As many of us have spent the last few weeks shut away, either in close proximity to our family or by ourselves, I have started to think how similar these circumstances are to sailing a small boat long-distance on the open ocean.

Essentially, you are by yourself or contained within a small group, you can’t go anywhere, you’re very much trapped 24 hours a day on board the boat. Access to food and supplies is obviously restricted to your initial supply of the vessel from when you set off. The whole concept of isolation is much more pronounced when you’re out in open ocean and have no possible means of escape, surrounded by the sea, out of reach of helicopters or the regular emergency services, you’re very much on your own.

You may be by yourself or with a small crew of individuals that, whilst you know each other quite well, living together in a small space day after day can become tiring and sometimes fraught with emotional and communication difficulties. Very often, it’s the skipper’s job to manage the relationship between the individuals, and it can take a lot of effort and a lot of consideration to make what can often be small things becoming amplified becoming big issues that potentially means that people can fall out. Clearly, falling out on a boat has bigger safety implications, and also can potentially ruin what should be a pleasant time, as most people don’t get the opportunity to spend lots of time together as a family or friendly group.

There is also a question of trying to fill time. Whilst there are watches to keep and the boat needs to be sailed, a lot of the time the boat might be on autopilot and, whilst conditions can change quite quickly and sail and boat need to be attended to, there are often large periods of time, hours and hours during the day, hours and hours during the night, where there is essentially nothing for anybody to do, and it’s occupying yourself during these times that is important. Also, having become adjusted to this remote life, you start to realise how precious the time is. Interestingly, it’s not until you reach the other side of the ocean that you start to work out the opportunities and time that perhaps you didn’t use as effectively as you might have done.

There is a constant, unnerving fear of the unknown. Whilst it’s possible to get weather forecasting via satellite, often this information is very general, weather conditions can change, sea conditions can change, and this constant fear of the unknown and not confident in what might happen, confidence in yourself, is a constant thought that grinds away at the back of your mind. Sometimes when conditions are bad, you come to the conclusion that you may never make it out of this, and so your mind often re-looks at the things that you’ve done in the past, and tries to evaluate your worth and how you have managed your life. These thoughts are also common during the current COVID crisis.

As sea communication is difficult but not impossible, it tends to have to be channelled into smaller packages of data; photos/video isn’t possible, so one is reduced to writing simple text emails, almost like writing a letter or a postcard, so you are very much trying to portray the enormity of the situation through a channel that you’re not accustomed to. The advantage with the COVID-19 situation is that currently, modern internet and fibre connections make the transfer of emotional state and communication a little bit easier than they do at sea.

There’s the constant fear of supplies. At sea you have to carry sufficient water, food and supplies to sustain yourself for the full journey. Sometimes you don’t know how long the journey will take, it may take two weeks, but equally it could take four. So that constant worry about supplies and, equally, your ongoing reluctance to use up supplies too quickly, knowing that you may need them in future. It’s not just toilet rolls, although toilet rolls are extremely important on a boat and keeping them dry and having enough is a constant worry, but it might be a supply of chocolate for treats or a small supply of wine to have a small glass of wine in the evening. All of this makes you focus much more on the preciousness of these resources while you’re sailing.

On small boats where crews are either one, two, three or four people, you can quite easily see the similarities between the current lockdown situation and sailing across the Atlantic. However, in previous times, when a merchant vessel or warship would leave the UK and sail to Peru via Cape Horn, or on the north Atlantic whaling trips, ships and crews could be away from land for many months at a time and a lot of the circumstances and emotional challenges that surround isolation are similar for many months at a time.

Try to sit back, relax and remember that isolation and social distancing and the circumstances it presents has been faced by many, many people in the past as they journeyed across the globe by boat.
Let’s look forward to the next time we can cast off the lines, put the fenders away and head to open sea for a few weeks isolation. For many, the COVID isolation practice sets you in good stead for an ocean passage in the future.