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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 2 July, 2020
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Tips on handling the Covid-19 isolation from a solo sailor

Artist Pete Hogan has sailed solo around the world alone for long periods of time. He shares his thoughts on the Covid-19 lockdown and the isolation it has brought to many.

Pete Hogan

I’M A TYPICAL south side Dubliner, like my contemporary and hero, Bob Geldof, but I was never in a rock band. What I wanted to do was much posher.

I wanted to sail off around the world single-handed in a high-tech racing boat. It was a bit of a craze at the time, the long-distance sailing craic, on the back of Sir Francis Chichester and Eric Tabarly and the like.

The problem was you had to have a boat, and boats were expensive. Or you had to have a sponsor and sponsors were hard to come by in the Ireland during the early 1970s.  When other people were going to Beatles concerts, attending demos to change the world or burning embassies, I was reading yachting magazines. 

My sailing journey

I eventually did get my boat, after many trials and tribulations. I built it myself in Vancouver, largely on a shoestring. It wasn’t really the boat or the dream that I had started out with, but I myself had changed a bit along the way.

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I set off from Canada and sailed it back to Ireland. I then sailed it around the world by way of the fearsome Cape Horn. Also on my own. Then, as if that wasn’t enough self-isolation, I spent a winter living on an island off the coast of Mayo. So I have a lot of experience of self-isolation.

Onboard my boat, ‘Molly B’, I spent many periods of up to 30 or 40 days alone when I crossed oceans. It was an enjoyable thing to do. It requires a bit of planning and a lot of self-sufficiency. 

There is the excitement of the departure, the settling into the voyage, the inevitable emergencies and then the joyous arrival. There is a great sense of achievement, of a goal accomplished when you reach the end.  

The longest period of self-isolation I endured was a trip from New Zealand to the Azores Islands by way of Cape Horn at the tip of South America. This lasted 117 days and I said then and I still believe, that’s a bit too much for anybody. Around 30 to 40 days is good, 117 days, not so good! 

Modern French sailors regularly flit around the world much faster than Phileas Fogg did in Jules Verne’s famous novel, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.  The record for sailors is now down to around 40 days. So my 117 days illustrates the leisurely pace at which I was proceeding.

Losing ‘Molly B’

Having sailed singlehanded around the world, the first Irish flagged yacht to do so, I took a break for a few years. Then I set out on a trip with my girlfriend Micaela (now wife), billed as the ‘Slow Boat to China Voyage’.

I received a lot of Irish sponsorship for the venture. But it ended in disaster in the Mediterranean when the boat was overcome in a storm. Luckily Micaela was not on board at the time. 

molly b 'Molly B is capsized'. Illustration from Log of the Molly B, by Pete Hogan. Source: Pete Hogan

I survived by taking to my liferaft and was rescued by a passing German cargo ship and landed in Italy. Nowadays, I think of that experience a lot when I see the many refugees taking on the perilous journeys in the Med.

I arrived back in Ireland with just the shirt on my back and have not done any long-distance single-handed sailing since. I might have, as I enjoy my own company and the self-isolation aspect still to this day. But without a boat, there were other things to occupy my mind, such as earning a living and starting a family.

My thoughts on isolation

There is a difference between voluntary isolation on a sailing boat and being compelled to confine oneself in, say, an urban apartment, during a global pandemic. But there are also many practical things which the two situations have in common. The discipline of getting through the day is much the same.

Routine, planning, exercise, stimulation to avoid depression and a path to a viable end are both the same.

On a boat, far offshore, crossing an ocean, the single-handed sailor is always busy, in my experience. I liked to get a good night’s sleep. When the sun went down, so would I. The boat steers itself on the proper course thanks to a clever piece of equipment.

Next most important thing is the grub. Food on a boat can be a bit basic, especially if the sailor, as I was, is on a budget. A routine of potatoes, rice, pasta or noodles becomes the norm. Key is the fact that there is no one to complain to about the food. Treats, like a tin of peaches or a bar of chocolate, mark the special days, like crossing the equator. 

