Joan Mulloy – Stable Morale
In 2019, over a few different races, I spent about 35 days alone at sea. Each race usually lasted about 3–5 days. The longest I’ve ever been at sea was for 7 days, sailing a 60 foot race boat, solo, from the south of Portugal to Galway. My biggest goal in my sailing career is to do the Vendée Globe race, which is a solo, non-stop, round the world race. This would mean being alone at sea for about 90 days.
Every time I go out to sea alone, I learn something new about myself and for me, that’s part of what makes it so addictive. My first solo trip started off a bit fraught. I hadn’t learned to trust myself and I was on edge. As it wore on and time passed without anything going wrong, I began to relax. The huge feeling of achievement at the end of the solo race was incredible. I couldn’t help but feel a bit proud of myself – knowing you’ve achieved something, completely by yourself is a very satisfying feeling.
At sea, I’m often quite busy, but loneliness can creep in. It can be particularly hard when you just want to chat through a decision with someone, but you can’t. I found I missed certain people and that was hard. My coping mechanism had a few different strands. Firstly, I would try to recognize if I was going on a downward spiral, mentally. I’d usually give myself a few minutes to feel whatever was causing that; frustration, tiredness, sadness – then I’d try to move on. My fail-safe method for moving on from difficult emotions was – a list! At the start of my races, I’d write a list of simple tactics or goals for that race and I’d use this to ground myself when times were tough. On my boat, it was simple things, like making sure you’re sailing in the right direction, checking the weather, checking where your competitors are, eating some food, drinking some water, putting on sunscreen. I always found that once I’d worked through a simple list of basics, I was feeling back on track. The French use a great phrase – ‘moral stable’ – which means stable morale. I had this written on my boat! This is a little reminder to keep your mental state on as even a keel as possible. This can be hard to do when you have no external influence to bring you up or settle you down, but with time and the right list, I found myself getting better at it. The first step is to be able to recognize when you’re on a downward trend and to have prepared a few things to help slow this and bring yourself back into an even mindset.
I’ve had a few scary experiences alone at sea. In my first year of solo sailing, we had a race across the Bay of Biscay. It was very windy and fast and I was a long way from my other competitors. The waves were huge and the entire boat was vibrating with the speed as I barrelled towards the coast of Spain. I spent a full 24 hours dreading my arrival on the coast. I knew that once I got there, I’d have to do a tricky maneuver, which I had never completed in that much wind before. The stakes were very high – get it wrong or delay it and I would be pretty quickly smashed on the cliffs of northern Spain! It felt scary, but in the end, the anticipation was a lot worse than reality. I made myself a clear action plan of what to do, with contingencies if things went wrong, and I just stuck to that like glue. Preparing myself and the boat physically helped as it took my mind off the challenges ahead. This experience showed me to have confidence in myself and also that things are often not as bad as they might seem!
In terms of isolation for Covid-19, I would say you don’t have to be cut off from people like I am at sea, so communicate! Call, text, Skype, FaceTime – tell people if you’re feeling low or if you feel your mental attitude drop. Just a two-minute chat with someone else can lift your spirits. If you don’t have people you can call, try podcasts or audiobooks (not the news or radio) to take your mind off things and give your brain a break.
Don’t focus on things you can’t control, like reading lots of media about the spread of Covid-19. This is all outside your circle of influence and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s worth making your own policy on how you and your family can try to avoid it – I know I’ve made one for myself. Be practical and don’t panic. Focus on small daily goals and break each problem or worry into small, bite-sized pieces. Make a strategy for how you’re going to get through it. Make yourself achievable tasks to complete every day, like clearing your inbox, making the bed, chatting with a friend, doing 20 minutes of exercise, and use these simple activities to ground yourself.
Make lists of these little activities and if you’re feeling a bit lost, run through that list from start to finish, even if you don’t feel like doing it. And if you have just done it – do it again. The normality of the actions will help.
I think having a routine is important. My husband’s business has fallen on hard times and we live surrounded by his family, so no one around me is working. However, I still get up early, go running and set up my laptop for 9 am. I might finish work at 12, 3, or 6, but starting every day in the same manner helps me.
Try to identify positive and negative influences on your life. I’ve stopped reading news outlets and only use the HSE website to check for Covid-19 updates. I know there is nothing more I can do to protect myself or my family, so I’m not giving it any more thought than that. I’ve left WhatsApp groups that were circulating misinformation (I’ll rejoin them later). Aimlessly scrolling through Facebook doesn’t help either, so limit your consumption each day. Find what builds you up and do that often. Look up comedy videos on YouTube, clear out your wardrobe, read that book you’ve been meaning to, do a few small things by yourself that make you feel good – it will help.
It’s about not letting anything overwhelm you. Break it down into small pieces and either tackle them one by one or accept you can’t do anything about them and lay them aside.
Stay positive and keep looking forward!
Text by Joan Mulloy
Photos by Neil O’Hagan and Rick Tomlinson