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How sailing around the world prepared me for lockdown

Guest poster Tom Dymond reflects on Stoicism, sailing, and surviving lockdown.

Sailing around the world was the perfect preparation for a pandemic. My friend James and I returned to England in 2019, after a three-year circumnavigation on his Nicholson 32, Blue Eye. We sailed the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, and with each crossing entered a lockdown of our own making. We had only each other for company, our flour, pasta, and toilet roll supplies were limited, and we had little control over how long we would be out there. Nature would decide how much wind to put in our sails.

On our return, friends and family were concerned about how we’d handle ‘swallowing the anchor’, adapting to life on land. They assumed that if anyone would struggle with the sudden loss of freedom, it would be us: the pair who had been living free as birds for the last three years.

Tom and James sailing on Blue Eye off the coast of Nuku Hiva in the South Pacific

This is to wholly misunderstand what it is to sail around the world. While we were free to choose our general route, Nature made a lot of decisions for us. For example, you can’t simply anchor anywhere­—wind and swell direction almost always dictate where you drop the hook. You can’t take off across an ocean whenever you please—cyclone and hurricane seasons make quite sure of that. Then there are the physical limits of life at sea. In all that open blue we were confined to a 10-metre boat.

So, when lockdown struck the UK in March, I found I was strangely prepared. I had just spent three years missing my friends and family. We’d also had very limited access to supermarkets. As I watched everybody panic buy and despair at not being able to find the specialty foods that had always been available to them before, I in turn despaired a little for them.

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are,” said Seneca, a Roman stoic philosopher. “We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”

The philosophy of Stoicism has been making something of a comeback in recent years. In the last weeks of our circumnavigation, I read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I found that the philosophy gave voice to all of the conclusions I had been coming to, but had yet to find a way to articulate. The central tenet of Stoicism is essentially this: there are things we can control and things we cannot control, and wisdom lies in identifying which is which.

James and Tom passing through Paris

On our circumnavigation, there was much that lay beyond our powers. We couldn’t control the storm that unexpectedly engulfed us in the Atlantic. We couldn’t control the men that demanded money from us in the middle of a night in the Caribbean. We couldn’t control the Indonesian customs officials who were determined to extract a considerable sum of money in exchange for returning our passports. And we couldn’t control the scorching heatwaves on our way home through the French waterways.

But we could control how we reacted to all these events. We could let go of the voice that said, “This isn’t fair,” or, “I wish this wasn’t so.” Life isn’t fair, and that quite simply is so. This is the freedom that our circumnavigation ultimately gave us. It wasn’t the freedom to roam the oceans but rather the freedom to respond to and not be consumed by the ocean of our mind.

So, when the lockdown came, we were quite prepared for it. The circumstances were similar—albeit with a bit more Zoom and a bit less boat rocking—but we could recognise what was out of our control. What was in our control was how we reacted to being locked down on land.

I chose to react by writing a book. It’s a travel memoir called Hooked On The Horizon: Sailing Blue Eye Around The World, and it merges the story of our voyage with the lessons of Stoicism that have become so important to how I approach each new day of lockdown. If Stoicism and sailing tickle your fancy, then I urge you to visit my website where you can keep up to date with the release of my debut book.