‘I want to reassure people,” I announced grandly on Instagram the other day, “that it’s easier to change behaviour than you think.” With anxious friends facing a massive change of life in the face of coronavirus, I wanted to spread some calm.
The reason I’d started dispensing “wisdom” like some nautical soothsayer was that I gave up a much-loved job at the Guardian three years ago to pursue a simpler life on my tiny sailboat. I ended up crossing the Channel to France, sailing down the Atlantic coast to Portugal, into the Mediterranean, through Spain and Italy to Greece. It’s the slowest life imaginable, travelling at walking pace, completely immersed in nature. I sleep freely in secluded bays, by white beaches, fish and octopus swimming below me. I’ve sailed with dolphins and whales, woken to horses galloping on deserted beaches in southern Italy, and anchored by castles and cathedral-like cliffs. It is magical and it is nourishing.
The downside is that I have few home comforts (no fridge in 40C heat is challenging), very little money, and I spend a lot of time alone – sometimes at sea for weeks. I have become my own living proof that you need very little to be extremely happy.
Sailors, I thought, are uniquely placed to weather this storm. In that spirit, I sat down to prescribe advice on how to cope with isolation, feeling calm and strong about my decision to sit out this pandemic in Greece. I had been writing for just five minutes when the expected lockdown was announced. With relatively few cases reported, Greece is acting fast – its fragile economy and healthcare systems will be hit hard. Ten minutes later I was sobbing. I called my friend Cat. “I’ve been expecting this,” she said, in the tone of someone who really knows you. Next, I drank a whole bottle of wine while scrolling through my laptop, crying at the kindness of people far away. Not the font of wisdom I’d hoped to be.
But I was right – we humans are incredibly resourceful and we do adapt. Fear and its symptoms – panic and anxiety – are normal responses to danger and uncertainty. In my travels, fear has kept me safe and I’ve learned to rely on gut instinct – acting quickly to change plans when ominous clouds signal an oncoming storm, or staying alert through hours of fatigue in thick fog off Spain’s rocky Galician coast.
The fear beforehand is always the worst bit – once we’re in crisis, we cope, recover and learn. Those who have experienced grief will remember this feeling of waking up already in the knowledge that something big is wrong. But pay attention – this is an extraordinary time. Normality is suspended; life has slowed. We are alert. We see clearly what’s important and we disregard irrelevance. There is much to despair over, but we will also surprise ourselves at what we can face, with grace, courage, humour – with each other.
I’ve had my most memorable times in splendid isolation, spending days in childlike wonder exploring Cala Magraner in Mallorca, my only company wheeling gulls and goats climbing vertiginous cliffs. But not all isolation is welcome – or chosen – and even solo sailors are social creatures. After too long alone last winter, I sailed to the Sardinian city of Olbia and turned to that old-school travel platform Couchsurfer, effectively asking people to be my friend. “I don’t need a bed,” I messaged strangers, “but fancy a coffee?” I made amazing friends – and learned a lesson in setting pride aside to admit you’re lonely.
However independent you are, emotional support is vital when you’re far from loved ones. I’m now better at getting that support – creating WhatsApp groups to check in with friends, share the positives, talk through the scarier stuff. If you reach out, there will always be someone to pick you up when your inevitable meltdown comes. And you will do the same for them. During my recent panic, friends simply reminded me that it’s OK to feel bad. I’m calling my dad daily. He’s strong, positive, brilliant. But he’s 81, so I listen to his phone ringing out, my internal monologue screaming “WHERE IS HE?” before he finally picks up: “I was in the garden. Not dead.”
Sailors are good at connecting fast and helping each other because we know what it is to be in trouble at sea. Our shared lifestyle means we’re used to being friendly without crowding each other’s limited space. When I seek shelter from storms, I look for the safest place and hope there are other boats – not too many, and not close enough to collide – for the comfort of similar-minded people nearby. Storms at anchor are marked by small gestures from others – the guy in Falmouth who raised a glass from his cockpit as I waved at him in a howling gale; the time on the island of Vulcano , north of Sicily, when a neighbour, sensing my anxiety as we veered in 60mph winds, messaged approval of my anchor’s set, unspoken reassurance that I wouldn’t drag off to sea. Right now I’m finding joy in the cheerful whistling of my friendly Dutch neighbour and the eggs from his happy hens that a French sailing friend left. There is enormous comfort from the smallest human contact. Never underestimate it.
The challenge of isolation in bad weather is boredom, particularly when your inside space is less than six square metres. But overriding that is the relief that you’re safe. Living at sea, you take risk seriously (a neighbour in Portugal was lost overboard in high winds). Should you forget this, popping your head out of the hatch is can remind you that boredom is a welcome problem.
