Lessons learned from sailing experiences that prepared me for isolation during lockdown.
I’ve just returned to the UK from Antarctica, to be faced with strange and uncertain times as a consequence of the global COVID-19 outbreak. I spent four months at Port Lockroy, living and working on a small island with a close team, and as some of you may know, before that I worked on several traditional sailing vessels.
Some of the sailing voyages I made were long; bluewater passages far from land, or any other vessels for that matter. Being on the open ocean is both an awesome experience and deeply monotonous, epically profound and incredibly prosaic. And it has been thorough preparation for our current situation. Sailing on an empty sea with the same crew for weeks at a time, often facing stormy and uncertain conditions has taught me valuable lessons that can be applied to this lockdown.
Of course, there are vital differences. Making a long ocean passage is a choice (though by day 19 you may beg to differ), unlike our required lockdown to keep ourselves and our communities protected from infection. But the sense of isolation, precariousness, and cabin fever is deeply familiar.
So, some advice from a sailor, to help us weather these uncertain times. Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about living in isolation.
The novelty will wear off.
The first few days after setting sail are thrilling; the endless expanse of the ocean, fresh wind in your hair, and salt spray on your skin. The excitement of heading into the unknown. A feeling of complete freedom.
It may be the same during the lockdown period. At first, the luxury of idle time. Oh, the possibilities! But then the monotonous ocean swells of boredom roll on and on over the horizon, no end in sight. It can be hard not to feel a little melancholic, but understand that it’s natural to feel this way, and it will ebb and flow over time. Prepare yourself, and don’t let your worries become overwhelming.
The work is never done.
Cruising along under sail, it might seem like there’s little activity happening aboard a ship. Once the sails are set, what remains to be done? Actually, there’s more than enough to keep busy. A good bosun has a neverending list to work on before the end of the voyage. Make yourself a lockdown list of everyday chores, outstanding tasks, and even aspirational undertakings, adding to it as the days in isolation go on. Aim to accomplish one or more items ticked off each day.
Keep those goals achievable.
That being said, it can be tempting to make some grand plans when you’re without everyday interruptions. “I’ll become fluent in Spanish! I’ll finally write my novel! I’ll train for an ultramarathon!” If you have that level of focus and commitment, good on you.
I find it more effective to set small, attainable goals, so if times get tough, I still feel like I’ve achieved something. Right now, I have two main goals; to do something active every day, to rebuild my fitness after four months in Antarctica, and to write every day. Having these goals in place helps motivation, and sometimes finding that alone can be enough of a win.
You, the crew, then the ship.
You have certain responsibilities as part of the crew to keep everyone safe, and they come in this order:
- Firstly, you are the priority. Take care of yourself. If you don’t look after yourself properly, you’re in no position to help anyone else who may need it. Keep healthy, stay well-rested, and ask for help if you need it. You are not alone.
- Next in importance, take care of your crew. This applies to everyone on board, whether you are the captain, the cook, or just a deckhand. Look after your people, communicate openly with those around you, and do what you can to ensure those close to you are coping.
- Finally, look after your vessel. If your living and working space is unsafe, then everyone in it is unsafe. That applies not just to physical dangers, but also to a hostile atmosphere, and any situation that leaves people feeling vulnerable. Again consistent communication is key; don’t allow small stuff to blow up out of control.
Get away from your gang.
On a voyage you might be put into a small team, called a watch, where you eat, sleep, and work together for the duration of the trip. Being with the same people for days on end, no matter how much you love them, has a way of turning great friends into huge irritations.
There is often nothing more infuriating than continually tripping over your shipmates in a small, shared space. Take it in turns to do various tasks, and in using shared spaces and resources. Make a schedule if you must. Find the time to do activities on your own.
Find space for yourself.
All ships, even big ones, feel small after a few days at sea. There’s virtually no private space onboard (save the heads, and that’s not really where you’d want to hang out), just your own bunk, a narrow coffin where you can shut out the rest of the world. That’s if you have the luxury of not hot-bunking on your voyage. But it soon gets pretty dull if that’s where you spend all of your time.
