Ways life at sea has prepared me for COVID-19 isolation – and some ways it hasn’t

This is now a post on Scientific American’s opinions page. Check it out here!

Quick background: I work on research vessels leaving out of ports around the world. The header photo is a map of where I’ve been. The cruises I go on last anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months.

As a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I work on research vessels leaving out of ports all over the world. The header photo is a map of where I’ve been. The cruises I go on last anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months.

I make sacrifices to my personal life because I believe in the greater mission, that long-term time-series datasets will help us and future generations understand and protect our planet. When it comes to the coronavirus, our mission – to stay at home and flatten the curve – is literally saving lives.

Things I’ve learned that have prepared me for self-isolation:

1. Days of the week are a social construct. At sea, I work 12 hours a day, every day – no holidays or weekends. You quickly stop keeping track or even being able to figure out what day it is without looking at your phone. Except on Sunday, when most ships have a slightly fancier meal at dinner. I now think “oh, it must be Sunday” every time I smell steaks on the grill.

2. Human contact is important to me. Aside from bumping into someone when the ship rolls, it’s easy to go weeks with little to no purposeful human contact. On a cruise with people you don’t know, or think of as professional colleagues only, you realize how often you are used to hugging someone (though this baseline varies based on personal preference of course. Mine is high, I’m a hugger). It took me a few trips to realize that I was having physical and emotional symptoms from the lack of human touch. I now designate a “hug buddy” on each cruise, approaching someone I already know early in the trip and asking for their consent. Usually they are more than willing and it is a mutually beneficial relationship. On truly great cruises, there are entire cuddle piles of scientists.

3. I miss my friends and family. When I’m on land, I don’t take the ability to contact people easily for granted. I have gotten in the habit of sending a quick message to people whenever I think of them, rather than waiting for time (that never comes) to sit down and write a long email catching up. It became habit years ago, and has meant that I have checked in with many people as I wonder about how they and their families are coping. WhatsApp has recently become available as a pre-quota internet allowance on many ships and it’s glorious to feel well connected with my friends and family. 

4. It’s a great time to catch up on movies and TV shows. Even with working 12 hours a day, I usually end up with more downtime at sea than I have at home. There’s no commute, no errands, very few chores, and no events to fill up my calendar. Every good oceanographer travels with a hard disk full of TV shows and movies to occupy that time and ship lounges are well stocked. It is one of the few social opportunities at sea, but also makes a great activity for hiding out in your room. I have binged entire shows from my bed during a stretch of bad weather (Agents of Shield) and made lifelong friends based on bingeing together with someone with the same downtime schedule (Heroes). My husband has gotten used to emails from me saying “I watched that movie we were going to see together, so you should go ahead and rent it on your own.”

5. I have to be proactive about working out. On a ship, you can’t walk more than a few hundred feet in one direction before you have to turn around. The longest commute I’ve ever had from my bed to work is about 90 steps. There is usually a gym onboard, but that ranges from broken equipment to a few treadmills and free weights at best. I have to make it part of my routine early on each trip or I won’t go at all. I have not mastered doing this on land, much less when basically confined to the house.

6. Sharing space doesn’t have to be stressful. My husband and I practiced at sharing our small house, but we hadn’t been tested with doing it all day, every day. My experience living in close quarters with a bunch of other busy people onboard ships means that I have made a habit to deal with small tasks immediately and never assume it’s someone else’s job. I call it being a good citizen. Toilet paper low? Make sure there’s another roll nearby. Spilled even just a small amount of something on the floor? Clean it up. Planning to make some noise? Let people nearby know. Think you might smell? Take a shower. This apparently does not go without saying.

7. Organizing my time helps my perception of time passing. I am a list maker and love nothing more than crossing an item off my to-do list. I have learned that there is no part of my life that doesn’t benefit from being on that list. On my most recent trip, I had 21 days of transit, meaning no work shifts and very little to do. I listed every day and put at least one thing to accomplish on each. When I needed more control, I made a list in the evening of what my next day would look like. I am comfortable making edits or moving items to a later day, but there is nothing more satisfying than the strikethrough action in Word. 

8. A good cry to release frustration is healthy. For me, this happens on nearly every trip. Whether it’s due to specific work or interpersonal frustrations or just loneliness, I’ve learned to experience it and then move forward.

9. Good memories last longer than bad ones. While I know I’ve had rough times out at sea, on the whole I remember each experience positively – the friends I made, the sunsets I saw, the travel I got to do. That’s what keeps me going back for more.

10. It’s impossible to teach situational awareness. Adults either have it or they don’t at this point in their lives. At sea, there are some who wander into a group of people wearing hard hats and never wonder, “Gee, maybe something heavy is dangling overhead and I shouldn’t be here.” During this time of crisis, there are people still completely unaware of the world around them and how their actions affect others. It’s infuriating.

