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INSIGHT: Solitude - Lessons Learned From My Solo Atlantic Row

April 3rd, 2020

INSIGHT: Solitude - Lessons Learned From My Solo Atlantic Row

On 12th December 2019 I left the safe harbour of San Sebastian de La Gomera in the Canary Islands to row the 3,000 miles to English Harbour in Antigua, solo. On 30th January 2020, some 48 days later, I made landfall. That was 48 days of rowing 18 hours a day, sometimes longer, without seeing another human being. My boat was 7 metres long, and 2.2 metres wide with a 1.8 metre (I am 1.9 metres tall) sleeping pod and just enough room to store all my essential equipment. For 48 days, that 7 x 2.2 metre space and the vast North Atlantic surrounding me, was my life.

What I learned on that boat and in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is without doubt helping me deal with this Covid-19 crisis.

Mental Health

My mental strength was definitely challenged. I lost my only means of listening to music and audiobooks (as well as an oar and some non-essential kit) in a storm on the second day of my row. I frequently talked to inanimate objects. After three weeks they started talking back to me!

What I discovered was that talking aloud actually helped my mental state and stopped me “hanging onto stuff”. Now I can pick up a phone, Skype, Zoom, Facetime friends and loved ones whenever I want. It’s critical for me to not let anxiety and negative feelings build up. I share how I am feeling. It’s amazing that once I share my emotions, people share back and those that seem relatively calm and relaxed on the surface are actually far from it.

This crisis has drawn out a whole range of feelings, but I now feel well equipped to handle it; feeling rudderless (pardon the pun), aimless, frustrated, angry, scared, resentful and many, many more. These feelings are OK. I shouldn’t expect myself to feel 100%, at 100% of the time. Acknowledging the emotion allows me to move through it. “It’s just a thing,” I tell myself.

When I was rowing, I gave myself a score every morning when I woke up at 4am, that was an accurate assessment of both my mental and physical state. Almost all the time it was 100%, occasionally it was 90% or even 75%. I remember one day when the holes I put through my hand got infected, making it very painful to hold the oars, and the screws from an earlier operation on my foot protruded through my skin forming an abscess, as they rubbed against the foot strap, it was 50%. When that happens, 50% is my new 100%. Expecting myself to give 100% on those 75% or 50% days, is not only unrealistic, but it left me frustrated; it was dangerous and potentially put my life at risk.

Staying cooped up inside my 1.8 metre cabin, being rolled, capsized, thrown around like a rag doll and being seasick everywhere, enduring 50 foot waves and some of the worst sea conditions you can possibly imagine, took its toll on me physically and mentally. However, storms pass eventually, even though it doesn’t seem it at the time.  In comparison being cooped up with the rest of the family trying to all work at the kitchen table, overloading the Wi-Fi, has its challenges. I get outside for an hour a day with my dogs, get sunlight on my face if I can. Seasonal Affective Disorder happens when we humans do not get outside enough. I try to make sure I use my hour a day effectively and be respectful of others, adhering to the two metres rule. In my mind there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

Structure. Structure. Structure

When I was rowing for 18 hours a day, I realised two things:

1. I got very, very, very bored.

2. I had to break my day into six, four-hour sessions – three hours rowing and a one hour break to eat, sleep etc. It would have been very easy for a four-hour session to become a three-and-a-half-hour session, then a three hour session, etc. and eventually the bad habit creeps in. This is when downward spirals begin, and they are difficult to stop.

Now I am religious with a regular routine and structure. I set an alarm, get up at the same time each day, exercise, shave, food shop, eat with those around me (family) and structure my working day. Even if my business is mothballed or shutdown, or worse still I am made redundant, I have thought about how I will handle this. I would instead use this time to research and do all the things that I just didn’t have time to when we were “task juggling,” or running from one client to another. I will keep busy.

Having said that, it helps sometimes to deliberately break from routine, and sometimes things happen to cause a break in routine. This ironically can help me to stick to a routine. I remember on Christmas Day, mid-Atlantic calling my family dressed in my snowman Mankini and Santa hat, treating myself to a special meal and an extra-long break. Very occasionally I would be visited by a curious whale or pod of dolphins. When that happened, it was oars down, jump overboard (tethered to my boat of course!), and just enjoy being alive and sharing a moment with nature.

Control Your Environment

There are things I cannot control – the virus and the requirement for social isolation for example, but there are still things that are within my power to control. I can control the food I eat (subject to what is available), the clothes I wear (I don’t wear pyjamas all day if I’m supposed to be working), exercise, personal hygiene, and being at my desk the same time every morning ready and willing to help/support others in whatever way I can.

I think “in the now”; I don’t get too caught up in what is happening in a month’s time as I have little control over that. I also set goals and develop systems and good habits that I can take with me beyond this crisis. Goals are good, systems and good habits to deliver those goals are even better.

Fitness is equally important; it can be too easy to sit on a sofa and binge-watch boxsets. I run, cycle, walk and workout with weights at least once a day. I am going to have to be imaginative – for example, I established all sorts of ways to stretch in the confined space of my boat. I try to stay strong and healthy, my life on the boat and now depends on it.

Integrity

“What we do when no-one is watching.”  When I was rowing it would have been very easy to make up reasons for myself why I couldn’t row – injury (I had a few), wind in the wrong direction, sea conditions, weather etc. Although no-one else would ever know, I would know. I put in 100% of what I had that day, every day, regardless. I couldn’t accept anything less.

This current situation will test my integrity. Will it bring out the best in me or the worst? Am I going to use this time to step up and be the person I can be proud of, after this is all over?  What are my values? How can I live true to my values? There is no better time to find all this out.

During this crisis, I try to help those who need it – food drops, calls and messages. Simply staying in touch. None of us knows how another person is truly feeling so I just try to show I care.

Keep In Touch

At sea, I spoke to my wife and family every two days and similarly to the Duty Officer. It kept me sane and allowed me perspective. When I was on my own, it was so easy for relatively minor issues to get blown out of proportion. We are, at heart, social animals that need regular social contact. I dislike the UK Government phrase “social distancing”; we are “physically distancing” as we all still need regular social contact for our own wellbeing and that of others.

I use this unique time to establish and maintain new methods of contacting friends and loved ones. If anything, I have increased the regularity of keeping in touch, and have set up regular calls and video calls to look after each other’s mental health.

Conclusion

I feel privileged that my row was a unique way to test myself, learn much about myself, and find out who I really am. This current situation across the world is also unique. We are living in uncertain times. Let’s draw on our inner reserves, discover strengths we may never have known we had and come through this stronger (and hopefully more balanced) than before.

Personally, when this is all over in a few months’ time, I want to look back knowing I behaved well, with dignity and integrity, not the alternative.

 

Marcus Beale is MD – Leadership for Drax Executive, providing leadership expertise for private equity, portfolio companies and management teams across the UK.

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