What can sailors teach us about lockdown?

There’s a strange phenomenon that happens on ships; it’s been going on for a long time. It’s called “Channel Fever.”

Photo by alain agapit from Pexels

Years ago, British sailors would sign on a sailing ship and head out to sea, not knowing when — or if — they’d be back. They knew they’d be away for at least several months, but it could be years before they were home. They just settled into their shipboard routines and didn’t worry too much about when they’d get home. They knew that they’d either get there, or they wouldn’t. That changed when, homeward bound, they sighted Land’s End and the Lizard Light at the western entrance of the English Channel. Then they knew they’d be home soon, the end was in sight, and that knowledge changed them. It became known as “Channel Fever.”

If the ship was delayed at a port on the other side of the world, or had head-winds for a month, no-one was particularly upset by the delay: what difference does a few weeks make when you’re away for years? But if the ship had adverse winds in the Channel, with home in sight, routines chafed and tempers frayed.

When I join a ship for a long contract, it takes me a week or two to settle in. After that it doesn’t matter much to me how long I’m on board, whether it’s three months or three years. The time just disappears under the comfort of shipboard routine, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out. I barely notice it passing. That is, at least, until I find out when I’m due to sign off and go home.

Once I have that date, that becomes my target, my focus. Rather than being immersed in the routine of daily life on board, living in the moment, focusing on dealing with what’s happening now, I’m constantly looking towards my target, constantly looking forward to going home. It’s the modern version of Channel Fever.

Adverse winds are less of a problem nowadays, but delays are still common: a while ago, my relief’s flight was delayed so had to stay on for an extra few days at the end of a four month contract. I had an immediate emotional response. How inconsiderate! Didn’t they know I was due to go home?

Of course they knew, and as a professional I definitely didn’t say that out loud (especially since it wasn’t actually their fault), but I did feel it, and it was irrational. Fortunately, my emotions may be out of my control, but despite Channel Fever I can still control my actions and words.

I spent yesterday packing, cleaning up, getting ready for my flight. I was going home to New Zealand, and I’d be just in time for lockdown. Everything was organised: I was going to beat the transit ban in Abu Dhabi by twelve hours, and I’d be back in my own bed on Thursday night!

Then my flights were cancelled. I rebooked, and the new flights were cancelled. I rebooked, and the new flights were cancelled. Frantically (and futilely) searching flights, I slowly realised I was stuck in the UK for the foreseeable future.

I checked the New Zealand news, and the government confirmed it, advising all Kiwis overseas that the window for flights had closed. We should stay put and do whatever the local government told us to do.

As I sat in my room, thinking grumpy and uncharitable thoughts about airlines, governments, viruses, and toilet-paper hoarders, I realised that my feelings were familiar: it was just like all the times my sign-off day was delayed. It’s Channel Fever again.

As with Channel Fever, I started looking for loopholes. Maybe the government was wrong. Could I fly via Singapore instead? No, well what about Dubai? Hong Kong? Beijing? America? Canada? No, well what about…

I pulled myself up short.

I’m not in a bad situation. I’ve got a place to stay for as long as the lockdowns and travel bans last. The airlines have been pretty good about things like refunds and relaxing rules around flight changes. I’ve been away from home for a year already, so I have everything I need with me. I have access to cooking facilities, a bed, a bathroom. Heck, I even have internet access, so I can finish off some of the half-finished online courses I haven’t had time to work on.

I changed my perspective, calmed down, settled in, and laid out a routine based on what works for me when I’m on a ship for months. I don’t know when I’ll get home, and that’s okay with me.

As it is on a ship, the question of when I’ll get home is out of my control. As it is on a ship, where I’ll be in a week or a month is out of my control. As it is on a ship, my physical and mental health is mostly up to me. How I relate to the people around me is entirely up to me. How I spend my free time is totally up to me. I’ve done this before, and I’m still grateful to be a sailor.

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