An Ocean Rower’s Tips For Getting Through Self-Isolation

So here we are in week 2 of self-isolation. We’re past the adrenaline surges of the first few days and are now well into the drudge. Now the whole thing is odd, and a bit strange and a bit stressful.

I found myself thinking who has been through something like this before? Monks? Astronauts? I know. Me! Together with Jamie Fitzgerald I’ve spent six weeks in a boat that had an area of less than 14 m². And that was palatial compared to spending eight weeks trekking to the South Pole sleeping in a tent of about 4 m². So here’s nine lessons that I learned. I hope they’ll be as helpful for you as they have been for me.

1.    These are the hard days (it gets better from here)

The emotions in the first day or two of any expedition always seem to range somewhere between excitement and terror. On just day 2 of the ocean rowing race we had storm that blew winds from almost exactly where we wanted to head. It wasn’t until the fourth day that we finally lost sight of land! And on the trek to the South Pole we were dropped off in the wrong location (long story!) A mistake it took three gruesome days of hauling to fix.

Next comes the grief, as you start to realise all the things that you will be missing out on. Your calendar reminds you of birthday parties you won’t be at, weekends away you won’t be having, Easter get-togethers that will now be shelved.

For these reasons I think that Week 2 is the hardest week. You only just started and you’re feeling rubbish, and the end seems a very long way away. You just need to remember that every big challenge you’ve ever taken on feels like this. Psychologically, the first 20% takes a while to get through but then before you know it your a third of the way through … and then halfway! Halfway is an awesome milestone but can be bittersweet as you wonder whether you can handle twice more of what you’ve just been through. But then two thirds creeps up and before you know it you’re getting very close to 90% – and then you can see the end.

My advice? Whatever mood you’re having at the moment don’t project it out, it will change.

2. Keep a journal

It might feel like nothing is happening minute by minute, but day by day these are strange times. Your grandkids are going to ask you what the lock down of 2020 was like, but long before then there are plenty of mental health benefits about getting your thoughts down on paper. In the row boat there was little time for writing as sleeping was so precious, but I did try and dictate some notes (so quite a lot of me snoring).

3. Get a ‘quick win’

Just before the gun went off at the start of the trans-Atlantic race, there were 15 other boats floating in the harbour. All the crews were eyeballing each other. Everyone was trying to work out who were the contenders and who were the pretenders. It was impossible to tell.

A few days after that storm finally passed, we were very surprised to found ourselves 25 miles in the lead. We were winning the race! To get our noses in front ‘proved’ to ourselves that we had what it took to do well. Even after we lost our lead a week later we still felt that way.

Invest time this week into getting a ‘win’ for your bubble. Having a games night, or a meal that you all cook a course for, or a family game of cricket or something that shows that you can have a great time together. That you are going to get through this.

4. Share the laughs

We can learn a lot from free divers. They have to have complete control over their negative thoughts. When they are 100m underwater they can’t start to wonder if they left enough money in the parking meter. World record holder William Trubridge says, the trick is ‘…to give your mind something to do in the same way that you would give a baby a pacifier to suck on’.

I suggest getting your mind to suck on some comedy. In the rowing race I used to listen to the classic Ali G interview of Posh and Becks (you can find on Youtube – not safe for kids) just about every single shift.

Despite the bleakness, or perhaps because of it, this is a fantastic time for comedy. American late night hosts Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and Seth Myers upload gems every weekday onto Youtube. Dip in and get hooked.

As a family, whether it’s playing charades, or watching Mr Bean, or asking Siri for a ‘Knock Knock’ joke, time spent laughing together bonds the family and blows a raspberry at Fate.

5. Plan to get something done

 The row and the trek were manageable because we had a clear reason for what we were doing. We were trying to win the rowing race in world record time, and be the first unsupported to the South Pole. What might that look like for you in this instance? What project are you taking on Is it to help flatten the curve?

Or are you going to try and get up to 100 press-ups? Or finish that gardening project? Or clean every room? Or finally tidy the garage? My son Tom is trying to learn all his times tables.

A red light can take forever to change – unless you have to do something, like find that things that’s falling down the back of the seat, or get something out of the boot, then it turns green in an instant. The busier you are the faster the time will go.

