Solo-sailor at sea for 178 days has isolation advice for us all during COVID-19 crisis

Dee Caffari is one of the great sailors of our time. She is the first woman to sail solo around the world in both directions: with the wind, and against the wind. She tells IDEAS about some of the challenges she faced isolated at sea and offers some tips on how to cope with solitude.

Dee Caffari has sailed the open seas alone three times, her first tip: 'Keep that communication'

British Yachtswoman, Dee Caffari set a world record by becoming the first woman to complete a solo, non-stop round the world voyage against prevailing winds and currents in 2006. (AP/One Edition)

*Originally published on March 30, 2020. 

*This episode originally aired May 13, 2014, but includes an update interview with Dee Caffari. Listen to Part Two of Sailing Alone Around the World.

Dee Caffari has an intimate relationship with solitude — sailing the sea alone for 178 days.

In a time of the coronavirus outbreak where the world is staying inside as much as possible, the British skipper has tools she learned through her experience that may help others cope with isolation. 

She tells IDEAS producer Philip Coulter, first and foremost the hardest lesson she says she learned early on her epic voyage known as the Aviva Challenge, was how vital it was to keep communicating.

"I set off thinking that if I portrayed a sign of weakness or let anybody know that I was struggling, they would lose confidence in me. So I decided not to say anything," Caffari tells Coulter in an interview by phone. She adds that it was also agreed upon with her support crew to not contact her and interrupt her routine, since she was sleeping whenever she could.

"So we basically didn't speak to each other for about 10 days. And this really did create a tension that was totally unnecessary."

In 2006, Caffari became the first woman to sail solo around the world, non-stop in both directions, against prevailing winds and currents. And she didn't just do it once but a total of three times.

Her resilience, in part, comes from a found wisdom in learning how to survive the challenges that come with isolation. In a recent article in The Guardian, she wrote:

"As mindful humans, we know we need to be physically isolated right now but that doesn't mean we have to be mentally isolated. Human contact and support are important at all times but particularly in times of crisis or stress. Now, more than ever, we need to look out for each other."

Keep communication lines running both ways

Caffari recalls after not speaking to her crew in 10 days, the emotional conversation that ensued and how important communication was for both sides.

"It was important for me, on the boat on my own, to know that there was a group of people that were caring about how I was and how I was doing and was supporting me and with me the whole way," she explains.

"And equally, it was really important for them to realise that I was of a sane state of mind. I was happy. I was content, I was healthy and things were going well. So we then kind of agreed that if nothing was to report, then a weekly update was a very healthy way to do it."

Caffari stresses now more than ever, with people living in fear and anxiety about isolation, it's important to use modern technology that is available.

"It's critical we keep that communication [open] and that continuation of having face-to-face contact with each other, seeing expressions and emotion and kind of sharing our highs and lows so that you feel that you're not totally alone. And it is really important for people's well-being." 

She advises people now is a perfect time to "bridge those gaps" with people you may have lost a connection with. 

One of Dee Caffari's tips to cope with isolation is sticking to a routine. She finds structure helps give the day purpose and makes it possible to manage time. And she adds, it's also a way to add positivity to the day and feel a sense of achievement. (Andreas Solaro/AFP via Getty Images)

In many ways, this is a time where many people are vulnerable, says Caffari, and giving a person some reassurance that you care by maintaining interaction with someone each day is really valuable.

She urges people to use video technology specifically to communicate since there's an inherent value to pick up on nuances as a person speaks.

"We communicate so much more with our eyes and our expressions. And when you remove that, it's very easy for the messaging to get misinterpreted. So I think that opportunity to see people visibly is really important."

Focus on what you can control

Caffari advises to avoid wasting energy on things outside of your control and to focus on things you can control. 

In her book Against the Flow, she writes about the necessity of focus and how it helped create a drive to get through challenging times.

"When it felt as if I couldn't go on, somehow I turned things around and came out the other side with even more determination. Even when I had gone for days and sometimes a week with only a few hours sleep and very little food, I managed to find the energy to fight against the elements. I never gave up on my dream," Caffari says.

She tells Coulter that it's important not to get overloaded by information out there, especially in this current day of coronavirus news — "it's very easy to be overwhelmed."

"You can surround yourself with negativity and it's really easy to be affected by that," Caffari says.

This conversation was an updated interview with Dee Caffari, a guest in the 2013 IDEAS episode called Sailing Around The World.

Listen to the full program, Part One in this series, by clicking the play button below the feature image at the top of this story.

Guests in this episode:

  • Derek Lundy, author of Godforsaken Sea, about the single-handed non-stop Vendee Globe race of 1996-97.
  • Derek Hatfield, completed Around Alone race (five stages) in 2002/3.
  • Dee Caffari, first woman to sail solo in 2006/7 non-stop, around the world. She also completed 2008/9 Vendee Globe.

Recommended Reading List:

Against the Flow by Dee Caffari, about her 2006/7 solo westerly circumnavigation, published by Adlard Coles, 2007.

Sea of Dreams by Adam Mayers, about the 2002/3 Around Alone race, published by McCLelland & Stewart, 2006.

Godforsaken Sea by Derek Lundy, about the 1996/7 Vendee Globe race.

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, a narrative of his 1895-98 circumnavigation.

The Sailing Spirit by John Hughes, about his 1986 BOC Challenge race, published by Seal Books.

The Hard Way Round by Geoffrey Wolff, a biography of Slocum, published by Knopf.

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. Special thanks to Diane Reid, John Hughes and Alan Coulter


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