Maintenance of the boat and the sailing equipment also take up a lot of time. Navigation these days is a doddle. GPS and electronic charts and other goodies have made it very easy and safe to cross oceans. I spent a lot of time fumbling with sextants (navigation instruments) and figuring out where I was. If there was any off time I used to read books or, like the salts of old, carve scrimshaw. For music and news, there was the radio.

Why did I want to spend long periods alone? Maybe it was the school I went to – Cistercian College Roscrea. The Trappist Monks in Roscrea live in self-isolation all their lives. They live in an enclosed area, do not talk to each other and in an extreme sense, allow their lives to be governed by a set of rules devised in the Middle Ages and little has changed since. But in times of pestilence, the monasteries must have been an island of sanity compared to the death, starvation and mayhem sweeping the towns.

In recent weeks and months, in the lockdown, we have had rules imposed on us. ‘Stay away from each other, no physical contact, remain within an enclosed area, wash hands, exercise, wear or don’t wear face masks.’ The rules of lockdown were not unlike the rules of the monastic orders dating from the Middle Ages. 

Life onboard the shutdown

On those long sailing trips, I enjoyed my periods of self-isolation on board my boat. Given the opportunity, I would jump at a chance to do it again. So I have managed reasonably well through the Covid-19 isolation as I was isolated at home in Dublin with my family, four of us in total. 

I have been regaling them throughout with stories of how I could easily last for a month or two following one visit to the shops. Throughout the lockdown, it has felt like we had to go to the shops at least once a week. ‘You have to plan a bit’, I would say to the family. They’d head back to their screens.

Routine has been hugely important through this. My other half has been doing her online yoga with a guru in India every morning. The two children have had their online study, which I can only hope they’ve kept up with. They are at an age when it is no longer appropriate to micromanage them.  I have been busy in the garden, which has been great.

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img138 Source: Pete Hogan

We have been coming together for the evening meal throughout, which we’ve taken turns to prepare. It’s been a chance to discuss the events of the day. Top of the list of course at that time has been the terrible death toll from Covid-19 which has come out each day around 6 pm, the situation in other countries, particularly the US recently, feeding into a chat about what Trump is up to. 

I have been in touch with several friends who are living on boats in locations all over the world during the Covid-19 crisis. It has been a stressful time for them as each country has gone into lockdown and ports have been closed. Sailors in many cases have been turned away. When they do find an anchorage they have had to stay there for months on end.

Presently, things are getting a bit easier and at least three Irish yachts I know of are crossing the Atlantic bound for Irish shores, but the great days of sailing off into the sunset on your own boat without a care are probably over.

I have found the whole lockdown experience to be a peaceful enough time. I can continue much as ever with my art-making. There is less pressure to produce stuff for the weekend market at Merrion Square. In addition, I have been reading more. I like repairing things and so the garden walls and the family furniture are receiving a bit of attention. 

Now that restrictions have eased, I’m enjoying more time on my bike. We live near the wonderful, infinite, Sandymount strand so walks within the 2 km have been no great hardship.

The harbour at Dun Laoghaire near us is starting to come to life. The clubs and marinas are now open in a restricted sense and the colourful fleets of sailing school dinghies can be seen off Seapoint. Cruising between ports is still not permitted but it will not be long before this is possible.

As once I plotted my way across the chart of an ocean, one day at a time, so we have plotted our course through this terrible sea of distress. Always there is a destination and a safe harbour at the end. So it will be with the Covid-19 pandemic.  There will be an end and there will be a safe harbour. It is nearly in sight. I am sure.   

Pete Hogan is a visual artist and sailor. He specialises in paintings of Cityscape and Seascape. Born in Dublin, he has sailed around the world by way of Cape Horn in a boat which he built himself. A feat which he describes in the book he wrote and illustrated – The Log of the Molly B. Find him online here and here.

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