6. Keep track of progress and have something to look forward to

 The most powerful source of motivation (after chocolate and strong coffee) is making steady progress towards a clear goal.

In the rowing race we had a map of the Atlantic Ocean on a single piece of A4 – we almost never looked at it. It was so disheartening – the amount that you would do in one rowing shift was less than the width of a pencil! Instead we had a different set of more detailed maps that broke the trip down into sections of about a week, and allowed us to focus just on what we had to do each day. It was a happy occasion to turn a page!

In the Antarctic we turned the tent into a giant map and so we could mark off about an inch each day.

Make sure you have something to look forward to in the upcoming week or less! My kids can only handle anticipation of two or three days max! This can be anything, maybe it’s someone’s birthday (whether it’s their birthday or not!) or someone’s ‘King or Queen of the day’, or Mexican Day, or the night you’re going to watch a special movie. If your rational brain wants to see some progress, your emotional brain wants to look forward to some fun!

In Antarctica we allowed ourselves one trembling tablespoon of vodka every 5 or 6 days (whenever we crossed a degree line). That was a big deal. The day before we would start saying ‘Vodka Day tomorrow!’.

Jamie, God bless him, dragged decorations a 1000km to the pole so we could blow up a balloon and wear a hat on Christmas day, feel normal and have a laugh.

7. Remember, there are people much worse off than you

My sister in Barcelona has 4 kids and has barely been out of the house for two weeks. Currently in Spain you can only go out to get medicine, groceries or walk pets … and they don’t have any pets.

On the Atlantic getting up every hour and a half to row wasn’t much fun, and as the aches and pains mounted and the sun beat down it was easy to feel sorry for myself. But the couple of times my wife rang me on the satellite phone to tell me about the long hours of studying and the stress she was going through as she swotted for her medical exams, I would end the call feeling much better about my own situation!

I’m going to be posting some adventure stories about people who survived through some really excruciatingly miserable times. Read them, and after the shiver has gone down your spine, I guarantee that you feel better!

Here’s one.

8. Get to know your team mates

I only met Jamie a few weeks before flying out to the start of the rowing race. I remember very clearly, on the first evening of the race when we were both at the oars and La Gomera was starting to sink into the horizon, turning over my shoulder and saying, ‘So tell me a bit about yourself.’

For the next weeks in the late afternoon and evening, when the air started to cool and our shifts tended to overlap we would spin yarns. No story too long winded. No pre-amble too ambly. No rabbit hole unferreted. The time raced past!

For most of us, self-isolation means having a little more time. More time to have better conversations. How well do you really know the people you’re living with? What is their favourite colour? If they could invite anyone to dinner who would it be? What 7 songs would they take on a desert island and why?

9. Exercise every day

 A few weeks after the ocean rowing race someone asked me, ‘Wow six weeks at sea! So what did you guys do for exercise on the boat?’ 🙂

If there was a pill that made you happier, flushed out stress, was an antidote to all the coffee that you drank during the day, gave you new ideas, helped you sleep, made you healthier, live longer and boosted your self-esteem – you’d take it. So lace up those trainers!

I’m guessing you probably have a little more time now you’re not commuting, and now you probably don’t have to get up at sparrow’s fart you can enjoy your exercising at a more pleasant hour. This is a golden time for running and cycling with so few cars on the street. But if running is not your thing there are a ton of exercises you can do with no equipment at all. Search for ‘Tabata’ on Youtube.

What I’m saying is…

In the days ahead there will be storms and blizzards and tedious doldrums.

When things get tough, when you’re rowing in pelting rain and heaving seas at night, with lightening crashing down, hang in there, put in another stroke, and just remember that when you get to the end and look back, that that these will be the moments that you proudest of. Good days will be followed by bad days, then worse days then finally, good days again.

There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, like making out the silhouette of land on the horizon after a long crossing. Seeing green after weeks of only variations of blue ocean. Or, after days and days of desolate, barren snowscape, seeing the NZ flag at the South pole fluttering in the breeze.

Get in touch if you would like me to talk to your teams about how they can take on their own tough challenges and deal with setbacks.


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Kevin Biggar

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