It never fails to surprise me how quiet it is inside when I return from the chaos of wind screeching and thunder cracking. You learn to appreciate your home even more making it cosy – being grateful for its sanctuary when there’s a threat outside. You are aware of how precious life is on a regular basis.
Simple daily rhythms bring enormous comfort. During 10 days of storm in Villasimius, Sardinia, Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime happened to be Jaws. Perfect! There’s the day’s first cup of tea; appreciating the light at sunset; waiting for the plough to appear in the sky; a good dinner. I find cooking therapeutic. But when the boat is leaping about in a storm, and your home is liable to fling kitchen knives at your head, it’s best, I’ve learned, to stick to store-cupboard soups and stews.
This won’t be popular advice, or easy, but try to limit internet use. Technical things can go wrong. (For the same reason, I never totally rely on my engine at sea, because bitter experience has taught me it will cut out just as I’m pushed towards some hazard: in Brittany’s notorious Chenal du Four, and again while racing an oncoming storm to Elba’s safe harbour in the Tuscan archipelago). Too much screen time is bad for us anyway, and if we collectively crash the internet through overuse or become vulnerable to viruses (not that one), we are going to be bereft. A reliance on solar power and a cap on data means I use it sparingly – brilliant journalism to inform, social media to connect, music to lift my spirits, but increasingly I’m turning to nourishing things that can’t fail – books, cloudspotting, writing, growing herbs. And exercise – if I can manage some stretching positions in the 2×1 metres of flat space I have, anyone can. It occurred to me yesterday that I could use a mooring line to do some skipping on the harbour wall here at Pylos. In theory. I’m wondering, too, whether a swim around the boat breaks the lockdown. Think I’ll risk it.
When your world slows down, food becomes a huge part of your day. And as shopping trips are limited, it’s important to choose fresh stuff that lasts. I’ve learned what keeps best without a fridge – cabbage, aubergines, courgettes, yoghurt, eggs (turn them regularly) – and don’t waste a thing (I avoid carrots and broccoli as they deteriorate surprisingly quickly). I make sure I have a breakfast I love – pancakes or porridge with fruit compote. Toast (currently running low on Marmite, sob!). As favourite things become difficult to get, I adapt. In Italy I missed Greek yoghurt, then realised how simple it is to make. Likewise butter.
Finding myself with a load of fish in the little fishing village of Culatra, in Portugal, I learned to fillet and salt them – new skills, and protein for weeks. At sea 20 nautical miles from the nearest shop in Menorca and craving bread, I started making flatbreads in a frying pan. I’m currently wondering if I could somehow bake a rudimentary loaf in my lidded barbecue (my first Christmas on board, it roasted a whole chicken and potatoes). I’m also pondering either a barbecue or frying-pan cake. It must be possible, right? If there’s ever been a time for experimentation, it is now. Play with food, have fun with it – but don’t waste it, obviously.
Things will be tight for many of us newly without income. Without trivialising the seriousness of this, I can at least report that it is extraordinarily satisfying to reduce spending, to break addiction to consumption. I keep a geeky diary of how little I spend day to day (£60 a week on average): writing it down brings more pleasure than spending it. And there is now time to fix things. Repairing rather than replacing is so rewarding – working with a small budget forces us to be greener and I feel happier as a result. I’ve never been practical (understatement – I once used a rag to replace a mislaid oil cap in my car and seized the engine), so learning to service my boat engine has been surprisingly satisfying. The pleasure I got from rowing to an empty little cove in Pylos harbour the other day, after spending three days fixing my dinghy, was a high. I think all proper sailors have repaired their toilet. Once you’ve done that, you can tackle anything. Coping in storms and fixing things are two of the things that have amazed me about myself.
The strangest thing for sailors, so used to freedom, is to be trapped – boats shouldn’t be in a harbour in good weather, and we itch to leave. The sacrifice of living in a small space and the effort of maintaining this lifestyle are the price we pay for that freedom. Now that freedom is curtailed – but it must be. We have the reserves to adapt and find happiness. I’m focusing on the beauty of the natural world immediately around me: the birds that fly around the harbour at sunset, the fish nibbling the quay, the crabs scuttling below. I’m taking enormous comfort from the fact that whatever else we’ve done to them, other species appear to be largely untouched by this thing. The natural world is getting much-needed respite from our reduction in activity and pollution levels. And most importantly, people are noticing, and sharing joy about that. We are becoming aware that this is a chance for real change, and that is the biggest positive of all. When this is over, so too will be the narrative that we can’t change our systems, our society, ourselves. Let’s use this time wisely – the planet urgently needs change, and so do we.
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