Sea-sickness is a common malaise, experienced by most sailors at one time or another. But setting sail alone for even short periods can also have effects on mental health.

Donald Crowhurst

Most sailors know the story of Donald Crowhurst. When he slipped his lines in Teignmouth to take part in the first Golden Globe race neither he nor his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, were prepared. Under a great deal of social and financial pressure from the outset, Crowhurst conceived a plan to falsify his logbooks… only for one setback after another to push his already precarious mental state over the edge. It is thought that he killed himself by jumping from his boat in July 1969.

Then there is the strange tale recounted by Joshua Slocum, who became the first person to sail solo around the world. Caught in stormy weather, and already feeling sick, he went below deck to rest. On returning to the cockpit, he saw another sailor at the helm. The apparition reassured Slocum that he meant him no harm, and explained that he was a pilot of Columbus’ ship the Pinta, then advised the captain to rest more, and leave his own boat, the Spray, in his hands.

Slocum wrote that he did just that, adding: “Columbus himself could not have held her more exactly on her course. I felt grateful to the old pilot. I had been in the presence of a friend and a seaman of vast experience”.

Joshua Slocum

For Slocum and for Crowhurst, the stresses of life alone at sea took their toll to some extent. Modern research supports the idea that solo sailing can have significant mental health risks – due in part to the punishing lack of sleep and potential poor diet, physical demands on the body, and also the effects of isolation.

In his 2005 research Under Sail Alone at Sea, University of Brisbane professor Richard Hutch identified depression as a key risk for solo sailors. While researching the book, he found several such skippers who had almost reached the point of suicide, but – unlike Crowhurst – pulled back from the brink.

Peter Suedfeld, in the study Sensory Deprivation, also noted the effects on mental health of sailors. He found that solo skippers and sailors who have been shipwrecked “generally described disturbances in attention and in organisation of thought… hallucinations and delusions”.

By its very nature, research into the mental health effects of solo sailing is difficult because it relies so heavily on self-reporting. One way to address this is to look at research from a different field: prisoners.

One study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2010, found many potential mental health risks arising from isolation, even for relatively short periods. These risks include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbance, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis. What’s more, the study learned that prisoners who were already suffering some kind of mental health problem before isolation (remember Crowhurst’s pre-voyage difficulties?) were much more at risk. That’s not all; such are the concerns about the effects of isolation on mental health that the United Nations Committee Against Torture ruled in 2014 that full isolation of prisoners for 22 or more hours per day was unacceptable. The UN has also banned the use of solitary confinement in prisons for longer than 15 days. From the sailor’s perspective, that’s very significant – as it can take twice that time for the average leisure skipper to cross the Atlantic, and much longer to get across the Pacific.

Of special interest at the time of writing is the information that we can learn from health crises about isolation and the effects it might have on sailors. It’s still too early to draw many concrete conclusions from the COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantine rules, but we already have the data from other similar situations. For example, the American Psychological Association reported a study into people going into quarantine during the SARS epidemic, of whom 29% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 31% of depression – in addition to problems with sleep, lower immunity and difficulty focusing or managing emotions.

And yet, most solo sailors go it alone because they choose to. With that in mind, what can skippers do before setting off, during or after their voyages?

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

On passage, the advice from Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who won the Golden Globe race in which Crowhurst took part, is to keep busy and maintain a sense of humour. In addition, today’s skippers can mitigate the effects of isolation thanks to technology that simply wasn’t widely available when Knox-Johnston was becoming the first person to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world. For a fairly modest price, we can purchase a satellite communication device and data package that allow us to stay in touch with loved ones – though there will still be plenty of hours to fill on passage, so the advice on keeping busy still holds true.

Finally, a word on preparation. Getting into shape and getting a health check-up (mental and physical) can help sailors planning solo voyages and give them advance warning of any potential problems. A psychological assessment, before and after a long passage alone, could certainly prove valuable. If your results, like Knox-Johnston’s, come back “disturbingly normal”, you can make of that what you will.

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