Lizzy and I have never officially hung out in person…yet. But we do chat online a lot and have a special bond through unicorns. She is The Sailing Unicorn and I have a farting unicorn down the side of my boat, Poop Deck. We are both fiery red heads with little inhibition and lots of earned gusto and sass. This interview was the first we have spoken in person at length via phone for 60 minutes, and as I suspected, it was MAGICAL. There is no one I would rather share unicorn power with than Lizzy. As she wisely said to me, “Everyone is really a unicorn in their own way.” You see, Lizzy and I also share a passion for sailing, feminism and mental health. She fell in love with sailing as she was recovering from major depression and a suicide attempt. From there, she was hooked and started working toward a goal of sailing with the Clipper Round the World race and raising funds for suicide awareness and prevention. In this process, she has been an avid and fierce advocate for mental health and was one of my very first fans as I hit the sailing scene. She also works at Fisheries Marine Supply in Seattle and has a badass Etsy shop where she creates unique clothing and crafts under the handle Raving Unicorn. Our sailing sister dream is to sail on my boat in our unicorn onesies one day. That one day will sadly have to wait as we practice social distancing for the foreseeable future. This interview was timely as we are suffering a global trauma with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lizzy was supposed to leave in May for two legs of the Clipper Around the World race and that has now been postponed. We discussed the Clipper race and how to cope with disappointment and the unknown at length.
My first question was to ask the logistics. What is happening with the Clipper Race due to the novel coronavirus? Lizzy said, “Some people are still in transit home from the Philippines right now. The pandemic started when they were sailing from Australia going to China. Part way through they were told they couldn’t go to China. They were instructed to keep sailing north while the race office worked out where to go. They were still racing with no concrete destination. They wound up going to Subic Bay, Philippines for an extended stop over, an extension of what was initially meant to just be three days on the original schedule. China continued to be hot, so they did a 10 day out and around the Philippines for the last race of that leg. For leg 6, people flew last minute into the Philippines, not China as planned, and they also did a 5 day out and around the islands race with the plan to continue on to Seattle after. When they got back, they found the marina and surrounding area was on full quarantine. The Clipper Race officials analyzed what was going on with the virus worldwide and made the tough decision to send crews home rather than sail on to Seattle where the virus was raging. So now, they are postponing the race for 10 months. It should be around the same time of year in 2021 for weather routing and ports. Leg 6 folks had 72 hours to get out of the country or they would be stuck there for a month. Clipper arranged a convoy of shuttle vans to the airport for some crew, it was a journey involving military checkpoints and lots of napping at the airport and flight cancellations and rebookings. People in the marina mostly stayed in good spirits. The Team Seattle facebook page has a hilarious video to the tune of “Peaches” by The Presidents of The United States of America as they were going through some of the provisions before leaving. Seattle is one of the most positive of all the teams, probably because we are DFL (dead fucking last) and at this point have zero pressure to try to secure a final podium spot. We are just having fun. Hopes and dreams have been changed, some people likely won’t be able to do it in 10 months that signed up. Fortunately, Clipper has said all crew who were signed up for legs 6, 7, 8 and circumnavigators still have spots and berth fees remained paid for 10 months in advance, so that is my plan. There will be a refresher training. I am not sure what that will look like, if it will be a day refresher or another week of level 4 in the UK.”
I lamented with Lizzy. I have closely watched her work her ass off to raise funds to do two legs of this race. She has also trained hard for it and I have delightedly witnessed her confidence and skill level grow exponentially. Putting myself in her shoes, I could imagine the disappointment. This is a huge theme in the current state of the world, people having to cancel or put a hold on life goals and dreams that they have worked years toward. We are sitting in a lot of unknowns and it is damn uncomfortable. I asked Lizzy how she was coping.
She said with a sigh, “It’s been up and down emotionally. Thank god my husband and I were home when I found out, because I had a feeling that this would happen. Clipper might have done port of refuge, but then, how would they provision during the crisis? Psychologically it would be hard sailing one of the toughest oceans not knowing what will happen when they hit land. I’ve been working so hard for 4 years since I heard of the race. I spent most of the night in tears with admittedly no shortage of gin. It’s a huge disappointment. I kept thinking, now the fuck what? Right now, the only answer is to sit tight because everything is changing moment by moment. Luckily, everyone has been so supportive. Sonic, the TP-52 I race on was great as well. I was readjusting my mind to local races, but now they are all canceled. NO sailing, that sucks. Sailing is not an option for me right now and it’s a huge outlet. So, I am focusing on my sewing. It’s hard to find ways to stay occupied and be able to keep busy so I don’t dwell on the suck. Anxiety brain loves to dwell on the suck. I try to redirect to gratitude, it is hard. I have become The Sailing Unicorn and people do look to me to be positive, I have to walk my own talk and that helps. Monday night could have been a dark place if I didn’t have the tools I have. I want to do more posting for encouraging others. If we dwell on the suck, from the mental health standpoint it will get worse. This is just as much a mental health crisis as a health crisis. Because people get lonely, they struggle with disappointment, they wonder what’s the point of life? And we have to find those answers.”
