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 Films about Sailing

I’ve put together a list of my favourite sailing movies, including Hollywood blockbusters, all-time classic films, and inspiring documentaries. 

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In my previous edition of Armchair Travel, focused on Ocean films, I struggled narrow it down to just 10 of my favourites, and not to fill up the list with sailing movies filled with beautiful boats.  So I split the two, and decide to offer you up a second helping.

I’ve put together a list of the best sailing movies I’ve seen, a mix of modern and classic, drama and documentary film.  Tragedy and terrifying ordeals, unimaginable tales of survival, tempestuous adventures, and inspiring journeys of discovery all feature in my selection of sea-soaked cinema.  Perfect for a dry night in on the sofa.

  • Swallows and Amazons (1974)

A classic film for a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Four children (the Swallows) spend an idyllic summer learning to sail in the English Lake District, encountering ruthless pirates (the Amazons), before setting aside their quarrels to take on Captain Flint.  The film is all about children’s rivalries and relationships. Swallows and Amazons forever!

  • Age of Sail (2018)

A beautifully animated short film that captures the end of an era, as the old skipper of a traditional Bristol pilot cutter contemplates his place in a world of steamships.  The whole thing (12 minutes) is available to watch on youtube.

  • Deep Water (2006)

An excellent documentary telling the true story of the first-ever solo, non-stop, round the world sailing race in 1968. The film focuses on the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst and gives a real insight into how extreme solitude can affect mental state.

  • Adrift (2006)

A nautical horror that takes its power from the simplicity of the plot.  A group of friends on an offshore sailing trip decide to take a dip in the ocean, leaving only a young baby aboard.  But who remembered to rig the boarding ladder?

  • White Squall (1996)

Based on the true story of the school ship Albatross, which sank in the early 1960s, with a trainee crew of American teenagers.  The voyage of a lifetime, learning about teamwork and discipline, becomes a harrowing battle for survival after encountering freak weather conditions.

  • Captains Courageous (1937)

A nautical film classic based on the 1897 novel by Rudyard Kipling.  A spoiled rich boy falls overboard from a steamship, and is recovered by a Portuguese fishing vessel.  To earn his keep onboard, he must join the crew in their work, and soon learns the lesson of hard graft in this touching film.

  • Dead Calm (1989)

If watching White Squall (awful weather) and Adrift (going overboard) haven’t scared you enough, this chilling thriller will finish you off. A grieving couple set sail on the trip of their lifetime. All is going well until they rescue a lost sailor who is drifting at sea…

  • Maiden (2019)

British sailor Tracey Edwards made history by skippering the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race in 1989.  This documentary dives deeply into the challenge of the competition on the open ocean, and the sea of misogyny faced by Edwards and the Maiden crew from other competitors and the press.

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Sailing west into the setting sun on Atyla.
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Russell Crowe makes a fine Captain Jack Aubrey in this period action film adapted from several Patrick O’Brien novels.  Expect a pretty accurate depiction of a ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and some superb sailing sequences as Captain Jack Aubrey pushes his crew and ship to the limit whilst in pursuit of a French warship.

  • Captain Ron (1992)

A light-hearted comedy adventure film about a family that inherits a yacht and decide to set off on an adventure with the unlikely Captain Ron. I will die on this hill: this is one of the greatest films about sailing ever made, and that Kurt Russell is a brilliant actor (see The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, Tango and Cash, and the rest for more confirmation).

Which is your favourite sailing film?  Do you have any recommendations?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

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I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons.  Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition.  I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books.  Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South.  I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing.  They’re all good books, Brent.

An excellent book covering everything you could possibly want to know about the “last great wilderness”, and the people drawn into its icy grasp for science, discovery and adventure.  Walker weaves together personal stories gleaned from her travels in Antarctica, from the heroic age of exploration through to current climate breakdown studies, from scientists in the distinctly earthbound fields of geology and ecology to cosmetologists looking into deep space and deep time.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧 /5

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RRS Discovery next to V&A Dundee on the side of the Tay.

