlier by the shore? How could she be that close and not hit me? I found a spot near the other cruising boats, dropped the hook, and sank down on the settee, still shaken.

Over breakfast I watched a steady stream of shipping traffic passing in the channel that had seemed only a backwater the night before. Two oceangoing tugs left for offshore oil fields towing towering cranes that extended over the bows of the tugs and rose twice the height of passing tankers. Perhaps one of them had made the light pattern that crept up on me the night before. If so, even if the tug captain had seen SC, he could never have changed course in time.

My close brush with death?

My close brush with death?

Once again I had been delivered by Divine Protection, this time from fishing traps, ships, reefs, and finally, in the moment of arrival, from a brush with death.

We know our fears far more than we recognize our courage.

In country after country, on my solo sail around the world, I met the astonishment of people who applauded my courage. I really didn’t see it that way at all and was embarrassed by the attention. I certainly had as much fear as the next person and was not especially brave. I would usually brush off the remark with a laugh, saying, “No, just a bit crazy.”

The expression for courage in so many cultures/languages ties courage to the heart. They would say, “you have a big heart,” in one way or another. Or they would touch their chests. It comes from the Latin root cor (heart). Many define it as acting despite having fear, but others say “without having fear.” I believe there must be fear for it to take courage to act. Otherwise it is empty bravado. My story above was not really about courage, but fear driven survival.

I wrote a previous blog about dealing with severe sciatica for half of my 36-day Pacific crossing from Acapulco to the Marquesas Islands. In the end, I discovered that I had a great deal of unacknowledged fear about the voyage I was undertaking. Facing and accepting that fear as a healthy ingredient that would keep me safe for the next eight years became the tool to heal the sciatica!

I have come to a more rounded view of fear and courage today.

What we have met and come to know, in its familiarity, is less scary…i.e.: I’ve seen this before and understand it to some degree. The more we have experienced in life, the less there is to fear.

But, when we do have fear it is only relative to our individual lifetime exposure. What is very courageous for one is just an everyday experience for another. Every time you step across a border at the edge of your comfort zone, the zone expands.

Now, I sit at my computer delving into foreign technologies, unfamiliar vocabulary, unsolicited actions on my screen, attempting to move mountains on a strange landscape. Every day I gather up fragments of courage to accomplish one small task that my grandchildren can do blindfolded. My heart is not racing as when coming down the face of a 28-foot wave or surviving a near collision, but there is enough cortisol at the end of the day to do its damage! It is still fear. I promise the results of all this brave effort within the next two months, if not sooner, in your inbox.

When was the last time you stepped across your comfort zone border? And what were you doing? Leave a message in the comments below…and congratulations!!! It helps everyone when they know that others have been there…and survived!

Pat Henry (54) copy-2



Pat Henry, founder of Organic Stretching®, became the first American woman to complete a solo circumnavigation (via the canals), in 1997,

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