Isolation and introspection – the infinity of possible worlds

It has now been many years since I completed the 2011/2012 Global Ocean Race. It is an experience that took me years to completely metabolise. I faced a thousand other storms since then, on land, more than at sea, before realising what was left of that adventure within me. The isolation and enormity of the oceans lay bare our insignificant smallness. While we are at sea we rediscover a humility that we did not know we had. And, in these days of Coronavirus isolation, I found myself drawing parallels.

Isolamento e introspezione - L'arrivo dell'ultima tappa della Global Ocean Race
Isolamento e introspezione – L’arrivo dell’ultima tappa della Global Ocean Race

A forced isolation in which, I must admit, I feel absolutely at ease. Indeed, I almost appreciate it, my living spaces are no longer invaded by others as before. I no longer have the obligation to be part of situations or conversations for which I feel no interest. “Alone in my room and the whole world outside” sang Italian songwriter Vasco Rossi in a very different context. But being absorbed in one’s own thoughts (thoughts, thoughts) is a luxury that our society has deprived us of.

This isolation makes me savor it again, certainly with the bitter aftertaste of everything that is happening. But in many ways it is no different than a long navigation. I am at home alone, or with my daughter when she’s with me, and we live in the confinement of our home walls. When I am alone, only the phone occasionally interrupts the perpetual silence of the days. I don’t listen to music, as I didn’t at sea. I don’t need to be distracted from my thoughts, in fact I’m happy to be able to hear them.

The isolation of the sea as a place of reflection

Only at sea during the long races I did single-handed or with a short-handed crew did I experience these emotions. So I think of all those who are experiencing this situation for the first time and I am not surprised they are somehow lost. Not everyone, I would say, experiences it as an epiphany as being at sea was for me the first time. Indeed, the anxiety and uncertainties of tomorrow, seen from this isolation, makes many feel helpless. Fears devour them from within and helplessness turns into anger.

At sea I learned to wait, knowing that I could not do anything. Wait for the end of a storm, wait for the wind to return after a calm. Today we are waiting for something to change, but we don’t even know exactly how long it’ll take. Mostly I hear about “returning to normal”, but there is no point in talking about normalcy if that was the problem. This suspension gave us the elusive opportunity to reflect, to hear the chirping of birds and not the noise of modern life.

Isolamento ed introspezione - Papa Francesco, solo, Piazza San Pietro
Isolation and introspection – Pope Francis, alone, St. Peter’s Square

Yet when we’ll return to the streets some, perhaps not all, will have changed. Only a drastic change such as this isolation creates the conditions for an introspective moment. I am not saying that everyone will have deep epiphanies, there will be those who have never had them and won’t now. But some will have been able to enjoy that luxury reserved for those who, for sport or passion, already knew extreme isolation. This doesn’t happen just at sea, the similarities are found among mountain lovers or even in the euphoria of the marathon runner.

The desolate infinite horizon of the oceans

Many years have passed since my circumnavigation, and more than now I think about its legacy on me. In truth, I should also count other solo navigations. I believe my real personal “isolation” epiphany occurred in the 2009 OSTAR. I had just turned 31 and for the first time in my life I was totally isolated for 22 days of navigation. I had never been on the ocean even as a crew for so many days and I didn’t know what awaited me.

Partenza della OSTAR 2009 - Marco Nannini - British Beagle
Start of the OSTAR 2009 – Marco Nannini – British Beagle

When I arrived in Newport, after sailing in storms and fog among the icebergs of Newfoundland, I knew that something had changed. But I still didn’t know what, and yest since that day I sought all-encompassing experience of extreme isolation. First at the Route du Rhum 2010 then at the Global Ocean Race 2011/2012. The Global Ocean Race was double-handed, but on such long passages, the navigation is shared between two sailors who are pretty much sailing single-handed. Apart from a few moments especially during difficult manoeuvres. Other than that, each lived in his own personal bubble of thoughts.