Lansing is a powerful storyteller, and this is one of the most epic stories ever.  In 1914, the Endurance* set sail for Antarctica to establish a British base on the continent, and attempt the first overland crossing of the continent, but became trapped in the pack ice long before reaching her destination.  The shifting, thawing, and freezing ice splintered the vessel, stranding Shackleton and his crew on the floes.  The rest of the expedition is far more remarkable than the original plan, and against all odds, all survived.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

*a three-masted barquentine, which I know you needed to know.  Discovery, pictured above, is a barque.

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors of the expedition, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south, touched with survivor’s guilt.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  • Icebird – David Lewis

I’ve included book recommendations on sailing expeditions previously in the Armchair Travel series, but this one is, without doubt, about the greatest and most terrifying feat in singlehanded sailing; a solo circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1972.  Leaving Australia, Dr Lewis sailed out of radio contact for three months.  On reaching Palmer Base on the Antarctic Peninsula, he revealed his 32′ (9.4m) steel cutter had capsized and dismasted twice (and would do so once more before the end of the expedition).  A phenomenal undertaking to read as a non-sailor, and your worst nightmare if you are a sailor.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

In 2012 Aston became the first person to complete a solo ski journey across the Antarctic landmass using muscle power alone**, taking 59 days to cover 1,744km (1,084 miles).  Having worked as a British Antarctic Survey meteorologist, Aston was familiar with the landscape and weather conditions she was to face, but not with the solitude and sensory deprivation in the vast white expanse of the polar plateau.

Penguin rating: 🐧/5

** Norwegian Børge Ousland made the first solo ski crossing in 1997, using a kite to assist his 3,000km (1,864 miles) journey, crossing from sea to sea.

An excellent biography of Amundsen, the ultimate polar explorer, who in the UK is often sadly viewed as the villainous foil to Scott’s heroic failure.  The Norwegian expedition to the pole was meticulously planned, using indigenous knowledge gleaned from Amundsen’s time with Inuit in the Arctic, and relied on dog teams to haul sleds rather than mechanical transportation and manhauling.  In addition to winning the South Pole, he was the first to lead expeditions to traverse the Northwest and Northeast passages, and with Italian aeronaut, Umberto Nobile, was first to reach the North Pole.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

An account of his time spent guiding guests on Antarctic voyages across the Southern Ocean, carved out in sparkling, spare prose, at a serene, glacial pace through the geology and ecology of the continent.  His trademark austere writing style will not resonate with all readers, but the book is worth persisting with until it becomes all-absorbing.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

A journey into the beauty and power of the forces of nature, combining travel writing, memoir, science narrative, and literature, on a tour to observe the icy cold corners of the earth before they become irreparably diminished.  Beautifully and poetically written, with an artist’s eye, and an engrossing read as Campbell moves from curling rinks to cryo-labs to the crevasse that concealed Austrian iceman Ötzi.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

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My Antarctica “shelfie”.

Francis was posted to the isolated Halley V research station as the base doctor for a 14-month deployment, driven by a longing to see penguins since a childhood visit to Edinburgh Zoo, where my own fascination with Antarctica began.  A blend of personal memoir, polar history, and nature writing, meditating on the isolation and solitude of his experience.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Yes, this is a book about cricket.  About a rubbish village cricket team with an epic losing streak at that.  But this hilariously funny and touchingly poignant account of an incompetent, disaster-filled attempt to play a match on every continent, including Antarctica, is the perfect companion book for tales of heroic expeditions, proving that passion and endurance in the face of tribulation isn’t just the reserve of adventurers.  Thompson is an excellent writer, and provides a handy chart of fielding positions, if like me silly mid-off, cow corner, and third man mean nothing to you.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

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Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which ice adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

 

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.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Sailing Adventures

I’ve compiled a selection of my favourite books about sailing adventures, both real and imagined, idyllic and horrific. 

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This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.  Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end.  So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…

  • Sailing Alone Around the World – Captain Joshua Slocum

The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made.  Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement.

  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old.  More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago.  I was really interested in the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage.

I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why.  The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific.  Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies, Swallow, and Amazon.  The “ruthless pirate” Nancy Blackett was my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack.

Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus.  Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions.  A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about.

In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers.

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Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression.  Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing.  A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought-provoking.

For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error.  The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time.  A classic of the history of science.

A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drive a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return.

More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so.  Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure.

Have you enjoyed any of these books?
Which salty adventures would you recommend for 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.