Crossing the Atlantic: isolation, mental health and leadership

My first Transatlantic crossing in May 2017 was tough but not for the reasons I was expecting. Although I didn’t learn much about practical sailing, I learnt a lot about leadership and mental health on board, especially when you’re isolated from the world with just a few companions to keep you sane (or drive you mad). I’m writing this in the midst of a COVID-19 confinement and considering a second crossing, so perhaps it’s a good moment to reflect on these topics.

After dropping Anne Bonny off in Guadeloupe for hurricane season, all that remained was to finish the last few weeks of my work contract and embark on my first Transatlantic crossing adventure (the shitty direction from the Caribbean back to Europe). This was very exciting. I hoped to pick up lots of sailing skills that would put me in good stead for my new life with my bateau when I returned (ironic LOL). My original Transatlantic ride had fallen through, so I felt relieved to have found an alternative boat at the last minute, leaving from Martinique the day after my contract ended. I didn’t have much time to get to know the crew before we set off, but the three guys (the Captain, a young Brazilian and a young French guy) seemed cool and at our first meeting it felt like we could all get on (ironic LOL).

The West-to-East Transatlantic crossing represents around 4,000-4,700 nautical miles, with big swells and the wind against you for the first part, about a month at sea and around two weeks without sight of land before you get to the Azores and everything changes. We were sailing a fairly nice 60ft catamaran. The skipper was a charter captain, delivering his boat back to Europe for a Mediterranean season (we were planning to make port near Barcelona). Most charter captains are used to being what amounts to solo sailors. In my job the cook is always there as a second sailor to help with manoeuvres and take shifts during night passages, but in general a charter captain needs to be capable of doing everything alone. On a long crossing, however, he or she needs to be able to sleep, which is why Transatlantic delivery captains (whether delivering their own boat or being paid to do it for someone else) often pick up paying hitchhikers as crew. Our deal was we paid for all the food, and shared the costs of any time spent in marinas, and he took care of the rest. In exchange we did night watches and prepared the meals. On a long trip like this, the chemistry between the crew is more important than their individual sailing skills and experience. It’s really important to do a voyage like this with people who get on well together. At the time I thought of myself as chilled and easy to get along with, but it turns out I was wrong.

So things started off well. We made lists, went shopping (sooooo much shopping), scraped the hull, and set off. As we finally waved goodbye to Martinique, there was the sense of great excitement and the beginning of an adventure. I received a text from Zen Master saying he’d passed by the bateau and she had the spirit of the Atlantic about her. He felt she would be travelling along with me. As we passed Guadeloupe that night I waved and blew her a kiss.

Pre-Atlantic groceries

Seasickness raises her ugly head

Things were still OK between us at this point, but the seeds for the later problems were sewn with the oncoming of the seasickness. The Brazilian was hit really hard and was so incapacitated he couldn’t take his night shifts for the first couple of days. I was OK during the daytime but as evening fell and I got hungrier, I started to feel queasy. I was anxious about feeling sick because of my experience going to Guadeloupe but I was hoping Zen Master’s new wisdom would see me through. I’d brought pills and would be taking them religiously for the first week (as you were supposed to acclimatise after that). The Frenchman was fine, so that night he took the cooking shift and I managed to force something down before retiring to my bunk. The movement of the catamaran made my cabin near the forepeak feel like a washing machine fairground ride and all I could do was close my eyes and try and pass out. At one point during that first week I crawled into the bunk after my night shift and realised I was suddenly at the point of no return. I’d had The Knowledge that in exactly three seconds I would vomit. Even closing my eyes wasn’t helping. But there was no time to reach the toilet and if I puked in my bed there’d be no way to clean it up until things calmed (and who knew how many weeks that would take). To throw up was just inconceivable. So I channelled Zen Master (even though I knew it was too late), and breathed, let go, and tried to summon inner peace. Amazingly it worked, even after passing the point of no return where vomiting was inevitable and imminent, I brought myself back and managed to send myself to sleep to reset. I was eternally grateful to Zen Master’s wisdom. I never threw up from seasickness during this voyage (but I did once due to fatigue, I have to admit).

