Surviving Lockdown: Advice from an Ocean Sailor

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books set in wilder, remote locations or featuring wildlife as the main theme, including nature writing, biographies, travelogues, and fictional tales. 

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For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive.

I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental.

  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery

Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world.

I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing, Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist.

It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar and returning home after a long exile.

Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters.

This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature.

Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this.

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I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography.

No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations on my list, you must read this one.

Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

Why you should try birdwatching.

BirdwatchingHello. My name is Vicky, and I am a birdwatcher.

I have many and varied interests (well, don’t we all?), but one thing that makes my heart go a-flutter more than most is grabbing my binoculars and keeping tabs on the local birdlife. It started as out a necessity, a university research project mapping the food web of an intertidal mudflat. Just work out who eats what…, and my interest grew slowly from that.

I’ve watched spear-sharp gannets dive for fish on the Scottish coast as I sailed by. I’ve hiked into a kauri forest in New Zealand at night searching for kiwis shuffling through the undergrowth. I spotted an improbably balanced toucan in a kapok tree as I set up a bivvy in the Belizean jungle. And every autumn I watch out for skeins of brent geese, like squadrons of aircraft, returning from the Arctic to my local coast.
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What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?

David Attenborough

Birdwatching brings all kinds of small pleasures; spotting something new and exciting, or something friendly and familiar; being outdoors and feeling the wind and weather around you; becoming attuned to the surroundings and focusing on observation. For me, it beats any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice.
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Five tips for beginner birders

  • Begin at the beginning. Start by noticing what’s going on in your garden or local park. You can even put some feeders out to encourage birds close to where you can see them. Observe things like size, colour, behaviour; think about how you’d describe them and start to put some names to the regular visitors. The RSPB Bird Identifier is great to help get you started.
  • Get some gear. Basic birdwatching doesn’t need much; just looking and listening can often be enough to get you started. A field guide will help with identification, as will a notebook to jot down or sketch what you’ve seen. Good walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing will make your life more comfortable out in the field. Investing in a pair of binoculars is the next step. Beginner level binoculars can be picked up for between £50 and £100, and decent pairs are often available second hand. Look for a good balance of magnification, field of view, and weight; I’d recommend going for 8×42, like my Opticron pair.
  • Find a birding buddy. One thing I found that helped most to build my confidence was to ask other birders to show me what they were looking at and share any tips they had that would help me remember the bird for next time. Most birders are friendly and love to share their passion with others, so say hello next time you visit a hide. Twitter is also a great way to find people; follow your local nature reserves, and you’ll soon pick up other birders that will help build your skills.
  • Get to know your local patch. Find a nearby area that looks likely, such as your garden, a nature reserve, a stretch of coast, or any green space, and visit it often. You’ll soon start to see patterns and changes in the birds you see, and their behaviours, as the seasons change around you.
  • Swot up on species. Most nature reserves and hides have a sightings board or book with the birds that have been spotted recently. Match up the list with the pictures in your guide so you know what you’re looking for. You’ll also find online lists that tell you what to expect in your area and any recent sightings of interest. There may also be a local ornithology group that you can join.

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The best books and guides for budding birdwatchers

  • How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes. A bad birdwatcher is a good thing. This book is a brilliant introduction into why watching birds is about tapping into your joy in the natural world.
  • The Collins Bird Guide, by Lars Svensson and Killian Mullarney. The most comprehensive and current book covering British and European birds, and worth investing in if you’re keen to improve your ID skills.
  • RSPB Bird Identifier. A feature on the RSPB website which suggests what you might have seen by answering a few questions, e.g. Where did you see it? What colour was it? What was it doing? and so on.
  • Identifying Birds by Behaviour, by Dominic Couzens. This book will supplement your field guide and gives an interesting background into bird behaviour.
  • Birds Britannica, by Mark Coker and Richard Mabey. A rich study of the cultural and social connections between birds and people through history, filled with fabulous pictures.

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There are also several apps you can download to help with identification and recording species while you’re out and about.

Do you like to spend time birdwatching?
What’s been the most interesting bird you’ve seen on your travels?
Let me know in the comments below.
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