Leaving Social Media on the Shore and Setting Sail

Checking your email, whizzing through your Instagram feed and clicking on your Facebook notifications might be an established part of our daily lives but it has no place at sea. During an Atlantic crossing, most sailors would never even see the word ‘Facebook.

More than that, it simply doesn’t exist at sea.

Looking at any form of social media while I spent a month crossing the Atlantic was as impossible as strolling to the local shop and buying a pint of milk.

But, as I’ve discovered with other things, going cold-turkey is a whole lot easier when you physically cannot have the thing.

atlantic crossing ocean

Is willpower getting weaker?

My good friend and writer Sophie Deal wrote an article last year on giving up Facebook for Lent and how she struggled with it. It wasn’t necessarily the content of the site that she missed, it was an internalised habit that kept prompting her to ‘type ‘Fa…’ into my URL bar and scroll brainlessly through a void of superfluous information.’

So habitual is my use of social media these days that often I’ll be in the middle of a piece of work and then, suddenly, I’ll be looking at Facebook/Twitter/Instagram and have absolutely no idea how it came to be on my screen.

Mindful behaviour

I use the meditation app Headspace and one of the techniques it uses is noting when you change major body position; for instance, go from standing up to sitting down.

The idea is to try to acknowledge when you do this as many times a day as you can. My record? Once.

outdoor meditation

‘That’s easy,’ you might think, but is it really?

Because right now I’m sat down but five minutes ago I was standing up and making a cup of tea. It’s not that I don’t remember sitting down per se, but I didn’t pay any attention to it whatsoever.

It was a completely automatic reaction.

Living on automatic

My first realisation of how much I went through life on Auto was when I was around 12 years old. I walked to school over a mile every day by myself but sometimes I’d arrive and have no memory of the walk.

It would shock me, after all, I’d had to cross several major roads, how was it possible that I could arrive and no remember paying any attention?

Whole days can go by without us paying attention though, time flies and we cannot work out where it went. How is it that Facebook is suddenly open on my screen? Or worse, open on my phone when I’m using my computer?

Traffic blur

But the thing is, this never happened at sea.

An Atlantic Crossing – focusing for a whole month

I may not have had access to any social media while on my first (or second) Atlantic crossing, but that wasn’t the only thing that no longer popped up in my life of automation.

Rolling down three metre waves meant the motion of the boat was treacherous and tiring. Every movement I made had to be hand over hand, carefully placed footing, constantly adjusting my weight to cope with the movement and always, always being aware of what I was doing.

At sea, it’s not just a case of sitting down or standing up; if you put your hand in the wrong place you might lose a finger. Or stand a little too high and you might be hit by the boom, misjudge where a shroud is and fall overboard.

sailing sula

Credit: Alex F

Everything is mindful on a boat because mindlessness can quickly lead to disaster. Especially when you have swirling waves beneath you.

The lack of social media – you know – that racing orgy of twitter updates, Instagram stories and reply after reply to some Facebook post you commented on without thinking earlier – the lack of it was breathtaking.

I had never realised how much anxiety it caused; all that information and no way of ever reaching the bottom of it.

Into the present

My focus had shifted from online to the present moment as cleanly as black from white. There was no middle period like my friend Sophie’s, no temptation, no stress or wondering. The focus was just on what I was doing in each moment.

There was a distance from that endless buzzing world created by literal distance. The remoteness of an Atlantic crossing utterly disconnected me from one world and utterly connected me to another. Many long-distance sailors have Sat phones and can receive messages but I didn’t; for me the disconnect was absolute.

cliff top view

But now, while I’m enjoying a ski run with one half of my mind, the other half of my mind is wondering if that buzz in my chest pocket is an important email or just a retweet.

I miss the ocean and the forced disconnect. We all need to remember what that’s like, or, for the younger of us, to experience it at all.