Keeping sane on a small boat

It definitely is not for everyone to be confined with other people in a small space like a 12 meter (40 ft) long boat, which is constantly surrounded by water. Not only is your home tiny compared to even a small apartment, but it also constantly moves and you can’t always just leave. Everything needs a place to be safely secured, so most of the room below is used for storage and also your body needs to be physically and mentally adapted to the rocking and limitations of the boat.

Once a friend came onboard while we were tied up in a marina and indicated that people with claustrophobia probably couldn’t sleep in some of the cabins onboard. It never felt this way for us, maybe because we have spent holidays onboard similar sized boats before and knew what to expect. But there are other things that we weren’t prepared for.

Apart from the immediate surroundings, there is not much input from the outside. Some of you might have experienced something similar while being stuck at home during recent lockdowns due to the pandemic and can relate with us.
Before, our daily lives were heavily influenced by work, routines, errands, duties, and schedules that were partially set by other people. Living on a boat without being bound to work schedules or meetings eliminates almost all outside dependencies. There are no deadlines, no calls, no appointments. What might sound like a perfect never ending vacation can actually be frustrating sometimes. Without any daily structure it’s completely up to you to not become an unproductive coach potato that just exists, maybe even starts to get slightly depressed. Some people are easily motivated, can entertain themselves and are self-driven when it comes to finding things to do. Others thrive with the outside influence of others and enjoy to tag along. It’s all based on the situation, personal preference and personality traits.

We found out that for us it is important to keep moving. We started the adventure with the goal to explore new places, to be pushed outside our comfort zones and to go on an adventure. At the beginning of the trip our motivation and drive to keep going was so strong that we pushed ourselves through 3 months of hard boat work. There were only a few moments when we were mentally and physically struggling and had to recollect ourselves, which was fairly easy because we all wanted to set sail so badly.
Once in the water, our journey was defined by strict timelines, partially by short weather windows that allowed us to make progress or specific dates based on booked flights of people that came along. Since we were a little behind our planned timeline and everything was still new to us, we were busy and constantly on the move until we crossed the Atlantic and reached our main goals that we had initially set ourselves: to cross an ocean.

Starting in the Caribbean, we had no time pressure anymore. It was up to us to spend the days, weeks and even months as we wanted. Obviously there are always new places to explore and people to meet. Sailing from anchorage to anchorage, hiking through the islands’ landscapes, going snorkeling along reefs, meeting other cruisers, and starting new hobbies like scuba diving and kite surfing kept and still keeps us busy and happy. But after a while in one place, no matter how many friends we’ve made and how much we enjoy the island, we have the urge to move on. It’s like we suddenly feel trapped and seek the feeling of being out at sea, which for us means traveling to a new, unknown place. Funny enough we usually all feel the urge at the same time and we know we need to get going to keep our spirits up.

Another mentally challenging factor is entertainment onboard. We read books, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, watch documentaries, movies, and series. The problem is that your mind is just taking information in and you need to actively find an output for your thoughts and creativity.
The easiest output is to have conversations with each other. Often we sit in our cockpit and just talk for hours about random topics or thoughts. Even though this is fun and actually really important for our relationships, after a while it can get boring if you keep talking to the same people over and over again. That’s why we love meeting new people along the way, listening to their perspectives, views and stories.
Another solution that works for us is to document our experience and ideas in form of pictures, videos, or blog posts. It also helps us to track the adventure and associated thoughts for us and share updates with friends, family and others who are interested.
We find it necessary to find hobbies that we are passionate about. It can be as easy as attracting fish with a flashlight from the back of the boat at night and observe the different species that show up for a “midnight” snack (one of my favorite things to do), repair or maintain things on the boat (there is always something to improve), or cook and bake different things to keep the crew healthy and happy. There are many things to do and you just need to look out for new stimulations that keep your mind busy.

Living in a limited space with other people can be challenging as well. We are basically family, so the lack of private sphere and personal space among each other doesn’t bother us much. We also have a similar mindset and expectations when it comes to traveling, which is the main reason why we set off together in the first place. We also enjoy doing most activities together since our interests are very similar. And most importantly we all individually find things that we enjoy while living aboard and focus on that. When it happens that we disagree or something is not right, we try to talk about it and find a solution together. Sometimes the restricted personal space or being in the middle of a challenging situations first seem to amplify emotions or problems but, in the end, all are solvable and less intense once looked upon with a clear mind.

Apart from finding stimulating inputs and outputs for thoughts and emotions it is just as important to find relaxation and activities that clear your mind. Before we mainly achieved this when we did different sports or went for walks. Both solutions are not always available onboard. Interestingly enough we now relax most when we spend time in the water. When we snorkel or scuba dive we take in the calming and comforting marine environment surrounding us and forget anything else that was on our minds. Stretching and breathing exercises also help us to relax, to calm down and to listen to our bodies.
When we feel like we want to leave the boat for a while we usually go on longer hikes, which is one of our favorite things to do.

To summarize when we start feeling confined, bored, stressed, unmotivated or unhappy, which can always happen since we are human, we try to understand what’s causing the emotions and how we can change it. Even though we are living our dream, are in some of the world’s most beautiful places and basically on an extended holiday, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any negative feelings involved. Usually an easy way to improve the situation is to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you expect to get out of it. And this applies at sea and on land.

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