Pandemic Survival #1: Lessons in Self-Isolation from Sailors

Self-isolation is nothing new to sailors — it is, after all, the entire point of sailing. We sail in order to escape society,  to feel ourselves surrounded by something larger, wilder, less easily grasped.  We do this whether or not half of humanity is infected by a deadly plague, but I won’t hide the fact that this whole global pandemic has provided a certain extra motivation. Unlike most people, since this all has started, we have craved isolation rather than dreaded about it. Benn and I have never crossed oceans (and don’t really plan to, honestly), but we have spent weeks out at anchor without touching dry land, going to a shop, or conversing with a single human being besides each other (and Fuji, who kind of counts as a human being). There are moments, it’s true, when we want nothing more than to set our feet on dry land and take off running (both from the boat and each other), but most of the time, life takes on its own easy rhythm, and gradually we forget the fact that we are confined to a 16×30 ft space surrounded by an endless plain of open water.

People often worry about the boredom that accompanies isolation, but that isn’t usually a problem at anchor. The natural world is constantly changing: the fluctuation of the tides, the direction of the wind, the new and strange varieties of aquatic life washing daily into the bay. Each day is different and new, each has its own particular character. A neap tide is very different from the spring tide that comes one week later, and you learn to track the gradual changes in depth and current that follow the cycles of the moon. One day a seal may appear in the bay, and that day takes on a wholly different shape and meaning than the preceding day, when there were no seals, but two horses ran along the shore, exercised by two young, precocious riders.

Fuji waiting for the tide to come in so she can escape to shore.

Benn says that when we are at anchor, he feels that the boat becomes transparent. The wind washes in through open portholes, and it there are no barriers between us and the world outside. It is a skin, and we can feel the wind, skies, and sea through it. Sounds are amplified by the shell of the boat, and the calls of sea birds ring through the cabins. When you live in an apartment or a house, you aren’t in tune to the weather or wind because you don’t have to be. Perhaps you adjust the thermostat or bemoan the cloudy skies outside, but in truth, none of what happens outside really has a significant effect on your life. You overlook the moment when the sun breaks through the clouds or the wind goes chill and hollow, presaging an incoming storm. When Benn and I are at a marina, we forget these things, too. At anchor, we always know precisely when a new moon is coming, but immediately stop keeping track once we are tied to dry land. Towns and cities hold too many distractions and, besides, the wind and weather have very little meaning once your life no longer depends on monitoring shifts in air pressure.

A nice bay for anchoring, if we can ever get there.

It is the process of noticing that keeps life at anchor from becoming mundane. When you are fully aware of the complex fluctuations of your surroundings — the intricacies of weather patterns and bird migrations and the seasonal blooming of coastal vegetation — it is difficult to see your days as boring or routine. Obviously, it isn’t as  easy to get excited about noticing the world around you when you are staring blankly out of the window at an empty street, instead of watching seals play in shallow water. Yet, distraction, whether through video games or social media or television, may make the time pass more quickly, but it is an empty, hollow way of spending a day.  It deadens you to the world around you and gives you very little in return. Noticing — the quality of light as it falls through the window, the differences in the sounds of passing cars, the changing movement of clouds and the distinct feeling of the air before and after rain — fills your day rather than empties it. It allows you to see the world as meaningful and gives your days meaning, as well.

Sunset at Pin Mill

I notice through drawing, an activity that requires acute focus on the most mundane objects and an unrelenting attentiveness to those things we most take for granted, like light and shadow. Other people notice by writing, or birdwatching, taking joy in the seasonal cycles of their gardens, or noting the strengthening of their body as they exercise. Some notice by simply remaining still and watching, although how you achieve this level of Zen mastery is way beyond me. It’s not important how you notice changes in the world, only that you are trying to notice, to engage purposefully with your environment. You are making something out of the world around you, fully interacting with the world, rather than trying to escape it. 

Our little dinghy, waiting to take us to shore.

If you are confined right now, maybe it is time to find your own way of noticing, of being an active participant in the world as it unfolds in its chaotic, complex way. It takes bravery to break from the routine and turn off Netflix; it means acknowledging that there is something inside of you that has worth and meaning, which is a far scarier thing than the prospect of weeks of dull isolation. Maybe you are already aware of what it is that allows you to notice the world around you. If not, go outside (ONLY ONCE A DAY FOR NO LONGER THAN ONE HOUR, IN COMPLIANCE WITH GOVERNMENT REGULATIONS).  Resist the urge to check social media. Photograph small things, find landscapes and tiny worlds within the confines of your own home. Draw. It doesn’t matter if your drawing is good – that’s not the point of drawing, anyhow. The point is to find a way of losing yourself in the world around you. Make it colorful. Use glitter if you have some. 

I’m not writing this because I’ve somehow mastered the art of devoting every spare moment of my life to spiritually uplifting and profound pursuits. I’m writing this because I also need to remember to spend time immersed in my surroundings, treasuring these moments of quiet and (enforced) repose. We are uncertain about what the summer will bring — we don’t even know if we’re actually allowed to sail right now. Certainly, people on the shore taking their one thousandth daily exercise break will look at us out on the water, tut, and shake their heads.

We are also aware that any accident could put unnecessary demands on emergency services. At the same time, doesn’t it make more sense to get as far away from other people as possible – both for our own health and that of others? Aren’t we a greater danger to society on land than at sea? What if we raise the quarantine flag — are we then protected by maritime law? Am I just rationalizing antisocial impulses to indulge my own desires at the expense of the public good? 

I won’t pretend that isolation is always easy, even when it is chosen freely and not imposed upon you by the threat of contagion. Even so, right now, we want nothing more than to slip loose from our moorings and drift from bay to bay until the contagion has subsided. That’s what we’ll be doing as soon as we can — not only because we want to do our best to avoid the onslaught of plague and pestilence, but because the particular type of social isolation you experience when sailing has become both a joy and a necessity to us. Perhaps this period of self-isolation will do the same for you.


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