The boat Alliance entering the Narragansett Bay during a recent sunrise in Rhode Island. 

The boat Alliance entering the Narragansett Bay during a recent sunrise in Rhode Island.  (Lisa Smith Molinari)

I arrived at the base marina ten minutes late, setting my nerves on edge before crew practice had even started. Little did I know, the smidge of apprehension I felt would amplify into confidence-obliterating anxiety that would render me virtually useless before the day was done.

It was the first practice for the crew of Alliance, a 40-foot J122 offshore racing sailboat co-skippered by two military-connected sailing friends, Mary and Eric. I’d met Mary through the base’s Navy Yacht Club, and she’d invited me to be “delivery crew” last year.

As delivery crew, I wouldn’t race with Alliance, but I’d help sail the boat to and from race locations. As a sailing novice with lots to learn, this lesser status was fine by me. In fact, I was grateful to be exposed to this respectable group of lifelong sailors at all.

At age 57, my goal wasn’t to become an expert offshore racer. Realistically, I’d never fully grasp the complexities of navigation, weather and tactics. My modest aim was to simply be a useful member of the overall crew.

“Hi, I’m Lisa,” I said cheerfully to the crew members who were busy doing various tasks on the docked boat. When they looked in my direction, I sensed mild confusion.

“What’s that frumpy, middle-aged woman doing on the boat?” their faces seemed to say.

“Delivery crew,” I explained with a nervous chuckle, pointing to myself.

The race crew wore scuffed boots and sailing gear, showing wear and tear from years of races. By contrast, I was decked out in glaringly spotless boots and crispy-new foul weather gear without so much as a smudge, wrinkle or stray thread.

Once aboard, I looked for ways to help, but it quickly became apparent that I couldn’t really help without asking for help myself, which kind of defeated the purpose of helping at all. When I did take a stab at tasks, I often made stupid mistakes, further rattling my nerves.

“You’re making this more difficult,” Bill, a race crew member, blurted when I attempted to help him pack a spinnaker sail into its designated bag.

My blunders continued that blustery afternoon during practice maneuvers on the Narragansett Bay. I grabbed the wrong line, attached the wrong shackle, tied the wrong knot, forgot where the fairlead was, sheeted in when I should’ve eased out.

Each time I goofed or got in someone’s way, I pivoted and carried on. However, one by one, tiny invisible chinks formed in my self-confidence.

At 6:30 p.m., Alliance sailed out of the bay on port tack, following a rhumb line to a point just south of Block Island. The ocean was quite rough, and I was glad that I’d hidden a sea-sickness patch behind my left ear. I volunteered to wash the dinner dishes, one task I thought I couldn’t screw up, but as I worked at the galley sink, the shepherd’s pie I’d eaten nearly came back up.

I was assigned to first watch, 8 p.m. to midnight, along with Conor and Julija. When I took the helm, Conor pointed out a lighted beacon up ahead “just off the starboard bow.” I searched in vain for the light. “The OTHER starboard bow,” Conor said flatly.

In the windblown cockpit, my battered self-confidence finally gave way. For the rest of the watch, I clammed up, unable to do or say anything. I’d hit a mental wall. In all my unsuccessful attempts to be useful, I’d rendered myself useLESS.

Chilled to the bone, I huddled in my designated berth after midnight and my paralyzed brain forgot to set an alarm for the 4 a.m. watch. My final rookie mistake was waking up an hour late. The entire crew was topside when I appeared in the companionway, as Alliance re-entered the Narragansett Bay.

At home, I convinced myself that I was the laughingstock of the Alliance crew, and that they’d never invite me back. But I received an email from the skippers assigning me to delivery crew after a race the very next weekend. In mustering the courage to try again, I stumbled upon a quote by Henry Ford: “Failure is only the opportunity to begin more intelligently again.”

Read more at and in Lisa’s book, “The Meat and Potatoes of Life: My True Lit Com.” Email:

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now