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Nothing to see but sea - How the isolation of the Atlantic helped me through lockdown

by Peter Gilmore 18 Jun 2022 09:41 PDT
Atlantic Ocean crossing prepares a sailor for life in lockdown © Gilmore family

The Atlantic Ocean is an utterly brutal environment. Piercingly hot sun, 30 foot waves and sleeping quarters eternally damp from spray - this is not your average day at the beach. Between 2018 and 2019, my family and I embarked on a 9 month sailing voyage across the Atlantic and back.

The trip pushed me to my physical limits, but this was nothing compared with the mental challenge of the almost complete isolation of life on the world's second largest ocean. The lessons I learnt on the Atlantic would later prove to be invaluable to me in dealing with mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

Until this trip, it's hard for me to point to a time in my life where I was lonely in an absolutely consistent sense. A typical day on board began at 5 am. I would be shaken awake by my dad, when we would exchange a few drowsy grunts before he went back to bed, leaving me on watch. Staring out onto the horizon, it's impossible not to feel small. All you can see is deep blue ocean, hearing nothing but the waves against the side of the boat. Other than my family, there were times when the closest other humans lived on the international space station.

To offer another opinion on the challenges of isolation on the Atlantic, I spoke with para-rower Kelda Wood. In 2019, Kelda became the first para-rower to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, doing so to raise money for her charity Climbing Out which helps people deal with a wide variety of challenging circumstances such as disabilities or trauma.

Looking at Kelda's achievements on paper, you might incorrectly paint a picture of a hardnosed and grit-filled individual, somehow immune to the challenges presented to her. In reality, I know Kelda as a warm, quick-witted and humble woman who isn't afraid to be open about her vulnerabilities or weaknesses. She gave me a fascinating insight into her trans-Atlantic row.

"I thought I was pretty comfortable in my own company, but I realised very quickly that this was a different ball game altogether. I dealt with it by knowing that the more I rowed, the sooner I'd get to see people that was a great motivation to 'just keep rowing!'"

"In the first week I really didn't think it was even possible to keep going, so much so that I considered deliberately breaking a bone, so I'd have to be rescued."

Recovering from such a mental low, alone and while rowing without full function of your legs is almost an impossible thing to conceive, but Kelda is clear in the distinction between wanting to quit and actually quitting.

"I realised it's ok to think you want to quit, that doesn't mean you're going to. I now know when I'm telling myself I can't do something that it's not really true. I often say to myself 'Yep, you said that on the Atlantic, but you still did it so crack on luv!'"

Reflecting on my own experience of crossing the Atlantic, I would argue that it is an almost impossible thing to prepare for mentally. Despite regarding myself as a mentally tough person, the environment was so alien that this voyage questioned me in ways I didn't expect. From the outset it was clear to me that if I didn't come up with solutions to the problems put in my way, the journey would quickly become unbearable.

The first of these solutions was an absolutely rigid routine. At sea, you have no visual reference point and therefore nothing to gauge progress or indicate any achievements for that day. I found that without any source of gratification from the completion of tasks, it was easy to become lethargic and unmotivated. Following a strict schedule of tasks, allowed time to pass and gave me small mental boosts around their completion.

It might seem counter-intuitive to insist on doing a workout when you've had four hours sleep for ten days straight, but the ironic reality was that I felt far more energised after this was finished.

Like me, Kelda acknowledged the importance of a strong routine: "I found the initial answer was to create a routine and a structure that I followed rigidly every day. That way I stopped thinking about the overall picture. 3,000NM and another 10-12 weeks out at sea on my own just seemed like way too much. By breaking it down into manageable chunks and just taking one day at a time it started to feel achievable"

On top of a really rigid routine, I made a conscious decision to shift my mindset to focus on "the haves" rather than the "have nots." On one hand, every day was a grind. The boat had no shower, no fridge and no doors- it's safe to say that I've felt (and smelt) better. On the other hand though, the Atlantic is an undeniably beautiful place and I was blessed to sail alongside whales, dolphins and flying fish. Despite living in a constant state of exhaustion, reminding yourself of "the haves" gave me such a mental lift.

Very few people will ever experience anything close to the complete isolation of the Atlantic Ocean, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to question the relevance this trip has to people without a background in sailing. Despite this, I would argue that many of the lessons I learnt on this trip are significant to the general public and not just sailors.

Casting our minds back to March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic plunged us into a strict nationwide lockdown, many of the activities we were so used to were put on hold. Rather than socialising with my friends at university, I was isolated and housebound with my family. The frustrating reality was that these feelings of social isolation were comparable to my time sailing the Atlantic. Based on my own mental challenges across the Atlantic, I was unfortunately not surprised to hear about the toll the pandemic has had on general public mental health.

Writing for National Health Executive, Saskia Hicking stated, "Since the pandemic began, the number of adults suffering from mental health issues has doubled."

With the perspective of this statistic in mind, I have been lucky to live with minimal mental health struggles since the beginning of the pandemic. I am convinced this is because the Atlantic gave me a really effective blueprint for dealing with social isolation. Just like when sailing the Atlantic, during the lockdown I maintained a strong sense of routine and once again, focussed on cherishing "the haves."

Regarding routine, I approached my day much like my shifts on deck. Setting numerous alarms throughout the initial part of lockdown gave me a real focus and also ensured that by the end of the day I could look back with satisfaction at what I had achieved. From past experience, I knew taking the perceived easy route of a lie in, or a day in front of the television would ultimately leave me depressed and exhausted.

My concept of "the haves" became even more valuable to me. By a happy coincidence, it was around this time that I learnt that the Chinese letter for "crisis" is made up of a combination of two letters, "danger" and "opportunity." This became my mantra. Despite suddenly living in one of the most challenging periods since the second world war, I am proud to say that a viewed lockdown as a major opportunity to do alternative things.

With the extra time on my hands, I ran a solo marathon, started a podcast and featured in the third series of Netflix's Sex Education. None of this would have been done if I had chosen to spend the time wallowing in self-pity about how tough life had become. For me, there were way too many "haves" to celebrate for that sort of attitude!

Furthering my chat with Kelda Wood, I was curious to see if she still called on the lessons of her Atlantic experience.

"Sometimes you just have to keep going and just get through things - This was particularly relevant when I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. The Atlantic taught me that sometimes there are no short cuts or easy answers, you just have to get your head down, keep going and get through stuff."

Kelda's mental resilience by far eclipses my own, but I hope that these examples illustrate how valuable sport can be in teaching us life lessons. In theory, sport should exist in an entirely separate sphere to our normal life, but the reality is that they are immensely intertwined in how we operate as individuals. Coming to this realisation changes the way I view sailing, the way I view sport, and in sharing this lesson I hope that others can learn to deal with the challenges of Covid more effectively.

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