“ IT IS A FINE LINE THAT SEPARATES LONELINESS FROM SOLITUDE’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Two Indians, who spent months at sea, share their insight on managing isolation. Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) recalled vignettes from his 2009-2010 voyage, circumnavigating the planet in a sailboat, solo and unassisted. Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi spoke of how she and her crew tackled isolation during their 2017-2018 circumnavigation. Both voyages were part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project.

From midnight March 24, 2020, India was placed in a 21 day-lockdown to check the transmission of COVID-19, the disease that first surfaced in China in late 2019 and within a few months graduated to be a global pandemic.

The lockdown meant families, couples and those living alone confined to their houses. Isolation can be a strange experience. Our houses are homes because that is where we return to for secure rest and belonging after being out on work. It is a different sensation when that blend of in and out is replaced by a state of being in – housebound – permanently. Variety, often described as the spice of life, disappears in its familiar form and begs reinterpretation. The hours are felt as minutes and seconds; they sit heavy on your shoulders. Confined to limited space, your dwelling rises to meet you in myriad small details, all previously ignored because you weren’t there for long, like now. If you are staying alone, the solitary existence may corrode to loneliness. How do you cope with this?

Captain Dilip Donde (Retd) was quick to respond to the subject. “ It isn’t much different on a boat,’’ he said. In 2010, he had become the first Indian to complete a solo unassisted circumnavigation of the planet in a sailboat, the INSV Mhadei. Seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans and seas. It is a vast blue, big enough to isolate boats even when they are sailing under no strictures like completing a solo, unassisted circumnavigation in accordance with the rule books of the sport. Dilip who was serving in the Indian Navy then, didn’t have any prior expertise in meditation. Nor did he court such techniques on the boat to keep his act together.

What kept him engaged was the simple fact that when you are solo sailor afloat in a vessel at sea, ensuring that the vessel is in good condition and you are in good shape is pivotal to keeping the voyage alive. The sea is a dynamic, unforgiving medium, its dynamism ranging from its moods to its long term impact on the vessel you are in. You take care of the boat. The boat takes care of you. Such connection with the vessel in which you are afloat is viscerally felt at sea, even as the parameters of solo unassisted sailing allow you no human alongside for company.

“ There are plenty of things to do on a boat. There are repairs, maintenance work – they keep you fairly busy. You also need to rest adequately,’’ Dilip said. It is an observation many of us who have embraced routines under lockdown – like cleaning the vessel we live in; our house – would easily identify with. Once the boat related-tasks were taken care of, Dilip read a book, watched a movie or cooked himself a nice meal. “ Basically, you slow down your life, slow down the pace of everything you do,’’ he said.

Contacted in early April, Dilip was home in Goa, locked down like the rest of India. He felt that there was similarity between the lockdown experience ashore and what he had experienced at sea on his long voyages. Admittedly, there is one major difference. During a solo voyage on the vast blue, even if sailor is alone on his boat, the boat is moving. Your house on the other hand, is a very rooted entity that stays still in one place. You see the same views. That isn’t the case at sea, which is a convergent ambience of many natural elements in their free form. “ Every sunrise and sunset is different. Every day is different,’’ Dilip said. Still the fact remains that a voyage is a mix of diverse experiences and on those days of nothing but wide blue featureless sea, it is how you approach the stillness that matters.

Being alone on a boat does not have to automatically mean loneliness. “ It is a fine line that separates loneliness from solitude,’’ Dilip said. Loneliness comes with a sense of being mentally dragged down. Solitude on the other hand is different; it has the ring of something positive, something that you can work with. The key to coping with isolation, Dilip said, is changing that potential loneliness to solitude. Care for boat and care for self eventually become meaningful acts in solitude. At his home in Goa, Dilip has his mother for company during the lock down. “ On the boat, I was alone. I used to talk to the boat,’’ he said, adding, “ it is all in you.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Dilip’s voyage was part of the Indian Navy’s Sagar Parikrama project. It was conceived by the late Vice Admiral Manohar Awati, an inspiring naval officer who retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command. The solo unassisted circumnavigation, which was Sagar Parikrama’s first major achievement, was followed by a solo unassisted non-stop circumnavigation by Commander Abhilash Tomy; that voyage spanned November 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013. In February 2017, the INSV Mhadei was joined by a sister vessel, INSV Tarini. Over September 10, 2017 to May 21, 2018, an all-woman crew from the Indian Navy successfully completed a circumnavigation on the Tarini. The crew was led by Lieutenant Commander Vartika Joshi. In terms of predicament, there is much that is similar between a crew out on circumnavigation and a family enduring isolation. Unlike journeying solo, one of the challenges here is handling multiple human beings in the confines of limited space. Since people react differently, it was very important for the crew to know each other, something their months of preparation and time spent working together on training voyages, gradually instilled.

“ Over time, we transformed to being more receptive of each other. Instead of talking more, you began to listen more. Eventually, we didn’t have to speak much to be understood,’’ Vartika said. According to her, an important aspect in such situation of crew aboard sailboat on voyage of several months, is remembering to honor each other’s need for personal space. It checks the ambiance from becoming too overbearing on self. As with solo sailing, routines addressing the boat’s need for repair and maintenance, count here too. That is unavoidable on a boat. “ It is extremely important to set a routine. If it isn’t there, you lose your sense of time. On a boat there are plenty of tasks and standard drills to do,’’ she said. At any given point in time, there has to be somebody keeping an eye on the boat and its surroundings. The crew takes turns to be on watch. Those not on watch, enjoy personal time. “ With crew around, the situation is different from solo endeavors in that we have to see each other for long and we have nowhere else to go. But remember – they are also the persons who will come to your assistance when you are in need of help,’’ Vartika said. She and her crew picked up the required skills during their training, which exposed them to potential situations and taught them suitable solutions. “ Any meditation and such – that was personal. Besides, what could be a better medium to meditate in than living amidst and listening to the ever changing sounds of the sea to soothe us mentally and emotionally,’’ she said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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