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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What to Pack for Day Hikes in the UK

This list includes everything I take on my day hikes in the UK (in summer conditions), plus a few extras for when I’m in different situations and have different purposes for my hikes.  It’s taken me a while to get my kit together, but it’s been worth getting a few items to ensure I’m safe and warm, and can do everything I want to do.

The biggest element of planning a hike in the UK is our predictably unpredictable weather.  Just because a day starts in sunshine, there’s no guarantee that it will end that way, and if you’re hiking hills, mountains, or munros on a drizzly day, there’s every chance you might emerge through the cloud layer into the dazzling sun on the tops.

 

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I’ll often go hiking solo, so I’m solely responsible for taking everything I might need. I also lead small groups and hike with friends, but still take the same amount of kit.  I want to be responsible for my own welfare, and able to help out anyone else that might be having an issue.  I might also bring a few extra items if there’s more than just me, in the hope that others will share their sweets in return.

Which pack to pack?

Backpack

You’ll need something big enough to hold everything you need, but avoid the temptation to take something overly large.  If you’re like me you’ll just keep filling it up with things that aren’t really necessary and weighing yourself down.  I’d recommend something with a 20 to 25 litres capacity, like my Deuter ACT Trail backpack (24 litres).

It’s worth spending a bit of time and money to find a backpack that fits you well, as a poorly-fitted pack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can strain your back.  I like a chest strap to keep the fit close to my back, and make steep ascents and descents more comfortable.

Dry Bags

I think small compression drybags in a range of sizes and colours are some of the most useful kit you can have.  They’ll keep my things dry, organised, and easy to find.  Ziploc bags are really useful too, for keeping phones, cameras and son on protected from the elements, and for a stash of dry toilet paper*

*Never leave used toilet paper out on a trail; it spoils the place for the others that follow.  Take an additional sealing bag to put it in until you get to somewhere you can dispose of it properly.

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A selection of different coloured dry bags lets you organise kit and find things quickly.

The Essentials

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.  So get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little. 

Billy Connolly

Waterproof jacket

Even on the warmest day, I’ll pack a waterproof jacket.  This is a kit list for hiking in the UK, and there’s a reason why regions like Snowdonia, the Lake District, and Lochaber are so green.  Plus, with the drop in temperature you can feel higher up, it’s always good to have an additional layer.

Waterproof trousers

If you just can’t walk without the sound of swishing, these will be your jam.  And also they’ll keep you dry in the rain, break the wind to keep you warmer, and be an excellent sit mat to keep your bum dry when you stop for sit down to eat your picnic lunch.

Waterbottle

The amount of water you should carry depends on the length of your walk, the weather conditions (remember the heatwaves of summer?), and whether you’ll have access to refills on the way.  I’d usually take around 2 litres of water for a day out, in a couple of refillable bottles, and think it’s always better to carry more than start to get dehydrated.

In some areas you may be able to refill from streams.  I’ve been pretty happy to take untreated water from moving streams in upland areas around my part of the world in northern Scotland** (and in Norway and Iceland).  I’d filter, purify or boil water in lowland areas, and in Wales, the Lakes, and so on, as there’s likely to be more livestock in the area.

**After doing the “dead sheep check” of course.

Map and Compass / GPS

Unless I’m following a short trail in an area I’m familiar with, I’ll take navigation stuff with me.  Even then, I’ll often use the ViewRanger app on my phone to record the route I’ve followed.

Although I like technology, I am a bigger fan of using a traditional map and compass to navigate.  Being able to find your way with a compass is an essential skill for undertaking hikes in more challenging landscapes, and like all skills needs practising.

I also like taking a map so I can look at a larger area than is displayed on a screen, letting you read the wider landscape, find interesting landmarks and scenic picnic spots, and plan any detours around eroded footpaths, broken bridges, and flooded fields.

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Some of the essential kit from my backpack for day hikes in the UK.

Safety Stuff

Phone

Disconnecting from technology on a hike lets you get closer to the wild feelings of physical activity out in a natural setting.  But a fully charged mobile phone is a useful bit of kit in case of emergency.  The emergency numbers in the UK are 999 and 112; both are equally effective.

More remote parts of the UK may only have weak or intermittent mobile coverage, or none at all, but you can register with emergencySMS, a system developed for the deaf or non-verbal, to send a text message to the police to raise a mountain rescue team.

Whistle

I’ve got a whistle attached to my bag, for drawing attention to myself if I ever need to be found.  It’s a worst-case scenario, but it happens in that people get lost in poor visibility, stuck on a trail that’s hard to follow, or become injured and unable to walk.