I asked Lizzy to share some of her wisdom on how to cope with the unknown. She said, “First of all, it’s okay to say that shit sucks. It’s okay to lay low if you don’t have spoons. Also look around and say well, what’s next? Keep the direction going of what you CAN do. Find things that you enjoy or are satisfied to finish so you don’t spiral into depression. Clipper isn’t canceled, it’s delayed. Keep finding joy. Or barring joy, remind yourself that you don’t have to be numb. I have more time to do other things like cleaning, organizing or sewing, or drink mixology, coloring, cooking, trying to find things that can still be fun. The other thing that is great is social media. As much of a dumpster fire as it can be, there are some amazing things happening. We are doing a webcam happy hour today with Sonic. My friends are just a text or message away. It’s hard for those who don’t have social media or tech access because they can feel super isolated. We can still encourage each other when we are down and that’s helpful. Usually when bad things happen, we need to come together. Everyone is in the shitty place, and it’s hard. When there is usually someone or a group not suffering, they can support the person in need, but right now everybody is stressed. We need to be kind more than ever because everyone is fighting a hard battle. We need to have compassion and empathy that nobody is working with a full deck, even those who usually have more spoons.”
This is some extremely wise shit my friends. BE KIND. If you don’t know spoon theory, it is one of my favorites for folks with chronic mental or physical illness. It is a metaphor for how much energy people have. Neurotypical healthy people wake up with a certain number of spoons, activities in the day use them, and at the end of the day they have spoons left over. Folks with illness wake up with a shortage of spoons and have to prioritize how to use them. They never have enough spoons for everything. Everyone has fewer spoons right now because of the pandemic and stress. People who generally have more can share them with their loved ones who have less by doing acts of service. In fact, as Lizzy so eloquently says, we all need to acknowledge the spoon shortage and share spoons at this time. I reflected to Lizzy that she clearly has done a shit ton of personal emotional work in her life and it shows through her coping. I have a bias because my day job is a therapist, and now I offer life coaching internationally, but I wanted to ask her how therapy has impacted her life.
Lizzy said, “Therapy has given me an advantage, but it’s been hard. Part of my story of depression and suicide stemmed from my divorce. My husband told me he was divorcing me in couples therapy, so it was traumatic to go into an office after that. But I knew I needed to get help. It was hard to make up the courage to write the first email, it was also hard to reach out and find someone accepting new patients with my insurance. Luckily, I got connected with one I liked right away. It’s been great to have an impartial person I can trust with anything and has my best interest at heart with no alternative motive. I don’t have a feeling of burdening anyone, it’s so great to have someone committed to an hour that is just about me. Therapy has given me tools I wouldn’t have found on my own or practiced on my own, like centering. Centering is also a big part of my yoga practice; it’s how you learn about yourself and grow. Therapy is also a place to ask a lot of why questions that are empathy building. Even when things are going well, it’s good to go to therapy because you get benchmarks. Therapists keep track. Everyone should be able to go to therapy. Even people who think they are perfectly fine should go to therapy because you can learn new things that enhance your life. Therapists know how to confront and pull a rip cord on when you have a bigger problem and need more help. When the Clipper rug got pulled out from under me, therapy skills are why I didn’t go to the dark place. I have learned it is important to recognize that feeling sooner and redirect it.”
I love the way Lizzy works hard to destigmatize mental health and suicide prevention. She offers a mission of positive encouragement and support with great empathy and understanding of “the suck,” as she so aptly calls it. So many feel alone with mental illness and the fact is, you aren’t alone. Many people struggle, and many people also thrive despite it. Lizzy and I are two of those badass people who have mental illness and who also work with it and thrive. Lizzy is doing all kinds of badass stuff with her life! Therapists and coaches with therapy backgrounds, like myself, have a unique education, experience and vantage point to help people thrive. We don’t have magic wands or all the answers, we can’t fix things or even change people, but what we do have are ways to draw people’s strengths out so they can live happier and healthier lives. We have skill sets validated in science and years of training that can help people learn to soothe their nervous systems to cope and respond to life in different ways.