I always try to seek out a quiet spot to sit and read, write, or just stare at the water without needing to respond or react to others. Carving out a physical space lets you find the mental space you need. At home, we often have a door to close to create that refuge. Headphones or a book to get lost in can help when all your physical space is shared. Communicate with the others in your space about your needs, and when you want to be left alone, and respect that need in others.
In our current situation in the UK we’re permitted to leave our homes for short periods to exercise outdoors, so take advantage of the opportunity. Get out of your room before it starts to feel like a coffin.
I had found that it was not good to be alone, and so made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.
Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone around the World
Spend time together intentionally.
When you do spend time together, make it feel intentional. While sailing, members of the crew usually had their own roles, but we’d come together to eat dinner every night. At Port Lockroy, the evenings of our rest days became film nights, squashed together on the folded-out sofa bed. We’d find small excuses to celebrate too; Antarctica Day, Burn’s Night (and Heidi Day, of course), a visit to a ship for a sauna, the first penguin chick, a gifted bottle of wine and game of Bananagrams.
While celebrations might be too much to handle right now, find a ritual that feels good for your current living situation. Joyful ways to spend time together makes close company feel like a gift, not something that grates on you.
Keep in contact, at a distance.
Both during time at sea, and in Antarctica, our ability to communicate with the outside world was seriously limited. A satellite connection to send and receive emails, chats with nearby vessels on our VHF radio, and rare satellite phone calls home. In general, conversations weren’t particularly thrilling, but the interruption in the isolation was powerful. Emails from home made me feel connected, despite the physical distance.
There will still be moments that spark your joy.
This is an extraordinary time. It’s going to be tough. We’ll inevitably start to feel frustrated at some point. Many of us are already stressed, even fearful about what may happen. Some of us will end up out of work, others out of schooling, or even without a home. We might become sick, or have loved ones who will. We will lose people. We may not feel like we can cope, and darkness is drawing in. Give yourself the space to process those feelings. It’s ok to be not ok.
Moments of true beauty and joy will exist amid the monotony, uncertainty, and anxiety. The brightest star-filled sky on a night watch; a sunrise that sets the sky on fire; dolphins playing in the turbulent water under the bow. Slow yourself down, savour these times, and share them with others.
You can’t stop the gale, but you can reef your sails.
Right now, it seems impossible to plan for the week ahead, let alone next month or next year. Everything I scribbled into my journal as I sailed away from Antarctica is left on ice. Plans and potential melted away overnight. Now, I only have to deal with what is billowing around me.
We can’t calm this storm, but we can don our foul weather gear and reef the sails while we wait for it to pass. Many things will happen that are outwith our control, and the best we can do is to be prepared and take mitigating measures. Do what you reasonably can, don’t try to control the uncontrollable, or you’ll send yourself round the twist.
Treat yourself when it’s all over.
Unlike on an ocean voyage, we didn’t choose to be in this situation. But we can choose to hold on to hope, and to make the most of where we are right now. At the end of this lockdown, we’ll be able to meet up again, share our stories face-to-face over good food and a few drinks, and go for all the mountain hikes, wild swims, and bike rides that we’re missing right now.
Think about what you might do. Plan that holiday you’ve always dreamed of. Anticipate the meals in the restaurants you’re going to order. Use this time to reach out to friends and family you don’t see regularly, and talk about how you’ll get together again.
You’re more resilient than you think.
You’ve held the helm in the dark and rain for the last three hours, watched the sunrise, and according to the clock, should have been relived; so do you abandon your post? Not a chance. You’re not done until your relief takes over, and you are stood down. At present, there’s little indication of just how long this lockdown might actually last. We’re done when we are relieved of our duty to stay at home.
Right now, our responsibility is to stand by and remain vigilant until that time. Prepare the way you need to, taking each day (or hour) at a time. You are capable of so much, and you might not even know it yet. Believe me, you are tough enough for this.
You’ve got this.