OSTAR 2009 - L'arrivo a Newport dopo 22 giorni di isolamento
OSTAR 2009 – L’arrivo a Newport dopo 22 giorni di isolamento

During this pandemic forced isolation, I therefore found myself re-reading some passages from the book I wrote after the Global Ocean Race. After all, I think it took me all these years, and many other storms, to finally digest and fully comprehend the experience. I believe that in many ways the real circle is only closing now, during this forced isolation on land. At the end of the race I knew that nothing would be the same as before, but I said it as a sailor. Today I feel I can say it as a citizen, as a father, as a worker – not just as a dreamer in the middle of the seas.

Dalla banca all’Oceano (“From Banking to the Ocean“) – Longanesi, by Marco Nannini.

Money, money, money, I’m sick of having to think about money. Today I really reached the limit: I received an e-mail from a stranger on the boat’s computer. He asks me for advice on how to invest his savings, speaking to the banker in me. I don’t know what to answer, not just because I haven’t read a financial newspaper in months. But also because I want to distance myself from that world as much as possible. I can’t believe I can’t get rid of it even in the desolation of the great Indian ocean.

Dalla Banca all'Oceano
Dalla Banca all’Oceano -by Marco Nannini – Edizioni Longanesi

I try to compose a reasoned answer, but then I think about the total absurdity of the whole situation and I go out in the cockpit. I enjoy the clear horizon, all around us, and the last moments of a peaceful, quiet sunset. A huge albatross is chasing us, alone, the largest we have seen so far. It circles with its majestic elegance, never flaps its wings, with minimal movements it moves in harmony with the wind. It flies very low, near the surface of the waves. I observe it for a long time, expecting it to skim the water at any moment, but it never happens, its flight is very precise and controlled.

The flight of the albatross and the moments of epiphany

“Where do you fly, albatross? What is your goal? Maybe you just need to play with the waves and the wind, you just need the company of this sea?”

“I could spend hours watching an albatross in flight. There is certainly something mysterious, captivating and profound in their impassive circling, there is in them the nobility of those who would never talk about money. I have the impression that the albatross follows us, day after day, just to remind us how insignificant earthly possessions are. He observes us, shows us his pure soul, and we can only aspire to be like one of them.”

“I observe our companion and think about how nice it would be to be free from the concept of possession. It would be absolute freedom, if only we could throw our arms into the sea to feed ourselves and not need a house to sleep. A car to move, a mobile phone to communicate, a beautiful dress to appear. A bank account to say “I exist”. Maybe we should stop wanting more and more we should learn to want less. We should learn to contain our expenses, to do without the superfluous. To spend more time with the people we love.”

Moitessier’s syndrome, maieutic introspection

“Every time I’m at sea, I find myself with these sort of thoughts. A friend of mine calls it the “Moitessier syndrome”, that phase of navigation in which society repels you and you would like to stay at sea forever. The sea seems to be the only place capable of guaranteeing sufficient isolation to to loose oneself in these thoughts. Thoughts arrive, they circle with us as graceful as albatross, but when we disembark we realise that they are gone. They abandoned us before we could share them with the people on land.”

Isolamento e introspezione - Un albatros in volo
Isolation and Introspection – An albatross in flight

“There was a gigantic albatross” we will rush to tell. Everyone with wide eyes will exclamate: ” How beautiful!” Only the few who have crossed that Ocean will even know what you mean. You will know that you have seen freedom but that you have not bring her with you ashore without killing it.

The confusion and noise of the world

Coming back to land was like the morning of an ordinary day. When you wake up in the routine of daily life. Every now and then my daughter asks me what I dreamed of, I always disappoint her by saying that I don’t remember. The dream, like the flight of the albatross, represents a brief instant of that getting lost in one’s own thoughts. And as for the flight of the albatross, we live it but we rarely manage to really make it our own and take it with us. Even the dream evaporates in the face of everyday’s world.