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How to Handle Cabin Fever, According to a Guy Who Rowed Alone Across the Atlantic

Bryce Carlson rowed a boat alone across the ocean. Let's listen to him.

The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing measures to flatten the curve have many around the world quarantined and feeling more than a little cabin fever. Millions cannot leave their homes. Those who can must practice safe social distancing. It’s a scary, stressful time. We need to endure it.

One person who knows how to endure extreme situations a bit better than most is Ohio educator, solo-adventurer, and athlete Bryce Carlson. In 2018, he became the first American to ever complete a west-to-east solo row of the Atlantic, traveling 2,000 miles from Newfoundland to the Isles of Sicily in 38 days, six hours, and 49 minutes (he also shattered the previous record). Even more astounding, Carlson completed the row in a 20-foot vessel named Lucille. During the journey, he rowed for roughly 12-hours a day and spent his nights in a seven-foot sleeping quarters. It was not smooth … rowing: Carlson endured capsizes, storms, a broken desalinator, and other issues. But he still managed to squash the previous record.

Unsurprisingly, Carlson is pretty cool under pressure as well as a master planner with a love for conquering challenges. Fatherly spoke to Carlson about how he stayed sane while cooped up in his vessel Lucille (named after his grandmother), what he did to calm his fears when out at sea, and what he’s doing right now to keep himself busy and active during the pandemic.

You spent 38 days rowing across the Atlantic. What advice would you have for people who are  enduring quite a bit at the moment?  

We can endure a lot when we feel safe, happy, and in control. So, I think it’s important to get a read on what you’re allowed versus not allowed to do, and put together a plan for yourself. Then you can focus on your plan, on what you can control. Once you’ve gained control, I think it’s valuable to surround yourself by the sights, sounds, and people that inspire you and make you happy.

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I had a plan and schedule for each day of my North Atlantic row. From time to time, weather conditions would necessitate a change to that plan, but I would quickly evaluate the new conditions or limitations, put together a new plan and then focus on the plan, not on the variables I couldn’t control.  Once I had a plan in place, I listened to a lot of happy music —golden oldies from the 1950s and 1960s, hits from the 1980’s, Disney movie soundtracks, and electronic dance music. I also stayed connected with some friends and family throughout the trip. My satellite phone allowed unlimited text messages, and I would routinely reach out when I wanted to talk.

I also took a lot of photos and thought about how I would share the experience with those following along on social media. I became a storyteller, and would think about the story I was living, and then share through words and photos via social media.

How’s your social distancing going? How are you spending your time cooped up at home?

I’m working and wedding planning. My fiancé and I are getting married in late August, and we’re hoping all Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted by then. So, the time at home has been a good opportunity to get ahead on that planning. My school is moving to online education starting next week. So, I’m also putting in some time planning my curriculum for that new reality, and prepping some fitness programs that our students, teachers, and staff may complete at home without the equipment we otherwise have at school.

And then, I’m trying to stay active as regular exercise seems more important now than ever. I’ve begun posting all my activities up on Strava and find it’s a wonderful venue for social networks to stay connected and inspire.

What were the living quarters like on Lucille? How did you deal with such cramped quarters?

Lucille was about 20 feet long, with an enclosed water and airtight cabin in the bow measuring approximately 7 feet long by 4 feet high. I could stretch out inside the cabin, and never really felt cramped. I had a foam mattress and sleeping bag in there, and lined the walls with bungied mesh storage bags. So, when the boat rocked around in rough seas, I was padded on three sides (left, right, bottom). Outside the cabin, there was an open rowing deck with a sliding seat and riggers to either side which would hold my oars. In the stern, there was another, but much smaller, cabin for storage.

Your journey wasn’t easy. Your desalinator broke early on. Your autopilot mechanism failed. Storms frequently created waves that tossed you around. 

The most challenging mental stretch was the first two weeks. Everything was new and I was still figuring it all out. Then there was the added anxiety of the broken desalinator, autopilot, capsizes, etc. But once I got to about the halfway point, I began to develop a little more confidence that I could manage.