Two of the biggest skills I use are what Lizzy talks about here with centering. It sometimes is also called grounding. Here are my instructions: slow down and take 5-10 deep breaths focusing on getting air to the bottom of your lungs and increasing your exhale time. Then orient yourself to the present moment. You can do this by simply walking through your main 5 senses of sight, taste, touch, sound and smell. Name three things that you notice in this very moment about each with intention. Pause on them and notice the quality of feeling with each. This will help your cognitive and physical brain to connect and regulate. The breath gives you endorphins that stimulate the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm you down. Grounding helps connect your brain and body in the moment, and that registers safety and is regulating. Our brains don’t function as well when we are not in the moment. We cannot make new choices or habits unless we are present and aware of what our impulses are telling us versus what a healthier response might be. This is how we create change, one breath and choice at a time.
The conversation brought us to the therapeutic elements of sailing. I asked Lizzy what sailing does for her and her mental health. She said, “Sailing: hard to put into words what it does, but I feel the most ME on a boat. A part of me is unlocked. I am more confident, more aware of what I can and can’t do. Sailing is humbling in ways that are expected and unexpected. I rely on people more. I sail with 14-15 people; most jobs are collaborating with someone on a TP-52. I have to trust people, or stuff isn’t going to work. Whether double handed or on a big boat, crew work gets better when we know we can trust people. It’s opened up great community and friendships. There are so many women in our community that are amazing and supportive, and I like them so much. There is a global community as well, it’s so cool. I realized sailing can take me wherever I want to go, places I never imagined. I went from casual racing at Duck Dodge on Lake Union to realizing I can sail anywhere in the world and find other sailors. There is unity in that, the language might be different, but I’ve got something that connects me to other people. It’s also a way to disconnect from my phone, be in the moment, and be focused only on the thing that I am doing. My mom and I have also gotten closer together in our bond through sailing. She was the one who first invited me out on a boat.”
In many of my interviews I hear similar themes in sailing. Sailing in and of itself is therapeutic because it provides us a flow state. Flow is a psychological term first coined by Csikszentmihalyi. It has several stages to it, but essentially is when we are so absorbed in something that we are completely integrated, at peace, we can do it for prolonged periods of time almost effortlessly focused, and time seems to fly by. You are definitely grounded when in flow. Sailing is like that for most. It is incredibly soothing to our nervous systems. I like to look at sailing as a regulating activity because it integrates your physical, mental and emotional brain at once. In many ways, sailing could even be considered a mindfulness practice in it’s singular focus and experience. So many of us tend to ruminate on the past or the future, we are constantly analyzing and planning. While there is some of that on a boat too, route planning and learning from prior experiences, much of sailing is what the wind and water are doing right now and making instant adjustments and response to it. Without sailing due to the pandemic, many of us are having to practice grounding in other ways. I do it on walks outside, during yoga, or when making art. I also watch YouTube videos of sail trim and tactics; I am catching up on reading about sailing. It helps balance out the longing for wind and waves as I sit in quarantine from exposure to COVID.
Lizzy has stepped into sailing in a big way in a short period of time. She has built an amazing community and she is absolutely right about the healing of community connection and trust. Sailboat racing is a deeply social sport as you spend a lot of time with your team in many conditions. I have been impressed at how she took on the role of crew boss for the Sonic program this year and asked her about it. She said in a light and humorous tone, “I like the term crew manager better, or HBIC-head bitch in charge, or honey badger in charge, or head bastard in charge, depends on your preference. It is so scary, I didn’t mean to do that, to be a leader. I often do things by the seat of my pants, that’s why I try to wear cute underwear. Our first sail was in January, it was a practice. The imposter syndrome was real, I told my anxiety brain that it could just go fuck off. The learning curve on that boat…omg it was nuts. The only way I conned my way on is the Clipper bond with the skipper. It’s a varied age group, and mostly male. This is why I stepped up to manager so we could get some rad lady action on this boat. They have never made me feel like the token girl, there is occasionally a joke about being a girl, but mostly it’s me starting it. They’ve let me become one of them and embraced me in a lead role. The previous crew manager left, and I was encouraged by another to step up. I told him that I didn’t think I could because I’m still a baby sailor. He told me I don’t need to know how to do everything; I just have to know that stuff needs to get done and how to delegate and resource for it. I thought, I can definitely do that. There has been a lot of encouragement and it has been fun. I have also enjoyed doing some of the social media management to promote the team.”
I find that we have a lot of enlightened men in the PNW, as well as badass women sailors. I love stories like this where there has been enthusiasm for women aboard as well as opportunity for leadership. As I do in all of my interviews, I still asked her if she has encountered sexism in the sport so far. She said, “I’ve been so lucky, in the PNW we are incredibly blessed to have kick ass women paving the way, there is too long of a list to count. Meredith Anderson, Team Sail Like a Girl, Margaret Pommert, Lisa Cole, Skipper Jenn, and so many others it’s hard to name them all. I don’t want to leave anyone out! Women sailors are more respected here because of other awesome women sailors. Earlier in my sailing career, I was seeing the typical ‘oh no, you don’t need to do that, I will do it for you.’ I would defer because I was a baby sailor who didn’t know. Now I’m like, ‘I’ve got this.’ I haven’t been assaulted, but I have been harassed, especially at Duck Dodge, there have been comments about outfits they want to see me sailing in. Those guys can fuck off to fuck mountain. Even now my Instagram DM will get interesting when dudes comment, I delete and block.”