Headtorch

This isn’t always needed, but in late autumn and winter daylight hours are short, and any delays or detours in a hike could mean returning in the dark.  I sometimes like to start hikes early and/or finish late, to watch the sunrise or set from a hilltop, and a headtorch helps prevent sprained ankles, or worse.

Knife or Multitool

I take my multitool on all my hiking trips.  It’s a Leatherman Sidekick and it’s so useful.

String

I always take a length of string with me (perhaps as 15 metres of green paracord was drummed into me as a kit list essential from my time in the TA).  It can replace a broken shoelace and make ] a temporary repair for all kinds of gear. On longer hikes, it’s even a useful drying line for airing out clothes.

Personal Welfare

Food

Depending on the length of your hike, think about whether you need just a few snacks or a packed lunch.  I’d usually take sandwiches or a sausage roll, some fruit, a couple of chocolate bars, and maybe a piece of cake*.  I’ll aim to take things with minimal packaging, and make sure that I take everything back home with me**.

Even on shorter hikes, I’ll stick a couple of snacks in my bag.  A pack of trail mix, maybe some chocolate, and a piece of fruit.  And Haribo, always Haribo.

*almost always Soreen malt loaf.  British hiking staple.

** I mean everything.  I can’t stand that people think it’s ok to throw fruit peel, bread crusts and so on because “it’s biodegradable”.  Banana skins have no place in the mountains; please take them home and dispose of them properly in a bin or the compost.

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Kvikk lunsj and Tunnocks caramel wafers: two of my favourite hiking snacks.  They don’t usually last for long.

Flask with a hot drink

A friend and I always say that we’re packing a flask of weak lemon drink to go hiking. I now have no idea where the reference comes from, but it’s stuck indelibly in our outdoor routine.  A hot drink on a long day, especially when you’ve been out in the wind and cold, feels marvellous.  My Kleen Kanteen insulated bottle can keep drinks hot for up to 20 hours, but it’s either blueberry juice or black coffee inside.

Extra warm, dry clothes

The British weather is notoriously fickle, and it’s not unheard of to experience all four seasons in one day.  On top of that, the temperature drops between 1°C and 3°C for every 300 metres (1000′) of height gained, so the top of Ben Nevis can be around 10°C colder than Fort William.  I’ll pack a warm hat, gloves, and a fleece or insulated jacket in a dry bag inside my daysack, and usually at least one spare pair of socks (which can double up as emergency gloves if needed).  I also add a few extra things to my kit list in autumn and winter.

Sunblock and sunglasses

The sun does shine, even in Scotland, y’ know.  Clouds aren’t as effective at blocking the sun as they might appear, and in the hills there’s often little shelter to get out of the sun.

First aid kit

My first aid kit is a work in progress, as I continually find new things that work for me.  I pack plasters and small dressings, compression bandages and a triangular bandage, ibuprofen and paracetamol; things to treat cuts and grazes, sprains and strains, and other minor injuries.  My most valuable recent addition is a special tool for removing ticks safely, something that’s been essential this summer.

Blister kit

I have had the worst blisters ever; taking part in an endurance hike a few years ago, both my heels, little toes, and the pads of my feet melted and tried to escape from my shoes.  So if I’m anticipating hard going or start to feel a hotspot, I’ll use moleskin or smooth zinc oxide tape to protect my feet.  I also take small scissors, alcohol wipes, and padded dressings.

The Extras

Some hikes may need a few extra items, such as:

Bothy bag or bivvy bag

If I’m heading out into a more remote area, then I’ll probably pack my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag as an emergency shelter to get out of the wind and rain for a short while.  If I’m taking others with me, then the Rab bothy bag I have is big enough for five of us (more if we get super cosy) to squeeze into for respite from the rain.

Sit mat

I have a perfectly bum-sized foam mat that came included with my super cute Fjällräven Kånken backpack.  Ideal for a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.

Stove

I love tea, but flask tea never tastes quite right*.  So I’m a huge fan of taking the time to make a fresh brew, especially if you’ve got a lovely view to enjoy it with (a sit mat to keep your bum dry).  I love my Jetboil.

*Possibly because of the weak lemon drink** previously in the flask?

**Was it Dwayne Dibley that had it?

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Perfect time for a cuppa.

Trekking poles

Hikers are often split about whether or not to use poles, but I have a shady knee from an old injury and find that they’re quite useful for descents, reducing the impact on my knee and giving me some additional stability.  (I’ll also use them as Nordic poles for long-distance running and trekking).

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Trekking poles have many benefits, including helping take the impact off knees, ankles and feet.

Camera and tripod

Photos, or it didn’t happen.

Do you hike regularly in the UK?  Is there anything you think I’ve missed? 
Let me know what you can’t hike without in the comments below.

 

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