The goal of finishing was the biggest carrot throughout all the hardships. I was committed to finishing, so there was no question of “Do I keep going or not?” The answer was an obvious and certain “yes.” Just like now during the COVID-19 quarantine. We’re going to get through this. Time will pass and the quarantine will eventually be lifted. So, the real question is how to do so as comfortably and enjoyably as possible. The situation we’re all in is highly dynamic right now, and the best we can do is take information in, acknowledge our ever-changing limitations, put together plan to successfully move toward our goals in the face of those limitations, and then focus on enacting that plan.

I imagine it was terrifying to be on the open sea in a small craft during a storm. What was it like?

During a bad storm, I would secure everything on deck, and hide-out inside the cabin. I could see through the large main hatch, which was a strong Plexiglas material. Through that hatch I could see the rowing deck, stern cabin, and surrounding seas. During the biggest storms, I would fix the rudder to run straight so the boat would run with wind. Under these circumstances the boat handled pretty well as I’d be riding with the waves, regardless of how big they might be. Float up the face and down the back. No big deal.

However, if the wind wasn’t blowing in the direction I wanted to go, I would often fix the rudder at some angle, to cut across the wind and waves. This could be very dangerous and so I monitored the situation very closely and would make adjustments to the rudder as necessary if I felt the boat was in danger. Once I gained more experience with the boat and how it handled, I grew less cautious with the steering and would cut the wind at more aggressive angles, effectively pushing the boat a little harder. This aggressive steering led to a faster crossing, but also over a dozen capsizes.

Fear — or anxiety may be a better word for it — was directly proportional to uncertainty. Faced with a lot of uncertainty, I took a safe and conservative approach. Once I gained more confidence, I began to take a more aggressive approach.

People everywhere are stressed right now. As someone who’s used to dealing with a very particular type of extreme stress, what did you do stay calm? Is there anything you do regularly to fight off worry? 

First, safety. If you don’t feel safe or secure, there’s no getting around that associated stress and anxiety. So, addressing that has to come first.

Second, work. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. I rowed for roughly 12 hours a day across the North Atlantic, but I only focused on maybe 30 minutes at a time. When you’re focused on actionable tasks, there’s very little time to worry about stuff you can’t control. Once you’re working toward a plan, even in the face of great uncertainty, you’re in control, and that can go a long way toward relieving stress/anxiety.

Finally, positivity. Reality can often be framed or spun in a variety of ways. Quarantine is a drag when we can’t spend physical time with our friends and family. But it’s an also an opportunity to tackle all the home projects we’ve been putting off. It’s an opportunity to feel more connected to your neighborhood through regular walks. You’ll see spring flowers pushing up, hear migrating birds coming back from their winter holidays. It’s also an opportunity to read that stack of magazines or books that you’ve been meaning to get to. I think we’ll all come through this most productively and happily when we focus and act on the opportunities.

In addition to rowing, you’re also an incredibly decorated runner. Marathon runners are, by nature, gluttons for a specific sort of punishment. What’s the key to enduring a long race?

Running a marathon is only punishment if you don’t prepare properly. The more you train, the easier the event is. And I think that’s true with any ultra-marathon or ultra-endurance challenge generally.

There’s a great deal of satisfaction that comes from recognizing your fitness isn’t as good as you’d like, and then systematically transforming yourself into the kind of athlete you’d like to be. Whether the end goal is a 5K, marathon, or other, that’s a very rewarding process.

Some like to take a very cautious approach, and train for a very long time before tackling the big challenge. Others, like to jump in with minimal preparation and use the challenge as a gauge of their toughness. For the former group, the challenge will probably be a lot of fun. For the latter group, the challenge will likely include a little more pain and suffering. But, both groups will likely find a lot of value in the pursuit.

It’s pretty safe to say you like a challenge.

I very much enjoy the process of setting a goal and systematically transforming myself through education and training into someone capable of completing it. The goal may be a race, an adventure, or simply developing a skill set or expertise. But I think it’s valuable to set a goal or challenge that you’re really excited about.

Now that you’re not able to go outside and workout as much, what are you doing to stay in shape? Are you working out at home a lot? 

I think it’s important to note, there is no reason we should limit exercise or outdoor activity during this quarantine. Social distancing is important, but there’s no reason we can’t head outside for a walk, run, bike, kayak, gardening, or whatever we most enjoy outdoors. Without a morning or afternoon commute, the reality is that most of us have more time for exercise now, and I’d very much encourage everyone to take advantage.