Deb Anselm photo

There are days where I am the cool one, the woman others want to be. This was not one of those days.

“What’s going on in your head is not what’s going on out here,” the sailing instructor said. I knew he was right. I could see through the fisheye shape of my tunnel vision that the sun was shining and reflecting off the waves. I could see that the others on the boat were relaxed with their arms spread as if they were sitting on a couch. I could see the white of the sail, shaped like a cupped palm. I could see that I was in the best place in the Quad-Cities, sliding quietly along the surface of the Mississippi River with the I-74 bridge framing the distance. I knew that anyone else in that moment would be relaxed and happy and grateful. But I wanted to die.

My hand was on the tiller and I could feel myself holding on as if the world would fall away and I would float into space if I let go. The muscles of my bicep and shoulder were fired so tight my arm was as hard and immobile as stone.

I saw a gust of wind rolling along the water in front of us and knew it was about to hit the sail. I braced for the beating, even as I heard the joyful laughter of someone else on the boat celebrating as we picked up speed.

I was there for one reason, to face and overcome a fear.

Five years ago, I was in a sailboat accident that involved me alone in a storm, fighting white capped waves to right-side my overturned boat. The short version involves me getting rescued and towed back to shore, exhausted and embarrassed. The short version ends with me docking the boat, folding the sails meticulously and tying them to the boom with loose and thoughtful square knots. It ends with me getting in my car and driving away from the water and never going back again.

This month, I decided I was sick of being afraid and I signed up for a week-long beginner sailing class through the Davenport Park and Recreation Department and the Lake Davenport Sailing Club.

I thought I could participate and keep my fear a secret, but as soon as I stepped onto a boat, I audibly sighed and said, “Oh, no.”

What amazed me was how much they guys who teach the course were willing to help. I’ve been on the other side of someone’s fear. You can’t understand it. It’s irrational and it’s easy to lose patience.

“What is it that you’re afraid of?” one instructor asked. “Is it this?” He pulled in a sail to grab as much wind as possible. The boat heeled and water rushed by. Nope. It wasn’t speed when someone else was at the tiller. Early in the week, we practiced capsize drills, rolling the boat upside-down and bringing it back. Nope. It wasn’t a fear of the chaos or of drowning.

It was when I was steering that the fear came over me. It’s the fear of making a mistake and losing control, I thought. As each second stretched into a torturous eternity, I tried to observe my own thoughts, but there were none. Fear is not a thought process. It’s a response. It was a weakening at my joints, a simultaneous sapping of energy combined with the magnified awareness from repeated shots of adrenaline.

I wish I could say this was one of those inspiring stories about overcoming fear. A lot of it went away, just by forcing myself to face it. Some of it was too powerful. It still has a grip on me. I was a little ashamed of that.

But something cool did come of it. When you sail on the Mississippi, your senses are tested. It’s not just wind you have to watch, but the incredible current that feels like gravity itself, pulling you down that interstate of a river.

Even through my fear, I was watching the river – the coal barges, the Celebration Belle, that teenager showing off on a jet ski.

The men from the Lake Davenport Sailing Club know the river. They know the wind is coming from the south and is being disturbed by that grove of trees on the horizon. They know the owners of the homes on the hill in Iowa and the history of the Rock Island Arsenal buildings that they use to set their courses. They spend their time literally navigating between the two states.

And when I was on the river, battling the wind to paddle across the Mississippi for Floatzilla, I felt the pull of the current and understood it, the way you know someone a little better after a fight.

Autumn Phillips is executive editor of the Quad-City Times and 563-383-2264;; on Twitter @autumnedit.