11. Holidays can still be special. I always seem to be gone for my husband’s birthday and I’ve celebrated a few of my own at sea. Having parties before or after (sometimes both, I really like birthdays!) is easy enough. And the friends I make onboard are always game for a celebration. The cooks make feasts for Thanksgiving, Easter, New Years, Taco Tuesday – any excuse to celebrate. Missing weddings is the biggest bummer, but scheduling a hangout before or after means I get to spend more time with the couple than I probably would have at their wedding. Also, my friends take a cardboard cutout of me to events like this, so I’m still in the pictures.

Ways this is better than being at sea:

1. Internet speeds. I’ve been on trips with absolutely no internet access. Most have dial-up speeds and quotas, so no streaming content. No YouTube, no Netflix, no video calls – these services are all getting me through this time.

2. Alcohol. Most ships are dry. Even those that aren’t have time or quantity restrictions. Having access to my liquor cabinet, kegerator, and the case of wine my husband got at BevMo when this all started is glorious.

3. Food. I get to choose my meal plan rather than it being dictated by the (excellent) ship’s cooks (see below, this is also a con). My husband and I are having a good time prepping and cooking together. I’ve made bread for the first time in over 10 years. At sea, the fresh fruit and vegetable supplies slowly dwindle and then disappear. So far, we’re eating better than we normally do, and saving money by not going out to eat.

4. I can hang out with my husband. And our pets! When I am gone, what I miss most is the normalcy of sitting on my couch with them and just having a quiet evening. I find myself bargaining with the universe for a night off, to be transported home for just a few hours. Careful what you wish for I suppose, as that’s literally our entire existence for the foreseeable future. I also realized that I have never gotten this much value out of a mortgage payment before. When I am gone, obviously I still cover my end of the bills but don’t get to enjoy any of those comforts. And also, sex! I know some people have sex at sea. I am married and have not. Sex is nice.

5. I don’t have to work a 12 hour shift. I am thankful to still have stable employment through all this. Working from home is lovely compared to 12 hours in the lab at sea.

6. Toilet paper. In this time of hoarding and empty shelves, I am so grateful for 2-ply soft, quilted toilet paper. Scratchy 1-ply is all that’s available at sea, the ship sewage systems can’t handle anything else and no one wants a backup. I feel like one of those weird bears in the TP commercials, ready to write poetry about the softness.

7. I get to choose my company. My decision 17 years ago to move in with a quiet, respectful, low-maintenance man with similar tastes in movies is still paying off. At sea, there’s 20 to 150 other people onboard, depending on the size of the ship, and I don’t get a say about who they are.

8. The motion of the ocean. In calm seas, I actually sleep better at sea than on land. But the seas are rarely calm for an entire trip and waking with the weightless feeling of being thrown out of bed is no fun. Trying to work on deck or even in the lab when everything is rocking and rolling is stressful and potentially dangerous. Thankfully, I’ve never gotten seasick (knock on wood) but I know some scientists and crew members who do, and I wonder how they keep going back out.

Ways this is actually worse than being at sea:

1. Food. I know this is on both lists. The downside is that on cruises someone cooks every meal for me, and lays out snacks too. Someone else does the dishes. These are the hardest working people onboard, and I miss them taking care of me every time I get back to land – but especially now. Also, the feeling that every run to the grocery store is a risk to my life is a stress I never expected and will probably be traumatized by for years.

2. There’s no timeline. Hands down the thing that gets me through long, isolated cruises is knowing the end date. Having a countdown, knowing that I’m over the halfway point (hump day!), is key. No matter how long the cruise is, generally the 7-10 days before the end are the hardest for me. I’ve been out to sea for awhile by then, but it’s not close enough to the end to really start counting down. Those few days right before I can start saying “today is the last Monday I’ll be at sea,” “this is the last full shift,” etc are the hardest. My whole life now occurs in a loop of those kinds of days, not being able to countdown. I am not used to open-ended isolation, and it is giving me anxiety.

3. It’s impossible to have, much less manage, expectations. I am used to missing out on events – weddings, conventions, Thanksgiving. I am used to putting parts of my life on pause and am able to frame it in a way where I can enjoy that time away. Even though I don’t have a choice of circumstances or company, I do have a choice of how I approach each day. It is an element of control that I am grappling to find in these circumstances but may just need to give up on. 

4. I am used to being a hot commodity. My friends all tell me how much they missed me, that I should never leave again. My cats pin me down. My dog loses her mind. I plan all sorts of events to binge on friend and family time. In this reality, everyone is going to be on even footing when the world goes back to normal (or whatever normal looks like after this). I am used to being the center of attention and the little sister in me may not take it well when we’re all in the same boat. I can tell my constant presence is wearing on the cats. But my dog (bless her) is still excited to see me every time I so much as come around the corner.

Observing my own reaction to all this, as well as everyone else’s, and writing about it, has helped me. I hope reading it helps you.