During these swells every trip inside became an ordeal like this. Going to the toilet was a hellish endurance followed by a period lying on my back in the cockpit feeling sorry for myself. After a while I found myself needing to make important decisions like – I could stomach 1 trip. I could a) take a shower, b) change my clothes or c) use the toilet. ‘Use the toilet’ won every time and after a while I looked and smelled awful. This might also explain the boys’ change in treatment of me. Sometimes I wonder if things would have been different had I continued to wear a bra and made more of an effort with my appearance.

This seasickness had consequences: because both the Brazilian and I were hit so hard, the Frenchman got into the habit of doing everything. He was already a dominant personality and if there was going to be a job that a crew member could do, it was going to be him to do it. He would jump right in there before either of us could. The Brazilian was still pretty fragile and I don’t compete for the approval of authority figures (a problematic character trait in this instance). The ocean was starting to bring out the worst in us, and a massive problem here was that two of us felt redundant because one person decided he was going to be the only person doing crew work. We weren’t functioning as a team. Even when we’d recovered (although I had perma-nausea the whole trip, I think more due to fatigue and the weird food I wasn’t allowed to cook than actual seasickness), we weren’t allowed to participate, not even in meal preparation. The Frenchman loved cooking so also insisted he was in charge of meals – the Brazilian and I had little to do. I didn’t take the initiative and demand jobs for myself (mostly due to my deteriorating relationship with the Captain). The Brazilian retreated to his cabin and spent more and more time sleeping. I grew angry and depressed.

This is where I learned a valuable lesson about leadership. The Captain was clearly aware something was wrong because he made nasty jokes at us (he would comment on the Brazilian always sleeping, or taking lengthy showers and then protest ‘mais c’est une blague!’ (it’s a joke) and we were expected to laugh. His jokes to me were much worse). Yet he did absolutely nothing about it. He allowed the Frenchman to dominate and take all the work, and he chose to bully us other two rather than divide the work a bit. An ocean crossing like this can be long and boring, with very little to do in terms of the actual sailing of the boat. But as Captain, the mental health of your crew is critical to the whole voyage and kind of your responsibility, so much as you can influence it.

French jokes aren’t funny

I found myself deteriorating, both emotionally and in my relationship with the others. I had a major problem with the Captain in that he was a Joker. Now I find French Jokers particularly difficult to deal with for these reasons. Number 1, French jokes are never funny (well, OK, if you’re British – it’s a cultural clash). 2, my level of French meant that I didn’t often understand them first time round. 3, once (if) I did understand them, I had to pretend to laugh (pretend, because of point 1). The obvious response would be to not try and understand the jokes, but just laugh at them to keep the peace. But the whole process required a huge amount of concentration because you never knew when the Captain was going to be making a joke, so everything he said you had to run through a mental screening process to work out if you were supposed to laugh. It was impossible to say if he was making a genuine criticism or was expecting you to laugh at yourself. Usually it was a real criticism dressed up as a ‘joke’. Or else it was a sexist remark which I was also supposed to laugh at, but which made me feel more alienated rather than overcome with mirth. Because of all this the Captain started treating me like I was a joyless sour old maid devoid of any sense of humour. The more he treated me like this, the more I became that. I felt powerless to stop my mental decline because of the isolation in close quarters with these people.

There was no escape, no mental lone time. If I took lone time, they treated me like I was sulking (so I sulked). I had my monthly hormone fluctuations, drastically influencing my moods and I wanted to scream because there was no way I could explain this to them without risking more sexist comments. I started retreating more and more into my mind, reflecting on why I’d left Scotland, what I was going back to, and where my life was at. They accused me of becoming ‘depressive’. With nothing else to do, and a gradually more toxic social situation, I felt powerless to prevent this decline. I couldn’t speak good enough French to express myself or understand the subtleties of things they were saying to me. In the end I just went on strike and spoke English to them (they could all speak English). I felt like the enemy. And I was devastated at what I’d become because I see myself as a positive person, and a positive influence in group situations.

Nothing as far as the eye can see

Good leadership

I tried to think about how I might handle a person in the state I was in, if I was the captain (or even a team leader in a situation on land). I realised that the more he treated me like this angry miserable useless person, the more I became this person. I wondered how I would respond if he treated me like I was a nice, positive, capable person; would my self-image change and therefore my behaviour? I’m no management expert but I bet you that if you treat a difficult person as though they’re not a difficult person, their behaviour will change. I tried to lift myself out of my funk and faked being happy and cheerful on some days. Those days they were noticeably nicer to me (they were also nicer to me when I washed, or put on a bra, or make-up). I should have had some self-discipline and persevered with fake cheerfulness until it was real (fake it till you make it), because that is actually known to work. But I’m unfortunately one of those people who wears their heart on their sleeves, and if I don’t like you it’s very obvious. (Because of the nature of my job and often being faced with passengers who annoy the hell out of me, in order to maintain professional behaviour around them I’m forced to find ways to genuinely like every single one of the fuckers, which is an amazing exercise in empathy and human understanding when you think about it.)

