7 Lessons Learned Aboard Picton Castle That Prepared Me For This Pandemic

Maggie here, from the Picton Castle shore crew.  Normally I’d be writing to you from our Lunenburg office, but today I’m writing to you from my living room.  In an effort to do our part to flatten the curve, our shore crew have been working from home for the past two weeks.  For me, that means I’ve spent a lot of time in my small little bungalow in the woods of Nova Scotia, a short walk from the ocean.

As I’ve been adjusting to this time of physical distancing, I’ve realized there are a number of lessons I learned while sailing aboard Picton Castle that I’m applying to daily life now.  That’s what sail training is all about – yes, you will learn some seamanship skills, but it’s more about learning the life lessons through sailing that will serve you for years down the road.  Even for someone who never sails again, there’s valuable wisdom in life at sea!

Want to know what lessons from life aboard I’m applying to life ashore at the moment?  Read on.

  1. Keep a regular schedule that can be adapted.

When at sea, Picton Castle crew typically work in four-hour chunks of time known as “watches.”  If you’re assigned to the 8-12 watch, for example, you would be on duty from 8:00am to noon and again from 8:00pm to midnight.  For the most part, we stick fairly closely to the watch schedule.  But sometimes when there’s something out of the ordinary happening, a watch may be called on deck early or may be kept on deck beyond their scheduled time.  Keeping a regular schedule helps set expectations and also means everyone gets adequate down time for rest.

I’m applying this now by keeping a schedule at home, working regular hours from 9:00am to 5:00pm like I would be in the office.  My fantastic fitness instructors have started teaching online so I take classes at home most weekdays just after my workday finishes.  I’m setting an alarm in the morning and trying to keep bedtime consistent.  Having a schedule is helping there be some normalcy in my life, and that’s keeping me productive at work.

  1. Embrace uncertainty.

One of the things trainee crew members sometimes struggle with when they first sign aboard Picton Castle is not knowing the exact itinerary.  There are some other things that may also be unknown.  While we build the plan for the voyage based on a reasonable speed of advance under sail, we cannot guarantee the length of each passage and leaving it a bit open-ended allows us to sail when we can and take advantage of wind and weather when it’s favourable.  In fact, we only announce dates for the start and end of each leg and very specifically don’t set dates for the intermediate ports.  A passage from the Galapagos Islands to Pitcairn takes about four weeks, but we’ve done it in as little as 18 days or as many as 32.  By letting go of rigid expectations and going with the flow, you reduce the stress on yourself and your shipmates.

Uncertainty is rampant at the moment, with so many unanswerable questions.  I certainly  don’t have the expertise to answer the medical questions.  In terms of impact on my life and on Picton Castle’s future plans, one of the most important questions is how long this period of quarantine/lockdown/physical distancing will last.  While many are speculating, there is no clear answer on this.  I could drive myself crazy speculating, or I could just accept that it’s unknown at this point and I should do my best with what information I have and take things day by day.

  1. Physical distance doesn’t mean lack of social connection.

When I was crew aboard Picton Castle on her fourth world circumnavigation voyage, I didn’t see my family or friends from home for over a year.  That was back in 2005-2006 when online communication tools weren’t the same as what we have today, so in most ports I made time to call my parents and to send out an email to my friends.  I always had something waiting from them at any of our mail ports.  Although I couldn’t see them, I knew they were there for me, and I for them.

I also learned that it takes effort to keep in touch with loved ones.  I’m riding out this time at home on my own and have realized I need to take initiative to contact those I love.  My group text with my sisters, phone calls with my mom, FaceTime with friends, and sharing a laugh over social media are keeping me going now.

  1. Provision well.

Aboard Picton Castle, we make long ocean-going passages that can last weeks at a time.  With a crew of up to 52 people on board and a ship to maintain, we need a lot of stuff.  And we need to conserve that stuff, it is always all we have.  At the same time, we’re limited by physical space and reasonable budget.  One of my favourite parts of preparing the ship for a new voyage, or at certain ports along the way where grocery and hardware stores are readily available, is provisioning.  We plan carefully, make lists of necessities and nice-to-haves, then shop according to our lists.

