During my 2009-2010 solo, non-stop voyage around the world, I sighted land, other boats and aircraft only a handful of times – never coming close enough to make out another person’s face for 210 consecutive days.
There were a number of times when it’s quite likely that I was the most isolated person on earth, but despite this physical isolation I never felt lonely.
Here are the key things that stopped me feeling alone:
Accept a period of adjustment
One of the most common pieces of advice I received from other solo sailors before I set off around the world was that the first few weeks would be quite tough, as I adjusted to being alone. So I set off braced for a mentally rough few weeks, telling myself that I wasn’t going to be having a great time right away and that I just needed to mentally grin and bear it until I settled into the voyage and my new very isolated life. As it turns out, the first few weeks weren’t so bad after all, for me at least, being mentally prepared for a tough period of adjustment was helpful. I suspect that us humans are more capable of enduring good-natured isolation than we realise, but that’s not to say that adjusting to this new physically distanced normal won’t be without its hiccups. Go easy on yourself as you adjust and remind yourself that you will adapt.
Recovering from knockdowns
In the middle of the worst storm of the voyage, deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, in the dark of night, and in the middle of a series of ‘knockdowns’ (a sailing term for the boat being rolled upside-down), I found myself doing something that was without doubt, a little bit crazy – I was yelling out to my boat, putting on a brave voice and telling her that it was going to be ok as each dangerous wave approached. The act of pretending to be confident for someone else (even if that someone was just a boat!), gave me strength. By being supportive of those who may be having an even rougher time, we may also be giving ourselves strength.
The other thing that gave me strength in the worst situations was reminding myself that I’d survived the previous one. As it turns out colliding with a 63,000-ton cargo ship right before I set off on the voyage around the world was helpful, because it gave me an opportunity to prove to myself how resilient I could be when I needed to. In the thick of that Atlantic storm, I found strength in telling myself that if I got through that, I could cope with this too. It’s absolutely a cliché, but from my experience, challenges absolutely make us stronger.
A sense of purpose
Despite the fact that I genuinely loved the 210 days that I spent alone at sea, I’m also the first to admit that being cut off from loved ones for no good reason would be horrible. The sense of purpose the voyage gave me (whether that be ticking off a milestone or feeling that I was challenging perceptions of what a young girl is capable of), was motivation to push through the times when I badly missed my family. Enduring anything is easier if there is a reason for it. And of course, in our current situation, there could be no simpler or more important purpose for our isolation – saving lives.
The changing nature of life at sea, when you are at the mercy of the weather conditions, meant that I never had a strict routine. But I did have a number of rituals that gave me some structure and consistency. My favourite ritual was making a point of watching the sunset every evening. When you’re alone, it takes a little effort to give things like meals any sense of occasion, but I’d recommend making that effort to eat in another location or perhaps set the table – something that wasn’t possible on a rolling boat!
When you’re alone, there’s no one to tell you to snap out of a mood, so I learnt pretty quickly that I had to take responsibility for my own headspace. I definitely won’t claim that I was cheerful all the time, there were more than a few teary whinges (regrettably to the camera!) while at sea. But on the whole, I learnt to catch those spirals of negative thoughts and use them to remind myself of why I was out there. When I wasn’t feeling great, I focused on smaller milestones – when you’re feeling down, crossing a whole ocean (or in this case facing weeks of isolation) can be overwhelming. I also found it very difficult to be in a bad mood when I put on loud music and stood in the wind, so this was something I learnt to force myself to do on bad days. Standing in the wind might not be an option while stuck at home, but the idea of forcing yourself to do the things that make you feel better is just as relevant.
Connect with others
Making a point of staying connected is perhaps the most common piece of advice for those who are physically alone. Satellite phone conversations with family and friends were fantastic, and I found it particularly helpful to talk to others who had experienced similar situations. Writing regular blog posts provided another form of connection, one which importantly trained me to be constantly thinking in terms of how I would explain how I coped – a coping mechanism in itself.
Savour the rare solitude
I fully appreciate that concern for loved ones and the stress of economic impacts of the COVID situation may make this unrealistic for some, but for those who can, I’d encourage you to try and enjoy the solitude. Being alone can make life wonderfully simple, and while sharing experiences is great, I found that there is also something uniquely special about having an experience all to yourself. Being alone is a rare opportunity to do exactly as you please, even if it is just within the confines of your house in our current situation. While at sea alone I realised that it was a unique situation that I would likely never experience again, and this realisation allowed me to savour the great majority of the time alone.