Living in isolation – 3 tips from a submariner




Yesterday I joined one of the many sessions on managing mental health we are running virtually at the moment. The participants shared how they feel when they are struggling: overwhelmed, off balance, invisible, vulnerable and a failure were mentioned (so much for people not opening up in virtual training!). I love that honesty and it made me decide to pause my 5 parter (must dos when you’re in lock down) for a few days to share something with you. This week I received an email. It is about how to live for a long time in extreme isolation. It offers a unique perspective and I think you’ll find it interesting.

If you’re like me, you have been wondering how you’d deal with six months’ confined living. You may not be feeling altogether delighted about this idea. So imagine that at the next government press conference they announce the following rules for the next six months:

  • no one can phone or email anyone;
  • internet access is to be shut down immediately;
  • video conferencing is banned;
  • news channels are being turned off;
  • all shops are closed. You will be given daily rations;
  • no one is to leave their house for any reason. All front doors are to be sealed for six months. Going outside will result in instant death; and
  • all windows are to be painted black for so no one can see outside

How are you feeling now? Could anyone live like this? Yes. Welcome to life on a submarine. A submariner wrote to me a couple of days ago and kindly said I could share his insights. So I’m going to stop now and hand over to him.

Although superficially similar, what we experience as submariners is nothing like the current Covid-19 situation. Whilst on patrol we can’t phone or email anyone, there’s no internet access or video calls or Facetime, no unlimited access to the news, no shopping. For a submariner if you didn’t bring it with you on patrol and someone else doesn’t have it you have to wait. Also there’s no access to the outside for duration of the patrol so we can’t even see the outdoors never mind go outside. But you adapt to it and just get on with it.

 A submarine is a small tight knit community of varying groups, structures and watch bills. The people onboard are your community - most people you can get on with absolutely fine with no problems, others you get on with because you have to and avoidance of conflict is in everyone’s interests, especially when in a confined space for a long period.

It is amazing though what little things can wind you up, just little annoyances that seem to irritate you more when you’re in a confined situation. Generally, there isn’t much conflict on patrol, maybe because of the military discipline and training.

On most deployments there is very little information about the outside world getting through to most of the people onboard. Two or three A4 sheets of news and sport a few times a week does not really tell you a lot about the world. Personal messages of 120 words a week from your loved ones (not really personal as at least four people have read it before you get it) can be a source of pleasure, annoyance or sadness depending on the contents - but they are a link to home and really important for morale.

The amount of contact we have with the outside world greatly affects you but is completely out of our control - so we try to concentrate on the things we can control. Most people find routine helps them, this is enforced by your watch-keeping cycles which make the day very structured. Having been one in two for a large proportion of my career (six hours on watch / six hours off watch) it is easy to get into a routine. This helps with the (often) monotonous watch-keeping. Spending six hours working then using your time off for eating, exercise, entertainment and sleep. Exercise options are restricted due to limited space on submarine but you make the most of it with treadmill, rowing machine, weights etc. 

There is a mess room for communal use (films, games, socialising). The only private space is your bunk space, sometimes you really crave privacy and peace so your bunk is really important when you need some downtime.

 Most submariners accept that they don’t have much control over their situation whilst on patrol, others come to accept it, and the rest do not remain as submariners for very long. Mental resilience for this kind of confinement/isolation is perhaps in part down to individual personality and ability to cope with it, and also down to discipline learned during basic submariner training. It’s also helpful to be able to compartmentalise to separate your life on patrol from your life on dry land.

 So general tips would be:

  • keep to as normal a routine as possible, ie if you’re used to going to the gym then maintain some form of exercise regime whilst at sea;
  • eat regularly and eat well; and
  • try to maintain some kind of structure to the day.

I’m not the only one finding the overnight evolution to online living tiring, so I wish you and the people you know restful and healthy weekends.