I was bitterly disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to learn anything about sailing from this Captain, but I resolved to get something out of my situation and learn what I could, even if it was just lessons on how not to manage a team. I realised that as a captain you are responsible not just for the wellbeing of the boat, but also the crew. You need to make sure everyone feels useful, everyone clearly knows their role at any given moment (even though these roles could change during the voyage), and if you can see morale deteriorating, you work to change that. Be that having firm but kindly meant words with a crewmember who is dominating or bringing the others down, or realising that your ‘jokes’ aren’t being taken the way you intended them. In a great interview on the On the Wind podcast by 59North, Pete Goss had this to say about skippering (from the context of a round the world ocean race with a mixed ability crew):

“A net result over a period of time is you have a very clear vision: what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what’s required training people. And the more you allow the team to be a part of the vision, the richer it will be, the more likely they are to take responsibility for it and be proud of it…. I just felt that, if at the end of the race, if every member of crew as they walk away from the boat with their family in their arms, can look back and say to themselves – d’you know? That boat would never have got round the world if I wasn’t on it, then you’ve nailed it. So it’s finding the appropriate job for the individual to play to their strengths, and then holistically the crew is really robust.

…If you’re skippering a boat, as a leader, what are you trying to achieve? And I would say that what you’re doing is you’re trying to do yourself out of a job. Such that you reach the point where [if] you fall over the side, there should be no day-to-day effect to the performance of the vessel. So your training, coaching, delegating, and you know this is a gift – and they will now stand underneath you and support you with total loyalty through thick and thin. But the contract is I’d like to be told about a problem before I hear about it, because we can turn it into a lesson rather that allow a disaster. … You’re freeing yourself up to do the strategic thinking, which is the skipper’s role.”


The open ocean does strange things to sailors. Isolated from the outside world, your mind and what’s going on within it become big influencing factors on your day. The endless expanse and incredible beauty of it all can be wonderfully meditative, but it’s important not to get too much into your own head, or you might find it hard to pull yourself out again. As I sit with too much time to think during this COVID-19 pandemic, I have to remind myself of these lessons or I find myself staring at the ceiling and worrying about the future for literally days. When you’re confined with people you might not get on with in real life, it’s important to make special efforts to keep the peace and work together, even when you’re rubbing each other up the wrong way. It’s an opportunity to get deeper inside how other people think and develop empathy for them. I know I didn’t succeed in this during this crossing because I barely tried. If I’d had more self-awareness in the moment I would have seen what a terrible sailing companion I’d become.

Anyway, it wasn’t all anger and tensions. As a crew we had movie nights (and afternoons, and sometimes mornings) and played card games which pulled us out of our interior worlds. The Captain had a playlist of really awful French music and we danced. We did exercise routines on deck and eventually started polishing all the metalwork as our destination approached. We delighted in sea life and tiny changes in the environment were major events. The first sight of land after two weeks at sea brought giddy euphoria and the dolphins… well the dolphins always know when to lift you up. Here are a few extracts from my journal en route (I haven’t included dates as I lost track of those pretty quickly):

French elections were yesterday so they’ll know their new president. We don’t. We have no contact with the outside world. We tried calling all ships yesterday to see if there was anyone out there who knew the results, but we were alone.

Tempête with 12m waves which rose up as high as our heads, wet and wild sail changes. The boat became a hell – unable to move = unable to cook = unable to eat anything properly. I have a feeling that’s why I feel so sick. Plus the terrifying sleepless nights in the fairground pod gone ballistic.

