How Sailing Prepared Me for Sheltering in Place

Three years ago, I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Town, South Africa, to Martinique, in the Caribbean. I was aboard Saltbreaker, a 32-foot 1979 Valiant sailboat, along with my husband, Alex, my brother-in-law, Nick, and his girlfriend, Alex. All told, the trip took about four months, and our longest passage without sighting land—from Ascension Island in the South Atlantic to Martinique—lasted 31 days. It was an experience that was simultaneously epic and monotonous, profound and incredibly dull. It was also, for better or worse, good preparation for quarantine.

Of course, there are crucial differences. An ocean crossing is a choice, though it may not feel like it around day 22. Our current COVID-19 isolation comes from frightening, unpredictable times and is a requirement to keep ourselves and our communities safe and healthy. But I’ve found that the feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and cabin fever translate.

It’s a refrain I’ve heard echoed among my sailing friends. “We’re basically doing a crossing. But we can go to the store!” said one who crossed the Pacific a few years back. This is not meant to downplay the seriousness of our current circumstances. But for many of us sailors, the creature comforts of this figurative crossing are a welcome flash of levity worth appreciating: Hot showers! More space! A non-rocking kitchen! The ability to carefully go outside to walk, run, or bike! Grocery stores going the extra mile to allow us to stock up and feed ourselves! It doesn’t make up for this climate of fear and the real-life hardships that continue to impact so many, but I’ll take all the scraps of silver lining I can get.

A crossing can feel interminable. So can this state of anxiety in which many of us find ourselves. As we take it a day at a time, I’ve found myself turning to lessons learned from my first transoceanic journey to find ways to cope with our current confinement. I’m writing this from San Francisco, one of the first U.S. cities to institute shelter-in-place rules, and other places are quickly following suit. Here are six tips that helped me stay relatively sane while crossing the Atlantic.

Create Privacy for Yourself

On Saltbreaker, there was little to no physical privacy, save in the head, where no one wants to hang out longer than necessary. Quarters were extra close, with four of us aboard and no cabins. It became essential to carve out spaces where we could each sit and read, draw, write, tinker, or stare off into space without fielding questions or comments. I would tuck myself into a corner on deck, facing the water, and was left largely undisturbed for hours at a time. That mental privacy, largely maintained by an unspoken rule between us, gave me the space to lose myself in a book, check in with feelings, and not have to react or respond to others. 

Small living spaces, even shared ones, might offer a bit more flexibility: a bedroom to take refuge in, with a door to shut. But the importance of respecting each other’s space holds. Just because you’re in the same place with others doesn’t mean you need to hang out or chat constantly. Be communicative with one another about your needs, and be honest about when you want to be left alone.

Spend Time Together Intentionally

From left: Alex, Nick, Lauren and Alex leaving Ascension Island during their trip
From left: Alex, Nick, Lauren and Alex leaving Ascension Island during their trip (Photo: Courtesy Alex Kleeman)

When you do spend time together, make it feel intentional, even special. On the boat, we tended to stick to our own agendas for most of the day, from checking the compass heading to adjusting the sails, but would eat dinner and watch a movie together almost every night. We’d think of thematic marathons—we watched all of the Harry Potter movies, Taika Waititi’s filmography, and, in anticipation of our arrival in Martinique, the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

We’d find excuses to celebrate, too. When sailing, crossing the equator is a big deal; we threw a party, complete with King Neptune–shaped pancakes, a sabered bottle of sparkling wine, and a ritualistic plunge into the water (holding onto a rope). We celebrated hitting our rhumb line, a more or less direct bearing on Martinique, with rum balls and dark and stormies on the bow. I cooked carbonara, using some of our precious store of bacon, to mark two weeks at sea. No excuse is too small or too insignificant. 

While nightly group dinners with housemates may be too much right now, think about a ritual that feels good for your living situation. Finding ways to spend time together that feel joyful and out of the ordinary makes close company seem like an asset versus a frustration.

Make Meals Count

Whether you’re cooking for yourself, a partner, or a whole family, it can be incredibly gratifying to prepare something delicious. That doesn’t have to mean complicated. It can be as simple as working big, bold flavors into your meals to help break up the monotony of your provisions. Curry pastes, premade simmer sauces, and a well-stocked spice cabinet were essential as our fresh supplies dwindled. (Pro tip: cabbage, potatoes, onions, and garlic last a very long time unrefrigerated. Eggs keep for a while, too, in whatever state you purchased them.) 

It’s also helpful to identify simple foods that bring you joy. For me, it was a sunny-side-up egg with plenty of salt, chili, and turmeric; for brother-in-law Alex, peanut butter straight out of the jar; for all of us, tins of sardines with crackers. 

Set Achievable Goals

When faced with long periods of isolation, it’s tempting to make a lot of plans. “I’ll relearn French! I’ll finally write that novel! I’m going to do so many crunches, I’ll come out of this with a six-pack!” If that’s your speed, power to you. But I found it helpful to set more achievable goals so that, even on my tougher days on the boat, accomplishing something small felt like a major win.

On the crossing, I had two goals for myself every day: write and do something active. Writing ranged from reflections on the changing hues of the ocean and brainstorming on my upcoming meal shifts to outlining a cookbook project, plus incoherent ramblings and more than a few weird haiku (message me and maybe I’ll share them). Exercise was a ten-minute Pilates mat routine that was (mostly) doable when the boat was in motion. The others would do crunches, push-ups, yoga poses, and Bimini “runs,” jogging in place while hanging on tight to the boat’s shade covering. 

Give yourself a break if you skip a day—I certainly did. Having goals in place, and the motivation to try, is sometimes enough of an accomplishment.

Alex and Lauren show off their catch.
Alex and Lauren show off their catch. (Photo: Courtesy Alex Kleeman)

Keep in Touch with Your People

Our limited communication capabilities on Saltbreaker included a satellite connection that allowed us to send and receive email (which we usually checked once a day) and a ham radio that we’d use to tune in to a daily net, in which other cruisers crossing the Atlantic (many of whom we knew) would share their position, conditions, and other updates. This was not, generally, riveting stuff. But we’d all eagerly gather around the radio, excited to hear other voices. The break in isolation was powerful, even if the most exciting topic tended to be what people had cooked for dinner. Email from friends back home made me feel connected, despite the distance.

Considering the wave of virtual drink dates and dinner parties after mere days of sheltering in place, people are aware of how important communication with your friends and family can be in times like these, especially when there’s little to no indication of how long this lockdown might last. Use it as an excuse to reach out to friends you may not speak to regularly—a little extra effort can go a long way in isolating times.

Hold onto Beauty When You Find It

On the crossing, I struggled with periods of intense frustration. Where did the wind go? How much longer? Why is everyone else handling this so much better than I am? What’s wrong with me? Maybe it’s inevitable. But giving myself space to process those feelings, and showing myself kindness when feeling them, was important. 

What helped the most, though, was holding close the moments of real beauty: an epic sunset, a sky full of stars on night watch, the meditative quality of staring out at a never-ending, always changing ocean. While perhaps less obvious at home, those moments can and do exist. There is something powerful about having no choice but to slow down, live simply, and really exist with yourself for a period of time. Simple things like listening to the sound of birds or seeing spring flowers pop up on a neighborhood walk are all things to treasure right now. 

This forced slowdown has a backdrop far different than an ocean crossing—disease, fear, anxiety, and so much that is unknown. Trying to find peace in the uncertainty, and moments of joy in our present circumstances, will hopefully help us as we try to reach the other side.