In this time where everyone is encouraged to stay home, I’ve been limiting my trips to the grocery store.  I know my pantry staples, I take inventory and make a list, then add whatever fresh items, keeping in mind how long they’ll last and how quickly I can use them up.  Having had the unfortunate experience aboard of putting my hand in a mushy rotten potato at the bottom of a veggie locker on Picton Castle’s aloha deck, I like to use produce when it’s fresh.  But like being aboard, I’m limited by storage space and budget, and these days also by awareness of others in my community and making sure there’s enough in the store to go around.

  1. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Frequently on night watch, I remember the officer of the watch approaching a group of us sitting on the lockers on the quarterdeck to ask “what would you do if a yard broke right now?” or “if you smelled smoke coming from the galley right now, what would you do?”  That got the crew thinking and made us more ready to respond.  It took the surprise and shock out of an actual situation because we had already considered the possibility and how we would react.  Of course, when new crew sign aboard Picton Castle, one of the first things they learn is what to do if there’s an emergency.  In the first few days aboard, they’re introduced to all of our firefighting and lifesaving equipment and how to use it, then we practice regularly.  We hope we never have to actually use those procedures, but we’re prepared just in case.

I’ve been thinking through different scenarios in the past few weeks.  What would I do if I get sick?  What if someone I love gets sick?  What if I or someone I love has a medical emergency that’s not related to COVID-19?  It’s good to think through the worst-case scenarios to they’re not surprising if they happen.  Just like on the ship, careful preventative measures go a long way here.  Hopefully by being aware of and minimizing the risks, there’s no need to resort to using the plans I’ve put in place.

  1. Think of others ahead of yourself.

Aboard Picton Castle, pretty much every decision is made by answering the call to put the ship first.  From a trainee choosing to clean up a small spill in the scullery to the Captain considering how to alter course around some rough weather ahead, we always think about what is best for the ship.  My own desires are secondary to what’s best for the ship and for the crew as a whole.  And what is best for the ship is also always what is best for her crew.  The greatest compliment aboard is to be considered a good shipmate.  What makes a good shipmate?  Being respectful, kind, considerate.

Putting the greater community good ahead of our own individually is what social distancing is all about, right?  By staying home, I’m helping contain the spread of COVID-19.  I’ll admit some days that’s hard to do.  I miss visiting friends, going out for dinner, running errands whenever I like.  I’m missing my colleagues too, and working together in person.  But by staying physically distant for now, I’m doing the right thing for my community.

  1. Make your own fun.

At sea, there is no internet connection aboard Picton Castle.  While there are always ship’s work projects going on aboard, crew also need to entertain themselves.  I remember being part of a backgammon tournament, after-dinner games of Bananagrams, reading lots of books, knitting a pair of mittens and a set of can cozies, writing letters, and taking photos.  Then there’s the silly stuff like planning costumes for dress-up parties, surprising a secret Santa, and seeing if the amount of dental floss in an unopened roll matches the measurement printed on the package (update: it does).

When the physical space we occupy shrinks down and we can’t keep ourselves busy in the same ways, we have to get creative.  I’m trying to balance practical and enjoyable activities at home.  Baking is one of my  favourite hobbies and I’ve been experimenting with new bread recipes (which is both practical and enjoyable).  Those of you with kids are probably finding all sorts of new ways to have fun at home.

So, fellow sailors, be secure in knowing that what you’ve learned aboard is helping in life ashore now.  If you’re thinking these are lessons you or someone you know might welcome learning, applications are now being accepted for Picton Castle’s upcoming Voyage to the South Pacific.  No experience is needed to sign aboard as a trainee, just the desire to be part of the working crew of the ship.