This morning the Frenchman came to tell me he’d tried to wake me last night. It was about 3am and the sea was sparkling and phosphorescent. A small pod of dolphins arrived and swam alongside, but they all congregated on either side of the hull of my cabin where I was sleeping, nowhere else. It was as though they sensed my feminine energy and had come to see if I was alright. Every now and then there’s a sea bird, and all these jellyfish drift past: neon pink and half their bodies puffed out of the water and dried flat so they make a sail. The first time I saw them I thought it was a piece of plastic flotsam. Last night was almost flat calm and the fringes of the darkness looked like it was covered in mist. There was no moon so millions of stars. I wasn’t sure if the luminous flashes in the water were fluorescent jellyfish or the reflections of the stars.  Then in the calm a strange white wave shot towards the boat perpendicular and joined the wake. It happened a couple of times and the third time I was convinced I saw the shape of an animal.

A whale today! I heard a big puff and sigh, and looked up to see a shiny black shape disappear below the surface right in front of the trampoline. Also there’s a swallow following us.

Santa Maria, Azores

Arriving on land was everything you’d ever hope it would be. Wifi: a big sign greeting us in front of our berth. And the smells of land hyper-accentuated after so long with only horrible boat stench. It was seaweed and sheep, and the place immediately made me think of harbours back home. That with the drizzly temperate climate it was like a hot day in Scotland.  We went crazy for walking up steep hills and splashing out on meat and wine in restaurants. Epic long hot showers. Laundry.

At the Azores stop the Captain made some particularly nasty ‘jokes’ at me, and that was it. I broke down after that and the situation wasn’t recoverable. In anger I rebelled against the irritating advice he was trying to give me. He’d said to me ‘you’ll never be able to sail solo, you’re just not autonomous enough’, but in that moment I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do. I’d hesitated about it before, and hadn’t really thought of myself as a solo sailor, but the idea that I could ignore this arsehole and do it anyway was the only thing that consoled me in that moment. I also trusted my instincts, and my instincts told me that this was the right way forward for me.

Things are starting to feel different now. Before there was a sensation of nothing but open ocean surrounding us, but yesterday we stopped in Madeira and now I know Gibraltar and Morocco are just over there. We’ve also lost the flat calm that had us motoring nearly nonstop from the Azores. Back to the old bounce-bounce-thud. Psychologically I’m also feeling a bit better. The shift before last the Captain gave me actual instructions and showed me how to trim the sails and when. In my head I kind of know these things but I’ve lost all confidence. He was a bit derisive about it but I resolved to suck it up as at least I was being allowed to do something. It’s still a world away from sailing Anne Bonny but every baby step is valuable.

Today there’s a slightly different smell on the sea. It’s difficult to describe. Maybe it’s just the fact that there’s a smell at all. I can faintly see the shadows of Moroccan hills to the right and the sea has been peppered with boats since I got up for my dawn shift. They’re all fishing boats and giant cargo ships. Visibility is poor so we don’t see them until they’re closer, but there’s a whole gathering of them clustered on the AIS and they’re all converging together, making for the Straits of Gibraltar. Suddenly we’re not so alone in the world.

Yesterday loads of insects appeared on board. It was weird, maybe they came in a gust of wind in the night. When we got up there were moths of different sizes flapping and crawling round the boat, flies, and a couple of hornets. A new swallow came to join us and a squid with bulbous dead eyes had somehow washed up on the roof. The radio has started gabbling away to itself nonstop as we approach the entrance to the Med. Europe! Nearly there. And the traffic monitors saying ‘You are entering British territorial waters, please make contact immediately on channel 16.’

The Frenchman gave me a full Thai massage on the roof of the dinghy station which seemed like a luxurious thing – a 2 hour massage on the Mediterranean sea aboard a posh catamaran. Then that evening we caught our first fish! More than exciting. It was a handsome yellow fin tuna and as the Captain reeled it in he shouted ‘get the white rum! The white rum!’. The thing flopped miserably about on deck while he tried to force feed it the rum. Then he sawed its head off and we feasted.

Dusky pink dawn on the approach to the Straits of Gibraltar, first sights of Morocco appearing in the mist on the right

I was so happy to get off that boat, but full of regret that I hadn’t had a better crossing experience. My confidence was shattered but I knew I didn’t need to become the person the Captain had imagined me to be, just by the way he treated me. I knew that this wasn’t who I was, and what’s more I’d had some amazing mentors so far who saw me as the kind of woman who could do anything she put her mind to. I clung to that. I wanted to be that person. But I’d made it across the Atlantic, and I’d only puked once.

Have you experienced difficult social conditions on an ocean crossing or in confinement with others? How did you deal with it? Please feel free to leave a comment below!

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