Whether sailing or stock market: Keep your eye on the horizon and don't chase the compass

Jaska's teakwood deck pitched and plunged beneath my feet, shaking my sense of balance at its foundation. As of one hour ago, I was no longer on solid ground. The bow of the 53-foot sloop dipped sharply to starboard, shearing the peak off a dark-blue wave. One second later I was soaked by the wind-whipped spray. A thick, salty film was accumulating on my skin from the repeated drenchings, and my T-shirt and shorts felt like cardboard. So much for the softness and feel of cotton.

I turned around on the cockpit bench to avoid another facial assault. Our wake spread out behind us, tracing a nearly straight line over the shifting hills and valleys of the Caribbean. Bobbing five miles off our stern, St. Johnsat peaceful, bathed in the red glow of the sunset. St. Thomas, not quite so peaceful, peeked over St. John's shoulder. The two watched us skate east on the warm tradewinds, into the falling darkness.

As Jaska bounced over and through the waves, first mate Ian stood relaxed at the wheel, leaning and rocking like a cowboy on a slow-motion bucking bronco. Eyes sweeping the horizon, he had just two fingers hooked loosely on the wheel. Occasionally he’d glance up at the sail, to make sure we were making full use of the wind. But mostly he watched the horizon, looking like he was driving a car in a scene from an old movie. The turns of the wheel seemed to have no connection to the movement of the scenery in the background.

With no landmarks on the open ocean, we instead depended on our compass, a horizontal, rotating black disc under a glass bubble set into the top of the wheel post. The pedestal-mounted compass was embossed with white numbers representing headings zero through 360. If the compass read 180 degrees, then you were heading directly away from magnetic north. A reading of 90 degrees meant you were heading eastward, perpendicular to magnetic north. You get the idea.

At the moment, however, the compass in my stomach was whirling like a top. Not only was I a tad seasick (already), but I was also more than a tad nervous. It was nearly time for my first two-hour watch, and I'd logged very few hours in my life steering anything bigger than a paddleboat on a pond. Jaska was 53 feet long, and this was a big ocean.

We were to have two-hour watches, with six hours off between shifts. During your watch, you steer the boat, look out for other ships, adjust the sails, and generally keep an eye out for trouble. Throughout the trip across the Atlantic, my watches would be 12 noon - 2 p.m.,8 p.m. - 10 p.m.and 4 a.m. - 6 a.m.

I grew increasingly uneasy as we approached 8 p.m.and my first turn at the wheel. I watched Ian out of the corner of my eye, looking for tips and hints for steering a straight course. He seemed not even to pay attention to the compass, gazing out at the horizon and nonchalantly turning the wheel. How hard could this be?

Then it was my turn. Ian stepped aside ceremoniously, "handing" me the wheel. I felt the eyes of my three crewmates on me. I looked quickly at the compass to determine our bearing.

AAAHHH!!! We were already ten degrees off to starboard! I yanked the wheel to port. The wind shifted to my back as the compass rocketed clockwise. AAAAAHHHHH!!!  Twenty degrees too far to port!

With decisive speed, I spun the wheel to starboard, hand over hand. Jaska heeled sharply over to her port side as the wind caught the sail full and tight. The rest of the crew scrambled for handholds as the deck slanted crazily to the left.

A moment later, a great popping noise filled the air overhead, as if God were shaking out his sheets. We were heading straight into the wind. Our mainsail flapped like a flag, and the boom swung back and forth above our heads like a giant Louisville Slugger.

I glanced at the compass and saw numbers that didn’t make sense, like winter constellations in a summer sky. That can't be right!  I scanned the surface of the ocean for clues to our direction, but the random uniformity of the waves offered no help.

The wind gave lift to our sail again -- from the port side? In the distance, a ship's lights slid across our path from the starboard side. No, it wasn’t a ship. It was St. Thomas and St. John. That meant...

I looked skyward -- for help, in embarrassment. The stars were rotating slowly around the axis of our mast. I was sailing Jaska in circles.

I learned lots of lessons from that misadventure. One in particular comes to mind as the stock market gyrates like a compass on a choppy ocean: Keep your eye on the horizon, and don’t chase the compass.

Stacy and I use a financial advisor who helps us set and stay on track for long-term financial goals, and I would highly recommend having a financial advisor to anyone, for just that reason (in fact, if you like, email me and I'll give you his number).

If your long-term goals are solid, the minute-to-minute gyrations are not important. If you chase those short-term numbers, you could end up seasick and sailing in the opposite direction of your long-term goals.