She continued, “One time I got pushed out of the way. It shook me because I was working on building up my confidence, I wasn’t quite at a point where I was comfortable firing back. Skippers and crew need to allow people to learn. Coaching, I appreciate that. I had to jump up several levels on Sonic. They would say encouragingly, “Lizzy go faster!” This was the same tone as a coach on the sideline. Everyone has a shouty skipper experience at some point though. There are lots of reasons why skippers yell, maybe someone needed more hugs as a kid, maybe it’s a confidence thing, they are insecure and louder to cover lack of skill, and some are just plain assholes on and off the water. Some people are perfectly nice on land, then on the water it’s like, ‘who are you?’ There is no one answer for the yellers. My favorite people are the ones who get quieter when shit hits the fan. They are calm in a crisis. Yelling as a communication style doesn’t work. This is meant to be fun. Especially as women, sometimes we are more sensitive and that’s okay. Very few people are pro here, we are doing it for fun. Nobody wants to be yelled at in their free time. Men are often conditioned to take yelling, but maybe that should change too. On Sonic I am somewhat of boat HR, there is gonna be friction sometimes, but my role is to create trust and have conversations about what is going on there, how can I help. I hope that other boats have that. As women, we are getting better at calling interpersonal stuff out. We are learning to say, ‘here is what I need you to communicate to me and how.’ I got feedback on how I was coaching someone on Sonic that wasn’t helping. She communicated with me, we worked it out and kept racing. It’s good to see more gender mix because it shakes up how things work, there is more diversity of thought and ways to do things.”
I couldn’t agree more. I think having women on boats encourages a kind of sensitivity and relational skill set that is needed because we are enculturated to be more adaptive and kinder in the way we show up. Men often do not treat one another well in general due to restrictive masculinity, and frankly, that doesn’t help performance enhancement. Yelling dysregulates a nervous system and creates stress and a lack of trust. It gives a message that mistakes are not tolerated, and mistakes are needed to grow. Teams that encourage active communication on and off the water are going to perform better. There has to be physical, mental and emotional safety for the brain to work at its peak game. This doesn’t mean that folks don’t get to lose it once in a while, we all do. As long as it is not the norm, and teams talk about it later, it can even deepen trust to work through conflict. I yelled at Eric several times in our last race. Afterward we discussed it and it was because I was scared and frustrated. I was losing the rudder control due to sail trim. I also didn’t feel heard because it kept happening and he wasn’t responding verbally or through action. I apologized later for my tone and words, which I humbly submit were, “GOD DAMMIT ERIC! I KEEP TELLING YOU TO TRIM THE FUCKING SAILS!” We both felt relief talking about it and looked up some boat specs to do better next race. Come to find out, I wasn’t being as clear as I thought in communicating my needs and he was trying to adjust but wasn’t sure what would work. Everything is about learning folks.
My last question for Lizzy was one I like to ask most women sailors. What advice she would give other women for getting into the sport? With sass she said, “Women getting into sailing: just fucking send it! It’s gonna look different because there is no one way to learn to sail, there are different learning styles, some take classes, some do casual racing, just dip a toe in somewhere. Start by connecting with other women sailors. If you are insecure or whatnot, just go for it, the worst that will happen is it won’t work out. We don’t need to have everything answered beforehand, just sign up, go for it, and take it as it comes. There are Women Who Sail Facebook groups in almost all areas of the globe to join, call a yacht club, talk to people. Put energy out there, tell people, ‘I think I want to get into sailing.’ Don’t be afraid if how you sail looks different than others. There are lots of ways to do it. There is no one way to be a sailor…..including outfits! Everyone knows at Duck Dodge; I send it on the outfits!”
Lizzy sends it in just about everything she does, and I for one, cannot wait to watch this once baby sailor continue to grow into the badass sailing diva she is destined to be. Just today she was sewing face masks all day for nurses here in Seattle for the pandemic. She is definitely walking her talk. Lizzy is a rare combination of fun, sass, smarts, grit, kindness and love and it shows on the water and off. One day she and I will be posting the photos from an epic onesie dance party on Poopsie, the sooner the better. The collaboration of unicorn sailing power is just beginning. I sincerely hope each and every one of you are able to connect to your inner magic and share it widely out there. The world needs it right now.
May we all sail in peace.