It was a New Year’s Eve that we knew we would never forget. The Southern Cross sparkled above us like a diamond necklace among a backdrop of billions of stars. Nine hundred miles to the south of us, above the landmass of Antarctica, the Aurora Australis danced, stirring a primal sense of awe.
Yet amid this I felt an increasing sense of isolation, anxiety and uncertainty. It was 2001 and I was the skipper of a 22-metre racing yacht and, along with the crew of seventeen, on the third leg of a round-the-world-race called the BT Global Challenge. This section of the race would take us from Buenos Aires to Wellington and, at over six thousand miles, would mean being at sea over a thousand miles from land, for around forty days.
We were now about eighteen days into this mammoth leg and had not even reached the halfway point; we’d already faced two major storms, temperatures now regularly dipped below freezing and, with a sea temperature of between 3℃ and 5℃, should anyone have fallen overboard they would almost certainly have lost their lives. Social media didn’t exist, we were a long way from our loved ones and we felt it. The weight of responsibility sat heavily on my 27-year-old shoulders.
Through this uncertainty and isolation we slowly evolved and developed our own coping strategies. Some of these strategies were new and others were as old as the ships that had plied these routes hundreds of years ago.
- Routine. Create your own certainty through routine; it is sometimes all you have and without it your days will become a muddle of overlapping tasks, unstructured bursts of activity and periods of intense boredom. Each day at sea was structured around a system of watches (shifts). Within that cycle of daily life we created simple routines, including a morning handover between watches and a lunchtime ‘all hands’ meeting where the entire team would meet to share a meal and exchange information. As time progressed we introduced additional activities into this briefing including our infamous kangaroo court. A team member suspected of a minor crime, such as not washing-up a mug or worst of all stealing rations, would be tried by their fellow crew mates and when inevitably found guilty, face a minor punishment such as cleaning the heads (toilet). The monotony and repetitive nature of daily life at sea meant that it was important to mark the passing of each week. One team introduced a Sunday service where, regardless of faith, the crew came together to have a good sing-song and remember their loved ones many thousands of miles from them.
- Punctuate the boredom. As time evolved, we realised the importance of creating events to look forward to. These included a mini Olympics on one of the warmer legs, which involved press-ups, sit-ups and various other physical challenges. Halfway parties where we recognised the symbolism of turning over the chart, and looking ahead to the second half of the leg became eagerly anticipated.
- Look to history. History is full of examples of humans achieving extraordinary things during intense periods of isolation. Much of my inspiration came from Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer. On one section of our race, light winds had frustrated progress and low food supplies were creating angst in the team. I gathered everyone on deck and read a short passage detailing how Shackleton and his team had overwintered in Antarctica in extreme isolation with very limited supplies. In addition to reading the passage, one of my crew and I created eighteen necklaces on each of which we hung a tiny strip of leather (usually used for sail repairs). Inspired by the story of Shackleton’s men chewing on boot leather during their darkest periods of hunger, each team member was given one of these necklaces to symbolise our ability to manage in the trying circumstances.
- This day will end. This became a very personal mantra during some of my darkest hours. I could not know how the toughest days would end, whether the weather would be better or worse, or whether we would have lost or gained ground, but I could be sure that it would end and that another day would begin.
And so too will this day end.
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